Monthly Archives: February 2014

Medicine of Eternal Life: Reflections on the Healing Properties of Holy Communion

183496_159820980825930_243873873_nEarly Christian writers sometimes spoke of holy communion as “the medicine of eternal life.”  Calling communion “medicine” implied a human condition that required powerful treatment — nothing less than the application of the presence of the risen Christ to the brokenness of the community, to the fragments of its soul. Communion was Christ’s kiss upon our wounds — an outward sign of the permanent offer of reconciliation with God and all creation: medicine of mercy, medicine of abundant life. To approach communion was to be diagnosed, admitted, treated and released to a new regimen of wholeness and health.

This way of speaking also implied a kind of preventative therapy: communion with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit at the center of the church’s common life inoculated believers against the disintegration and estrangement that always threaten to destroy human hearts. Being in communion with the Healer and with all the convalescing companions built up one’s resistance to evil and warded off the infections of a divided heart, moral error and a superficial or evasive life. To be excommunicated, or  “excommunioned,” then, was to be in mortal danger, fully exposed.

“Medicine of eternal life” was also a way to describe a future: by participating in the eating and drinking, Christians were promised not only a measure of healing and wholeness in their present lives, but also perfect and permanent health in the life with God to come. To be in good health, to have been saved, meant to have been drawn into a great mystery, to be living on tip-toe, as Paul put it, towards health as yet completely unknown, not even imaginable. Yet in communion, the church understood itself to be privy to a fleeting glimpse of this future: whatever that wondrous wholesomeness will be, it will be at least something like this — the beloved as one in the Beloved, feasting.

To think of communion as medicine of eternal life could strike us as magical, superstitious, or fraudulent—Christian snake oil for needy psyches, trembling bodies, and suggestible hearts. And it would be so, were it not for its intractable attachment to the reality of flesh. Early Christian teachers understood, wisely I think, that one arrives at wholeness and right belief not via secret knowledge nor philosophical constructs, not via a private moment of illumination nor by some doctrinal bee you get in your bonnet. One is in possession of truth and salvation most truly when one encounters the body. That meant “in the church,” and most especially, in the daily hum-drum rub of service and love, tending to bodies, the neighbor’s and the world’s: in imitatio Christi, a body on the line.

Thus, examining the life Christians lead in their own bodies and their conduct toward other bodies has always preceded the reception of communion. Such a prelude brought home to the conscience the inherent contradiction of drawing near to the table of embodiment in Christ while indifferent or hostile or disembodied with regard to the neighbor. Healing, like all authentic Christian religious experience, has its final proof in a dispensation of love enfleshed in the tangible service of the least — When I was hungry, you fed me.

Matthias the Apostle, February 24

200px-Saint_Matthias[1]The author of Acts is worried about numbers. Twelve is a very important number. Eleven is not. When Judas defects and soon afterwards dies, the remaining apostles feel a biblical urge to round up. It won’t do to have the formerly Twelve continue very long into history as the limping Eleven—eleven kind of messes up your biblical allusions. So they nominate a couple of men from the wider group of disciples, pray to God to show them which one God prefers for the job, and cast lots. The lots fall to Matthias, and he becomes an apostle. [Acts 1:15-26]

But who is he? The gospels don’t mention him before Jesus was crucified and raised, unless you think, as some ancient commentators did, that he was actually Zacchaeus, or even Nathanael, by another name. And after his elevation to the ranks of the ‘overseers,’ he is never heard from again. There are no remotely reliable later traditions about him either—although if I could choose one of his legends to be true, it would be the one about him preaching to the cannibals in Georgia. (No, not that Georgia.) Although his relics are venerated in the great church of St Matthias in Trier, Germany, most scholars agree they are not his, but maybe, maybe, those of another Matthias, one of the early bishops of Jerusalem. Our Matthias is a holy cipher.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Matthias is haphazardly included (for all grace is, to human eyes, capricious) and subsequently so unknown. It’s instructive to know that among the Twelve there is one who fell into the apostolic role more or less by chance, one who was drafted into the witnessing business by a roll of the dice, one whose name alone is documented and all the rest unremarkable and ignored. It puts the spotlight on the calling itself, not on the personality and exploits of the called.

Which takes some pressure off those of us who believe ourselves also chosen to be witnesses, but who, despite years of trying, have yet to build a church of more than forty members, end world hunger, bring a lasting peace upon the earth, or die a heroic death among cannibals. Maybe St Matthias’ day is a day to be glad that the grace and wonder of the choice of us lies elsewhere. Maybe on St Matthias day it’s enough to celebrate that God chose him. Maybe today we honor not an apostle so much as a choosing. And maybe not a choosing so much as the Chooser.

