Monday, September 26, 2011

Hanging Out with the Saints

“The Communion of saints” is a slippery subject. The phrase slides by at the bottom of the Apostle’s Creed, when and if it’s recited. Even though we affirm our convictions about the term, it’s hard to grasp.

Our understanding of a “saint” has several different emphases.

The word, of course, means holy, in the sense of being dedicated or even consecrated to God.

One view is that “saints” are our spiritual ancestors. A look back in the history of God’s people reveals a parade of ordinary folks who have demonstrated in their lives a loyalty to God and the pursuit of justice and peace in extraordinary ways. They are the heroes and heroines of the faith, showing in their words and actions examples of faithful witness to God. Our faith is built on them, and remembering is instructive.

Not only are these saints people of the past, they are still around. The witness of Scripture is that God’s faithful do not vanish in death, but are raised to another reality in the heavenly courts with God. They become the “heavenly hosts” and they are with us on a Sunday morning to join in the singing of praise to the Almighty.

A third emphasis is found in the biblical use of the word “saints” to apply to the people following Jesus. Members of the different churches that started up in the New Testament are referred to as “saints” (see for example Acts 9:13 and 32; Acts 26:10; Philippians 4:2). Those who used the term were well aware it did not mean “perfect”—the first saints were human and had their flaws (see for example Galatians 2:11 ff.)

The word is almost always used in the plural, stressing the communal nature of people loyal to the Lord. In a sense, when the New Testament uses the word “saints”, it’s referring to the church, the Body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:12).

This last emphasis suggests that the term “saints” could rightfully be applied to all of us today, although many would balk at accepting it. We are inclined to steer clear of labels that promote our piety or righteousness, and such modesty is appropriate. Like the first generation followers of Jesus, we’re not perfect either.

In Christian worship, all the saints gather, past and present, dead and alive, to join in common praise of God. We are summoned to the Table by our Lord to celebrate in communion not only with God, but with one another.

Those saints of the past are with us, including our own parents and family members, teachers, mentors, role models, friends who have gone before us—all are with us once again. By the grace of God, when we worship, time changes from calendar time to eternal time, and the church is fully assembled.

Also the saints around the world are with us. God’s people sing their praise globally in every language of the world, and we do well to remember that Pentecost happens every Sunday. The whole Body of Christ worships in full communion.

Our liturgy has modest references to the “communion of saints”, apart from the Apostles’ Creed. For example, in the Prayers of the People we find:
“God of all generations,
we praise you for all your servants
who, having been faithful to you on earth,
now live with you in heaven.
Keep us in fellowship with them,
until we meet with all your children
in the joy of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Also in the Great Thanksgiving at the Table:
“Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:
The people may sing or say:
Holy, holy, holy Lord….”

Architecturally, some churches are more obvious about the presence of all the saints at worship.

Many older churches in New England have resisted the temptation of putting stained glass in their windows, and kept the clear glass so worshippers can look out at the church graveyard and remember the saints at worship with them. One church near me has built a new sanctuary with a glass wall so everyone has a really good view of the outside markers and monuments to the saints gone before.

Orthodox churches are “in your face” with icons of the saints, often full figure and life-size. In the new church at a nearby monastery, saints march around the upper walls. Among them are representatives from different traditions as well as the typically Orthodox persons.

As we think in terms of the assembling of the saints from the past with the saints of the present in worshipping Almighty God, perhaps we should remember the yet-to-come saints of the future. Salvation History has come through ages to us and will continue when we have departed the scene. It’s worth pondering what kind of legacy we will leave our children, what remembrance and inspiration coming generations will have from our loyalty to God?

Do you remember your spiritual ancestors in your church? Does your congregation observe any “saints’ days”?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prayers of the People and HIPAA

Anyone who has recently had dealings with the medical community knows that the initials HIPAA stand for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. It’s a law including rules that protect the privacy of our medical information.

Neither the law nor its rules apply specifically to churches and services of worship. Nevertheless, its wisdom is worth our attention.

Here are a few examples of why this is a good idea:

I was getting myself oriented before the service where I was to be the guest preacher when I was approached by a woman who thrust a slip of paper into my hand with her request/instruction: “Please include this in the prayers this morning." The note included a name, a hospital, and a diagnosis to be shared with the worshippers. I told her I’d include the name and hospital; I left out the diagnosis.

