God's Word for today

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Standing on (for?) the promises of God

There is the story of the little girl (let's call her Jenny) who was watching her mother prepare the Sunday roast, in the hope that one day, when Jenny is old enough, she too would have the honour of preparing this venerable family meal.

As Mom was about to place the piece of beef into the roasting tin, she cut a slice off the one side.

Jenny immediately asked, "Mom, why do you do that?" "Because I always do that, sweetie," Mom replied. "But why?" said Jenny. "Because Gran always did that", replied Mom. "But WHY?" Jenny insisted.

Exasperated, Mom told Jenny to go and play with her dolls. But the episode got her thinking about exactly why her own mother cut the slice off the roast. So she 'phoned her mother and asked about this, and the reply was, "Because my mother always cut off the slice".

By now completely exasperated, the mother decided to give her grandmother a ring. Although Jenny's great-grandmother was 90 years old, she was still as sharp as a tack and quite active for her age. So when Jenny's mom asked her grandmother about cutting the slice off the meat, she received, in a somewhat surprised tone of voice, this answer: "Because my roasting dish was too small, dear".

In two of my earliest posts, I questioned some of the things that we do during our worship services, and I must confess that I had not given this too much thought until recently. It was during a baptism orientation class that we were conducting at St Andrews Methodist Church, where we were going through baptism and what its meaning is, that I again thought about some of the things we do as part of our worship - often without thinking and without questioning why some of these things are done.

After all, if you come to think of it, unless you understand what baptism is all about, and its significance in the life of a Christian, sprinkling water on a baby's head is actually quite a dumb thing to do! Why not give the child a proper bath if you want to splash water all over the place?

I'll share some thoughts on baptism in a later post, but right now I have a question that I REALLY need the answer to:

Why do we stand during the reading of the Gospel?

This question gives me sleepless nights - particularly since it is bound to happen that a member of the congregation is someday going to ask me why. And I haven't the foggiest idea!

According to the website of the Missouri Lutheran Church, “the act of standing is a common gesture for showing respect. When someone enters a room, we usually stand to greet that person. If a prominent official makes an appearance, it would be considered rude not to stand out of respect for that person's position. If we were to find ourselves in the presence of royalty, protocol would dictate that we remain standing”.

This is one of the reasons given for why we stand for the Gospel reading.

Another reason given is that “the reading from one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) occupies a very prominent place in the service, for it either contains the very words of Jesus or proclaims His saving work. Standing for this reading is one, obvious way of greeting our Lord who is present in His holy Word”.

Now I do not wish to sound disrespectful in any way towards a practice of another church, especially since the same practice is fairly widespread in Methodist services as well, but these reasons for standing give me more questions than answers. Consider the following:

- Standing is seen as a sign of respect. I’ll go with that one, since I still hold onto the “old school” value of giving up one’s seat for a lady, and standing when greeting someone or addressing a meeting. But why then do we stand only during the Gospel readings? Are we saying that readings from these four books of Scripture warrant more respect than those from other books? I’m sure that the majority of people would agree that readings from any of the books of the Bible warrant equal respect.

- It may be argued that we also stand during the singing of the Lord’s Prayer and of hymns. While I will not question that these elements of worship need to be respected as well, as a former Welsh Male Voice Choir chorister I always believed that standing is simply the preferred posture for singing, allowing entry of air into the lungs and unrestricted movement of the diaphragm.

- "But we also stand for the prayers over the offering”, one might argue. Personally, I’ve never understood this one, either – is the prayer for money more important than the prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, or intercession?

- It is argued that the Gospels contain “the very words of Jesus”, depicted as such in red lettering in certain editions of the Bible. If that is the case, we should then also stand during any reading from Revelation, since much of Jesus’ direct speech (as depicted in red) also appears there. Yet we tend to remain seated for such passages.

Now don’t get me wrong for raising these questions – I’m by no means trying to raise a doctrinal issue here. In fact, I have no particularly strong feelings either way. I conduct services in congregations where the custom is to stand during the reading from the Gospels, as well as in congregations where this custom is not followed.

And if I am conducting a service in a church for the first time and am unsure of the prevailing custom, I usually announce something along the lines of “We will now read from (whichever Gospel reading I have selected), and those who wish to stand during this reading may feel free to do so”. That way I have not placed anyone under an obligation to stand where the custom is not followed, but at the same time shown respect to those congregations where it is in fact customary to stand.

But like little Jenny, I still want to know WHY…

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