“A Fruitful Life”

It’s been a hard day, and seeking solace, turned to prayer. I pulled this book off my shelf because the title — Light and Peace — spoke to me. It’s a collection of prayers by Charles Hall Leonard, published by the Murray Press, a Universalist publisher, in 1915.

Leonard (1822-1918) was an outsized figure in Universalist history, was a professor and later dean of the theological school at Tufts, and remembered today I’d guess for creating Children’s Sunday, though readers of this blog may be more interested to know that he was the unacknowledged author of A Book of Prayer for the Church and the Home, or what I call usually “the Universalist prayerbook.”

Elmer Hewitt Capen
Elmer Hewitt Capen
One prayer “in memory E. H. C.” bears repeating here. That was the thirty-years’ Tufts president and Universalist minister Elmer Hewitt Capen, who died in office in 1905.

Prayers for deceased ministers have a special place in my heart, and particularly  as Terry Burke, the long-time and much-loved minister of First Parish in Jamaica Plain was laid to rest today, and with whom some day we shall each share glory.

A Fruitful Life

O God, our heavenly Father: To whom can we go, but to Thee, who art our strength in weakness, our light in darkness, and our comfort in sorrow? To-day, we know not how to speak to each other, nor how to interpret to ourselves. We turn to Thee, and, first of all, beseech Thee to awaken within us the memory of all that has been precious in the life of our great friend and leader: his wise devotion to the college into which he built his life; his intelligent administration of its affairs in a manifold range of usefulness bearing upon its progress and growing facilities, and in that loving care and interest which reached the endeavor and the struggle of the humblest student. Help us to recall the calmness of his thought, his unselfish regard for others, his generous approval of all that is right and good, and his Christ-like pity and forgiveness toward all the weak and sinful. We remember the words, spoken in private and in public, which move us to-day with new power, because of this mystic silence.

We desire also to remember all that he was and is, and will be to us, as a part of permanent influence in all the relations which distinguished his life: in the privacy of his home, in the maintenance of a loyal service to the church, in all his efforts as an educator, and in the ampler calls of citizenship.

Help us, O God, in our sense of gratitude for all that this full life has been to us now that we read it anew, know anew its noble witness to learning, to charity, to religion, and get its larger message as from open skies.

Goddard Chapel
Goddard Chapel at Tufts
We bow down before Thee, with whom are the issues of life and of death. Help us all to that acquiescence in grief, which, year by year, has been taught from this place, and, above all, breathed in the prayers that here have daily been put up in our behalf. Help these sorrowing teachers who waited for his step, were cheered, day by day, by the denials he so patiently took up, and were inspired more and more by his confident sympathy. We remember before Thee those who, in great procession along the productive years, moved through these halls, and bore hence the mark of the man they had learned to know, to honor and to love. And grant Thy especial favor to the students, in all ranks, and in all places, here and there, who are now enrolled as members of the college. Have regard unto their sad and questioning hours; and give joy to them also, that they came to know so well the man and president who greeted their coming at first.

And now, what wait we for but for grace and power, both for mind and heart; new motive in view of a great example; new ability to take up the tasks which a great leader has laid down; and new light, also, for comfort to those whose sorrow to-day is deepest, that there may be to them one fixed and tranquil object of thought and affection; and help us all to see that it is no fractional life that we are called to contemplate, but a life, forecast and fashioned in accomplishment, opening more and more into its own power and beauty, and, at the last, opening forth towards the realities of a world from which all veils were taken away. O God, most merciful and gracious, open our eyes to that grateful vision, that so we may be enabled to go on, to bear up, and to find our highest joy and peace in the field of duty to which now Thou dost send us back, and in the entrusted daily care to which Thou hast appointed us. Grant that, from the trembling moments of our human life, and from the mourner’s watch, we may go forth with uplifted heart, and a diviner purpose, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

Bleg: how does the lectionary or church calendar work in once-a-month churches?

This is a blog-beg for preachers and ministers of any denomination who preach or have preached in churches that meet less than weekly, and who use a lectionary or observe a traditional church calendar. I appreciate your sharing this with anyone who has experience.

In short, how do you make it work? Do you use the lessons or propers of the day however it may fall? Do you pick from one of the Sunday lessons since the last worship service? Or before the next? And what about major holidays?

For a church that meets once a month or so, do you transfer Easter and Christmas (and Pentecost, today) to the nearest service, or rely on members worshipping with another congregation at the proper time? And if you do transfer the holiday, is it a kind of Lent-Easter/Advent-Christmas service? And how does that work?

Churches that meet infrequently probably aren’t high on anyone’s list, so it would be a great help to share ideas and resources. I’d appreciate details in the comments.

The United Methodist “worship web”

A little lunchtime Googling led me to this page, which has a large selection of United Methodist worship resources.

