Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We learn by our senses. . .

We learn by our senses. . .  It is not a shocking statement except when we apply it to the faithful learning the faith.

Faith comes by hearing the Word of God, to be sure, but faith is also learned and we learn by our senses.  Watch how children learn.  They learn by sight, by touch, by taste, by smell...  It is almost instinctive for a child to put something in his mouth.  We laugh about it but a child’s life is lived by senses.  The mind learns by exploring by way of the senses.  We may not crawl around as adults and we have learned not to immediately shove things into our mouths but why would we presume that we learn differently than we once did as children?

There is a mistaken notion that worship which works best is that which appeals to the mind.  So we ended up with rather sterile buildings with little to attract the eye, we sanitized the sanctuary so that it smelled more like cleaning supplies than anything else, we gradually decreased the frequency of the Lord’s Supper until its taste was foreign to our tongues, and we emptied the baptismal fonts until they were used so that the water was only imaginary.  This is the fruit of the less is more and form follows function practices of the past century or so.  Our buildings were left unadorned and strikingly stark to the eye.  Our liturgy was stripped of much of its ceremonial so that only the Word was left for the ear and nothing for the eye or the touch of the hand.  Finally, it became so foreign to us that we lost touch with our own Lutheran heritage and identity and the Lutheranism of Luther all the way through Bach became strange and alien to the ordinary setting and practices of a Lutheran parish.

While I have often written of how foreign this is to our confessions, it is also foreign to our way of learning.  We are told over and over again about the visual character of our culture – how we learn by doing.  Then on Sunday morning we come to church to sit and listen.  It is no wonder that the liturgy no longer taught us – it was left handicapped by our refusal to use ritual or our fear of catholic ceremonial.  Children learn by seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting.  With little to see, touch, smell, or taste, they became bored with worship and our parents yearned for nurseries so that they did not have to spend their entire time in worship disciplining their children to sit still.

We learn by our senses.  Water in the font teaches us of our baptism, brings to mind the gift and blessing of that incorporation into Christ’s death and resurrection that gives us new and everlasting life.  Watch how a parent takes a child’s hand to touch the water and make the sign of the cross in remembrance of their baptism and you have witnessed a profound lesson in the faith.

Posture teaches us.  Watch as people’s faces change as they move from standing or sitting to kneeling.  We get it.  The movement means something.  The humility of confession and the posture of prayer teach us even without an elaborate lesson to explain where it came from and why we still kneel.  We instinctively know the difference between the postures of standing, sitting, and kneeling.  It is a lesson in the faith.

Where once people got up from their seats and brought forward their offerings, now we have organized usher teams who alone move so that order may be maintained.  Perhaps it is chaos to have people popping up and walking forward to place their offering in the basket but it is also a teaching lesson.  The offering of tithes and gifts is only part of the offering; there is the offering of our very selves (an offering made possible by Christ so that in Him we might present ourselves to the Father as living sacrifices accompanying our prayers, praises, and financial gifts.  It teaches.

The routine of coming forward to kneel and pray and then to receive the precious Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion is one filled with movement that has meaning.  When the host was placed upon the tongue, we acknowledged that we were unworthy but blessed by the mercy of God who gives to the undeserving freely what they do not merit.  The taste of bread reminds us that this bread is used by God to deliver to us His own Son’s flesh given for the life of the world and for each of us.  So also the smell and taste of wine acknowledges the sacramental mystery of the God who comes to us in earthly element (a theology of the means of grace).  Think how differently is the symbolism of the individual cups we take for ourselves and the chalice that is given one to all.  Faith is taught and we learn by our senses.

Where once the smell of the church was the sweet scent of incense, we were instinctively reminded of the connection of this House of God with the Temple as God’s House, with prayers prayed, God’s promises kept, and His presence signified.  Incense was used regularly even among Lutherans until the 18th century and now it has become a foreign or strange scent to us.  Christ insisted He had not come to do away with the covenantal worship of the Old but to fulfill it and His whole ministry echoed the past now kept.  But you would hardly know it among some Lutherans who act as if Jesus shut and locked the door of history and left us to our own devices to decided what we preferred or found meaningful.

Most Lutheran Churches today bear little resemblance to the glorious structures of our German or Scandinavian heritage.  Blank walls and thin empty crosses make it easy to forget the suffering and death that purchased our forgiveness and brought us life.  The little ribbons of color that adorn altar, lectern, and pulpit hold little room for symbols to teach or act as instructors to help us learn.  The cheap imitation instruments that do not make music but provide digital imitation of its sound are certainly versatile but are no match for the sound of air rushing through pipes.  The carpeted and sound absorbent settings provide a little texture but all to prevent our ear from hearing and our mouths from singing out the praises of God.  We have tamed the acoustical setting only to control it for our own purpose.  There is little of genuine art for the eye or the ear except that manufactured for mass production – images that were made to be sold cheaply and music that is only as noble as the passing moment.  It is no wonder that our people are not attracted to the places where we worship.  There is little there to attract them.  We learn by our senses but we have to have things to appeal to those senses.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The wondrous thing about the Supper - it involves all 5 senses.

Unknown said...

To those of us who love the senses - musicians, painters, sculptors, fiber artists and the like: How much should we pine for that of which Fr. Peters writes?