Thursday, February 21, 2013

Creed

Early in my pastoral ministry, the order of worship in the church I served included no such thing as a Creed or Affirmation of Faith. My predecessor had hoped and prayed that one might be included, but had encountered consistent resistance. When he died, it was left to me to take up the challenge.

This is not about the multi-year struggle that finally resulted in a Confession of Faith. Rather our discussion here focuses on what we’re talking about. What is an Affirmation of Faith, liturgically? Why is it important for everyone to stand up and say “We believe…” in unison? Or is it at all necessary? Maybe it’s not even a good idea to do it.

After church one morning I was confronted by a gentleman who announced politely, but firmly, that he was more than a little miffed that I had “put words in my mouth,” as he phrased it. He “resented” (his word) the Apostles’ Creed. “I can’t buy everything in that Creed,” he announced, “and what I do believe I wouldn’t say that way anyhow.” I don’t recall if I had a convincing response at that moment, and perhaps he was not convince-able anyway. But he did raise a good question about creeds in worship.

When we stand and say “We believe…,” are we articulating personal convictions? In that liturgical act, am I stating my individual theological conclusions?

Many worshippers, I suppose, trip over that assumption, that the creed in worship requires our personal assent, line for line and word for word.

The answer to the question, clearly, is “No.”

Part of the problem is that the Apostles’ Creed, ever popular in many Protestant churches, begins with the singular “I”, and sounds for all the world like a personal statement, signed at the bottom and notarized. (This is because, perhaps, it originated as a baptismal confession.) The Nicene Creed, which is perhaps more commonly used among all Christians, starts off with the plural pronoun.

In the course of a worship service, in which the “audience” is God, the creedal statement is an expression of God’s own people of confidence in the promises and gifts received in Jesus Christ. It is a corporate testimonial, an assertion of love and loyalty.

The corporate quality of the creed is not confined to those who happen to be in the room on Sunday morning, but expands to include the community of the saints, all those who have come before us and those who follow. In the moment of saying the creed, we link hands with generations of God’s own faithful people.

So we begin to realize that saying the creed is more celebrative than doctrinal, more poetic and prayerful than scholarly. It’s not an oral exam for either a Ph.D. thesis or Communicants’ Class, but an act of worship. We speak with no pretensions that we understand all Christian dogmas and doctrines including every jot and tittle. We simply utter our faith from our depths, doubts and all.

There are a number of resources available for affirming faith by a congregation at worship. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, of course, are used regularly.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) includes in its Book of Confessions a number of historical creeds and affirmations, many of which are in response to particular theological or doctrinal issues. Sections of some of them, however, can be excerpted and compiled into usable liturgical statements.

In 1983, the newly reunited denomination of the former northern and southern Presbyterian churches established a committee to draft a new, shorter statement of faith that could be used in worship. Drawing extensively on the historic documents in the “Book of Confessions” as well as Scripture, they fashioned “A Brief Statement of Faith”, arranged in a Trinitarian structure. It is laid out in “phrase-line” format, which makes it visually useful, and the language itself is appropriate for current worshippers. The three major sections can be used independently as creedal statements, along with the introduction based on Scripture texts, and the concluding doxology of praise and thanksgiving.

The Book of Common Worship (1983) also includes a number of affirmations from Scripture that are powerful congregational affirmations, such as the one from Phil. 2:5-11.

Some churches fashion their own home-made creedal statement. This can be an exceptionally exciting experience of learning and spiritual growth for the people involved. It’s important that the task not be accomplished by a small group alone—efforts must be made to involve classes and groups of the church in the process. It’s also essential that the local creed be seen in the context of the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ through the centuries.

How does your church’s congregation affirm faith during Sunday worship?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Vee Haff Roolss!"

That was the comment my father used, imitating a stern German accent, as he good-naturedly reminded us kids of chores or homework we needed to do. His voice echoed in my mind as I thought of the fundamental efforts required to provide Christian worship.

