It’s no time to be liturgical snobs

By John D. Pierce

Like many Baptists, the church and denomination that nurtured me practiced worship in ways that no one would confuse with Catholicism. Even lighting candles raised fear that the Protestant Reformation would unravel.

Like many Baptists today, however, my personal and church experiences have moved to embrace liturgical traditions such as following the Church Year and looking to the Revised Common Lectionary as a guide for expanded biblical preaching.

Holy Week is one of those times when this evolution is most obvious — with practices unknown to me for decades. (I once wrote a feature story on this Baptist shift titled, “From Training Union to Tenebrae.”)

Palm Sunday was really just Easter Cantata Sunday, and Holy Week got little to no attention in my early experiences. There was no organized focus on the Passion of Christ during the days leading to Easter Sunday — although the cross got plenty of attention throughout the year.

However, following the life of Christ and the emergence of the Church, through the Christian Year, provides direction and insights that I have found to be very helpful and meaningful. Such discoveries enrich the spiritual lives of many Baptists along with those of other Christians traditions.

I’m pleased that the season of Advent has taken root in many Baptist churches now — and, to a lesser degree, Lent and Holy Week as times of spiritual preparation for what is to come.

Christmas and Easter mean more when our hearts are made ready by deep reflection on what leads us to these celebrations — including, or perhaps especially, the painful parts. And I’ve found congregations open to new ways of worshiping when the traditions and meanings are well explained.

Many years ago a pastor friend in southwest Georgia, who was vacationing over Thanksgiving weekend, asked me to introduce Advent to his Baptist congregation. It was their first experience with this season that is now an expected part of their shared expectations and preparation for the coming of Christ.

During an interim pastorate of a central Georgia church, I shared with the minister of music my plans to simply explain Ash Wednesday during the midweek Bible study time. He encouraged me to offer the imposition of ashes at the conclusion. With some hesitation, I did so.

There were no burned fronds from the previous year or time to order a commercial version. So I experimented: burning a grocery bag in my driveway and sweeping up the remaining ashes. They seemed quite dry so I added a few drops of olive oil for adhesion.

After carefully explaining the purpose of Ash Wednesday and sharing the biblical basis with these Baptists, I was clear that only those who felt comfortable should come forward to have their foreheads marred. The next Sunday, an older man wanted to talk with me about last Wednesday.

I prepared myself for a “We ain’t Catholic!” diatribe — feeling grateful that interim pastors can take more risks than those who stay around for a while. But, with misty eyes, he said simply, “I just want you to know how much that meant to me.”

Sometimes I detect a bit of arrogance in those well versed in liturgical traditions. But anything done for a spiritual purpose should never result in a sense of superiority. That is the very opposite reason for expanding how worship and spirituality are practiced.

Comparing Holy Week schedules or clergy adornments is not a sport. And anything that conveys, “We do it right; you do it wrong” is, well, wrong.

Education is more effective than condescension. I once heard the late, great preacher Fred Craddock say that most congregations handle change well when it is done pastorally.

Without judgment, it is interesting to see how worship practices and traditions, in my case among Baptists, have evolved over my lifetime.

For example, although my family was in church Sunday mornings and nights, Wednesday evenings and any other times the congregation gathered, I never once attended church on Christmas Eve. Now that is the highest attended service of the year for my current church.

Yet, the family of my upbringing would be found nowhere else on New Year’s Eve than at church where our congregational family shared food, fun and then Communion, praying in the New Year at the strike of midnight. It was the only time my dad withheld his familiar charge that “No one but hoodlums are out past midnight.”

It was special and spiritual time — although we had no awareness of the historical roots of Watch Night that go back to early Moravians and had special significance for African-American Christians who celebrated emancipation.

Holy Week services were not held during my childhood and youth. But I still feel the emotions from the Easter sunrise services at the ridge-top cemetery where my father, mother, brother and so many friends are now buried.

Then, of course, the big and boisterous breakfast at the church that followed the sunrise service is memorable as well. And during the Easter service at the holy hour of 11am, the remnant smells of country ham, red-eye gravy and biscuits wafted into the sanctuary. I consider all of these to be worthy symbols of new life.

For all these traditions and the evolving ways of worship that enhance spiritual insight and experience, I am grateful. Our attention to when and how we worship is worth exploring, but is less significant and beneficial than our attention to worship itself — that allows us to ponder why.

This week, holy indeed, is a good reminder that we come to the cross from different places and with different expectations and experiences, yet we are met by the same amazing grace.

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