In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to feel the floor or the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of people walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time. But perhaps this might appear quixotic to those who have forgotten such elementary satisfactions. Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it.
-- Thomas Merton
The season of Advent is the beginning of the church year. If you follow the lectionary readings for this season you will find that they are accounts of prophets proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom and anticipation of the coming of the messiah. We re-live this anticipation through these texts, our music, and even the way creation enters more deeply into darkness until the passing of the winter solstice.
On Thanksgiving Day many churches offer a very traditional worship service: Psalm 100, a litany of thanksgiving, “Come, You Thankful People, Come.” On a day when we look back with gratitude at God’s good gifts to us, it makes sense to make use of the work and wisdom of our forebears and to worship using that which is tried and true. Other congregations seek innovation: pilgrim puppets behind the pulpit, prayers of thanks colored (not written) in crayon on scraps of paper and dropped in the offering plate.
Our culture craves novelty, which may explain—but doesn’t necessarily commend—our thirst for it. A more laudable urge is to offer in our worship not a stale tradition, repeated out of habit, but something original: our creative expression, our prayers and words and music, our very selves. We want to offer something fresh and new. But must it be an either/or choice? Many congregations are very successful in their efforts to examine the tried and true traditions (often more true than actually tried), identify the best in them, and then freshen them in ways sensitive to their contexts. Here are a few ideas...
A Book of the Names of the Dead is a very meaningful ritual for All Saints Day. Find a large beautifully bound book with blank pages. Sentences of scripture related to saints and the resurrection might be written in the margins. Or, you can purchase this book from Liturgy Training Publications. A few weeks before All Saints Day, place the book in the church and invite people to write the names of loved ones they wish to remember. Read the names aloud during the distribution of communion at your All Saints Day service. This ritual reminds us that one aspect of the Lord's Supper is the communion with all the saints. When we eat and drink, we dine with our loved ones and all the saints who have gone before us. Instead of reading the names during communion distribution, you could included the names in the prayers or read them at the font in connection with baptismal remembrance.
Dr. Steven Taylor is the founding pastor of Graceway Baptist Church in Ellerslie, New Zealand. He has a PhD on the Emerging Church and a Masters in Theology in communicating the cross in a postmodern world. Steve recently did a course at Fuller Seminary entitled “Communicating the Biblical Text in a PostModern Culture” in July.
He argues that to communicate the biblical text for today’s context requires one to “incarnate, indwell, our culture.” Taylor goes on to use the phrase “DJing” with respect to the community. A record DJ learns the historical stories (old records) and uses them authentically in contemporary culture and integrates them into the community's stories. There is too much to summarize here, but do look for his book “The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change” from Zondervan.
Taylor cites Bono of U2 as a person who effectively DJs today. According to Taylor, Bono is in fact a worship leader for over 40,000 people; Bono recontextualizes the biblical text and leads concert goers into a time of community worship and prayer. Taylor plays the “Vertigo ‘05” DVD and shows us how Bono is leading worship. This intrigued me to the point that Dr. Taylor and I discussed this further after the workshop. The following is from Steve’s article “7 Things I learnt from Bono about Worship Leading.”
1. Connect uniquely. In the Vertigo DVD, Bono speaks about Chicago and his memories of Chicago. He makes a unique connection with context, day, and time.
2. Engage through familiarity. Bono includes songs that resonate with previous experiences and previous encounters.
3. Use repetition to call forth prayer. Bono uses the repetitive “Hallelujah.” It is easy to sing. The simple repetition enables the audience to sing with the band.
4. Secure a 5th (visual) band member. U2 now has a 5th member of the band to add a visual layer to the experience. A wise worship leader will look to add not just singers or musicians, but a “visual” person to their team.
5. Create hope by drawing the best from the past. Bono tells the audience in the Vertigo DVD, “We as a band are looking to the future. We’re taking the best of the past and moving forward with hope.”
6. Plan participation. Bono can draw one boy from the audience to sing to, one woman from the audience to dance with. He uses repetition to call forth prayer and encourage congregational singing.
7. Invoke passionate practices. Bono invites the audience to hall out their cell phones and to text “Make Poverty History campaign.” A worship leader turns singing into action. He turns entertainment into justice.
