Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Last Words" - Part Two

Reading my previous post, a finicky critic would insist that one cannot have two sets of “last words”—one must be penultimate or next-to-last, if the other will be the final words.

So let’s be clear at the top that both the Charge and what follows (the Blessing) go together to make up the last words of a Christian worship service, à la the Presbyterian model in the Book of Common Worship (1993). The Charge and Blessing are a matched set.

In fact, the Charge without the Blessing is only a string of biblical instructions, hortatory commands that may or may not be obeyed. It is not intended, however, that anyone should take these on as a solo act. God does not send people into the world’s wilderness alone or empty-handed. The Blessing conveys God’s presence and power so we can live out the Charge.

“Blessing” is the term used in the BCW replacing the more common term “Benediction.” The two words are not exactly interchangeable, although they carry much the same impact.

A “benediction” is literally a “good word” transmitting essentially “good wishes”. Of course in the setting of Christian worship it carries much more freight than that. At the conclusion of the service the presider is not simply saying, “Good-bye and good luck.” Yet it’s possible to be delivered as a casual comment and heard as such.

The words of the Benediction are scriptural, and suggest therefore that this is not a mere pastoral send-off, but a communication of a good word from no less than God, a form of the Good News of Jesus Christ. There is nothing mundane and ordinary here, but the conferring of an extraordinary gift.

Enter the substitute word, “blessing”, which has a much broader significance. All wrapped up in this word are ideas like a special favor granted, perhaps a gift bestowed, a sign of mercy passed from one person to another. In the context of our worship, of course, these are all conferred by God.

These are the words of empowerment. By the Blessing of God, we are given the wherewithal to accomplish what the Charge requires of us.

The most common text used in this fashion is Paul’s parting line from his Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:13):

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

I’d suspect that a fair number of sermons are preached on this text—and if not, they should be. At least the verse warrants some explanation or interpretation from time to time so that folks don’t just listen without hearing what it says. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” conjures up the whole life and ministry of God, and his gracious, forgiving, healing presence with us. “The love of God” speaks of power of good over evil, of life over death, a divine love (agape) we are able to live out. “The communion of the Holy Spirit” witnesses to the strength of the Spirit in which we share as God’s own people.

The other Blessings collected in the BCW (pp. 83 and 161) similarly send us forth with the confidence of faith, the assurance of God’s presence as we step out the church door to follow our Lord in the mission to which we have been charged.

There is a caveat, however, something for presiders to beware.

My seminary training far back in the last century included directions of how to pronounce the benediction (as it was termed then). The preacher was to raise an arm and outstretch the hand in a gesture simulating the laying on of hands. I remember the commentary that went with it: this is the last vestige of the priestly function of the clergy, the only time we are in that role.

Over the years I became less than comfortable with that posture and thought. It came to pass that I would speak the blessing with arms open wide, palms up, welcoming God’s gift for the whole congregation. We need to be clear that the Blessing is not the clergy’s to give, but God’s for the whole worshipping community to receive.

If it’s the Charge that sends us on God’s mission in this world, it’s God’s Blessing that makes us bold and brave, willing to take risks with our Lord. After all, we are not ever alone in God’s service, never left to our own devices and desires, but challenged and raised up to a new life in Christ.

Rather than stay standing after the Blessing, perhaps we do better to be seated in silence for a moment or two, just to mull over not only what we are called to do and be, but the encouragement those last words are for each of us. Music can lead the procession out, underscoring the inspiration of the last words.

What Blessing (or Benediction) is used in your church? Is it scriptural? Does it follow a Charge?

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Last Words"

It’s often been said that we Presbyterians are “peculiar people.” Without going into everything that might imply, there’s one place it’s true that can be celebrated

I’ve noticed in my recent visits to Episcopal and Lutheran churches, they come to the end of the service in a fashion different from the way I’m used to. Their services usually wind down with a blessing, followed by a hymn as the choir and clergy exit, with a final very brief dismissal.

Presbyterians—at least those who follow the Book of Common Worship model—will sing the hymn first and save the blessing and send the people out with it at the very end.

The unique feature here, however, is not the sequence as much as it is something called the “Charge”. In the Presbyterian order, the Charge is coupled with the Blessing and delivered as the “last words”—and like many last words, the Charge deserves our attention.

Of many samples of a Charge offered in the book, the first is:

Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.*

The Charge appears in the last segment of Christian worship, the “Sending”, which is often under-emphasized. It is easy to let the worship experience fizzle out—an ill-fitting hymn and a half-hearted blessing can sink it. A strong charge as this one, however, demands a strong hymn and enthusiastic blessing to go with it.