Yes it is true, when we are gathered as followers of Jesus Christ to give our praise and prayers to the Almighty God, “We have rules!”

Here are a few for your consideration:

Clean House.
Janitors, custodians or volunteers who keep the worship space tidy contribute significantly to the worship of God. It’s distracting, to say the least, to find old bulletins stuffed in the pew racks, cob webs in corners, brochure rack materials helter-skelter, and other signs of slovenliness. Good housekeeping is the first rule of respect—of the people and their God.

Set the Table.
The Communion Table is placed in the focal center of the worship space, from the perspective of the people in the pews. “Front and center” is appropriate.

The Communion Table is set for celebrating the Sacrament. That is, assuming you are celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday as is the on-going tradition and custom for most Christians, most of the time throughout the centuries.

If not, if there is the occasional Lord’s Day you do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper, then set the Table anyway, with at the least a chalice and plate. A white table cloth is always appropriate; liturgical colors may be added seasonally.

Remember the Table’s function. It is not a flower stand—put them somewhere else. It’s not an altar either, on which deacons can place the offering plates. The Table is reserved for celebrating the sacrifice God gave us in Jesus Christ.

Find the Font.
In some churches, far too many, you have to hunt to find the Baptismal Font because when not in use it is relegated to a dark corner. Bring it out front and center also, or nearby the Table at least. Better yet, place it at the entrance of the room so all will pass it on the way to their seats.

If the Font has a top or lid, remove it, and put water in the basin. People may want to touch the water in remembrance of their own baptisms. Like the Table, the Font should always be set to indicate its intended purpose.

Unclutter.
Remove extra chairs, tables, easels, microphone stands, audio-visual equipment, musical instruments, and other items not being used for that service. Even if they are used, they need not be strewn on the liturgical landscape.

Use Three Passages of Scripture.
There’s a reason for this: Every text needs context. Someone famous once said that Scripture interprets Scripture. Texts from the Old Testament, the New Testament Epistles and the Gospels provide context for one another. The lectionary is a guide that helps us cover a lot of biblical ground over the year. Don’t skip and skimp.

Sing Psalms.
There was a time when we Presbyterians were famous, even notorious, for singing Psalms. In many churches, the Psalter is making a comeback, so don’t be left behind. The Psalms, as we all know, has been the prayer book of God’s people for millennia, including Jesus himself. Use at least one psalm in every service.

Too many churches take the “easy” way out and read the psalms, maybe responsively. It’s much better, more interesting, and even exciting to sing them, for there are delightful musical options for each one.

Beware of Electronics.
Older church buildings were designed to be used without electronic voice amplification. In those days, preachers and other public speakers knew how to project. Those who must rely on microphones and tweeters and woofers should take speaking lessons and exercise their diaphragms.

Flickering screens and Power Point presentations overshadow, if not overwhelm, the beauty of the architectural setting and the accoutrements of the rituals, not to mention any resident works of art in sculpture and stained glass. Do not obscure what is there or try to improve upon it by electronic means.

There’s a law somewhere that proclaims that whatever can go wrong, will. This is universally true in electronics. If you can possibly get along without audio-visuals and the like, do—it’s safer.

Rehearse
Lay Readers. Those who bravely go to the lectern to read Scripture or lead a prayer deserve the opportunity to learn how to do it. Pronouncing biblical names, placing proper emphasis on biblical phrases, making sense of theological passages, and presenting dialogue are only a few of the tricky parts of reading from the Bible. Help should be generously bestowed by the pastor and musicians who have had more experience.

Clergy. Lest clergy forget, they also need to rehearse. Preaching out loud in advance is just good practice. Turning on a tape recorder and listening can help.

Choir.
It should go without saying that the choir rehearses what it sings on behalf of the people; the choir should also rehearse what the congregation sings, however, so everyone sings better.

Help the People Pray and Praise.
The folks out there in the pews are the ones who are doing worship. Presiders and musicians are coaches and boosters, there to energize the liturgical work of the people. Remember your role and responsibilities.

