By Jonathunder - Own work, GFDL 1.2,

Altar Calls: Discussing Liturgical Worship with Evangelicals

A couple of Sundays ago, I filled the pulpit for a friend in Coldwater, MI.

After church, I checked out a local barbecue joint and got to chatting with a lovely Evangelical couple in line with me. By the time we reached the register, we had become so friendly, the clerk thought we came together and rang us up as a single check. I decided to just roll with it and picked up the tab. They ended up inviting me to their table. 

Knowing I had just come from a preaching gig, and seeing me cross myself before eating, the wife asked me how it is that I maintain a personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of worship that seemed so “religious.” I gave a response in the moment, but have continued to think about her question since then.

Here is my fleshed out response to my new friend, sent over Facebook:

One of the marks of a good question is when someone is still pondering it, weeks after it was asked. Such is the case with the question you asked over lunch in Coldwater, about my personal relationship with Christ in the Episcopal Church and its more formal, some might say “religious”, worship. Still thinking about that one. Bravo!

Continuing to formulate an answer:

As I tried to articulate on the spot, the worship I experience in the liturgy is no mere “going through the motions”. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Bottom line. Full stop.

It is sadly true that such has not been the case for many in mainline denominations, Episcopal and otherwise, over the years. The temptation to simply “go through the motions” is ever present and one must be vigilant to guard against it. Equally dangerous is the temptation to snobbery that one form of worship is better or more pleasing to God than another. Christ was quite clear in his declaration that the Father is only interested in those who worship “in Spirit and in truth.”

Whether this takes place with a rock band or Gregorian chant is, at one level, irrelevant. Forms of worship are human creations. In their best moments, they are outward expressions of one’s deep relationship with God and vessels through which others can enter into a similar relationship.

My experience of the Church’s liturgy has been one such vessel for me. Furthermore, a careful reading of history, especially time-tested classics like the Rule of St. Benedict and the Book of Common Prayer, indicates that the liturgy was certainly born of sincere devotion and a desire to nurture others’ formation into the Imago Dei.

There are two staples of a healthy spiritual diet in our tradition: the Daily Office and the Eucharist.

The Daily Office is our version of what Evangelicals might call their “quiet time”. As the name indicates, it is meant to be practiced every day. Our current prayer book provides services for Morning, Noon, Evening, and Bedtime.

Its roots are in the monasteries, dating back to ancient times. Even today, at my favorite monastery in Three Rivers, the monks rise every day at 4am to pray and read Scripture. They repeat this pattern around the clock, seven times a day. Basically, the job of a monk or nun is to be a full-time intercessor. Our churches often employ full-time pastors for leadership, administration, preaching, worship, youth, and children… but why do we not encounter pastors whose whole ministry is prayer? Strip away the mystique surrounding monastic life and that is what you have: people who have given their whole lives to the work of prayer.

When practiced faithfully, the Daily Office causes us to step back from the hectic rhythm of life to remember that we are ever in God’s presence. Brother Lawrence (another famous monk) called this “the practice of the presence of God”.

The Offices contain prayers of Thanksgiving, Intercession, Confession, Adoration, and Self-offering. They contain copious readings of Scripture for study and reflection. They leave room for holy silence, which is so often lacking in our hectic world. In the service, we recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as a way of calling us back to the center of Christian faith and spirituality.

Above all, the center of the Daily Office is the praying of Psalms. These ancient prayers were the first hymnal of the Church. They express every imaginable emotion. As prayers from Scripture, they are especially interesting because they are simultaneously God’s Word to us and our words to God. Reading them as one’s own prayers engages us in a holy conversation. If one is interested in exploring the power of liturgical worship, all one has to do is crack a Bible and read a Psalm as one’s own prayer.