Another time I was attending worship in a congregation that had the custom of offering an open microphone as part of the Prayers of the People. As I remember it, a woman came to the mike and spoke for five minutes or more about the illness of a friend.

Still another church I’ve attended prints the names of all who are sick on a bulletin insert, and has been known on occasion to describe ailments.

The practice in the church I often attend is more discrete. The pastor solicits from the people the names they wish to be included in the prayers, and he uses only the first names, and no illnesses are mentioned. After the service I suppose private conversations reveal some of the full names and medical situations.

Of course these can be held up as examples of compassionate caring among members of the church community. It is right that we are concerned for the well-being of one another, and vitally important that we hold in our prayers all who are in need, including the sick in our midst. The Prayers of the People should include prayers for one another.

At the same time, some HIPAA-like rules should be in place to guide us. Here are a few suggestions.

Rule 1. Remember that the Lord’s Day worship is a public event. What is said there could just as well be yelled on the street corner or printed on page one of the New York Times. Using people’s full names in the prayers of intercession should be approached with extreme caution and sensitivity to the people involved.

Rule 2. No one’s name should be mentioned out loud in worship or put on a prayer list without their personal permission. Some people willingly give such permissions, while others would rather keep it all to themselves.

Rule 3. Be extremely careful about passing along medical information about somebody in worship, or anywhere else for that matter. HIPAA rules restrict what medical people can do. For those of us who are not medical people, our ignorance almost guarantees inaccuracy.

Rule 4. Be sure to mark the line between concern and gossip. It can be easily crossed. For example: A prominent woman in the church had gone to the hospital to be tested and treated for what was feared might be cancer. It turned out to be something far less and curable. Nevertheless, the word went around that she had cancer. Her friends looked at her as though she was at death’s door, and she began to wonder if maybe she did have cancer and the doctor didn’t tell her the truth…and so forth. When that gets out of control, it’s like a room full of loose ping pong balls.

The models for Prayers of the People that we find in the Book of Common Worship(1993) call for the insertion of (first) names of the sick and sorrowing audibly, or in the silence of one’s thoughts. The eight forms shown in the BCW, and the outline for free style prayer that precedes them, are more than adequate resources for showing compassion and respective personal privacy at the same time.

Are people’s names mentioned out loud in the intercessions in your church service? Do you print names of sick and bereaved on your bulletin insert, in your newsletter? Do you have their permission first?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Turn on the Light

The Prayer for Illumination is used in many churches these days, but it is too easily slid by in a rush to get to the main event. So it would do us well to step off to one side for a few minutes and consider what we are doing in this particular act.

First of all, where does the Prayer for Illumination go in the order of service, and what does it do?

I’ve heard preachers (although I am pleased to report not so many lately) who start the sermon with a biblical quote or paraphrase of Psalm 19:14. In the NRSV it reads: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” It’s probably a worthwhile prayer for any preacher to make, but just before speaking from the pulpit is a little too late. Better the preacher should pray that prayer every time he or she cracks a commentary or puts pen to paper. The proclamation of the word doesn’t begin when the preacher climbs into the pulpit—it starts with study. And “illumination” is needed from the start.

The other problem with placing the prayer here is that it is left in the singular—it’s a prayer only for the illumination of one person in the room. It’s just a guess, but probably everyone could use the prayer. So, it’s best used as a corporate prayer.

This requires some alteration, a slight paraphrase, so that it includes all worshippers. I’ve heard some keep it as a prayer articulated by the preacher before the sermon, with a few word changes: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.” Still, it’s in the wrong place.

In many churches, the liturgist or lay reader is responsible for the Prayer Illumination immediately before the reading of the Scriptures. This is the proper location for the prayer, and it should definitely be inclusive of everyone in the room. It is the people’s prayer. That leaves one to wonder why everyone should not say it together.

There are other verses from Scripture, like Psalm 24:4,5, that can be adapted for this purpose, but there is a plethora of such prayers available in resources such as the Book of Common Worship (1993) that have been accumulated for our use.

