Saturday, December 22, 2012

From Nostalgia to Reality

‘Tis the season to indulge in nostalgia.

The sights and smells of Christmas time evoke memories in all of us of bygone days when life was simpler and sweeter. Movies in our minds project flickering images of our own childhoods, and those of our children, and dispense emotions of excitement and love and peace. It’s a lovely time to remember, to recall how wonderful Christmas used to be for us and our children.

I confess that I enjoy this sort of remembering as much as the next person. Nary a Christmas goes by that I fail to remember happy celebrations of my childhood and youth. Songs sung over the radio today evoke memories of special times and special people long ago. Excitement in the eyes of grandchildren brings back warm thoughts of my own children anticipating Christmas Day.

Yes, I enjoy all this—but up to a point.

A couple of weeks ago I didn’t make it to church, spending the morning at home instead with angry sinuses. So I decided to tour the channels to see if a reasonable TV substitute might be available. I lighted on a broadcast from a large church loaded with Christmas-y decorations. The host was just introducing the guest artist, a Christian pianist who would perform music of the season. The artist played “Jingle Bells.”

It was like watching an automobile accident—it was so terrible, I could not stop looking at it. It was blatant nostalgia, totally devoid of any theology whatsoever. He was a fine pianist and got a swell round of applause, so it would seem that everyone bought the heresy of it.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of that around these days. The problem Christian worship planners have is to stand apart from sheer nostalgia and celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation.

The trouble with nostalgia is that it is not likely to be either complete or accurate recall. It includes only happy times. Our memories of the past are often highly edited and devoid of those things that we choose not to remember. In other words, nostalgia is out of touch with reality.

When we let this culture of sentimentality overtake and overwhelm the worship of God coming in Christ, we delete from the Gospel story all that is undesirable and even evil.

The recent tragic murderous rampage leaving elementary school children and teachers dead is a sobering contradiction of nostalgia. Not only the parents who lost children, and the families and friends of others killed, but all parents and teachers and most everyone everywhere will have a very non-nostalgic recollection of this coming Christmas.

What happened a week ago in Connecticut was beyond a doubt an evil event. Yet in a profound way, it has driven us all to look at Christmas in a more biblical fashion.

The slaughter of the innocents in Sandy Hook Elementary School makes us remember the slaughter of the innocents by Herod in hopes of murdering the presumptive child-king of the Jews. “Wailing and loud lamentation” can be heard from many Rachels today. (Matthew 2:18)

The birth of Jesus took place in a real world, one where violence and death stalked the land. Our celebration of Christ’s birth today happens in a disturbingly similar reality.

Martin Luther said something about the shadow of the cross falling across the baby Jesus in the manger. Christ’s humble birth and his violent death are both part of God’s singular redemptive act.

We do well in our festivities at Christmas to move past the happy memories of yesteryear and celebrate the true joy that comes from recognizing the astounding love of God, a love that was willing to die for each of us and for all people.

Worshipping the Christ Child is just the beginning of following the Crucified and Risen Christ. Christmas is not a time to harken back to an ancient tale of times gone by, but to welcome Christ born again this Christmas in our lives. This is the start of a journey which for many people is a dangerous one. Yet we travel through this world of evil and woe confident of God’s redemptive love, no matter what.

What in your Christmas worship points you beyond nostalgia to reality?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Going to School?

“Catechesis” [kat-i-kee-sis] — now there’s a word you can use to impress your friends. It’s a seventy-five cent word defined as “oral religious instruction, most often used referring to the education of people preparing for full participation in the faith community.

The term persists in the more common words, “catechism” (the Q and A method of teaching religious doctrine) and “catechumens” (those who are being taught).

All of this has to do with the “religious education” program of the church, designed for children, and occasional adults. We Presbyterians have been diligent in such catechesis not only in the “communicants’ classes”, but in stalwart Christian Ed. programs as well.

Yet this is much too narrow an understanding of “catechesis”. Take a peek outside the box.

I was talking with a Jewish friend of mine a few weeks ago, and he admonished me for not visiting his synagogue for worship recently. “I’d love to have you come,” he said, “to shul.” It sounded almost like he said “school”—and he did, but it was the Yiddish word. For Jews, worship is also considered an educational opportunity to learn history, culture and faith.

Every once in a while I come across a comment from an Episcopalian (or Anglican) about the Book of Common Prayer being a wonderful educational resource for faith and doctrine. More than a liturgical reference and support, the volume has status as a theological piece.

My Orthodox friends tell me that their worship is chock full of learning. Prayers tell stories, parables are visualized in icons and mosaics, theology is acted out in gestures and movement.

So, what would life be like in our churches if we took a cue from these folks and came to see what happens on a Sunday morning as going to worship which is also “going to school”? What if we thought of church not only as going to talk to God, but to hear what God has to say to us?

Here are a few possibilities.

For one thing, the participation of the worshipping congregation would have to be more active than passive. No longer would the “comfortable pew” be the dominating image of attending church.

Corporate worship is a school to train us in how to pray, what to pray, and how to live out those prayers in the rough realities of life outside the church doors. It will be filled with history lessons that connect with our personal histories. Worship will put us in the presence of God so we can recognize where God is present in our lives every day.

We will also find that we have our own set of written resources. The Bible is the main volume, to be sure, and a copy should be handy in the pew racks for those who want to read along with the reader, or to see for themselves the context of the text. Yet there is also The Book of Common Worship (BCW) and The Presbyterian Hymnal and The Psalter, and the anthems sung by the choir, and probably much more. These, and their counterparts in other traditions, are “text books” in the school of Christian worship, useful in teaching the essentials of the faith.

To this end, copies of the BCW ought to be in the hands of all musicians and church teachers, and it would be wonderful if each member’s home had a copy. The same with the Hymnal and Psalter—they have valuable versions of prayers and praise useful at the family table at home.

What is more, the Sunday morning education for all worshippers might just encourage adults to pursue catechesis, instead of dropping off their children and going for coffee. Maybe attendance in adult classes would increase when grownups discover they don’t know as much as their children about our faith. “Faith formation”, as the term is these days, is on-going for all ages.

Finally, the converse is also true. We might just find out that children find worship more interesting if they are learning from it, and not just occupying space until they can scamper out. After all, early on the only Christian education anyone got was being among the worshipping community. In this day and age, people, especially the younger ones, are more likely to be shaped by education that is more experiential than literate, more oral than written.

Worship is always a time for us to express ourselves candidly before God—our needs and wants, hopes and fears. It is also when we put ourselves in position to be impressed by God. What is always impressive is that we are in the presence of God, we are with our risen Lord, and we are moved by the spirit within each of us and among us all.

What impresses you (makes a change in your life) when you go to worship? What did you learn about your faith the last time?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Here We Go Again

Today is the First Sunday in the Season of Advent, and the “Christian Year” is off and running once again.

It so happens, as it always has, that the secular culture got the drop on us and started celebrating the non-church version of Christmas around the early part of November. This included mostly wintery songs and Christmas carols played by local radio stations and over store speakers, with red and green decorations sprouting up upon and within most retail establishments.

This means that by the time we get around to celebrating the Birth of our Savior, many of the hymns we sing will have been all but worn out over the airways. For most people, Christmas will be only a single day, and its celebration will stop short. For those who keep the Christian Calendar, however, it will continue for Twelve Days. This will require some recalculation for Christians who want to follow the on-going story of the coming of the Messiah.

One of the problems regularly besetting congregations and their pastors and musicians this time of year is whether or not to sing Christmas hymns and carols during Advent, or wait until Christmas itself comes around. Inevitably, there will arise with clenched fist church members who want to sing Christmas carols in church because everyone is hearing them played in the shopping malls anyway, and so why shouldn’t we sing them in church. Usually some truce is negotiated.

But that isn’t the only recalculation needed if we’re going to celebrate Advent at all properly.

What is even more important is for us to remember that the Four Sundays in Advent are times of preparation for Christmas. Therefore, we observant Christians must remember not only that we must wait to begin Christmas, but that we have to shift gears into reverse. There is much to be done before we can even start celebrating.

Advent’s colors are clues for us.

The color purple suggests that Advent is a somber season. It is, in fact, a season of penitence, patterned after the older Season of Lent. The shouts of John the Baptist to “Repent!” will echo through the texts and sermons the Second Sunday.

Here we are called upon to reflect on our own need, and the world’s need, for the coming of the Messiah. If we do not recognize and freely admit that we need who Christ is and what he has to offer our wounded souls and this broken world, we will not likely be very receptive to the Gift he is and all he brings.

Blue is another color sometimes used during Advent. It symbolizes Hope. Advent is a time when we hear the hopes and longings of people in ancient times crying out again today in the yearnings of so many around the world. The desires of the Prophets ring out for what God has promised in the way of justice and peace.

One more color shows up in the candle on the Advent Wreath for that Third Sunday. Pink is the color associated with Joy. It reminds us of a text appointed for this day, Philippians 4:4-7, which begins with the word “rejoice”. Somber season though it may be, this is a reminder that the impending coming of God in Jesus Christ is a cause for great and abounding joy among all peoples.

Christmas is not a time to be treated lightly. It must be approached with reverent preparation in the form of reflection, expectation and anticipation. In other words, we should take a step or two back before we step forward.

