Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good questions

The Ship of Fools website runs a Mystery Worshiper survey. Included in it are two great questions (here with answers from a visit to a church in Sydney):

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir was very well coordinated and in complete harmony. One of the best choral performances of Byrd's "Mass for Four Voices" I've heard.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The deacon's painfully slow and soft chanting of the Gospel, which at times was completely out of tune. And communion was so rushed that the chalice was presented before one had a chance to consume the host.

Now, what if we used the questions to prepare our services and our sermons? That is, how can we make as much as possible like being in heaven and as little as possible like being, er, elsewhere!?

Hard times coming

Have been away for a few days (wonderful to be away, wonderful places visited, wonderful people met), so some time to reflect on all sorts of things.

A day does not go by now when we are not reminded about rising fuel prices (not all bad if it makes oil last a little longer), rising house prices / costs of mortgages and rents, and, the daddy of them all, rising food prices.

I am not much of an expert in world history but I think food shortages have played a role in the causation of wars.

Are we heading for another world war? We have antagonism between cultures, civilisations, and world religions. We have aspirations that cannot be met. We have a dire shortage of great political leaders. And we have the prospect of a permanent shortage of food or lack of access to food.

What does a preacher do in this situation? In the Bible we find models in which the preacher-prophet is called to be a watchman, calling God's people to face the facts of imminent catastrophe. We also find encouragement to preach messages of hope in the face of realised or prospective disaster.

Cliches about living in interesting times come to mind!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Constructing outstanding worship services

Tonight the Crusaders lost their first game of the Super 14 rugby series. They had been on a winning streak but they met a better team and they made more mistakes than the other team. They could not build a winning game from the the blocks of rugby (gaining the ball, moving the ball forward, distributing the ball, retaining the ball at the breakdown, etc). I mention this in case any reader think I am obsessed with constructing outstanding worship and nothing else ... I could talk about how to win a game of cricket, and an election too. But you probably do not want to hear from a non-expert.

Not that I am an expert at liturgy, but I know a thing or two. In particular, like you, I know what I like when I am the participant rather than the leader. In my present role I participate in more worship services than I lead. From that vantage point I see construction ... and deconstruction of worship services. (By deconstruction I am thinking of the things we do which distract us from meeting with God ... a late start for instance ... too much of one aspect ... screeches from the sound system, etc). Along the way I am developing some ideas about how to construct outstanding worship services.

Here is one. Work on all aspects of the church's life. Is great worship possible when harmonious fellowship is lacking? If silly things are happening Monday to Saturday and people are grumbling, ought we not to sort out the silly things and transform the grumbling before we think that Sunday's worship service will aspire to much. I have experienced some (considerable) dissatisfaction when the cheery lead from the front of church makes things to be rosy when I darn well know they are not!

Here is another. Deconstruct a great service and work out what made it a great service. One case in point is the service I grow to appreciate more and more as the years roll by, "page 404" in the (red) Anglican prayer book of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. This is one of three eucharistic services. It is an excellent blend of ancient liturgical traditions (e.g. the Kyries, Gloria, Creed), Anglican peculiarities (does any other tradition pay as much attention to the Confession as we do?), and modern touches (such as the 'Open the Gate of Glory' post communion prayer), spread in perfect balance of the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Sacrament. This service is readily deconstructed into its constituent parts and ready answers come to hand when we ask 'why is this there?'

More to come!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Be honest about the source of your sermon

Here is an interesting point about sermons!

You struggle for suitable material to work up into your sermon. A little searching on Google and, hey presto, here is just what you need. Actually it is a complete sermon saying what you want to say. A little bit of editing here and there to excise stories relevant to far away and incorporate tales readily understood by your congregation. Just the ticket.

But after the service people come up to you. 'Excellent sermon!' ... 'Well, done!! That's the best I have heard from you.' Whoops, what are you going to say? 'Actually it was really a sermon given by Billy Graham/John Stott/Joyce Meyer.' Or, are you going to smile and say nothing, confused as to what people would really think of you if they knew how little of your sermon was original to yourself?

My first piece of advice is to be a little bit smart. If you can source a sermon off the internet then your hearers can do a little googling themselves and check their hunch that you have pinched another's work. The smart thing to do is to acknowledge your source, to share the credit with the one to whom it is due!

Here is my suggestion. Somewhere in the sermon - but not in the first sentence - acknowledge your debt. 'In working through this morning's passage I am going to use some powerful reflections developed by X' or 'Here are the three main points in the passage according to Y' or 'I am grateful to Z for his insights into the passage, insights which I feel strongly we should take on board here at St M's today'.

And when folk come up afterwards with their compliments, say something like this in response, 'Thanks, I was really helped by a sermon by N which I read in preparation for this morning.'

The use of other people's sermons is an ancient custom. The problem is not the use of sermons prepared by another but the honesty of the preacher. To receive credit for work which is not yours is - not beating about the bush - dishonest. The internet makes it easier than ever before to locate a pre-prepared sermon apt for this coming Sunday's needs. But the issue of honesty needs addressing.

