Saturday, December 31, 2011

Footnote on Christmas Day 2011

Last Sunday was December 25th, which as was noted in the last post, was a very special day. It was, of course, Christmas Day, which makes it special enough. But what really made it a rarity was that the same day was in two seasons.

December 25th, Christmas Day is the last day in the secular season of Christmas that starts off right after Halloween in early November. It is also the first day of the Christian Season of Christmas that runs right up to Epiphany on January 6.

On the way to church Sunday morning I pondered the possibilities.

It would be, after all, the Lord’s Day, so would there be a “regular” service with Scripture, sermon and Communion?

Or might the day offer an extension of the Christmas Eve service the night before, with Christmas carols and hymns and other special music?

Or would it be something else altogether?

It’s not a surprise that it was option number three—something else altogether.

It was actually a nice Christmas morning event. There were hymns and carols as well as other “songs of the season” such as “Jingle Bells”. The story of the birth of Jesus was rehearsed in outline, though no Scripture was read. Because the pastor had lost his voice, there was no sermon as such, but a conversation between him and the congregation.

The “service”, if you can call it that, was very much like a family gathering, adults and kids of all ages enjoying being together on this Day so long awaited. Children and young people were allowed to come in their jammies. It was a festive occasion, filled with laughter and good feeling.

The theological content of the service was solid. We were reminded that it is the Gift of Christ in our lives that makes all the difference, and we should seek and celebrate that Gift above all.

You’re probably waiting for the other shoe to drop, but before it thuds on the floor, I’d emphasize that there was nothing wrong with this Christmas Morning worship in and of itself. It was celebrative, respectful, joyous, and faithful.

Here’s the other shoe: What was wrong was not what was in the service, but what was missing.

The pastor made it clear to everyone that Christmas Day was the end of the season—and he said as much. The ubiquitous Christmas carols and other songs will fade from the radio, and the shopping malls will go back to playing “elevator music”. Now we can get back to normalcy.

The church service I attended Christmas Day was very much the product of our modern American culture, even though it had a strong emphasis on the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. It was the end of the secular season of Christmas. But it did not begin the Christian Season of Christmas.
So the next eleven days, for all intents and purposes, were consigned to liturgical limbo—they were days in search of a place in the Church Year.

Now we might expect that the next Sunday, which is in the Season of Christmas, will be devoted to exploring more fully how we observe and celebrate the coming of God to us in human form by means of a young Jewish woman. We might hope for such, but that’s probably not to be this year.

The Second Sunday in Christmas this year is January 1st. My guess is it will be a New Year’s emphasis. Or, because it’s the Sunday before Epiphany (January 6), that may set the worship theme for the day. In most people’s minds, Christmas is over, and all that’s left to do is take returns to the department store.

When we neglect the Christmas Season in this way, we minimize the impact of the Incarnation. When we worship God it is not that we come to God, but that we know that God has come to us. It is a Gift unearned, undeserved, and for many people un-thought-of. God has bridged the abyss between God and humankind by becoming a human, to share this life with us, and to lead us in a new life. It is a mind-boggling mystery that requires more wonderment and awe from us than the secular season of Christmas allows.

One humble suggestion to improve the situation is that every Christmas Day deserves its own worship service, whether on Sunday or not. This would be complete with Scripture, sermon, communion and glorious music of Christmas to give a blast of a start to the season, and the other Sunday (or Sundays) would continue the theme.

What happened at your church on Christmas Day? Lord’s Day worship in standard form? Something different from anything before?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Two Christmases

Like it or not, you may as well get used to the reality that there are two Christmases.

One is the public Christmas, celebrated more or less universally, except for the die-hard Scrooges among us.

This is a season-long celebration, beginning immediately after Halloween and running through December 25, known as Christmas Day. Then Christmas comes to an abrupt halt.

This season has its own widely diverse music, hymns and carols and songs ranging from “Joy to the World” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, with its anthem being “The Christmas Song” as sung by Mel Torme or Nat King Cole.

It even has its own sentences and responses which run something like this:
“Have a Happy Holiday.”
To which the reply is:
“And you too.”
Or, on some occasions it is “Merry Christmas” with the reply “And to you too.”