The problem is that we tend to look on the end of a worship service like we do the conclusion of a movie, opera or stage play. When it’s over, we get up and go home.

Worship is a drama, to be sure. In worship during the church service, we are the actors playing to God our audience, and the clergy and choir and other leaders are the “prompters” telling us how to act our parts. But when a service of worship is over, it isn’t really over—the scene merely shifts. We are sent from one scene in church to another in the world. As in church worship, we continue to be the actors and God continues to be our audience. Every word we say and every action we perform continue to be our liturgy, our worship in service of God. The stage on which we “strut and fret” is out there where we live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Worship at any time and any place finds its ultimate expression in actions. How we behave, how well we imitate our Lord and try to live up to God’s expectations for our lives is the measure of our loyalty and commitment to Jesus Christ. Worship is not just what we say, but also what we do.

The biblically-based Charge quoted above is a powerful prompting of our actions on the stage of the world, last words to guide us in worshipping God the rest of the week. It is a charge of responsibility, a challenge, an urging, a cue to Christian action.

In my pastoral ministry I often used this charge, committed it to memory and delivered it eye-to-eye to my friends in the pews.

One Sunday after church, a man came to me and asked if we could speak in private. He seemed troubled, so we ducked into my study and sat down. With tears in his eyes he told me how he had been “thrown under the bus,” as he put it, by a co-worker, and how he had vowed to get even. He went on to say how he’d found the perfect revenge to exact on his colleague. But then he revealed that he restrained himself because he heard in his head (or heart) the words “return no one evil for evil.” “I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “Thank God I’d learned those words.”

The Charge sends all of us to carry worship from one place to another, to glorify God with our good efforts, and to live out the grace we’ve received in Jesus Christ.

Does your church service send people out challenged and charged to live Christ-like lives?

* See 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:10; 1 Thess. 5:13-22; 1 Peter 2:17

Monday, May 14, 2012


I know I’ve commented on this before, but, in spite of my very clear pronouncements, the Offering persists in posing some liturgical questions.

First of all, technology has made the contribution of money to the church a simple thing to accomplish outside the boundaries of worship.  Many people just send in a monthly check; others find it possible to pay by credit card; and, I understand, it’s possible to make an automatic direct deposit from your account to the church’s.

Of course the problem with all that efficiency is that it de-personalizes the ritual.  It falls in the same category as taxes withheld.  It happens while you’re not looking, and is, therefore, relatively painless, disconnecting any idea of “sacrifice” from the offering.

You still have to prayerfully (one would hope) contemplate the form you fill out allowing the automatic transfer or the check you scrawl out, but that’s a once-upon-a-time prayer, and a distant memory when you’re in the midst of worship. It’s not likely to be a pressing present issue.

Let’s assume, for the sake of conversation, that you’re one of that endangered species of people who actually bring your offering every week to present in person. A check written as you arrive at church, or cash out of your wallet is placed in an offering envelope. You’re ready to offer it as an act of worship.

The deacons, ushers, or other appointed collectors, march up and take large brass plates and circulate among the pew-sitters to receive their gifts.  Most donors, however, tend to slip the folding cash or envelope or check into the plate, almost surreptitiously. It does not appear to be a matter of great import; it seems to have low liturgical impact on the participants.

The problem here is that the Offering is carried out in a manner in which the worshipper is very passive.  If “liturgy” is the work of the people, then, judging by their actions, the people don’t seem to be working very hard.  Sure, they work hard, perhaps, to acquire the money they drop in the plate, but they are not very active liturgically.

Too often, the Offering is regarded as a means of “paying dues”—or worse, paying for admission to the service, much like going to the movies or a concert.  The Offering, then, is not offered as much as it is collected, and it’s highly questionable whether the donors “get it” at all.

Another potential problem is the music used at the time of the Offering, especially as it is being received.  If it is an “anthem”, it can easily glide into the performance category—if it does, it becomes a great distraction.  The music the choir sings during the Offering should captivate the congregation and focus closely on the theme of our humble gifts being in response to God’s gift of new life in Jesus Christ.

If the Offering music is instrumental, the danger is that it will slide into the “noodling” category, meaningless sound to prevent silence from happening, a mere “cover” for the passing of the plates.

Music, as everyone should know, is very powerful, and has, itself, theological content. The right music, done well, can raise the spirit of the Offering from mundane to marvelous. Music is not just accompaniment for the liturgical act of the Offering, it can and should be expressive of its meaning.

Some years ago, we attended a church where the Offering took place in a strikingly different manner. The Offering was announced as an opportunity for reaffirming or making a personal commitment to serve Jesus Christ.  The “deacons” stood at either side of a container at the front of the room, and the people were “invited” to come forward to present their gifts.