Matthias’ liturgical commemoration has traditionally fallen on February 24. The Anglicans still commemorate him on this day, but the Catholics have moved him to May 14, nearer to the feast of the Ascension, in order not to have to celebrate an apostle in Lent (too much festivity for a solemn season), and to associate him more closely with his election, which occurred in the few days between the Ascension and Pentecost.

He is, of course, the patron saint of lottery players. Today might be a good day to buy a ticket.


P. S. If Matthias is unheralded, imagine the obscurity of the other guy in the running! If you commemorate Matthias today, take a moment also to remember Joseph, called Barsabbas [aka Justus], disciple of Jesus and loser.

Weeping for Moses

SimchatTorah47                           Temple Shir Tikva, Winchester, MA–Photo: Steven L. Alexander

I have a friend who is a practicing Jew, although not a person of conventionally devout temperament. She is a tenacious, full-hearted Jew, but you won’t hear her spouting pieties. Nevertheless, on the morning of Simchat Torah, when the last Torah portion of the annual cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses is read in her synagogue, she always finds herself weeping. It never fails, she says; she is inexplicably overcome at the death of Moses every year, downright inconsolable in fact—until she remembers that ‘he comes around again’ in the liturgy of the following year.

To her on this morning Moses is no distant hero, and his story—and the story of the Hebrew children he liberates and leads and begs God to spare when they get up to unforgivable mischief in the wilderness—no mere ‘bible story.” He is her liberator and leader, the story of the people her story. Her memory is so collective it’s personal, like the pre-teen Jewish kid in a New Jersey middle school class about culture who, when asked to summon up his very first childhood memory, declared without missing a beat, “I remember Abraham.”

And so my friend weeps on Simchat Torah, overwhelmed with sadness that Moses has died. She doesn’t get that weepy over all the weekly parshas, to be sure; but there’s something about finishing the story, coming to the end, that affects her deeply. The gift of the liturgy, however, is that the very next week, it starts all over again with the reading from Genesis—“In the beginning…”

When we Christian lectionary preachers complain about getting bored when this story or that one comes up again in the 3-year cycle and we have to preach on it again, I think about my friend weeping over the death of Moses. When we chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary to begin with, or we wish we could tell some other story because we don’t resonate with a particular text—it just doesn’t speak to me, we say— I think of her sadness. Her sadness because it is ending, and her joy when it all begins again. And when we are bent over our commentaries or searching the internet looking for a new angle to preach, something relevant to say, something  ‘creative’ we can do with these texts, I think of the festival of Simchat Torah, when the scrolls are taken out and handed ‘round to be kissed and danced and acclaimed, the festival when critical questions cease for just a little while so that love can take over the room.

Chaim Potok writes about the experience of a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie in a scene from his novel, In the Beginning. There’s a question for us gentiles at the end of the scene that I am trying to hear. That I am trying to answer. Maybe you want to think about it too.

“I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning. The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember one white-bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my scroll to someone in the crowd and went out  the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face. The noise and the dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating swelling and receding, thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very word of God. And I wondered if gentiles ever danced with their Bible. Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?”

Additional Thoughts on Prayer in Worship



During a Facebook discussion on Monday about ways to introduce unison prayers (“Let us pray” vs. “Will you join me in prayer?”), one astute pastor wrote me to say that in her congregation folks don’t ‘do’ unison prayer very well, especially when it comes to prayers that have a certain literary quality to them (think Book of Common Prayer, UCC Book of Worship, etc.).

She thinks that their reluctance is owing in part to the fact that they are not a highly educated group. They’re not stupid, by any stretch of the imagination; they’re just not oriented to reading in the way some other congregations are. For them, reading a composed prayer aloud in unison has no appeal; she notices that whenever she invites them to pray the prayer printed in the bulletin, there’s little energy in the reading, no real engagement with the prayer.

This discomfort with unison prayer is also found in traditions that are more Spirit-oriented. They prize spontaneous prayer over composed prayer; reading a prayer aloud together is not highly valued. It’s often associated with a perceived ‘high church’ tendency to stifle the freedom of the Spirit through the imposition of unnecessary order on Her movements. To put a written prayer in front of these folks and ask them to read it in unison won’t work very well no matter what words you use to invite them to do it! Unison prayer works best, it seems, in more literate communities in which people are accustomed to reading and have a strong appreciation for the crafted word.

