At the end of the liturgy I asked him what he thought. "It was okay, I guess.... but it was kind of, well, flat..." He went on to talk about the abundance of words and the seeming lack of feeling in the Divine Service. I was like a balloon in which all the air had rushed out. His words cut me to the core. He said it was okay but he expected more and was disappointed that he was not pumped up by either the liturgy or the sermon. But he was honest. At least I should have thanked him for that. In the end he never saw me lead the Divine Service or preach again. At the time I was relieved. I did not want to disappoint him and was afraid that it might end my friendship. In the end, time and geography led the friendship to its own slow death. We went our own ways. That was that. But his criticism of the liturgy, my presiding of it, and my preaching in it, has continued to haunt me.
Ratchet forward about thirty years and I made a mad rush to visit Flannery O'Connor in preparation for a funeral sermon for an erudite and learned man and lo and behold I come across this quote.
“When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth. I try militantly never to be affected by the pious language of the faithful but it is always coming out when you least expect it. In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.” [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor]
I had a number of quotes from this somewhat local author but did not use this one in the funeral sermon. I kept it on my desk for a couple of months and then, lo and behold, I read it in the blog of a friend (Outer Rim Territories). Without comment and just these words of O'Connor, I decided to tackle them again even though it has taken another month or so of brooding over them.
Perhaps I am going through a rough patch. Perhaps I am more conscious of the constant emptiness within. Perhaps I am in a dark place and need rescue. All of them are probably true. But I know the truth of her words. I wonder all the time how I know I believe. My life is not holy. I am not the husband I should be nor the father, either. I am not the son I should be nor the brother either. It is pretty obvious to all that I am not the Pastor I should be. Under it all, I am not the Christian I should be. My hope is grounded in little in my life and everything in the Word and promise of God.
Some folks might be surprised at this admission. They may think that my faith has a mission proofs, that my life of faith is easy, and that my righteousness quota is nearly filled. It is an oft made assumption about Pastors -- they have it easy, their marriages and families are perfect, and their lives are better than most. The truth is that clergy are neither immune from the temptations of all Christians nor are they aloof from the doubts of all Christians. I will say one thing. Though I have many temptations (and many failures) and many doubts about myself, what keeps me going is the certain promise of the only one who died and rose again. That promise made to me in my baptism 60 years ago has been the lifeline of our hope and the sure ground of my being ever since.
Like O'Connor, I keep going back to Peter's words. He has looked around at all the options. Jesus wonders if Peter will leave. In desperation, Peter laments that he has looked other places, for other Messiahs, for other promises, for other hopes... but, almost like a lament, he comes back always to Jesus. Lord, to whom shall I go? You alone have the words of eternal life. . . Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Like O'Connor I am wary of my love for God or my pious words and deeds. They are never good enough under the scrutiny of the righteous God who came in flesh for me. When Christians talk about themselves, about their faith, about their wonderful lives, about the great things they do for God and God does for them, I grow instantly suspicious (or perhaps envious?).
My friend found the liturgy and my preaching strangely flat (to use O'Connor's words). In contrast to the heady words and emotional tone of so much that goes on in the Church, the liturgy is remarkably flat and the preaching of the Church so often fails to pump us up and leave us prepared to conquer the world in Jesus' name... but that is okay... No, it is more than okay. It is how it should be. The Gospel is not about feeling and it does not hit us primarily in our feelings. It is not meant to avoid them but the Gospel cannot reside as one desire among many in a heart prone to infatuations, impulse, and spontaneity. I learned that the liturgy is flat in the sense that it does not impact us in feeling only but it is certainly not flat in the sense of its words being hollow. The liturgy (and every good sermon) is really the Word of God, woven into a fabric to clothe us with hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the powerful, performative Word that delivers what it says -- not because we believe it or are excited about it but because it is the promise of God. Once we make this realization, the Divine Service is more than animated, it animates -- it bestows upon us the life of God through the means of grace, forgiving our sins, rescuing us from our despair, leading us through death to life, and imparting to us the promise of a new flesh and blood no longer lived under the constraints of this mortal life (wherein evil and desire always try to steal our hearts).
There are those who think the liturgy could and should be improved upon -- in part to frame it in modern words and context but largely to make it more exciting, more fun, seemingly more relevant. As soon as this happens, the Divine Service loses and so do the people who come to it. The great danger to us since Eden is to trade in truth for feeling, the promise for the moment, and God for a benevolent grandpa. Like a sugar high it feels good but when you fall there is nothing there to pick up the pieces. . . except the Word of the Lord that endures forever -- the same Word that seemed rather flat and empty when we were too full of ourselves to have room for it... No, I know what O'Connor was writing about... and I expect many of you know it also.