Communion & Charity

Why do we celebrate weekly communion? There are many good reasons but one of the most important is one we might not think about often enough—communion with the risen Christ also entails communion with others who are united to him by faith. Union and communion with our Lord leads us into union and communion with our brothers and sisters in the church, and (to a lesser extent) all people. John Calvin highlights this when he writes about the importance of communion. Calvin calls communion the “bond of charity” and explains, “For as the bread, which is there sanctified for the common use of us all, is made of many grains so mixed together that one cannot be discerned from the other, so ought we to be united among ourselves in one indissoluble friendship. What is more, we all receive there the same body of Christ, in order that we be made members of it.”[1] For Calvin, communion with Christ is the foundation, and the motivation, for communion with others. This is one of our greatest motivations for mercy ministry—weekly communion reminds us of how much mercy God has poured out on us in His Son Jesus Christ. How can we hold anything back we see others in pain, in loneliness, in brokenness? Every week we participate in the sacrament of healing and wholeness, which equips us to be agents of the Kingdom in the lives of others.

[1] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ,” in J.K.S. Reid, ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), 151.

Is “all of life worship”?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, the renowned Reformed philosopher and theologian, has now tackled the subject of liturgy and worship.  In The God We Worship:  An Exploration of Liturgical Philosophy, Wolterstorff carefully analyzes and probes a subject which confuses many people.  Consider the popular and prevalent phrase, “praise and worship.”  Many people (and churches) use this to describe a time of enthusiastic singing, which is followed by a sermon, or a teaching time.  Is listening to the sermon an act of worship?  Is the pastor delivering the sermon engaging in worship?  Wait, haven’t we been told that “all of life is worship”?  Can’t I worship God by washing my car on a Sunday (or any day)?  When we toss the word “worship” around so carelessly, no wonder the world at large (and too reason to singmany self-professed Christians) don’t take “worship” seriously anymore.

For those with the intellectual stamina to carefully follow Wolterstorff’s train of thought, The God We Worship will help to clarify the fuzziness which pervades the contemporary church.  Here’s the end of Ch. 2:9 Continue reading

Origin of Folding Hands in Prayer

folded handsOne of the fun things about studying worship and liturgy is finding out the origin of things we do, either consciously or unconsciously.  One of my pet peeves is all the well-intentioned Sunday school teachers who exhort their students to “close your eyes and fold your hands” in prayer.  Where does the Bible command this?  Where do we see this bodily position used in Biblical prayer?  We don’t, as far as I know.  Imagine my delight when I came across a passage, from Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, which explains the origin of this wide-spread custom.  In the late medieval period, it was commonly thought that great blessings and spiritual merit came from seeing, and viewing, the bread of the Eucharist.  The most powerful and effective viewing time was when the priest lifted up (elevated) the Eucharist.  We have records of people running from church to church to see as many elevated Eucharists as they could.  Since this was a holy moment, the people were encouraged to respond appropriately:

medieval eucharist“Proper humility was recommended at this moment, when people were to kneel and gaze at the body and the blood.  This is the attitude most commonly shown in visual representations of the elevation, a group of men and women with clasped hands, and sometimes holding their hands to their mouths in a gesture of awe, kneeling behind the servers and priest.  They are most frequently shown to be clasping their hands in a gesture which becomes increasingly common in thirteenth-century representations, one which we nowadays think of as natural for private prayer” (Corpus Christi, 155-56).

child_prayingI don’t mean to be too hard on the Sunday School teachers, but it is simply interesting how we inherit all sorts of traditions from the past, and are blissfully ignorant of the origins of most things.  This should make us both more humble in our own worship practices, as well as thankful for all the rich history and traditions that have been handed down to us.  Thankfully, God sees the heart, which is really the point of prayer.  May we all have hearts full of child-like faith, no matter how we express that with our bodies!

I blogged about prayer postures some time ago:

More Relevant “Worship” or More Relevant Mission?

Here’s a great piece by Jonathan, at Ponder Anew.  Jonathan exposes some assumptions and problems with “contemporary worship,” but I especially love his conclusion.  The way to grow churches is not through flashy concert-performances, but by living out missional lives in our communities.  The whole article is worth reading, but here’s Jonathan’s conclusion:

“So what happens, then, if we don’t craft our worship services to attract unbelievers?

We’ll have to get serious again about Sunday. All of us. And then as the clock strikes noon, we’ll have to go.

Go out and feed the hungry.

Go out and clothe the naked.

Go out and associate with people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t act like us, don’t vote like us, and don’t usually like us.

Go out and fight for justice.

Go out and end oppression.

Go out and proclaim anew the old, old story.

Go out and reach out to those who are running from God and God’s church.

