Forming a Faithful Response to Climate Change

I’ll be blogging for the next few days from the Faith-Based Affiliate track of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.  Our events are being held at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, one of SF’s most iconic churches.

From their website:

“The Global Climate Action Summit will bring leaders and people together from around the world to “Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action.

“It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.”

For the Summit to be happening as a Category 4 hurricane bears down on the southeastern US is both ironic and deeply pertinent.  An El Niño weather pattern is developing in the Pacific Ocean – a warming of ocean currents – and it has the potential to bring weather extremes to many areas of the globe.  In Southern California it tends to manifest in higher precipitation; however, in Central America, it manifests in extreme drought.  Signs of that drought are already beginning to emerge.  In these countries where the political situation is already tense, adding the impact of climate change on food sources (among other things) can lead to further destabilization.

So what does this have to do with worship?

When we gather in worship, we gather as one part of the body of Christ, but not forgetting the rest of the Body.  We remember those in need throughout the liturgy, and are sent out from worship to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

My diaconal project looked at how worship forms us and shapes us for our diakonia, our service, in the world.  I’ll be looking at that dimension this week from more of an outside-looking-in perspective, seeking ways that as people of faith we can be a voice for care and stewardship of creation by responding to the climate needs voiced by the world community.

For more info on the Summit itself:

For a list of the workshops happening at the Faith-Based Affiliate Event:


Itinerant Preacher

The last few weeks, I’ve been preaching at different sites around the western US.  What an interesting experience this is, both as a preacher and as a visitor!

As a preacher, I look not only at the texts for each week, but at the congregation to whom I will preach.  Who are they?  Where are they located?  What are their challenges?  What gives them joy?

The first congregation, to whom I preached the “Doubting Thomas” text, had just moved into a brand-new building and was figuring out how they would live in this new space.  The Thomas narrative concerns how the disciples are encountering the risen Christ, both in rumor and in actual encounter – a new space for them too.

The second congregation heard another story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, one in which the essentials of hospitality are emphasized.  This congregation is working on “mission redevelopment” which means they are undertaking specific tasks to determine their mission in the community – and hospitality to the community is one of those tasks.

The third congregation is the smallest of the three, in a mountain resort community, and they heard the text of Good Shepherd.  As luck would have it, the regional Lutheran camp was in attendance too and brought goats from their farm!  I was able to use the story of how their farm dog almost sacrificed her life for the herd last year, fending off a rattlesnake – and remind the congregation that while following Jesus (i.e., their outreach work) is not without risk, it is also not without the reward of abundant life.

With each visit, I expanded my own list of questions to keep on hand for when I am in a call.  Some of those questions:

*Is it easy to find the entryway?

*Are there folks present as greeters/ushers who can help someone find the restroom?

*Are there pavement issues that could be difficult for people with mobility issues?

*Does the whole congregation see welcoming the stranger as their job (not just that of who’s on duty that day)?

These Sunday visits have been GREAT.  They have also been super helpful for me, who has been with the same congregation my whole life!  Now I have some experience of what it feels like to walk into a new space – and my future ministry will benefit from that.

How about you?  Have you worshiped somewhere other than your home church, and found that the experience helped you see things “at home” in a new way?  I would love to hear about it!

Do What You Mean, Mean What You Do

There are a couple of “buzz words” surrounding worship these days: intentionality and authenticity.

Intentionality is a word created from the word intentional, meaning “done in a way that is planned or intended” (Merriam-Webster).  Authenticity is from authentic: “real or genuine: not copied or false” (Merriam-Webster).

Applied to worship, these words are in many ways complementary.  This week, I’d like to look at intentionality.

It might seem that worship has ALWAYS been intentional, and to a degree that’s true.  We intend to do what we’re doing, right?

Or do we?

Growing up in the Lutheran church, I never got a sense of relationship between the various elements of the service.  To me, it felt more like liturgical Pac-Man – the worship service consisted of dots labeled “Greeting”, “Confession”, “Opening Hymn”, and so on, and the objective was to eat the dots.  Did the Opening Hymn relate to anything else in the service?  Sometimes, but it was rare.  In many Lutheran churches, I’m told, the Opening Hymn was always “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  The only days that this was not the case were Palm Sunday, when “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was the opening hymn, and Easter Sunday, when “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” was used.  That resulted in worship that was safe, reliable –  and boring.