May your Advent be a season of many blessings.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thermometer or Thermostat?

The discussion the other day was about the church. A metaphorical question was raised: Is the Church a thermometer or thermostat?

One could explore that thought in a variety of ways, but let’s ask that question about how we worship currently. Is what we do on a Sunday morning a mere reflection of the cultural temperature of the world around us? Or, could it possibly be that the celebrations of little bands of God’s people on the Lord’s Day might affect the worldly culture with needed changes?

The temptation, of course, is to set our liturgical thermostat so that it corresponds to the desires and values of potential pew-sitters. If we want the younger generation, then we might do well, we think, to re-set the liturgy to look and sound like what they like.

That approach is doomed to failure, because sooner than later the culture shifts. The latest and greatest quickly becomes old hat, and the worship planners scramble to keep up with the curve.

The direction for our worship, then, comes from outside, from unreliable sources if you’re looking for lasting values and eternal truths.

This is not to say that twenty-first century worship should avoid everything new. Surely new liturgy is being created week-in-and-week-out in congregations around the world. Hymns are composed, prayers crafted, sermons delivered, believers and their children bathed, and people share a meal of bread and wine, all fresh and relevant to a particular time and place. At the same time, the content and message of today’s worship comes from another source.

Christian liturgy carries content designed to affect the people of God, and through them to change the world’s culture. In a very real sense, the substance of Christian worship is subversive, seeking to undermine prevailing unholy values. Yet sometimes the way we prepare and present worship serves to edit the message so it is less radical and more acceptable to the people in the pews.

For example, I always wonder why it is that a pastor or session or perhaps someone else in authority decides to omit a Prayer of Confession. Is it perhaps because there is an underlying conviction that no one there really has much if anything to confess, either to admit in front of everyone else in the room or, much less, to disclose to the Almighty?

Even if a prayer of confession is in the order of service, it can also be edited in such fashion as to be a spoonful of sugar rather than a bitter pill to swallow. Consider this familiar prayer that begins, “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. . . .” That may be more honesty than some can tolerate. I remember one parishioner who regularly confronted me after church asserting, “I’m not as bad as it said in that prayer of confession.” He wanted a thermometer to read him as he thought he was, rather than a thermostat to point to how he ought to be, as indicated in the balance of that prayer: “In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.”

In the same fashion, the Confession of Faith can be left out altogether because the quaint concepts in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds are deemed irrelevant to our modern needs. I think it may have been the same parishioner I mentioned above who complained about the historic creeds as being “words put in his mouth.” Of course, a home-made creedal affirmation can be assembled that is more satisfactory to the general populace, but it will likely be theologically thin.

And sermons are at particular risk here. I always thought I was fairly straightforward in proclaiming the Gospel as both good news of God’s grace and a call for repentance and renewal. On retiring I found, however, that I felt much freer to preach the Gospel in full when the people listening were not paying my salary. We like to think there is not such pressure, but there really is.

At any rate, the purpose of worship is not to make us cozy and comfortable in the fact that God loves us. We come together to be renewed and resurrected to a life with the risen Christ. Sometimes this sounds more like bad news than good. That’s when we should start to see liturgy not as a thermometer that tells us where we are, but as a thermostat to regulate the temperature of our passion for Christian service and witness.

Do you ever take the opportunity to review a worship service with others? Have you ever noticed adjustments or softening of the Gospel’s demands and requirements?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Attitude and Aptitude

I’ve been out on the “Sermon Circuit” again, and come up against a problem that should never happen. I’m not even sure why it does, but it does. Here’s my story.

I got myself on the road bright and early, well, early enough to make a quick pass at Dunkin’ Donuts and still arrive early at my destination. I was greeted at the door by the kind lady with the key who informed me that she was the musician of the morning. At least she was prepared to play the electronic keyboard—although she was quick to admit that she hadn’t played in a decade and a half and might be reduced to one finger at a time.

A few folks arrived to scramble around and put the place in order for the service. With about ten minutes left on the clock, someone glanced at the empty Communion Table and realized that the set-up team had not arrived. A hasty sortie to a nearby convenience store netted three sandwich buns, two of which were broken in pieces, the third left for breaking in the service.

More fussing was required to arrange furniture, get out the table cloth, set the table, find a place for the offering plates, and hang the pulpit cloth.

By the time the hour struck, all was ready, more or less. It was a breathless beginning, yet the service proceeded well and we all praised God. However….

What struck me was how unfortunate it was that the lay leaders of the church were not better prepared, and that they apparently did not take it seriously enough to have everything set up well in advance. Frankly, the set-up for the service revealed a slipshod manner and a casual attitude toward worship. Everyone improvised well, including me, but improvising should not be standard operating procedure on Sundays.

I don’t mean to be harsh in criticizing these people. I’ve been under pressure myself and had to scramble at times. Dealing with unexpected crises, minor and major, can throw everything out of balance. Nevertheless, there are two things that occur to me that might have helped in this situation.

First the attitude of the people about worship needed improvement. Somehow folks in our churches need to learn by experience, teaching, and mutual support that worship is at the heart and soul of being Christian. Without that faith basis, the church is built on sand, on sinking sand, all of which may be exactly the problem in so many of our churches with dwindling membership. If members don’t believe that worship is central to their lives, and act like it, it’s not likely they will attract anyone else.

How does one change the attitude of church people? It requires a culture change. That takes time, a lot of conversation, strong education, and clear expectations of members expressed by the church leadership. It’s a never-ending process, because people get comfy and soft and forgetful, and treat congregational life all too casually.

The other improvement needed was in the people’s aptitude regarding worship. They needed to be trained on best practices about worship, why it’s important to have the scene set before most people arrive, and what different responsibilities need to be filled. Simply, the people—all the people—need training in what’s involved in a worship service and how it gets prepared.

Musicians need to sit down regularly with the pastor to go over plans for congregational singing, and the congregation will benefit from instruction in new hymns and service music. Deacons and those responsible for hospitality and ushering need to understand how important their roles can be to the worshipping community. People who care for the cleaning and arrangement of the worship space also have essential responsibilities.

Worship, when done well, is never a simple casual affair. What we offer God should be the best we’ve got to give—the best music, the best setting, the best sermon, the best prayers. Planning should also be our very best. When we come to worship, well prepared, we offer it all up to God, and if there are glitches and mistakes we chalk it off to our humanity. Sometimes the unexpected malfunction or mishap can be the opening for the Spirit to give us a humility lesson. But we don’t need to create those opportunities—they just happen often enough.

What’s the attitude of folks in your congregation about worship? Do they have sufficient aptitude to prepare for and participate in worship?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sacramental Absence

A while back I attended a church service in a majestic nineteenth century structure, with an arching, spacious sanctuary.

Immediately my eye was attracted to a table located in the focal center of the worship space. I had to assume it was the Communion Table, because it was resting incognito under a brightly colored, patterned cloth which had no liturgical meaning as far as I could tell. Since there was nothing on it resembling dinner ware or even a modest plate and chalice, there was no hint that the table had any use whatsoever.

After several minutes of visual searching, I sighted the baptismal font stowed off in a corner. Obviously wherever this piece of furniture had been before, it was in the way, so it was safely transported virtually out of sight, thus out of mind.

The service itself was well thought out and well led; musicians, lay readers and clergy prompted worship by the congregation for the most part. As you might guess, however, neither Baptism nor Communion was celebrated, nor even mentioned. They were absent, completely.

As I pondered this experience for the rest of the day, another memory popped to the surface, of a local gathering of Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to reflect on the recently concluded Second Vatican Council and its pronouncements.

The priests wanted to know how we Protestants managed to come up with a sermon week after week. From what they said, this part of their worship was minimal, a few devotional words, something supplied by a homily service maybe, or just some ad lib remarks. But, for them, a full-fledged sermon was a scary new concept.

On the minds of the Protestants was why and how did the Catholics celebrate the Eucharist week after week. Not that we were particularly eager to do so in our churches, but it was an intriguing thought. We got by with only four Communions a year, maybe fine.

Swapping stories and theological rationales was the beginning of both groups discovering the dangers of minimalizing major parts of worship. Suppress preaching and the sacramental rite gets more and more complicated and cumbersome, and the principal, maybe sole, bearer of theology. On the other hand, push the sacraments off in a corner, and the proclamation of Scripture dominates worship to the point of making everything else in the service of minor importance.

Going back to the top of the page, in the Victorian church where I was that morning, it was clearly a preaching-centered service. While the offering appeared after the sermon and prayers of the people, there was no indication that it had any distant connection with Communion or represented a vestige of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Scripture-sermon section was the heart and soul of the service.

I want to be clear that in no sense did I perceive that the preacher was deliberately managing any of this. The sermon was thoughtful, timely and relevant for that congregation, and well presented.

The problem came from the absence of the sacraments. When they are not present, everything else expands to fill their space. Liturgy, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and where one is created, other things get amplified, whether they like it or not.

For one thing, minus weekly Eucharist, the service becomes word dominant. Listening is the main occupation of the people in the pews. The senses of touch, taste and smell are minimized.

