Friday, December 7, 2018

The problem of English. . .

I recall once thinking that it was high time to switch to the Revised Standard Version (yes I am that old) since the King James is so antiquated and so difficult to understand (perhaps I should have said it is hard to read).  Yet I have learned over the years that the problem lay not with the text but with the person holding it.  Some education helped (no, I am not talking about college here but middle school -- junior high we called it -- and high school).  Shakespeare helped.  Reading did even more.  As I spent time with those who knew the language and knew how to use it, I discovered that the text that once seemed so formidable was and is really rather accessible.  Let me go one further, the antiquated language of Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer, The Lutheran Hymnal, and the Authorized Version of the Bible are not easy but that is because they use well the richness of our language.  They have not succumbed to the great temptation to minimalism.  There is something to be said about that.

One of the great tests I apply when I visit a congregation is to listen to how the pastor reads (or chants) the collect of the day.  A collect is not simple but compacts a great deal into an economy of words to express much more than first seems possible.  Yet, to pray the collect requires you to read it (preferably out loud) a few times before Sunday morning.  It is often clear from the pastor leading us in prayer that he is not sure what we are praying for in that collect and if he is unclear, it stands to reason it is hard for us to add our Amen to the prayer.

Now to be clear, I am not suggesting the liturgical language be obtuse.  But neither am I advocating using a 3rd grade reading level as the target for the vocabulary, sentence structure, and complexity of the texts used in the Divine Service.  Liturgical language explores the riches of our language and is not content with a poverty of grammar or style.  That requires a bit from us -- those who lead God's people in prayer and praise and those who are being led.  We need to take care with liturgical language.  There is something wrong when, as one wag put it, we cannot read a sentence with more than 10-12 words in it.  The problem lies not with the words but with the reader and the hearer.  Worship requires a little work from us and part of that is preparation before leading worship and paying attention for those being led.

The problem with much of modern worship and contemporary Christian music is not that it uses language too well but that it barely scratches the service of the treasures of language.  It is simplistic -- not simple -- and so it becomes tiresome and old very quickly.  In contrast, the eloquent turn of a phrase never grows old.  The enduring hymns are not the seven word choruses being produced today but words that challenge us even as they inspire us:
Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.
 I make no apology for the eloquence of liturgical language and for the worthy hymns of old.  Grow up.  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.  For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.  For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.  Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.  I read these things somewhere?  Can you guess?

The truth is I am not sure who to blame.  Texting and social media may have exacerbated the problem but they did not cause it.  They are the fruit of our poverty of language.  Whether or not we find a convenient target to blame, we should not be content to minimalism.


Ted Badje said...

Take time to read the Collect. If there is something to elaborate on the sentences, the pastor should do that in the sermon. Often times liturgy has succinct passages with words that carry a lot of weight that need to be elaborated on.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post, Pastor.
I remember back in Deacon School (you do remember the now-gone LC-MS Deacon Program), Pastor Jack McWhirter told us to study the COLLECT each Sunday. Short and simple on the surface, it set the theme for that whole Sunday of the Church Calendar.
The COLLECT for this coming Sunday reads "Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."
Short...but deep...if you can get the people to think about the readings and prayers for that day. Advent..Christ has come at Christmas...Christ is with us today in the Liturgy...Christ will come again at the Last Judgement...Are you prepared? We pray that through our God-Given VOCATIONS we can serve God and serve those we Love. If we can teach people to see the beauty and the depth of the Liturgy they are given every Sunday, it would be a huge, simple step toward them hearing God speak every Sunday through the Liturgy.
Thanks again for your
Ex-Deacon, Timothy Carter, Kingsport, TN.

Anonymous said...

It is possible for a Lutheran pastor to preach a different text
for 9 straight years on Sunday mornings. If he rides the tricycle
of A,B,C and the O.T. lesson, Epistle, and Gospel reading. However,
there are perhaps few pastors who attempt this feat.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pr. Peters, for pointing out the importance of the Collect. When I was first training to become a Lay Reader (LCA at that time), my Pastor told us that we should study the Collect and the Propers and seek the common theme running through them all. Sometimes that is difficult to do, but it is always a useful exercise to make the attempt.

Now, when I prepare a sermon, I always study the Collect first, and often begin my sermon with comments on the Collect and what it says about the theme of the Sunday. Then we can go on to explore the Proper lessons for the day in light of that theme.


Pastor Rich Balvanz said...

I was a better student in public school because of what I learned about languages, history, human nature, wisdom and numerous other subjects in worship.

Anonymous said...

The paucity is not in the lack of rich language usage, but in the lack of desire to think. We would rather float along on a stream of words, instead of swimming in and through them. It requires thought to read and understand the Collect. Recognizing the common theme in any particular Sunday’s Propers and Prayers is more work than the average mind desires to do.