Thursday, October 20, 2016

Getting what we deserve. . .

The temptation before us is great.  We Lutheran pastors stand before the altar armed with just enough liturgical theology and history to be dangerous and enough freedom grounded in the ever present appeal to adiaphora to be destructive.  The liturgy and the hymnal become for us mere tools, or better, suggestions upon which we are free to build our own authentic service.  Instead of the guiding force of tradition, we are enslaved to the promise of relevance.  We seek not a mystical encounter with the Mighty God through the means of grace but something the people will deep meaningful.  We proceed to treat worship as if it were merely one of the many programs we are accustomed to running and we judge its success based upon outcomes.

That is the temptation of Lutheran pastors but we are not alone.  Every age and every group and every individual who has sought to reform or just tinker with the liturgy has faced the same enticement to treat the liturgy the way science treated the broken body of Col. Steve Austin in the old Bionic Man series.  As good as our work may be, it lacks the one thing that the liturgy has -- the test of time and history.  It has withstood the test of many eyes and many hands and proven its endurance.
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."  Thomas Merton

The fruits of our many meddlings into the shape and text and melodies of worship are not good.  We have lost any sense of liturgical unity -- note I am not saying uniformity.  We do not all know the same words, the same ordo, or the same songs of the liturgy.  Nowhere is this more apparent that when planning for large gatherings in our church body.  We end up with a forced minimalism because we know that a certain number, perhaps even a significant number, of our people will be unfamiliar with the liturgy we choose.  Because we really do not want to learn the liturgy or its setting at the same time we gather for larger events (think Synod Convention), we tend to hymn settings of the Divine Service instead of sung or chanted liturgy.  We may even speak the entire service except for the hymns in an effort to get all of us on the same page.

Second, we have lost a connection to our own past, to the people of our past, and to our very identity as people walking together.  Not your grandfather's church has come to mean the abandonment of the very things that once characterized what it meant to be Lutheran.  So our creations tend to distance us or even cut us off from our ancestors who once confessed with us the same faith we claim today.  This may not seem significant but when we continue this from one generation to another it effectively isolates us from each other and prevents more than a single generation from participating in the Sunday morning service.  We already have enough division due to preference of time or "style" but to divide us according to age or generation imposes a division we need not create.

Third, we have failed to acknowledge that there will be those who come after us.  We do not bequeath to them anything more than "well, this is what we did" and we leave them on their own to invent what has already existed and to develop outside of the tradition of faith and life what is our tradition.  It would be as if we abandoned every ordinary thing of life and said to the generation to come "you figure it out."  From creed to confession to liturgy, we almost require those who come after us to start from scratch and figure out what works for them without the benefit of any guidance from the past or any help from the present.

Finally, we must ask ourselves how much of our liturgical invention proceeds not from an enlightened sense of what worship is but just the opposite -- a poverty both of information and desire?     Merton again:  [Because they do not] understand the treasure they possess they throw it out to look for something else ....   Let me given an analogy.  An aunt of mine passed away and her house was a treasure trove of photos, newspaper articles, and family trinkets.  However, when her sons got around to cleaning out her house, they tossed nearly everything.  They did not see the significance of most of it, did not value much of it, and so they simply got rid of it.  They were sure of one thing, if they did not see why to keep it, they were sure no future generations would see the value of those things either.  Sadly, they were correct.  If we do not see the value of these things, it is certain that those who come after us will not either.

From Robert Taft, S. J.:

For over a century now the Christian Churches, first of the West, then also of the East, have been preoccupied with liturgical renewal, under the influence of what is known as “The Liturgical Movement,” a worldwide effort dedicated to making Christian liturgy better. But good liturgy is liturgy that glorifies God and sanctifies those glorifying him, and that is his gift to us, not ours to him. For we can glorify God only by accepting the unmerited gift of sanctification he freely gives us. If it is God who does it, how could it be better? It could be better from our side, for we too have a part in the liturgy, which is neither magic nor unconscious. So God’s part would better achieve its aim if we would drink more fully from the saving waters he offers us in the liturgy via a participation that would be more active, more conscious, more communal.  


