Thursday, September 11, 2008

Worship From That Side

There is certainly a different perspective I have worshiping God while sitting in the chancel than I do while sitting in a pew. It was demonstrated to me a few weeks ago on vacation.

The service rushed past. We used Divine Service I so I didn’t need to look at the book much. Instead, I sang those words and looked at my daughters standing next to me, helping them, encouraging them, cajoling them into participating. We sang the hymns, and one was entirely unfamiliar. Hard to sing, hard to pay attention to the words. It was slow and felt like this would be going on for some time.

The sermon was hard to listen to. Between listening on a clinical level, evaluating his delivery and so forth, and the distractions around me, I didn’t get much out of it. Communion liturgy went by quickly, but I was at the altar rail longer than usual. I had the sense of being a half-engaged participant, kind of like the feeling of being at a graduation ceremony. I felt detached during that hour, and it seemed as if the time before and the visiting after were more engaging and concrete than the hour siting, standing, listening, singing and praying when I remembered to.

Perhaps all this simply means I am made for standing up here, because I can’t stand out there very well. Perhaps it means that having children in church is really a big job like people tell me. Could it mean that the way we “do church” is wrong? That we need more engaging things like Rick Warren talks about? I don’t think so. Singing songs that may have moved me emotionally still would have meant me singing and being distracted by the kids, the guy who sang below every note, the huge bass voice in the back and my mother’s whispered singing that somehow I could still hear under everything else. A dynamic, flash animated, audio-visual sermon I still would have dissected. Dramatic dialogues and skits professional acted would have made the hour feel like a short play rather than a graduation ceremony. I don’t think any of those things designed to engage people really do if something else is wrong.

And that’s it.Something else was wrong. It wasn’t the vacancy pastor at my parent’s church that was bad. He did a fine job. The organist played well, only slower than I liked.The liturgy was done well, different than I do it, but well. Communion was conducted well. It wasn’t that these things were boring. I wasn’t bored. But I was distracted, I was unconnected, I was on auto-pilot or parent mode or whatever you want to call it. I had the problem.

It's like this: would you rather spend the evening reading God's Holy Word or the latest Dean Koontz novel? One of them would be more entertaining. One of them would tempt me to stay up too late reading. One could be called a "page-turner." Hint: it's the one that has a serial killer, a dog, and a government conspiracy. But we would never say that we should stop reading God's Word, or that God's Holy Precious Life-Giving Word is somehow less than a Dean Koontz novel. Or that the Holy Scriptures were not written as well. Or that something is wrong with the Bible because of how I feel about reading it. Something is clearly wrong with me when Dean Koontz is more appealing than Deuteronomy.

You could say that there's a divine reason the Scriptures cannot be read like a "page-turner" can. You could say that the spiritual encounter with the living God, with the Eternal Word who continues to speak in Scripture cannot be borne for too long. Priests and Pastors alike testify that presiding at the liturgy is an exhausting task. St. Christopher is right: when you carry Jesus you carry the world He bears as well. Likewise with Scripture: our finite souls cannot bear the infinite Word too long in our weakened state. Better--our sinful souls cannot bear the holy too long, even when it comes in blessing.

But that is my problem, not God's. It is my sin that is at fault, my weakness, not our Lord's. That the liturgy was a blur of the familiar and did not engage me that day was a fault of circumstance and sin. Not God's.


  1. Heckmann said...

    Maybe it would be helpful to re-examine your presuppositions about liturgy and "worship".

  2. Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

    Brilliant constructive criticism there, heckmann. Always about the process, isn't it.

    Pr. Hall: Speaking as a distracted dad, there are some things you can take away from this:

    1. We cannot afford to deviate from the Word lest the parts where we aren't distracted don't edify us.

    2. Beware the "I didn't get that much out of it." The Holy Spirit is more than rote knowledge. Allow your God-given organic mind to run with it.

    3. Did everything seem rote because the congregation felt it was merely rote? Did the people around give the indication that this really wasn't something special, but merely something we're commanded to do? Sometimes we get a vibe from those around us and we don't realize it.

    4. Nobody is a servant 100% of the time. Sometimes we must be served, and that takes discipline, too.

    What do you think?

