Sunday, February 26, 2012

Presiding Is Not Performing, But....

As everybody knows—well, ought to know—if you consider worship as a drama, be sure you have the parts assigned properly: God is the audience, and the people are the actors, with clergy, choir and other leaders serving as prompters.

It pays to rehearse that little bit of wisdom bequeathed to us from Kierkegaard so we don’t get it into our heads that we clergy are performers. We are there simply to help the rest of the folks do their liturgical work.

During my recent decade of having the view from the pew, I’ve learned a lot—too much from bad examples, I’m afraid—about how to fulfill that role as a presider (and this sometimes includes lay leaders and choir members). So, I’ve come up with some hints I hope are helpful to anyone in this role.

1. Top of the list is that you should remember that you are there to worship, just as everyone else is. The best way to lead is to do it yourself. If you’re concentrating on anything else, like stage directions or scripts or remembering what comes next, the people will sense it. First things first—worship is the order of the day for everyone, you included.

2. A sub-heading of Number 1 is to prepare for worship by worshipping—prayer beforehand for you and other leaders gives you the focus to carry with you into the worship space.

3. And be prepared otherwise. Know your stuff and get it ready so you’ll do it well. Practice ahead of time your spoken parts, out loud—and listen to how they sound.

4. Make eye-contact with the congregation. Since you are in this together with the people in the pews, it makes sense to recognize them by looking at them directly. I’ve seen Scripture read by a person with head down, never looking up, giving the impression that she was reading to herself rather than announcing the Word to the gathered children of God. Eye contact while preaching makes it a conversation, and the same is true of many of the liturgical dialogues.

5. Memorize what you need to know so you don’t have to bury your head in a book or folder. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone forgiving my sins with his nose in a folder, or looking off to the side to read from a book.

6. If you read a prayer from a written text, hold it up so your voice goes out. Too often the text is held waist-high and the image is that the leader is speaking to his belt buckle.

7. Learn how to project. Ask your choir director or one of the members to give you a lesson in breathing and control of your voice. So many readers and preachers slouch and have saggy diaphragms, and their speech is soft and breathy. The ability to project one’s voice counts a great deal.

8. If you must use audio amplification or other media, be very sure they work. A crackling microphone is a huge distraction to everyone. Try all the equipment out yourself before the service. If it doesn’t work right, go without it. If you’ve worked on Number 7, you may be surprised how well you get along without electronic amplification.

9. Pay attention to your gestures and body language. Invite a colleague to spend an hour shooting you with a digital movie camera (or smart phone) so you can see what you look like. Then you can return the favor. If you don’t have a friend like that, use a mirror. Rehearse gestures until they are more graceful and you become comfortable with them. Pay attention to how you sit as well as stand; remember everyone can see your posture and it communicates your attentiveness and participation.

10. Take your time, and don’t rush the service. I remember asking a friend how long the service would take, and he answered, “Until we’re finished.” Let the service find its own pace, for there are some parts that will move deliberately while others move along more joyously.

I’m sure there are more “helpful hints”, but the number 10 seems to be the optimum for lists of this sort. Yet if you have more to add, please do. We all can use every bit of help we’re offered.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Form and Freedom

It’s the old, old debate all over again. You’d have thought we’d resolved this long ago. But it seems to be relentlessly persistent.

The issue is this: When we worship, should our prayers be ad lib or written in advance? Just to make it a little more complicated, what about prayer books full of petitions composed generations before? Then, is it “either/or”, or is there perhaps some turf where both can meet?

Let’s start with the obvious: God wants our prayers and welcomes them any way they come. When you and I address the Deity with our heartfelt desires and deepest needs, certainly there is no necessity to be eloquent or elegant in our compositions. In fact, if we spend a lot of energy trying to make prayers “good enough” we are wasting energy. Fancy language is not what impresses the Almighty, and it is silly for us to try.

What God wants of us, so we’ve been told, is candor in our prayers. Straightforward asking and praising are the order of the day, every day.

All of that applies certainly in our personal prayer. But it’s another situation when we are the People of God at worship on the Lord’s Day. Together we are a single body, not a collection of individuals each worshipping coincidentally in the same place at the same time. As an assembly called together by God, our worship takes on a different tone.

Communal worship calls for prayers that are “ours” not just “mine”. We are in this together and share common prayers. There are two ways this is handled in corporate worship.

One is to have someone, usually the pastor or someone who really knows the community well, to speak prayers in language that the people in the pews can relate to, can accept as their own words. Sometimes the pastor or worship leader will launch into such a prayer ad lib, without any preparation whatsoever. There are those who consider this a virtue. It allows the Spirit to come in, they say, and inform the prayer by inspiring the speaker. Maybe so. On the other hand, often these are less prayerful words than thoughtless ramblings. My personal observation is that, as often as not, such ad lib prayers are irritatingly repetitive.

