Monday, April 13, 2015

Full-Voice Worship

My wife and I made this year’s annual Holy Week pilgrimage at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. Since I retired from parish ministry, this journey became a real possibility; internally, for me, it has become a necessity. Having been to Trinity a number of times over the years, I’ve come to expect excellent liturgy, uplifting music and solid preaching.

Trinity Church stands on Copley Square, a magnificent structure designed by H. H. Richardson, erected between 1872 and 1877. Its Romanesque style with rough hewn stone and huge, heavy tower set the standard for many public buildings to follow. The interior is warm and friendly in spite of being expansive and open. Elegant stained glass windows and bright d├ęcor offer a feast for the eye. The church and parish house were built under the direction of Phillips Brooks, a highly admired preacher of the day (who was also the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”).

Yet it’s not the architecture that I’m writing about now, nor is the music or preaching, nor even the design and presentation of the liturgy. The subject at hand is how the congregation takes a major part in the expression of praise and prayer.

What impresses me every time at Trinity Church is how firmly vocal the people are in their parts of the liturgy. When the lines for everyone to speak come up, their sound fills the room.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to mumbled responses and whispered “Amens.” I don’t believe that Presbyterians were always so passive in reading the texts in boldface type. There was a time when we were more assertive and affirmative in speaking up and out in worshipful zeal. In the old days, the people in the pews used to say and sing their parts in full voice to be heard across the room.

One benefit of full-voice responses is that worshippers hear one another and become aware of being in an assemblage, a gathering of believers standing in the presence of the Almighty. Louder speaking by pew-sitters prevents people from drifting off into individual worship and forgetting that we are called by God to be a people, a body together serving one Lord.

The other aspect of congregational participation that I witnessed at Trinity Church is how much the people have to say in the service. Psalms were responsive (and chanted), antiphons were incorporated in some psalms or canticles, and in some instances entire psalms and canticles were sung by all. Prayers were offered in unison or responsively, and the Apostles Creed was said in response to questions of belief. Hymns were sung, of course, but also brief musical responses from the people were inserted in prayers. And every “Amen!” was clearly affirmative. All was spoken enthusiastically.

Too often we Presbyterians are inclined to minimize the quantity of what the people speak out, maybe the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps a Call to Worship set of responses, and, if there is one at all, a Prayer of Confession or Creedal Affirmation. We usually don’t need “amens” except from the leader.

The minimalization of the people’s parts tends to lull the good folks into a passive state, and before anyone is aware of what’s happening, worship demanding work becomes mere entertainment which requires little more than showing up and sitting back to watch and listen.

Increasing congregational participation is a challenge, to say the least. So how do we meet the challenge to encourage full-voice worship in our congregations? Start with the choir. They sing out, and should be able to speak up when the occasion arises. Let them lead the congregation, as they should be doing in every hymn.

Next take some time with session members and deacons and church school teachers. Work with them to teach them active worship. Remind them that “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” so they should put some energy into it. They are leaders of the church, and in worship they also have the responsibility to lead.

Do the folks where you worship speak and sing in full voice? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Harold Mayo Daniels April 10, 1927 - February 5, 2015

When I received word last week that Harold Daniels “passed from this life to the next on February 5,” I felt that jolt of the loss of a good friend and colleague. I was privileged to work with him on a variety of projects, large and small, over a stretch of 35-plus years. Even though I know at the start what I have to say here will be inadequate, I am moved to pay Harold a tribute, remembering and celebrating the abundant gifts God sent us through him.

Harold was ordained in the Church of the Nazarene in which he briefly served parishes. In 1958 he was received into the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and went on to be a pastor of churches in Montana and New Mexico. After completing advanced pastoral studies, in 1978 he became the director of the Joint Office of Worship of the northern (UPCUSA) and southern (PCUS) branches of the Presbyterian Church, and following the reunion in 1983, he continued to staff the Office of Worship.

In his work at the denominational level, however, Harold never lost his pastoral sense. He knew that the work he was doing would be serving the folks back home. He was not detached from the basis of the church. On the contrary, Harold seemed to be in touch with people everywhere in congregations large and small, constantly taking the pulse of worship. He knew what was needed, and that knowledge spurred him on in his work.