What is more, worship becomes mainly a mental activity. Not that thinking during worship is a bad thing, but sermons might tend to lean in the direction of being polemical or argumentative rather than prophetic and evangelical. Giving a theology lesson from the pulpit is different from preaching the Good News the preacher-sinner needs to share with the sinners in the pews.

Also, preaching from a pulpit three steps up from everyone else is not the same as sharing food and drink across a table. The intimacy of the sacraments is needed to balance the authoritarian atmosphere of the pulpit.

That’s what it’s all about, I decided. Balance. Word and Sacrament. Not “just Word, and when we get around to it maybe we’ll have a Sacrament.” Both sacraments need to be present every Sunday. If there are no actual baptisms to take place, the font, with water, should be placed where everyone can at least see it, even better walk past it on the way in. Every Sunday, Communion or not, the table should be set, with bread on the plate and wine in the chalice.

The absence of the sacraments from regular Lord’s Day worship can create imbalance not only to the order of service, but to the meaning of worship.

Where you worship, is sacramental furniture set for use and visible even when the sacraments are not observed? How often does your church have the Lord’s Supper? Why?

Friday, November 2, 2012

On Becoming (and Being) the Church

It never ceases to amaze me that so many church people can have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude when it comes to Lord’s Day worship.

I know that many (if not most) members consider the hour on Sunday morning to be one among many activities on the congregational smorgasbord, and not necessarily the most important.

Expectation of church leaders is too often low as well. One would think elders and deacons would be exemplary in their attendance. Were any one of them to be absent it would be certain that the reason would illness or necessary travel. That’s not always so, however. Elected leaders are subject to the same frailties as other mortals.

I recall the time in my own ministry when a few elders felt it was time to crank up expectations about members’ participation in the life of the church. They recommended, among other things, that the session should announce to the members that all are expected to attend at least two Sundays each month. The elders balked at that—“too much” they said to expect of others, not to mention themselves. So how about once a month? Nope, that’s too dictatorial. So the idea was abandoned for want of enthusiasm.

Clergy, I know all too well from first-hand experience, are besieged from all sides by other tasks, chores and responsibilities that distract from making Sunday worship top priority. It’s easy to let things slip and slide so that the planning and preparing is not the best. That’s an explanation sometimes perhaps, but never an excuse.

Other worship leaders, lay readers and musicians, for example, and those who prepared the space, need beware slacking off, taking shortcuts, giving less than the very best. Nonchalant and perfunctory preparation can sneak up and take charge.

If this attitude of neglect begins to dominate the Sunday morning worship event, before anyone knows what’s happening, worship is casual to the point that many people could care less about what’s happening. Slipshod leadership and passive participation easily become the order of the day.

All of this is reason for some folks, like myself, to get riled up about the need to renew worship in our churches. We suspect that there might just possibly be a connection between the decline in worship attendance in recent years and our lackadaisical approach to the Almighty.

What is more, we have a deeper suspicion that the renewal of our worship would contribute greatly to the renewal of the Church. Making the connection between healthier worship in congregations to a healthier local church, and from there to a more robust and vital Church of Jesus Christ is not too great a stretch.

We need to recapture the notion that the most important thing that happens for Christians is that Lord’s Day worship experience. Therein stands the core of the faith: the Word proclaimed, the Sacraments observed. To treat this sacred event with indifference borders on heresy.

It is in this assembly of God’s people that the Spirit goes to work to accomplish resurrection of the Body of Christ anew. We are drawn together by God to get our marching orders from our Risen Lord present among us in the Word read and proclaimed. We are gathered around the Table to be fed and nourished by the Risen Lord who will live within us. In this way we are no longer just a local congregation--rather we become an expression of the whole Church of Jesus Christ.

Not only do we become the church in this sacred event week in and week out, but we go forth to be the Church in our lives, in our world. From these few moments of worship of Almighty God flow hours and days, even lifetimes of service to Almighty God, by disciples of Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit.

Weekly worship is the rhythm of church life, and by God’s grace it becomes the pulse beat of the Church of Jesus Christ. The renewal, even reform, of worship opens the possibilities of resurrection and new life for the Body of Christ.

What changes would you suggest for worship in your church that would involve people more actively? How would you improve worship planning and preparation?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hope Is Where You Find It

Off on a little vacation, we connected with relatives on a visit to Florida to see The Mouse. Sunday morning we ventured to a nearby Roman Catholic church, a basilica and shrine, Mary Queen of the Universe Church, just across Route 4 from Disney World.

We’d been there before and returned this time for a number of reasons. On previous occasions the liturgy was well-presented; choral music was outstanding and congregational singing hearty; the congregation reflected wide racial and socio-economic diversity; preaching was thoughtful and insightful; communion was available every Sunday; and the setting is beautiful and speaks of transcendence.

The same was true this time, with some wrinkles: the liturgy was the revised “new” liturgy, which represents a back-tracking to pre-Vatican II. There were laminated cards in many hands to assure worshippers had the papal-correct language to speak.

Communion presented a challenge, as it always does. I listened carefully to the invitation, and responded accordingly. In this church, the congregation of which is virtually only travellers, no prohibition was mentioned about non-Catholics participating. So, I went forward to receive a single wafer, no wine. It seemed incomplete, of course, but I’m convinced that Communion is God’s act and not dependent on nor can be damaged by our actions or lack thereof.

Quite apart from the wrinkles, it was a meaningful worship experience.

The sermon, by the resident priest, had a pastoral tone. His mood was quietly conversational, as though speaking with friends, although he probably knew only a handful of the hundreds there.

He started off addressing the “good Catholics”, commending them for their loyalty to their Church, and for taking the time to attend services when away from home. It was a very affirming and supportive sermon to the faithful. And I wondered how exclusive this was going to be.

About the time I questioned where he was headed, he shifted direction. He told his fellow Roman Catholics that they weren’t the only people in the world who loved God and followed Jesus Christ. Just as he had lauded the Roman Church, he proceeded to press this point home affirming diversity among Christians. It was a very hopeful statement of ecumenism, the kind I have not heard for a long time, from Protestants or Roman Catholics.

The text for the day was from the common Lectionary : Mark 9:38-50. The sermon was a faithful exposition of the text. I was glad to be there to hear it.

I share this hopeful experience because crossing boundaries in order to share in worship is desperately needed. That’s how we learn about the larger church and don’t fool ourselves into believing that our church is all there is, and anything else is not the real thing.

It’s also how we learn about the richness of Christian liturgy. Other traditions teach us history, often our own history that has been forgotten or neglected. For example, when we Presbyterians added prayers following the psalms for the Daily Prayer book, it was thought that we were adopting a Roman Catholic practice. Actually, psalm prayers were standard procedure for Presbyterians in the Old Country centuries ago. Roman Catholics and others carried on a tradition that we had neglected, until recently.

Now is the time to venture outside of our local church boxes and visit one another. Church members can reach out and invite non-Protestant Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends to share worship. Pastors can do the same, and even ask for time off occasionally to worship elsewhere.

When was the last time you worshiped with non-Protestants, non-Christians?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Be Careful What You Pray For

My last few outings as a guest preacher have prompted me to think of prayer from a somewhat different perspective.

I suppose that any individual who puts a modicum of effort into a prayer life will understand that addressing the Almighty is not idle chatter. It all takes some careful thought. Quiet time in order to listen doesn’t hurt either. In all of prayer, the Spirit is our helper.

What is more, I don’t know about you, but I take care in my choice of words and specific petitions I may send off to God. Why? Because I know that I’m likely to be held accountable for my prayer.

For example, there’s no real validity to prayers for the hungry if I neglect supporting local food programs with my contribution. Prayers for peace are gross hypocrisy if one is not willing to give time and energy as a peacemaker. In personal prayers, one learns to go and do what has been prayed for. And if one doesn’t want to do, one had best rethink the prayers.

Pondering the prayers in which I would lead the congregation the last few times, has prompted me to wonder if the folks in the pews see it the same way. I would like to think so, really I would, but I’m not so sure.

So my suggestion is that pastors, presiders and worship planners need to be more blatant about pointing out the ethical and practical implications of every prayer. Prayers, as a friend of mine once said, are down payments on action—you are committed and accountable to do what your prayer requires.

After all, prayer is not magical incantation to coerce God into doing what we want. Prayer is a way of claiming the promises of God and the power of the Spirit to enable us to work for the fulfillment of our prayer. Our hands will get done what God wants done.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is one that I fear many take for granted. Normally we confess before God and each other our failings. God’s forgiveness is quick in coming—but along with that is our resolution to not repeat what we did that we shouldn’t have done, and to do what we should have done but neglected. Announcing forgiveness is not a pat on the head so we can pat ourselves on the back and go out and do nothing. On the contrary, forgiveness is empowerment for righteous action.

The Prayer for Illumination is also worthy of our consideration as having implications for action. We pray that what we hear read and proclaimed will be for us no less than the Word, the Risen Lord present to us. The action-response required is to perk up and focus our attention to the max. And to take everything we hear personally.

The Prayers of the People, of course, have strong implications for ethical response. When prayers are offered for people we know, by name or by suggestion, the action response is easy to figure out. We know whom to help and how. When the subjects of the prayers are more generally named, such as the poor and outcast, the hungry and lonely, the sick and imprisoned, opportunities for action may include social and even political efforts.