The other way to handle this is for the person who will speak the prayer for the community to write it out before. He or she should give it some thought, but more than that, pray about the prayer itself. Preparation for prayer by the leader does not deny the participation of the Spirit, but actually makes it more likely that the Spirit will be able to aid in the prayer’s composition.

Then there are unison prayers, written out for all to read aloud together. Again, just because it is written and said in unison does not deny the presence of the Spirit. Such prayers can be written with sensitivity to the people in the assembly, and be very helpful to all.

The issue becomes more sharply define when prayers in a book are used, prayers written generations, even centuries ago, are put in the mouths of worshippers. Objectors complain that they are too far removed from the present reality, and become to most folks mere empty prattle. Whoever wrote them way back whenever, they say, didn’t know us here and now.

Of course that’s true, to a point. What’s also true, however, is that prayers preserved in worship resources today, especially those of the quality of The Book of Common Worship (1993), have survived by being meaningful. People use them, old as they are, because they are still prayable.

What is more, preserved prayers from previous eras of the church serve as models for us in our own prayers. The one written in the church bulletin that worshippers read together this morning can be valuable to me at home this week—so I tuck the bulletin in my pocket for future reference.

And the historic prayers in our resources can teach us the language of prayer, so that we learn to dobetter than thoughtless rambling. We can find outlines of prayers, see different styles of prayers, and learn a variety of ways to express our thanksgivings and intercessions and petitions.

The curious thing is that printed prayers can give us even more freedom to pray with enthusiasm. Guided by the wisdom and faith of those gone before us, and taught by their prayers, we’ll be better able to pray ad lib when the situation calls for it.

Does the pastor of your church write prayers out in advance, or make them up on the spot? Do you have printed prayers for all to say in unison? Do you use forms and prayers from a worship book or other resource?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Turn On the Light

In the olden days when I first ventured forth in liturgical leadership, the lectern/pulpit in our church had mounted upon it a nice little lamp with a curved shade over it. The very first thing that one did on approaching reading Scripture or preaching, was to turn on the light.

In many churches, as far as I know, Scripture was read and sermons preached without introductory prayer. Sermons were followed, however, with a prayer pleading for God’s after-the-fact blessing of the message proclaimed.

Preachers often would offer for all to hear a prayer for blessing prior to starting the sermon: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.”

All that was fairly standard procedure.

Somewhere between then and now another "light" was turned on, the Prayer for Illumination was introduced and placed before the Scripture-sermon process was launched.

For those in the Reformed Tradition, it was an obvious necessity. How could anyone understand what God was saying through the words of the Bible without the blessing and enlightenment of the Spirit? Simply not possible. So, such a prayer for the gift of illumination to be bestowed by the Holy Spirit seemed to be a basic requirement. Otherwise no one would ever get anything at all out of the reading of the text or the sermon based on it.

The use of this Prayer for Illumination is rooted clearly in Calvin, specifically in his Institutes. For example in this passage:
…Accordingly to make his disciples capable of heavenly wisdom, Christ promised them "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive," (John 14:17). And he assigns it to him, as his proper office, to bring to remembrance the things which he had verbally taught; for in vain were light offered to the blind, did not that Spirit of understanding open the intellectual eye; so that he himself may be properly termed the key by which the treasures of the heavenly kingdom are unlocked, and his illumination, the eye of the mind by which we are enabled to see: hence Paul so highly commends the ministry of the Spirit (2Cor. 3: 6), since teachers would cry aloud to no purpose, did not Christ, the internal teacher, by means of his Spirit, draw to himself those who are given him of the Father…. (Institutes 3.1.4)

Whether or not to have a Prayer for Illumination is not a question to be asked, because it’s clear that it really isn’t optional. Nevertheless, it is easily glossed over and not given great value in the larger scheme of a service. And yet it is of enormous importance.

Consider this: there is a parallel prayer that comes late in the service that would never be neglected. It goes something like this:
Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
and the cup we bless
may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
that we may be one with all who share this feast,
united in ministry in every place.
As this bread is Christ's body for us,
send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.
It’s the invoking of the Holy Spirit to help us recognize the presence of Christ in the meal and to nourish the human spirit—this is known as the epiclesis or Invocation.

In similar fashion, the Prayer for Illumination is also an invocation, a calling down of the Spirit to help us understand and appropriate the Word who is presented in the words of the Bible and the preached message. Therefore, the two main parts of the Lord’s Day worship experience, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, have their own Invocation.

