Friday, November 2, 2012

Is it just a communication problem...

At a pastoral conference, one of the presenters played a video (I wish someone could point me to the source) in which we saw and heard a young woman, perhaps, atypical of the average LCMS church goer.  She began with these words:  We use the same words but we do not speak the same language...

Immediately, I began to marvel at that sentence.  It is an apt description of what has happened to us since the Fall.  We use the same words as God uses but we do not speak the same language.  Therefore, our communication is hindered by words that do not communicate.  Until, of course, the Word made flesh.  He is, as Hebrews reminds us, the full and final Word and this Word is gracious and merciful. In many and various ways God spoke, but now He has spoken through His Son.  The complete and definitive Word of the Lord.  The Word that endures forever, though all other things pass away.

As I moved from that imagery, I thought of the difference between the perspective of faith and the point of view of unbelief.  The words are still there but without faith, the Word (Christ) remains unheard in those words.  Here you cannot but think of Paul and Romans:  Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God.  We are not deaf in the sense of we hear no words but we are deaf in that the words we hear remain just words until the Spirit engenders faith to hear Christ, the Word made flesh.

By this time, the video had moved on and it was apparent my daydreams were heading in a completely different direction that this young woman.  She was contrasting her identity, her life, her experiences, and her perspective from the "usual" perspective of churched people.  She pleaded for the church (especially the preacher) to get to know her and to find out about her so that the church (and read that the preacher) can speak to her in her heart language so that she can hear and understand.

What began about preaching soon turned into a challenge about catechesis, the jargon of Christianity (read that Scripture's vocabulary), worship, and music.  In other words, if the church (and this was pointed toward preachers and preaching) is to be successful in speaking to a woman like this, we have to learn her language, communicate in that language of her heart, and go to meet her where she is at.

As the video continued, it was clear to me that this was less a call to speak her language than it was the ultimate conclusion of our self-centered culture.  It is all about me.  You cannot speak to me until you learn to speak like me.  We live in an age in which personal preference and the way we see ourselves have become the pivotal aspect of our identity and self-expression.  In the individualized culture of the day, it would make the preacher's task nearly impossible.  If we are to take this woman seriously, we have a Tower of Babel on Sunday morning and people who speak so many different languages that it is impossible to speak to them all or even a majority of them in the sermon or liturgy.

But, going back to my first thoughts, is this not the whole point of Christ?  Is this not the whole point of Pentecost -- the undoing of language's divisions and the separations of culture so that one common tongue and one bridge calls to the diverse and scattered humanity?  Christ is that Word who speaks to all; He is accompanied by the Spirit teaching and imparting faith to hear and believe.

I was reminded also of a quote from Karl Barth (the theologian and not the LCMS District President) who said something about the church speaking the language of everyman in witness and the queer language of Scripture in worship.  It makes little sense for our witness to use words and language largely unintelligible to the hearer.  We do not speak in a different language than Scripture but we speak the message of Scripture in clear and understandable language.  Yet worship is a different story.  Worship is not an outreach event but the assembly of those already called, washed in the water of Baptism, and set apart as the people of God to whom Jesus gives the very gift of His flesh for food and His blood for drink.  That is not to say that the Word cannot or does not engender faith in the hear right there in worship -- but that is not the primary purpose of  worship.

Perhaps this video has hit upon one of the big issues that underlies the worship wars -- one group insists that the primary purpose and goal of Sunday morning is witness and the other sees it as the domain of the Lord and His gifts (the Divine Service3).  It may not be quite that simple but we do speak of worship from different poles.  If witness to the unchurched for conversion is the primary purpose of Sunday morning, worship does not, technically, take place.  For worship can only take place among those who have heard the Word of the Lord and, by the Spirit's grace, believed in Him whom God has sent to be our Savior.  Among the witness crowd, this kind of Divine Service may not be completely absent but is the private gathering that generally takes place sometime other than on Sunday morning.

Even if the Divine Service uses the form and content of the historic liturgy, obviously out of step with modern culture, that does not mean witness is absent.  In fact, we confess the witness of what happens among the baptized as God speaks, feeds, and bestows His gifts.  What do we say?  As often as we of eat this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.  The witness may not speak in language that the world readily understands but that does NOT mean that this worship is ineffective.  We also believe, confess, and teach that God's Word never returns to Him empty but accomplishes His purpose in sending it.  We may not see its fruits or results but that does not mean it is fruitless or effectual.  Faith trusts not what we see with our eyes but the promise of the Word.

And who said district pastoral conferences are not fruitful?!  Why, even wheen we may disagree with every premise of the presenter, he may help us understand even more clearly the truth by forcing us to wrestle with what it is that we believe, confess, and teach.  And that, my friends, is a good thing.  Why it even reminds me of one more passage -- God makes all things work together for the good of those whom He calls -- a passage which surely includes in God's working not merely the good and faithful things but even misstep, mistake, and error.  After all, was it not error that created the occasion for the wonderfully clear summary of Christian truth we call the Nicene Creed?

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