Ron’s story about baptizing his nephew and the connections of baptism to our care for creation show how multifaceted the layers of this sacrament are. All of life, for those of us born of water and the Spirit, is wet. In other words, every moment of each day is grounded in baptism. Even if we are not following the will of God, those moments are redeemed in God’s grace, which is one aspect of baptism (cleansing from or forgiveness of sin). This is why confession or at least a reflection on how we “missed the mark” or sinned is a part of the compline prayer. The ancient “compline” prayer, or prayer at the close of the day shapes our sleeping and rising in the death and resurrection of Christ. This image is one of baptismal life; continually dying (repenting and turning from ways that separate us from Christ) and rising to new life each day.
Throughout the worship service there are several moments each Sunday where we can engage water in ways that help us understand and live more deeply into our baptism. Here are a few examples:
During the gathering of the people you can pour water into the font or baptismal pool with words that accentuate our inclusion into the family of God such as:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you m ay proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
After confession, you may pour or splash water while you while declaring God’s grace and forgiveness. Any words of forgiveness and grace accentuate baptism. However, you may use words that are more explicit:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3,4) Know that you are forgiven and be at peace, walking in the light of Christ, loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Calling for the offering is a great place to remind people of the promises they have made at baptism. We promise to follow Christ, obey his word, love God and one another and live our lives in ways that show Christ’s love in this world. Our best offering is the way we live. While money is important, how we make that money and our priorities in the way we spend money are also part of living into our baptism. The way we live each minute of the day is our best and most important offering, even more important that anything that has to do with money. Too often the offering seems to revolve around money, especially when we process plates of money down the aisle singing a doxology. What are ways we can expand our offering to include living the baptismal life?
Sending people into the world is another place where the image of water can remind us that we leave this place to live into our baptism. Perhaps you could use such words as this while pouring or splashing water:
We are the people of God, members of the household of faith, a royal priesthood. Let us proclaim with our lives the good news of Christ for all the world!
These images are just scratching the surface of the mystery of baptism. There are many more aspect of this life we live in faith and many more ways to express it. The Presbyterian Church USA is inviting all its member churches into five practices each Sunday:
1. Set the font in full view of the congregation.
2. Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
3. Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
4. Lead appropriate parts of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
5. Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
You can read the whole report, including supporting material that is helpful for studying and reflecting on baptismal life at https://pcusa.org/theologyandworship/worship/sacramentworkgroup.htm
By engaging in these practices each Sunday we can begin to explore how baptism is a part of every aspect of Christian living. Just a few examples would be forgiving others, caring for creation, what we do at our jobs (or our vocation), the way we spend money, we interact with others, all this is grounded in the life of faith which is the baptismal life. The mysteries of the faith are never fully exhausted. These practices can be explored each and every time the community of faith gathers and even in our daily prayer.
A couple weeks ago I baptized my nephew at his home church in Chicago. Per his parents' request, we used freshly imported water from Lake Michigan. Let's just say that we certainly followed the ancient advice to use "living" water.
His parents were eager to do this because their families -- on both sides -- have deep connections to the "Big Lake" as home. In the service, I pointed to the appropriateness of the link the water made between family initiation and initiation into the larger family of God.
But more than that, I suggested that using water from this natural resource -- so dominant and precious to us in the midwest -- highlights the deep connection between the grace of God offered in baptism and the responsibility we gratefully take on as Christ's disciples to care for the world in which that grace is manifest. It says something damning to us if the water in our backyard streams, or rivers, or lakes is so polluted that we cannot in good common sense bathe in it, or in good conscience call it "living" water. Perhaps my nephew Samuel will grow up, in service to Jesus, to be a biologist who concerns himself with the health of Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario, and Erie.
This may not sound very revolutionary, but any movement at all in my congregation carries the threat of something going awry. Our large mainline congregation typically restricts its movement to arriving, standing, sitting, and departing. Now we are about to take a walk together past the baptismal waters as a sign of remembrance and renewal.