Without the Prayer for Illumination, however, the Scripture and sermon become mere intellectual exercises at best, and emotional blather at worst. With this prayer the congregation acknowledges its need for divine assistance, not just in understanding what the message is all about, but in appropriating that message from God in the lives of everyone present.

The Prayer for Illumination is a prayer from the congregation, and should be a unison prayer, not recited solo on behalf of all, certainly not by the clergy. Countless models are available not only in the Book of Common Worship and other worship books, but also home-made versions crafted by members of congregations.

Does your Sunday service have a Prayer for Illumination before the reading of the Scriptures? Or is there one only before the sermon? Or is there one at all?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Throwaway Lines (Not)

In drama, so I understand, some written lines of a play are considered “throwaways” – short casual comments or breezy improvisations considered to be of no great effect.

On the other hand, the off-the-cuff comment or the well-placed scripted wisecrack can be the most memorable and meaningful of all that’s said.

Christian worship is itself a drama. Remembering that the audience is God and we, the worshippers, are the actors, we need to be conscious of those parts of our performances before the Almighty that unfortunately sometimes get treated as “throwaway lines”.

The first brief dialogue to consider appears early in the service:

The Lord be with you.
The people answer:
And also with you.

At the announcements, many clergy start with a bare “Good morning,” and get the congregational reply in kind. This little nine-word dialogue is too often uttered in much the same way--just a liturgical language way of saying “good morning.”

Yet, it is much more. “The Lord be with you/And also with you” acknowledges a relationship established by the Risen Christ. In addition to being a blessing given and received, the community is shown to be bonded together by the Lord.

This thought continues in the dialogue that initiates the Greeting of Peace:

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.

It is also continued in the personal greetings shared among the people of the congregation as they celebrate the shared gift of the Peace of Christ.

For Protestants, this ritual is beset with confusion. Somehow we keep getting it mixed up with saying “Hi!” to our friends. The Greeting of Peace is a liturgical action, loaded with theological meaning recalling the greeting of peace from Christ to his followers (e.g., Luke 24.36).

The reading of Scripture is essential to Christian worship on the Lord’s Day. Each passage read concludes with another small dialogue that is often glossed over:

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The congregation acknowledges receipt of the message of Scripture as coming from God. This is not to be tossed aside glibly, but to be affirmed with enthusiasm and a hearty gratitude.

The same response follows a reading from the Old Testament or Epistle, emphasizing that the Word of the Lord is spoken in and through the entire Bible. There is an integrity of the Word that can be trusted throughout the biblical writings.

This is also true when it comes to the reading of the Gospels, although the dialogues point to a very different expression of the Word of the Lord. Here we find these lines:

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to… .
Glory to you, O Lord.
At the conclusion of the Gospel:
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

The people’s response is not a general thanksgiving, but a word of praise addressed directly to the Lord. The reading of the Gospel introduces in person, often in Jesus’ own words, the Lord himself—and so we greet him before the reading with, “Glory to you, O Lord,” and again following the reading, “Praise to you, O Christ.”

If there is any understanding of “the real presence of Christ” in our worship, this is one place that we express such a thought. It is not just the words of Scripture that reveal God, but when the Gospels are read, it is the Word of God, Christ himself, who becomes One among us.

The other place that we become particularly conscious of Christ present with us is in the Eucharist, and introducing that, we find a somewhat longer dialogue:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

These lines have a long history, being found in the earliest liturgies of the church. The “lifting of the hearts” signals the in-depth involvement of every person as all look God-ward in prayer. The last two lines stress that, beyond a doubt, the prayers to be offered at the Table are understood as the people’s prayers, even if spoken by a single person.

There are two more small conversations that take place in the Eucharist:

In giving the bread:
The body of Christ, given for you. Amen.
In giving the cup:
The blood of Christ, shed for you. Amen.

These little verbal transactions, of course, accompany the giving and receiving of the body and blood of Christ. These are holy moments, incredibly brief and fleeting moments when time as we know it stands still and God’s own time, eternal time, takes over. These brief words announce Eternity intersecting the times of our loves.

The response is “Amen,” a response said many times throughout Christian worship. As throwaway lines go, this single word is thrown away more often, if, indeed, it is even said. “Amen” is a one-word confession of faith, a proclamation of loyalty to the Lord, an announcement of personal commitment, always to be full-voiced and joyous.

The overall effect of these bits of liturgical dialogue is to set the standard for worship as the work of the people in the presence of God.

Are there other “throwaway lines” you hear in worship too important to miss?