Liturgy

One Baptism, One Faith

AFTER SEVEN YEARS of theological, historical, and pastoral conversation, leaders of Reformed and Catholic churches in the U.S. this January signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other's churches. This agreement represents dedicated—and inspiring—ecumenical work.

The agreement was signed by representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Christ. This agreement is not unprecedented, coming as it does nearly five decades since Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, in which the Catholic Church recognized non-Catholic baptism whenever "duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and ... received with the right dispositions." However, for each tradition, baptism gives sacramental expression to that tradition's understanding of the church and what it means to be a member. For these churches to recognize each other's baptismal rites gives visible witness to their mutual desire for unity among the members of Christ's body.

This desire for unity between the churches is not an add-on to the gospel; it is not something we do if we happen to get to it. It is central to the saving work and mission of Jesus.

This January's agreement is spare in its requirements. It states that the use of water and a reference to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all that are needed for mutual recognition. By specifying these two simple elements, the ecumenical team made a decision to respect the liturgical tradition of each church. The unique way that components of the rite have developed in each church—how catechesis is done, the use of scripture, the use of sponsors, anointing, and other elements—do not need to be changed.

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... And Every Tongue Confess

Scripture passage, Anastazzo / Shutterstock.com
Scripture passage, Anastazzo / Shutterstock.com

I am part of a liturgically worshiping tradition. There are days I wish I wasn’t; days when our Kyrie is lacking splendor and our Eleison feels redundant; moments that I wish we could get to the important stuff — my inspired and infallible message (I kid) — and toss the unending Psalm or Prayers of the Church.

And then there are the other times, when I am guiltily reminded that cutting the creed means missing out on the same words spoken by millions of believers before me. Or when the music just all works and my heart is stirred by the Hallelu– (shhh, its Lent) Chorus. 

So I like to remind my community of believers from time to time why we do what we do. I have long felt the risk of liturgy is that it becomes rote narration, a thoughtless speechifying of sorts. So that this might be avoided, here are my thoughts on the creeds and why a corporate confession of faith is still valuable today. 

Can You Hear My Song?

IF YOU ARE not overly familiar with the repertoire of a Leonard Cohen concert, it's hard to tell the new songs from the old. Songs from a different age sound neither anachronistic nor nostalgic, while the new echo as though they have been around forever. It's the same show night after night, with songs from the latest album, Old Ideas (released in 2012), woven into the familiar canon. Cohen tells audiences that his revivalist tour might end in two years, so that he can start smoking again by the time he turns 80.

It is a joke you know Cohen has cracked a hundred times, the kind that makes my brother call him the Jewish Dean Martin. The humor is one part of a precise choreography, whose arrangements shift from blues to waltzes to New Orleans jazz, Celtic, gospel, country, and disco, all set in the mode of Hebrew Minor and conspiring to create a vivid world that does not exist, except in paradox. Honey is the texture that comes to mind. Viscous and turbid, neither solid nor liquid. Sensual relief from the coarse, metallic world. And sweet. Sweet in the meaning of the verse from the Persian song "Navaee"—"High sweet melody, and sadness of love, dwelling in the bottom of the heart, where nobody sees"—the mixing of sorrow and transcendence into sublime paradox.

He is and has been many things to his devotees: poet, singer, writer, band leader, lover, satirist, artist, and novelist. But one thing Leonard Cohen is not is a preacher.

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The Market and Liturgical Music

Should the market have so much control over liturgical music?

There is nothing new to this question. Not at all. Now, however, there may be much that is new in discoverng the answer. 

Once upon a time in the European West, liturgical music was created by musicians who were supported by the patronage of a noble class.* Byrd, Tallis, you know the gang.

Before then it was the monastic composer (Hildegard, et al) who seemed to rule the charts with their chant. Musicians were supported by the Church and the Wealthy in some way and thus created music for worship.

The old markets, of course, have given way to new markets over the centuries, but throughout the history of the Western marketplace, markets (and the people they represent) have had tremendous say in what music we deem as sacred.

Now, in our post-colonial, neoliberal marketplace, how shall we choose liturgical music?

An Indie Call to Worship

IN THE 17TH century, Thomas Brooks published the devotional Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, which he hoped would serve as a “salve for sores” and a “remedy against malady,” to provide those who face hardship with nourishment, support, and cheer to continue God’s work in themselves and the world.

It’s no coincidence that The Welcome Wagon borrows Brooks’ title for its second LP. In unsettling economic and political climates, the married gospel-folk duo of Vito and Monique Aiuto write songs that offer a balm of spiritual medicine to heal their congregation and wider audience.

