Every time we gather as a community in Christ, we believe it is by the working of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls us together as the people of God.
This could be for worship – for service – or for fun! But it is the Spirit at work that generates the energy to make it happen.
The “Gather” portion of worship is one that probably sees the most change from season to season, or even week to week. Very little is considered essential here – only a Greeting and a Prayer of the Day. Depending on local context and custom, this may be augmented with announcements, an entrance or gathering hymn, confession & forgiveness, and a number of other possibilities.
As a liturgist – someone who studies and prepares worship for the people of God in this place – I have specific questions that I ask when I am shaping and curating the Gather portion of worship. I’ll want to know what season of the church year, as well as what season of the calendar year, we are in. What are the lessons today? What is the general mood in the community? The answers to these questions help us decide if we’ll sing a Hymn of Praise, or perhaps have a Thanksgiving for Baptism.
As I work on my diaconal project this summer, I have collected more ideas to help shape this and other parts of worship – they are the things I’ve been referring to each week as the “seeds for thought” in the project. You may recall they are the things we discover in worship, and the skills we develop in worship.
When we gather as the people of God, we discover awareness in new ways:
- Awareness of the presence of God. Being reminded that it is God’s Spirit that brings us together helps us discover this. But other things do as well, including the building itself, the sense of community, and the sacraments of Baptism and/or Holy Communion.
- Awareness of the presence of one another. This might seem obvious – we’re all in one place together! However, in our highly individualized society this is something that people tend to retreat from; when we engage in worship together we become aware not only of one another’s presence, but our cadence in speaking, how and when we take a breath, and the vigor of our singing. We also might hear the quiet noise of an oxygen tank, or the happy noise of a little person. All of this brings us into a heightened awareness of the body of Christ.
- An awareness of who’s not here. This could be the couple who always sits in the fourth pew from the front on the right, and you haven’t seen them for a few weeks. It might be the person who you thought might have recovered from surgery by now. It might be the family with young children that visited last month. It might be our next-door neighbors, or the folks in your community who some might call “other.” What might this look like in your context? What does it suggest?
When we gather as the people of God, we develop particular skills as well:
- Skills of pastoral care. Certainly, pastoral care is a large part of the call of the pastor and other called ministry professionals. But it’s also a part of everyone’s call – what we also know as vocation, which is the work we carry out in the world in response to God’s grace in Christ. As Lutherans, we also see vocation as something that happens as a result of our baptism. As we gather, we greet one another and ask how our week has been. We might help a visitor find the restrooms, or get them a hearing device if they need one. “Pastoral care” is a phrase that really means being Christ to one another.
- Skills of evangelism. In our tense political environment, any derivative of the word “evangelical” seems to carry baggage. This is too bad! Evangelii, the root word, means good news. When we in the ELCA speak of “evangelism” we are speaking of sharing the good news. This takes a myriad of forms! As we gather, this skill is one that we learn to help us share and tell our stories and the stories of our faith. It’s also a skill that helps us learn to listen to others’ stories. Think of “good news” as simply that: GOOD NEWS. Something you hear that is good. No strings attached! Hint: pastoral care is a beautiful form of evangelism.
- Skills of remembering. As we gather for worship, we might remember all kinds of things. The words we speak, the actions we do together, the architecture of the building – all can carry memories for us. But perhaps this is our first time in church. There are no memories here. Gathering gets memories started, and this is usually what I tell “seasoned professionals” when the question is raised of doing something different all the time. I don’t think getting rid of EVERYTHING that some of us know by heart is a good thing. Those words have been with us for centuries for a reason. But in a both/and world (my favorite) I think it’s particularly effective for us to utilize worship elements that have been around for a very long time, as well as elements that are as new as possible. What we can do to help develop the skill of remembering, is to enable learning about these elements whenever possible.
- Skills of recognizing the communion of saints. “The communion of saints” is a thing – it’s not just a phrase in the ecumenical creeds. The communion of saints is all the saints the Spirit has gathered for worship in this time and place – AND all the others that the Spirit has gathered in other times and places, all over the world – PLUS the saints that have died. It’s a very powerful picture. Artist John August Swanson has interpreted this as “The Procession” in which folks of all times and places are gathering in procession.
- The Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco has an icon painted completely around its rotunda, entitled “The Dancing Saints.” These are folks who have gone before us – as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian of Norwich – with Jesus leading the dance.
In the part of our worship called “Gather” each of the things we do together involves the things we discover and the skills we develop. These things help us to enter fully into God’s presence and each other’s presence. They are reminders that we are church – we are Lutheran – we are church together – and we are church for the sake of the world.
My favorite gathering hymn at the moment is a modern Dutch text wedded to an old Dutch tune: “What Is This Place” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #524; text, Huub Oosterhuis, tr. David Smith; tune, A. Valerius, Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck, 1626, arr. Adrian Engels). I think you will see in this evocative poetry images of much of what I’ve written above.
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor.
Walls and a roof sheltering people,
windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here
and know our God is near.
Words from afar, stars that are falling,
sparks that are sown in us like seed:
names for our God, dreams, signs and wonders
sent from the past are all we need.
We in this place remember and speak again what we have heard:
God’s free redeeming word.
And we accept bread at this table,
broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living,
we are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive what we need to increase:
our justice and God’s peace.
Thanks be to God for sending the Holy Spirit to gather us into such a place!
Some of Bethlehem’s ministries that I see as growing from “Gather” are our support of Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran World Federation, our Wellness ministries including yoga and tai chi, and our Chancel/Altar Care group. You may have ideas on this too!
Thanks for reading. Blessings on your week.