Being a Prayerbook Christian

I’m a “prayerbook” Christian.

That means I’m formed by the Episcopal Prayerbook, called the Book of Common Prayer.

It doesn’t mean I can’t say or write my own prayers.  And it’s not my book because I’m a priest. It’s a book for everyone.

I’ve heard people say they believe only in spontaneous prayers from the heart.

But there are times I don’t have the words. I’m perplexed, tired, or unenthusiastic, but the book is there. Even if I don’t feel anything, the words enter my consciousness. I find snippets of phrases pop up during the day, to ground me. And when I do pray spontaneously, it’s usually a combination of the words that I’ve repeated.

It helps that the prayers written in the BCP are beautiful. They use direct, visual, active language. They are efficient and succinct. They both have plenty to say, but they don’t prattle on. They say enough. One doesn’t need to be constantly talking to God. One can just move on and do the work.

Prayers from the book let words be words. They take away the responsibility for a perfect prayer, the right words, from the speaker, and just let’s the speaker’s heart be what it is.

However, the prayerbook is not sacred. It’s flexible. It offers room for others. At the convention, we can add more.

In many places, the prayerbook is where we best explain Episcopal teaching. The prayers within the marriage rite exemplify the church’s theology of marriage. Likewise, the ancient burial prayers say what needs to be said about what we think of death.  The prayers are miniatures of longer stories. Canon law is fine, but prayer is prior.

The prayerbook is efficient and egalitarian. I think people confuse “order” with hierarchy, conformism and taboo. Actually, order is about efficiency. It provides the minimum. Anyone can, for example, bless anything: a car, a squirrel, parmesan cheese. But the prayerbook provides the basics. Furthermore, when a priest is not present, we can change the pronouns – because the gathered people are the church. Order also ensures not everyone has to worry about everything. Let the Bishops worry about church. The rest of us have these simple prayers, and we can deal with life.

Sometimes Episcopalians say they don’t know much about the bible. The prayerbook, however, has also compiled the scripture that’s useful for personal edification. We may all want to read the bible cover to cover, but if the time isn’t there, the prayerbook has plenty of verses. We know more about scripture than we think; and it’s used for prayer, rather than as a rulebook or a hammer.

Being a “prayerbook” Christian is not better than any other sort of Christian. However, it it allows the reader to be relaxed about faith, rather than filled with anxiety about perfection or God’s response. Our strength becomes more easily woven into the everyday, for we can be liberated from worrying about how to please Him.

 

Sermon Notes, Proper 17 Year C

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research.  This week’s readings can be found here.

Jeremiah 2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

What is beneficial about a Chrstian pattern of life, if anything?  Jeremiah seems to indicate that the faith of Israel is simply ineffective – the other Gods do not work.   Worshiping other Gods is inefficacious, like using a cracked pot to carry water.  In this sense faith is practical.  This should assuage the scientist and even the agnostic.  What we do works, even if the reasons seem obscure or imprecise.

Usually people worship other Gods because they seem effective.  So what are those Gods, and what do they bring?  How are they mistaken?

Hebrews13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sometimes I think that we could learn a lot about how church life should be from going to three *** restaurants (like this one I went to, when I got my doctorate).  Jesus refers to himself as the server – as if he’s the waiter who ensures that the wedding feast moves without a hitch.  To some extent He is invisible, making the plans.

Do our congregations do the work of hospitality?  It’s not easy.  Hospitality forces us to get out of ourselves and attend to the visitor.   Being an effective server also requires technique, skill and discipline – there are many ways to render a visitor invisible or uncomfortable.   Our “discipleship” is not just about formed thoughts but about the work of providing a space for others to experience the Sabbath.   We underestimate the preparation that requires.  Perhaps we should study church plans the way restauranteurs plan restaurants.

The Gospel inspires me to wonder what do we value?  When do we insist on taking credit?  What does it mean to be recognized?  Why would we be recognized?   To be seen is a deeply human need; and when we are not the humiliation can be too much.  But perhaps a deeper trust diminishes that need enough so that we can still be effective agents in the world though the only person who knows us is the one who made us.

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

Do Churches Need Denominations?

A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations.   He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.

Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness.  Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours.   Lutherans chant.  Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings.   However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.

But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together.  They can harness resources.  They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors.  They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy.   They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.

So yes, churches need denominational structures. Continue reading