Even when you don’t know what to say, something has to be said

During a recent clergy conference, one of the participants told of attending worship on a Sunday immediately after a shattering natural catastrophe had taken place. During the service, nothing had been said about the event even though it had dominated every news outlet for several days.

Afterwards the visitor asked the pastor, “Why didn’t you say something about it?” The answer was, “I didn’t know what to say.”

During the ensuing conversation, most of the clergy in the conference agreed that this response wouldn’t do. What one person said seemed to sum up the point of view:“Even when you don’t know what to say, something has to be said.”

One person repeated a line he had heard somewhere: “Every siren is a call to prayer.” Someone else said that when people come to church with minds and hearts full of the momentous event—whether tragic or magnificent—they can’t deal with anything else until this preoccupation is acknowledged and somehow brought into the scope of the Word from God and their words (in prayer) to God.

“What people need on these occasions,” another speaker proposed, “are anchors and rituals, anchors to hold them steady and rituals to provide ways to respond to how they feel and what they think.”

“These occasions can be teaching opportunities,” another pastor suggested, and she then told us what she had done on the Sunday following the beginning of the demonstrations in Cairo. It was the season of Epiphany and she vaguely recalled having read some place that the celebration of Epiphany had started in Egypt. She quickly followed up on this recollection, prepared a brief summary of that history, and added some sentences about the history, strength, and character of the Christian community in Egypt.” Later in the service, the prayers included specific references to this event that was dominating world attention.

One aspect of this conversation that should be noted is that no one advocated that the pastor take a stand for or against the events whatever they might be. Although we did not discuss this topic, some reasons can be given for holding back from giving evaluative comments.

When events are rapidly developing, with many details unknown, and the further trajectory completely unpredictable, what seems right and true at one moment may be demonstrated to be false at the next. Furthermore, serious Christians with good knowledge of the events and solid theological understandings, may differ in their evaluation.

There are church settings—such as forums at other times—when all points of view can be brought forward and discussed. During worship, however, this give and take is hard to do. Therefore, acknowledgements, interpretations, and prayers need to be couched in ways that can be understood and affirmed by most congregants. Let expressions of opinion be encouraged in settings where debate can occur.

One generalization from this conversation also applies to worship on all Sundays, even when nothing special has happened in previous days. One of the pastors declared that  “faith always is lived in specific contexts, and therefore sermons, prayers, and everything else in the liturgy is affected by what’s happening in the world outside of the sanctuary.”

One way for worship to be alive, sermons helpful, and prayers heart-felt and spirit-filled is for this interaction of faith and context to be at work in every service of Christian worship.

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