So, what’s the poor worship leader to do if you’re in a tradition that normally uses composed prayers, but your congregation responds poorly to them (for whatever reason) when asked to recite them in unison? Stop using them?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Before abandoning such prayers, I would first try examining, and maybe revising, the unison prayers you’ve been printing in your bulletins (or projecting on your screens) to be sure that the problem isn’t the prayers you’re writing or borrowing from liturgical sources. Test to see if they are well-written prayers, brief, clear, easy to read, and beautiful, but not too cute or impossibly allusive, and not so jargon-y and weird that people internally object to them. Do they flow in a pleasing rhythm? Do they fall naturally into ‘breathing lines’ that people can manage and not stumble over unwieldy constructions? Are there words in them that are hard to say, or maybe even hard to understand? In other words, first be sure the words you put in other people’s mouths are worthy of being put there, and that they can be spoken without physical or mental effort. I have been guilty of making prayers that no one can pray, for many of the reason alluded to here, and am now feeling a need to rethink the way I compose prayers for unsion ‘consumption.’

But if after reflecting and maybe revising, you remain convinced unison prayer is not helping people to pray in worship, here are some other ideas.

1. Use short responses

The colleague who put the question to me is using more short responses in worship instead of blocks of unison prayers. She says she’s noted a much greater connection to these briefer prayers than to the standard unison prayer. People respond more wholeheartedly when, for example, they’re invited to say “Thanks be to God” to an expressed joy or thanksgiving, or “We ask for God’s comfort and strength” to a concern or need during the prayer time. They’ve pretty much memorized these responses as well, and rarely need either a bulletin prompt or a verbal cue to pray them.

So what if instead of relying heavily on blocks of printed unison prayer, or using elaborate litanies that are full of ideas and go on and on, we were to make more liberal use of short responses? The time for ‘Joys and Concerns,” or prayers of the people, is one obvious ‘slot’ for a short response or refrain, but these forms could be used effectively in many other places in the service as well:

An invocation or payer of praise at the start of the service might be prayed by a worship leader singly on behalf of all, using either composed prayer or spontaneous prayer, and people might respond with set refrains and responses—sometimes punctuating the prayer, sometimes at the conclusion of the prayer. The same might be done with the confession and assurance, or with statements or affirmations of faith. (I once used short responses as a refrain during the communion prayer to good effect.) The responses could vary from season to season to keep a certain freshness in the people’s prayer, but not changed up so often that people cannot learn them by heart.

There are many virtues in this method of helping people pray without forcing them to read composed prayers with which they may have little facility or affinity:

First, it involves them. They may not be reading prayers together, but they are still raising their common voice in public prayer (which is more or less what we mean when we say that ‘liturgy is the people’s work’—i. e., it is proper of God’s people to pray together, it is their calling or common ‘work’); they are still being heard (giving testimony to their faith); and they are still hearing each other (a classic edifying act, building up the Body of Christ).

Second, it may allow people to be more truly responsive in prayer. If folks are not distracted by whatever it is that bothers them when they try to read in unison, they may be able to listen more deeply to a prayer offered in their name; and with more attentiveness to the spoken prayer of another, their responses might also be more attentive, more wholehearted, more prayerful.

Third, it encourages memorization. More on this below.

2. Restore the People’s Amen

A complementary idea is to work diligently to restore the ‘amen’ as the people’s proper prayer. For millennia, this important and powerful word was reserved, we might say, for the assembly; it is not for the leader, although of course the leader is not precluded from saying it with the people. ‘Amen’ was and remains the people’s critically important assent, their stamp of approval, if you will, on prayers offered on their behalf.

When they pronounce the amen, the people not only affirm the sentiments of the leader’s prayer, they also show that they have ‘participated’ in it, that it is truly their own prayer, not just their representative’s. One could even say that no prayer offered in the public worship of God’s people is valid without the ‘amen’ of the assembly.

In many congregations of the ‘free church’ in which a fixed liturgy is not normative, the all-important ‘amen’ has fallen into disuse as the proper word of the people. What often happens in worship is that worship leaders speak it on their own as they end their prayers, and no one says it with them; or they come to the end of a spoken prayer and say ‘amen’ to finish it, and then the people echo the leader’s amen, sometimes after a second of hesitation and feebly, sometimes immediately and in a rousing way.

