Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's New?

The Christian Year began with a bit of an uproar in the churches of our Roman Catholic neighbors. A new translation of the Mass from Latin appeared simultaneously for all English-speaking congregations this morning, the First Sunday of Advent. It’s no surprise that the change is controversial.

The idea, according to those who are behind this change, is to provide a more accurate translation of the Latin words. For example, when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” or “Peace be with you,” the new response from the people is to be “And with your spirit,” which is a literal translation of “et cum spiritu tuo.” Previously the response was simply, “And also with you.”

The concern, however, was not simply to be accurate, but to get away from familiar speech to a more formal language appropriate to the worship of Almighty God.

The issue of what liturgical language should look and sound like is an old one, to be sure. In living memory, how people spoke and sang in worship (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic) changed because of the Second Vatican Council’s allowing the Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin. The English version was produced in 1973 and has been around ever since, up until this morning when the new version appeared.

For Presbyterians, the major shift appeared about the same time with the Worshipbook Services in 1970 and the Worshipbook Services and Hymns in 1972. The controversy then was over “contemporary” language, in particular addressing God with the familiar “You” rather than the more formal “Thee” and “Thou.” *

To many the “new” Mass will seem to be a retreat into the Pre-Vatican II era, or at least an unraveling of the Council’s achievements. Many Protestants will undoubtedly view it as such. To others it will be an accomplishment long awaited. To some, most, perhaps, it won’t matter one way or the other.

However you score the new Mass compared with the old version, the question is clear: How do we find the appropriate language for worship—language both worthy of worshipping the Divine, and capable of meaning to those who use it?

On one hand, it’s the difference between approaching God in awe as the fearsome and holy “Other,” and the “palsy-walsy” treatment of God as our Best Friend and Buddy. Somewhere there is a line which leaves us within reach of both the Almighty Creator and Judge and the intimate Father introduced to us by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, liturgical language is going to need to be theologically sensitive.

On the other hand, much depends on how useful the users of the language find it. Language that is elegant to the point of being stilted may seem pious to some, but it will slip out of reach of many others. A quick read of the new Roman Catholic Mass text leaves me with the impression that it is attempting to be more dignified, but in some places comes off as stuffy and priestly pompous. Certainly this is not a pitfall for Roman Catholics only—Protestants know how to inflate pious-ity in their worship as well.

Therefore, liturgical language must also be familiar enough to the worshippers to fit meaningfully in their mouths and thoughts.

Our Roman Catholic friends will struggle for a time getting used to the new Mass, just as Christians everywhere will have to wrestle with change. Whenever there is reform and renewal, some degree of adjustment is needed. That’s the way growth takes place. Better for us to deal with change than it is for us to go stale with the same-old-same-old worship.

What has changed in the worship at your church in the past ten years? Is the language used in worship your language? Is it too fancy and hifalutin? Or is it too common and everyday?
*It is ironic that “thee” and “thou” were originally the familiar forms one used to address family and close friends.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Icon Makers

I’ll admit it: I like icons. No, I’m not talking about the little pictures on my computer screen. It’s the stylistic paintings of the Orthodox Christian tradition that grab my attention--like those at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY.

I find Orthodox icons often to be exquisite works of art. Even the simplest are captivating in their bold artistic expression. There is a beauty in design and artistry in the choice and blend of color. Now this may be a matter of personal taste, but to many, these representations of holy people of the past are art of the highest order. Icons are often referred to as “the Bible in art” or “theology in color.”

Icons, however, are much more than beautiful illustration. In the Orthodox tradition they are often described as “windows into heaven” as they depict the heroes and heroines of Christian history, first and foremost of whom is Jesus Christ. Iconography is, in fact, founded on the theological understanding of the Incarnation: God has come among us as a real human being, one to be seen, heard and touched.

Icons are not worshipped, of course, but they do prompt us to remember those of the past who have been God’s representatives “in the flesh”. They are our spiritual ancestors, and in a sense, icons become a family album of remembrance.

For many of us in the Reformed Tradition, this is foreign territory. Yet, at the same time, in a very real sense, we become icon makers—especially when it comes to planning and preparing for Lord’s Day worship. What we do in creating the worship experience will provide real-life human expressions of God’s love that came to us once in the real person of Jesus Christ, and is with us yet.

