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?

Sunday, June 3, 2012


I often wonder what other people expect of church worship as they roll out of the sack on a Sunday morning. The question is not what people want to get out of church, but what they anticipate the experience might hold for them. I sometimes wonder if anyone really considers such a question.

It’s a good query to pose to oneself, however, as a part of getting ready to go to the Lord’s Day service. What is waiting for me there? What should I look forward to? What should I be prepared for, and how might I brace myself accordingly? The expectations I bring with me have a great deal to do with what happens effectively in the course of the hour or so I’ll spend at worship.

For example, in those few shining moments when parishioners have told me why they really come to church, some have admitted that it was because they expected to see their friends. One person even fessed up to attending in order to be in the company of his boss—and when his boss went to another church, so did he.

I knew others who came with more noble expectations, looking for peace and quiet, a dose of calmness, and a comfortable pew all to themselves. These folks, as you might imagine, were the first to glower or grumble when the child acted up or the senior citizens conversed at full voice.

Some came to hear the beautiful music, the soaring tones of the organ and the bright, uplifting harmonies of the choir. As long as the hymns were familiar old friends, they were enjoyed as well, but a new hymn, a total stranger, was not eagerly welcomed.

“A good sermon” was occasionally mentioned as what a person expected to hear, although that was never clearly defined. One I thought was a homiletical gem might draw no response at all, while another thrown together among wall-to-wall pastoral and other crises played to rave reviews. Go figure.

Expectations of this kind are low-level, and basically miss the point of worship all together. If all we are looking for are friends, there are many venues for socializing. If we want to go someplace for serenity and soundlessness, the library might do as well or better. Granted that church services often offer music that is outstanding, but to get only what you want to hear, you’d be better off with your stack of CDs and stereo at home. Oratory is hard to come by these days, given the political climate, and maybe the local pastor’s sermon actually is the best one can expect after all.

For Christian worship, higher expectations are called for.

The part of the service called “The Gathering” leads us to expect that we will be part of a different group—not just a collection of friends or people we’d like to be friends with, but people summoned by God to be special people. Not that we come to church because we are special people already; God knows we’re not. Sinners, every one.

So included in "The Gathering" we find the Prayer of Confession. A personal expectation one might have coming to church is to be called upon to admit shortcomings and accept God’s forgiveness—neither of which is very easy.

“The Word” is proclaimed in Scripture and we should expect to hear ancient wisdom and story as timely as the morning newspaper. We can always anticipate hearing something fresh and new, some liberating thought or inspiring challenge.

“The Eucharist” is the thanksgiving celebration that is at the heart of Christian worship. Around the table set with God’s gifts of new life, we rejoice in the presence of our risen Lord—we expect to meet him there, as he promised.

And before we leave there is “The Sending”. We can expect to be challenged and prodded into discipleship, set on our way with a blessing as we go to serve the Lord.

Wrapped up in all this is the primary expectation for us all to be conscious of and alert to the presence of God. We anticipate the experience of meeting Christ in our midst. We look and listen for the movement of the Spirit within and among us.

Therefore, we can expect that whenever we worship God we will be changed, our lives will be forever altered. God will claim us as special people with special responsibilities. God will teach us new wisdom, and nourish us toward new strength. God will shove us out into the world to do the worship of service.

Life will not be the same again. You can expect that, for sure. And if we come to worship with that expectation, worship will not be the same again either.

What do you expect when you come to church? How does worship change you?