  3. Christopher D. Hall said...

    I think your number four hits it head on: I don't have the discipline of worshiping with my family.

    Working backwards...not sure if everything "seemed rote" to those around me--frankly I wasn't too much aware of them at all.

    re: #2--perhaps I chose my words wrong. I believe that the Spirit was working through the Word and Sacrament, as you Lutherans say, despite whatever feelings I didn't have. That was the point of the last few paragraphs. Saying, "This doesn't move me" or "I don't feel" is a diagnosis of me, not the worship or the liturgy. It is measuring things according to my whims and feelings.

    About your #1, I don't understand what we mean.

    And Heckmann, what do you think my presuppositions are?

  4. Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

    With #1 I was going after the fact that some pastors desire to bring songs or sermon material in from other traditions that are more pop than Word. In other words, don't waste my time with "Come Now is the Time To Worship." :)

    I wrote #2 on the way to #4, but I wanted to frame it as Gospel, as in it's something we are getting despite ourselves. Does that help? :)

  5. Heckmann said...

    Oooh, that bait is so attractive! I'll just have a nibble. I can only speculate on your presuppositions. One that I infer is that this liturgy itself is above reproach. As someone else seems to suggest, its construction and performance can never be questioned. My second inference is that the act of worship requires an experience or engagement that is not natural. My third is in regard of your blessedly honest admission: "I felt detached during that hour, and it seemed as if the time before and the visiting after were more engaging and concrete than the hour siting, standing, listening, singing and praying when I remembered to." I think there is much to explore in that.

    BTW, my initial response was given in a pastoral spirit.

  6. Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

    "As someone else seems to suggest, its construction and performance can never be questioned."

    Simple arithmetic seems to imply this was directed at me; forgive me if otherwise.

    We may be more in agreement than I first feared. I've been battling Methodists and Church Growthers who turn adiaphora into anything goes. Forgive me for assuming the worst, but the "pastoral spirit" didn't come across in the ASCII. :)

    Certainly construction and performance should be questioned, but in light of content and what things actually say. If something is truly adiaphora, and it replaces something that taught doctrine, it's truly a loss to the service.

    I have seen too many Methodists lose their faith in hearing the word because they felt they didn't get anything out of it. It is a sad deal with the objective Word isn't "enough" for them.

  7. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Heckmann (strange to call you that, but I'll go with how you identify yourself...)

    1. Is the liturgy above reproach? That's actually a tough question. I'm not sure we can "reproach" something that's not a person. I do not think it is above honest and humble criticism. It certainly can be reformed (and ought to be). I know it's not my job to do it.

    You wrote, "My second inference is that the act of worship requires an experience or engagement that is not natural."

    Again, not sure what you mean by "natural" here. Natural to us sinners or natural meaning somehow inhuman? I think it requires attention: not superhuman to be sure, but as much attention as the Lord's Prayer requires. Praying is not praying if our lips move but our hearts are far from God. Someone good once said that.

    The third thing: Absoultely. And this was me trying to get in the head and understand that hour plus as a layman I used to. Discounting what I know the "worhsip hour" is for, and what God does there, and what our response is--disregarding that and putting it out of my mind, yes that time before and after was markedly different.

    Keep up the discussion. I'm tied up for the next 16 hours, but y'all can discuss among yourselves.

  8. -C said...

    Just a humble thought which I've expressed elsewhere before: if we go to liturgy looking to get something out of it, we will often be disappointed, I think.
    We go to liturgy to worship - to put something into it (the beauty of it is that in the giving we do receive).
    And some days, it seems we are capable - for whatever reason - of putting more into it than other days. I think that's normal.
    But when we go to worship for what we get out of it, I wonder if we are worshipping for the right reason.

  9. The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


    I don't put anything into the liturgy, it puts God's Word into me. I used to go to non-denominational services and there were services that no matter how hard I worked, sang, focused, I didn't get anything out of.

    Worship is where WE are fed, not where we do for God. I sing the words, but the words feed me, because they are Scripture, they tell me about God and take me through my relationship to Him. I confess, receive absolution, pray for mercy, receive it..praise, yet the words are not mine, and they do not tell of my feelings or my acts, my emotions, they tell me of the great things God did for me. Then I hear God's Word, I give a portion of what He has already given me, and then the church offers up their prayers of need and thanksgiving, and God responds by giving me His very body and blood and blesses me back out into the world.

