Come and See

I’m in Palm Desert, CA. this week with my colleagues, at the Professional Leaders’ Conference of the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  We’ve been coming out to the desert for over two decades each fall for a time of worship, learning, and fellowship.  I wanted to share some reflections on what we have shared this week through the lens of worship.

Our plenary speakers this year are the Rev. Susan Briehl, renowned ELCA theologian and liturgical specialist, and the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA (the synod to our north).  Our theme is “Congregations at the Crossroad” and we have been talking about what that means, in all facets of congregational life.

So many times our congregations find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to worship.  The question might seem to be a big one – concerning what lessons to read, perhaps – or it might seem to be a relatively small one, such as what variety of wine to use for communion.  The ELCA introduced a new hymnal in 2006, and that was a major crossroads for everyone.

Susan Briehl pointed out to us that Jesus’ first public words in the gospel of John are “what are you looking for?”  They are repeated in the garden after the resurrection, to Mary Magdalene.  These words put everyone who encounters them at a crossroads, forcing the questions “what is missing for you?  What is at the heart of your need?  What do you need for life abundant?”

In his answer, Jesus invites – “come and see” – and this becomes a leitmotif throughout John’s gospel.  “Come and see” is uttered by Philip to Nathaniel, and by the woman at the well.  (We also hear it from Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death, albeit in a different way: Jesus, you need to come and see what it’s like to deal with this pain.)

This “crossroads by invitation” is really where we should find ourselves every Sunday – asking and hearing the question “what are you looking for?” as well as hearing and proclaiming “come and see.”

Bishop Erwin – a noted Luther scholar – talked about aspects of a community that just about anyone would be eager to “come and see”:

  • Christianity that one need not be ashamed of – intellectual respectability, social responsibility, aesthetic value, community
  • Idea of participating in something bigger than ourselves, better than our everyday lives
  • A critical tradition –a profound and often overlooked legacy
  • Unapologetically church
  • A sacramental faith, a “real presence” – different from everything else

What do we seek?  Over and over, those of us in leadership hear that people are seeking some kind of connection and community, though they are at the same time apprehensive of community.  We seek connections that are profound yet meaningful, freely offered and non-coercive.  We are looking for Jesus as experienced in the believing and beloved community.

What would that believing and beloved community look like?  Bishop Erwin suggested it would include a sense of the sacred and sacramental, it would be a forgiving place where we wrestle together with complex things, where we would be organized for growth in mission to the community and in humility, and finally, it would be a home – a place where we belong.

What are you looking for?

Come and see.

Same Liturgies, Different Year

The next three Sundays at Bethlehem are festivals that are always celebrated on the next-to-last Sunday in October (Confirmation Sunday), the last Sunday in October (Reformation Sunday), and the first Sunday in November (All Saints Sunday).  Some parishes celebrate Confirmation on Pentecost, but that day is so full that the significance of Affirmation of Baptism gets lost.

So this Sunday we will celebrate with several young people as they claim this faith for themselves.  Our youth director has had two or three members of each class preach on this day for many years; this year we’ll hear from three of these remarkable people.  They never fail to amaze me.

Reformation marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517 on All Hallows’ Eve (October 31st), which (unbeknownst to him) started the Protestant Reformation.

All Saints’ Day, which is actually November 1st, is a day of remembrance of “…all the saints, who from their labors rest” as the great Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn declares.

We don’t change much at all in these liturgies from year to year.  There is a remarkable concentration of the continuum of human existence in these three Sundays, and we’ve found that minimal changes help the assembly to see that pattern.  And interestingly, the pattern moves backwards.

This Sunday, for Confirmation, we see the present/future of the church.  We are reminded that God is indeed still speaking, and in concrete terms.  I see a lot of trust in the day.  Parents have trusted the church to teach their kids, the church has trusted the parents in turn to be a part of that process, and now we pass that trust to these young people – we trust them to fulfill their affirmation “to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”  And one of the best parts of the day is that sitting in the pews will be many of their peers, who have already made this affirmation over the past few years – waiting to affirm their support for their friends.  They understand so completely, so deeply what it means to be the “beloved community.”

