I’ve had a hymn stuck in my head for days: “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” It’s got a catchy tune (if sung to Solid Rock, which I do) and refrain, which is handy since I’m recalling it from memory.
Sometimes a good hymn helps.
The text is a reference to the parable of the man who built his house on a rock, in Matthew 7. Hosea Ballou commented on verses 24 and 25 in his Notes on the Parables: “By house I understand the hope or confidence in which the mind rests. By rock, I understand Christ; which application is too evident to need proof. And what can compare with that wisdom which teaches us to put our trust in Christ, and build all our hopes of salvation on that rock of ages, that chief corner stone which foolish builders refuse?”
A foundation of rock sounds pretty good to me, and hardly too much to ask for.
If you saw Hillary Clinton’s concession speech today, you may have been touched by her quotation from scripture.
Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.
It drawn from Galatians 6:9, in case you wondered. It’s not a translation I know — perhaps “arranged” as one says in worship, but here’s the verse from King James Version: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?
The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that
In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.
We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.
In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.
But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.
So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.
Bonus blog post, following up from earlier. So, it seems the 1908 and 1946 editions are close — there’s a preface missing the later edition — indeed, so close that the arranged version of the customary Luke 2 passage, read at Christmas shares a page number. But what’s the reading based on?
It’s Luke 2:8-20, essentially the King James version, with bits of the American Standard Version to (gently) modernize the reading. Reminds me of Linus’s discourse in the Charlie Brown special. Good stuff.
It’s a given that old hymns may be re-arranged to suit the particular service better, even if it’s just to choose some verses and not others. And responsive readings are often edited from their source documents to better suit the occasion.
Readings for preaching are chosen, and are sometimes edited for inclusive language, but I wonder how often biblical readings are “compiled” — to use the responsive reading idiom — rather than be read in a standard translation, as cited.
But there is an alternative. I wrote about an early twentieth-century service book intended for Unitarians organizing “lay centers,” that assumed the use of a particular compiled book of readings: The Soul of the Bible. Or as its subtitle calls them, “synthetic readings.”
It must have been popular. The copy I found and bought is about thirty years younger (Beacon Press, 1946) than the service book. (Also noteworthy: the editor, Ulysses G. B. Pierce was the minister of All Souls, Unitarian, Washington.)
Here is the 1908 edition.
So, I wondered, would it have been useful for Christmas Eve services? That’s for later. But for now I wanted to raise the idea, surely against the flow of the last two generations of Christian liturgics, but also having its own honesty. The scriptures do not, at last, preach themselves, and we will shape our interpretation of them.
I’ve shortened my morning prayers and vespers to make them more appropriate for use alone, and brief enough to read before and after work.
I’ve take out the provision for readings and all but the fixed psalms (and after looking for a portable New Testament and Psalter!) so I can use the one book. But a little more scripture — to hang my thoughts on, to reflect on, to find guidance in — would be right.
I’ve subscribed to Moravian Daily Texts, which I get by email each day and which they’ve been printing since 1731! Two, very brief readings. Just about short enough to post on as the Community Wayside Pulpit or perhaps even to tweet. “Little chapters” if you pray the breviary.
So, I’ll be preaching at Universalist National Memorial Church (UNMC) on September 21, and since I don’t preach much these days, I figured I had better start getting some words down now or else I’ll never be ready. Be prepared to see non-sequitur blog posts that link obliquely to that sermon until then; I do sometimes use this blog as a commonplace.
Since, wherever possible, I used the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), I figure I’ll start there. It’s not because they’re inherently magical, but the wide selection gets me out of my comfort zone, deposits me in narrative and releases me from that terrible problem: choosing what pearl of wisdom to preach on. Also, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the RCL, is one of the few places where Unitarian Universalist Christians are welcomed ecumenically, so I want to support that.
Now, the texts themselves. UNMC typically has two texts read, and the RLC appoints three, including a variant Old Testament lesson, both of which have their own psalm. So I’ll pick two of five options. (I don’t preach out of psalms as much as I once did.)
September 21, 2014 is the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, or in some traditions known as Proper 20. (I’m not a fan of the numbered proper custom, but that’s how you’ll find resources, so better to cite it.) Here are all the texts.
Having reviewed them before, I decided on the main (or “continuous”) Old Testament reading, rather than the alternative “thematic” text, which I’ll use in concert with the Gospel.
That gives me
Exodus 16:2-15, the giving of manna
Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers
Not sure which will be the main preaching text yet, but I may drop hints soon enough.
Each evening, for vespers, I “sing” the Bonum Est Confiteri, Prasm 92:1-4 as it read in the rubrics, and included in the Coverdale version:
¶ Then shall be sang the following Psalm:
Bonum Est Confiteri.
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord: and to sing praises unto thy name, O Most Highest;
To tell of thy loving-kindness early in the morning: and of thy truth in the night-season;
Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the lute: upon a loud instrument, and upon the harp.
For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy works: and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operations of thy hands.
Do I sing it? No. But there a different ways congregations can use this (and other psalms and canticles):
Read in in unison.
Read in by alternating verses or half verses; alternating between a worship leader and congregation, or between halves of the congregation.
Read in unison, but book-ended with a sung antiphon. More often seen in newer hymnals.
Chanted: plainsong or Anglican chant being two options.