The other thing is the Eucharist (a.k.a. Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). In our churches, we celebrate this mystery every Sunday. We can no more imagine a church service without Communion than Protestants can imagine a service without reading from the Bible… it just wouldn’t be church! Strip away the formality from the written prayers, and one can see a familiar pattern (I bet even the most casual church service follows something similar to this):

  • -Welcoming the presence and power of the Holy Spirit
  • -Praise and worship
  • -Reading from the Bible
  • -Hearing the Word explained in a sermon
  • -Proclaiming our faith in Jesus Christ
  • -Praying for the needs of the world
  • -Confessing our need for God’s grace
  • -Giving to support the work of the Church

And then comes the celebration of Communion itself. This is the high point of every service. For us, this is so much more than an occasional remembrance that Jesus died for us (although it certainly includes that). Think of it like an ‘altar call’:

  • -The priest (pastor) recalls God’s creation of the world, humanity’s fall into sin, and Christ’s redemptive incarnation, death, and resurrection.
  • -In response to this saving grace, we offer our whole lives to God’s service, along with the physical gifts of bread and wine.
  • -The priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit upon this offering, to transform it (and us) into the Body of Christ (remember… you are what you eat).
  • -Then we get up from our seats and walk down to the altar at the front of the church, with hands outstretched to say, “Yes, I want to receive Jesus Christ. I want to welcome him into my heart, my life, and even my body… so that I may become part of his Body in the world today.”
  • -Then the priest pronounces God’s blessing and sends us out to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today: filled with the Holy Spirit, instructed by God’s Word, strengthened by prayer and worship, and fed by Christ.
  • …and next Sunday, we do it all over again!

This is why I have come to love the worshipful liturgy of the Episcopal Church. This is home for me. Yes, I have to guard myself against “going through the motions”, but the same thing could be said of Evangelical churches where the same praise choruses are sung from week to week. Often, I find the words of the formal prayers helpful if I am feeling spiritually dry or empty. These ancient prayers carry me along, like floating down a river. Even when I am not strong enough to swim on my own (which is all the time), God is strong enough to bring me home. I think of it like the Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and carries it home on his shoulders. That’s me in worship.

Thanks for asking good questions and getting me thinking!

Christos anesti! (Christ is risen!)

Happy Easter!


The Real Legacy of the English Reformation

Reblogged from The Liturgical Theologian.

Cranmer was responsible for the first piece of liturgy written in English (the Great Litany of 1544), much of the Book of Homilies, the inclusion of the Great Bible in parishes around the nation, and the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. These landmarks insured one thing: a common language for the faith and worship of the Church in England. Every parish in the country would now read the same Bible, hear the same homily, and pray the same prayers in the exact same language…

…What then is the true legacy of the English Reformation? A common Bible and a common prayer book in a common language for a common people.

Click here to read the full article

Not Just Pretty Clothes

This is my column for my church’s newsletter this month.  Superfriends and Blogofans from liturgical churches will probably find this information old news, but those of you from “low church” Protestant backgrounds (e.g. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) might find this interesting.  Having come to the Presbyterian Church from an Anglican denomination, I see “high church” liturgy as one gifts that I can bring.  For a more detailed description of liturgical vestments (with pictures), visit:

Image by Gareth Hughes.  Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Image by Gareth Hughes. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

When people think of a Presbyterian pastor leading worship, they tend to think of someone wearing a long, black robe that looks like the kind of academic gown worn at graduations.  In fact, that’s exactly what it is.  This practice goes back to John Calvin himself, who was an educator by profession.  The academic robe (also called a Geneva gown, after the city Calvin lived in) was the socially acceptable thing for a teacher to wear in the 1500s, much like white coats for doctors and uniforms for police officers are today.  John Calvin wore his academic robe in the pulpit because he was opposed to the practice of wearing liturgical vestments like they did in the Roman Catholic Church.

Since Calvin’s time, relations between Presbyterians and Catholics have softened considerably.  Starting in the 1960s, we even began adopting each other’s worship practices.  For example, Catholics now lead mass in English and celebrate Communion while facing the congregation.  Presbyterians (and other Protestants) have been rediscovering the value of ancient and medieval forms of worship, including the weekly celebration of Communion and the wearing of liturgical vestments.

Liturgical vestments are special clothes worn by the clergy when they lead worship.  While they got their start as everyday street clothes in Roman times, they have taken on symbolic meaning over time.

