Thursday, November 12, 2009

Uncomfortable at the Altar

When I came out of Seminary (yes, I know, did they have seminaries back then? or cars?) we had one required course on worship -- one course that covered the liturgy (TLH p & 15), the daily offices (Matins & Vespers), the rites (baptism, marriage, funeral), church year, and everything else you needed to know. To his credit Dan Reuning tried to give it all its due but it was too much material in too little time. I am told that there may be one additional course required now...

My point is that somehow we thought that presiding at the altar or font came naturally. Preaching took at least four courses but any idiot could pick up how to lead from the altar or font. Baloney. I have been to many churches where the Pastor preached a credible even laudable sermon but looked like it was his first time at the altar. He was comfortable in the pulpit and uncomfortable at the table. And the people knew it. They tolerated it because he was a good preacher. But I watched them wince when arm movements and gestures and page turns and awkward pauses all said, "I don't know what I am doing here, folks."

I believe it is important to be comfortable in the pulpit (though not too comfortable -- a little edge is a good thing when it flows from the awesome task before the preacher and his desire to do God's bidding as best he is able). But I wonder why it is that even after years of ministry and service some presiders still look, act, and must feel uncomfortable at the altar? Certainly this too is an area where a Pastor needs to be at home -- at home with the space, with the liturgy, with the liturgical books, with the liturgical gestures, with the liturgical vessels... I am not speaking about being comfortable with the highest of ceremonial but being at home at this place where he leads God's people at the appointed hour of their gathering around Word and Table. It is just as uncomfortable to the people in the pew when the ceremonial is not authentic as it is when it is mechanical and wooden. We are not talking about learning to be somebody else but you learning to be comfortable in this most important of places and roles -- Presider!

First is the problem of what they saw from the pew. Many of us grew up in congregations where the Pastor did not model being at home at the altar. So we learned that it is good enough to get through it even if getting through it is about as comfortable to us as that exam men over a certain age have in their doctor's office. We need good models -- people who are comfortable in their own skin at the altar of the Lord.

Second is the problem of priorities. We need to rediscover the value and high priority on what happens in the service -- how it flows, how to prepare for it, how to prepare others for it, how to follow it through -- all so that you are comfortable there so that the people can be comfortable there (in the pew). We need to give a higher priority to practicing, to liturgical study, to reading the liturgy in devotional settings so that you are comfortable with it in the Sunday morning setting.

Third may be the problem of, should I say it, too MUCH variety. If every week is fruit basket upset and things follow a different route week after week, it is no wonder neither the Pastor nor the people are at home in the liturgy. Variety is good within the context of the liturgy itself and its appropriate options for season and Sunday... but, variety is bad if what you are doing at the altar comes across as a person putting together one of those particle board pieces of furniture with its myriad of unmarked pieces and obtuse directions.

Fourth is the problem of preparation itself. How many pastors stand at the altar and read the collect for the first time on Sunday morning? or the Prayers? or the lessons? They must be reading it for the first time because sometimes I have sat in the pew afraid to say "Amen" because I was not sure what I was saying "Amen" to! Or maybe they cannot read?!? Practice makes perfect -- said the teacher trying to show me how to write cursive. A good rule for preparing the liturgy as well.

Finally, think what it says to visitors or prospective members who see and hear the stilted words and actions of a Pastor clearly uncomfortable doing what Pastors do most of all. Lets be real here. Will people trust themselves, their spiritual well being and that of their families to a Pastor who does not look at home at the altar? I have had members who moved out of the area and then come back and tell me that they not only did not like the contemporary hoopla of some Lutheran congregations but they held their breath at others who walked through the hymnal word for word -- as if it were a tightrope and the whole thing were going to come falling down. How can we expect the people in the pew to be comfortable in the liturgy when the Pastor is not?

So lets make it clear... be at home at the altar as well as the pulpit... look for good models of liturgical leadership... give it the priority it is due (in your busy Pastor schedule), prepare and then prepare more, and consider what your uncomfortableness is saying to the people in the pew. And, for God's sake, buy some books on the liturgy, read them, and set a goal for yourself...

In the movie U-Boat 451 the executive officer is left in command and when trouble comes he answers "I don't know." The seasoned old salt pulls him aside and says "A captain always knows. Don't you ever say you don't know to your crew. That is why you are the captain. A captain always knows." Some good words for those who step into the chancel as well. Strong, Loving and Wise... good words from Fr. Hovda, a Roman Catholic battling the same kind of thing in his tradition.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The biggest thing I have told the Seminarian from my congregation (who is now on his vicarage) is "slow down". I like your comparison to home - if I misplace something in my home, I calmly look; I don't flutter like a chicken without a head. Clergy should know what they are doing up front - and when those times come when you get lost, either from the normal frailty of men, or because of your tomfoolery in pulling shenanigans with the liturgy - slow down, act calm, find your place, and continue on.

Oh, and stop setting up pitfalls to walk into by messing around with the liturgy!