The Presentation of the Offering is usually followed by a prayer, not just of thanksgiving to God for the goodness received and the gifts to share, but a commitment of what is offered, including our very selves, our lives, in Christ’s service. So we’re not talking about a few dollars in the plate here. The offertory prayer, if we dare to pray it, is a total response and recommitment of all that we have and are to God.

The Eucharistic Prayer picks up on this very same emphasis. Thanksgiving to God for creation, for claiming the People of God and sending prophets to lead them, for the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, culminates in an offering of ourselves as “a living and holy sacrifice,” dedicated to God’s service. The Holy Meal itself carries the same message, as the prayer says, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

These central prayers of our Lord’s Day worship are there to praise God and push us out the door to be obedient servants, living lives worthy of God’s gracious love. So pay attention to what or whom you’re praying for—there’s a required action in the prayer, and you are accountable.

Does the language of prayers in your service include an emphasis on doing what it requires? Are there other prayers that imply actions?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Churches

I had the opportunity a few Sundays ago to preach in two churches the same morning. This “yoked parish” in beautiful upstate New York provoked me to some insights I hadn’t pondered deeply enough before.

The two churches, separated by about 10 miles of farm land, look physically very different.

The 9:00 AM service was in a lovely stone structure perched on top of a hill. Entering the roadway approaching the building, one can’t help being impressed. Inside it is stately and narrow, with dark word and lofty ceiling. The pulpit area is framed with an arch over a curved apse.

At 10:30 AM the other congregation gathered in a very traditional looking “New England” style church, a clean white frame structure, classic in design. Inside, the worship space is bright and airy, wide and open. The pulpit is on a platform extending the width of the room.

The congregations, however, were very different—at least by my reading.

The 9 o’clock crowd tended to be somewhat formal. When we came to the Greeting of Peace, for example, folks mostly stayed where they were. The Greeting was a formality—minimal chit chat. The people were, generally speaking, reserved and restrained.

Singing at 9 o’clock was faithfully led by the organist, and the familiar hymns chosen by the pastor went okay, but no thrills.

The 10:30 people were more informal. Their greeting of Peace had enthusiasm to it—they said “Shalom” as well as “Peace”. Worshippers wandered all over the room to greet one another warmly. And, as one of them said in an aside to me, “Getting them back together is like herding cats.” It was.

Music at 10:30 was different from my experience on a Sunday morning in a long while. Hymns and service music were a capella. The pastor plays guitar, and usually he’s the liturgical musician. He’d primed a couple of people he knew would be there in his absence to lead the singing, which they did, and did it ably. Music was a little slow, but in tune and sung with gusto.

Both congregations were exactly the same size. By my quick count, 15 souls showed up in each place to worship the Almighty. In each place there was a child, a grade school girl in the first and an older boy at the second.

The same worship order was used in both churches, as was customary, so that each provided for a “Time for Children”. Since I consider “children’s sermons” an abomination, I took the occasion to have the child lead us in learning something about the way we worship. They each got to point out the butterfly on my stole as an introduction to the meaning of symbols in Christian worship.

In the more formal 9 o’clock service, the young girl was reactive while the adults were very passive. At 10:30 the lad was embarrassed to be standing alone, and the congregation quickly took an active part with him in the conversation.

The wondrous insight I had was that it would appear that the physical space in which worship was conducted had an influence on how worship was transacted. Worship in the more formal building was more formal than the more open and free worship in the bright, open space.

While this is not an earth-shaking insight, it’s worth considering for any congregation, and for ny team of people responsible for planning and leading worship. Many questions pop up.

What constraints on worship are applied by the physical structure? Does the space create a particular mood? How can the mood be shifted by the décor? Is physical movement of the worshippers restricted or liberated by the building. Does the shape of the ceiling or backdrop of the pulpit/platform control, augment or distort sound?

The biggest question of all, of course, is, What to change and how? What would be accomplished liturgically if the physical building were different?

When next I have lunch with my friend, the pastor of these two churches, I’ll ask him if the people in the two congregations naturally are as different as I perceived. Or are they fairly much alike, and the buildings make their worship exper

iences different? Or did I just misread them altogether. I really don’t think I was too far off, however.

What’s the building like where you worship? How would you like to change it? What impact would changes make on the way you worship there?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rip 'n' Read

The title of this post comes from the olden days of news broadcasting when the announcer would rip a page off the teletype and read it on air. There was no preparation in advance, so, as you might imagine, it sounded like the reader was not familiar with the story, and mispronunciations and other goofs were common. Rip-’n’-readers were not held in high esteem by their peers.

I was reminded of this term recently while having lunch with a friend. He was reporting on worship in a neighboring church where he had attended. According to him, the preacher stood up and announced that the morning’s homiletical offering was taken from the bountiful resources of the internet. It had been ripped bodily from one of the many sites offering packaged help for desperate preachers.

Unfortunately this kind of shenanigan was not news to me. More than once I’ve been witness to sermons lifted from some on-line pulpiteer or torn from the pages of a volume of preachments by some notable cleric.

In those cases also, the offender brazenly confessed and proceeded to commit the crime. Yet the candor of such confession does not absolve, much less forgive, the error of the so-called preacher’s ways.

Knowing about only a few situations where this effrontery was perpetrated upon an assembly of the faithful is small comfort. One begins to wonder and worry about others who may not be so shameless as to let the truth be known. Perhaps it’s best not to know how often this happens—it could be very depressing.

I’ve heard sermons where a paragraph sounds out of character or in a different voice from that of the proclaimer. I suspect a section has been filched without benefit of quotes or citation.

Well, the temptation is there, of course, when writing a sermon to see what someone else has come up with on that text. It’s a temptation to be sternly resisted. The preaching of the word comes from roots of prayer and study through the heart and soul of the preacher. There is absolutely no substitute for that.

Every sermon is one of a kind, a one-time-only event. Every sermon preached is out-of-date immediately.

If one uses the lectionary, the opportunity to preach on the same text comes up periodically, and the temptation is there to pilfer from oneself. I resist looking at old sermons, avoiding the temptation even to quote myself. I once, and only once, preached the same sermon twice—the second time around it was so stale that I learned my lesson.

At the same time, I think it’s healthy for aspiring preachers of whatever age to read and listen to other people’s sermons. There are some preachers in print who are worthy of reading and re-reading. I have my favorites to whom I return from time to time who are my prompters and examples.

(In case you’re interested in a couple of my choices, Frederick Buechner’s sermons are solid both in terms of content and style. His book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, should be required reading for sermonizers and listeners as well. Another is Paul Scherer, one of the great preachers of the twentieth century. The Word God Sent presents a combination of his sermons and guidance. Both Buechner and Scherer are worth frequent consults just to see how conversationally they write in plain English, yet manage to be poetic at the same time.)

Yet this reading of other preachers’ efforts is not for the purpose of finding quotes much less passages to incorporate in a sermon. What I was taught long, long ago holds today: “Avoid quoting anyone else, unless you absolutely cannot by any stretch of the imagination express the thought in your own words, and it is absolutely necessary to have that quote verbatim in your sermon.” Which is to say, don’t quote—period.

Having done the exegetical homework, practiced prayer and pondered God’s present activity and hopeful promises, the preacher can get the sermon underway. Background reading of masters in the field can help a preacher develop a personal style, and learn how to write and speak as ourselves. Stealing quotes or passages from someone else is not just cheating the congregation, it is discounting one’s own faith, one’s God-given ability, and the calling to preach the Gospel.

If you’re a preacher, whose work do you read and learn from? Do you use quotes in your sermons?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Club or Community of Faith?

A good friend and I were conferring over his cup of coffee and my mug of tea, pondering the current condition of the Church of Jesus Christ.

To make a long conversation short, the consensus was that, at least in terms of the Church evident in churches and congregations of which we have personal knowledge, there is a real problem: Christians seem to gather in clusters that look much more like clubs than churches.

This is to say that Christians these days tend to assemble around common interests and tastes. They look for a church where most everyone looks like they do. Some would prefer everyone to be registered in the same political party.

There are even those who select their church on the basis of whether their company higher-ups belong. They look for standing and status.

When it comes to church programs, they want the best care for their kids, a good social group for their age range, and someone to visit their elderly friends and relatives.

Worship, for these folks, should be, above all, entertaining. When the music is super, especially the children’s music, they will applaud. The prayers will hold up before the Almighty the needs of everyone in the room. And the sermon will at all times be short and sweetened with good humor. Worship was to be designed to make them feel good so they could go home happy.

Of course, who is pastor is critical. She or he must meet all criteria of every person, offend no one ever, especially not in a sermon, and be ready day or night to respond to any need. In short, as a friend of mine once said, “The pastor is really supposed to be a spiritual concierge.”

Okay, that’s an overstatement. Admittedly this does not apply to every congregation, even if it does come frighteningly close in some. Sure, there are in every local church at least a few who know better and are looking for a very different situation.

My friend and I remembered thankfully those people we’ve known who filled the bill. For them, the church was not a like-minded club, but a diverse community of faith. They did not seek recognition for their piety or purity, but were offering themselves with humility. They wanted education, faith-formation for themselves as well as their children—not just babysitting or socializing—and they’d visit anybody who was lonely.

