Friday, September 16, 2016

Relief and freedom. . .

One of the consequences of contemporary worship, with its focus more on the people than on the Lord and on entertainment rather than the unfolding mystery of God's merciful presence, is the pressure to perform.  Praise bands rehearse because they know all eyes will be on them and all ears listening for their performance.  Pastors feel the pressure to rise to the occasion and preach relevant, pithy, inspirational, uplifting, and entertaining sermons.  Churches feel the pressure to package a spiritual experience that is to the liking of the consumer so that the consumer will return and patronize the church again, tell all his or her friends about the experience, and post positive feedback.  Okay, so I am exaggerating a bit but not all that much.

The gift of the liturgy to those who serve in it (presiding, preaching, assisting, leading song and chant, and from the organ bench) is that the liturgy works hard to mask what the individuals bring to the whole thing and to incorporate it all into a seamless fabric into which Christ and the mystery of His presence in the means of grace are interwoven.  There is less pressure to perform because it is the liturgy that is front and center and the core of the liturgy is Christ who invites us to worship, cleanses us from our sin so that we may worship, shapes our worship by providing the twin poles of Word and Sacrament, works in the liturgy by the power of the Spirit (again through Word and Sacrament), and then is the very gift that the faithful receive in the ear and upon the lips.

Surely we have incorporated some of this into the liturgical movement -- thinking that the goal of it all is to improve upon the liturgy and make it better either by returning it to a pristine moment (early church) or making it a vehicle of social change (so it is a voice of social justice, among other things).  But in the end the liturgical movement was not about recovery of what was lost as if that was what is most important but recovery of the liturgy as the form and a liturgical piety as the receiver of the gifts at the heart and center of the form.  The liturgical movement goes astray when it becomes about where to hold the hands or what liturgy (page number) to use.  Then performance enters it all as a legitimate element of worship.  No, the liturgical movement was best when it was about Christ the giver and the gift and the means through which the giver and the gift come to us.  In this Christ remains front and center always.

Relief from the constant pressure to perform is a gift of the liturgy to all those who play some part in leading it and to the people in the pews themselves.  Christ is the performer (who suffers no angst about improvement or ratings like we would).  He is the performer who is at work doing what He has promised and delivering His promise to His baptized people.  Those who practice contemporary worship presume that the liturgical folks are those constrained by rule or rubric but in reality they are those who are free and the inventors who create the worship and message of the moment are the ones most constrained and in bondage -- captive ultimately to the approval of the people who vote by their attendance, their money, and their satisfaction (ratings).  If the pastor is faithful preaching the Word, clearly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel, and presiding at the Table of the Lord according to rite and rubric, then he is set free from all fear and from the captivity of results.  For the Lord will make sure that His Word does His bidding and returns Him the fruits He desires.

Yes, I do work to make sure that presiding and preaching are done faithfully.  I practice so that I do not appear to be a stranger to the liturgy or unfamiliar with the words of the sermon.  Every pastor ought to do this.  But a servant of the liturgy and of the Word is the most liberated individual in church and is relieved of the fears and pressure to perform, to perform better, and to perform more than last week or last month.  Christ is the drama in the liturgy -- not the wonderment of what the creator of new, improved, and different worship products will have in store for me today.  Get this rite right and then we will all find the freedom and joy of this ministry.  Get it wrong and we will sweat the details as if it all depended upon us (which, if we jettison the liturgy and our confidence in the efficacy of the Word, it will).

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