Wednesday, March 28, 2012

24-Hour Easter

As a companion piece to my rant last December about having to sort out two Christmases, the subject this week is the Easter dilemma, also resulting from an overlap of secular culture and the Christian calendar.

In the world around us, Easter Sunday is observed, yes, even celebrated, as a paean to spring. Longer days, better weather, and the end to cabin fever are causes for rejoicing.

The hymnody of the day includes such melodious odes as “Easter Parade” and “In My Easter Bonnet”. Rituals feature egg dying, egg hiding and egg hunting. Bright colored vestments are the order of the day, as are jelly beans and other candies to delight the taste. The personification of the spirit of the season is the Easter Bunny.

So much for the secular holiday. Now with fear and trembling we turn to the Christmas Holy Day of Easter, only to discover that Easter is not a single day as we’d been led to believe, but a season of seven full weeks plus a day for a total of fifty days.

For the rest of the world, however, Easter is over and done with. While Christians are supposed to have barely begun observance and celebration, the attendance charts for the Sundays of the Season of Easter reveal that most members have bought the 24-hour Easter concept.

Part of the problem is, strangely enough, how the church has come to deal with the crucifixion of Christ, which is a necessary preliminary to Easter.

In the old days (prior to 1955), the Sunday before Easter was observed just about universally among Christians as “Palm Sunday”, recalling the great parade of Jesus and his fans into Jerusalem. That signaled the start of Holy Week, step-by-step leading up to the Passion of Christ.

There came a time when the Roman Church, for a variety of reasons, decided that the Gospel readings for the sixth Sunday of Lent would include the Synoptics’ accounts of Christ’s suffering and death. In the wake of Vatican II, many Protestants, including Presbyterians, bought this practice as well.

Several reasons are cited for this, most of which are fairly obtuse, except for one honest one: Let’s deal with the Passion of Christ the Sunday before Easter because realistically not many people go to Good Friday services—and we shouldn’t just go from one celebration (Palm Sunday) to another (Easter). Therefore, the narrative of the Passion of Christ is squeezed in as a footnote to Palm Sunday.

(As an aside: Why don’t we call it Palm/Passion Sunday, if we’re going to continue this practice, instead of Passion/Palm Sunday, which is out of chronological order?)

The result of this minimalizing of the crucifixion by making it part of Sunday worship rather than allowing it a day of its own is to minimalize the Resurrection as well. What is dealt with in a piece of Palm Sunday liturgy can be disposed of easily in a 24-hour Easter.

On the other hand, if we were to give full throttle to Holy Week, including the Triduum (the Great Three Days of Maudy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday ending with the Easter Vigil) we would recognize the need to continue the Easter response. What happened during Holy Week deserves rehearsing in our lives, and the results of the Resurrection speak volumes to the God-given new life we receive from the Risen Lord.

What this all means is that we need to put some energy into restoring the Christian calendar. It’s been too easy to abandon it for the sake of convenience and acquiescence to another Hallmark holiday. Lent in its fullness includes a profound Holy Week, which deserves to be followed by an even greater, longer season of rejoicing in Christ’s resurrection.

Does your church have services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and/or Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil)? What happens in your congregation in the way of on-going Easter observances all the way to Pentecost?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Speaking Up

The other day I ran into a friend of mine who belongs to one of the churches where I’ve preached from time to time. They have a brand new minister now, and I asked my friend how things were going. Her response was, “Well, there are lots of changes.” Not a surprise.

She went on to tell me of what was to her the most significant change. “We don’t just use the Apostles’ Creed all the time,” she said. “Now we have a different creed every week. And I really like that, because it’s not boring.”

I don’t know what the minister has in his arsenal of creeds, but a variety is readily available in the Book of Common Worship (1993) and other worship resources.

Creeds go by different names: Affirmation of Faith, Statement of Belief, Confession of Faith, etc., and come in several different categories.

First are those who are designed to answer some heresy or bring clarity to some theological controversy. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed are examples here. While the Nicene Creed is most commonly used among Christians, the Apostles’ Creed is more broadly accepted in Western churches.

Then there are other creeds still responding to some issue, but are of length and style that make them unlikely to be used liturgically—the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967 for example.

Some creeds are extracted or compiled from biblical texts. String together these texts—1 Corinthians 15:1-6; Mark 16:9(16:1-9); Matthew 16:16; Revelation 22:13; John 20:28—and you’ll find a solid creedal affirmation. Or, some biblical hymns that may have been originally used in worship, with slight modification, make good creeds, like Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:5-11.

