Monday, March 18, 2013

"Explain Yourself"

There are certain questions about worship you should ask your pastor. As the “resident liturgical theologian” and recently titled “teaching elder”, she or he has responsibility for educating worshippers about what they’re doing. Therefore these queries reasonably seek enlightenment for the people in the pews.

The questions are asked in the negative, but if any are answered positively, explanation is required nevertheless. (My comments are reserved until the end.) So, here are inquiries to pose to your pastor:

Why don’t we have Communion every Sunday? (If perchance your congregation does celebrate the Sacrament each week, then that deserves an explanation also.)

Why don’t we read from the Old Testament in church? (Or, why not all three, Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel?)

Why don’t we sing psalms like Presbyterians used to? (Sometimes psalms are used, but spoken. That’s better than no psalms at all, but it’s still not singing.)

Why don’t we say or sing the Apostles’ Creed (or other confession of faith) each week? (A plethora of creedal affirmations is out there to be recited, read, sung or chanted.)

Why don’t we have a prayer of confession? (You’re asking about corporate confession as well as personal confession in public.)

Why don’t people from the congregation read the Scripture lessons in church? (If they read one or two, but not all, then the question is still why?)

Why don’t we always sing all the verses of the hymns? (Abbreviated hymnody is the issue.)

Why is the Baptismal Font usually off in the corner, to the side, out of view? (Fonts are often furtive and difficult to locate.)

Why isn’t the choir seated behind the congregation? (Location is the issue here, as it affects the function and role of the choir relative to the people in the pews.)

Why isn’t there more silent time in the service? (For prayer, contemplation of Scripture readings, pondering sermon, etc.)

Most congregations follow or neglect some worship practices, not knowing what they do or don’t do, or why. These questions raise some issues that need to be taken up locally for the edification of all, worship leaders and pew-sitters alike.

Communion every Sunday The fact is that congregations which do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day are in the distinct minority among Christians throughout history. That ought to be enough to provoke some thought that just maybe there’s something to weekly sharing of Bread and Wine with the Living Lord.

Old Testament Readings—or Three Readings The point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not stand alone, but in context. Actually, there are at least two major contexts: the Jewish roots of Jesus, and the fertile field of the church of the Risen Christ. So, Old Testament readings and Epistle readings are essential to provide those contexts.

Psalm-Singing Such a great and wondrous tradition awaits reclaiming. Two points here: first, the richness of the Psalms in and of themselves brings theological and spiritual depth to worship; second, singing doubles (maybe triples) the impact.

Saying, Singing Creeds A flat-out brief affirmation of personal and shared faith helps bring focus to worship. The ancient and biblical statements link us to our spiritual ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. More current ones remind us that faith is not static but alive and growing. Singing helps folks keep them in memory for use outside Sunday morning.

Prayer of Confession There are folks who think they don’t need to confess, or if they do, not much. Humility, however, is good for the soul. Individually and together, before God and one another, we acknowledge and accept what God has already given us: forgiveness and healing.

Scripture Readers The idea of people from the pews reading from the Bible on Sundays is not new, but not universal either. When this happens, especially when it is done well, it serves as a reminder that worship belongs, not to the clergy or other leaders, but to the people, and the Bible is the common text we all share.

All Hymn Verses Too often someone thinks they’re doing the congregation a favor by amputating a verse or two from a hymn so they can get home sooner. Crippling a hymn in that way often distorts the meaning of the poetry. It makes for poor theology and confusing poetry. Respect the work of the lyricist and composer—sing it from top to bottom.

Baptismal Font It should be in the way, so people have to walk around it to get in the church. There should be water in it. Remembering our baptisms helps us recall Whose we are and why we’ve come to church in the first place. Shoving the font into the corner is a sin of neglect, maybe abandonment.

Choir Seating My guess is that in most Presbyterian churches the choir is up front, although I know of some places where they’re in the back of the congregation. From behind, the choir becomes the supporting voice for congregational singing. From a loft or platform in front, the temptation to perform is fierce. It’s not impossible, of course, for the choir to undergird the congregation’s singing from the front, nor to present an anthem on behalf of the congregation from the back.

Silence The placement of silence in a service can keep us from moving too quickly ahead and leaving meaning behind. Some leaders get nervous with silence, thinking, I suppose, that they must fill every moment with sound. Silence gives worshippers a chance to reflect, ponder, consider, commit, meditate, speculate, dream, hope, resolve, and remember what God has done and promises to do.

So, have a conversation with your pastor. Gently propose a question or two. Discuss the answers. Discover possibilities for change.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Creed - Part Two

It seems that one of my spiritual ancestors, John Calvin, thought it was a good idea for the congregation to sing the creed. At least, so he indicated in his Geneva liturgy. I mention this so that it doesn’t appear to be a crazy innovation.

Actually, when you think about it, we’ve been doing something like what Calvin suggested, perhaps without knowing it. How many orders of service do you know that has a hymn following the sermon? Many if not most.

The proclamation of the Word calls for a response from the people. The reading of Scripture and subsequent preaching challenges worshippers to affirm their faith anew. One of the ways this is commonly done is by the singing of a hymn. Even if a creed is recited in unison, singing the song of faith is often included.

The reason that we sing hymns anywhere in a service, but especially after hearing the Word proclaimed, is that music makes what we sing more memorable than it would be if we only said it. Calvin knew that.

So, if we sing the creed, we’re going to remember it better than if we only spoke it. Since creeds are important if we are going to learn the language of faith, it helps to carry them in our memories, and set to music, creeds stay with us.

Now it’s entirely possible that we might just settle for hymns to fill the spot of creedal affirmation in the service. After all, aren’t all hymns, in one way or another, affirmations of faith? True enough. But some are better than others.

Often the hymn after the sermon is selected for its relationship to the preached message. Just as often hymns are connected to the special day or season of the Christian Year. When other relationships are obvious, the hymn’s use as a creed may not be so apparent. Nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

So let’s move in another direction and see if there are any hymns that lend themselves to use as a creed. Indeed there are. In the Presbyterian Hymnal, two pieces in particular are perfectly useful as creeds, because they are biblical affirmations set to music.

One is based on Philippians 2:5-1, number 148 in the Presbyterian Hymnal. The biblical text, so we’re told, was an affirmation of faith, probably used in worship. Its poetic format even hints that it may well have been sung originally. In this setting, the words of the text are restated in metrical verse, like a hymn, to be easily sung and, therefore, more easily remembered.

Another is found at number 598 of the Presbyterian Hymnal, based on 1 Corinthians 15. This, too, is supposed to have been poetry used and perhaps sung in early worship. Its setting in the hymnal is not as a hymn, however, but as service music. Clearly it’s intended to be used as a sung confession of faith.

Other traditional creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed can be and have been re-phrased to be sung or simply chanted. There are many options to be explored by pastors and musicians to enliven our professions of faith in God. Lifting our voices in song helps us lift our loyalty to God as we rejoice in our faith.

Do you sing or chant the creed in your worship service?