Most people don’t know that this word belongs quintessentially to them. Worship leaders who do understand this will sometimes try to coax a full-throated ‘amen’ out of people at the end of prayers by saying things like, “And the whole church says….” Or “And let the whole church say….”  to which people eventually learn to respond. In free church worship, this is a substitute for the ‘formulas’ of fixed liturgies with which many prayers end (e. g., “Through Jesus Christ, our Lord…” etc.) to which the second nature reflex response of the assembly is ‘Amen.’

I am not personally fond of the phrase, “And let the whole church say…..”, but I think it is a useful way to help people assume their duty and claim their right to participate actively and assent in faith to the prayers that are offered on their behalf. Many other prompts could be used, including some of the ancient ‘ending formulas,’ like the one mentioned above, which makes clear the traditional conviction that all Christian prayer is Trinitarian— i. e., offered through Jesus Christ to God (the ‘Father’) in the power of the Holy Spirit, One God forever… (Amen).

3. Expand congregational song

Sung responses are even better than spoken ones because, as Augustine aptly noted, ‘when we sing we pray twice.’ If worship shapers decide to rely more heavily on responses and refrains in worship, they should consider having some of them sung.

I am not by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of choirs and anthems, much less do I disdain traditional congregational hymns; but I believe we have fallen into some patterns in their usage that are not conducive to helping the congregation sing their prayer—e. g., the automatic use of just 3 hymns a Sunday, the so-called ‘hymn sandwich,’ the ‘big’ showy anthem, the infrequency (and in many cases the complete disappearance) of sung responses like Gloria, Kyrie, Alleluia, and Amen; and the rarity of the sung or chanted weekly psalm, once so important in and characteristic of Reformed worship.

This subject is way too big for today; suffice it to say that were we to construct worship in such a way that it flowed from beginning to end on the song on the people, we might find ourselves worshipping together in deep ways we never imagined were possible. To get there would require a re-thinking of worship order, the collaboration of really great and flexible musicians and congregational song leaders, choirs that are willing to accept a vocation as leaders and instigators of congregational song as well as (and maybe more than) performers of specialized music, worship leaders who are able to shape worship more fluidly and who are willing themselves to be a lot less gabby and prominent in the service, and time—plenty of it, as well as much patient planning and even more perseverance through the congregation’s initial discomfort with novelty, complaints that it’s too Catholic, and other forms of foot-dragging. But over time, with patience and perseverance and a godly imagination, encouraging and restoring the full range of possibilities for congregational song could make worship more prayerful—or better said, could make the worship service itself a prayer.

4. Encourage memorization

Free church people will often claim that doing the same thing over and over every week leads to the kind of routinized worship that is anathema to our tradition. We don’t pray in such rote ways. That’s what ‘they’ do, not us. But just try to change up the words or melody of the Doxology or omit the Lord’s Prayer some Sunday, and you’ll know that people do value (for both the right and the wrong reasons) things they know by heart—thing they learned by heart because they were repeated regularly over time and have become reflexive, lodging in the body as well as the mind.

People may be uncomfortable reading composed printed unison prayers, but most are demonstrably not uncomfortable with reciting some things from memory. This memorization happens ‘naturally’ through the repeated use of some key elements of worship. Worship leaders can encourage memorization by keeping certain printed prayers and responses stable week after week, changing them seasonally perhaps, so that eventually regular worship participants will become so familiar with them that they won’t need to read them off the page (or screen). And if the prayers and responses are scriptural (either actual passages or scriptural in tone and sentiment), all the better.

Memorization helps practically with the issue of unison prayer we began with, but it has other virtues too. To lodge things in the memory is an ancient practice of formation, a widely valued one among many religious traditions. It is not a matter of mere rote learning (we’re not talking about Bible verse contests here—although that old practice was not such a bad thing!), but a kind of ‘habit-forming,’ a way to convey to the inner person the syntax, sentiments, rhythms, and vocabulary of a particular faith, to give people ‘material’ for their inner lives, resources for prayer that can be called on for service outside worship as well as in. Again, this is too big a subject for today. But you get the drift…

5. Keep quiet

Silence in the presence of God is prayer—attentiveness, listening, resting, self-offering—all good, all prayer, all silently accomplished. Many worship planners in the free church tradition have lately come to appreciate the value of such times of silence in worship; and the judicious use of short periods of silence is another way to deal with the issue of congregations that find reading unison prayers difficult. (Of course, they may find silence difficult too! But at least they don’t have to read!)