We are about to reflect together upon the story of Peter walking on water. His first steps brought the threat of sinking. Our steps bring the threat of tripping over someone’s walker or stepping on a neighbor’s foot. – As the pastor receiving Monday morning quarterbacking, I’m not sure which is scarier!
Placed in the context of Peter’s walk, our congregational journey will be just a token of the faithful risk we are called to share. Members will bring their offerings forward as they physically move toward the front of the sanctuary. (I’m told there are some African communities where this act of offering is the most joyful and powerful part of the service!) Upon placing their offering (and their heart!) before the Lord, they will pass the baptismal waters and be given opportunity to touch the water and remember God’s claim on their lives.
Children will be baptized at the start of our worship service. This exercise will be placed after the proclamation of the Word. It will be a remembrance of the baptismal act that further invites the congregation into the sacrament that was shared.
Peter’s success came when his eyes were fixed on Christ. The challenge for us will be to lead with words of comfort and assurance that empower the congregation to take this minor risk of ardor. When we structure the event with order, it will become a moment of welcome and hospitality for the congregation to renew their spiritual life together.
Our congregation may not be filled with folks courageous enough to wade “in” the water. However, this wading “by” the water should be invitation enough to remember who they are.
The serigraph above is entitled "The River" by John August Swanson. View his work at www.johnaugustswanson.com.
Everyone wants heightened spirituality, but don’t know what it takes to get there. Most pastors and worship leaders have such a hectic schedule that it is impossible to slowdown enough for quiet time or solitude. Yet the Apostolic Fathers of faith placed a high value on it.
If leaders have a problem with carving out quiet moments can you imagine what the congregation is feeling? Jonny Baker and Doug Gay’s Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church, provides a “ritual” that contextualizes the spiritual practice of being in the desert that can be used as part of a worship service, small group gathering, or as teaching illustration.
Items needed: Removed Van seat, a boom box, selection of CD’s (ideally instrumental), a video projector and VCR. Video tape a drive down the highway, even being stuck in traffic, or driving through the city.
Description: Traveling in a car is the closest thing for most people get to solitude. “Setting up this ritual will hopefully help people to reflect positively on the space they have next time they are driving alone in the car” (Baker and Gay, Alternative Worship, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2004, 86)
Baker and Gay suggest setting up a station that simulates driving in a car. The guests will receive an instruction sheet encouraging them to use this time to listen to music, reflect and pray. You would set up the van/car seats facing a screen. Place the boom box or a Discman personal CD play with headsets on the seat. The listener can select the music that they would like to listen to. Project the driving video onto the screen from behind the seats, which will simulate a car ride. The goal is that every time they take a drive, they can positively connect this space with an opportunity to connect with God and creating a contemporary desert experience.
While planning a worship service at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, one student said, “If we’re going to do the Kiss of Peace, can we play Spin the Bottle?” Although her comment was intended as a joke, she and the other students—with the encouragement of the college chaplain—developed a version of “Spin the Bottle” as an appropriate and authentic part of our Christian communion service.
After the Invitation to the Lord’s Table, Eucharistic Prayer, and Words of Institution, a worshiper who was chosen before the service began, took an empty water bottle and spun it on the floor of the Chapel. When it came to a stop, the first worshiper and the worshiper toward whom the bottle was pointing met in the middle of the Chapel, exchanged the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace, and then went to the communion table and served the Eucharist to each other.
Then the next worshiper spun the bottle and met the person toward whom it pointed in the middle of the Chapel. They exchanged the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace and went to the Table and served the Sacrament to each other.
We learned about the “Mar Thoma” Kiss of Peace from an Austin College student who was part of the Mar Thoma Church of India. We have begun to use it often in our worship because it is an appropriate and non-threatening way for worshipers to touch each other.
To exchange the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace, two worshipers face each other, extend their hands forward, and then touch hands so that the right hand of each worshiper is between the palms of the two hands of the other. One worshiper then says, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and the other responds, “And also with you.”
Students find this to be an enriching part of worship because—with a little assisted reflection—they realize that they might be paired with a close friend or they might be paired with a fellow worshiper whom they had not even known before the service began. In either case, worshipers are reminded that our lives as Christians—as the Body of Christ in the world—might involve both those to whom we are closest and others who we may not know at all.