Friday, October 30, 2009

A Glimpse of Heaven

Most of us know of the oft repeated story of Russia's conversion to Christianity. It is said Vladimir consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), and questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God. Ultimately Vladimir settled on Christianity. In the churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Constantinople, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

The charge that is placed against people like me is that I am arguing for a liturgical fussiness, that attention to the smallest elements of rite has clouded my judgment with respect to the greater goal of worship. So, some charge that the liturgy, its ceremonial, its music, its hymnody, and its pattern get in the way of the larger purpose of worship -- namely to bring at l east one single solitary soul to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I have often heard people say that if ditching all of these can help bring one person into the church, it is worth it. Thus the worship wars are often evangelism wars with those in favor of contemporary worship basing their choice on expanding the kingdom vs those maintenance Pastors and congregations which seek merely to maintain the status quo. I have spoken about this elsewhere.

But I wonder if there is not another dimension to it all. Less and less does worship within most Protestant churches look like heaven and more and more does it resemble what part of this world we feel most comfortable in and we enjoy most of all. We like movies, we like theater, we like to watch (sports events, TV, movies, reality shows, DIY projects, cooking demos, pornography, poker, etc.). So we structure what happens on Sunday morning to fit this spectator perspective -- worship is passive, people don't sing much or talk much or do much, there are stars who speak to us, artists who bring the arts to us, etc. We have turned worship into the best entertainment Christianity can make. It is not evil or demonic but it neither is it anything like what Jesus was accustomed to, or what Jesus instituted in the Upper Room, or the Church has known and practiced for nearly 1900 years.

The perspective of Israel with its hidden altar, smokey incense, sacrificial gifts, sung Psalms and prayers, and church year was much closer to that glimpse of heaven the Russians saw in the Greek liturgy than to the entertainment venues popular today. In the same way, the early Christians gathered with this sense of mysterion, of a larger than life moment in which heaven's glory was delivered to earthly people and the surprise of grace revealed the hidden face of God in Word and Sacrament. Though decidedly less formal a setting than a baroque cathedral, it was still formal, still liturgical, still filled with mystery and awe. Read the extant accounts of those who participated and led the worship of the primitive church and you know exactly what I mean.

This glimpse of heaven is not of human manufacture. This is not a Christian version of a haunted house which defines heaven by what we see in our own hearts (the way the Halloween versions look into the fears within to scare us). No, the glimpse of heaven that comes to us on Sunday morning is from the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace by which God invades our ordinary with heaven's grace and glory. The glimpse of heaven that happens on Sunday morning is not the result of a well written worship service or highly skilled musicians or practiced leaders, it flows from and back to the means of God's presence which give us access to heaven's grace and heaven's glory. We glimpse heaven not because of the building or the pipe organ or the practiced ceremonial. We glimpse heaven in the Word which speaks forgiveness and life in Christ, in the cleansing water which drowns and gives life, in the rich food of a meal made extraordinary because the Body of Christ comes to us in bread and the Blood of Christ comes to us in wine.

Those who speak like me are not interested in liturgical fussiness but in the restoration of this glimpse of heaven to a world bound in earth's sin, suffering, struggles, sorrows, and death. It is a bad rap that we are only concerned about which way you turn or how you hold your hands or which page number you turn to... I used to hear people say snidely "are you a chancel prancer." But such a charge is not enough to cloud the basic issue before us. This smokescreen is tiresome and detracts from the central issue and focus of what happens on Sunday morning:

Is this where God comes to us in the means of His grace that deliver heaven to our earthly assembly,
is this where we generate a vision of God's presence that flows from and is directed to our feelings, context, and desires?

I personally grew up in a most unliturgical congregation that followed the hymnal religiously but had not a bit of ceremony. It was an anti-catholic perspective. BUT... despite the liturgical ambivalence of the people and their Pastor, heaven was there as the Word spoke its glorious truth within an orderly setting where the preacher did not overshadow the text and the occasional Sacrament was treated with reverence if not awe. Before I realized how to describe what happened there, I saw it and it is the ultimate reason I am a Pastor today. At each stage of the journey I have glimpsed this mystery -- from majestic chapels to ordinary auditoriums, from highly adorned sanctuaries to plain A-frame chapels.

I seldom have people tell me they had a wonderful time in worship but I have people say every week "I saw heaven open and the glory of God come down." I wonder what it is that people say from most Protestant worship experiences. Sadly, it maybe nothing more profound that the tag line at the end of the community news in my hometown paper... A good time was had by all...

What does it say when we have a great time but miss the glimpse of heaven and the foretaste of the feast to come which God offers us there?


Anonymous said...

May I add that "Theology" is usually a bad word among the contemporary folk. We shouldn't use big words like propitiation, reconciliation, justification, sanctification, atonement.... people won't understand them, and feel uncomfortable. As William Willemon has said in his book Strange Speech, if you go to France to live, you'll have to learn to speak French. If you watch the Titans, there is a language coming from the mouths of the announcers which is strange to the non-football fan.

We miss the glimpse of heaven without the Liturgy, and we fail to understand what Scripture communicates to us if we don't learn it's language.

Rev. Ray Salemink said...

I very much like what you have written here. It helps to review these things and to have you put them into a proper persective. I wonder, though. Do those churches that are doing contemporary services (I'm talking teh full-blown type and even the "Blended" whatever that is) feel that heaven has invaded time and space? If you were to ask them if they experienced God, they might say, very emphatically, yes. Though the question would then be what experience of God did they have? Their emotions would certainly proclaim a joyous "amen." Thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I think you need to visit more protestant churches! I don't see litury in the Bible. That was man's doing. Heaven DOES come down in protestant churches! Worship is not about music, lighting, etc... it's about giving our best to Him! It's all about Him.

Pastor Peters said...

It is worth remembering that the question is not what we think we have experienced but what we know has come to us, the extradordinary in the ordinary of bread, wine, water, and word. Feelings are seldom reliable barometers of anything.

It is also worth remembering that worship is not about what we give to God but what God gives to us. The rhythm is always from Him to us before anything returns to Him. Worship cannot happen until God makes it possible and that is Word and Sacrament (which are the twin poles of liturgy).

If you cannot see liturgy in the Bible you have not read Revelation, 1 Corinthians, Hebrews, or any of the great texts of the Old Testament that describe everything from Passover to Day of Atonement with the Temple liturgy thrown in. Check out the Psalms and read in any decent study Bible the intended use for those Psalms. This is liturgy.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, 10/30/09 5:44 PM,

"I don't see liturgy in the Bible."

I suggest that you look at the liturgy in the Lutheran Service Book. You will note as you go throught the liturgy that the Scripture reference for each part is listed next to the title. Then, look up each reference in Scripture.

You will find that the liturgy is Scripture from beginning to end.

The liturgy, therefore IS Scripture. Man only assembled the Word in a meaningful way in which to receive Christ and to offer thanks and praise.

The liturgy gives us that glimpse of Heaven that Rev. Peters refers to. It is all about God giving us his best - His Son.