Weekly Worship Thought – Easter Vigil Recap

Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.

Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.

Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.

Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.

I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.

If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Inner Power

On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).

After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.

Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”

This is not new, but the continuation of a documented trend. And here.

What is the point?

I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).

As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?

My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)

What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?

If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.

Why do we have three extra services during Holy Week?

easter-10-0Every year during Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter (falling on March 24-31 this year), we hold three unique worship services. These services are known as the Three Days, or the Triduum. “The Three Days encompass the time from Maundy Thursday evening through the evening of Easter Day. In particular, the services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter unfold in a single movement, as the church each year makes the passage with Christ through death into life.” (Excerpt from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 247)
“If we are to rethink what we do in the present and plan for the future, it is useful to begin by knowing the past. What were the liturgies of Lent and the Three Days like in the beginning, and how did they come to have the forms familiar to many of us today? 
Christian historians tell us that, in the decades after the life of Jesus, Christians met each week for a meal that celebrated the presence of the risen Christ. Then we hear the apostle Paul, writing in the 50s, scolding the Corinthians because their celebrative gatherings seem to have forgotten both the death of Christ and the situation of the poor. By the second century, in addition to this weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, many Christians had designed also an annual festival, at which they adapted the Jewish Passover to commemorate both the death and resurrection of Christ. At this event, the stories of creation and the exodus were read along with the New Testament accounts of Jesus as ways to proclaim new life in Christ. In the fourth century, it was agreed to keep this annual Christian Passover always on a Sunday. 
By the fifth and sixth centuries, a pattern had become common throughout the Christian communities: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ was observed over a three-day service. Part 1, Maundy Thursday, was kept to recall Christ’s meal with his disciples; part 2, Good Friday, was a simple day to pray 
and to honor the crucified Christ; and part 3, the Vigil of Easter, was the climax of the event, with springtime bonfire, many biblical readings, multiple baptisms, and the first eucharist, of Easter. The Vigil of Easter was the central liturgy of the year and the primary occasion for all baptisms, since being 
Christian was about embodying the death and resurrection of Christ.” (Excerpt from Worship Guidebook for Lent and Three Days, Augsburg Fortress, 2009, p. 11-12)
Let me encourage you to prioritize the Three Days this year. Make an effort to attend all of the services during Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. It may seem like more church than you can handle! I can certainly appreciate that feeling. The Three Days, however, are the principle celebration of the Christian church. These services are the best way to connect your personal spiritual journey to the corporate experience of passing with Christ through death into life.

What if God is not who we thought?

Excerpt from Easter sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Once upon a time, the God of the Universe was basically fed up with being on the receiving end of all our human projections, tired of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, show-offy, defensive, insecure, in short, the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. So, at that time, over 2,000 years ago, God’s Loving Desire to really be Known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest in the rapidly dividing cells within the womb of an insignificant peasant girl named Mary. And when the time came for her to give birth to God, there was no room in our expectations – no room in any impressive or spiffy or safe place. So this God was born in straw and dirt. He grew up, this Jesus of Nazareth, lefthis home, and found some, let’s be honest,  rather unimpressive characters to follow him.  Fishermen, Tax collectors, prostitutes, homeless women with no teeth, people from Commerce City, Ann Coulter and Charlie Sheen.  If you think I’m kidding…read it for yourselves.  These people were questionable. So, with his little band of misfits Jesus went about the countryside turning water to wine, eating with all the wrong people, angering the religious establishment and insisting that in him the kingdom of God had come near, that through him the world according to God was coming right to us.  He touched the unclean and used spit and dirt to heal the blind and said crazy destabilizing things like the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and sell all you have and give it to the poor.

And the thing that really cooked people’s noodles wasn’t the question “is Jesus like God” it was “what if God is like Jesus”.  What if God is not who we thought?  What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, not through a sin and punishment program, but through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God’s self in Jesus?

 

Holy Week 2011 – Saturday/Easter Vigil

The texts assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Saturday of Holy Week are Job 14:1-14 (affliction, pain, and suffering), Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 (in your unfailing love, rescue me), 1 Peter 4:1-8 (live not by desires, but by the will of God), and Matthew 27:57-66 (the burial of our Lord Jesus).

The Easter Vigil service is a separate service with a large number of readings. The readings rehearse the story of salvation through the Hebrew Bible as well as the first Easter story. The historical use of the Vigil was a baptismal service for converts that had been prepared over a period of several years for entrance into the church. Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (circa 225 AD) gives some details of the event:

They shall all keep vigil all night, reading and instructing them. Those who are to be baptized are not to bring any vessel, only that which each brings for the eucharist. It is indeed proper that each bring the oblation in the same hour. At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.

Job 14:7-9:

Even a tree has more hope!
If it is cut down, it will sprout again
and grow new branches.
Though its roots have grown old in the earth
and its stump decays,
at the scent of water it will bud
and sprout again like a new seedling.

Low in the Grave He Lay, stanzas of the hymn text by Robert Lowry (1874):

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!

Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Do you have a Christmas Eve service?

From the Lewis Center:

  • On average, Easter attendance is 180 percent of the previous year’s average worship attendance.
  • Christmas Eve attendance is on average 150 percent of the previous year’s average worship attendance.

Churches without Christmas Eve services may be missing a “53rd Sunday” where many churches show attendance rivaling Easter. And churches with low attendance at Christmas Eve services may want to explore how to enhance their offerings to reach more people.

That Time of Year

It’s that time of year again for worship musicians everywhere.

Lent is drawing to a close. Our 40 days of inward contemplation are about to turn to outward celebration. We’re ready to enter Jerusalem with fanfare and triumph. But not the political triumph of leader on a war horse. The triumph we prepare for is humble and rides on a mule. We’re ready to enter the last week that gives way to the first week.

This is game time for the worship musician. We put lots of hours and creative energy into thinking, designing, preparing, rehearsing, and executing what we hope will be meaningful, worshipful events.

Thus it is quiet here. May our strivings and movements find stillness and anticipation from the tomb.