Some silence during the confessional moment is always appropriate. Silence can also be inserted after a particularly affecting reading or sermon, or before (or at then end of) the pastoral prayer or prayers of the people. For me, however, the ideal way to use silence in worship is to make it a regular element in the overall rhythm of the service, such that there is a skillful oscillation throughout among spoken word, song, action/ritual and short silences—an oscillation that feels natural, like breathing.

I always urge some caution about inserting silence into regular Sunday worship. Silent periods ought not be too long. We probably shouldn’t ask people to sit quietly for longer than a couple of minutes at a time at any point in the service. Not because of inability, unwillingness, or discomfort (over time this is not hard to overcome), but because Silent periods that are too long break the natural flow of worship. We are not assembled on Sundays to engage in extended personal devotion, but to worship communally and ‘publicly.’

Everything I’ve suggested above is offered in view of my colleague’s question about what to do in her non-literary congregation, but all of it could just as well be employed in congregations where people do have affinity for reading prayers together. Unison prayer is only one form of congregational prayer, and it’s salutary to encourage many other forms in addition to it. Over-reliance on composed printed prayers, often of a ‘literary’ quality, means that the people are not being taught/learning other forms. And this is one f the factors lin the widespread feeling among laypeople that they don’t know how to pray–that they can’t pray ‘like that’ (meaning the highly crafted prayers of the pros). Worship can easily teach folks how to pray in a variety of ways—and teach them that they are more than capable of ‘real‘ prayer—if we are willing to use more varied forms to construct our weekly worship.

So what happens to the composed printed prayer meant to be read aloud in unison? Granting that we need always to be wary of imposing our own aesthetic on a congregation that has its own sense of what ‘works’ and what ‘counts’ as prayer, I still think there’s a place for crafted prayes in every community’s worship, and would hate to see us abandon it altogether. The trick may be to keep such unison prayers relatively short, make them beautiful, easy to grasp and easy to recall, then use them routinely until perhaps they come to be ‘known by heart,’ and until they become thereby ‘spontaneous,’ truly owned by all. And to use them sparingly, as one among many other options, some of which we have considered here, and others that you have thought about and experimented with in your own settings.

That’s all I have…. For what it’s worth…and for now.

See also:


Bring Back the Prayer for Illumination

 Here’s a question for my fellow UCCers (although if you’re affiliated with another denomination from the Reformed tradition, you are welcome to listen in): In Sunday worship, why do we routinely pray for the preacher and her sermon but not for the reader of Scripture and the hearers of the Word?

You know what I’m referring to? After Scripture is read, the preacher comes to the pulpit and begins her sermon with a prayer, often this one: “O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart (or ‘of all our hearts’) be acceptable to you, my rock and redeemer.”

Now, what’s great about this practice is that we get to hear one more bit of Scripture in addition to the text(s) of the day—the final verse of Psalm 19. But what’s odd about this practice is that it assumes we need divine help and favor for the delivery of a sermon, but need no such help or favor for the reading and hearing of the Word.

This is not to say that a preacher doesn’t need God’s help for the sermon to be “acceptable,” especially if she’s been up all Saturday night trying to finish the *+@#% thing!  But the reader of the text and the hearers of the Word are equally in need of divine assistance. After all, what’s being read and heard is the revelation of a great mystery of unaccountable and unfathomable mercy—and we’ve been promised that if the church comes to it wide open, we will, at least potentially and over time, be made new. Reading and hearing Scripture in the Sunday assembly is an act with consequences.

To be able to listen with wide open ears of faith, to be able to grasp what we are hearing with our hearts and minds, and to be moved to enact and embody what we are hearing in lives of discipleship is a gift that requires divine initiative and support. We should be praying for that gift—illumination and understanding and “acceptable-ness to God.” We need the Spirit to lead us where the Spirit intends.

The wisdom of God’s Word is different from human wisdom, and therefore it’s hard for finite hearts and ‘common sense’ to grasp it. Therefore we pray for illumination to “see” this hard-to-see-wisdom. We don’t pray for understanding because Scripture is “hard” in an academic sense, however. This is an important distinction, because many people think Scripture is really only for the pros—it’s archaic stuff you can’t expect to understand, or maybe you aren’t even supposed to understand, which is why you tune it out until they’re done reading so you can focus on the sermon, because that’s when, if you’re lucky, someone is actually going to talk to you, and you might get a nugget to take home with you, something that connects with you and applies to the way you live your life.

This sense that intellectual understanding the proclaimed Word is beyond the reach of the basic regular pew potato comes in part from the fact that for the last few generations, Bible study and preaching have been dominated by the historical-critical method. This scholarly approach to the Bible has persuaded us that we will only really understand what we’re reading if we know a lot more than we do now about the language, historical contexts, and literary forms of the Bible.