The Prayer for Illumination is best selected by a worship leader (perhaps the Lay Reader or Liturgist) in advance, so it can be printed out and prayed in unison by all. If the prayer’s intent is to be a corporate one, then the whole worshipping body should be actively involved.

What would be even better is to make this prayer into service music. Sometimes a single verse from a hymn can be co-opted for this. I pawed through my hymnal for quite a while, however, without coming up with one that really worked.

Coupled with a familiar hymn tune, a simple text can allow the prayer to sing. For example, to the tune Munich (“O Word of God Incarnate”):
O Word of God incarnate,
in Scripture now revealed,
Illumine all our spirits,
until to you we yield.
Then teach us your compassion,
and show us paths to peace,
so we will live out your love
and blessings will increase.
This is my own modest effort, and a challenge to better poets to give it a try.

You don’t need to be told why this prayer is so important, but let’s rehearse the reasons anyway.

For one thing, it’s not a matter of intellectually understanding the Bible—it’s a matter of listening with our hearts and letting the Word confront us and get deep inside us. For something as serious as that, we need help, Divine help. The prayer is our acknowledgement of our own limitations and our need for the Spirit to grab us, get our attention, and make it possible for us to listen and really hear.

The prayer also slows down the proceedings of worship and keeps us from lunging forward. It’s a “stop-look-and-listen” kind of prayer, telling us to watch where we’re going next, and prepared for the Scripture-Sermon duet.

The Prayer for Illumination, when said by all, is a reminder that the Bible belongs to the whole church, not just the clergy. The Spirit does not just whisper in the preacher’s ear—the Spirit shouts in the souls of people in the pews as well.

Do you have a Prayer for Illumination in your church service? Where does it come from? Is it spoken by one person or everyone?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Polarities of Worship

The basic idea of this post has been “a work in progress” for decades and has supplied me with numerous insights about Christian worship. I’m sure it will continue to be refined and revised. What follows is lengthier than usual for this blog; nevertheless, it is but a sketchy outline of a concept that I hope will provoke the reader’s thoughts as it has mine.

One way of understanding the phenomenon of worship is to look at three fundamental polarities and how they intersect in the liturgical arena. (See the diagram below.)

The three “polarities” are often dealt with separately without direct application to the experience of worship, much less with each other. Theology is, however, integral to ecclesiology, and both have a significant connection to the chronology of God’s history with humankind, God’s own in particular. All apply to worship.

All three “polarities” have inherent tensions which seek resolution, or not. Sometimes the tension is itself the dynamic that enlivens the relationship. Too easy a resolution may lead to a partial, and therefore flawed understanding.


The first is the polarity with God on one end and all of us on the other. The two are opposites: God the wholly (holy) Other, eternal, mighty and perfect, versus mere mortal humans, weak and sinful. The divine-human opposition produces theological tension.

This tension, however, approaches resolution because of the divine initiative and in the human response. God takes the initiative in the Incarnation, coming to us in Jesus Christ. True life is modeled by Jesus, yet even more, Jesus is the one extending God’s call to us to “repent” and turn our lives around facing toward the Almighty One. This initiative from God calls for a response from the human end.

Resolution is only approached, however, since sin and repentance is an on-going process. Always the distance between God and ourselves is great, in spite of the fact of God’s jumping the gap in the Incarnation. Immanence and transcendence must always be side by side, balancing one another.

God’s initiative in reaching out to humankind is impressive, in the sense that it leaves an impression on us and prompts us to express ourselves. The primary expression we make is recognition of God and the Incarnate Jesus Christ. Our expression often comes in the form of liturgical worship, including making commitments of self and possessions. Often our responses may be very subjective and personal, yet even as individuals, we are part of the humanity God is addressing.

All of this plays out in Christian worship in a sort of dialogue, a conversation, as it were, between God and the worshippers. Some liturgists stress this dialogue in arrangement of the elements of the service. For example, the Call to Worship in words of Scripture echoes God’s voice; this is answered by a prayer and/or hymn, a human expression of praise. Another example is the conversation around Confession: the summons to confession, the people’s prayer, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. At the Table, worshippers hear the Invitation and respond with obedient eating and drinking. And so forth.