I am one who deeply appreciates the rich tapestry that Lutheran hymnody weaves throughout our faith.  As Lutherans, we have a musical heritage that is really unparalleled – but that is something to be explored, not tightly controlled.  Granted, limited resources in a parish can make this difficult.  More on that next week when we look at authenticity.

Intentionality occurs when those responsible for preparing worship make a commitment to make worship a very high priority – not just something for which four hymns are picked and you move on.

If a worship group has made such a decision, they’ll look at a number of things: the season of the church year, the particular Sunday, the time and season of the secular year, the lessons, and the overall pattern in the lessons for the season of the church year.  For example, in Year B during the summer we read the “Bread of Life” narrative from John’s gospel.  This year, in Epiphany Year A, we have a long Epiphany season and so have worked through nearly all of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.

All of these elements bring a certain feel to a season and to each Sunday.  Intentionality happens when those preparing worship dwell in those elements for a time before making choices for worship.

This past Sunday, I was installed as the “teaching parish student” at St. Peter’s by the Sea Lutheran Church in San Diego.  This parish has a long history of participating in theological education in this way.  Pastor Karen Marohn is my supervisor, and I have been privileged to work with her in the past.

The service on Sunday was a great example of intentionality.  The lessons all focused on right relationship, whether between people or between people and God.  The words of the confession and forgiveness, the prayers, and the hymns selected all wove through, in, and out of that theme.  Each element supported and commented on the lessons.  Instead of several “little themes” running parallel and taxing the attention of even the most dedicated person, it was more like a beautiful Venn diagram, with everything circling back to the center.  As the last verse of the hymn of the day went:

Great God, in Christ you set us free/your life to live, your joy to share.

Give us your Spirit’s liberty/to turn from guilt and dull despair

and offer all that faith can do/while love is making all things new.

There were no bells or whistles, no projection screens, no praise bands.  Those things are fine in some settings.  But at St. Peter’s, the people are keenly in touch with who they are and whose they are, and it shows.  Deliberate, intentional choices made for the community resulted in worship that reached beyond and welcomed the stranger.

And that leads us to authenticity.  But we’ll save that for next week.

Pink Candles and the Game of Telephone

You may remember the game of Telephone: everyone sits in a circle, and one person begins by whispering something into the next person’s ear.  They in turn whisper it to the next person…and when it gets around the circle, you compare what the last person heard with what the first person said.  They rarely bear any resemblance to one another.

I’ve been researching the question of the Advent Wreath candles, and what I’ve discovered resembles nothing so much as a game of telephone.

Those of you who’ve been in the church for some time might recall that the candles at Bethlehem used to be purple, with one pink candle.  (This would be at least 25 years ago.)  The seasonal color was purple then as well – reflecting an earlier understanding of Advent as a penitential season.

In the late 20th century, a movement began to emphasize the anticipation and expectation that runs through Advent – and the color was shifted to the deep blue of the predawn sky.  Not all churches have adopted this change, but many have.

And depending on a number of factors, that shift to blue may have brought the pink candle along with it.  So what’s up with the pink candle, anyway?  I’ve heard lots of names for it:

*Joy Candle     *Mary Candle     *Shepherd Candle     *Rejoice Candle

Those are just a few – there’s plenty of explanations floating around the web, just as there are plenty of theories as to the origin of the wreath itself.  So which one is true?

From a liturgical/historical standpoint: Rejoice.

Um, okay, you say: we’re still two weeks away from Christmas, if we are going to start saying “rejoice” then does that mean we are going to sing Christmas carols?

Here’s the back story:  before Vatican II, the Bible lessons read at worship were still proscribed, but not with the variety we have today.  Now we have a three-year cycle that features a specific gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with John sprinkled throughout).  We hear many more parts of the Bible read through that cycle, which grew out of the Vatican II reforms of the Roman Catholic Church.

