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Just One More Thing...
It’s as if we never say goodbye
How many times do you go to a friend’s house, and you say goodbye in the living room, and then stop in the kitchen for another goodbye, and then while you’re in the entry way, there’s another goodbye, and then they walk you out, and a goodbye conversation continues while you stand behind your open car door and your friend stands on their porch?
I know that some regions like to claim this as their own (I’m lookin’ at you, Midwest), but I promise it happens everywhere.
Including in our worship services.
Okay, so it’s not QUITE the same – you probably aren’t being handed leftovers or loaned that book or trying to make plans for next time – but you are ending, and then ending, and then ending.
Just as we often add too many starts, we often include too many endings. I have seen closing sequences that begin with a closing hymn, then closing words, then a chalice extinguishing, then a benediction, then a closing song or postlude, and then sometimes some words after that.
Can we go already?
Look. I know that sometimes that closing song – especially those sung with everyone circling up – are a community’s anchor or the way to connect. And it probably started back in the days when the family-sized congregation started growing and there was a fear of lost connections.
And I know that that closing postlude – where everyone stays glued to their seats – is often about the musician (or fan of the musician) who wants a concert as much as a worship service, and it’s hard to say no because worship services in Protestant Standard Worship end with postludes.
And I know that we are People of the Words, so we can squeeze in one more reading or set of words – or maybe two – that we get to say and hear.
But it’s too much for many.
It’s too much for the visitor who may or may not want to escape already.
It’s too much for the parent anxious about retrieving their child from religious education or the nursery.
It’s too much for the person who needs to move, or can’t focus.
It’s too much for the worship leader who wonders why they are still on the chancel after they’ve said their ending piece. (I feel extremely awkward when I give my benediction, which ends with “go in peace” and then we don’t go anywhere. Beckett would be proud.)
It winds up being akin to the ending of “When the Foeman Bares His Steel” from The Pirates of Penzance. (If you don’t want to see the whole brilliant song, go to about 3:45. But you do want to see the whole brilliant song.)
Oof. I really do have opinions about this. (I know you’re shocked.)
Since I posted last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings and how we hold the boundaries of a worship service. In my years as a practicing pagan, I learned that we create sacred space, or a circle, with very intentional beginnings and endings: we close the circle to protect the space, then open it back up so we can bring the sacred out into the world and our everyday lives.
This is, for me, what the chalice signifies. When we light the chalice, we close that circle to create sacred space and set aside the time as different. When we extinguish the chalice, we open that circle so that we can bring the sacred out into the world and our everyday lives.
What happens in that circle, or that worship service (or even that meeting or class) is special, and tended.
So when there’s a bunch of other things that are part of the service that happen outside those two acts (lighting and extinguishing), it is very much like a muddying of the meaning of those moments.
Why do we do it? I think some of it is that we don’t teach about tending energy in worship; I’m not talking about supernatural energy (although it is that too), but how we hold the energy human beings bring into a room. We don’t teach this in seminaries, we don’t teach this amongst one another.
I also think we tend to add things to an order of service, not replace things. I’m amazed at how many elements are in some of your services, and as a result how little time there is for anything to happen. When I work with worship leaders at SUUSI – particularly those who are bringing worship to us rather than crafting with us – they need several rounds of reassurance that the only things required is that they light the chalice and keep it to a strict 45 minutes. What happens in the rest of the time is mean to be creative and have room to breathe. Yes, at the end, we play some music for parting (or traveling music, as I’m wont to call it), but there is room, and honestly, just one ending. (Most of the time.)
One of the most elegant endings I have seen goes like this… after the final hymn, there are closing words that end with the chalice extinguishing. There is a moment of breath as service leaders move, and a very short set of announcements and gratitudes are offered. Then folks are invited to accompany one another to coffee hour… and some traveling music plays.
I know I’ve unpacked a lot, and this openings/closings thing is a whole workshop in itself (and I haven’t even gotten to the pre-service stuff yet), but do consider how many times you say hello and goodbye in worship. Not only because we don’t need to say it so many times, but because releasing some of that will provide more room to do what better supports the service and hold that sacred space.