Yet other affirmations of faith are manufactured by the church through some diligent process precisely for liturgical use, such as “A Brief Statement of Faith” (Book of Common Worship 1993-p.94). The rubrics, however, suggest that the entire text is too long, and only portions should be used for congregational worship.

Occasionally a congregation will devise its own statement of faith. This may be provoked by a special occasion such as an anniversary or the yoking of two congregations. Or it may simply be about a congregation reviewing and redefining its own ministry, looking to build a foundation of faith under it. In any event, accomplishing a home-made statement requires broad participation and a lot of education and discussion.

Not only are the resources rich for mining a creed, but the styles in which they may be proclaimed are happily diverse as well.

Probably most congregations are used to unison recitation. Everyone speaks a creed individually, but in unison with everyone else.

Affirmations of Faith have been set to music. They can be sung by the choir on behalf of the congregation, or, with a little effort, the congregation can become the choir. Musical proclamations amplify the content and make it more memorable.

Sometimes creeds are presented in dialogue, a “Q & A” format. The baptismal order in the Book of Common Worship offers this, with simple questions prompting a response with each section of the familiar Apostles’ Creed.

Creative congregations sometimes stretch themselves a little further by setting out the creed in dialogue with the parts done by individuals or groups of worshippers. Such dramatic expressions, however, need to be careful to avoid fragmenting the confession and obscuring the content.

A primary purpose of a confession of faith in worship is for the worshippers to hear their own voices saying what they believe. This is the first baby step in evangelism, finding some basic language for speaking about the Good News of God’s gift in Jesus Christ. From here we grow in faith, and find the means and words of expression in our own lives.

Following on the heels of that is the fact that it is a corporate expression of faith. Not just what I believe, but what we believe together. Therefore the confession in worship sounds with many voices, and each of us finds support and encouragement in faith.

Furthermore, in using historic creeds, we are reminded that we are part of the church of the centuries, the larger church, the gathering of God’s people from beginning to end.

Again, the creedal affirmation in our Sunday worship is a public statement. Saying the creed, we are the church speaking to the world. In this way we continue the tradition of the great creeds of history by addressing human and worldly issues with statements of belief. What we believe is relevant to what goes on around us. The confession of faith in worship is a witness to the world to what God has done in Jesus Christ and is doing through us today.

Back to my friend’s church with a new creed every Sunday: While this might be entertaining and chase away boredom, two caveats rise up. One, such diversity makes learning a creed by heart difficult—repetition teaches—and it’s a good idea to have creedal affirmations firmly implanted in one’s memory. Two, such a plan is wisely coupled with education of the worshipping community (immediately before or during the service)—a class off in the corner for a handful of devoted members will not suffice.

The creed is a vital part of Christian worship, connecting us to one another and to the whole people of God as we identify ourselves with the Living Lord.

What creed do you use in your church? Do you ever use different ones? When and why?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Discount Worship

My wife came back from a solo adventure in worship unusually frustrated. When she’d had time to absorb her Sunday morning experience, she told me what happened and why she was upset about it.

This is her story:

Her first comment was how offended she was that the minister leading the service was in ordinary casual clothes. No robe to identify his role. Not even a suit. Rather than being in “Sunday best” he was garbed in “Friday casual”.

Granted she’s of the generation that used to get all gussied up to go to church. Younger folks accuse people who dress for church of being proud peacocks or peahens, more concerned about themselves than anyone else including God. Certainly true sometimes, but for most it was, and still is, simply a sign of respect.

So, for her, this deliberate casualness on the part of the clergy was a clear statement that what he was doing was not important—and a sign of disrespect to others who were there.

The whole service followed in kind—not only was his dress casual, but so was his manner, and the service had a lackadaisical quality. There was little urgency in proclamation of the Gospel. It was friendly and folksy, yet lacked any real sense of awe in the presence of the Living Lord.

The order of things didn’t seem to be leading anywhere either. What happened was on a “To Do” list that passed itself off as a bulletin.

Several things are going on at once here.

First, the minister is not clear on his own role as a leader of worship, or at least not keen about being identified as being in that role. He apparently was more interested in just being “one of the guys”, a regular fella whom everyone would like.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that in the gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day, the person presiding has a particular function, and should be so identified. In this role, the minister has something specific to do, and is not just like everyone else.

In discounting his own role and its importance, the minister also discounted everything else. If what he had to do was without great purpose, then the whole experience was likely to be carelessly done. His leadership role already compromised, he’d cast the service adrift.

