Personal Questions, the 2nd Part

Second question: How do you go about preparing for worship?

I’m not 100% sure what this question is driving at? Are people wanting to know about how I spiritually prepare to go into worship? Or is this more of a question about what kind of planning goes into preparing a worship service?

Let me tackle the second one first. Generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of preparation for worship except at the beginning of a season or for a feast/fast day. That’s because Lutherans have a liturgy. Well, pretty much all traditions have a liturgy, whether they choose to call it by that name or have even heard of that word at all. Non-denominational Christians usually follow an order that looks something like 20 minutes of praise music, the reading of scripture followed by a sermon, more praise music, communal prayer, and more music. That’s a liturgy. Sometimes there are other elements placed in there, too, such as communion or laying on of hands or some similar kind of intercession. Liturgy.

For Lutherans, we have the ancient liturgies that we received from Catholicism, often run through the lens of Martin Luther and his revised liturgy called the Deutsche Messe. But Luther intentionally made the liturgy broad and adaptable. Modern Lutheran liturgies contain the following elements with LOTS of variations on the parts in between: Gathering — Word — Meal — Sending. The basic idea is that we are gathered together to hear Scripture, reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ, share in the Eucharistic meal that he invited and invites us to, and then we are sent out in the power of the same Spirit who gathered us, to take the grace we have heard proclaimed and to pass it on. That’s our liturgy.

In the in-between parts, we usually sing. There’s a gathering song and a sending song. There’s a hymn of the day that is meant to proclaim the gospel in both words and music. There is a sung prayer for mercy (the Kyrie), a hymn of praise (the Gloria), a sung preparation for the Eucharist (the Sanctus or Holy, Holy, Holy), a song to the Lamb of God (agnus Dei).

There are prayers, mostly communal ones, but in the pauses before those prayers to which we respond with one voice, we have the opportunity to add our own, individual prayers. We pray the so-called Lord’s Prayer (probably more properly called the Disciples’ Prayer). There’s a prayer of offering, a prayer of thanksgiving. Prayers of intercession. Prayer all over the place.

There are greetings, responses, passings of peace. And on and on. Most of this stuff is prepared for us by skilled liturgists who have put these things together into “settings” that are printed in our hymnals and accessible via online subscriptions that make it easy to put them in bulletin form, for those congregations who don’t use the hymnal (for various reasons).

So the preparation for worship is largely done well before the pastor and other leadership even have to begin thinking about it. The major prep work comes several weeks before the church season changes, and the biggest of these changes have to do with the preparatory seasons of Lent and Advent, then the festal seasons of Christmas and Easter. And the time after Pentecost, the longest time of the year, also has its own preparation. This is called “Ordinary Time,” but should maybe be called “ordinal” rather than ordinary, because it doesn’t mean “plain” or “regular” as much as it has to do with counting from the day of Pentecost to the season of Advent.

Of course there are other feast and fast days in between all of these things: Christ the King Sunday, Trinity Sunday, Reformation Sunday, feasts of particular saints (usually not celebrated in Lutheran traditions, because we don’t generally venerate individual, “canonized” saints any more than we do the saints in our own lives), and so on.

All of this work is best done, in my opinion, by a team, of which the pastor is a part and maybe the lead. Which setting will we use for each season? What songs shall we use each Sunday? How do we want the worship space to reflect the mood of each season? That kind of question. It can be a lot of work. It can also be as simple as following recommendations that our publishing houses offer us. That depends entirely on the congregation. I’ve done it a number of ways, and I don’t find one necessarily better than the other. The real question is: does it affirm life and love in the congregation, or does it become a bone of contention? And then the group has to figure out how to navigate the response, depending on how you answered the question above. So, I don’t have a single way to answer the prep question, but leave it to the congregational context, while sometimes affording myself the luxury of pushing for one thing or another if I think the situation calls for it, maybe to help the congregation stretch what they think is possible.

I will take a brief aside here to talk a bit about some of the ways that the congregation I serve and I have stretched those boundaries. We have used the “new” hymnal, the “Cranberry” one called Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which has 10 settings in it for the Eucharist, plus settings for Baptisms, Funerals, non-Eucharistic gatherings (aka Service of the Word), morning prayer (Matins), evening prayer (Vespers), Weddings and so forth. We have also used the “old” hymnal, the green one (Lutheran Book of Worship). We’ve used the Detroit Folk Mass (which, to be fair, isn’t at all a folk setting because it’s not at all easy to sing, but it’s good when done well). We’ve used Marty Haugen’s “Holden Evening Prayer.” Those are all pretty standard in most Lutheran churches.