These are the people who’d come to worship to receive the support of the community so they could be good Christians when they left. They’d seek forgiveness, renewal and refreshment for their souls. They’d be inspired and stirred in their hearts by the prayers music elicits for them, and they want to be challenged by the word proclaimed, and fed at the Lord’s Table.

In fact, worship has a great deal to do with whether someone sees their congregation as a club or a community of faith.

Some examples:

I was in a room with members of a congregation that had branded itself as “nondenominational, evangelical Christian church,” and the conversation was about worship. When I asked about their prayer of confession, I was told that they did not have one—and did not need it. They were secure in their salvation. Don’t we all need confession as the antidote to taking God’s grace for granted?

I visited a service in a congregation where the “prayers of the people” consisted almost entirely of petitions on behalf of people who were members or friends of members—almost nothing prayed about the ailments of the world and society around us. Prayers are the down-payment on actions, commitments to do something to alleviate the situation we pray for. We might reasonably assume we’d help friends and relatives who need it, but how about the poor and homeless and outcast and oppressed?

The Lord’s Supper is so often done with such efficiency that it seems everyone is in a rush to get out of the building. “Perfunctory” is the word that fits. Yet the Lord’s Table is the world’s table, and sharing the meal Christ set for us commits us to sharing what we have with those who have nothing to share. It is, or could be, a powerful experience.

Music, far from simple entertainment, has the capability to touch us at our depths. Music accompanies our prayers, it carries the liturgy, so that faith sings in our souls.

We come together to serve God in worship on Sundays, and go forth to worship God by our service to others the rest of the time. The Christian congregation is not a club—it is a community on a mission with Christ.

Do you have a prayer of confession in your Sunday service? What evidence do you see of “clubbishness” in your worship? What do you see that points to serving God in the world?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Whole Thing

I’ve often been accused of being picky about details. Having served as a stated clerk for a substantial chunk of my life, paying attention to specifics goes with the job. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the trees and shrubs and forget all about the forest.

The same is true when one takes on the responsibility to plan and lead worship. Preachers tend to worry about preaching, choirs about singing, readers about reading, musicians about just the right music, presiders about multiple prayers, transitions, and spoken instructions. The various parts are often doled out. Nobody is concerned about the whole thing.

Well, that’s not quite true. The presider/preacher/pastor is paying attention to everything, one would hope. Even so, she or he in all likelihood would tackle each item one at a time. Given the fact that there are many parts to a worship service, this is not a quick process. And, as they say, “The Devil is in the details.” It’s really important to be careful and not careless.

Still, worship leaders can get bogged down in the swamp of details and not see the entire service as a whole.

Taking the viewpoint of our Orthodox Christian sisters and brothers might help bring our worship into focus as a single event, rather than as a series of smaller items pasted together.

An Orthodox friend of mine once described the divine service in his church where I was visiting as “one continuous prayer.” There was indeed a “flow” so the experience moved smoothly from one segment to the next. The effect was cumulative, and the service had a sense of wholeness to it, a full and complete experience.

It was a reminder that the Orthodox and others in the Eastern Church tradition are oriental in their thinking. They tend to see “the whole thing” while we Westerners see a list of items arranged in sequence.

When I think about the last Protestant service I attended, I have to admit it seemed fragmented. The individual parts stood out, lined up in proper order for sure, but still separated items that needed connecting.

What contributed to the fragmentation was some of the commentary that was inserted. For example, before the call to worship, the leader announced, “Let us worship God.” Well, those words anticipated the biblical call to worship, and also under-cut it—the scriptural text is sufficient.

There were several such spoken directions, vocal rubrics that were redundant and superfluous. At times the presider seemed more like an emcee and his words just heightened the separation between the different acts of worship.

I plead guilty on this one, because I’ve erred by verbally inviting people to join in a prayer of confession or silent prayer when it was totally unnecessary—there it was in print, no less, in the bulletin, and what was coming next was obvious to all anyway.

So I wonder what would happen if we eliminated such needless and excess commentary. Would the service more likely be experienced as a complete entity rather than as a series of agenda items?

That, however, is only one part of the problem. As we plan for worship, prepare the parts and assemble them, we need to be sure the parts all fit to make up one whole.

Take that prayer of confession, for example: not just any one will do. Arbitrary selection is, or should be, verboten, forbidden, not allowed, and avoided. The temptation to hastily pick prayer number 2 on page 53 of The Book of Common Worship should be resisted—unless it is an absolutely hand-in-glove fit.

Everything that is prepared for a particular service belongs to the whole. There are not separate parts, but pieces of the entirety. Worship is not like a jig-saw puzzle, where the different parts require great scrutiny and puzzlement for one to discover how they dovetail. To the people in the pews there should be no uncertainty about the complete picture of what’s happening and why. If each of the acts of worship is seen in the context of the whole service, the “fit” will be apparent to everyone.

This means, however, that planners will need to be talking with one another during the planning and preparation process. The focus, of course, will be on the Scripture readings for the day and the Calendar of the Christian Year—from these the theme and emphases are discovered and shared among the different members of the team as they work toward a service that is complete and whole.

Reducing unnecessary intrusions and making sure all the parts harmonize in terms of theme and emphasis will lead worshippers to a richer experience.

During the last worship service you attended, were there instructions given by the leader? Were they intrusive? How did the different acts of worship fit together?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why People Go to Worship

The question came up in a recent conversation, as so many pertinent questions often do. Why do people go to worship? Why do they really go to worship?

There is a plethora of answers, probably almost as many as there are people who show up in the pews on a Sunday morning. Everyone has an agenda of some sort that they bring with them, or an agenda that prompts them to attend church.

I know for a fact, that there are those who go just to be with people they know and like. They jump at the opportunity to be with folks who share their values, not to mention their opinions and biases. For them, it’s a good place to be. There may be other attractions, but this one seems to dominate in their thinking.

Others don’t go the church as “church” in the usual sense, but to a particular church. In a way, this is an extension of the previous category, just more precise and calculated. For instance, there was a woman who informed me that she and her family were transferring their membership to another church because that’s where her husband’s boss belonged. Enough said.

Still others go to Sunday worship to be entertained. They wouldn’t use that word, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. A good choir and musicians providing stirring music, a preacher orating inspiring sermons, along with a lovely setting, conspire to present a theatrical experience which they like.

There are still some who go to church services in order to “feel good”. Comfort is what they seek, confirmation that they are doing okay and God is happy with them. Any challenging word breaks the mood and is difficult to appropriate.

The list may be lengthened as you wish, but there is one group of people, maybe even including a few of those mentioned above, who deep inside have a different answer to the question of why go to worship. They go with an expectation of another kind of experience.

First of all, people go to worship because they expect to meet God there.

God is not confined, of course, to the churches’ worship spaces, nor limited to Sunday mornings. God can be, and often is, encountered in the unlikeliest of places at the most unusual times. Nevertheless, when the community of faith is summoned and gathered for the announced purpose of encountering their God, it is reasonable that the people will expect it to happen.

The other side of this is the assumption that the worshipper will be changed by the encounter. The person who leaves worship will not be the same as the one who entered. Transformation, major or minor, can and should be anticipated by all.

This attitude of expectancy makes a great difference in how people experience the liturgy, and what their participation in it means.

For example, the Confession, acknowledgement of sin and acceptance of God’s forgiveness, becomes a rite of release. The baggage of guilt and shame that people often drag around, that also drags them down, is removed. In God’s forgiveness, they know release from that bondage. It can be like being born all over again, or like a new baptism.

The Greeting of Peace also changes from a howdy time for friends greeting friends to a sacred time of acknowledging the peace of Christ that heals us and makes us one. It is an “aha moment” of recognizing that this is not a random collection of individuals, but a gathered people who belong to Christ, sealed in the Spirit, dedicated to God.

The Word, proclaimed in the reading of Scripture and preaching, becomes a conversation, not between the preacher and people, but between God and the people, preacher included. Attentiveness is high, because this is intensely personal. The worshippers expect words to nudge their lives into new directions. They assume that some change is the order of the day.

Prayers become not so much requests for Divine activity, but commitments by the worshippers to be active. We may celebrate and give thanks for families in our prayers, and that becomes a promise to treasure those gifts of life. Praying for the poor and outcast and others in need becomes a pledge to act out ministry to the ones prayed for. All prayers give a fresh focus on doing the faith that we pray and proclaim.

Coming to the Lord’s Table is not considered merely a pious ritual, but is a mystery of grace to be shared. Here the worshipper’s expectation is based on the promise of Jesus himself to be present. It is a reality to be experienced even if it defies explanation. And the bite of bread and sip of wine are food for the journey of discipleship with the Risen Lord.

Why do people go to church? One would hope this anticipation describes the primary rationale propelling men, women and children to church each Sunday. One would hope….

How would you answer the question? What do you think people in your church would answer?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Outdoor Worship

It was a distraction to driving, the sign I saw by a local church indicating they’d be having outdoor worship from May through September. It sure slowed me down to make sure I read it right.

I did. For five months this congregation was to abandon a very welcoming structure for the joys of the summer environment. A well-appointed interior would serve only as a retreat on a rainy day.