First, there is the Alb.  This is a long, white robe that is a symbol of baptism.  The color white signifies the purity of a soul that has been cleansed from sin.  The sacrament of baptism is the sign of this cleansing.  Anyone who has been baptized can wear this vestment.  In Revelation 7:9, the Bible describes a heavenly scene: “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

Second, there is the Cincture.  This is a rope belt that symbolizes the teachings of Christ.  Like the alb, anyone, ordained or lay, can wear the cincture.  After all, every Christian is supposed to follow Jesus’ teachings, right?  The cincture is a belt because we bind Christ’s teachings to our lives at all times.  It is just as Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  The cincture is a visual reminder to us that we should do the same.

Third, there is the Stole.  This is the long scarf worn by pastors and priests.  It is a sign that the person wearing it has been ordained.  In Roman times, men would wear stoles on formal occasions in the same way that men wear neckties today.  Symbolically, it stands for the yoke of ordained ministry.  For those who are unfamiliar with cattle and oxen, a yoke is a special kind of harness that goes over an ox’s neck when it pulls a cart, just like the stole goes over the pastor’s neck.  This is a reminder of the pastor’s job: to pull the cart (the church) and take it wherever the driver (Christ) directs.  The pastor is not the driver.  The church does not belong to the pastor.  The church belongs to Christ.  Christ decides where the church goes.  The pastor’s job is simply to help the church get there.  If you catch me in my office immediately before or after worship, you might see me kiss the stole as I put it on and take it off.  This traditional gesture is a way for me to remind myself to embrace my calling as the pastor of this church.

Finally, there is the Chasuble.  This poncho-like vestment is only worn when the Eucharist (Communion) is celebrated.  It symbolizes the grace (unconditional love) of God, which covers everything like a big, warm blanket.  It is worn during Communion as a reminder of Christ’s unconditional love that led him to lay down his life for others.  This is the event we remember as we share the broken body and shed blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving, which is our primary response to God’s grace which has been made known to us in Christ.

More and more Presbyterians are starting to make use of these traditional liturgical vestments in worship.  I am sharing their symbolic meaning with you so that you can fully appreciate and enter into the spiritual truths they convey.  Our worship is not simply a matter of thoughts and words.  We bring our whole selves, body and soul, into church.  Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell all play a part in our service.

I pray that your knowledge of these visual symbols in the special clothes I wear on Sunday will enrich your worship experience and make the presence of God more real to you as we render our reverence to God.

Be blessed and be a blessing!


Common Worship: From Revolution to Revelation

Re-blogged from the Presbyterian Hymnal Project Blog.

As a Presbyterian liturgical nerd and long-time fan of the Book of Common Worship, I find this exciting:

A guest post by David Gambrell from the Office of Theology and Worship:

Fifty years ago, something revolutionary happened in the world of Presbyterian worship.

In 1961, the UPCUSA (the former northern church) adopted a new Directory for Worship. For more than 300 years before that, the church had been relying on the Westminster Directory for Worship, written in 1645, making minor revisions here and there. The new Directory for Worship, written by Robert McAfee Brown, opened the door for radical, ecumenical liturgical reform and renewal in the Presbyterian Church—focusing on the centrality of the Word, a deeper understanding of Baptism, and more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper. One church historian has suggested that this work might have had an influence on the groundbreaking Roman Catholic reforms of Vatican II, which took place a couple of years later.[1]

The PCUS (the former southern church) took a similar action in 1963, adopting their own new Directory for Worship. And then, as we know, twenty years later, in 1983, the northern and southern churches merged to form the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). One of the often-forgotten products of that new blended family was our current Directory for Worship, formed from the combination of the previous two… (Click here to continue reading)




Spirit of Life

We trying out a new call to worship tonight at St. James Mission.

It’s called Spirit of Life and was written by Carolyn McDade.

Our music director, Annie Wadsworth-Grove, first heard it at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Washington, DC.  It can be found as #123 in Singing the Living Tradition, the official hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Spirit of Life, come unto me
Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice
Roots hold me close, wings set me free
Spirit of Life come to me, come to me