It’s called the Book of Worship, and for the uninitiated, it’s a collection of prayers, litanies and other liturgical resources for use in the worship life of congregations within the United Church of Christ, of which this pastor and the congregation I serve are a part. From orders for weekly services of “Word and Sacrament” throughout the church year to the many other celebrations common to our shared ministry – Baptism, Confirmation, weddings, funerals and so on – the Book of Worship is, for clergy and laity alike, the go-to volume for worship materials that are both biblically and theologically sound, as well as rich in the history, tradition and diversity of our denomination.
As clergy and congregations we’re not required to use it in our services of worship (we’re far too independent and autonomous in the UCC for such a thing as this!), it is nonetheless one important resource that serves to truly unite us as the church, “linking the tapestry of the past and weaving the fabric of the future.” As I’m fond of explaining to those who ask, if you come to our church in New Hampshire this Sunday when we’re celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism, and then go to a UCC church in California next week where there’s also a baptism taking place, odds are you’ll hear pretty much the same service; and in fact, there’s great power in that. Indeed, as the Book of Worship itself puts it, it’s a “means of praise and thanksgiving of the living God by [all of] God’s people in this time.”
I’ve had my copy (actually, two copies, but I’ll get to that in a moment) since shortly after it was published in 1986; and by any measure you’d care to use, it’s a book that’s seen better days! The binding is completely broken now (the book actually dropped out of said binding and on to the floor last year on Maundy Thursday, as I recall), the embossed printing on the cover has all but worn away, and a great many of the pages within are dog-eared, torn and covered with circles, arrows, and barely legible notes written to myself in preparation for literally hundreds of spiritual gatherings over the course of three decades. For me, it’s been a true “tool of the trade,” and truth be told, though I don’t always use it and over time have even come to know some of its liturgy by heart, there’s rarely a Sunday you won’t find me without the Book of Worship close at hand.
That is, you usually won’t.
A few Sundays back on what is always an occasion of great celebration at East Church, I had the joy and privilege of baptizing a bright eyed little boy who’s long been a part of the church family. The pews were filled with family members and friends, all was made ready for this blessed sacrament to take place, and our morning worship was about to begin… when I suddenly realized that my Book of Worship, which of course contains the proper liturgy I needed to do my job as pastor and “officiant” at this celebration, had been left in my office. No problem; except that when I got to my office, the book as nowhere to be found! And I do mean nowhere; after fairly well tearing apart my admittedly cluttered desk, as well as the surrounding environs, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be found before the call to worship, which was now five minutes away!
Again, no problem; because sitting on my office bookshelf is a second, loose leaf copy of the Book of Worship that I have kept for just such an occasion… except that somewhere along the line, that book had been dropped, all the pages had come loose and scattered, and in the process most of the baptismal pages had been misplaced, lost or destroyed! Frantically sifting through what remained, I managed to find a random page with part of the baptismal vows; but now, as the organ prelude had begun, there was no time to search for anything more. I had to face the fact that I’d be doing this baptism pretty much on my own!
And the thing is, it went well! Not perfectly, mind you, as I know I stumbled, and a lot. I’m sure that as I nervously worked to pull key points of the liturgy from my addled memory, the language used was far less eloquent and graceful than what was on the printed page; likewise, my retelling of the story of Jesus welcoming the children came nowhere close to the New Revised Standard version! But somehow, by the grace of God and the movement of his Spirit, it worked; there was laughter, some tears, and most importantly a child was formally and joyfully welcomed into the loving embrace of our Lord and into the care of a large and extended spiritual family.
In the end it was, in the truest and best sense of the word, sacramental. And it all happened without the Book of Worship.
This past Sunday, we gathered in worship for World Communion Sunday and once again I stood before the wonderful congregation that I serve, sharing in the simple yet manifold blessings of the bread and the cup. And, yes, I did have with me the Book of Worship (that which was lost was indeed found, albeit a few days later; one of the groups using our Fellowship Hall had inadvertently stashed it in a cabinet), and together with other kindred spirits across the globe, we shared in a familiar liturgy of remembrance, faith and promise that’s been spoken across both miles and generations. And it was wonderful; though I must confess that on this particular day I was reminded that what made this service special happened way beyond what could ever be found in the pages of a worn book. It happened both in the small and intimate ways we connected with one another as we shared in this holy feast, both eye to eye and heart to heart, and it happened especially in the multitude of ways that our Lord was being present to each one of us gathered together.
Don’t get me wrong; the Word that we impart as pastors and worship leaders is important, dare I say essential, as it’s part of what brings us together as a worshipping congregation. But ultimately, it’s what happens in and through that service that makes it a Sacrament.
And surely God is present there.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry