Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Posts Tagged ‘worship’

For ALL the Saints – unfinished business

Posted by John Montgomery on November 2, 2010

[Note: Much of this post was first published four years ago reflecting on the verses of the classic hymn, For all the Saints. In that original post, I made a promise to return to this reflection, intending taking up the identified issue some 12 months later. It has now been 48 months. This past week,  my friend Kathy, who is a student at Candler, ask for some help about a related subject. I dug out the old post and dusted my procrastination off. It is time to start to make good on part of my promise. I start with an edited version of the previous post.]


This is the season when our congregations celebrate the “Community of Saints” who have gone on before us and who stand now as beacons showing the way for our own journeys of faith and proclamation. Officially, the date is November 1. As I look around, some churches formally celebrated the tradition yesterday and others like mine will take care of liturgical business next week.

There are hymns marking these words and deeds. There are rituals memorializing congregational members who have died during the previous 12 months. And many of us whose closest loved ones have passed in the last several years mark the time in solemn reflection on the present shattered bonds of intimacy that will perhaps in the future be healed – as the old song anticipates, a time when “the circle will be unbroken.” This is always the case for me as I reflect on the life and death of my spouse, friend, lover and partner in mission, Judy Sparks Montgomery who passed now some ten years ago.

Four years ago, our church, broke with tradition and we did not sing the grand old hymn by William Walsham How, For All the Saints. We did not sing this hymn because my pastor, David Jones, feeling in his “mind and heart” that this is the right thing to do in relationship to a request that I had made that previous week in our worship committee meeting, he directed our music team to choose other songs.

I had not asked that we would not sing the hymn. I simply indicated my hope that we did not make this hymn the “summary” of our worship experience.

David felt that a one year pause would not be improper. David’s gesture to me as both a member of the worship committee and as a friend was particularly humbling.

So what is this all about?

My witness had to do with my deep existential experience of this particular celebration of worship over the last several years. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic tune and How’s poetic words are indeed classic. But as I have repeatedly sung this hymn, it has been harder and harder for me to see that this is about Judy and others like her. The military tenor of the language does not paint a picture of my late wife’s sainthood.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not being anti-soldier, many have given the full measure defending not just my country but my country’s values and I am more than willing to acknowledge their contribution. My difficulty with the hymn particularly as it shows up in our hymn book is not what is there, but what is missing.

For example, our current United Methodist hymnbook cuts some very important verses that speak of our forebears in faith – the preachers of our message, the writers of our gospels and the martyrs who stood their ground even when threatened with torture (a lesson, we seem too easily ready to forget these days).

Listen to these words…

3) For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4) For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5) For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For All the Saints was written as a processional hymn by the Anglican Bishop William Walsham How. The hymn was first printed in Hymns for Saint’s Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson, 1864. The hymn was sung to the melody Sarum, by Victorian composer Joseph Barnby, until the publication of the English Hymnal in 1906. This hymnal used a new setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams which he called Sine Nomine (literally “without name”) in reference to its use on the Feast of All Saints, November 1. It has been described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century.” (Thank you Wikpedia)

Why Bishop How also included four full verses using military imagery must remain a mystery. At this point we cannot recover the historical context that informed his decisions. Perhaps they partake of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In this country, we were deeply divided over the question of slavery, although I have found no documentation that How had this in mind when he wrote the verses.

We are generally used to singing three of the original four.

2) Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7) O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

8) And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

9) The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Alleluia, indeed.

Of course, How introduced the hymn with the stirring words that we all know by heart.

1) For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

How concludes his hymn with verses reflecting on the day when in its fullness, the Kin(g)dom does arrive.

6) O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

10) But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

I’ve always taught my children that if they see the need, they do the deed.

In my follow-up conversation with David, I suggested two particular responses that could be made in the future allowing us to re-appropriate this glorious hymn. First, we must sing all the verses and we need to find the time in our worship to make this happen. Secondly, we can create additional verses that celebrate the sainthood of all. I have now committed to crafting several of these new verses. I’m including two. Part of the purpose of this post is to invite your aid. I would welcome any and all contributions. Here is my first draft – you will quickly see why I am asking for help.

O great physician, hear now our fervent prayer
Guide our doctors, our nurses in their care
That brings health and wholeness to our deep despair,
Sing alleluia, Sing alleluia

Yes, I know it needs work! Try this one.

Deep well of wisdom, our passions still ignite
Strengthen all teachers, together we seek light
That frees all from ignorance, that discerns the wrong from right
Sing allelulia, Sing alleluia

My next verse would be for relief workers – I’m thinking particularly of those firefighters related to 911 both during the bombing and the clean-up afterwards. I’m thinking of those who are still rebuilding after our Coastal hurricanes. I’m thinking about those saints digging half mile holes in Chile to rescue trapped minors.

And then, we need  at least one verse about those whose sainthood was worked out in constant care, year after year, for our communities and our local churches.

If we really worked at it, we could sing for the whole hour. What a great service of worship and thanksgiving that might be.

11) From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia

Alleluia, Indeed!


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From My Archives – Standing For The Gospel

Posted by John Montgomery on August 14, 2010

[Note: This post was first published in June of 2008.]

Does your congregation stand for the reading of the Gospel?

A friend who knows that I am interested in this subject put me on to this wonderful video. Enjoy! They do!

Now most of us Methodists don’t do a formal “Gospel Procession” as part of our worship, although they do one at Duke Chapel each Sunday morning. Most of us are Episcopal light (as in not heavy, as opposed to dark!)

At the same time, a lot of us have embedded in our morning worship a series of lectionary readings – sometimes three, more likely two. Following the assigned morning texts, they begin with a reading from the Christian Old Testament (not the Jewish Tanakah), followed by a reading from either a Pauline epistle or one of the later writings, and then usually we have a reading from one of the four Gospels (Gospel as in literary type).

At Glenn Memorial where I attend, we usually only do two readings, but clearly, if the second reading comes from one of the four gospels, the congregations stands. If our second reading does not come from one of the four “gospels,” we seem a bit confused!


The Lutheran website that talks about this liturgical element in our worship describes the ritual as a gesture of respect, but don’t the other texts need similar respect?

Are those four texts privileged? You would not be surprised that a study of Christian responses to that question yield at least two different answers. Some say yes, the rest of the texts are commentary. Others, ofttimes the same author says, no, in the Christian Bible, all texts are potentially a vehicle for the gospel. Paul clearly talks of his teaching as the gospel, probably 20 years before Mark is written.

I prefer the latter. My current fantasy is that at the time of the second reading, our pastor will say the following, “Please stand for the Gospel reading taken this morning from the book of Exodus.”

To make things worse, in my mind, our last pastor reserved the Gospel reading for clergy! No way….

Now those who know me understand that the real reason behind these comments is my suspicion that there lurks a subtle assumption that Christianity supersedes Judaism and post-holocaust, most of us find that doctrine an abomination. Still, every morning, we begin with a reading from the OLD testament before moving to the NEW testament and then we eventually liturgically climb up the stairs of the temple to exalt the Gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a Christian and for me Jesus is the key source of my understanding of the Word of God, but what that means practically is quite another question.

This all got brought to a head this week because our pastor preached on the Isaiah text and the second reading came from Psalms. So when we were ready to stand, instead we just sat there.

I’ve got two ways of dealing with this. First, why don’t we stand for every reading? Second, perhaps we should put the main reading for the day in the first position and follow-up with one or two related readings. During Advent, we experimented with the key text of the day functioning as the call to worship. I likes that model, it set the tone for the whole experience of worship.

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Empty Collection Plates…

Posted by John Montgomery on August 8, 2010

Now if you opened this post hoping to talk about dwindling finances in some of our churches (not all), then you are in the wrong place. Today’s post is about worship!

Our technology is outrunning our liturgical practices. I’ve seen this coming, but this morning starkly brought it home.

Now school starts tomorrow here in the Atlanta metro area, so worship attendance, following a summer of sparse crowds was quite good. It was helped by the fact that this is the Sunday we give 3rd graders their own personal Bibles and therefore there were lots of family visitors –  aunts, uncles, etc.

It was full enough, that my usual seat down front right was taken and I had to sit about 15 rows back. which was okay, I was in a watchful mood today, so I didn’t mind the view.

I like the rhythm of our worship. I have written about this before, starting with the gathering of the congregation including the children, then moving toward a time of prayer, the scripture reflection (with sermon) and then closing with a high period of  dedication symbolized with our collection.

Collections are important to me – I suppose that my father commiserates about the fact that I did not complete the ordination process by noting that as a professional fundraiser, I still take collections (sort of).  Isn’t that how you know you are at a Methodist gathering – there is a collection. Right.

