Sunday, July 20, 2014

Break for Look Away Sunday

Didn't add to my fiction word count today, but I did write an 800 word reflection on an aspect of worship that I'd had some questions about. (See my "Look Away Sunday" commentary below the fold.)

Although I'm not opposed to writing on Sunday, I find that, in general, this day is best observed when I keep with a different routine. I don't post my usual silliness on Facebook on Sundays; in fact, I try to move away from electronic stuff completely on this day (but as you can see, not very successfully, lol).

At any rate, if you want to read more about such things, then by all means, read on. Thanks for your interest.

I crossed myself for the first time tonight.

- Look Away Sunday, a reflection on my continued spiritual journey.

(Note: This commentary is intended to spur Christian reflection and discussion among those who are interested in such things. If the topic is not your cup of tea, feel free to look away. No hard feelings.  If you choose to comment, please do so with grace. Thanks.)

My church roots are Baptist. Not a very liturgical tradition, mind you. But we knew about the Catholics. All that ritual, the smells and bells, candles for the dead, prayers to Mary. Strange stuff. Weren’t saying they weren’t Christians; we just thought all that extra bowing and genuflecting and crossing yourself was unnecessary. Real worship was less structured, like in the free church tradition.

The untested assumption growing up was that churches which depended on liturgy (a service consisting of a set series of worship acts as outlined in a common use prayer book) were only going through the motions. That those rituals and ceremonies were empty, done by rote, and had lost their meaning.

I didn’t realize at the time that Baptists had their own liturgy of sorts. Three hymns, an offering, a sermon, and an altar call. Special music and a White Cross report were thrown in on occasion as well. Not a very sophisticated service of worship, but at least we weren’t like those Catholics or Episcopalians or Lutherans who said the same prayers over and over each week.

This perspective changed for me when I went to college and seminary. I broadened my worship horizon by visiting other churches and found that I actually quite enjoyed many aspects of the liturgy. The connection with the “great cloud of witnesses” through traditional prayers, recitation of the creed, and celebration of the Eucharist (also called Communion or the Lord’s Supper) touched my soul and nourished my spirit. As paradoxical as it seems, I found a certain freedom in the liturgy for it allowed me to reflect on the whole Gospel drama and, to paraphrase one commentator on liturgical worship, “say what I wish I could say but could not” during our times of response.

A perfect example is the short prayer before receiving the Eucharist. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I am profoundly moved at this simple confession every week I say it, and grateful for the liturgy that prompts me to say it. It is the Gospel of Christ.

Some of you know I’ve been on a search for a spiritual home. A place where I could truly enter into meaningful worship. I believe I’ve found such a place, at least for this stage of my journey. For the past few months I’ve been attending a charismatic episcopal church on Sunday evenings; it’s been a breath of fresh air for me. And yet I found myself holding back during the service, not fully entering into “the enactment of the Gospel drama” (to paraphrase the same commentator* on what liturgy is all about).

What made me hesitate? While there are a still some parts of the liturgy that I’m uncertain of, the two that held me back from fully participating were bowing to the cross during its procession and crossing one’s self at various times during the service. I wanted to know why I should physically demonstrate my worship in such a manner.

And that thought led to my answer. Namely, the fact that all humans physical demonstrate, or act out, respect and reverence at some point in our lives.

I won’t extend this reflection into the theological underpinnings of such acts (I have them and accept them) but the simple fact that we all participate *physically* during public/communal acts of reverence and celebration is what (easily) convinced me to cross myself and bow to the cross during worship.

What acts am I referring to? Taking my hat off when the National Anthem is sung. Placing my hand over my heart when I model the Pledge of Allegiance for the 6th graders I teach. I could offer many many more examples. You see, we all truly and physically participate in such ritualistic and communal events throughout our lives – from introductory handshakes to the exchanging of wedding rings, we are a physically ceremonial people.

If, then, we are quick to doff a hat during a song, smoke a cigar after a birth, raise a toast during a feast, then all the more reason to bow to the reality of the Gospel and cross one’s self when we worship our one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is why I, finally, crossed myself for the first time tonight.

(* For those interested in a concise summary of the liturgy and all that goes on during a typical service in most liturgical traditions, I recommend reading a short booklet titled, “The Liturgy Explained” by Thomas Howard, 1981. Very helpful, concise, succinct, and informative.)

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