Many years ago, when we read the same lessons every year – in other words, every year you’d hear the same lessons on whatever Sunday it was – the liturgy in the Lutheran Church was structured a little differently.  It began with an Introit, or introduction, that was spoken or sung.  The Third Sunday in Advent’s Introit was:

Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men: the Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.  Ps. Lord, thou hast been favorable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

The Ps. is the Psalm verse that was attached to the Introit; those also changed each Sunday.

The idea was that you had reached the midpoint of Advent – a penitential season, remember – and this was considered a “burst of joy.”  I’ve not been able to figure out why pink, as opposed to some other color, but it could be that it appears to be the “opposite” of purple.  “Rejoice” in Latin is gaudete, so this Sunday was known as Gaudete Sunday.

It paralleled the midpoint in Lent, called Laetare Sunday (Laetare being another Latin word for  “rejoice”), which is the 4th Sunday in Lent.  The Introit for that Sunday was: “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her: all ye that love her. Rejoice for joy with her: all ye that mourn for her. Ps. I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go into the house of the Lord.  Glory be to the Father…”  Again, it was seen in the single lectionary as a joyful midpoint in the Lenten journey.  Our liturgical theology now points us more to an understanding of the Sundays during Lent being outside the 40-day count.

Both Gaudete Sunday in Advent, and Laetare Sunday in Lent, called for rose-colored paraments (decorative/symbolic cloth in the church) and vestments (worn by the presider at the liturgy).  My colleagues who lean more towards “high church” worship are quick to admit that they would have a hard time justifying such a major purchase (several thousand dollars) for only two Sundays a year.

The current ordo, or order of worship, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship does not specify an Introit.  Nor did its predecessor, Lutheran Book of Worship.  It’s not been in widespread use in most Lutheran churches since the late 70s/early 80s.  Yet the pink candle endures, without its supporting introit or reference points.  At some point it was also called “the Mary candle” – which makes no sense at all, because the Magnificat (Mary’s song) isn’t read until the 4th Sunday in Advent, in Year C.  Was it perhaps a gender association – pink for girls?

Calling the candle “the shepherds’ candle” doesn’t make any sense to me either – I’ve read explanations of “the shepherds’ joy” but again – we’re still two weeks before Christmas.  My experience has been that if you’re going to use symbols in church, they need to be clear and make sense.

The strongest symbolism that I see in the Advent wreath is what I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about marking time – and how the wreath marks both chronos time (four Sundays/weeks) and kairos time (Christ’s birth, his awaited second coming, and his entry into our lives today).  Whether those candles are pink, purple, or blue, they are equally able to mark that time.

O come, O come, Emmanuel!

The Carols Question

Ask any pastor or church musician the dreaded question: “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols starting in November?”  Depending on their level of self-control, you may get an exasperated sigh, an eye roll, or a patient smile.  You may hear something along the lines of being counter-cultural, singing the music of Advent in Advent and the music of Christmas in Christmas.  They may try to sell you on how much great music we’ve got for Advent that we should use.  They may default to the ugly truth, which is that we’ve all been hearing these songs in stores since Halloween and we are SICK of them.

But still we long to sing them, at church.  Why is that?

An easy response would be that we like to sing them with our church community.  I think the reason for that is because we KNOW these songs.  I’ve noticed when my congregation sings a non-Christmas hymn they know really well, they sound just as good as they do on Christmas Eve.  A more complicated response would be the one that says something about how good it feels, which sounds a lot to me like nostalgia.  Our former Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, frequently cautioned the ELCA about nostalgia, which he saw as a longing for an idealized past that likely didn’t exist.

In reality, I think there are two reasons that are more subconscious, that run in the river of our soul:  the way music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings, and the way music helps us to mark time.

Pastor Laura talked with the kids a couple of weeks ago about time.  She described chronos time, which we might call “clock time.”  She pointed out the Advent Wreath as a way of marking chronos time with its 4 candles for each Sunday in Advent, and the Christ Candle for Christmas.  We have watches, calendars, and cell phones that tell us what chronos time it is.  She also talked about kairos time – Biblical time, that is “filled with God’s gracious actions and presence.”  (Keeping Time, pg. 3, Ramshaw/Tieg, 2009).  Time that is full of God and which Jesus makes complete brings a different idea of time, one that doesn’t depend on anything written or electronic.