So here I am sitting 15 rows back – my best guess is that we have about 450 people in attendance this morning. The ushers are dutifully passing the plates and when it got to my row…..THE PLATE WAS EMPTY!

Why John, I didn’t know your church was facing such hard times!

No! We made budget last year and had a surplus. What is going on?

I am sure there are a couple of things going on, but I can’t help but notice that about a month ago, we started taking contributions made on our website by credit cards. For the last 3 or 4 months, since – for the life of me – I can’t find my check book, and since I pay everything else but my pledge on line, I started to use my financial institution’s bill pay functions to deliver on Monday of each week, right on time, a bank cut check to our church office.

But, that’s Monday, not SUNDAY.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,

Praise God, all creatures here below,

Praise God, above ye heavenly host,

Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost…

And from my colleagues up north, the pastoral invitation  is….

“Jesus calls us to follow him. One way in which we respond to this call is to offer our gifts—of time, talents, and treasures.”

Seems to me that something’s got to give. Some of you may remember the “Daily Office” liturgy that was first developed at the Faith and Life Community at the University in Austin,  TX – Jack Lewis’ provocative campus ministry cooperative during the 1950s. Or, perhaps more may have run into this experimental liturgy as it became part of the covenant community associated with the work of Joe Mathews at the Ecumenical Institute based in Chicago. My late wife, Judy and I spent some 15 years as members of that “third order.” Daily Office was usually at 4:30 in the morning, a habit that I did not take long to break after leaving the community and returning to grad school.

Nevertheless, the collection (offering) was a bit of a suprise to people. I remember explaining to a group of visitors – “that this is not about paying bills. It is about a renewed commitment to be the church.”

So at either side of the doors coming into the liturgical space, there were baskets of pennies. Upon entering, everybody takes a penny. When the liturgy comes to the time of the offering, as the baskets are passed, everybody (kids, rich, poor, choir, morning clergy) places their penny in the offering plate as a symbol of giving their lives.

Frankly, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the practice of averting my glance from the usher every Sunday indicating that I have nothing to put in plate…

I don’t have a proposal yet. I’ve been thinking about prayer cards. It’s all symbolic, but what it symbolizes is so important. Our liturgy gives us a chance each week to rehearse and remake our Christian commitments – that’s finally what worship is about.

Yes, the check is in the mail, but our lives are in the plate.

* * * * *

Photo Used by Permission: I-Stock Phote – DesignEthic

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Let the Children Come – Revisited

Posted by John Montgomery on July 15, 2010

Bishop Willimon’s post about “children’s sermons” a couple of weeks ago  was certainly provocative and challenging and it brought to the surface concerns that I have chewed over for many years.

See Let the Children Come.

I would have no trouble adding my vote to Allan’s decision to honor the post with, Best of the Methoblogosphere! for that week.

If you happened to miss the post, Willimon raised two concerns with what he suggests is a well intentioned but less than effective set of liturgical tactics aimed at communicating to our children that we welcome them as part of our worshiping community and moreover, we value their participation.

Willimon rightly observes that more often than not, children’s sermons are not really sermons at all and frankly they often end up not really speaking to the children, but to the adults.

Before I go too much further, I think it is helpful to note where I come from as I offer my 2 cents to this conversation.

My membership in the United Methodist connection is located with the Glenn Memorial congregation worshiping on the Emory campus here in Atlanta.

I am a lay person who works as a professional fundraiser for hunger causes.

At the same time, I have done extensive post-graduate study at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and earned a second degree with the confederated faculty associated with Chicago Theological Seminary.

At Glenn, I serve with other members as part of the worship committee. I am humbled by the larger congregation’s trust.

So for a moment, I would like to reflect on these questions as they are addressed in our local congregation, Glenn Memorial. In all honesty, we may not have planned it that way, but I think we get a lot right.  Having said that, I am not suggesting that other churches copy what we do, instead I hope they can learn from our experience.

In context, I think there are two elements working in our liturgical setting that help us get it right. The first is space.

Two summers ago, in cooperation with Emory (in fact, our sanctuary is the Emory auditorium) we rebuilt the chancel to install ramps and rails making it more accessible. Installing ramps and rails did make our chancel more accessible, but it also made it much bigger.

Actually, the front space is huge. That is great as currently, we have a pretty good sized group of kids that gather there for our “time for children.”  Willimon suggested that children could be invited down front to watch baptisms – in fact, baptisms at Glenn follow right after the “time for children” and frankly, much of what is talked about those days is what is going on in the baptism – how this child is becoming a part of our community and how the child will soon become our friends. They also talk about their responsibility to set strong examples.