John Joseph Flanagan said...

The problem you are addressing is really just human nature....and the inherent compulsion to change our environment and our thinking. Many of the older traditions and liturgical practices of past centuries were not accepted initially by the Lutherans living at particular periods of time. Just as our wives change the furniture arrangements in our homes and acquire newer accessories based on current styles, fads, and fashion, we change some of our religious traditions and hymns. Some changes are acceptable, while others are not. We can discuss these things and agree, or we can disagree, or we can just agree to disagree. In any case, changes must come, and remember even Luther changed the Liturgy and Lutheran practices during his decades of leadership. I think we should address each issue on an individual basis. Make changes where necessary....but go no further where it destroys the guiding Biblical principles of our faith. This must remain intact. The LCMS has changed whether we accept it or deny thus reality. The hymns, the Liturgy, even the Bible versions now found. I personally prefer the NKJV and KJV to the NIV and the ESV, but our churches use the ESV. The KJV root is 80 percent of the old Tyndale Bible, and in the past many Christians rejected the KJV and preferred the Geneva. Luther's German version served the church well in the beginning, but the church had to adopt to English speaking countries....or just stay in Germany and remain isolated. We need to adopt today as well, and LCMS churches can still remain faithful to older traditions while accepting changes with the times.

Chris said...

The Liturgy is no "mere" tool.

Padre Dave Poedel said...

This essay struck a nerve with me. I grew up Roman Catholic pre-Vatican II. I knew the Latin Mass verbatim and was an acolyte for daily and Sunday Mass. I loved the changes of Vatican II, especially the vernacular used instead of the Latin. Much to my surprise, many parishes took amazing liberties with the Mass, adding Commentators to explain what was happening (I was one as a teen), rock bands in the chancel to perform much as the choirs of the Renaissance Era, but instead of the priest saying his prayers quietly, the new priest became the improviser of the Liturgy with comments and "better" ways of saying what the Mass already said.

With this background I became a Lutheran with TLH as the hymnal I was introduced to the Lutheran Liturgy with. I was mystified that there were Masses with no Eucharist and varied my attendance so as to be present for Holy Communion each week. The next parish we joined, where I quickly became an Elder, used TLH but once a month used a different book for the Folk Service. The song book (the name escapes me but it was orange and written by one guy) and I learned that Lutherans mess with the Mass as much as the 1960's Roman Catholic did. Being an Elder morphed into me creating a Deacon role, which meant being the Assistant Pastor, which morphed into a part-time staff position where I served as the second Pastor of the parish. This lead to a Call to another congregation as a Deacon/Pastor, which lead to my Colloquy into the Pastoral Ministry of the LCMS.

As the Pastor of a small and very dysfunctional congregation, I introduced weekly Eucharist without objection and began using LW, right from the book. The elderly women complained about the weight of the hymnal and page turning so I created a paper bulletin with the LW Setting and hymns for the week and did this for 10 years. Attendance went from 25 to near 120 over the years and the congregation grew in the use of the Liturgy. Last I heard the congregation is still open, as I accepted the Call of a congregation in Phoenix. In that parish I faithfully used LSB settings with weekly Eucharist. At my retirement, my successor has pretty much abandoned the Liturgy, though weekly Eucharist remains, sans vestments or any liturgical reverence....casual is the new rule, as a non liturgical "contemporary service has been added with the praise band in the chancel.

As an Emeritus Pastor, I am serving almost every weeiend in a different congregation. My own congregation, of which my wife and I joined, uses the skeleton of the LSB settings in one service and a praise band in the next, with Holy Eucharist at each service, though in the Winter an additional service is added to accommodate the winter visitors, and because it is in the Bible Class hour there is no time for Communion.

Your essay is very wise and I believe it expresses the current state of Lutheranism in general, the lCMS in specific. When Liturgy becomes a matter of personal taste either of the Pastor or the congregation, we lose the Liturgy. Rome is trying to recover what they lost in the craziness of the 60's through the 90's but their mandating of liturgical texts that are awkward and challenging to the laity and clergy. Where it will lead under Pope Francis is anyone's guess.

Thanks for the essay.