Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The attraction of the sterile. . .

In Bible study a few weeks ago we were speaking about Psalms and worship and, specifically, the atmosphere of worship.  I inadvertently suggested that Lutherans had become accustomed to a rather one dimensional and rather sterile atmosphere in worship.  How, in the Divine Liturgy of the East, many things were happening at the same time, and how rich in ceremony, architecture, art, and music was the setting.  After the study someone approached me and asked how it was possible for the person to worship with all these things going on, distracting the person, if you will.  It was a good question.

We have become rather sterile in way we see and do worship.  We come together in plain buildings devoid of grand architectural interest but efficient in providing a comfortable setting for us (seats, warmth or coolness, and one that makes us feel at home).  We use art but only as a tool for the whim of the preacher (sending forth images or video on a screen to send home what it is the preacher is saying).  We use music but again as a tool to set a mood, appealing more to the taste of the hearer than concerned about the actual text and nobility of the music in service to the Word).  We isolate sound with all sort of sound absorbing material so that the room is a blank canvas and the people hear what we want them to hear (without distraction of noise or child).  We remove all smells except the smell of clean (we say because we are concerned about people's allergies, etc., but in reality it is because we cannot agree on what the smell of God is).  We segregate the people by age so that those in the pews (or rather, theater seating) are of a similar age and disposition.  We segregate people by culture, presuming that the best worship is that which proceeds from a common identity (forgetting that sinners in need of redemption is the given common identity). We proceed through the liturgy (okay service order) as if we were checking off things, moving from one thing to another in some sort of logical development of an overall plan or purpose).



Worship has become mostly mental, shaped by personal preference, segregated by age, defined by felt need, within a warehouse space empty of symbol or art (except that which is controlled by those in control), and without the smell of God (incense).  We complain it is impossible to worship if it is too warm or too cold, if we cannot hear or see, if we are expected to sing what we do not know or do not like, if the music does not appeal to our preference, if children distract us, if the seat is not comfortable, if our comfortable cocoon of self is disturbed, if the subject is not deemed relevant. . .  It bears little resemblance to the worship of Israel, to the worship of the early Church, to the West in its liturgical development or to the East and its Divine Liturgy, but, that does not matter.  What matters is me.

Whatever is the attraction of such a sterile atmosphere and such a bland service?  The idolatry of self and the glory of me.  We don't like buildings that make us feel small or art that overwhelms the senses or music that transcends preference or a congregation filled with ages and and cultures, or liturgy that focuses somewhere else but me.  But these are exactly the things we need, the shape of the church, and the purpose of the Divine Service!  We have in our minds an idea of a pristine era in which God was simple, the Word of the Lord easy, the building plain, the music appealing, the message practical, and the appeal mostly mental.  Where is that?  Nowhere.

Heaven on earth is what we experience in the Divine Service and heaven is no plain Jane Motel 6 version church.  It is rich and elaborate, in which the best of this world becomes the common building materials of the world to come.  It is filled with saints and angels, with images profound and small, centered not  upon me but the Lamb who sits on His throne.  It is not that worship cannot take place where these are absent.  Who says that?  It is that worship is designed to be a feast for the eye, the ear, the nose, the mind, the mouth, and the heart -- so richly does God feed us that overwhelmed is the ordinary response to God's lavish generosity of gift, grace, and goodness.

How hard it is for God to please us!  How easy it is for us to complain!

3 comments:

John J. Flanagan said...

I guess our writings often reflect a mood or frame of mind which colors the substance of the subject. In this case, I see a mood or attitude more than a real complaint of concern. But it is also an expressed opinion. No, Pastor. I see no sterility in the Liturgy or worship today. It is still reverential and plain in many ways, but it is not how it affects us...but how God sees it that really matters. We must be more positive and upbeat, and say the Liturgy with meaning.....and it will not seem sterile. If our persecuted brothers and sisters in Syria and other war torn lands can do a worship service in a blown up building or in the smoldering ruins of a broken land, or our Christian brethren in communist China can worship in secret, than we must be mindful of how richly blessed we are and how comfortable our lives are at present.

Padre Dave Poedel said...

You make many valid points on the relative sterility of our Divine Service. We become obsessed with "should Pastor wear those Catholic vestments?" and such. We argue about relevance and suitability to the given demographic....Can you imagine starting a Divine Service some Sunday with the Pastor vested in cope, a vested Deacon in a dalmatic, therifer with incense issuing from the censer, and do the Liturgy in the way the Orthodox do it. Get your SET ready.....

Life U said...

The Syrian and Chinese Christians worship in those places or in secret because they don't have a choice nor the option to worship in a different setting. Their predicament doesn't provide an excuse for the "me" centered (or seeker sensitive) way of organizing the liturgical setting (or order of service). I would think that those in a less fortunate situation would gladly set up their services in the way the pastor describes, if they had the opportunity. The pastor is correct, our modern time has become more concerned with petty and trivial things when thinking about the proper way to worship, rather then have our worship be conformed to the way we think about theology.