This is only one of many churches offering such an option at least for one service on summer Sundays. It seems to be a somewhat popular, if not trendy way to worship in the warmer times.

Having attended, and even led, outdoor services from time to time, I’ve come to wonder what the real attraction is—and what benefits such communing with nature offers to the people’s work of worship.

What I’ve been told is that outdoor worship invites parishioners to dress informally. From what I’ve seen in recent years, not many people have needed any encouragement for casual attire inside the Lord’s House, at any season.

Maybe a congregation likes to go out front or back or on the side, just for a change of locale, a refreshing occasional alternative. That way, worshipping in the familiar space inside will be more appreciated.

Others have suggested that worship in plain sight of the roadway or other public paths may entice non-church-goers to stop and share a prayer or two. This has always smacked of something Jesus was slapping down, as quoted in Matthew Chapter Six, Verse Five. At least it seems somehow to be showing off.

Here and there a congregation will advertise its worship-in-the-yard experience as an introduction to a larger social feast—like the church service that was to be a prelude to a Barbeque, “so come on down!” This is so perverse I’m sorry I mentioned it.

I suppose there are other reasons and rationales given for praise and prayers among the tamed wilderness of church properties, I just don’t know what they might be.

On the other hand, by experience, I can list several reasons why this is, generally speaking, a poor idea.

I remember clearly attending a wedding held in the formal garden of a nearby college, on a beautiful early summer day, under the warm sun with a cool breeze. Idyllic though it was, the zephyr blew toward the officiating clergyperson, and carried the sound away from the congregation. It was like watching a silent color movie.

Out of doors, sound is always an issue. It’s not only the breaths of wind that distort speech, but the sounds of traffic, emergency vehicles, the neighbor who decides to mow the lawn, and who knows what else will compete for attention.

So, the next thing is to provide an adequate amplification system, haul it out, set it up, drag wires from interior power sources, tune it up, and blare away. Even then, it’s no guarantee that everyone will hear clearly. And if the speakers woof and tweet too much, irate phone calls from neighbors can be expected.

One could go on about the bugs and bees that want to share the space with worshipping humans, especially if there are flowers around, or the other discomforts of unseasonal heat or cold that distract from liturgical focus. Yet there are other more important issues.

Evacuating the normal worship space for the pastoral scene pulls the congregation away from the continuing visual accents supporting worship. The centrality of Font and Table along with Pulpit is usually neglected in such circumstances. The art and architecture of the building are not there to help center thoughts and prayers.

The quick response to this last remark, of course, is that God’s creation as viewed in the great outdoors does what art and architecture cannot. This kind of worship experience places us in the venue of God’s garden, it’s claimed, bringing us closer than ever to the Divine.

This is, however, a sentimental reply. It sounds nice, with emotional content, but totally out of sync with reality. Were it true, we could tear down all our places of worship and spend Sundays communing with God on the golf course. But, as the old joke has it, “In spite of the theological language one hears on the fairway and green, it’s not really the same as being in church.”

Does your church ever hold services outdoors? If so why? What are the benefits? What are the problems?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Milling Around

One of the more humorous radio broadcasters of my college years was Jean Shepherd who held forth on WOR in New York. He was a gabber. Jean was a swell story-teller with a highly creative imagination. He had a way of involving his listeners in “comedic stunts”.

One that I remember is when he told his listeners to go to a particular store in Manhattan at a particular time the next day and simply “mill around”, I suppose as a way of testing the size of his audience—which was considerable. The next day the targeted store was swamped with people, milling around, saying hi to one another and having a delightful time. All to the consternation of the store owners, who were being deprived of doing their regular business.

Fun as this was at the time, the image comes back to me these days in a less than cheerful way. For example, at a recent guest presider/preacher gig, I introduced the Greeting of Peace. After I greeted maybe a dozen folks with the Peace of Christ, I started back to my place. A member headed me off and informed me solemnly, “They like to do this—once they get going, it’s hard to stop them.” I turned around and saw that the Greeting of Peace had turned into a reasonable facsimile of the result of Jean Shepherd’s exploit.

The lady who intercepted me was right. The milling about was lingering on, and people were lallygagging in a kind of liturgical loitering. Like the New York storekeepers victimized by Shepherd’s stunt, the business of worship was being interrupted and brought to a screeching halt.

My efforts at restoring order were apparently too modest, so rather than be totally overwhelmed, I entered the fray and passed Christ’s Peace to everyone personally. I admit that was an act of frustration. At least everyone got one-on-one attention and the special delivery of the ritual act and words. That was not, however, a satisfactory solution. No matter what I accomplished, the hiatus proved to be a hindrance to the flow and force of the service. I still wound up summoning everyone to attention, and basically we started worshipping all over again.

I suppose this milling around is not all that uncommon. And, it’s a lot like crabgrass—once you get it, it’s almost impossible to get rid of.

When the Greeting of Peace became part of our worship, it was the result of the 1970 restoration of the “kiss of peace” to the Roman Catholic Mass. It looked like a good idea, so we Protestants bought it. The problem is that we’ve never really insisted that it be a formal ritual act, and allowed it to be misinterpreted by the people in the pews.

A large part of protestant worship gatherings is what we refer to as “fellowship”—the horizontal relationships between and among members and strangers gathered for worship. This is not incidental or insignificant, but has a prominent place in the life of any congregation. It has to do with pastoral and mutual care of members and hospitality to visitors. The Greeting of Peace, however, is the wrong place in the worship service to meet the congregation’s need for camaraderie. So what’s to be done? How to get some orderliness to the Greeting of Peace without forcing it? And how are the needs for congregational social communion to be met?

First, worship planners and leaders should recognize, and tell everyone else by education, that these are two very different needs, to be met in two different ways on a Sunday morning.

The “ritual” of gathering as a social community should be met immediately prior to the beginning of the service. After people are settled in, the gathering is established by a greeting from the pastor or presider—this salutation can easily morph into a mutual stand-and-greet-one-another festival of hand-shaking, hugging, kissing and mutual welcoming. Then follow the announcements, prelude, call to worship, hymn, etc.

The Greeting of Peace requires more strategic efforts.

Some congregational education needs to take place about the biblical roots of this act, and the history of its usage.

Then some theological discussion needs to take place about it in a variety of venues: choir rehearsals, session meetings, interest, service and social groups. What does it mean to share in the Peace of Jesus Christ? Why is it an act of worship?

Finally, instructions should be clear to worshippers, strangers as well as frequent attenders. Bulletin rubrics should spell it out even more than is found in the Book of Common Worship (1993). For example, after the exchange, “The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. And also with you,” the presider might continue: “Let us greet those near us with the words, ‘May the Peace of Christ be with you.’” It gives the people a script, and puts limits on the range of the gesture.

Framed in the liturgy properly, the Greeting of Peace is a powerful spiritual force of unity and healing in the congregation.

How is the Greeting of Peace accomplished in your worship service? Are there welcoming greetings? When are announcements made?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

More Plural, Please

We all know that Christian worship is a group activity. Even on a desert island, a Christian does not praise and pray to God in solitude. Always there is a spiritual connection, not only with other Christians somewhere on the mainland, but with the church through the ages, saints and sinners who have gone before us.

As much as this is obvious, it is still easy to forget. .

Look at the Prayer of Confession for example. We all approach that part of the liturgy with some fear and trembling—if we don’t, then we’re not taking it seriously. We bring baggage full of personal stuff that we hope will be sorted out in the process of the prayer, and the junk discarded by the Assurance of Pardon..

But it’s never just “my” prayer. It’s not “all about me”. The Prayer of Confession is all about us, all of us, humans that we are, tripping and stumbling through life with bumps and bruises to show for our sinfulness. God knows all about us before we even find the words or read the ones in the bulletin to ask for help—and God is at the ready to do what needs to be done for us with grace and tenderness.

There is always solidarity in this kind of confession, as long as we remember that the folks around us are in the same boat as we are, leaky as it surely is. The company of other sinners similar to ourselves bolsters our courage for candor.

So the Prayer of Confession has this universal human quality to it. But even more than that, the prayer would not even exist in the order of worship if we all did not know already that God is waiting for us to lift it up. There is a common expectation that Confession is good for the soul, and God’s Grace is available for the asking. We wouldn’t be brazen enough to admit our weakness and failures if it didn’t fit our understanding of who God is.

Another example would be the Prayers of the People. No matter how these are done, a lot of individual and personal requests pop out, as well they should. Sometimes names and situations are verbalized out loud, other times silently—nevertheless, “my” specific concerns are offered by me, as everyone else does.

Unique and singular as the prayers may be, however, we offer them in the midst of the rest of the congregation—my prayers become our prayers, everyone else’s prayers become mine. Prayer is a mutual enterprise, the act of the church more than it is only the act of individual Christians. Therein lies the church’s strength, for the Spirit moves among us and binds us in a community of care and concern.

Nowhere is this truer than in the making of commitments to follow Christ. In reaffirming our baptisms or coming to the Table, we are reminded that we are to be part of the Body of Christ. Baptism marks us as members of that Body, Eucharist nourishes us in that Body—both lead us to discipleship.

Certainly and surely, these involve deeply personal commitments, life-changing decisions to be made and renewed constantly. Yet they are never entirely solo acts. Always they are made in the context of the whole people of God. Motivation to follow Christ faithfully is always enhanced and strengthened by the support of those around us who are daring to go on the same journey.