While it celebrates the values of generosity and family love, this season is founded firmly on financial matters such as what’s good for the economy and where to buy gifts at the best bargain.

This Christmas Season is cynically known as a “Hallmark Holiday” and is part and parcel with the secular culture in which we live.

The other Christmas is that which is celebrated by Christians of all kinds around the world.

This one is also a season, but it begins right where the other one ends, on Christmas Day, December 25 and runs to Epiphany on January 6. Compared to its lengthier secular counterpart, this Christmas Season is a fast twelve days—which is ironically sung about in a favorite fun song during the Halloween-to-Christmas period. One day is not sufficient time to do justice to celebrating Christmas, so the better part of two weeks is set apart for the rejoicing.

What is more, it takes up to four weeks even to think about celebrating the Christian Christmas. Preparations, spiritual preparations must be made, starting in late November or early December, at the same time the Hallmark Christmas Holiday is going strong. But there is a radical difference.

The Christians observe four Sundays called Advent, a purple-colored time, to reflect on one’s needs and repent of one’s sins, and to long for, yearn for the gift of new life from God. It is not a time for Christmas carols. The mood is much different, more solemn, more contemplative in contrast to the frantic giddiness going on outside the church. God’s people wait with quiet hope and expectation for God’s promises to be kept.

So when the Season of Christmas finally arrives, for Christians there is almost a sense of relief, of release and freedom. The promise of new life is kept in the birth of Jesus, and we are all granted a new lease on our lives. The joy of Christmas wells up from the depths of our souls and finds voice in our songs of praise to God.

The gift we receive is not a gift someone bought for us in a store at great or small expense. It is a priceless gift freely given by God to everyone, quite apart from their deserving it, in spite of their not deserving it.

So here’s the problem: two Christmases on two different schedules with two very different values.

What has happened is that the Hallmark Holiday has eclipsed the Christian Christmas. It’s not a wild and crazy assumption to suggest that for most people who call themselves Christian, more energy and time is invested in the secular, cultural Christmas, than in Advent preparations for and celebration of the Christian Christmas Season.

So what do we do about it?

One option is that Christians boycott the secular celebrations and pay more attention to Advent-Christmas. Well, that’s nonsense, because it won’t work.

What might work is for us to recognize first of all that we live in two worlds. There is a secular world out there that is not Christian, and though we live in it, we are not of it. We’re just pilgrims passing through. So we learn to distinguish one set of values from another, getting-and-giving from God’s grace, expensive from priceless, temporary from lasting.

Which is to say that we will not escape observing the one, but we should not neglect celebrating the other.

May the next Twelve Days be filled with the joyous gift of new life in Jesus Christ for you and those you love.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sacred Space

The question she posed to me went something like this: “The theater group can’t have their rehearsal in the sanctuary, can they? I mean it’s a ‘sacred space’, reserved for worship only, right?”

I suppose it depends on who’s answering the question what “sacred space” means. Surely there are some who consecrate their church buildings thereby setting them aside from any use other than the church’s worship. There are just as surely others, however, who feel that the space designated for and dedicated to worship by a congregation can also be used for other purposes.

The prayer for the dedication of a church building in the Presbyterian Book of Occasional Services asks the Almighty:
“May this space be used as
a gathering place for people of goodwill.
When we worship, let us worship gladly;
when we study, let us learn your truth.
May every meeting held here
meet with your approval,
so that this building may stand
as a sign of your Spirit at work in the world,
and as a witness to our Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ.”

This does not appear to restrict the use of worship space for worship exclusively. On the contrary, it suggests that other things might take place there, and that not all of them need to be churchly activities. Of course the other uses of the building that Christians use for worship and congregational life should be consistent with Christian values. There are many other potential tenants of a church building who are “people of goodwill” that would “meet with [God’s] approval.”

Many New England churches were built on the town square as meeting houses and were home to a variety of activities, including public debates and political meetings. Serving the community was part of the building’s purpose.

In our time we seem to have forgotten this about the buildings we have. With dwindling congregations and aging buildings, the cost of keeping a structure simply for worship and congregational use is becoming, in many places, prohibitive. Once again, therefore, we’re finding it’s better stewardship to let our spaces be used by others to the benefit of the people around us, than it is to let church buildings sit empty.