For example:

Putting the sermon together, at least for clergy, is one of the first (and last) things we worry about. Early on in my ministry I remember someone saying that my responsibility in preaching is “to introduce Jesus and then get out of the way.” Now the sermon may be a work of art in itself, eloquent, even elegant—but that’s not the reason sermons are preached. The preacher may be gifted and attractive, but it’s not the preacher’s show. The preacher is to fashion an “icon” to show Jesus Christ to be real and present. The sermon is crafted with words, but it is the Word that is spoken and heard.

In the same way, choral music for worship can be “a window into heaven”. The choir prepares pieces, not for a concert for the people in the pews, but as praise to God with the people in the pews. Music from different periods of history reminds us of our spiritual heritage. Choral and instrumental music will open the windows of our hearts so we can get more than just a glimpse of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.

The prayers of worship are also “icons” to be fashioned with humble and artistic care. Ultimately all prayers are the “prayers of the people” and should be written with those specific people in mind. That is why we use “contemporary language” in liturgy—it’s their work, and should be in language they recognize. More than that, however, prayers in worship point like arrows to the One to whom they are spoken, the Christ in whose name they are offered, the Spirit who empowers each prayer to issue in acts of faith.

The space in which we worship is itself an “icon”. How we prepared that room is important, therefore, so as to create an appropriate atmosphere, appealing to the senses. What we see, hear, touch, smell on entering the service is critical if a “window into heaven” is to be opened. What we taste at the table is a further sensible consideration. Banners, flowers, furniture arrangement, colors of pulpit, lectern and table cloths, music being played, and so forth, set the mood and lead us into the Divine presence.

Sermons, anthems, prayers and the room we’re in, are all “icons”. Their value is not in themselves. It’s not the “great sermon” or the “beautiful song the choir sings” or the “poetic prayer” or even the “lovely church sanctuary”—what really counts is how well they lead us to the Risen Christ.

So how do we accomplish this? It isn’t easy. We can, however, learn from our Orthodox sister and brother icon makers. For them, painting an icon is in and of itself a spiritual discipline. A lot of prayer and meditation goes into the design and craft of such a spiritual work. A lot.

Similarly, prayer is the foundation of preaching. The key to church music is that it is rehearsed in prayer. Even the prayers for Sunday morning rise out of the meditation and prayers of the pastor and worship leaders. Those who clean the space and set the flowers and decorations for worship perform their tasks prayerfully.

In a way, most everything we do to arrange, set up, and prepare for worship is making icons, creating works of art that will open people’s hearts and minds to the presence of God.

Do you find prayer a necessary component in preparation for worship in your church?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pulpit Humor

Not long ago I visited a church where the pastor was away and a guest was filling in. The itinerant preacher ascended to the pulpit and began with a pronouncement something like this: “I understand that Pastor Jones usually begins his sermons with a joke, so I’ll start with one of mine.” Whereupon he launched into what had the aura of something lifted from the “Church Humor” page of the Reader’s Digest.

Well, his gag barely scored a point on the chuckle-o-meter. And “gag” describes my reaction to it. Such attempts at what is supposed to be humor contribute nothing to proclamation of the Word, and often become a huge distraction—as it was in this situation. We were jolted out of the mode of worship and into something that the speaker thought was entertaining.

Won’t we ever come to understand that entertainment and worship are oil and water—they simply do not mix. When one tries to mix them, entertainment always wins out, floating on the surface.

It’s distressing when preachers try to be stand-up comedians. It so often comes off as buffoonery, and the message suffers because of the messenger.*

I suppose that preachers try this in an effort to meet the folks in the pews on their own terms. It is condescension, stooping down to their level in hopes of connecting with them. It is nothing less than an insult to their intelligence and an affront to their spiritual needs. Congregations do not assemble in churches on Sunday mornings to hear jokes—they come to meet Jesus Christ in the Word proclaimed and to be nourished in the Sacrament Meal.

This kind of joking approach to pulpit humor comes from a misunderstanding of humor and its role in proclaiming the Gospel. Humor is not one-liners or shaggy-dog stories. Humor is wit that shows perception and understanding, and it can provoke laughter.

There is a problem, however, if one goes in the opposite direction and rules humor out of sermons. It’s a mistake to consider “serious” and “solemn” to be synonyms—they are not. Preaching the Gospel is serious business, always a matter of life and death to those who listen and hear. It should not be trivialized by jocularity. Yet it should not be smothered by sober solemnity that is dour and dull.

