Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reminiscing on the Liturgy

My early years found me in the Methodist church before and through the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren.  Thinking back on that time, I must admit that the regularity in the order of worship and church year is something I miss.  Why is that?  It certainly was not the sermon content each Sunday, since I was easily bored and looked for ways to spend my time, even occasionally reading my Bible: imagine my surprise upon discovering the great stories heard in Sunday School were actually found there.  Nor was I impressed by the collective fervor of the congregants who I could tell were going through required motions because the Order of Worship specified a certain action from the group.

What then held my attention during the hour-long periods over the years?  It was what I learned through creeds and hymns.  You see, I actually paid attention to those things.  From early childhood, solid biblical input was instilled through weekly readings from the Old and New Testaments according to the lectionary, as well as repetition of the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed, and Nicene Creed, plus weekly singing of "Doxology" and "Gloria Patri," short choruses full of praise and acknowledgement to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the one God we worship.  Great hymns of the faith full of rich content were wonderfully accompanied by an organist.  And while the responsive readings were peculiar to me, I recognized that important things were being spoken.

While I remembered little to nothing of spiritual profit from what was taught from the pulpit, those things caught from the periphery were foundational for my later spiritual growth, after the rebellious years of later teens and early twenties.  And for this I am thankful and longing to recapture in a substantive way now decades removed from it.

Why does this longing arise?  From reading my blog, you know that I have a dissatisfaction with Evangelicalism as commonly practiced.  For many years my family met with the Plymouth Brethren which gave me opportunity to study my Bible and teach often: I am grateful.  Having been gone from that way of meeting a few years, I can objectively state the strengths and weaknesses of their practices.  Now in a non-denominational Bible church, I am firmly within the very church culture that currently annoys me.  I am not saying there is heresy—not by any means—but there is an abundant reliance on some undefined moving of the Holy Spirit in planning and decision-making.  I understand the mentality having seen it among the PBs previously, and it always bothered me then.  But I digress.

Am I just on a sentimental journey, remembering a past time in the best light?  That is possible, but assemblies such as mine could learn a thing or two from a more formal liturgy.  For instance, the lectionary was first concocted to teach Christ and the whole counsel of God.  Use it, whether the history one-year or the revised three-year.  This would help to keep the pastor from making topic changes in order to "scratch an itch."  We have enough of those where I attend, and they are annoying.  Also, we need songs with better content: I have blogged on that before, so I will not pursue it.  And, I miss repeating the creeds.  Absorbing those declarations was difficult at first, but what excellent, concise statements of faith they are, imperceptibly becoming part of me due to the repetition.  I dare say that my understanding of the Godhead had a thorough foundation because of them.

A danger looms in that congregants could slip into the same semi-catatonic state as liturgical groups who do not know preach the gospel or do not care that the gospel is being proclaimed.  And some would fear that there would only be hymns with the only organ instrumentation: as good as these are, they are not strictly required.  (I wonder how the divine liturgy of John Chrysostom would sound using a bluegrass band.)  And dare I say that the greatest objection would be that the Holy Spirit is being stifled.  Having been in the more free-form groups enough years, the issue is not structure, but desire.  A meeting of open sharing can grieve and subdue the Spirit just as quickly, and sometimes more so, as following a prescribed order.

Is this whole concept old-fashioned?  Yes and no.  They are certainly old, some portions even centuries old, but they are what the historic church regularly professed and maintained on a weekly basis.  On the other hand, because they are ancient, we know they are enduring.  The old is not kept because it is old, as certainly as the new is not introduced because it is new.  Neither tactic works.

As a parting thought to help articulate what I have been thinking, I offer the following from Bill Cwirla (Hacienda Heights, CA, 2003):
Though it’s often called “traditional worship” by those who engage in “contemporary worship,” that’s really only half the truth.  Liturgical worship is historic worship, the way Christians have been worshiping for nearly 2000 years.  Some of the phrases of the liturgy go all the way back to the new testament.  Liturgical worship is also biblical worship, not in the sense that the Bible demands we worship this way, but that nearly every word of the liturgy is a quotation from Scripture.  Liturgical worship is also Christocentric worship, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness and life of the sinner right in the middle of everything.  That’s the important one, remember?

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