Friday, October 26, 2012

Hope Is Where You Find It

Off on a little vacation, we connected with relatives on a visit to Florida to see The Mouse. Sunday morning we ventured to a nearby Roman Catholic church, a basilica and shrine, Mary Queen of the Universe Church, just across Route 4 from Disney World.

We’d been there before and returned this time for a number of reasons. On previous occasions the liturgy was well-presented; choral music was outstanding and congregational singing hearty; the congregation reflected wide racial and socio-economic diversity; preaching was thoughtful and insightful; communion was available every Sunday; and the setting is beautiful and speaks of transcendence.

The same was true this time, with some wrinkles: the liturgy was the revised “new” liturgy, which represents a back-tracking to pre-Vatican II. There were laminated cards in many hands to assure worshippers had the papal-correct language to speak.

Communion presented a challenge, as it always does. I listened carefully to the invitation, and responded accordingly. In this church, the congregation of which is virtually only travellers, no prohibition was mentioned about non-Catholics participating. So, I went forward to receive a single wafer, no wine. It seemed incomplete, of course, but I’m convinced that Communion is God’s act and not dependent on nor can be damaged by our actions or lack thereof.

Quite apart from the wrinkles, it was a meaningful worship experience.

The sermon, by the resident priest, had a pastoral tone. His mood was quietly conversational, as though speaking with friends, although he probably knew only a handful of the hundreds there.

He started off addressing the “good Catholics”, commending them for their loyalty to their Church, and for taking the time to attend services when away from home. It was a very affirming and supportive sermon to the faithful. And I wondered how exclusive this was going to be.

About the time I questioned where he was headed, he shifted direction. He told his fellow Roman Catholics that they weren’t the only people in the world who loved God and followed Jesus Christ. Just as he had lauded the Roman Church, he proceeded to press this point home affirming diversity among Christians. It was a very hopeful statement of ecumenism, the kind I have not heard for a long time, from Protestants or Roman Catholics.

The text for the day was from the common Lectionary : Mark 9:38-50. The sermon was a faithful exposition of the text. I was glad to be there to hear it.

I share this hopeful experience because crossing boundaries in order to share in worship is desperately needed. That’s how we learn about the larger church and don’t fool ourselves into believing that our church is all there is, and anything else is not the real thing.

It’s also how we learn about the richness of Christian liturgy. Other traditions teach us history, often our own history that has been forgotten or neglected. For example, when we Presbyterians added prayers following the psalms for the Daily Prayer book, it was thought that we were adopting a Roman Catholic practice. Actually, psalm prayers were standard procedure for Presbyterians in the Old Country centuries ago. Roman Catholics and others carried on a tradition that we had neglected, until recently.

Now is the time to venture outside of our local church boxes and visit one another. Church members can reach out and invite non-Protestant Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends to share worship. Pastors can do the same, and even ask for time off occasionally to worship elsewhere.

When was the last time you worshiped with non-Protestants, non-Christians?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Be Careful What You Pray For

My last few outings as a guest preacher have prompted me to think of prayer from a somewhat different perspective.

I suppose that any individual who puts a modicum of effort into a prayer life will understand that addressing the Almighty is not idle chatter. It all takes some careful thought. Quiet time in order to listen doesn’t hurt either. In all of prayer, the Spirit is our helper.

What is more, I don’t know about you, but I take care in my choice of words and specific petitions I may send off to God. Why? Because I know that I’m likely to be held accountable for my prayer.

For example, there’s no real validity to prayers for the hungry if I neglect supporting local food programs with my contribution. Prayers for peace are gross hypocrisy if one is not willing to give time and energy as a peacemaker. In personal prayers, one learns to go and do what has been prayed for. And if one doesn’t want to do, one had best rethink the prayers.

Pondering the prayers in which I would lead the congregation the last few times, has prompted me to wonder if the folks in the pews see it the same way. I would like to think so, really I would, but I’m not so sure.

So my suggestion is that pastors, presiders and worship planners need to be more blatant about pointing out the ethical and practical implications of every prayer. Prayers, as a friend of mine once said, are down payments on action—you are committed and accountable to do what your prayer requires.

After all, prayer is not magical incantation to coerce God into doing what we want. Prayer is a way of claiming the promises of God and the power of the Spirit to enable us to work for the fulfillment of our prayer. Our hands will get done what God wants done.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is one that I fear many take for granted. Normally we confess before God and each other our failings. God’s forgiveness is quick in coming—but along with that is our resolution to not repeat what we did that we shouldn’t have done, and to do what we should have done but neglected. Announcing forgiveness is not a pat on the head so we can pat ourselves on the back and go out and do nothing. On the contrary, forgiveness is empowerment for righteous action.

