Sunday, July 14, 2019

That is just not me. . .

That is just not me, not who I am. . .  Words like these have been used in a huge variety of contexts.  They are even used by people shopping for a church and by pastors and people uncomfortable with their own church's worship.  We live in a juncture of history in which personal preference, self-identity, and choice constitute the highest of all values.  It was Frank Sinatra who sang I gotta be me but it is the generation in which we live today that has harnessed that idea and made it into the most sacred of truths that govern us as people, even Christian people.

There are pastors who insist that formal liturgy, vestments, ceremonial, and ritual are not them.  These things do not form their heart language and for them to worship like the hymnal, wear vestments (or clerical collars), do the ceremonial of the rubrics, and follow the traditional rituals that our confessions insist have not been abandoned would be inauthentic.  It would be a lie.  So they come into a congregation to direct their worship life toward that which is authentic to them, comfortable, and true to their self-identities.

There are people who walk into a Lutheran congregation which follows the Divine Service in the official hymnal, with the pastor in vestments, seeing bowing or kneeling and other forms of ceremony and ritual and insist that this does not appeal to them, to worship like this would be to deny themselves and who they are, and so either worship services must be offered in their heart language or they must find a church which fits them better.

On one level this is just plain goofy.  We all have individual preferences, likes, and dislikes.  The only church we could attend would be a church of one or a few who might agree with us.  Taste is as diverse as the typical menu in a restaurant.  We wall want things that appeal to us, served our way.  When we apply that to church, it would require us to offer an endless multiplicity of styles to satisfy all those who have preferences.

On another level this is worse.  This is idolatry.  It is as if we are saying that we can come to God only on our terms, that God must first honor us and our preferences before we honor Him with faith and obedience.  When you strip away all the nice language that reflects how we talk today, at its root is the same thing.  Adam.  Eve.  The serpent.  The Garden.  The sin.  Me first.

To pastors who make their way through seminary and are approved by the church for call and ordination and then decide that the church's practice informed by hymnal and agenda are not their cup of tea I say, why did you seek to be a pastor in the first place?  The ministry is not yours and neither is it your domain to substitute your personal preferences for the practices that flow from our church's doctrinal identity.  You do not get undo things because of personal preference.  Now, if you get to a congregation where practices conflict with what we believe, confess, and teach, you have not only the authority but the responsibility to teach the people well and to work to conform this practice to the faith.  The standard ought to be the hymnal and liturgy of the church.

To people shopping for a church the way one shops for a comfortable pair of walking shoes, it is important to remember that we come to God on His terms and not on ours.  Over time the church has formed the rites that are hardly more than Scripture said and sung and directed the action of worship to reflect Gottesdeinst, God serving us with His means of grace.  We meet God on the holy ground of His own gifts of Word and Sacrament.  Worship is not meaningful because it hits us that way but because it addresses that which is at the core of our human dilemma -- sin and death.  Contemporary is not defined by personal taste or cultural move but by the issues that we face and the God who has intervened to bring salvation to us in His Son.

Those who complain about the tyranny of tradition and the dictatorship of the past have merely replaced the actors so that the tyranny of the spontaneity and the dictatorship of the moment rule.  This is not about repristinating something from yesterday but living in continuity with the works and words of God in the past, handed down by the saints who went before, and passing on this same sacred deposit to those who come after.  It is not about aesthetics but truth, not about preference but revelation, and not about style but substance.  Nothing is neutral in this world and everything has some sort of baggage.  We must be very careful about this and part of the reason for the Reformation was the substitution of things more current for that which was ancient and Biblical -- especially when it comes to worship. 

I still think that Norman Nagel and the Introduction to Lutheran Worship (the hymnal) got it right when summarizing this very fact.
"Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God. Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is his name, which he put on us with the water of our Baptism. We are his. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where his name is, there is he. Before him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us. The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Finally his blessing moves us out into our calling, where his gifts have their fruition. How best to do this we may learn from his Word and from the way his Word has prompted his worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day – the living heritage and something new."  [Lutheran Worship (1982) Introduction by Dr. Norman Nagel]


Pastor Paul T. McCain said...

That little paragraph in Lutheran Worship is perhaps the most profound statement on the Divine Service ever written. God bless, Dr. Nagel. I had him for two graduate classes at Concordia Seminary. Wonderful experiences. I'll never be able to thank him enough for his erudite faithfulness.

Anonymous said...

Is it O.K to prefer The Lutheran Hymnal (from 1941) over the new Lutheran Worship?

David Gray said...


Carl Vehse said...

The author of "The Dangers of Hyper-Ritualizing Lutheran Worship" and "Is Referring to the Lutheran Divine Service as a 'Mass' a Wise Thing to Do?" also stated in "You Are Not Free to Use This Liberty," "My opinion is that it would be a tremendous blessing to our church body if we would all set aside our pet theories, our cherished preferences, and even our favorite hymnals, and embrace the use of one hymnal: Lutheran Service Book."

Anonymous said...

"The rhythm of our worship is from God to us and then from us back to God"
Those words were an Epiphany to me. We go to church, firstly, to hear God talk to us. First and foremost we get to hear "Did God really say? preached and sung and chanted.
While the 1982 hymnal was not my favorite (difficult harmonies) Dr. Nagel's line about the "rhythm of our worship being from God to us and then from us back to God" has always stuck with me.
God Bless the preachers, Pastors Peters and Nagel.
Timothy Carter, simple country Deacon. Kingsport TN.