There’s some truth to this, of course. If you’ve ever had new light shed on some story of Scripture from a footnote that explained the use of the slingshot as a weapon of war in the age of King David, or from a Sunday School teacher who told you that a stone water jug of the kind that confronted Jesus at the wedding in Cana could hold as many as 30 gallons, you know that ‘knowing things’ can really be a boon to understanding what’s going on in those ancient pages.

But knowing stuff about the Bible is not the only way to know the Bible. It could even be a deceptive and injurious way if it leads us to think of Scripture as a nut to be cracked by brain power instead of as revelation, an illuminating, graced, and saving story that we receive from the hand of God’s mercy; or if it leads us to think that the ‘real meaning’ of the text is somehow embedded in scholarly information about the text, and not in a devout, expectant, and subjective interaction with the simple reading of a given passage, a reading guided by the Spirit in sincere, open-hearted hope that we will be met in our reading and hearing by the living God.

Our hearing of the Word is undoubtedly enhanced by historical-critical study, and I would never discourage anyone from making it a routine part of his or her approach to Scripture; but I am continually chastened in my own study by this realization: No one has ever been healed or saved or sent because they knew that if you were buying a sheep in Jesus’ time it might set you back a couples of drachmas.

Conversion and transformation happen instead when, over time and by grace, we befriend the Bible; and when, like the best kind of friend, it tells us the truth about ourselves, as that truth is reflected in its vast array of stories of human joy and pain, struggle and anguish, sin and atrocity, death, loss, new life, and the unimaginable reach of divine mercy. We need help to do this befriending, and so we turn to the Friend who awaits us in the words of Scripture and ask for illumination and understanding. We need to teach ourselves to expect to be met in the reading, hearing and unfolding of Scripture—and sometimes we will be! The Prayer for Illumination is one way to school ourselves over time in this devout expectation.

I think it’s entirely commendable that preachers want to pray right before delivering their sermon as an act of humility and centering. It’s lovely that to desire that our efforts of study and reflection, prayer and writing might be blessed and made pleasing to God, to acknowledge that our frailty makes all our efforts in some sense useless without God’s help, and to collect and center ourselves in God’s presence for the service we are about to offer.

Ironically, however, praying before preaching may have the unintended opposite effect. It may unduly call attention to the preacher and the preacher’s task. To be sure, there is witness value (and focusing, grounding value) in asking humbly for help for and blessing on the sermon; but in order for the spotlight to shine where it should, namely, on the biblical Word and its unfolding in the sermon—that is, on the unity of Word and sermon, and on the activity of God’s Spirit in revealing truth to us as we hear and ponder—it may be better to forego prayer before preaching and insert the prayer instead before the Scripture reading.

In doing so, we would be in tune with our Reformed forebears who (just as humbly and in just as centering a way) asked for God’s help not before the sermon, but before the reading of Scripture. Reading and preaching were for them, in a real sense, one undivided potentially “sacramental” and revelatory act which should be kept as close together as possible so that their sign-value is evident. The illumination prayer they restored to the liturgy was meant to encompass both, because they recognized them as one. To pray for help before the sermon focuses attention on the sermon at the expense of this unity.

Bringing back the Prayer of Illumination where it has gone out of fashion may help congregations become more aware that the reading, hearing and unfolding of the Word is meant to be (along with the Sacrament) a major event, if not the major event, of worship.  Over time, and with care and attention, it could help everyone listen, receive and respond with a new kind of openness. Who knows what might happen if that were the case.

Here’s a little primer on the Prayer for Illumination (or the Prayer for Understanding) in case you feel like giving it a whirl:

The Prayer for Understanding (or Illumination)

This prayer asks that the words we read and subsequently unfold in preaching may truly be the Word for the community assembled, and for the healing and joy of the world, and that we might have insight into the wisdom and high demand of this Word. Although the prayer has ancient roots (see a 4th century example below), it has come to be associated particularly with the Reformed Tradition, owing to its focus on the centrality of Scripture for Christian life.

Its customary form is (a) address, (b) petition for light and understanding, and (c) some reference to the hoped-for effects of understanding (peace, reconciliation, faithfulness to God’s will, witness and service in the world, etc.).

The prayer is sometimes directed to the Holy Spirit as the giver of light and understanding; but it is also frequently addressed to God or Christ (as in several of the examples below), imploring the gift of the Spirit.