There are other rules to be considered, no doubt. I hope you will make your suggestions for the primary, essential, absolutely necessary rules to which we must adhere if our worship will be effective and faithful.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing Prayers

Even if you’re a compulsive ad-lib sort of worship planner/leader, the time will come when you have to write down and print out the words of a unison prayer.

Now, you can get away with copying prayers from the Book of Common Worship (BCW) or other similar resource for a while, but you’ll discover that they have a shelf life and go stale after repeated use. Besides, prayers in the BCW are essentially models to be emulated, and not intended to be eternal substitutes for prayers created on site.

So often I run across unison prayers in a church bulletin that contain sentence fragments, strange syntax, subjects and verbs out of sync, and other distractions. Even when everything is “correct”, the prayer itself could benefit from more clarity.

Prayers in a worship service should be suitable to the people in the pews as well as the leaders. A unison prayer is made up of sentences designed to fit comfortably in the mouths of the people saying it. After all, it’s their prayer—the leader is just their coach.

Even the prayers spoken only by the leader on behalf of the people need to be stated appropriately for everyone. Petitions articulated solo by the presider should be written down as well, put together just as carefully as any unison prayer.

In either case, unison by all or solo statement by the presider, the prayers represent conversation between the people and the Almighty, and should, therefore, be shaped accordingly.

This is not to say that prayers should be expressed in jargon, slang or common clich├ęs. Good grammar and crystal clear vocabulary used in a fashion worthy of the God addressed is obviously desired.

Writing prayers for worship is an art as much as it is a craft. One continues to learn how by doing—practice may not make perfect, but it sure helps. Here are a few suggestions:

Psalms It’s always a good idea to consult experts, and biblical sources of prayer are the places to begin. Maybe that’s why the Psalms have been so much a part of Christian (not to mention Jewish) worship through the centuries. The Psalter provides an education in prayer, not as a text book, but as a prayer book. Learn to pray the Psalms and you’ll write better prayers.

Poetry not Prose Remember that praying is more akin to poetry than it is to prose. Prose prayers often come out sounding like the phone book. Poetic prayers, drawing on biblical metaphors and symbols, carry more freight than humdrum prose. But poetic prayers are not so easy to come by. Read on.

Phrase-lining Many, if not all, the prayers in the BCW are laid out in a format called “phrase-lining”, that is, one phrase to each line. You can do the same, and find that even if you print it in prose format, it will read better. For example, this morning where I was visiting, the following prayer of confession, said in unison, started out this way:

Sometimes, God, we do not know what to confess. We seek to keep your law, but the right course is not always clear. We want to follow your direction, but it is hard to discern what is true….

Now, reversing the process, look at it in phrase-lined format, to see why it works so well.

Sometimes, God,
we do not know what to confess.
We seek to keep your law,
but the right course is not always clear.
We want to follow your direction,
but it is hard to discern what is true
….

If it were up to me, I’d leave it in the bulletin that way, because even visually it looks more poetic and the substance more clearly stated.

Rhythm You’ll notice that in most good prayers there is a rhythm. No, not rap—just the natural rhythm of conversation. One of the ways you can check the rhythm of a prayer you’ve written is to read it out loud in your study (or other private place) while you walk around the room. If it’s out of rhythm, you’ll be the first to know.

Listen The best way, of course, to check the quality and appropriateness of your written prayer is to listen to it. You could use a recording device and play it back to yourself. Even better, however, is to ask your spouse or good friend to read it to you. Listen several times, and revise as you go.

Giving time and energy to writing prayers for worship is well worth it. It’s easy, among the multitude of tasks the church throws at worship planners and presiders, to neglect something as obvious as prayers. But the Audience of our prayers wants to hear from us, and so we should do our very best.

Do you review and re-write unison prayers before printing? Do you write out your pastoral and other prayers? Do you prepare any prayers for worship, memorize them and recite them in the service?