During the procession, we sang songs and hymns about God’s gifts to us and our commitments to Christ.  The connection of music and action was powerful.

When I described this to a friend, he suggested cynically that, among other virtues of the procedure, the pastor and deacons could clearly see who gave and who didn’t.  True. Yet, not so cynically, it held all the people accountable to one another as well as to God—not a bad thing.

Since I’ve told others about this mode of Offering, I’ve heard tales of some churches out there that have the same kind of process.

More attention needs to be paid to this part of the Sunday service. Too many questions about its meaning and personal significance are left hanging demanding theological education.  More imagination is called for as well to help the Offering become more authentic worship by the people.

For the Offering is never just of giving some money, nor paying our dues, nor even supporting the church in its wonderful work—the Offering is the act by which we give ourselves anew to God, to the service of Christ.  The Offering is nothing less than an “altar call” in response to God’s wondrous gifts.

What is the Offering like in your church?  Have you ever experienced an offering by processing to make your gift?

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I confess that I was a bit disappointed to discover that the service we planned to attend last Sunday would not include the Eucharist. Being an every-Sunday-sacrament sort of guy, I thought for sure the service would seem unfinished—just like so many Presbyterian services participated in before where we had the “Service of Word and Sacrament” without the sacrament.

The locale for this worship event, however, was an Episcopal church,* and the reason for not having the Eucharist was somewhat different.

There was an earlier standard Lord’s Day service that morning with the Lord’s Supper. The one we would attend was labeled Morning Prayer, signaled by the black stoles worn by the clergy.

The two services come from two separate, but not unrelated, lines of liturgical development. The one evolved as the mode of weekly worship for the gathered Christian community—the other is part of the community’s daily worship pattern.

The Eucharistic service, then, belongs to the Sunday service, and not to the daily one—although it is not impossible to have Communion at a daily prayer service, just not likely.

Daily Prayer takes place on a schedule usually including three or four, or more “hours” or times each day: Evening, End of Day, Morning, and Midday.

When we come to Sunday morning, then, the two lines intersect—the Lord’s Day worship and Morning Prayer arrive at the same time.

Some Christians, I’d suppose, will waive the Morning Prayer because they consider it out-ranked by Lord’s Day worship. Not the Episcopalians, however. They will do both. And that’s what happened in this situation: we had Morning Prayer with a sermon included, something very different from a Lord’s Day service with the Eucharist lopped off the end.

Morning Prayer, like all Daily Prayer services, is heavy on the Psalms. The Gathering included the hymn, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell”, Old 100th, and the Lessons (the same New Testament texts used in the Lord’s Day service) were bracketed with two sung versions of the 23rd Psalm. The Prayers followed the model Lord’s Prayer with “suffrages” or intercessions, other prayers and the General Thanksgiving, concluding with the greeting of peace. Finally a sermon was preached, followed by a closing hymn and blessing.

It is this pattern that emerged as the predominant one for much Protestant worship in America. It was not a curtailed Lord’s Day service, but an amplified daily service. It was not sacrament centered, but prayer and sermon centered. This had an appeal for many as our nation was taking shape, moving across the continent.

I was reminded that the church I served, as so many others built at the in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, was designed as a lecture hall. Looking at the original plans, if you sat in the front pew, you could stretch out your leg and touch the pulpit—no room for a table, because the customary worship didn’t call for one. Sermon rather than sacrament, in many denominations, became what really counted.

Perhaps this explains, at least a little bit, the neglect of the Lord’s Supper by so many Protestants, including us Presbyterians. The Morning Prayer version had all that we really needed—prayers and praise, scripture and sermon—and besides, so the argument goes, the weekly Communion is Catholic, not for us.

Besides this small historical insight, the experience itself was instructive.

Morning Prayer, as all the Daily Prayer services, has a particular ambience, a feeling or mood. It invites contemplation and reflection. The Psalms touch human emotions at the deep places, and the prayers seem to have words that express our hopes. The Scripture readings are read in a way to call us to ponder their meaning for our lives. The sermon somehow has an intimacy and personal impact.

It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, but a significant one. The two kinds of services do not actually merge into one, as many people and congregations have concluded. They are still separate strands of Christian worship, and point to two different needs: the weekly celebration of the community, and the daily prayer discipline of the community.

The Morning Prayer service on Sunday morning serves as a reminder to us that we must do more, in another service, to include the Sacrament of Communion, and that we must also do much more, in many services, to pray diligently every day.

Do you have Daily Prayer services at your church? At church meetings? At home? How often do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Why?

*The Trinity Church of Boston on Copley Square.