On Reformation, we see an intersection of the past, present, and future.  Ecclesia semper reformanda est is the classic phrase – “the church is always being reformed.”  While we are thankful for the events in the 16th century that led to reform, we keep our focus on Christ – “solus Christus”, one of the five “solae” of the Reformation.  The others are sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria.  More on that in another post, another day.

Every year, the second lesson on Reformation is taken from Romans 3 – “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  This was the breakthrough text for Luther.  We use a mixture of old and new music, a variety of styles of liturgy, in order to reflect the semper part of that phrase – ALWAYS.  This year, the ELCA’s 25th anniversary motto undergirds this too:  Always Being Made New.

All Saints’ Sunday brings this sequence full circle:  we now look to the past.  The near past, the distant past, the ANCIENT past.  Individual saints have their own feast days, but All Saints is the day we remember them all, together with those we’ve known who have died.  This is a day when we will hear about “the communion of saints” in more than just the creed.

John Buchanan, editor and publisher of The Christian Century magazine, suggests a great image for the communion of saints:  “balcony people.”  People who have helped form your life and faith, be they known to you (a grandparent, perhaps) or unknown (possibly St. Catherine of Siena).  Think of the State of the Union address each January – the President’s invited guests are sitting in the balcony with the First Lady, and the President highlights their stories in the address.  Think of yourself in such a position, looking up to the balcony to acknowledge and give thanks to YOUR “balcony people.”  Who might they be?

And then think of all those balcony people – yours and everyone else’s – seated at an endless banquet table.  The Feast to Come.  The Communion of Saints.

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast

Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

(“For All the Saints”, text, William W. How, 1823-1897)

So within the ancient form of worship, surrounded by ancient words as well as words of today, these three Sundays place us firmly in our present, yet with a part of us grasping the past and the future at the same time.  Alleluia indeed!

What You Say Matters

Many years ago, when I first started working in this strange and wonderful world called “liturgics” (google it) I didn’t give a lot of thought to the words we used in worship.  However, the longer I stuck around, the more I discovered what incredible power the spoken word carries – and I realized that the words we choose to speak (and sing) in the Sunday celebration MATTER.

Deciding what to “say” in worship is a careful, deliberate decision process.  Once we’ve determined what our ordo will be at Bethlehem for a particular season – in other words, which elements of the liturgical order we’ll utilize – then we need to find the right words for each element.  What might be thought of as the “traditional” text is on the table, along with other possibilities that we amass from around the world.

We are incredibly fortunate to have the internet at our disposal to quickly locate and compare liturgical and worship texts from many lands in an instant.  But before we start gleefully mouse-clicking, it is important for us to spend some time in the texts for a season.

For example: at the moment, we are beginning to work on Advent, the four-week season just before Christmas that invites us to watch and wait for the Christ child (and indeed for God’s in-breaking into our world).  This year during Advent, our readings are taken from the gospel of Matthew, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, the letter of Paul to the Romans and the letter of James.  It’s important for us to be aware of the themes running through these lessons before we select either spoken or sung word.

In Advent, we deliberately choose to create sacred space that is countercultural to what people will find pretty much everywhere else they go at this time of year.  Not necessarily silent – just different.  So the texts might reflect that as well.

Another facet of our discernment has to do with those who will hear what is said and sung.  Who are they?  What are their stories?  What is going on in their lives?  How can the words used in worship – say, in Advent – guide them to seek God in-breaking into their lives?

The physical reality of the world around us can’t be ignored, either.  Advent unfolds, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, as the days shorten, moving towards the winter solstice.  The light is going.  The sun is moving south, away from us.  Biblical scholars are highly skeptical of theories that Christmas was set on December 25th in order to co-opt a pagan festival – but we are still left with the reality of the shortening days and increasing darkness.

Everything that we will say in Advent worship flows through and out of these realities.  And so we might use the “O Antiphons”, ancient prayers for the season, or we might use modern prayers from the Iona Community in Scotland.  We might sing the 15th-century plainsong “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and we might also sing the Cameroon traditional song “He Came Down.”

