I’m not very eloquent right now. There’s a dark cloud that’s clouding everything that I think, see, or say right now. I’m sitting here in my living room, in front of a decent wood fire, and I just can’t stand it anymore. My ability to simply swallow things for the sake of whatever tenuous peace might be thus achieved has reached a critical level.
Regarding worship–no, regarding everything that we do–there is a question that we pastors need to be asking ourselves, and it pains me to work with those who don’t appear to do so. The question is this: Will we feed these people or will we merely show them the menu?
As I read through a pair of homespun liturgies set to be used this weekend, several things stood out:
1. There was a section of the service entitled “Confession and Absolution.” According to the form laid out in the bulletin there may have been something of the former, be it ever so cursory, but there was nothing of the latter. There was no Absolution. There was a nice reminder that we’re all forgiven, after which the congregation was invited to praise God for it. Good? Sure. But Absolution it was not.
2. There was a section entitled “Affirmation of Faith,” but as I read through it I realized that no person could affirm this faith. It was indeed Trinitarian, but it was also anthropocentric and anti-nomian. It was divided into three articles with a closer. Each article began, “I love [insert name of Person of the Godhead] with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength.” The big closer was this line again referring to the whole Godhead. Which of us may approach saying this? Honestly, who? To say such a thing is to say, “I keep the First Commandment perfectly.” It exchanges the Christian faith for a lie, namely that we really can do it all and, in fact, we do.
3. Homespun liturgies and much of the music of the last thirty years generally shy away from significant aspects of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Today as we celebrate the gift of another year and thank God for the blessings of the past one, we also remember the circumcision of our Lord Jesus. We remember that he shed his precious blood for us even as a tiny baby, submitting to the Law that he might redeem those under the Law. But these things were absent from the prayers and the songs. It is good to praise God, but it’s not the only reason we pray or sing.
So, back to my question. Will we feed these people or will we merely show them the menu? It’s a question about the theology of worship. What is worship? Is it the work of God or is it the work of men? Is it central to the ministry of the church or is it something we just do because it’s what churches do? Is it to give the people something snappy to make them feel good about themselves, improve their “quality of life” and self-esteem? Or is it maybe, just maybe where God comes to his people to change them?
We can show people the menu or we can feed them, pastors. We can give them something slick and sharp-looking and “relevant for today,” where the best they can get is a pat on the back, a shot in the arm, an “atta kid” and a little advice for living as they are reminded that God thinks they’re pretty neat. Or we can do what we’re called to do, to be the mouthpiece of God and lead the people through a liturgy through which God does something–many things!–to change them. This is not a contemporary/traditional argument. We can talk style another day. And don’t comment to tell me how inextricably style and substance are linked. I already know. Just try to put the style discussion on the shelf for now. It’s about content. Like it or not, content transcends style.
Just because you say ‘A’ is ‘A’ doesn’t make ‘A’ ‘A’. ‘A’ is only ‘A’ when ‘A’ has as its substance all that makes ‘A’ ‘A’. The words are important. Holy Absolution is “that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself…” This means that we actually confess our sins and that the confessor (in the context of the corporate worship service, the pastor as liturgist) speaks the words in the first person, because he is merely a mouthpiece for the Lord God: “I forgive your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is just an example.
There is a corollary to the original question: If we are serious about feeding the people, why would we ever resort to activities that merely show them the menu? That is, why would we substitute words and actions in worship that take God and his first person communication to his people out of the mix? Why are we so quick to go whoring after things that just don’t cut it? I don’t get it. I don’t know how it is that a man can withhold from the people of God the very Word of God to and for his people and then sleep soundly at night. In fact, I dare you to show me.
It cuts like a knife. I and all faithful pastors everywhere are being betrayed in largely overhanded ways. Our ordination vows and our calls are regularly made a punchline while Satan rests a little easier. He’d see God’s Word to and for his people as far away from his people as possible. And there are those in our midst who stand guilty of giving comfort and aid to the Enemy.
I’m out of words for now and severely sapped of energy. And yet there is perhaps a glimmer of hope within my rage. Time will tell.