(Perhaps one of the reasons so many people were okay and even eager to have random stuff each week is because their pastor looked as though the normal liturgy was random!)

Anonymous said...

From one of the congregants in the pew: Pastors, if you're not comfortable, it does make the person in the pew uncomfortable.

Let me also say that it should come through to the people that you understand how important your service at altar is. If you are sloppy with how you handle items of the altar, it looks as if the sacrament is not important to you.

Papa Olson said...

You mentioned Fr. Hovda. Would you recommend other liturgical scholars worth reading? Thanks for the post.

Chris said...

Fr. Peters,

Are you surprised that now with the move towards "anything goes" kind of worship, that the prescribed Liturgy of St. Gregory is not given due attention and instead more focus is on homiletics? How did this come about?

How can instruction in the liturgy not be given its due at seminaries when that is the core of our existence, participation in the Life of our Lord by communing with him through HIs Body and Blood? Is not lex orandi, lex credendi? Is it now lex sermonis, lex credendi? We can debate about how important the sermon is, but it seems to me that in many Lutheran or Protestant congregations but especially Evangelical churches (which don't have a sacrament anyway), the sermon is given the prominence while the rest is then given to prayer.

Yes, faith comes from hearing the word of God, but what faith comes about and what grace comes about from receiving the very Lord incarnate into ourselves?

More instruction needs to be given in the Liturgy and more congregations need to serve the Liturgy on days other than Sundays? Perhaps if a pastor would offer the Liturgy more then he may become more comfortable with it.

Just a suggestion

Sue said...

I attended a friend's funeral a year ago in a Roman Catholic church. The priest sounded bored. He mumbled both the liturgy and the sermon, sounded like he had better things to do. The only good thing was the cantor, the daughter of a coworker, whom God has blessed with a beautiful voice and the knowledge of how to use it. There was no joy in the resurrection from that priest. It was sad. Hard enough to lose a dear friend without being reminded joyfully of eternal life to come.

Rev. Dr. Chris N. Hinkle said...

Preparation is part of the key. Humility is another. Don't obsess over the details (a frequent source of tension). You will mispeak, but the world won't end. Your people will forgive you, if they know you love them.

Prepare well, but don't be a showman. Instead, work to make the words and gestures your own. Don't say things like you mean them (which usually comes across as false) Instead, mean the words that you say.

Anonymous said...

There was no joy in the resurrection from that priest. It was sad. Hard enough to lose a dear friend without being reminded joyfully of eternal life to come.

Sadly, that is often true. My LCMS parish has several former Roman Catholics. One of them became Lutheran after she married. She told me that her Catholic mother maintained that Catholicism gives little comfort.

Having the Real Presence and the Eucharist, even if celebrated daily, can become very rote and mechanical if not balanced by the Word of Life in Scripture.


Pastor Peters said...

Aiden Kavanagh, Elements of Rite
Art Just, Confident Presiding (2008 Good Shepherd Institute) are a couple of good resources...

Dixie said...

I attended a friend's funeral a year ago in a Roman Catholic church. The priest sounded bored. He mumbled both the liturgy and the sermon, sounded like he had better things to do.

It is terribly unfortunate this happened however it is not so difficult to understand. My brother and his wife attend a Catholic parish with a membership of over 10,000 people and 7 priests. We have a parish in our town with a membership of over 5000 people and 3 priests. The poor priests are running themselves ragged doing baptisms and funeral masses when they are not celebrating the liturgical cycle masses and services of their church. I feel for them because I am certain many never thought parish life would be like this...

Pastor Peters said...

When I was a kid, part of what moved me toward the ministry were the Bing Crosby movies in which the priest was wise, caring, faithful, and knew his flock. I am sure that countless men were moved to the priesthood with that image in mind. In my own community, the priest has 3500 families and is a vending machine for the sacraments. It is a sad take on what began with very noble intentions.

Anonymous said...

Parish size notwithstanding, part of the problem is still that the joy and sure hope of the Resurrection are not proclaimed as they should be in the Catholic church. It was even more absent in my husband's Catholic youth pre-Vatican II, before the days of mega-suburban parishes. He doesn't have too many good memories of being Catholic, only of being laden down with rules, rules, rules.


Fr. David Poedel, STS said...

It is interesting, Father Peters, that you mention the lack of examples of excellent presiding from our youth.

I was blessed that my parish priest (I grew up in the Roman Church) during my high school years was young, right out of seminary, and he had a wonderful presence at the altar. He greatly influenced me and, to this day, my presiding "style" comes from him directly. I preside with great comfort, but also with holy awe. I am so humbled by the reality that our Lord permits me to preside at His altar that you have to know that I take this role very, very seriously...but at the same time, I also smile where appropriate, and have been told that I put people at ease by a welcoming style and is very reverent.

I have thought of offering practicums on presiding to our local pastors, but the truth is that most of them have comletely abandoned the Historic Liturgy in favor os a poor imitation of an Evangelical/Pentecostal presider.

Kyrie eleison.