Pastor, Are You Listening to Yourself?
In my travels in retirement I have sampled the worship offerings of forty different churches. I can report a curious, but explainable, similarity in practice across denominational boundaries.
I refer not to the traditional inclusions, like The Lord's Prayer or the Doxology. I mean the word choices the pastor makes for those elements of worship for which he has discretion. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" precedes the opening announcements where once the leader said simply, "Good morning." The longer phrase has a nice Pauline ring (see Philippians 1:2) to it, but I confess to silly thoughts as it is uttered; like, "My holy friend, you sound so pious I would like to preserve you immediately in stained glass."
Then there is that prayer contemporary preachers repeat ad nauseum before the sermon: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of [our] heart[s] be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." (Psalm 19:14) Oh, it's a pleasant and proper thought, all right, but can't we please have some originality, some careful thought as a prelude to the sermon's theme?
I know the problem. All the originality is exhausted dreaming up new ways to say "Let us pray." That direct request never seems to be enough in Central Connecticut. I've heard: "Let us center ourselves in prayer" (whatever that means); "Will you join me in prayer?"; "Let us gather our hearts together in prayer"; and "Let us in the quiet of this moment speak with God." Just to repeat those I can without consulting notes.
Vatican II profoundly affected Roman Catholic worship... but no more than it has had consequences for Protestants. I, even I, moved the high altar into the middle of the chancel in the church I lately served, in a failed attempt to make a slaughtering block look like a table. United Methodists at the New York Annual Conference stand for the Gospel reading, and many member churches have followed this practice so hard on weak knees like mine. The imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent, once a sure identifier reserved for Romans and a few Anglicans, now has its Methodist advocates and imposers. The United Methodist Book of Worship suggests wrapping the hands of the newly-married bride and groom in the officiant's stole. When in another century I entered the ordained ministry, Methodists didn't know what a clerical stole was. My mother had a stole but it looked like a dead otter. Wouldn't that get a marriage off on a peculiar start? wrapping hands in a dead otter's pelt?
I detect in my profession (pastoral leadership) a tendency to substitute symbolic acts for a careful crafting of words. Preaching an Ash Wednesday sermon that touches the heart with the ashes of our lost opportunities and broken hopes is a lot harder than imposing a cross of ashes on a believer's forehead. Praying a (short prayer) that gathers up the neediness of our souls and pleads for divine grace to get through another day, and to do it arrestingly, takes more skill than the wordy litanies so much in vogue lately.
Am I being too hard on those in my recent profession? Probably. Not all of us are wordsmiths. And no one knows better than me just how busy pastors are, pulled in a hundred different directions, each member of the congregation for the most part gloriously unaware that the need felt for the pastor's attention should be multiplied by five hundred, just to gauge the demands made on the parson's time. But, and a very big qualification it is, the most important hour of the week is the one spent (usually) on Sunday morning in a house of worship. Anything worth doing eternally is worth doing well.
Years ago I stood in the pulpit on a Sabbath morning and apologized to the congregation for my failure to prepare a proper sermon. While worshipers were certainly understanding and forgiving, one fellow present that morning deserves the last word. Said he to me: "Bob, I know you're a busy guy, but I really don't want to hear that you aren't prepared. That's your job." He was right. There were 150 people at worship. That's 150 hours. Six days of time. Dedicated to the consideration of this mortal life under the gaze of eternity. Tell me, now, colleagues of the cloth (and those who listen to them), what's more important than that? Like the hymn could sing: "Moments so important, so divine, demand my life, my love, my all."