I’m sure there are preachers who see the humor in life and share it in sermons. I’m confident that many preachers are able to be human and identify with their listeners, as they reveal the real presence of Christ not only in their words, but in their lives. Certainly there are preachers who can find laughter to share in the oxymorons and paradoxes and ambiguities of life and faith.

The point is, when preaching it’s best for most of us not to try being funny just to get a laugh. It’s risking being laughed at rather than being laughed with. Being ourselves is the best approach. If we’ve been paying attention to what happens in life and how God surprises us, there will be plenty of smiles, and even chuckles and joyous laughter.

Do you know preachers who show humor and wit in their sermons without telling jokes?

* If the urge ever rises up within you to tell a joke in the midst of or as a preface to your sermon, please sit down and think, until the impulse fades away. If you still conclude that the joke is demanding to be told, then follow these rules:
1. Make sure the joke you have to tell is a really good one and will fill the room with laughter.
2. Make sure it is used to make or reinforce a point in the sermon, so critically that the sermon cannot fly without it.
3. Make sure you can tell it well enough to achieve points 1 and 2. Rehearse it in front of your spouse.
My sense is that it you follow these rules, you won’t be telling jokes from the pulpit.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We're Confessing

Early in my ministry, a prayer of confession was introduced into the order of service, whereupon I was confronted by one of the members during the coffee hour. “I don’t like that confession prayer,“ he said. “I’m not so bad I need to do that every week.”

Well, more than one point got past him.

The importance of confession of sin in worship for any and all of us is that it reminds us of our distance from who God. The challenges of our faith are considerable, and we fall short, often as not. Confession allows us to recognize the forgiving, healing grace of God, and sends us on our way rejoicing. That’s only one point he missed.

The other fumble on his part was that he didn’t see that this prayer of confession was a part of common worship. We’re confessing together. It’s not that we are confessing our individual and personal sinfulness at the same time. Rather we are as an assembly, a group, a body, a people, corporately confessing. We don’t say “I” but “we”.

Of course the Prayer of Confession can prompt in any of us rue and regret for our personal failures. Inherent in the corporate confession is each individual’s personal prayer.

Early in the post-Vatican II dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics, I attended a semi-clandestine gathering of both brands of clergy. We began our meeting with a time of prayer led by a priest. The prayer was a Roman Catholic form in which the priest confessed to the people, receiving forgiveness pronounced by the people, and then the process was reversed.

Given the historic situation at the time, this was a powerful experience of mutual forgiveness, both personally and corporately. Protestants and Roman Catholics had plenty to confess before God and one another—prejudice, misrepresentation, hatred, and so forth.

Alot of these sins were (and still are) committed by corporate bodies. When I began in ministry, the session of the church I served required a Roman Catholic becoming a member to be re-baptized. In those days, this was left to the session to decide. If you disagreed with that personally, it didn’t matter—someone else made the decision for you. It was a corporate decision, and if it were considered sinful, it was a corporate sin. (In that instance, the session soon removed that requirement and recognized all baptisms.)

A more current example in the ecumenical realm is the inability of both the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant bodies to share communion at the Lord’s Table. This is the sin of disunion. Even though a person personally does not agree with such policies, and denounces them as sinful, he or she may participate in the sin as a member of a group that fences their Table to keep others out.

There are many other current situations in which we all participate in sin that needs confessing. When policies and practices of our government violate our Christian consciences in waging war or raping the landscape or oppressing the poor, we all participate in the sinfulness, and are cut off from God—because we belong to the national body.

Prayers always lead to action, or they are not authentic prayers. This is radically true of the Prayer of Confession. Whatever it is that we confess, whether it is our individual failing, or something in which we share because of our membership in some group—whatever we confess becomes a commitment to do something about it.

Prayers of confession are often fonts from which flow the actions of protest. Recognizing what is wrong, what is an affront to God and a conflict of conscience for ourselves, leads us to champion repentant change. This was clearly the case in the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, and is today evident in how many Christian respond to the war in Afghanistan and the financial policies of Wall street. One has to wonder how many of those occupying Wall Street nevertheless want good dividends on their personal investments. It can get complicated.

It is always difficult for us to extract our personal actions from those of the groups with which we are identified. On Sunday mornings, before God and in front of one another, the Prayer of confession helps us sort things out. Then we take responsibility not only for our own actions, but to challenge and change the sinful status quo championed by the groups to which we belong.

Do you pray your confession “before God and one another” on Sundays?