The music of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – what the church calls “the Christmas Cycle” – marks both chronos and kairos time.  Take, for example, the Advent song “Light One Candle” which is set to a Yiddish folk tune:

Light one candle to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall bring salvation to Israel, God fulfills the promise.

Light two candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall feed the flock like a shepherd, gently lead them homeward.

Light three candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/Lift your heads and lift high the gateway for the King of glory.

Light four candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He is coming, tell the glad tidings. Let your lights be shining!

The references to the four candles of the Advent Wreath mark our chronos time.  The second half of each verse, however, exists in kairos time, looking to the prophets as well as to the future when “God fulfills the promise.”

Kairos time is solely marked by the Korean song “Come Now, O Prince of Peace” (ELW #247):

Come now, O Prince of peace, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now, O God of love, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now and set us free, O God, our Savior/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

Come, Hope of unity, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

The tune, Ososŏ, is one that is sung by people of both South and North Korea as a prayer for reunification – something that perhaps can only occur within kairos time.

Christmas carols and songs mark both chronos and kairos time, because they speak of timeless themes with both ancient and future applications, as well as of what Christ’s coming means.  The phrase that sears this into my soul is from “Silent Night”:

Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace

The dawn of redeeming grace.  That is a powerful image to carry home on Christmas Eve.

That brings us to the other reason: music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings.  How many people do you know who use the expression “with the dawn of redeeming grace” in their everyday speech?

I didn’t think you did.  Me neither.

But the poetry of hymnody, of song lyrics, captures and proclaims a part of our human existence in a unique way.  One of our former pastors, Ray Hartzell, once told me that the choices I make as a liturgist are more important than the choices the preacher makes in a sermon.  “People take the music home with them,” he said.  “That is the theology that becomes embedded in their lives, so what we say in the hymns matters.”

We Lutherans aren’t generally known for being charismatic in our worship (Bethlehem’s enthusiasm notwithstanding).  But we ARE known for our singing.  Probably has something to do with the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran.  We try to use as many great songs from each season as we can.  Here’s the thing:  Christmas carols might seem like they can’t be sung after December 25th, but that’s not the case.  The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day.  We can sing Christmas songs all through the Epiphany season too.  But just to give everyone a taste, we’ll sprinkle a carol in here and there during Advent, and let that beloved music voice our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

A Different Kind of King

Tomorrow is the last Sunday of the church year, which we observe as Christ the King Sunday.  This is the day when we will definitely sing something like “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”  Earlier this year we kind of ran “Soon and Very Soon” into the ground so we’ll skip that.

What do we mean when we say “Christ the King”?

The word “king” carries with it many preconceived notions – we think of crowns, thrones, ermine-trimmed capes, and Shakespearean heroes (or tragic figures).  We think of the movie “The King’s Speech.”  We might also think of kings and rulers whose reputation precedes them, and not in a good way.

One way to consider what we mean when we say “Christ the King” is to look at the gospel lesson for tomorrow:  Luke 22:14-23:56.  It’s basically the Passion narrative from Luke’s gospel, and it ends with Jesus’ burial.  Not his resurrection or ascension, but his burial.

(Yes, I’ve got the right lesson.  I double-checked.)

This doesn’t comport with what we think of when we think of a king.  Kings are strong and powerful.  They call the shots; they’re in charge, right?

But there is a term I’ve been hearing the last few years that really captures what kind of a king Jesus is:  servant leadership.

I heard it first in the church, but I was surprised to hear it on my local NPR station, in an interview with the outgoing superintendent of schools for the City of San Diego.  He talked about how he saw his job as servant leadership, and how he felt that this kind of approach was essential for the overall success of a school district.

The other person I think about when I hear this idea is Pope Francis.  He has turned the world on its ear by his approach to the office of the papacy.  “Servant leadership” is exactly what he embodies, and it has made the Vatican bureaucracy uncomfortable on more than one occasion.

We don’t need to look far to find examples of servant leadership – the British royal family has served in the armed forces.  Queen Elizabeth II served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II, and her son Andrew and grandsons William and Harry have all served on active duty – Harry was on the front lines in Afghanistan until someone leaked that fact, and he was re-assigned so as to not bring harm to his unit.