It may be offered by a single leader (often the same person who will read the Scripture that should follow immediately), or in unison by the whole congregation, or in a dialogue between leader and congregation.

[In some congregations, a hymn of preparation functions, theoretically anyway, as a Prayer for Understanding. Often, however, it is not really a preparation. For one thing, it is often placed between the reading and the sermon, reinforcing the notion that what we are preparing for is the sermon, not the Scripture. For another, the hymn is usually chosen for its thematic value, to draw the congregation’s attention to the theme of the reading or sermon or liturgical season, or to reinforce the points the preacher wants to make. Nothing at all wrong with reinforcing themes, but this is not the same as asking for help to receive the Word.

Having said that, however, singing the Prayer for Illumination or Understanding is an excellent idea, as long as it is truly a prayer for understanding and illumination for the reception of Scripture and its unfolding in the sermon. There are some wonderful short hymns and chants that call on the Holy Spirit to come and open us up, or that specifically reference our need to be attentive and ready to be addressed. If all else fails, make “Break Thou The Bread of Life” your standard pre-Scripture hymn: it’s a rather wonderful, if a little old-fashioned, prayer for illumination. (You may, however, have to out a note in the bulletin pointing out that in this case “Bread of Life” refers to Scripture, not Communion.)]

Sample Prayers

From the liturgy of John Chrysostom, 4th century

Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, O Christ, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with God who is without beginning, and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Sample prayers from various Reformed service books

Living God,                                                                                                                                         help us so to hear and ponder your holy Word, that we may truly understand; and that, understanding, we may believe; and, believing, we may follow in faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

God, source of all light, by your Word you give light to the soul. Pour out upon us the Spirit of Wisdom and understanding that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to know the things that pertain to life and holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayers by JML

Let us pray.

Ever-living Spirit, give us humility of mind and hospitality of heart to receive your gracious Word in ancient stories of your faithfulness.

You have yet more light and truth for us:  we long to receive it and understand. Speak now, for by your grace, your servants are ready. Speak now, we are ready for you.

Let us pray.

Your Word, O God, is like a lamp in the night!
Help us to see it. Light our way forever!

Your Word is like bread for the hungry!                                                                                        Help us to taste it. Feed our hearts forever!

Your Word is like a cord that unites your children, here and everywhere!                                  Help us welcome you, each other, and your world!

Let us pray.

Make ancient words new, and lost hopes rise again, as you speak the promise to us this day, O Spirit of Truth, O Life-Giving Breath.

Let us pray.                                                                                                                                    Holy Spirit, cheerless hearts sprang to life when Jesus taught the Scriptures to sad disciples on the road. Now speak to us, we pray, and hearten us. Break the Word upon us like a brand new day. Make us cling to it like a long-lost love returned. Give us joy in its understanding, and courage in its costly claim. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Let us pray.

Spirit of the Living God, turn on the light of truth and wake up our hearts by the Word we now declare and ponder.

In ancient pages let us find fresh life, fresh hope, and fresh courage for witness in your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Will You Join Me in Prayer?


In the relatively benign and inconsequential (yet not without merit) Pet Peeve Category…

Whenever a worship leader invites unison prayer by saying something like, ‘Please join me in prayer’, or ‘Please pray with me,’ it always makes me want to respond with a little rant:

With you? We’re not supposed to be praying with you. We’re supposed to be praying together. You are not the primary pray-er whom we get to join. It isn’t your prayer we attach ourselves to. It’s our prayer, communal prayer. The assembly prays. You are leading the prayer, to be sure; but you do so as one of us, not someone we get to ‘join.’

Why not just say, ‘Let us pray’? It’s simple, clear, and nicely includes ‘you’ in ‘us.’ Yes, I know, it’s old-fashioned and impersonal (God forbid that we not be personal!) and slightly formal, and it has that dreaded high liturgical ring to it. But it does what the genre called ‘liturgical invitation’ (which is really no more than instruction—time to pray now, folks, so all together now, let us pray) is supposed to do; and it does it without calling undue attention to the worship leader, which is always a virtue.

And while we’re at it, what is this question you often pose to us— ‘Will you pray with me?’ It’s time to pray in unison as God’s holy people and you’re asking us a question? Do we wanna pray with you? Can we say no? What if we said no? Initiating the community’s prayer in worship should not be in the form of a question. It is, as noted above, an instruction, albeit with a polite tone. Keep things straightforward and simple and get yourself out of the way, dear worship leader. Please?