Go out and stop deflecting tough questions with our usual, tired cliches.

And do all of this in the name of the one who sent us.

And then open the doors wide again on Sunday morning.”

Charles Baird’s “A Chapter on Liturgies”–Free!

I recently discovered that one of the classic texts on Presbyterian & Reformed liturgies is now available for free on Google Books!  Charles Baird’s A Chapter on Liturgies:  Historical Sketches was a ground-breaking work published in the late 1800s, when many people were ignorant of the rich liturgical history of the Reformed churches.  Baird’s project was so novel (given the anti-liturgical prejudices in the Reformed world at the time) that he published the first edition of the work anonymously.  It bore the unwieldy title of Eutaxia; Or the Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches, by A Minister of the Presbyterian Church (now republished by Forgotten Books in a facsimile format). Although the research is dated and must be compared with more recent scholarship, it is well worth perusing.  Unfortunately, much ignorance and prejudice about liturgy still prevails in Reformed churches.  Baird’s even-handed and honest history will help many churches grow and appreciate the liturgical resources in their own traditions.

 

Mark Buchanan on Liturgy

In his wonderful book, The Rest of God:  Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Mark Buchanan muses on the meaning of “liturgy”:

“I was converted within a Low Church tradition … Yet over time I began to realize that the Low Church is just as bound by liturgy as any church, and maybe more so because we think we’re not.  The Low Church enshrines–makes a liturgy of–austerity, spontaneity, informality.  And we have our unwritten but nonetheless rigorously observed codes and protocols.  We love our traditions, even our rigmarole, every bit as much as the next guy, only ours is earthy, rustic, folksy.

“So I changed my mind about liturgy.  It certainly can become dull and rote, but so can anything … At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honor transcendent reality.  It helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions.  It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to brush heaven among the shades of earth.

“Our most significant relationships and events have a liturgical shape to them.  They have rites of passage.  Birthdays and homecomings, graduations and good-byes.  Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, birth and death and marriage:  all are marked by words and actions, songs and symbols, customs and traditions that enact them and complete them.  And all these things also provide us with a means of entering them.  What is a birthday without a cake, at least one candle burning on it, and a huddle of well-wishers, wearing clownish hats, singing in their ragged, hoary voices?  What is a birthday without a liturgy?

“What liturgy accomplishes is nothing short of astonishing:  It breaks open the transcendent within the ordinary and the everyday.  It lets us glimpse the deeper reality–the timeless things, the universal ones, the things above–within this particular instance of it” (The Rest of God, 8-9).

Buchanan goes on to explain meaning of the Greek word for “liturgy” in its ancient context, and why it was “odd” for the early church to use it to describe its public worship. But, you’ll just have to get the book and read it for yourself.  It’s well worth it!

Sexist Scottish Stools

We’ve all heard the romanticized story of how Jenny Geddes, the rustic Scotswoman, was so disturbed by the King of England’s imposition of English Anglican prayers on the Scots Presbyterians, that she threw her stool at the minister in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1637.

Sorting legend from historical fact here is tricky, but I’ve always wondered why she had a stool in the first place.  Seating in churches was a relatively late development–churches throughout the early church and medieval times would have been bare of seating, for the most part.  Pews are a modern development.  So, if you wanted to bring seating, you had to bring your own.  But, there’s a more depressing side to Jenny Geddes and her stool.  According to William D. Maxwell, the noted liturgical historian of the early 20th century, women were sometimes not allowed to sit with the men in Scottish Reformed churches.  I will quote him at length, because he really messes with a few of our mental pictures for Scots Reformed worship:

“The attitude at prayer everywhere was kneeling, on both knees or on one knee; hats were removed for prayers, psalms, and reading, but were usually though not always worn during sermon by the preacher and the men, and the women wore plaids or shawls on their heads, and in many places sat separate from the men.”

He continues in a footnote, quoting the decision of board of elders in Glasgow, in 1589:  “‘The session ordains that no woman sit upon or occupy the forms the men should sit on, but either sit [i.e. on the floor] or els bring stools wi’ them’.  Forty-eight years later [Maxwell comments] Jenny Geddes (?) obediently brought her stool with her, but allowed it to be put to more aggressive use, and this method was not the last time stools were used as weapons in church, as records of this and the succeeding century show” (William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland, 97).

So, not only did we have Scots Presbyterians kneeling to pray (I thought that was a Roman Catholic thing!) and wearing hats in church, but we had women often segregated from the men, forced to sit on the floor or on stools they brought to church with them.  Well, hopefully their husbands carried their stools to church for them.  Humorous at the least, but also revealing how much of our worship is dictated by our historical context and culture.