“Servant leadership” is the approach I try to take when I am teaching people how to lead worship.  While leadership is needed in worship, it’s important that said leadership be carried out in a spirit of service to the assembly.  This means that those of us who are leading need to understand that it’s not about us – it’s about the assembly’s worship of the triune God.  It can be a very fine line between leading worship and performing!

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (2:4-14) states the concept of servant leadership beautifully:

4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Not the sort of king who is distant, on a bejeweled throne – but a king who stands and walks with us.  A king who meets us daily on our journey, and who calls us to his table to receive bread for that journey.

I’ll take that over the ermine-trimmed cape any day.

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.

Go in peace. DO SOMETHING!

When my colleagues and I were in Chicago in 2006 for training on introducing the new hymnal (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELW) we brought back this riff on the dismissal as one of our favorite things.  One of the presenters said that these words were the impetus behind the many options that we have for the final words of dismissal in the sending rite:  “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”  “Go in peace. Remember the poor.”  And so on.

The Send part of our liturgy, also known as the sending rite, contains very few elements:  the Sending of Communion (sending communion ministers to take the Sacrament to those who are homebound), a Blessing (also known as a benediction), a Sending Song, and the Dismissal, as above.

ELW also suggests doing announcements at this point in the service, as symbolic of our taking Christ’s mission into the world.  Announcements are a tricky thing.  If you put them at the beginning, those who are late might miss them.  At the end, is anyone listening?  If you put them after the Peace and before the Offering, all the focus on God is lost.

Speaking as someone who’s both made announcements and listened to them, the length can get out of hand fast.  We decided a long time ago that whoever is the presiding pastor has the final say as to what gets announced and by whom.  They’re all in the bulletin insert anyway – we print them on a different color paper so they are easily pulled out to take home.

The matriarch of our community, who died this past July, had a practice with the bulletin insert and announcements that bears repeating.  She took them home every week and put them on her refrigerator, and she would take time daily to “pray the announcements.”  For each person, each ministry, each upcoming activity on that insert, she would be in prayer.  What a gift that was to us!

Back to the Sending of Communion.  This is a practice that dates back to the earliest days of the church, and is recorded in the First Apology of Justin Martyr, a second century Christian philosopher:

“A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.”

The “deacons” in the Apology are not ordained people, but rather persons who have been commissioned for service by the community.  Many parish communities throughout Christianity do likewise today.  If a parish has a Stephen Ministry team, they may be the ones sent with the consecrated elements.  The “sending” is intended to be used if a group of people will be carrying out this ministry through the week.  Obviously there is an organizational element to this too, but it can be very meaningful for the one receiving this ministry – knowing that they are receiving a portion of that which the community shared.

The Blessing is a pronouncement of God’s blessing on the assembly.  The Sending Song might be a more generic end-of-worship song, such as “On Our Way Rejoicing” (ELW 537) or it might be very specific to the season, such as “Joy To The World” (ELW 267) during Christmas.  At Bethlehem, during Advent we have what we call a “seated postlude” between the Sending Song and the Dismissal.  We started doing this many years ago as something of an antidote to the holiday frenzy, and now it has become an important part of the season.  Music is offered that either expresses our longing for the Christ child, or provides a quiet meditation.

And finally, we come to the Dismissal.  When in Chicago we said “Go in peace. DO SOMETHING!” we weren’t trying to be contrary – that really is the essence of the Sending rite.  The rubric, or instruction, for the dismissal reads:  “The assisting minister may send the assembly into mission.”  It DOESN’T read, “The assisting minister dismisses the congregation.”  The idea of “do something” as the dismissal, however, should be clarified.  It’s not a command in the sense that “doing something” is a requirement for continued participation in the body of Christ.  Rather, it’s our response to the lavish, freely-given love and grace of God made manifest in Jesus.  In thanksgiving for God’s saving grace, we in turn “do something” (serve the Lord, remember the poor, etc.) for the life of the world and for the sake of the gospel.  The Dismissal isn’t meant to simply send us outside to have coffee, but rather to send us into service in the world, knowing that Christ is with us.

However, because we are Lutheran, there IS coffee after church.  This is most certainly true.