Why Do I Like Handel’s “Messiah” More than Lessons in Carols?

Cindy and I had a wonderful 40th anniversary celebration this past weekend and regaled in hearing Handel’s “Messiah” on Friday night. This got me to thinking. Why do I love it every time I hear it and never tire of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” On the other hand, and I hate to admit it, Moravian Love Feasts and Lessons in Carols absolutely dull my senses though I am sure that others find them poignant. It’s probably my problem, but do any of these “We’ve never done it any other way” Christmas traditions ever bore you silly? Why do we seldom tire of some and hardly abide others?

Trust me, I don’t get bored at St. John’s. The music, for instance, is fantastic! I heard that I missed a wonderful Children’s and Youth Christmas Musical while we were away. I especially heard about 12 year-old Anna O’Flaherty’s expertise on our huge organ while playing “Away in a Manger.” I am so thankful for Catherine Nance and Christopher Nash and their skills. The same can be said of Jane Timmerman and the 9:02 Band. Our whole Worship Team is extraordinary.

Vibrant worship at this church is a cure for worship boredom and Sunday morning naps! This week’s cantata will yield worshipful chills, I’m sure. But maybe what I just wrote is a part of my dull worship dilemma; i.e., I’m EXPECTING chills this Sunday so the anticipation is building. Perhaps the simplest but most profound cure for underwhelming worship is better individual participation through expectant anticipation.

But, another reason for my worship apathy is self-centeredness. There’s something that I need to get off my chest to prove the point. This year at St. John’s we have said for quite some time that we will have 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Christmas Eve services. There won’t be the usual 11 pm one, and some have thought that it was my idea. Nope. I honestly don’t remember a specific reason, and, maybe, that’s my own apathy at work. My self-centeredness is that I was willing to yield on not having 11 o’clock because I was getting what I wanted at 9 – Holy Communion! I cannot tell you how important that this is to me, but in getting what I wanted some of you didn’t get what you wanted. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem – what WE want.

Sure, I can pull rank since worship is under my purview, but clergy shepherds who disregard the sheep’s needs are in for a rude awakening. I could pick 10 am on Tuesday’s for our primary worship time, but I’m not an idiot. People’s opinions count, but not near as much as God’s. Why did I agree to the switch to 9 instead of 11? I got communion at 9 out of my own self-centeredness.

Christmas Eve Communion at Trinity Episcopal Church in Edgefield shaped and solidified my call to ministry. The understated elegance was magnificent as we sang simple carols and celebrated the Eucharist by candlelight. For me, Christmas Eve without communion is like being United Methodist and saying you don’t believe in church dinners!

God was present in every atom infusing that sacred space with glorious whispers that filled my entire being with purpose, call, and sublime joy. So, yes, I want communion at Christmas Eve. To have candles without communion is a trade-off that comes up short in content and meaning. It gains time at the expense of something way better! My decision, therefore, is that I’ll be at St. John’s at 11 pm on Christmas Eve ready to worship, no choir, and no musical instruments. We’ll sing acapella. I’ll bring the bread and juice; chalice and paten. We won’t need to conjure God’s presence, but we will need expectation to notice it was already here.

In this tell-all, I think the problem for me and some of my worship experiences has become clear. At times my expectation level affects my participation. Other times it’s all about me, me, me, and what I want. So many worship wars are about what we want and me, me, me, and this is an anathema to true worship. We promote that worship is about God when the reality is that it’s often a consumer exercise: “Do I like the minister, the music, and the people?” Worship, however, isn’t about what we like, but what God likes. God is the audience, not us. We’re actors bringing homage in the best ways we know how to God. It’s God’s opinion that counts, not yours or mine!

So, if I can get rid of me-ism in worship and add an expectancy that God is going to show up, then I won’t get bored. I will be a participant that worships the Majestic Almighty Holy Other Creator Incarnate God-in-the-Flesh Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I will be able to hear echoes of the seraphim, cherubim and the whole heavenly host bringing glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship!

The wisdom of Fred Craddock strikes a chord as I write:

“Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic. Sincere Sunday worshipers will confess to welcoming in muffled celebration any interruption of the funereal droning. Be honest: Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew, a bird flew in a window, the lights went out, the organ wheezed, the sound system picked up police calls, or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit? Passengers on cruise ships, after nine beautiful sunsets and eighty-six invigorating games of shuffleboard, begin to ask the crew hopefully, ‘Do you think we’ll have a storm?’ … For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual, ‘But he is really a genuine fellow,’ or ‘But she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling us to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

Ah, “indifference and unimportance,” which are the essence of my duly noted apathy and self-centeredness. To be clear, worship at St. John’s is wonderful, at least that’s how I perceive the way God feels about it. The rest of our opinions don’t really matter that much anyway. Sure, I want us to have a warm-hearted experience every time we’re here. That’s who we are as United Methodists! Our acts of worship carry our theology and what/Who we value, always has. So, see you somewhere, sometime on Christmas Eve, and may our hearts affirm that God is truly pleased!

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Preparation for All Saints

I’ve been rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God which does my soul good every time I read it. Her last chapter is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle she had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. After much haranguing Roberta’s intercession on her aunt’s behalf worked. Her Auntie Ree was ready to die. As the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room, Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing, not so much because of no more needles, but because Auntie Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve/Halloween is in a few days and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be full with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I think that I got my wish because she responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few weeks to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremedum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things” –  “eternal things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loved ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “the peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

 This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. This is not a human point of view. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come home. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day I will remember and offer peace.