Rituals and Christmas Lists

Black Friday…Cyber Monday… Our Biggest Sale of the Season… on and on it goes, this gift-giving frenzy that characterizes an American Christmas.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those anti-gift-giving rants that invariably pop up every year. I happen to love gift-giving! OK, yes, and gift-getting, too!

However, reading Isaiah 1:10-20 this morning has reminded me how we can get so caught up in the ritual that we completely lose sight of its purpose.

For at least the past decade, my family has employed Christmas lists. They used to be written on paper, then copied and shared. When email came along, we began sending them electronically. This made life simpler because we could also share what we were giving each individual (except the gift recipient, of course) to eliminate wasted time standing in long post-Christmas gift return lines. Then Amazon developed Wish Lists, making it even easier to create our magnificent gift registries, share them with each other, let Amazon keep track of purchases by simply taking the item off the list once it wasamazon-gift-list purchased, and–the ultimate convenience!–now Amazon even allows us to add items to our list that are not found in Amazon’s vast warehouse! Perfect, right?

 

It was really fun for a while, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it the past couple of years. I have become so caught up in this path to gift-giving…so enamored with the tool for facilitating gift-giving…that the method has supplanted the underlying reason for the action itself. The giving of a Christmas gift is meant to represent my love for the person I’m giving it to, and the gift should be a result of thoughtful consideration.

Back to Isaiah… The prophet exhorts us to hear the Lord’s rebuke to the Israelites, who have become so enamored of the rituals of worship that they have completely forgotten what the rituals  are intended to do: remind us of the One we worship, why we worship Him, and what He most desires from us and for us.

I worship in the Anglican tradition, which has plenty of rituals. I’m grateful that we are encouraged to make use of those which are helpful in our worship rather than become a slave to any of them. When we process in for worship, the lead person lifts up a cross. As I follow behind it, I’m reminded that I follow the risen Christ. When I make the sign of the cross, I do it because at that particular moment in the worship service I’m reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for me, or of the mystery of our triune God. After the offering is collected, the priest lifts the basket heavenward as we sing, and I am reminded that all things do come from God and with grateful hearts we give back a portion of what’s been given to us. All of these rituals are designed to help me remember and reflect on God’s goodness, to foster a humble purity of heart for worship and obedience. This is God’s desire for me and from me, so that I will be fitted and ready for the day when the rituals will no longer be needed because the Kingdom has come in its fullness and worship is the continual reality.

Whatever rituals you may use in worship or in celebrating Christmas (I’ll leave you to ponder which might need attention!), take a little time this week to consider whether they are achieving their intended purpose or whether they have become more prominent than they were ever meant to be. If the latter is true, don’t resort to drastic measures. Rather, allow that awareness to guide you gently back to a proper perspective.

I think I’ll take a little break from Amazon Wish Lists and shop locally for one or two gifts that will be a total surprise!

 

The School for Prayer

prayer in community

 

[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.

 

 

Clergy/Laity Distinction?

question markClergy/laity distinction… It’s a phrase that gets kicked around a lot, especially in the world of equipping leaders. But what does it really mean? Is there a clergy/laity distinction? Should there be? I think that it depends on who you ask and in what context you are asking.

I recently referenced the clergy/laity distinction in a sermon. Actually, I threw down my soapbox, climbed upon it, and proceeded to inform my parish that this distinction is a lie that divides the church and causes no small amount of confusion and misunderstanding. Apparently I was actually quite “feisty” about it, according to one listener! That’s not surprising, since for years I have been on a mini-crusade to promote equality of ministry. But another listener pointed out the irony that I would insist that there should be no distinction between clergy and laity, all the while appearing distinctly different from the rest of the parish as I stood before them in my white alb and deacon’s stole. Ouch!

I was preaching from Ephesians 4:1-16, pointing out that the role of the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry themselves. The purpose of this is to create unity out of the variety of spiritual gifts and diversity of responsibilities so that we all grow up together as one body, into Christ who is the head. I referenced the apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 12, using the body as a metaphor to help his readers understand that all the “working parts” are necessary and equal in their value to the body as a whole. I spoke at length on the way we are interdependent and how this creates unity in the church as we each recognize our part–our ministry–and serve accordingly. In this context, I believe there should be no distinction between the value of the ministry of the clergy and that of the laity.

On the other hand… Both the senior pastor and I are ordained. We wear vestments for worship. Doesn’t that distinguish us from everyone else? And our denomination has an episcopal structure; we are governed by bishops. Doesn’t that represent a hierarchy of power? The answer to both questions is, of course, yes. There is definitely a clergy/laity distinction in this context, that of creating order in the church. It is a system of authority that is intended to guard the integrity of scripture and the sacraments. As an Anglican, I value the distinction between clergy and laity in this ordering of our church.

My point? As equipping leaders, we need to be careful about how we throw that “clergy/laity distinction” phrase around. We might actually contribute to the misunderstanding and confusion, missing the opportunity to restore the worth of each and every minister and the ministry they perform.