We’ve also used liturgies from Worship Design Studio (particularly great for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter); Prayer around the Cross from Holden Village’s contemplative prayer settings; Dinner church Eucharistic models from places such as St. Lydia’s Table in Brooklyn, NY. We’ve done blessings of the pets, blessings of backpacks and laptops, blessings of quilts and prayer shawls; laying on of hands; healing services; blessings of the grounds with walking prayer; stations of the cross. I can’t even think of everything we’ve done, but it is a credit to the congregations I have served that they are willing to engage more than just the standard fare when it comes to possibilities for different kinds of worship. There is a LOT of room for creativity at the local level.

The one thing I’ve left out of the regular service so far is preparation for preaching, because it deserves special attention. According to Martin Luther, the Word of God is first and foremost Jesus the Christ. This comes straight out of John’s Gospel, chapter 1. After that, the Word of God is the good news of God in Christ as preached in the sermon or homily. Finally, the word of God is the scriptures. This is not to downplay the importance of scripture, but rather to uplift the proclaimed word, the gospel (or Good News), and above all to lift up (and therefore to subjugate beneath him) the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Good preaching focuses on Jesus, and like the Bible itself, witnesses to him.

With that understanding in mind, preaching is serious business. I always pray before putting pen to paper (or sometimes fingers to keyboard) that it’s not MY message that’s coming across, but rather the message that the Father whispers to the Spirit about Jesus, and that this comes through to the people via (and sometimes in spite of) the words I use to convey it.

That said, preparing to be a vessel for the message takes work. I’ve mentioned prayer in one sense. Reading the appointed (lectionary) scriptures for the week usually involves for me the practice of lectio divina (divine reading). Here’s the process:
* I read through the texts once, out loud when possible, just to get a sense of the passage.
* I sit in silence and stillness of mind for a few minutes.
* I read the passages again, this time listening for a word or a phrase or an idea that draws my attention. A lot of times, this turns out to be something that troubles me in some way.
* I meditate on why it stood out to me and start to get some preliminary ideas for where a sermon might go.
* Then I read it a third time with that meditation in mind and then let the ideas stew for several days.

During those days between the lectio reading and the actual writing of a first draft, I engage myself in conversation with various partners. Sometimes those are live human beings with whom I talk about my ponderings over coffee or a pint. Sometimes it’s with authors of books or articles. Sometimes I let the scripture fight with another scripture to help bring clarity to one or the other (or to both!) passages.

One of my steady conversation partners over the last several years has been the French Catholic sociologist Rene Girard, who sort of re-discovered what some of his students called the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. It can be a bit of a heady thing to consider, but the theory, usually called Mimetic Theory or Mimetic Realism has to do with how we acquire our desires, and what we will do in order to achieve our desires. The classic example involves imagining three toddlers in a room full of toys. None of the toys has any intrinsic value, but one of them will receive value when the first toddler shows an interest in it. The choice of that object was probably random, but suddenly that toy is now imbued with value because little Billy wants it, therefore it must be good, therefore I want it, too. Rivalry ensues, and it sometimes leads to violence. Transpose that example to the story of Cain and Abel, then realize that Cain, the brother-killer, is the one who survived and went on to form cities and found cultures, and then you have the basic idea behind how desire can become murderous, how it underlies culture, and how this is the actual basis of “original sin,” not an inherent badness. It’s actually a twisting of desire. And this lies at our core as humans. It’s the water we swim in without noticing, and it’s essentially what led us as a species to the scapegoating of Jesus. But Jesus knew how we were before the incarnation, and so, stepping into our matrix, he became a willing scapegoat – an innocent victim – who brought to the fore the futility of killing a scapegoat and calling it good (“it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish”) and even to call it godly. He then came back on the third day, not as a vengeance-seeking spook, but as the Forgiving Victim, showing us the only viable way out of constantly regenerating the scapegoat mechanism. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but Girard’s work and the work of his many followers strongly colors my reading of the scriptures and what they mean for us today.

The other major influence on me – and this is much more recent and is still developing – draws on Western (and sometimes Eastern) Christian Wisdom traditions. That would take a lot more time and effort to unpack, but it has been truly transformational for my own spiritual life, and I think it helps me as a pastor for people who say that want a deeper sense of spirituality, a real transformation of heart and mind and emotion. I’ve barely begun to tap this well, and I’m excited to see how it continues to develop in the future.

I think that may be a good place to end the answer to question 2.

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