I am hearing too many unattributed sermons these days. Its time to start proper attribution to the elves of internet sermons!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The eucharistic hinge

All my comments on 'how to lead worship' are based on real experiences!
Following these directions WILL improve your worship leading ... unless it is already perfect!!

A tip or two on leading a communion or eucharistic service.

Think of this as the service with two parts, 'word' and 'sacrament'.
The think about how you and the congregation are going to move from one part to the other. What is the hinge on which the service will turn from 'word' to 'sacrament'?

If we follow the prayer book (in Aotearoa NZ Anglican churches, the 'Red book' or NZPB) we find The Peace is the hinge, including the practical actions of pausing to greet one another, and the taking up of the offertory. Normally in a service with hymns/songs, one will be sung at this point.

In a communion service loosely based on the prayer book ... in my experience this often means 'the peace-greetings' are at the beginning of the service and the offertory may be taken up at the conclusion of the service ... I suggest the bare minimum hinge between the two parts of the service is a song prior to the Great Thanksgiving.

Practically this serves two purposes. One it allows the presider at communion to discreetly set up the communion vessels. Two it gets the congregation on their feet and into a mode of praising God - remaining on their feet to praise God through the Great Thanksgiving is then just a matter of continuity. (The converse, people sit quietly in their seats watching vessels being sorted out on the table, involves a forced and instant change of mood at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving).

While I am about it, a couple of further ideas.

Evaluate very carefully the possibility of having the responses to the Great Thanksgiving on a screen set to the side of the table. I had an experience recently where this was the case - as presider it was quite disconcerting to be in the centre of things but to see almost all the congregational eyes looking to the side of me. Its hard to feel the unity between congregation and presider during the prayer of "communion" ...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

St Matthew's Gospel on the Resurrection

One of the puzzles about the gospels is why they differ on parts of the history of Jesus. One of the most famous, and controversial puzzles concerns the four accounts of the resurrection. Only Matthew's Gospel, for example, tells us there was an earthquake-come-angelic intervention which rolled the stone away (28:2).

Some sceptics argue from these differences to the conclusion 'there was no resurrection in the physical sense that the body of Jesus left the tomb supernaturally ... there may have been a spiritual resurrection in the sense that Jesus' followers became convinced that death was not the end of Jesus so they composed stories about an empty tomb and appearances of Jesus after his death to support that conviction'.

But the Gospels seem to be doing something quite different to the process of invention which the sceptics imagine took place. What they are doing is answering different sets of questions about the resurrection, some of which seem to have arisen from ancient sceptics!

Thus John's Gospel (if we presume, as I would argue we may, that readers of John's Gospel already knew at least Mark's Gospel, if not the other two gospels) answers a question such as this in John 21, 'what happened in Galilee, where the angel in Mark 16 promised the risen Jesus would meet the disciples?'

Luke's Gospel answers some questions, possibly posed simply by believers with doubts, but may be also have been posed by sceptics. Thus 24:11 speaks of those to whom 'these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them', and goes on to outline (again) the evidence for the resurrection: Peter finds the tomb empty (v. 12), two disciples on the way to Emmaus encounter the risen Jesus (vv. 13-35), Jesus himself appears and invites those present to 'touch' him and to eat food with him (vv. 36-42).

That is, from the treasure trove of stories of encounters with the risen Jesus the Gospel writers recount those which respond to issues relevant to the Christian community in which they were present as they wrote the gospels. But they did not invent stories wholesale in order to bolster flagging belief.

With this in mind we can turn to Matthew 28 and recognise that Matthew had been made aware of this line of scepticism, 'Jesus did not rise from the dead; his disciples stole his body and hid it somewhere else.' Matthew 28:11-15 is Matthew's counter-punch to this false assertion. The disciples did not steal the body; the Jewish authorities invented the lie that they did.

But also in the story we might wonder if (say) Matthew was answering a child's question, 'Daddy, how did the stone get rolled away from the tomb?' His answer is in 28:2.

Of course Matthew is not only an apologist or defender of the fledgling Christian faith. He is also a teacher of the faith. What is the appropriate response to the presence of the risen Jesus in the life of the church? 'Worship,' is Matthew's answer, given in 28:9 and 28:17. Yet Matthew is also a pastor of the church, noting and understanding the frailty of people's faith in the risen Jesus, 'but some doubted' (28:17).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

John Donne, Priest, Poet, 1631

31 March is the day to remember the extraordinary John Donne. This year 31 March is also the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (transferred from its normal celebration on 25 March ... oh, no, just nine months to Christmas!).

Here's one of the reasons why John Donne is worth celebrating. Talent and theology bound together in timeless verse. Hat-tip to Kendall Harmon on Titus One Nine.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

–Holy Sonnet XIV

Actually, if you think about it, its an apt poem for the Annunciation.