Unfortunately, I’ve been in a few churches where it seems that some of the pew sitters are there only to do their private devotions. To be undisturbed by others in the room, they find a safe corner, and scoot out just before the last liturgical word.

I’ve also participated in a service or two where the hymns are all first person singular—the “Me and God” songs—as though each worshipper had a single line to the Divine to transact their singular spiritual business.

The Greeting of Peace is one of the best antidotes to stark individualism. Passing from one to the other the gracious healing spirit of Christ, overcomes animosity and bridges gaps to unify the people as the Church, the Body of Christ.

So, remember in planning worship that liturgy and hymnody need more plural, please.

What hymns do you sing in church that are for the whole church? Which ones are first person singular? How about unison prayers: singular or plural?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Why We Do What We Do"

When applied to the church at worship, this title is my humble offering for a working definition of liturgical theology.

What happens on a Sunday morning, or at many other times for that matter, makes sense. When God’s people are gathered to give praise and make commitments, there are reasons and rationales to the rites and rituals involved. There is a logic to it all—and a theo-logic as well.

Now that doesn’t mean that there is only one correct explanation for every act carried out or word spoken. If that were true, Christian worship would have stalled centuries ago and would be a museum piece now.

On the contrary, Christian worship is an activity of the Spirit in the Body of Christ, and it is living, breathing and constantly growing. There’s always something new, refreshing and surprising taking place.

At the same time, Christian worship is not an orphan discovered on the church’s doorstep. It has a history and heritage, lessons learned in the past to be rehearsed in preparing for the future.

When we worship, there’s always something new or old needing an explanation. The basic question is always, “Why do we do what we do?”

The problem with all this is simply that the question is rarely asked. Pew-sitters, assuming they actually show up to sit in the pew, are usually not interested enough to ask. Too few people pause to reflect on their worship experience, and its meaning in their lives.

Perhaps this is why so many worshippers mumble the creed into their waist-high-held order of service or whisper the words of hymns. They simply do not know what they’re doing, much less why. Their participation is without purpose, lackadaisical and even lazy.

At the same time, it has been my experience that there are always some who do care, who want to worship with understanding. Explanations are helpful to them in making their praise of God intentional and their commitments deliberate. They really want to know “why we do what we do” in worship, so that they can do it better.

I wonder how many congregations have programs that include continuing liturgical education. Not just for children, but for adults as well—maybe particularly for adults.

In most Sunday school programs, I speculate, worship education is a sometime kind of thing. Once or twice a year, perhaps. That’s strange, isn’t it, when worship is the central and formative activity of any congregation. Yet worship is so frequently allowed to be shaped, not by belief and sacred tradition, but by sentimentality and faddish novelty. Education of all ages about Christian worship, old and new, should be a core part of every congregation’s annual program.

In order to accomplish this, of course, we have to have teachers. It’s logical to turn to the theologically trained clergy and professional musicians to provide such a resource in every congregation. Reasonable as that seems, it isn’t as reliable as we’d expect.

For some reason, so many clergy I know have a low level of motivation themselves to understand “why we do what we do” on Sunday mornings. In spite of the fact that they have to preside over such events, it seems not to be a priority. Other things clamor to be first in line in the daily routine, I’m sure, so that even those responsible for the service of worship let preparation slide. Nevertheless, what’s central and fundamental in the life of the church deserves to be at the top of the professional’s agenda.

Another reason for slow reaction time on the part of professional ministers and musicians to understand “why we do what we do,” so I’m told, is that they have not been well-prepared by their seminary training. Musicians rarely get theological foundation for the music they present. Ministers get courses on liturgy and worship, but they are few and often optional. “Liturgical theology”, if it is recognized at all, is considered by seminary professors a “secondary” subject—students should learn biblical, historical, systematic theology, and what they need for worship will trickle down.

One of the forces for renewal in worship life of our churches is for the people in the pews to rise up and demand to know “why we do what we do.” Then, maybe ministers and musicians will bang urgently on the doors of seminaries, pressing for continuing education in liturgical theology. One can only hope.

If you’re a minister or musician, how comfortable are you in explaining to lay people theological background and meaning of Sunday worship? If you are a church member, what questions do you have about worship to ask your pastor/presider or musician?

Monday, July 16, 2012


What goes on in worship after the Confession of Sin? The Declaration of Forgiveness. That’s according to the Book of Common Worship (1993)(BCW)—at least that’s what it says in the order of service.

If you look at that part of the same book that lays out the “Basic Movement of the Service for the Lord’s Day,” you’ll find that it’s clear whose forgiveness is being conveyed:

"The people gather in response to God's call, offering praise in words of scripture, prayer, and song. The people acknowledge their sinfulness and receive the declaration of God's forgiveness." (Emphasis mine.)

In still another part of the BCW, “The Service for the Lord’s Day: A Description of Its Movement and Elements,” you’ll read this paragraph:

"Having confessed our sin, we remember the promises of God's redemption, and the claims God has on all human life. The assurance of God's forgiving grace is declared in the name of Jesus Christ. We accept God's forgiveness, confident that in dying to sin, God raises us to new life." (Emphases mine.)

It seems that other Christians flaunt similarly diverse terms for this act of worship: Assurance/Declaration/Affirmation of Pardon, Declaration of Divine Grace, and Absolution. I suppose there are probably more.

I bring this up, not to point out the imprecise nature of our liturgical language, but to raise the question of the liturgical role played by the person pronouncing these assurances, declarations, affirmations and absolutions.

In the liturgy of the BCW, these statements are aimed directly at the people in the pews by the speaker, presumably the pastor or presider:

"I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven."

In this, the speaker appears to carry out a priestly function. We don’t have priests, of course, but sometimes the liturgy calls upon presiders to be priest-LY, to be the communicator from God to people, and this is one of them.

The Reformation understanding of the Priesthood of Every Believer squelched any thought that any one person must be the mediator of our relationship with God. By virtue of the New Covenant, Jesus became the sole Mediator for all God’s people.

Nevertheless, the Declaration of Forgiveness runs the risk of looking like what we don’t believe in. Yes, that’s not a priest doing that, but it looks “priest-ly”. It’s a temptation to arrogance, suggesting that the pronouncer of pardon is above the sinners who need it.

So, what to do?

Looking back in history to the 1946 version of the Book of Common Worship, we find that the “Assurance of Pardon” to be said by the minister, in the first order, reads:

"Almighty God, who doth freely pardon all who repent and turn to Him, now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace; remitting all our sins, and cleansing us from an evil conscience; through the perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord."

The declaration or assurance includes the speaker! Pardon is assured for the minister as well as the people. He or she is in the same leaky boat of sin as everyone else, and personally affirms for him- herself the much-needed bailing out from God.

To be sure, one thing it would require is that the pastor/presider would have to pray the confession of sin personally and not just lead others in its recitation. If that is genuinely done, then the declaration or assurance including the speaker would be heartfelt as well.

What would happen if we pluralized those assurances and declarations of pardon and forgiveness so that the pastor/presider is one of the people? Perhaps this would narrow the lay-clergy gap in some churches. This small change would move the Declaration of Forgiveness from looking and sounding priestly to being more pastoral, less condescending and more compassionate.

Not a bad shift in tone for our liturgy.

How is the Declaration of Forgiveness conveyed to the people in your church?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Integrated Preaching

Every once in a while I come across a Lord’s Day service in which the sermon is subjected to some kind of segregation from the rest of the liturgy.

For example, when the sermon is the only part of the service done by the preacher, it leads one to believe that it’s qualitatively different and distinct from everything else. This is probably more common where there are multiple pastors, when one preaches while the other serves as liturgist.

The distinction, made by some, that preaching is God’s Word addressed to the people, while the remainder is the people’s praise and prayers aimed God-ward, is faulty if not foolish. The entire liturgy is a dialogue between God and the people, including the sermon. The word “homiletics” comes from the Greek word, homilētikos, from the verb homilēo meaning “to converse with.” Sermons are always conversations, engaging the people in the pews as they mentally offer their prayerful and thoughtful responses.

Bad enough that the sermon is treated as a solo performance, one step away from entertainment, even worse is that the congregation is tacitly invited to sit back and relax and watch the preacher preach. If the people are not working during the sermon, then it ceases to be “liturgy” (= “the work of the people”) in any realistic form.

Too often it’s forgotten that every sermon has a unique context—or, better, many contexts. Preaching does not take place in a vacuum. Sermons arise out of Scripture, and travel the journey of the Dominical Year, supported by songs and hymns and anthems and other music that awakens the soul. These, one would hope, are fairly well accepted points of integration of preaching with the rest of the liturgy. There are two others, however, that are flagrantly neglected.

First of all, when preaching is separated from the prayers of the people, as well as other major prayers of the service, the sermon is cast adrift in the sea of abstraction. How this often happens is that lay liturgists or other staff pastors will fill these responsibilities by way of freeing the preacher to preach.

Long-time pastors who know their congregations well may get away with this—for a while. Sooner or later, however, the sermon will lose its pastoral sensitivity and go stale.