It’s not a great stretch to imagine that the building which houses your congregation could be an instrument of mission by making room for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, child-care cooperatives, food pantries, non-profit service groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, amateur choral and theatrical groups, etc.

The first Protestants used architecture to distinguish themselves. Simplicity was the rule for their buildings: a place to meet, not unlike other meeting places. For them, the church was clearly not a building, but the people. Neither did they imagine for a moment that God could be confined to a particular setting or building. So, a building is only a building.

We easily get invested in our worship space. John Calvin and others cautioned about the theological pitfall of preserving a building as the domicile of the Almighty. To keep others out in order to preserve what is only a building, and keep it for God alone, is nothing short of blasphemy. Jealousy of that sort about a physical structure approaches idolatry.

One result of Christian worship is that we are sent into the world to follow the Risen Christ in service. It is also possible to invite the world into our churches as a way of offering Christian hospitality and help.

So the answer to the question posed at the top of the page would be something like, “If there’s a need to which we can respond, let’s do it. In fact, we should be seeking out those whose needs we can help meet.”

How welcoming is your church to outside groups? Do community groups ever make use of your worship space?

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I’m always amused by the announcements to folks waiting to get on an airplane about “pre-boarding”. Those who need special assistance are invited to “pre-board”, whereupon they get up and board the plane. There’s not a lot of difference between “pre-boarding” and “boarding” an aircraft, except that some passengers get on earlier than others.

It strikes me that a similar situation occurs when you consider “Preparation for Worship” and the main event of worship itself. Preparation for worship is much the same as what happens during any service of worship, except that some worshippers get to it earlier than others.

There is a section of the Book of Common Worship entitled “Preparation for Worship”, and it may be one of the best kept secrets of the book, at least for pew-sitters. Because the whole book is not always available in the pew racks in front of them, worshipers are deprived of more than three dozen prayers and meditations designed as lead-ins to the service of worship—unless someone has the foresight to print one in the bulletin.

Worshipping God in an assembly or congregation of Christians requires some preparation. One does not start cold—there needs to be some warm-up. We start in with our own individual prayers that get us on track for the corporate service.

This is the first reason for some preparatory prayers: that we realize we are moving from our individual lives to a life we share with a group of people. Worship is not a solo activity—it is always done by God’s people in the plural, people God has gathered together.

It’s not just realizing that each worshiper belongs to a congregation, but the awareness that we all belong to a global church, a church through the centuries. The Body of Christ to which we belong is much more than the members of a Presbyterian church on the corner.

Making this transition from our individual world to divine worship does not mean leaving our world behind, but bringing it with us. When we do, we discover a unity in the church, the unity of our common humanity as well as the unity of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Our needs are strikingly similar to those of the people sharing the pew with us.

Preparation also includes remembering to be thankful in our worship. Worship is essentially thanksgiving—the name given to the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, literally means thanksgiving. We are there to bless God for blessing us.

The time before worship is a time to meditate, to ponder the mystery of God’s love that brings us life, to reflect upon the week just past, to contemplate challenges that lay ahead, to consider new commitments.

During this time we also simply wake up. Most of us come to church needing to get in focus for what is to come. Worship is work, remember, so we have to pay attention to what we’re doing. The prayers before worship help us be alert to the presence of God and our opportunities to praise our God for love and redemption.

One of the largest problems, however, is that this same time is often used by most people to greet their friends and neighbors and chat about things other than what is about to take place: the worship of Almighty God. It’s an inevitable conflict between having a happy and welcoming congregation and providing a modicum of silence for those who want to prepare themselves for worship.

When there is this kind of conflict, of course, the preparation comes first. Those who would prepare themselves for worship should be accommodated and allowed relative quiet for their meditations.

Yet many congregations go the other way. A noisy welcome period at the start is the sign of a friendly church, they say. After all, we’ll quiet down when the service really starts anyway, so preparing for worship is not necessary. (We don’t need to pre-board anyone—we’ll all get on the plane at the same time, and get there as a group at the same time too.) A tad inconsiderate, I must say.

People need this opportunity to get spiritually ready, and leaders and planners of worship need to make it possible—for those who don’t think they need it as well as those who know they do.