    Are there days that I am not moved by this? Oh YEAH. Are there days that I allow the devil, the world, and my sinful flesh (not to mention my six year old's sinful flesh?) get in the way. Absolutely.

    And we are fed even when we don't feel it and it seems like the service drags. Our sinfulness gets in the way.

    I find that when I focus on what I do during worship, I become blatantly aware where I have fallen short, not what I have done right. I haven't focused enough, I didn't really think about what I was saying, I was distracted by the kids behind me. I was thinking about my grocery list. But worship isn't law. Showing up to church is, but what happens in church isn't about what I do. It is literally God feeding me with His Word and Sacraments from beginning to end.

    But what I "get out of it" always has nothing to do with me.

    Pastor Hall, it is nice to hear you describe what probably most of us deal with in the pew, and coming from a non-denominational experience, I can tell you that it is the same even when the music has a faster beat and the pastor is cute (well, MY pastor IS cute) and walks around all over the stage (but he doesn't do that). I've even been bored in Rick Warren's church once. ONCE.

    The only practical thing that has made it easier for me was memorizing the liturgy. I think even the hymnbooks get in our way. It is too easy to sing what is before us without thinking about what it says. I found that I was free to contemplate more of what I was singing and saying when my hands were free.

  10. -C said...

    RBW -
    We see worship differently, I guess.

    For me, worship is not passive, allowing me to just sit back and wash over me and change me. Rather, I am changed - fed and nourished - through my participation and involvement in the liturgy, through my own God-directed actions of singing and praying, seeing, hearing and eating, I am doing the very work for I was created. I am an active participant in worship...and through my own involvement in the act of worshipping God, God gives me his richest blessings back a hundredfold.

    But if I go to liturgy and sit passively by and wait for it to change me, for someone to say or sing something that works for me, that fills my personal need of the moment, then worship points to me - which is precisely the wrong direction.

    Liturgy - the work of the people - is WORK! The word was not chosen at random. And the Church is the people who are supposed to do this work. it's the most important work we do.

    About this we do agree, though - there are days when I am better able to do this work than others. Lord, have mercy!

    P.S. I am not a non-denom - never have been, but have many years of Lutheran worship under my belt. Though I am not Lutheran anymore - my understanding of my role in liturgy the liturgy is the same as it's always been.

  11. Dixie said...

    I see a couple of things at play here that could have contributed to the lack of fullness you experienced. First of all the worship routine was broken. Papa wasn't in the pulpit, he was in the pew. Kids do best in their routines and their routine is Papa in the pulpit. Likewise, you were out of your rather than having a full worship experience you had to deal with kids trying to adjust to something different and you were trying to adjust as well. Together it doesn't seem to be a formula for optimum experience.

    Also I remember when I had little ones and thinking..."Will I ever get to hear a sermon again?" But I reassured myself that this was just for a season. And it was. Sooner than I would have expected our boys grew up and behaved and worship time was only disrupted by my own inattentiveness.

    Most days now my pulse races when I hear the words "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." but there are still times when I feel disengaged. I always hate that.

  12. The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


    I wasn't trying to imply that you were nondenom, I was just referring to when I was.

    I don't think we are so different in what we are saying, it is not like I am sitting back and not singing, not listening. I do those things for various reasons, to praise God, to sing and confess His truth, and to encourage my neighbor.

    But it is very much like being baptized. I may walk up to the font, the pastor may pour the water onto my forehead, he may proclaim the name of the Trinity and pronounce me a child of God...but God did the cleansing, He did the saving, He made me His own. It wasn't what I did, though I was there, though I confessed my faith. The pastor proclaimed the words and poured the water, but He didn't save me either. Only Christ did. Christ cleansed me with His blood, Christ sent His Holy Spirit.

    Without the Holy Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments, whether they are sung by me, whether they are read or preached by the congregation or the pastor, I am not fed or strengthened because of what I am doing, though I may be "working hard at it." It is the Holy Spirit that is strengthening me and sanctifying me through the service.