Before the Aiutos gained a musical presence, Vito worked at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan and was a minister to students at New York University. Six years ago he helped found Resurrection Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Brooklyn, where he and Monique continue to serve a young, diverse congregation.

In their ministry at Resurrection, they released their first album in 2008 (Welcome to The Welcome Wagon); close friend and indie music icon Sufjan Stevens helped record and produce it. The album was met with high acclaim and sounded like a natural extension of Stevens’ own catalogue. With a popular musical ally and an overtly spiritual foundation, The Welcome Wagon yielded an unlikely coupling: the hip and the religious.

In a New York Times article titled “A Congregation in Skinny Jeans,” Vito confronts this, saying that while he may fit the “cool” bill, it’s an unhelpful way to describe a church community. Despite his tweed jacket and gentleman’s cap, he’d prefer to be known for his personhood and for speaking honestly.

This is where Precious Remedies steps in. Far from a show of hip pretension, the Aiutos write music hoping to spur a connection between people and God. The album resembles a worship service, revolving around a liturgical structure to provide spiritual wholeness.

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From the Mountaintop: A Closing Liturgy from the Wild Goose Festival

Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.
Lisa Sharon Harper leads the closing liturgy at the Wild Goose Festival. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

We have listened to many of the modern-day prophets of our times. They have pointed the way toward justice and restoration. We have prayed together and moved our bodies together and exercised the discipline of silence together in order to get a glimpse at God’s kind of justice. In more ways than one, we have had a mountaintop experience, but most of us don’t live on mountaintops. We live back down in the valleys, in cities and town, in the commotion of life and work and love.

And so, it is necessary that we take time while on the mountaintop to reflect on all that God has given us in this special place. To imagine the implications of these truths, these questions, these stories on how we will live our lives.

Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets

Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100
Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100883)

Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret -- not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call -- publicly -- for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities.  Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.

Still, this is a strange thing to do, this liturgy outside a hospital.  It does not feel entirely comfortable to me -- but I am not sure anything about Ash Wednesday ever feels entirely comfortable.

Critical Mass

U.S. Catholics make up just 6 percent of the global Catholic Church’s nearly 1.2 billion baptized members. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, membership from conversions and population growth is increasing rapidly, as are vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This accounts for a worldwide increase in the number of priests.

Today there are more bishops and cardinals from developing nations than ever before. Because the Roman Catholic Church adapted its liturgy to local languages and customs after Vatican II, Catholics in Africa dance as Communion is brought to the altar, and the liturgical vestments reflect African designs and colors. Local people in the developing world find this reformed church attractive and inviting. The Church also offers them an array of urgently needed social services—food, shelter, medicine, wartime sanctuary, advocacy for the poor—and rare opportunities for education and career advancement.

From the Vatican’s perspective, growth in these regions shows the Church succeeding in its mission. Such success may also cause Church leaders to downplay the concerns and grievances of Catholics in the developed world. Why is the Church not succeeding in the same ways there?

THIS YEAR MARKS the beginning of a three-year commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, which addressed the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. The council convened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and was completed in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. It changed the ways the Church and smaller groupings of Catholics engaged society. Pope John XXIII said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in,” and the consequences have been far-reaching.

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A Confession to the Occupy Movement

A young woman in prayer. Image via Wylio.
A young woman in prayer. Image via Wylio.

As I have read about the Occupy Movement, I have noticed many individual Christians expressing support, but little public support for the movement from the Christian community as a whole.

I have had mixed feelings about this.

Certainly support of the poor, standing up for social justice, most of what the Occupy Movement is about, coincide with what we are called to as Christian people. Yet I think it would be inappropriate for Christians to try to jump into leadership roles when the Occupy Movement is so diverse and when we have so often failed to take a stand on such issues ourselves.

It seems to me that public confession and repentance might be the best way to communicate our support with appropriate humility. 

With this in mind I make the following confession as a person of Christian faith. I hope others will join me in this or similar confessions.

Sermon on the Worst Parable Ever

wedding feast
Because this week -- months after the Arab Spring, and after weeks of the growing Wall Street Occupation -- well, in this climate of discontent and dissent as we all begin to wake from our consumer induced coma to see how multi-national corporations control so much more than we can imagine, in a season when tyrants are being over thrown, I simply could not preach a sermon in which I say that God is like an angry murderous slave owning king. Maybe there is a way of finding good news in that but I just couldn't do it.

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