Friday, August 14, 2020

The beauty and language of the liturgy and prayer. . .

A while ago I had a discussion with another Lutheran pastor about a word used in the Prayer of the Church.  It was not a common word but not rare either.  The question was raised as to whether people would understand that word.  I was rather flip in my answer.  I suggested that prayers were directed to God and not to the folks in the pew and relayed the old story of Bill Moyers and President Johnson.  It was said that LBJ complained that when Bill prayed the dinner prayer because the President could not hear him.  Moyers responded by saying that he was not talking to him but to God.  A good story.  But I am not sure if it answers the concern.

There are those who would insist that the language of the liturgy and of the collects and, perhaps, even of the hymns is too high brow.  It expects and requires a level of education and understanding not commonly found in the pews.  I would agree that the language of the Divine Service (in all of its forms) is hardly simplistic but neither would I admit that it is beyond the folks in the pew.  But then the language of worship should not be pedestrian.  The goal is not to reach the lowest common denominator but to elevate, enlighten, and encourage the people and the richest use of language is one of the tools used in that goal.

Throw away liturgies require rather basic language since they are used once and may never be heard or spoken again.  But the Divine Service is language that is repeated and over a longer term contributes to the understanding and growth of the worshiper.  The elevated language of the Divine Service is not exclusive in its appeal nor is it targeted to the few.  It uses all the richness of language and the tools of poetry and a largely Biblical vocabulary to awaken both understanding and appreciation in the hearts and minds of the people who sing and speak and pray its words.  The language of the liturgy and liturgical prayer is by its very nature is something solemn, noble, and gracious. The dumbing down of worship has not resulted in either heightened understanding or appreciation for the mystery of faith nor has it encouraged greater attendance.  In fact, it may have done just the opposite.  By framing our encounter with God in the casual speech of conversation, it  makes worship into something casual and ordinary.  To be truthful, it is the height of arrogance for those who craft those words and who are charged with the stewardship of the Divine Service to treat the folks in the pews as fragile or dense and therefore incapable of anything but the most basic level of language and grammar.  How condescending!

When the language of the Divine Service is relegated to the “lowest common denominator” and it is rendered flat and ordinary, then the very thing that language speaks about is also rendered ordinary and common.  The wondrous entrance of God into space and time to deliver His people from their self-chosen path of rebellion, sin, and death is anything but casual and to frame the place where in Word and Supper the Lord delivers the fruits of our Savior's redeeming work as common and ordinary is an affront to God and His mercy.  There are those who would suggest that those who live in poverty or lack education have more urgent needs than beauty in language or in the physical setting where this divine encounter takes place is the worst kind of elitism.

We are not the first to challenge this idea of utilitarianism.  “She has done a beautiful thing for me... The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always” (Mt 26:10f)  With those words, Jesus not only does not discourage such affection and extravagance but insists that her act will not be forgotten.  There are those who suggest that only those who can afford it or can appreciate it are worth the extravagance of setting or liturgical service.  In fact, some openly mock liturgical worship with its vestments, solemnity, and elegant language as being irrelevant or out of touch with the folks in the pews.  It is just the opposite.  Those who know best the ugliness of the world and its injustice and hypocrisy long most of all for an entrance into the wonder of God's tabernacle with man in the Divine Service. 

Strangely enough, those who complain that the language of the liturgy and prayer is beyond the people in the pew or that the reverence that shapes both the building and what happens within that space, are not unwilling to spend money on the best technology available in pursuit of a different form of elitism.  Perhaps I exaggerate a bit but I have noticed that many of those who produce such services both in person and online use only the best and we all know what the best costs.  When there is no budget in pursuit of worship and the music of worship that merely echoes what people hear all day long on their playlists, it is hard to complain that people are spending money to building lasting structures worthy of the Divine Service and to craft language that refuses trend and fad to speak eloquently of the things of God.


Daniel G. said...

Pastor Peters,

You voice the opinion of many in the Catholic Church who for years after Vatican 2 and the Novus Ordo Missae have said what you said. I bet, however, it has not gotten as bad as it has with us with polka masses, clown masses, Halloween masses, etc. So much for bringing the mass to the people in the vernacular.

When the focus of the Mass is the people (priest facing people) and not God (priest facing liturgical east) then this is what happens, the cult of self-expression that has nothing to do with Eucharist (thanksgiving).

Anonymous said...

Permit me an observation. It would seem that if CoWo in the LCMS can be tied to faddishness, then it would be the young, not the old, who embrace and promote contemporary worship. Yet we observe in practice that it is the old, who generally influence what happens in a congregation, who are as apt, if not more so, to enthuse over CoWo. Several reasons are suggested. One, the “show” of a maximalist liturgy is more persuasive and impactful on the impressionable young, not the old. Sasse lamented that one of his sons converted to the glory of Roman Catholic worship because “our poor, simple halls” of the Lutheran churches were not good enough for him. The old eventually move beyond this superficiality. Two, the richest members of LCMS congregations tend to be engineers. Not a lot of social movers and shakers. They tend as a group to be more interested in the mechanical functions of the building rather than the aesthetic display of worship. Three, elderly worshipers are more likely to dress casually because they are retired and not spending money on fine clothes. Fourth, elderly worshipers are going through a lonely time of life in which connection with the “younger” contemporary world is a strong desire. Ditching “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “Rock of Ages” for more lively contemporary songs is part of this reaching out for connection. In truth, the young don’t care about CoWo as much as the old. Having contemporary worship in the LCMS is simply a manifestation of wanting to do what everyone else is doing. We all want to feel like we belong and fit in. Finally, the old are at a point in their lives when their faith in God as sole support and hope as their bodies decline becomes particularly acute. Liturgical niceties fade in importance next to the reality that it is their faith and God’s grace and strength that take over as the focus at the end of their lives.

jwskud said...

"The language of the liturgy and liturgical prayer is by its very nature is something solemn, noble, and gracious. The dumbing down of worship has not resulted in either heightened understanding or appreciation for the mystery of faith nor has it encouraged greater attendance. In fact, it may have done just the opposite."

A great point. I've heard it compared to a rugby game: if someone has never seen rugby played, they will not understand what they are observing on the field, or the rules, or the strategies for winning (I know I don't!). But the game isn't altered to accommodate the uninformed. Rather, the uninformed are educated about the game's rules, language, nuances, etc. Why should the liturgy, which connects us to the historic church, be treated any less reverently?

Janis Williams said...

There is a great difference in language being common, and being accessible.

Modern slang is common, but accessible only to those who either already know it, or are willing to learn it. The language of our Liturgy (here in the US) is English, not Latin, Greek or Swahili. It is not common, no, but it is accessible.

If we don’t understand a word or phrase, has it ever been simpler to check with our phone (in order not to embarrass ourselves by asking another human, thus proving our ignorance - or theirs)? Just as doctors and nurserymen have their own language, so the Church has hers. If we want to understand our doctor (or landscaper) we do our best to learn what is being said. If we are Christians, should we not desire to understand the language of the Church?