Harold was also a pastor to those he worked with. He was an outstanding listener. Those who worked on any project for which he had editorial or administrative responsibility received pastoral care: support, encouragement, and any assistance he could give. He always had time to hear about what was going on in other people’s lives that they needed to share. His sense of humor was usually there to pierce the gloom and brighten the scene.

This pastoral sense made it possible for Harold to be a good critic. I never had the sense that he was lording his writing skills over me when he picked at a prayer I wrote, although he could have and I’d never have argued with him. He was an excellent writer, often published.

Harold was a scholar, a persistent student who wanted to learn more. Harold often excitedly gushed about the most recent insight that had burst onto his horizon via some freshly published text. To Harold, there was never too much knowledge. Partly, I think, that was also because of his pastoral sense.

Harold had a real passion for worship, not just academically, but because worship is at the heart of the Christian life. Worship was in Harold’s heart. He was a devout person, not in any superficial pietistic sense, but in that his daily activities were always worshipful. Like a good pastor, he could verbalize a prayer in a group at any moment, and it would be as natural as breathing, because it was always there in his heart.

Harold was a true ecumenical spirit. When we were gathering information to create a Daily Prayer book, Harold suggested we gather up various resources from other traditions. They were not for us just to look at, but to use and see what we could learn. Harold’s ecumenical relationships went far beyond this, reaching globally to connect his work and all of us with the Church Catholic.

Harold also did a couple of tours of duty as a presbytery stated clerk. From that experience he brought sharp organizational skills and awareness of the Presbyterian way of getting things done. It’s not always easy to accomplish immense tasks in a large, complex organization. Harold knew how to do it, and do it all with grace.

Among Harold’s many accomplishments was his work as the project director and editor of the Book of Common Worship (BCW) (1993). This book has been called “the finest printed resource currently available in the English language.” Prior to its publication, however, he also had to shepherd a flock of “Supplemental Liturgical Resources,” which were first editions of the components of the BCW. To this lengthy process he brought wisdom and knowledge, enthusiasm and vision.

Harold left us with much to give thanks for. Yet we do acknowledge a great loss, and wish he were around to prompt us to richer worship. At the same time, I’m sure Harold is still with us every time we gather at the Lord’s Table, in every psalm and song we sing, in every prayer and praise we lift up to heaven.

May God’s Peace be with Harold’s family and all who love him.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deflated Worship

With all the controversy about deflated footballs, I encountered another “deflation” issue in a worship service recently. Held during a meeting, it was a complete service, Word and Sacrament (Lord’s Supper).

The setting in a local church was rather traditional, Communion Table front and center floor level, pulpit and lectern up a few steps on the platform, with stained glass windows for the backdrop. Oh, yes, there was one other item, off to the side on the left: an open projection screen had been set up.

Not being a big fan of audio-visuals in worship, I found the presence of the screen a nuisance, and its use an annoyance. By the time we reached the last hymn, I realized what the problem really was.

Projecting the words of the hymns on the screen was passable, for it made juggling hymnals unnecessary. And the responses for the Communion liturgy shown on the screen eliminated the need for a printed bulletin. (Although hymnals were in the pews and more paper was generated for the meeting than would be consumed by a few bulletins.)

What went wrong, however, was that when we looked over to the left to read, the whole experience of feasting at the Lord’s Table was reduced from three-dimensional, life-size, living color, real time experience, to a mere two-dimensional, 6-by-8-foot rectangle, shades-of-gray, image appearing before (and sometimes after) we needed to read it. The result was a persistent distraction, and because our visual attention was snatched away from the real action, the Eucharistic event at the table was deflated. It was flattened out in what we saw, and sagging in enthusiasm.

Sharing in the Communion meal requires focus, on the part of those who receive as well as of those who serve. We need not only to be attentive to what is happening at the Table, but that we are in the midst of a community sharing an intimate experience.

Having the screen off to the side requiring our attention was a rude intrusion to the service. It took our attention away from the main event, much like at a family gathering around the dining table when some kinfolk are gazing at the tiny screens of their cell phones. It tends to take the air out of interpersonal relationships.