Welcome to the collection of resources from The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) owned by The United Methodist Publishing House.  These are offered on our website by written agreement between The United Methodist Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries.  Congregations and other worshiping or church-related educational communities are free…

Source: Book of Worship – umcdiscipleship.org

Brooks on prayer

I’m moving through my copy of Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s 1874 Our New Departure: or, The Methods and Work of the Universalist Church of America — his manifesto for the Universalist church — to his chapter on prayer. It’s a goldmine of Universalist attitudes, so I’m lifting out quotations; this is the first of two parts.

He starts on prayer in his overview (p. 43)

How many [Universalists] there are who pray in the voiceless secrecy of their communion with God, it is for no human pen to assume to say. But the custom of family, social, or stated private prayer does not, to any considerable extent, prevail among us, because there is no prevailing sense of duty in these directions; and how rare it is to find those in our congregations who can be called to lead in public prayer, we all know. We have opinion rather than faith; more nominal assent than spiritual impulse or purpose.

from page 176

Since I entered the ministry, it was not usual to find family prayer even in the homes of our ministers, while a family altar in a Universalist layman’s home was a thing almost unheard of. The home in which I was reared — reared most tenderly and carefully — was a fair type of the best Universalist homes in this respect, my mother being a church-member, of devout mind and heart, and my father, though not a church-member, a most upright and scrupulously conscientious man, whom, to the last, nothing but serious illness could keep from his place at church, so long as he could get there. The children were trained to revere and read the Bible, to honor the Sabbath, to love and practise goodness, and to ‘go to meeting’ with punctilious regularity. But — saving that we children, in our earliest days, were taught to ‘say our prayers’ every night on going to our pillows — the voice of prayer was never heard in our home, except when the minister was with us to ‘say grace’ at table. And this, so far as my knowledge extended, was the universal rule among us as a people.

from pages 176-177

The propriety of prayer — at least to some extent — is not open to debate. They would not see it dispensed with in our Sabbath services, at the marriage altar, in the chamber of the sick, or at the burial of the dead. They not only recognize, but, if need be, would insist upon, its fitness on these and various special occasions.… For if we should pray at all, it can only be because there is, for some reason, use and power in prayer. What mummery all praying is if so much as this be not true? And if there be use or power in praying at all, then the more we have of prayer of the right sort, under suitable circumstances, the larger the measure of use it will serve, — the greater the degree of power it will impart. Public prayer being well, then why not private prayer? If prayer in the church, why not in the home? if prayer in the pulpit, why not in the closet? if prayer on special occasions, why not as the habit of life?

There is a view of the subject which seeks to avoid the difficulty of this question, How? presents, by affecting to affirm the use of prayer, and at the same time alleging that it avails nothing with God, — only does us good on the same principle that religious meditation serves to strengthen, soothe and uplift us. This theory has found some advocates among us. But it seems to me — and I think I may say, to nearly all of us — a theory most unsatisfactory, and every way open to objection. No really devout mind can fail instinctively to shrink from it, and protest against it. Not only does it deny the Psalmist’s statement that God heareth prayer, — i.e. hears in some sympathizing and responsive sense, — and equally deny Christ’s repeated assurances to the same effect, but it makes prayer a travesty of devotion as actually as though there were no God.

From page 179, a bit of humor

Or, still more like perhaps, it is as if one, desiring to scale a mountain, should stand in a basket, trying to lift himself by going through the motions of pulling at a rope which he knows does not exist, but which he plays is dangling from the sky and fastened to the basket, all the while invoking the aid of some deaf or helpless friend!

From page 180

It is important that we should duly keep in mind the fact of man’s freedom; but it is even more important that we should take care not to overlook or compromise the grander fact of God’s freedom. Because this fact fails to be properly taken into account, there is, in the habits of thinking quite too widely prevalent touching this whole matter of God’s connection with us, not a little virtual Atheism. We hear a great deal about the laws of nature, and the established chain of causation, and the inviolable order of things; and there are those who never weary in insisting that it is not at all probable that this machine-like fixity and succession of events ever has been, or ever will be, intermitted in answer to anybody’s prayers.

The trouble with custom-crafted words

So, then, what might future worship look like? And what will it accomplish?

Peacebang, that is, blogger, Unitarian Universalist minister and friend Victoria Weinstein asked, and I replied

One concern I have is the cultural norm, among Unitarian Universalists, for creating and finding the right words for every service: weddings, funerals, dedications, Sunday services, the lot. The right words, and lots of them.

This tendency comes from the laudable standard of speaking to the context of the ministry you’re in, and the liturgical tradition of the centerpiece sermon and the long prayer, composed by the minister.

I’m not saying we should abandon either, but we should count the cost, not only in the salaries of those who draft them, but on the dependence the words create. And this has spread to new compositions to open worship, close worship, kindling flames, talking to children — even reaching to preaching texts.

Dependence? We like to think of ourselves as a laity-driven religious movement, but that’s only true in certain constrained ways. If our religious experience relies on an endless stream of original composition, or at least curated selection, then someone has to produce it or find it. And that speaks of specialized skills — or haphazard results. Is this creative output our most pressing need?

