“Sometimes the right person, reading the right text, at the right time makes all the difference,” said Dr. Don E. Saliers, Faculty Emeritus, William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship and retired Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at Candler School of Theology of Emory University, during a workshop held this week on inclusive worship practices. This workshop, which was sponsored by Sacred Worth, one of Candler School of Theology’s student organizations, focused on incorporating inclusivity into worship services, through song, prayers, hymns, and other elements of worship.
To get the conversation started, Don Saliers outlined some basic questions that we as worship planners and leaders should ask: Who is gathering for worship? What is the time, space, and occasion of the worship? What are the central images, texts, songs available in the community? What are the pastoral needs of the community or of particular individuals? What conception of the divine and human relationality is in focus?
As we pondered the first of his various questions, he reminded us, many of whom are future church pastors, that so much of inclusive worship planning depends on who is gathering. Though the congregation may appear homogenous, there is such diversity of interpretation and experience within every worshipping community. In fact, even before we, the learned seminary graduates, arrive to lead a congregation, there is rich knowledge and “stuff,” as Saliers put it, in the congregation before we get there. This is, of course, a true statement but is a good reminder, too.
Though he highlighted and suggested various song and hymn resources that offer new music and more inclusive language, Saliers encouraged us to look to existing hymnals and songbooks, which are familiar to worshippers, because it may allow us to take old words and put them into a new context. In fact, the most useful and tangible suggestion I believe he made during the workshop was to host informal hymn sing-alongs, inviting congregants to introduce, in a safe space, their attachments to certain favorite hymns. What a beautifully melodic way for the congregation to share part of its story with us and each other. Saliers taught that, “Sometimes an image in a song or psalm will say something that a person can’t.”
That statement certainly rings true for me, one who is a lover of words. A poem, hymn, or psalm can speak the thoughts and prayers on my heart that I cannot always verbally articulate. I am sure that you too have had deeply divine moments of clarity and awareness during corporate worship, while reading liturgy, or as you mouth the words of a favorite biblical text during a stressful time.
Saliers rhetorically asked, “If liturgy can’t touch the hurts, then where will we go?” Though it was designed to discuss inclusive worship practices, the workshop became much more in that moment. We dialogued about suffering and how deep and honest prayer can uncover what is hidden within each of us. During Holy Week, we, as Christians, are keenly aware of Jesus’ suffering as well as his deep and honest prayers to God as he made his way to the cross. As we prepare for Easter, I invite you to find ways to touch your own text and song imagination with things that can really make a difference in your worship and life.
Dr. Thomas Thangaraj, the D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity, wrote a Passion Week Prayer, that you will find below. I hope it encourages you to slow down and dwell in the uncomfortable before the resurrection on Sunday.
O God, we are always in a hurry -
reluctant to stop, linger, or wait.
We are in a hurry to race from Passion Sunday to Easter morning,
never stopping on the way.
Slow us down, Lord, during this week;
Slow us down.
May we pause to hear your judgment on our temples of greed
and on our tables of selfish desire;
May we linger and listen to your curse
on our leaf-full appearances and our fruit-less lives;
May we stay with the community of disciples
and wash one another’s feet;
May we tarry at the table while you break bread,
sip wine, and call us to remember you at every meal;
May we wait at the foot of the cross
and hear your words of forgiveness, acceptance, forsakenness, and fulfillment;
May we halt a while to experience the deadening silence of the tomb –
our tombs of loneliness and helplessness;
Slow us down, Lord, during this week;
Slow us down.
That renewed in the spirit, we may face the coming Easter morning with joy and hope.
For more information about Candler School of Theology, visit our website at www.candler.emory.edu, or email the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, you can call us at 404.727.6326, or learn more about the admissions process at Candler by clicking here. Look for my profile on Facebook (Candler Intern-Theology) and the Candler School of Theology Group at www.facebook.com. We recently started a group on MySpace too, so hopefully we’ll connect with you soon online or in person.