Tag Archive | Worship

Palm Branches

IMG_7146 (800x534)When we moved here as naive northerners who found ourselves planted in a climate conducive to palm trees, we were told by a kindly tree service worker that the branches of a perfectly pruned palm tree are supposed to be between ten and two.  That is, you are supposed to imagine a clock encircling the top of your palm tree, and the ideally shaped tree would only have branches pointing between the ten o’clock mark and the two o’clock mark.

When they begin their journey into the world, palm branches launch themselves from the top of the tree at high noon, like a rocket headed straight for the moon.  Then, they straighten out at a bit of an angle to the branch.  Every branch seems quite straight enough between the ten and the two.  Within a few months, though, the heavy branches start to sag and droop.  They start to point to that dangerously unkempt-looking area of the imaginary clock connoting the lazy late afternoon or sleepy early morning.  Soon, they are claiming it is 4:40 in the afternoon, and they just don’t care about any of it.  Any branch trying to tell you it is 4:40 in the afternoon is clearly out of line.

Last week, it was time to trim one of the palm trees in my back yard back to the more orderly hours.  This particular tree is not very tall, so its branches that are not pointed upward to the proper points on the clock get in the way when I am trying to mow the lawn, take the compost to the compost bin, and do any number of other necessary chores in that corner of my back yard.  In the past, I have always trimmed the palm branches using our long-handled loppers.  We have owned these loppers since we decided to remove several enormous and ancient yew bushes from the foundation in the front of our house in Boston.  We didn’t have much money then, so the $30 loppers seemed like a good alternative to the hundreds of dollars we would have had to pay a service to remove the bushes.  We thought that project would break the loppers, but here we are almost 10 years later using the same loppers.  I think we got a bargain.

But this palm tree has grown mature enough that the loppers would not fit around the place where the branches would need to be cut, so I went back to the garage and got my reciprocating saw.  Now I was working with power tools, which made the project even more satisfying.  Starting at the bottom, I hacked away at branch after branch to get to the desired hours on the imaginary clock encircling the palm tree.

Although the addition of an electric motor made the work of cutting easier, it still was not easy work.  The branches of a palm tree are heavy.  The edges of the branches are sharp, and I was afraid they would slice my hands if I slid them along the branches in the wrong way.  The full branches are long; when I set them on end, they stand taller than my head, elevation six-foot-two-inches.  The fans are wide, too; I was glad it was not a windy day, because if the breeze had caught the branches, it would have twisted them in ways that would make them even harder to handle.  It took some effort for me to heave each branch and sling it into the pile in the middle of my back yard.

And of course, I couldn’t do that work without thinking of the scene in the gospels in which Jesus rides a donkey or two into Jerusalem.  In liturgical Christian traditions like mine, we remember that procession each year exactly one week before Easter Sunday.  And when it comes around each year, I usually remember about three days beforehand that I find our celebrations of Palm Sunday a bit odd.  Why do we go to such effort to remember that one scene in Jesus’ life and ministry?  What meaning can we find from that story that hasn’t been preached a thousand times before?  And in this era of Post-Christendom, when we no longer take it for granted that every one of our neighbors has been participating in churches since she or he was on some congregation’s cradle roll, why do we think it makes any sense to hand them all a palm leaf as they enter worship and to make them cry out “Hosanna!” as if they have any idea what any of it means?

And what about those leaves?  In most churches where I have worshiped, they have been rather puny things.  They are no longer and no wider than a large kitchen knife.  While they are sword-shaped, when you try point them to the ceiling, they tend to just flop over.  When the whole congregation lifts their arms to wave them overhead, it adds some motion and energy to worship, but it’s nothing terribly spectacular.  Some Sunday School teacher sometime figured out how to fold them into little crosses that you can carry in your hand, but I find when I scan the pews after worship that most people have found they work well as bookmarks in the hymnals.

The Bible doesn’t say that the people lining the streets while Jesus processed his way into town waved leaves, particularly not like those puny, floppy fronds we give to baffled worshipers on Palm Sunday morning.  It says they waved branches off of the local trees. These were more like the heavy, sharp-edged palm branches I was slinging and heaving all over my back yard.  They were tall and wide and hard to handle.  They were too big around for the standard loppers, and since I doubt the followers of Jesus could experience the thrill of using power tools, they probably had a hard time cutting them out of the trees.  And I hope the breeze was calm that day, because I wouldn’t want to be out there trying to wave branches like those as the wind twisted them out of my control.

And as I worked, I began to wish I had waited until the weekend before Easter to trim my palm tree.  I wished that we could organize everyone in my congregation to trim their palm trees into that ideal ten-to-two shape on that same weekend, too.  Then, we could all bring the unwieldy palm branches to the church to wave for our celebration.  Some of the elderly people and the small children would probably not be able to handle the long stems and wide fans; we could give them seats of honor on the chancel stage where they could see the powerful effort the others had to put in.  Those who could might choose to wear their work gloves to keep the edges of the branches from cutting into their hands; those work gloves wouldn’t quite match their dresses or suits or polo shirts and khakis or whatever they chose to wear to church.  We could be thankful that we have a very high ceiling, but we could also ask George to turn off the fans until we cheered Jesus all the way through the city gates of Jerusalem, just to keep the breeze from twisting the branches out of our hands.

It would be no less confusing for the people who don’t know the story, but it might evoke more questions, or at least a greater sense of awe and wonder.  And we would have to put a lot of work into it.  We would have to heave and sling.  We might feel kind of awkward as some of us broke a sweat and others had to put the heavy branches down in the middle of the celebration to rest for a bit.  But I think it would be a better reenactment for our Palm Sunday celebration, and a more faithful enactment of what God calls us to as well.