While traditions with liturgical textual traditions seem restrictive, the access to a reliable, common language of faith can also be very liberating.

So, why Sunday morning again?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to understand the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Church of the East: Christian churches that have an early history of divergence from the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. The Coptic Christians I’ve recently written about are in this group. So were the Eritrean Orthodox who worshipped downstairs at Universalist National Memorial Church so many years ago. Also the British Orthodox I’ve cited on this blog. Originally, I was interested in them because some nineteenth-century Universalists saw a kind of pro-universalist apostolic purity in them; a history ripe for the reclaiming. But lately I’ve been more interested in their approach to mission.

For one thing, they’re not bashful about missions, and why should they be? Most come from parts of the world where Christianity isn’t a majority faith. To survive you have to have a strong sense of identity that corresponds well with missions. But you’ll forgive me if I suggest that their approach to the faith isn’t Mod or particularly attuned to contemporary culture. But, as they say in the software world, “that’s a feature, not a bug.” They work, or seem to work on a different timeline than your garden-variety mainline Protestant (Overstatements follow, but follow me.)

So I was a bit shocked to see that so many of the mission churches meet only once or twice a month. And many, perhaps most, of those — with English-language websites anyway — meet on Saturday morning.

The reason is pretty obvious. It allows the priests to serve more congregations. Some of the Copts travel several hours from their home parishes to serve missions, something that wouldn’t be practical if the mission had a Sunday evening liturgy following a liturgy at home.

This, too, is something those nineteenth-century Universalists would have understood, and also I’ve done my rounds of supply and circuit preaching. But their usual appointments (and mine) were on Sundays, which is also the tight time for church buildings. Few edifices are as well suited for worship as a church building, so why not gather for worship on Saturday mornings.

More thoughts on the scalable service

A moment to think about the British Orthodox Church, a small culturally-British Coptic jurisdiction. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it is very small, but is able to create new church missions, and that should draw our positive attention.

Is it because it has a surplus of clergy? It doesn’t seem so. Or cash? Again, no evidence. Or because it’s tapping into a populist consciousness? You’ll forgive me if I suggest the appeal speaks more to a deep past and hopeful future than being of the moment. (That’s is surely an appeal to some, but let’s leave that for now.) And it’s not to say that all of the missions are super-healthy. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. First, they have a stated goal:

We are seeking to plant at least two new missions each year to fulfill our vision of a community in every county.

And what the British Orthodox Church — and other churches — have is a model that makes worship possible, approachable and above all scalable.

The key is the daily office, and particularly the services of matins (morning) and vespers (evening), also known as “raising of incense” or the Coptic name for the daily round of services, the Agpeya, And it’s a good choice, too. Don’t know about the British Orthodox in particular, as it applies to public worship, but the daily office also belongs to the laity, so perhaps a member of the lay faithful could lead it. Or perhaps someone in minor orders (a concept Protestants don’t have) or certainly a deacon, thus expanding the pool of who can lead worship in missions.

But more importantly, it’s a service with lower barriers than the Liturgy (Eucharist, Mass) and therefore more welcoming. To review, two takeaways:

  1. Broader pool who can lead the service.
  2. A service that’s more welcoming by its nature.

And it’s short and stable in content. Say, 20-30 minutes. I think spoken prayers, followed by some refreshment and a training or discussion — as indeed, is prepared monthly in some of these missions — is pretty darn achievable, particularly as they meet in Anglican churches at times (even Saturday mornings) that the host parish doesn’t meet. To review:

  1. A stable, predictable service. Not too long.
  2. Some kind of enrichment activity.
  3. Setting a time to be accessible, not conventional.

And know that elements can be added or removed as conditions demand.

  • Sermon or none
  • Instrumental music or none
  • Hymns sung or not
  • Candles lit or not, and so forth



Prayer for the Coptic martrys

I’ve not blogged much this week — lots going on at work — but one news story keeps rolling in my mind: the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians fishermen by ISIL militants in Libya. They were targeted because they were Christian, in the context of wider persecution of Copts. That puts them among the Christian martyrs, and so, as a Christian, makes them a special focus for prayer and concern. But what prayers shall we say over the bloody water, or with those who wail in grief? Sometimes borrowed words say what the soul means.

If you have a copy of Hymns of the Spirit, join me in praying the commemorations in the shorter communion service, page 151. It is described as “composite, based on Greek Liturgy.” But it seems dependent on Frederic Henry Hedge’s liturgy, which was used by Unitarians, Universalists and others, and that was particularly drawn from the Liturgy of St. James, one of the ancient liturgies of the church. But that is clearly tied to the sacrament in a way the composite prayer isn’t. (If you don’t have a Hymns of the Spirit, much of the same text can be found here, starting “we remember the fathers….”)

It seems fitting to use an old prayer that our forebears prayed and that has echoes with prayer the Copts may still use, to remember those poor slain men and to build bonds of spiritual communion and solidarity.