The second polarity involved in Christian worship has to do with time. At one end is Genesis, the beginning, creation, and at the other is Revelation, the end, the culmination of all history, the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In between is what is often referred to as “Salvation History”, the record of God’s activity in reaching out to humankind from start to finish. Stories of “saints” in the Old Testament and New tell of God’s on-going conversation with his children.

Salvation History does not end with us, however, but is projected into the future, all the way to the end. Therefore, many more “saints” are due on the scene to continue with God after we are gone. This polarity of history is not only about the past, but also about the future.

Salvation History calls for both remembering (anamnesis) and expectation or hope (prolepsis), including God’s promises for the end of time.

The tension between past and future needs to be kept in worship. To focus worship solely on the past or on the future in order to resolve the tension is to make worship antiquarian or otherworldly—both of which deny our participation in the Now of Salvation History, and ignore God’s active presence as well.

Awareness of the past, present, and future is clearly evident in Christian liturgy. The Confession section obviously deals with past failure, present repentance, and commitment to future obedience. The celebration of the Eucharist is replete with references to time: “Do this in remembrance of me.” - “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” – “Keep us faithful in your service until Christ comes in final victory, and we shall feast with all your saints in the joy of your eternal realm.” And so forth.

Time, in this view, is to be understood primarily as kronos time, calendar time, one day after another, year following year, through the centuries.


The third polarity present in Christian worship has to do with the fundamental nature of the Church of Jesus Christ.

At one and the same time, the Church is, and must be, a community of faith and a force for mission in ministry to the world. These two purposes of the church are, and will necessarily be, in constant tension. It is in that tension, that the dynamic of the Spirit springs forth.

On one end is what is called kononia, often translated as “fellowship”, although that is an insufficient and often misinterpreted word. Kononia refers to those God has called out (ekklesia) to be the people of God in the world. In the present discussion, they are the followers of Jesus, those who responded to his call through the centuries, who have recognized him present in their lives and in their worship.

By its very nature as God’s gathered people, the Church has an exclusive aspect to it. Clearly not everyone in the world belongs to that gathering—many are obviously outside. The Church’s exclusiveness, however, is never cause for judgment—God is full of surprises.

The Church is gathered by God for mutual support, for education and equipment, in carrying out its mission outside the church building. The mission of serving is called diakonia.

The service the Church is called to perform is the ministry of Christ, no less. To perform it, the gathered church must be scattered throughout the world. The Church is called to gather and refresh its life, then scatter and risk its life in following the Risen Christ.

The exclusiveness of the Church’s kononia is now countered by its diakonia; it is service, Jesus style, indiscriminately to anyone and everyone in need. Simultaneously though the Church is a people chosen by God, in the world it must be broadly inclusive in rendering service in God’s name. All of this finds expression in our prayers of intercession and petition—for every prayer carries within it a commitment to action to help it come true.

Obviously, for us to settle into one or the other, koinonia or diakonia, would be to minimize who and what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ. Koinonia-only leaves us in a pious version of a country club; diakonia-only leaves us indistinguishable from those who serve others without the strength of the risen Christ.


It is at this point that we see how the three polarities intersect.

Along the way of Salvation History, at the “Now” of our worship, we look fore and aft remembering God’s promises and hoping for their fulfillment.

In the life of the Church we gather to be strengthened for the scattered service we are sent to perform; and out in the world, we long for the refreshment and strength we receive in the community gathered.

And now as the Communion of Saints at worship, we perceive God Incarnate in our midst, and time changes. Time is no longer chronological time—now it is kairos, the moment of time that makes the difference, the spark of the Spirit that makes the Word spoken to me, the insight that changes the character of our congregation and calls us to new ministry. Kairos is God’s time, when God breaks through to us, overcoming our defenses, clearing away the debris of our lives and filling us with fresh enthusiasm.

When all three polarities are evident, Christian worship displays a vibrancy and vitality, celebrating God’s past actions and longing for God’s promised future, cultivating community and carrying out ministry in the world, as God ‘s overwhelming grace captures hearts and minds and souls. So the Church of Jesus Christ proceeds in faith and service to Almighty God by the power of the Spirit.

How do you find these polarities existing in your worship services? Do you try to resolve the tensions, or do you find them dynamic.?