The Prayer for Illumination is also worthy of our consideration as having implications for action. We pray that what we hear read and proclaimed will be for us no less than the Word, the Risen Lord present to us. The action-response required is to perk up and focus our attention to the max. And to take everything we hear personally.

The Prayers of the People, of course, have strong implications for ethical response. When prayers are offered for people we know, by name or by suggestion, the action response is easy to figure out. We know whom to help and how. When the subjects of the prayers are more generally named, such as the poor and outcast, the hungry and lonely, the sick and imprisoned, opportunities for action may include social and even political efforts.

The Presentation of the Offering is usually followed by a prayer, not just of thanksgiving to God for the goodness received and the gifts to share, but a commitment of what is offered, including our very selves, our lives, in Christ’s service. So we’re not talking about a few dollars in the plate here. The offertory prayer, if we dare to pray it, is a total response and recommitment of all that we have and are to God.

The Eucharistic Prayer picks up on this very same emphasis. Thanksgiving to God for creation, for claiming the People of God and sending prophets to lead them, for the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, culminates in an offering of ourselves as “a living and holy sacrifice,” dedicated to God’s service. The Holy Meal itself carries the same message, as the prayer says, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

These central prayers of our Lord’s Day worship are there to praise God and push us out the door to be obedient servants, living lives worthy of God’s gracious love. So pay attention to what or whom you’re praying for—there’s a required action in the prayer, and you are accountable.

Does the language of prayers in your service include an emphasis on doing what it requires? Are there other prayers that imply actions?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Churches

I had the opportunity a few Sundays ago to preach in two churches the same morning. This “yoked parish” in beautiful upstate New York provoked me to some insights I hadn’t pondered deeply enough before.

The two churches, separated by about 10 miles of farm land, look physically very different.

The 9:00 AM service was in a lovely stone structure perched on top of a hill. Entering the roadway approaching the building, one can’t help being impressed. Inside it is stately and narrow, with dark word and lofty ceiling. The pulpit area is framed with an arch over a curved apse.

At 10:30 AM the other congregation gathered in a very traditional looking “New England” style church, a clean white frame structure, classic in design. Inside, the worship space is bright and airy, wide and open. The pulpit is on a platform extending the width of the room.

The congregations, however, were very different—at least by my reading.

The 9 o’clock crowd tended to be somewhat formal. When we came to the Greeting of Peace, for example, folks mostly stayed where they were. The Greeting was a formality—minimal chit chat. The people were, generally speaking, reserved and restrained.

Singing at 9 o’clock was faithfully led by the organist, and the familiar hymns chosen by the pastor went okay, but no thrills.

The 10:30 people were more informal. Their greeting of Peace had enthusiasm to it—they said “Shalom” as well as “Peace”. Worshippers wandered all over the room to greet one another warmly. And, as one of them said in an aside to me, “Getting them back together is like herding cats.” It was.

Music at 10:30 was different from my experience on a Sunday morning in a long while. Hymns and service music were a capella. The pastor plays guitar, and usually he’s the liturgical musician. He’d primed a couple of people he knew would be there in his absence to lead the singing, which they did, and did it ably. Music was a little slow, but in tune and sung with gusto.

Both congregations were exactly the same size. By my quick count, 15 souls showed up in each place to worship the Almighty. In each place there was a child, a grade school girl in the first and an older boy at the second.

The same worship order was used in both churches, as was customary, so that each provided for a “Time for Children”. Since I consider “children’s sermons” an abomination, I took the occasion to have the child lead us in learning something about the way we worship. They each got to point out the butterfly on my stole as an introduction to the meaning of symbols in Christian worship.

In the more formal 9 o’clock service, the young girl was reactive while the adults were very passive. At 10:30 the lad was embarrassed to be standing alone, and the congregation quickly took an active part with him in the conversation.

The wondrous insight I had was that it would appear that the physical space in which worship was conducted had an influence on how worship was transacted. Worship in the more formal building was more formal than the more open and free worship in the bright, open space.

While this is not an earth-shaking insight, it’s worth considering for any congregation, and for ny team of people responsible for planning and leading worship. Many questions pop up.

What constraints on worship are applied by the physical structure? Does the space create a particular mood? How can the mood be shifted by the d├ęcor? Is physical movement of the worshippers restricted or liberated by the building. Does the shape of the ceiling or backdrop of the pulpit/platform control, augment or distort sound?

The biggest question of all, of course, is, What to change and how? What would be accomplished liturgically if the physical building were different?

When next I have lunch with my friend, the pastor of these two churches, I’ll ask him if the people in the two congregations naturally are as different as I perceived. Or are they fairly much alike, and the buildings make their worship exper

iences different? Or did I just misread them altogether. I really don’t think I was too far off, however.

What’s the building like where you worship? How would you like to change it? What impact would changes make on the way you worship there?