I know, I know… The world is in flames, and I’m peeved by the quirks of worship leaders. I’m getting old and cranky. I need to get a life, etc. You’re right, and I’m on it… just as soon as I write another rant about worship leaders who announce cheerily that ‘God is good!’ and then coerce us into shouting back, ‘All the time!’ more than once (‘Let’s try that again!’) because our enthusiasm level did not live up to the leader’s expectations the first time.


But Is It True?

ImageBefore we Christian preachers climb into our pulpits and confidently tell our listeners that Jews in Jesus’ time thought A, or believed B, or that the Law required X, or prohibited Y, it would be good to ask ourselves a few questions:

How do I know this?

Where did I learn it?

Is it really true?

What would a good Jewish scholar have to say about it?

How would this look through Jewish eyes?

Do I actually know what I’m talking about?

I’m guessing that maybe seven times out of ten the assertions we make about the beliefs and practices of first century Jews and about the character of first-century Judaism—especially the things we say that make Jesus look by contrast way more magnanimous, merciful, and just plain better than his coreligionists—are unexamined canards.

Sometimes things we say are simply false. Sometimes they need greater nuance in order to be fair. Sometimes the things we comment on from our Christian perspective  would look completely different if seen through Jewish eyes. But we rarely ask ourselves, “Am I telling the truth when I assert this? Do I know what I’m talking about when I explain this?” We just repeat stuff we think we know, or something a commentary said, never thinking to probe further, because what we think we know  fits so well with our picture of Jesus as a good liberal fellow. Jews and Judaism become little more than foils, straw men we knock down to demonstrate the superiority of our guy and our faith.

We may think we’re avoiding anti-Judaism and supersessionism in our preaching because we keep reminding people that Jesus was a Jew, or insisting that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus, or informing our listeners that the Pharisees were not as bad as the New Testaments makes them out to be. But that barely scratches the surface, and we easily undo it  the minute we start talking about Jesus as if he were the only Jew in his day who ever welcomed an outcast or talked to a woman or ate with Gentiles; or revel in the idea that he was a notorious Sabbath-breaker who came to free everyone from the oppressive Jewish purity system, or put forward some other unexamined notion that, intended or not, makes Jews look bad or benighted, legalistic, oppressive, or simply outmoded–superfluous in a way, now that we have Jesus.

Whenever we notice that we’re preaching a biblical text in a way that ‘exceptionalizes’ Jesus at the expense of Jews, writes Jews out of their own story, or makes Christianity look like a really no-brainer superior option (geez, who wouldn’t want mercy instead of judgment? Just those awful judgmental Jews, I guess, with their mean judgmental God)—we need to stop and reflect on the questions posed above:

How do I know this?

Where did I learn it?

Is it really true?

What would a good Jewish scholar have to say about it?

How would this look through Jewish eyes?

Do I actually know what I’m talking about?

After serious examination, it may turn out that we have not been bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors in our preaching, that we have gotten it right, that we have nothing to rectify. But we’ll never know if we don’t ask. And the price for never asking—for our willful unknowing— is to make the ancient fratricidal stain on the Church’s heart much harder to remove.

It’s stubborn enough as it is. Let’s not make it worse.

A Beginning Bibliography

The Jewish Annotated New Testament eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z Brettler
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewishness of Jesus, Amy Jill Levine

The Historical Jesus in Context, Amy Jill Levine

Irreconcilable Differences?: A Learning Resource for Jews and Christians, David Sandmel, Rosann M. Catalano, Christopher M. Leighton

Christianity In Jewish Terms, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, et al.

Has God Only One Blessings? Judaism As a Source of Christian Self-Understanding, Mary C. Boys

Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. Mary C. Boys

Christian and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other, Mary C. Boys

Preaching without Contempt, Marilyn Salmon

Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, Ronald J. Allen

On Jewish purity laws: “Jesus, Purity, and the Christian Study of Judaism,” Paula Fredriksen

Preaching issues and Dramatizations of the Passion;

Liturgical Readings of the Passion Project

About “Christian Seders”– No Christian Seders, Please!  And Christian Seders, Part 2, FB Notes by Mary Luti (available from the author)

A website under construction to explore the issue of anti-Judaism in the NT and Christian teaching and preaching

A site for preachers committed to wrestling with the issues of anti-Judaism in the NT and Christian teaching and preaching

Please feel free to add to this list sources and resources that can help us learn….

Photo: West stucco wall and cedar ceiling, Synagogue (commonly referred to as the Tránsito), Toledo, Spain (1357)