The Eucharist is all about interpersonal, intimate relationships, between the worshippers and the Triune God, and among the worshippers themselves. Maybe we could set aside the technical gimmicks and pay attention to the gifts of God who has claimed us to be the people of God.

It has been said that deflating a football makes it easier to handle and improves the game. Puncturing a worship service this way, however, can make it go flat altogether.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Presider


One of the advantages of being retired from parish ministry is that I get the opportunity to worship in a variety of churches.  As a pastor leading worship each Sunday, I was deprived of “the view from the pew.” Now I enjoy that perspective more often than not as I visit several churches as a pew-sitter.

One of the curiosities revealed several times in different places was that, all of a sudden, the chancel where the worship leaders are supposed to be, became unpopulated.  All the furniture was there: Table, Pulpit, Lectern and Font, and three fancy chairs…but no pastor.  It was an empty platform as far as people went.  Actually, sometimes they all went.  The Lay Reader stepped into the congregation’s pews after fulfilling her responsibilities, and the pastor went off the platform to take a seat to the side.  And the choir was non-existent or in the back of the room.

It looked like the ship was adrift because there was no one at the rudder. As it so happens, this metaphor is built into church architecture.  The “nave” of the church, where the pews, and the people in them, are, gets its name from the Latin from which we also get the English word, “navy.”  And the people on the platform are “steering the ship on a scriptural course” through the waters of worship. One of the most common illustrations of the church is a ship in full sail.

A more accurate (and less colorful) image is that of a gathering of people to conduct some business. The pastor, as minister of Word and Sacrament, is the presider, the one who leads the members through the liturgical agenda.  Standing at the Lectern or Pulpit or Font, the pastor makes sure the service of worship proceeds “decently and in order.” 

Now, that’s a phrase often used with reference to business meetings, or church meetings that get involved in polity.  I confess that I made extensive use of the term during the years that I was stated clerk of my presbytery. Take a look at the end of the 14th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and you will see it refers to how people should worship God: “…all things should be done decently and in order.” That phrase is the bottom line, Paul’s last word on the subject.

Of course there is more to leading worship than making sure everyone “gets the rite right.” The order of worship can be marched through with lock-step precision, and leave every heart untouched, every soul unchanged. The presider comes with his or her personal passion of faith to encounter God, to be moved by the Spirit and to follow wherever the risen Lord leads.

For the person who leads worship is worshipping too.  The truth is, it isn’t always easy to do.  Leading worship can be a huge distraction from really worshipping. There are many things to keep track of and remember to do.  Nevertheless, the worship leader—in fact all worship leaders, lay readers and musicians too—are there to worship.  If the pastor is authentically worshiping, his or her attitude will set a good example.

This does not mean, you can be sure, that the pastor/presider, or any other leader of liturgy, will “perform” and act out the role of a pious person on stage before the congregational crowd. That shifts the whole event into the category of entertainment, with the people as the audience instead of Almighty God. If worship is to be genuine for the folks who come, it will have to be the “real deal” for the leaders.

Notice that the presider is always face-to-face with the people.  The visual presence of the worship leader provides a social glue to hold the congregation together.  Eye contact is extremely powerful in leadership, especially in a sharing as intimate as worship can be.  The leaders up front in the room complete the circle of the assembly.  The lay person reading a New Testament epistle is delivering the mail to this particular congregation.  The preacher proclaiming the Good News knows the people with whom she’s having this important conversation.  The pastor with the prayers of the people looks directly at those whose prayers he is articulating.  In a special way, singing the hymns, a group exercise of praise and prayer, the presider is part of the congregation/choir, leading the way.

A very practical, advantage of the presider being up front at all times is that the people in the pews are visible to the presider. Facial expressions and physical postures speak volumes about needed pastoral care.  Comings and goings may ring alarms of emergent need. Seeing a particular person may trigger a reminder of responsibility to be filled.

Being a presider is a complicated and sometimes difficult task.  Yet in taking on this role, one is at the center of the church being re-assembled by God, created anew by the Spirit as God’s own people, and meeting the risen Lord once again to be his disciples.  It promises to be an uplifting experience every time.

What other advantages are there to leading worship?  Where are the pitfalls?