One of the reasons it works though is that we have a big enough space for the children, the parents, the extended family and even a photographer. We are still working on guidlines for that phenomonen!

Glenn church, now some 100 years young, is experiencing significant transition. Our older members are very active but we have a growing crowd of families with younger kids joining as well. It doesn’t hurt for visiting families to see a large gaggle of kids each Sunday morning. I’m not suggesting that we use our kid’s time as a marketing gimmick, but on the other hand numbers do catalyse numbers.

Sadly, it may be true that if there are just a few kids in smaller congregations, maybe we might not want to highlight that fact on each Sunday morning.

The second factor that makes this time for children work seems to me to be the orchestration. Our liturgy flows well. Our service begins with a greeting from the lead pastor for the day, a call to worship and a hymn. The kids come down to the chancel during the last couple of verses of that opening hymn. Following the time with children, the older ones return to sit with their families, in effect helping to lead the act of the exchange of greetings or the passing of the peace. Currently, after a hearty “the peace of God is with you,” the congregation then sits for the morning prayer. This flows very well.

On days with baptisms, the kids stay where they are to watch the baptism and then lead a bit of a parade down the left aisle and back up the right as the congregation’s latest member is introduced to the folks in the pews.

Again, this flows very well.

Having said that, my point about orchestration also has to do with the fact that in the larger scheme of things, the time for children is part of our gathering together – our larger prep for worship as a community. Therefore, maybe the time is really not for a sermon anyway. I’ll come back to that point in a minute. Part of this question has to do with what constitutes a sermon in the first place.

We have a new feature now where our youngest kids, those in the nursery, begin worship with the larger congregation. At the beginning of the service and during the prelude, they sit with their caregivers in the front rows and join the larger group of children for the time for children. Their initial presence with the congregation before they eventually leave for the nursery is a very important gesture of support and solidarity for me.

Glenn church has a strong tradition that holy communion is something that when possible families do together, and so for practical reasons those special Sundays have no children’s time.

Now back to sermons…and most particularly as to whether they are a way for the pastor to preach the sermon twice. If one includes the pastoral prayer to repeat the key points made in the homily, then a pastor can get three chances to get his/her point across. Of course for me, the sermon is never the last word, but the first – or maybe the second. When I was growing up, Sunday lunch was a time to have “roast preacher.” I think that is great. But that is a another post.

I confess that I was uniquely shaped for many years by the tradition at Wheadon UMC in Evanston where I did my contextual education. I don’t know who stated the tradition – perhaps Greg Dell, or BJ. It doesn’t matter. What happened was when the time for the children’s word came around, the pastor would take the kids up into the old choir loft. The sanctuary had since been turned into the round. Most important was the fact that there was no microphone. The adults could not hear what was said to the children. Instead, for the adults, it was a time to pass registration pads and announcement sheets and sign-ups. The children’s time was for the children.

I’ll admit, that for many years, this was my idea of a “time for children.” Over time, I have mellowed, but only slightly.

In the Glenn church children’s time, different things happen. Yes, the mike is on, but I’m okay with that because often times, what is happening is directed to the adults – i.e. the kids speak to the adults.

One of the best times that I can remember was when the children, who had been learning the books of the Bible, challenged the adults to see who could do better.

I’ve also come to think of our children’s time as  kind of tutorial (sometimes just as helpful for the adults) – not the sermon – but maybe prep for the sermon. David’s going to speak about friendship – or grace – or whatever…what is your experience with friendship, or grace, or whatever.

Last week when the kids reported that at VBC, they had helped raise over $4,000 to dig wells in Kenya – my worship experience was suddenly deeper for their leadership.

There is a kind of irony – as I get older, I look forward to recapturing my second childhood. With age comes one more chance to learn the lessons of youth. In his new book, Dr. William Holmes, pastor emeritus of the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist church in DC writing about what he describes as “mature Christianity,”  spoke about the famous NT pasages where Jesus said that we all should become childlike – Willimon obviously draws on the same texts.

Holmes carefully makes the distinction between being childish and childlike. Being childlike has to do with humility – a certain openness. I suppose, this might be what Paul Ricoeur was talking about when he discussed a second naivete. In the context of worship, highlighting our children’s presence in our congregation also highlights Jesus’ call to readiness for the kin(g)dom.

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