Every season in the church year carries its own unique flavor, and these guideposts help us to seek the best possible words for that season, in that particular year.  Words have tremendous power to lift, heal, and give hope.  It is crucial that we use language that does this, for all people – welcoming them to God’s beloved community.

Hymn Stories

This coming Sunday, the Global Music Ensemble (GME) is leading worship at Bethlehem.  We’ve been a group for a little over four years now, and we lead worship every other month (for the most part).  It’s a pretty good mix of instruments – keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, world percussion, trumpet, and oboe.  And vocals, of course.

Bethlehem has been singing the world’s songs of praise to God for over 30 years.  Our now-retired pastor brought us music from the World Council of Churches gatherings when he accepted our call.  He had served in Kenya, Tanzania, and Trinidad-Tobago so we learned a lot of music from those cultures.  When I was traveling in Europe in 1987, he and his wife arranged to meet me in Geneva to tour the World Council offices and take a side trip to the Taizé community in France.  While we were at the World Council, we learned the freedom songs of South Africa from the Swedish group Utryck, who had just brought them out of Johannesburg.

With such a long tradition of world music being sung by this community, it was time to “flesh it out” a little on the instrumental side.  We started with songs we all knew and worked on finding our groove together.  As with almost everything at Bethlehem, the GME is highly collaborative – everyone’s voice has equal credence.  We really work to create each piece together, not only so it has our (the group’s) flavor but the flavor of Bethlehem as well.

For the communion song this Sunday, we are leading the Chinese piece “Golden Breaks the Dawn” (ELW #852)  It’s a delicate, lovely hymn that traces our movement through the day, praying for guidance, with God at our side.  I offer as background an edited selection of information about this song from the outstanding Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worshipby Paul Westermeyer (just-retired former head of the Master’s in Sacred Music program at Luther Seminary).

This hymn text was written by the Chinese hymnist Tzu-chen Chao (1888-1979), and translated/paraphrased by Frank W. Price (1885-1974).  According to renowned ethnomusicologist I-to Loh, Chao was a pioneer “in developing contextual theology and hymns in China.”  He was a professor of theology at Yenching University in Beijing from 1926 to 1956.  In 1956 Chao was accused of siding with American mission boards in their imperialism toward China and was forced to resign from his position as professor and dean at the School of Religion at Yenching University.  After that he descended into obscurity; scholars believe he abandoned his faith under Communist rule.

Frank W. Price was born in China, and was a missionary to China for thirty years.  In 1952, after a period of detention by the Communist regime, he returned to the United States and was director of the Missionary Research Library at Union Theological Seminary in New York City until 1961.  His volume Chinese Christian Hymns (1953) included translations of 23 hymns from the 1936 Hymns of Universal Praise, a Chinese Christian hymnal that is still in print today.

The melody is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese melody, ‘Le P’ing’, by Te-ngai Hu.  Her birth date is not known, but is estimated at 1900.  She was a student of the tune’s arranger, Bliss Wiant, at Yenching University in Beijing, but nothing else is known about her.  “Virtuous love” is the translation of her name.

Bliss Wiant (1895-1975) was a Methodist minister and musician who headed the music department at Yenching University in Beijing, and was the music editor for the afore-mentioned Hymns of Universal Praise.  One can assume he worked with Tzu-chen Chao while at Yenching.

The melody’s title means “happy peace” and that reflects the feel of the song beautifully.  Except for the lone B-flat in the third line, it is pentatonic – it is written in a scale with five pitches per octave.  This type of scale is found all over the world – even the first two lines of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna” is based on the pentatonic scale.  The accompaniment gives it a bit more of a Western sound; however, our keyboardist has played in a Javanese Gamelan ensemble, which tunes to a pentatonic scale, and she has helped us get at the more authentic sound of Asian music.  We’ll likely work on that at rehearsal.

Thinking back to when we first started singing music from around the world, we’ve come a long way.  I am grateful beyond words that our hymnal – which represents the core of the music we Lutherans have in common – is so incredibly diverse.  We know that the Eucharist unites us with people of all times and places; to know that our song unites us around the world as we sing it is to know the breaking-in of God to our existence.