Be aware of the gifts of time and space in your own worship history. Do you recall times and places that were meaningful to you in your own worship story? How could you begin some fresh thinking related to how time and space is a part of your own worship activity now?
The readings for the first session of my online coursework deal with the languages of time and space as they relate to worship within the Church. While the traditions of the Church have a very long history, my formative years were spent within the Southern Baptist tradition, quite bereft of a sense of the centuries of history behind the Church and the rich liturgical traditions that have developed over time in various locales.
Readings from White and Wilt break Christian liturgical cycles into several categories: daily, weekly, annual, and life events. While my family and denominational practices vary greatly from the events described in the course materials, I will briefly explore the traditions with which I was raised.
When I was a child, perhaps through the second or third grade, my family observed two daily practices that were linked to Christian discipline. First was the blessing pronounced over supper, which was shared at the dining room table each evening when my father got home from work. My father’s own words for the prayer when I was younger always began invariably:
"Most gracious Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the bountiful blessings that Thou hast bestowed upon us. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and bless the hands that prepared it."
After this my father would move into an extemporaneous flow of prayer, in which all forms of "Thee," "Thy" and "Thou" would disappear, replaced with the more familiar "You." Closing the prayer would always come to a formulation of "In Jesus’ Name, Amen," and we would go on with the meal.
As we got older, my brother, sister and I were encouraged to take our own turns at the blessing before dinner. Our prayers were mostly extemporaneous; however, each of us knew the words of my father’s blessing. In fact, the last time I was home, my brother gave the evening prayers over supper at the table in his own house where I was staying. To my surprise, at each supper together, his own prayers would begin, "Most gracious Heavenly Father," repeating my father’s words from our shared childhood experience. I was struck by the way in which those words have stayed with him, even as he has appended new formulations reflecting the theology and practice of his own faith tradition chosen as an adult.
The second daily "public work" from my childhood was the cycle of "kisses" that closed each evening as we lay down to sleep. My father and mother took turns in praying with us children and then closing out our prayers with the nightly litany, sealing each line with its own kiss:
God loves you (kiss)
Jesus loves you (kiss)
Dad loves you (kiss)
Mom loves you (kiss)
Your brother loves you (kiss)
Your sister loves you (kiss)
Angels are watching over you (kiss)
Once sealed with the goodnight kiss, we each closed our eyes in silence for sleep.
Though my theological training now tells me that "God" was an inexact expression for God the Father, first person of the Trinity, the "kisses" still pointed in that direction. This act of daily repeated worship reassured us as children of our place within our Christian family and within the family of God.
When I reached puberty, my mother had returned to work and the regular cycle of suppertime prayer was disrupted. Goodnight kisses had fallen by the wayside well before this. However, the weekly cycle of worship activities remained intact throughout the rest of my time at home before leaving for college.
Sunday consisted of two worship services, morning and evening, and was augmented in midweek by Wednesday evening bible study.
For Sunday service, an order of service served as a guide to liturgy:
First hymn (standing)
Second hymn (seated)
Third hymn (standing)
Special music (soloist or choir)
Closing hymn with altar call (standing)
Wednesday evening was more fluid, but normally consisted of a couple of hymns before sitting in the pews for prayer, biblical instruction, and a closing prayer.
Much of the liturgical year was wiped away in my upbringing. We observed only Christmas and Easter as special times of the year. Further, while the Christmas service fell on the Sunday before Christmas, within our tradition the Christmas holiday is spent at home with family. If December 25 fell on a Sunday, services were actually canceled. This now seems counterintuitive to me; however, it was perfectly normal at the time.
Easter was marked by a sunrise service, followed by a breakfast and then a normal cycle of Sunday school, followed by Sunday morning worship. Evening services were typically canceled after beginning the day so early.
It was not until my teen years that my church reintroduced Advent into our Christian calendar. For the four Sundays before Christmas we would light a candle within the Advent wreath at the front of the church as a scripture passage leading to the birth of Jesus was read. Looking back now it is quite ironic that the Christ candle in the center of the wreath was never lit as we were not in church on Christmas Day.
Lent was unheard of in my own tradition and I encountered it for the first time when I went off to college and worshiped in a more ecumenical student center.
Child dedication services, marriages and funerals all held a place in the life of the church of my upbringing. We were well instructed in the difference between a dedication service and an infant baptism practiced within other Christian traditions, but not in our own. Dedications were commonplace in the first weeks of a baby’s life. However, in our tradition only Believer’s baptism was practiced and, thus, did not mark a particular life passage such as birth. Likewise, there were no practices of Confirmation, as baptism only took place when a personal confession of faith was made.
In addition to the cycles of worship, the readings also discuss the use of sacred space in worship. Reflecting on my upbringing, I find no "sacred" spaces that stand out. Again, our faith tradition did not place special emphasis on the holiness of a particular space (including the church sanctuary). It was not until I was an adult that I experienced a particular space as holy, and in this particular case, the association is highly individual.
In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there is a particular stretch of Prospect Road that runs between PA 283 and Marietta Pike. On a particular summer day, while driving to church, I was overcome by a strong sense of the presence of God in this place and experienced what I would describe as an epiphany – an awesome feeling of the love of God for me as an individual and a feeling of acceptance as God’s child. Words cannot contain or express what happened on that day as I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of joy. Over the years I have made a "pilgrimage" of sorts to that particular stretch of road, driving slowly through the area where I first experienced that very powerful sense of being enfolded in the boundless love of God. For me, that stretch of road serves as a sacred place where I remember God’s covenant of love and grace as it extends to me.
Coming to the end of a three-year experience in seminary, it is hard to think of how I might begin "fresh thinking" related to time and space in my own worship activity now. But as I have reflected on this question, a couple of opportunities come to mind:
- I have never experienced Lenten practices as a meaningful spiritual discipline. As I indicated previously, I had never even heard of Lent until I was in college and then it was presented as giving something up for a season of penance. However, as I have learned more, it would appear that Lent offers a period of opening ourselves up in prayer, confession and action aimed at spiritual growth and reconciliation with God. Perhaps a re-examination of Lenten practices is in order.
- Likewise, Advent, with its period of expectation for the coming incarnation event has always been an impoverished liturgical season for me. A more in-depth examination of this period and its practices might also prove fruitful.