Furthermore, musicians and ministers and lay leaders should take a gander at that same section of the Book of Common Worship where suggested prayers of preparation are available they’ll find useful. If they are not geared up to lead worship, it’s going to be a real problem.

Does your pastor and staff have prayer before the service? Does the choir? How about lay readers? Does your session meet in advance of worship for a time of prayer? Does your bulletin include suggested prayers for the people to use before the service begins?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

God's People at Work = Liturgy

The man came up to me on his way out of church after the service and said, “I didn’t like that thing you made us do this morning!”

I had no idea what he was talking about. “What thing was that?” I asked.

“You know,” he grumped, “that series of prayers when we had to think of all kinds of people and make commitments to help them. That was a lot of work.”

The man had experienced the true meaning of “liturgy”—the work of the people.

My wife says that “liturgy” is a scary word, by which she means that the use of the word tends to turn people off. It sounds technical and scholarly and foreboding to the ordinary people in the congregation on a Sunday morning. Maybe, she says, we need to learn what it really means and use it correctly.

For many clergy and musicians and worship planners, liturgy equals all the words and notes that are assembled to create a worship service. There are prayers and songs and instrumental music and sermons and more prayers, silent and spoken, and creeds and Scripture readings, and so forth—and all these pieces are put together to shape what the people do when they worship God.

Sometimes, however, ministers and musicians focus only on those visible parts of worship: the words, music and rubrics (instructions printed in red in the worship books). But the real “work of the people” takes place elsewhere. The grumpy man who spoke to me had it right—liturgy happens in the hearts and minds of the people in the pews.

The liturgy is not simply in the words spoken by leaders and said or sung aloud by the people, but maybe especially in the thoughts and feelings expressed silently by each person. The work the people do is more than what happens outside—it is also what they experience internally.

Consider this:

When they enter the room, worshippers are conscious of this being a special place. The architecture, arrangement of the furniture, d├ęcor, sounds of people chatting and music playing, the smells of flowers and candles, symbols and colors, and so forth—all contribute to establishing a climate in which the people will do their work.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is usually a broad, generic prayer that will be filled with personal meaning by each individual. Even while speaking aloud, the people are thinking what those words mean for them, and perhaps feeling emotions of regret or release.

As hymns and songs of praise are lifted up by the congregation, strong memories are evoked of previous experiences and growth in faith. The lyrics and tunes being sung give expression to deeply felt convictions otherwise silently held.

The words of Scripture bring forth an encounter with the Word Jesus Christ. Listening to these words is not to be a passive experience. Worshippers bring their own thoughts and current emotions to engage with the biblical text in a conversational way. They listen, and if they hear, they respond in their minds and hearts.

This conversation continues in the proclamation of the Word in the sermon. There are those who consider preaching a one-way communication, a prophetic utterance that does not require, doesn’t even want a response. On rare occasions this may be true. Yet the proclamation by pastor to people is clearly conversational. Obviously, the people’s response is silent and internal. They agree with this point, challenge that one, and find a full range of emotions stirred up along the way.

It’s an interesting experience, to say the least, for a preacher to have a “back-talk” session with pew-sitters after the service—certainly worth doing every once in a while. This gives the preacher some reality check of what his partners in the sermon-conversation are thinking and feeling while he or she is holding forth from the pulpit.

The Eucharist presents other opportunities for the people to do their work. This too is not a passive exercise of receiving. Taking the bit of bread and sip of wine the worshippers in various ways are making a commitment, and in the silence of their hearts are expressing dedication to discipleship. They will be thinking about what this commitment means specifically in their lives, in the life of the church.

The Sending reminds people that their worship and service to God does not end when they leave the building, but continues through life. They will depart with their own thoughts about how they will accomplish that and the feelings of excitement and anxiety that may be with them. Their liturgical work, interior and exterior, will continue.

Everything that takes place in the Sunday service is matched by what is going on inside each worshipper, thoughts and feelings silently registered internally. This is the true liturgy, the true work of the people.

It is vitally important, then, for those who plan and lead worship to be aware of what the people are doing, what the visible and audible elements of the service are prompting and provoking in them.

How do you worship “with head and heart”? Do you ever give the preacher meaningful feedback on the sermon?