Pastoral prayer and preaching are closely linked. In this regard I always think of Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York, who was not only a preacher of note, but one who had the spiritual capacity to envelop others in his prayers.* A friend of mine, who worshipped at Riverside back then, told me that when Fosdick led in prayer, he had the sense that the two of them were alone in the room, so intimate and powerful was the connection—and that this personal relationship continued in the sermon.

Preachers should always lead the congregation in prayer before stepping into the pulpit. It makes for better sermons.

The other notoriously neglected liturgical connection with preaching is the Eucharist. When there is no Supper to follow, the Word has not been fully presented, and the sermon has been diminished.

There are those who think that omitting the Sacrament gives more emphasis to the proclamation of the Word. That is true, but only in the sense that more time is allotted. Actually, ending the service without the Sacrament leaves the proclamation incomplete, and the worshipper’s experience of the Word only partial.

All the more reason, then, to return to celebrating Holy Communion every week. Not only is the Sacrament diminished by infrequent observance, but the proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon is also undermined. When they are separated in this way, neither is fulfilling its liturgical purpose. Word and Sacrament are unbreakably theologically linked and therefore both should be constantly integrated with the liturgy of the people.

Even though, regrettably, we so often do not celebrate the Sacrament on the Lord’s Day, when it is observed it would be appropriate to have the preacher preside at the Table. This would be a reasonable visual demonstration of the linking of Word and Sacrament.

Who leads the Prayers of the People where you worship? When you have Communion, does the preacher always preside? How often do you celebrate the Eucharist? Why?


*For some outstanding examples of “pastoral prayers” (even if the language is somewhat outdated), see if you can find a copy of Fosdick’s A Book of Public Prayers, Harper and Brothers, New York 1959.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ad Lib Liturgy

Cruising the seas of the Web on my Google surfboard, I made unexpected landfall on a tiny article from the May 28, 1905, New York Times, that included the following:

Persons brought up after the straitest sect of Presbyterianism have undergone so many shocks within the last few years that another more or less may not particularly matter. But still the proposal for what can be called only a Presbyterian Liturgy, made by Dr. Henry van Dyke, is still calculated to make to sit up in astonishment the Presbyterian General Assembly to which it was made…. [The “service book” prepared by Dr. van Dyke] is a collection of “forms of sound words” for use on the several occasions to which it is applied. We should expect that such a proposal would be made, if by any Presbyterian minister, by one well known for literary and aesthetic sensibility, as Dr. van Dyke eminently is. The practice of improvisation may be tolerated when the officiating clergyman happens to be a man of genius, of sympathy, and of taste. But in the nature of things this combination is not common….

The “service book” referenced here, which was to become the Book of Common Worship of 1906, was not the first or last effort in this direction. A Book of Public Prayer—Authorized Formularies of Worship of the Presbyterian Church as Prepared by the Reformers, Calvin, Knox, Bucer and Others was published in 1857. Subsequent to van Dyke’s 1906 version were revisions in 1932 and 1946, The Worshipbook in 1970 and, most recently, The Book of Common Worship (1993).

The New York Times article calls to our attention the perennial conversation (or controversy) regarding printed prayers for corporate worship as opposed to those of the improvised, ad lib variety. It’s a persistent problem that’s been around for a long time and is obstinate enough as to not likely go away any time soon.

On one side of this great liturgical divide are those who prefer to pray impromptu, from the depths of the soul, they would argue (certainly not off the tops of their heads, as opponents complain). Extemporaneous prayer by the leader of worship far surpasses, they say, anything scrawled or typed by someone else, somewhere else at some time long ago. God wants to know what’s in our hearts now, not what an unknown author wrote once upon a time.

The loyal opposition in this debate counters with the observation that on-the-spot praying is often riddled with ums, ahs, and repetitious phrases, and sounds casual and tossed off. Collections of prayers and forms that have survived use for generations and even centuries offer a solid resource for worshipping communities even today. We do well, they say, to rely on the best bequeathed to us and prepared for us by the liturgical poets like Henry van Dyke.

By and large, I fall in the latter category. I’m a prayer book kind of guy, which, given my background, goes without saying.

My seminary training, back towards the middle of the last century, led me to rely on the Book of Common Worship (1946). Although not entirely, but mainly as models of durable prayers. Spending time and putting effort into preparing the prayers for Sunday morning was also drilled into us. One professor repeatedly admonished us that we should spend as much time crafting prayers to the Almighty as we would writing sermons for the assembly.

Clearly, preparation was a priority. One did not ramble or scramble in leading prayer. The consequence was that the people would be misled. They would be more distracted by a faltering, fumbling prayer, than one cleanly and confidently composed in advance.

Nevertheless, the impromptu prayer people have a point. I’ve heard elegant and eloquent pre-written prayers read with all the passion of narrating the phone book. It’s easy to flatten them out, or repeat inflections so as to make them painfully boring. Presentation requires preparation too.

Leading prayers fails when the leader merely reads or recites them—they must be given devout focus by the leader. In the very process of putting pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard and writing a prayer, the author must also be praying. And then, when the prayer is used by the leader, it is prayed again as it is read aloud.

Yet the possibility—even probability—of improvisation never goes away. Always we find that ad lib that pops up at the calling of the Spirit, not really calculated in advance, though prompted by the words we’re reading. It happens as a surprise to the leader if not to the hearers, when a new spark of insight brightens the liturgy.

No matter how well we arrange the words of our prayers and fashion their imagery, there’s always the Spirit to make the best we can do even better.

If you’re a worship leader, do you write your own prayers, use a worship book, or pray impromptu? Or some of all three?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"What, Again?

It was at a presbytery retreat as several of us were sitting around conversing, when the subject came up.

It seems that an individual we all knew was troubled by the liturgical admonition that popped up here and there for her to “remember your baptism.” The reason why she considered this irritating was that, because she was a babe in arms at the time, of course she couldn’t remember her baptism. Furthermore, she never entered the doors of a church anywhere until she was a teenaged adult—those who took her for baptism never took her anywhere near a religious structure or anything resembling Christian education.

So when she finally ventured into a house of worship, it was under her own steam. The time came that she sought out the religious education she needed, went on to be a member, an elder, and, over the years, served on a whole bunch of committees and task groups in presbytery, synod and General Assembly.

But, she told others, she never felt she had been baptized, and someday needed to submit to the sacrament. “What, again?” is usually the response she gets. “You’ve already been baptized—and God acted in that baptism to claim your life, whether you were aware of it or not. We don’t do re-baptisms, and that’s final!” Etc.

It was a lively discussion as we pondered the plight of our friend.

The most obvious thing to us was that she was not the only person, in the church or outside, who was in that position. Many infants are baptized and never heard of again—unless they march themselves up to the building and turn the door knob to enter.

I know I have been lied to by numerous parents and guardians who promised in answering one or more questions to bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”—and yet, they and their children were no-shows.

These folks were interested in “getting Johnny done” for some reasons other than theological. Maybe it was superstition or magic by which they wanted to clinch the deal for the child’s salvation. Or perhaps it was social pressure: this baptism thing was what everyone was doing, so we should too.

For whatever reason, it was not backed up by parental commitment to see that the child grew up in faith and was led to full discipleship. The result for our friend was that she had no “Christian childhood,” and started the journey, not at the beginning, but somewhere down the path. To her, it felt like she should be baptized as a believer rather than trading on a not-remembered, not-completed infant version.

Now, one might wryly respond to all this by saying that the baptism of our friend and others like her just didn’t “take.” Well, if you’re of the superstitious bent, maybe that works—but God doesn’t do things part way, so it was, from God’s point of view, a full baptism.

Yet, from the human perspective, the baptism was lacking since promises and commitments made by people were not kept. Of course, pastors and sessions aren’t very good at banging on doors and jingling phones to find out why, after “Johnny was done”, he hasn’t been around.

Infant baptism, from the standpoint of the one baptized, is a passive experience. The full meaning of it depends entirely on other people, parents, pastors, family, and who knows who else. Believer baptism, however, is very different—the one who is to be baptized makes the promises and is responsible to carry them out—this is a totally personal commitment, based on the individual’s past experience, not just future hopes.

So, back to our friend’s dilemma: Is there room in our Reformed understanding of the sacrament to accommodate a pastoral need like hers? Or, are we locked into the practice and preferences of the Reformers half a millennium ago? Could she present herself for baptism in order to make her own promises and commitments anew?

Today’s circumstances are not the same as five hundred years ago, obviously. Things change, among them liturgical and ecclesiastical practices. In Calvin’s day, for example, the Table was securely fenced, against children as well as heretics and other theological undesirables. Today children are fed at the Lord’s Table, nurtured and nourished with the rest of the family.

What if we thought about the unknown number of people, men and women, like our friend, who were claimed by God in baptism, but never really knew it? What might we do?

One thing is that we would not baptize infants and let them slip away so easily—sessions would more vigorously pursue families who have made baptismal commitments for their children to encourage and assist them in living up to their vows.

The other possibility is that we might welcome those who had no “Christian childhood,” no “nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and invite them to respond to God’s claim on their lives by affirming their faith and receiving the holy bath. In other words, we might “re-baptize” them. Although this would clearly be a departure from centuries of practice, it might be worth considering.

What do you think?