Friday, March 8, 2024

A generous spirit. . .

I often describe the Divine Service where I serve as a generous formality.  Let me unpack that statement.  We have folks who cross themselves and those who do not.  We have folks who bow and those who do not.  We have folks who kneel and those who do not.  We have folks mirror the fuller ceremonial they see at the altar and those who do not.  Lutherans are generally loathe to make rules about folks must or must not do when it comes to matters of ceremony.  I think we have a rather generous spirit toward those whose piety if more ceremonial and those whose piety is of a simpler nature.  I am not at all sure that the generous spirit is well-understood or appreciated.

Let me take one example.  Luther says in the Catechism that we ought to cross ourselves.  But Luther does not say we must.  The reality is that those who do tend to bother those who do not more than the other way around.  I would plead for a generous spirit.  Some are new to it all and have not yet developed a comfort level with the ceremonies they see in the Divine Service.  Others have been Lutheran long enough to recall when it was less common to see and experience the fuller ceremonial (and, indeed, the Divine Service itself was less frequent!).  Either is fine.  We dare not bind the conscience except where God has demanded us to bind it -- on either side of this equation.  To forbid a fuller ceremonial is the same problem as demanding it.

To be truthful, I am not in the least apologetic for the fuller ceremonial I model at the altar.  It is not the practice of my preference as presiding minister but my role and purpose to model before the congregation the fullest range of what is rightfully Lutheran and retained of our catholic identity.  Pastors should not get to impose their preference upon the congregation anymore than the congregation should impose it on them (or others).  But if people do not see the fuller ceremonial modeled, they may conclude that it is somehow less authentically Lutheran.  Our Confessions go to great pains to insist that we are fully catholic in doctrine and practice.  But only a fool would admit that we have not been as faithful in this as we ought.

I grew up with some things that would be easily considered too catholic for some.  The church bell was intoned during the Our Father and the Words of Institution.  Women were not generally seen by the altar even during the clean up after the Sacrament.  The attitude was decidedly somber and solemn by both pastor and people.  There were no jokes from the pulpit or smiles on the faces in the pews.  The people took pains to note that they were walking upon the holy ground of God's presence and this was something not to be taken lightly.  But no one ever explained to me the whys or whats of what we did.

Hopefully the brief explanations in the worship folder and the many references in Bible study help to rectify this fact.  Our people tend to have a greater understanding why I genuflect during the consecration than I had about the intoning of the bell growing up.  Some would say that is not who they are.  But, of course, we who stand before the Lord who speaks in His Word and serves us from His Table must acknowledge that this is a very special privilege God has accorded us.  It is worth asking if God had in mind a real knee bowing or just a thought in the mind when St. Paul directed every knee to bow and tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  No, we are not all at the same place in life nor in our spiritual lives.  There is still room for a generous spirit which welcomes the fuller while not demanding it and which willingly places preference at the bottom of the list of things which would define our practice.  

A very long time ago when we were considering whether kneelers would be added to the pews in our new building, someone took great pains to let everyone know they did not like kneelers and were voting against them.  I did not argue with them.  What I did ask is why their preference should prevent those who chose to kneel from exercising theirs?  In the end, this is the point.  It may be a little disconcerting to have people's piety look different from your own within the Divine Service but a generous spirit will not make too much of this.  As far as I know there is nothing wrong with nor is there any confessional ground for restricting the fuller ceremonial.  In fact, our confession insists that we can employ the full ceremonial so long as it does not conflict with Word of God or obscure the Gospel.  This does not mean that every preference must be respected but it does require on every side a generous spirit.  We put words in our Lord's mouth when we presume His challenge of externals alone requires no externals at all.  What our Lord is urging is consistency of faith and practice but the judgment remains the Lord's and has not been delegated to us.  One more reason for a generous spirit.

No comments: