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


  1. Wow! The litugrical renewal of the last 30 years has certainly challenged all of us to a more faithful understanding of worship. You nailed it with the idea that it's what we do not just assembled together but how we live in the world. The Sending Rite (as we call it in ELW) does need some improvement! The biblical charge is what's missing. This Lutheran learned something - thank you! And I've gained a whole new appreciation for the PCUSA from reading your blog.

  2. I have always felt conflicted on this matter of sitting for the postlude, since it is sending music. With the benediction, I as pastor have just spoken the words of sending people to be the church in the world. When they immediately sit down to listen to the postlude, the visual and visceral feeling of their being sent seems to lose some momentum. However, since the music is not incidental, and indeed, people can be inspired to go forth because of the music, we tried something different on Pentecost. I said the benediction, and instead of walking down the aisle, I remained in front of the congregation. We were all standing as the postlude played, and on its wonderful concluding note, we moved on...

  3. Charlotte KroekerMay 29, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    Thank you, Don, for this thoughtful piece (again!) and for including music as part of your discussion. The hymn at the end is so very important, as you say, and I want to add importance to what is usually referred to as the postlude or closing voluntary. I rarely encounter entire congregations who quietly listen to the music, though some individuals do. Regardless, the music can capture the spirit of the final liturgical content and theological themes of the day, and serve as "sending music" as the people depart. It is not incidental music, and can set the emotional tone for the departing. A good musician, in conversation with a good theologian, can choose music to help make the worship-to-world transition seamlessly. For example, our organist today played the rousing final variation on Veni Creator Spiritus by Durufle, a tune used elsewhere in the service just completed as the closing voluntary, and the first variations of which were used as the opening voluntary/prelude. The chant tune was part of the prelude and choir anthem, all so appropriate for Pentecost. Whether or not most understood all this planning, the "Wow" effect was not lost on the congregation, and Pentecost was celebrated anew.

  4. At my ordination, before I offered the charge and benediction, I actually asked the congregation to sit and stay for the organ postlude (or is it more appropriately called a "voluntary" - an offering?), since that music is part of the worship service, too. Looking back, I'm not sure I would do that again - it is somewhat pedantic - even though I do believe that music is offered on the congregation's behalf as much as any choral anthem is, and there should be an "Amen" at the end of it. But that's a battle I never could win while pastoring.

    I love that particular charge, too, Don. I heard Dr. Ed Pickard deliver it week after week at White Memorial Church in Raleigh, NC, and memorized it without even trying. Whenever I pronounce the charge and benediction, that's always the charge - and I always find myself being "charged" by it as I speak it!

    One thing I do appreciate about the Anglican-Episcopalian dismissal is that the last words are always the congregation's: "Thanks be to God." (I personally think that should be punctuated with an exclamation point!) We should be thanking God to for the opportunity to go forth in peace to serve.


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