Last week, I read a blog post which, unfortunately, I cannot locate right now.  The post was on the craft of writing, and the blogger quoted someone giving advice to writers.  Writers work best, the quote went, when they lay everything they have out on the page.  Don’t hold back, the advice went; take your most extreme idea, put it into words on a page, and then work it up from there.  And I think that people of faith work best that way, too.  I think we work best when we refuse to hold anything back.  I think we work best when we refuse to trivialize or domesticate any of the truth of the stories which shape our view of the world.  I think we work best when we refuse to wave anything that is puny or floppy or narrow or easily fit in our hands.  I think we worship best when we heave and sling and sweat and have to take a rest now and then because the work is simply too intense.

My palm branches are lying in my side yard now, ready to be dragged to the curb so the city can take them away to be chipped into mulch.  But maybe by next spring, some of the branches on that palm tree will have started to sag and become lazy and drift toward the three and nine, or the four and eight, or even, heaven forbid, the five and seven.  And maybe I will take my reciprocating saw to them, and heave and sling them into the back of my car, and carry them over to my church to see if anyone is willing to remember the stories of Jesus in the best way we can.

The Experts

(c) 2012, Eric Beene

Last week, I found out that a committee of our denomination was meeting in our city.  This particular committee is charged with writing and administering the exams which all Presbyterian ministers must pass to be ordained.  The members of the committee came here from all over the country for their meeting.  Wanting to be hospitable to these travelers, and knowing that the congregation I serve as pastor would likewise want to be welcoming to people who were a long way from home, I invited the committee members to worship with us.  In fact, I offered to have a member of my congregation pick them up from their hotel in the church van to make sure they could get to worship.

I was pleased when they accepted.  Then, I figured out what I had done.  The committee includes several people with advanced degrees in theology, the Bible, and worship and the sacraments.  They teach this stuff in seminaries and colleges.  They supervise doctoral candidates, they go to conferences, and they publish papers.  I cyberstalked one person on the committee and found out he can read and teach Ugaritic.  The committee also includes pastors with a whole lot more experience than I have and lay people who undoubtedly have experience with some clergy who do their work well and others who do their work poorly.  And they were all going to attend the worship service which I would be leading, listen to the sermon which I would be preaching, and receive the sacrament of communion as I administered it.

I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night.  The members of my congregation noticed on Sunday morning that I was pacing around the sanctuary and my office, talking with them with a rare urgency in my voice, and fidgeting with details like the precise placement of the pitcher and chalice on the communion table.  Well, o.k., so that fidgeting with details is normal for me, but I was more obsessive than usual.

To continue with the gardening theme of this blog, I realized it would be like preparing to welcome a committee of people to look at your flower beds which included people with advanced degrees in botany, soil science, and landscape design.  The group would include people who had written some of those books and articles on gardening, both from a scientific and an aesthetic perspective, as well as people who had successfully tended their own gardens since long before you took up the craft.  And it would even include people who could tell you precisely the correct way to hold your hand rake or trowel as you till the soil.

And over the past two days, I have thought about this metaphor.  If I had such a group of people visiting my flower beds and vegetable garden, would I really care how they evaluate my work?  Frankly, I probably would not, because my purpose in gardening has little to do with them.  I tend my flower beds because I appreciate beauty, and I want to witness beauty, and even participate in it, as it grows and changes through the seasons.  I grow vegetables and herbs because my family and I can learn from them about our dependence on basic yet mysterious things:  the unseen complexities of microbes in the soil, for instance, and the unpredictable providence of sun and storms.  I mow my lawn because the work itself is good for my body and my spirit; the act gives my muscles a chance to work, and my mind a chance to wander for a while, and my heart a chance to beat a little bit faster.

Of course, I am aware that people walk by on the street and neighbors look out their windows.  If I were to win the garden club’s “Yard of the Month” award, I would be pleased.  Sometimes I will tell my wife I have to go work in the yard because I am embarrassed by our unmowed grass and weed-filled flower beds.  But really, I don’t do the work because I covet anyone’s favorable evaluation or fear anyone’s negative judgement.  The value of the work is intrinsic to the work itself; the most beautiful things I produce in my yard work have little to do with what other people can see.

And I think that, ideally, the work of worship in the church is similar.  When it is done well, worship does not accomplish anything that can be evaluated.  Public worship allows the communities of people who do it to bear witness to and even participate in the beauty which is all over the world God created, and it allows people to see growth and change with the seasons of the life God has given us.  It allows us to confess that our lives depend on things that we cannot see and do not understand which are provided beyond our own efforts.  It gives our bodies, minds, and hearts a chance to do work they would not otherwise not do: to stretch farther, wander deeper, and beat faster.

The experts in gardening as well as worship are helpful because they can provide knowledge and advice.  They can point out how to arrange the plants to best take advantage of the light, water, and soil I have, and they can point out how to best order the words and music and silence to express the praise we feel.  Even the neighbors and strangers who walk by on the street can help.  They make me aware that I can help others by sharing with them things which I think are beautiful, and they make us aware that we can help the world by sharing the gifts which lead us to be grateful to God.  But neither the experts nor the neighbors are the audience of our worship; I think it was Kierkegaard who pointed out that God is our audience as we enact our worship.  And so, just as I do not plant my garden so it can be evaluated, worship cannot be evaluated by anyone other than the God whom we praise.

When I explained on Sunday to one of the church members that I did not need to be nervous because of who would be worshiping with us that day, she sympathetically reminded me that I was nervous because I am human.  I know in my mind what worship is all about, but my mind cannot control my feelings.  But I wonder if instead I should seek to be nervous like that every time I lead worship.  I only pray that God appreciated what we all did together on Sunday morning.