He further revealed a lack of awareness of the history of Christian worship. Two thousand years of experience and accumulated wisdom are abandoned and ignored when people try to be “contemporary” and “up-to-date” to please the youngsters. Obviously there is a need for the education of the clergy—and musicians—to draw upon the resources of tradition, and the education of the congregation as well.
I’m sure there are many ministers who want to make worship services more comfy for the young’uns, just as I know there are many more who are more concerned that worship offers the opportunity for an encounter with God. It is entirely possible to do both, without discounting the work of the people (liturgy) by making it a haphazard or heedless affair.

What worship leaders—including musicians—so often forget is that what they do in their roles has an effect on the people. And the effect is not always the intended one. It’s a smart thing to count the consequences in advance of launching into something that’s a departure from the norm.

In this instance, for at least one person I know about, the effect was not good. Not so much anger as disappointment—that was the residue for her.

How casual should Lord’s Day worship be? What are other situations where casual worship is appropriate? How is the minister identified as worship leader in your church? How are musicians identified?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Liturgical Centering

The church where I was guest preacher a while back included in the order of service time for “centering”. A thirty-second-or-so period of silence, just after the announcements at the beginning, were offered as a chance for us to “center”, remind ourselves why we were there, and focus on the task at hand. It allowed us to leave behind the troubles of the day and forget about the worries of tomorrow, while we concentrated on worship in the “now”.

Worthy as this silent ritual might be, it didn’t go far enough. There's another kind of centering, which, for the want of a better term, I’ll call “liturgical centering”, of which we need to be more aware.

To illustrate what I mean, I refer you to a couple of the biblical texts cited in the Call to Worship—Opening Sentences of the Service for the Lord’s Day (Book of Common Worship (1993)).

The first is Ps. 116:12, 13:

"What shall we return to the Lord
for all the good things God has done for us?
We will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.

Rather than trying to forget what is in the past, here we are called to recall God‘s activity in our personal lives, and in history, as a cause for our celebration in worship of God.

Then there is the other text, Ps. 100:1, 2, 5:

"Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness.
Come into God's presence with singing!
For the Lord is a gracious God,
whose mercy is everlasting;
and whose faithfulness endures to all generations.

Here we are urged to anticipate God’s future love and goodness through all the generations to come.

Liturgical Centering, then, calls for us to recognize our place as children of God in the center of God’s activity. The “now” in which we worship is not adrift, but firmly anchored to the past and future which we perceive in faith. God’s mighty acts, as seen in the witness of Scripture and in our own experience, bring us to thank God in this moment. God’s powerful promises rehearsed in this moment, lead us to commit ourselves to worshipping God in our actions from now on.

Most critically, this Liturgical Centering is expressed in the Eucharist, in the Thanksgiving:

"Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.
"Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm."

Again, this prayer and other aspects of the liturgy help us find our center in the time-line of God’s history, what has been termed by some as Salvation History, by looking ahead.

Christian worship contains both Remembering (anamnesis) and Anticipation (prolepsis), both recalling what God has done, and looking for what God will do. Our worship in both Word and Sacraments is where we find our “center” between the past and future of Salvation History.

While worshipping in the “now”, we find ourselves between the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, God’s Creation and its Fulfillment. The dynamic of the liturgy includes both Remembrance and Hope as we recall the Life, Ministry, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and long for his Coming Again (parousia).

Remembering and Anticipation create a positive tension in our worship. And trouble ambles on the scene whenever one or the other is neglected.

Worship that resides solely in remembering quickly becomes a museum piece. What is recalled is ancient history, or once-upon-a-time fantasy that is hardly a cause for celebration once a week. It points us backward, to a “golden age” perhaps, but one that lacks relevance to the now in which we live.

On the other hand, worship that is only future-oriented gets fixated on “pie in the sky bye and bye”. It tends to project its fantasy forward, defining for God what we expect and want for our future. This approach to worship also has trouble keeping itself linked to reality.

When, however, both Remembering and Anticipation are present in worship, a balance is struck, and a center is found. Recalling God’s mighty acts and remembering God’s promises, give us clues about what to look for tomorrow. Living in hope that is rooted in the reality of the Gospel keeps us connected to the people of God in all ages past. Between the two we find our center.

In that center, time changes. The chronological time of Salvation History shifts to God’s time (kairos), the time that gives meaning to the days and years of our lives, to all of human history. It is here, therefore, that we encounter God—the One we come to thank for all that God’s done on our behalf, the One who is eternally faithful to us, the God of the past and the future…and the present.

Where do you find both remembering and anticipation in your worship? Are both ever discussed together in sermons? Do you hear about one more than the other?