Liturgy as the wise use of words

As Eugene Peterson reminds us so often, you can’t just use words casually and have nothing happen to you. Words give life or take life. The don’t do nothing; thet do something.

That is why I am increasingly reliant upon liturgical elements in worship. Liturgy is nothing but the wise use of words, thought about over hundreds of years and tested in the fires of worship and service. They are words that have been road tested like tires on a car. In all kinds of conditions and on all kinds of surfaces they transport the Christian to places he needs to go with God in a safe, if not always gentle, manner.

I find that the liturgies of the church carry certain benefits for me:

1. They keep trinitarianism in the forefront of worship. Someone has said that evangelicalism so easily falls into moral therapeutic deism. I think that is true. You hear a lot about Jesus, living as he wants you to live, but very little about the Father and almost nothing about the Holy Spirit, unless the sermon series is focusing on one or the other. But in the warp and woof of the worship, you would think modalism is operative – God has become just Jesus.

2. They keep the pastor from being silly. Pastors have an entertainment gene in them. Left to ourselves we might do anything to get and keep attention. There is plenty of room in liturgical worship for the unique personality of the pastor, but his personality can’t be untethered to the demands of worship.

3. They keep balance. All the way from repentance for sin, renewed obedience and love of the community to eucharistic celebration, prayer and Gospel, the worship “menu” is balanced and full. There are no protein shakes, power bars and vitamin supplements substituting for full worship. Liturgy keeps the feast of worship a full banquet and slows things down enough for people seated at the table to actually think, talk, connect and experience the satisfaction of fullness. Free worship traditions of which I am a part are often worship on steroids – keep it fast (no silence please), keep it coming and never, ever, never rely on the people of the church to carry the primary responsibility for worship.

4. They keep the church humble. As the church submits to the wisdom of the Christian tradition it testifies that not all that is good and worthy originates with them. It’s amazing to me how arrogant churches are that proclaim that their church is not “church as usual.” They are going to do church in a new, never-seen-before way. Of course, as soon as the pastor leaves they are on a search for the new formula, and their new pastor will have his new contribution to the “never-been-seen” before mystique.

5. They channel love and worship. Dallas Willard in the video series, the Renovation of the Heart, remarks that liturgy is a substitute for a real encounter with God. I was stunned. How could a man as intelligent and informed as Dallas make such a bold and bald assertion as that? Liturgy is our best attempt at making sure that all the facets of love and worship are gathered and given trajectory so that nothing is lost on the way.

6. The words of the liturgy help me worship when I do not feel like it. Free Protestantism has so hammered into me that true worship is spontaneous worship without form that when the feeling is not there I do not know how to worship or even if I should. Liturgy keeps me going. It helps me speak to God and to others when I don’t feel like it. It keeps worship from being merely states of mind.

I have been thinking a bit about the funeral service and the dignity of liturgy at such a time. Many of the free Protestant formulas are most tested at funerals. My impression has always been that Protestants do not do funerals well. The typical formulas used don’t work well at such times. There is quietness, stillness and deep thoughtfulness at funerals. It’s not about fast tunes, charismatic preaching, energizing experiences. Pastors need to slow the horse down rather than ramp it up. We are not good at that. And so there is a stumbling feel to such services rather than the rhythm of practiced focus on the part of the people. I have been to enough funerals in my time to observe. I will take a more liturgical funeral service anytime over the usual low church Protestant fare.

Words, used often over a long period of time, will shape us. Liturgy is nothing but the attempt to use those words well week in and week out so that there is a rhythm and movement toward God that can be sustained and harmonious.

By the way, I just read this article at the Ancient Evangelical Future blog titled “Liturgy That Gives Rest.”

Praying for iMonk

Part of my daily journey into the blogosphere is to the site of iMonk. He is a must read for evangelicals who sense that evangelicalism as we know it is coming unhinged and that the resurgent neo-Calvinism isn’t the saving knight riding in on the white horse.

iMonk has been absent for a while, now battling cancer. It’s weird to open up my blog aggregator only to find he isn’t there. Join me in praying for this guy. I’ve never met him, but he has become a part of my spiritual journey and so many thousands of others.

CH Spurgeon and the 21st century

I am a Spurgeon fan. I continue to invite him into my life and be a companion on the pilgrimage. But I increasingly find it difficult to recommend his sermons without some kind of proviso. His anti-Roman Catholic punches are just intolerable to those of a more progressive and ecumenical mindset. Of course, Spurgeon does not just critique the RC positions. That would be fair enough. But his use of sarcasm and blatant ridicule is unsettling to those who believe the Kingdom includes trusting and obedient Christ-followers from the RC tradition.

I use to print off sermons from Spurgeon to make them available to the church. But it dawned on me how they might strike those who are of a more generous spirit and who are newer to Kingdom issues.

In my thinking I have moved from trying to get Christians back to a certain time period of the church (whether it be the Reformers, the Puritans or the evangelicalism of the mid 20th century) to getting Christians to making their contribution to the new shape that is emerging as Christians face the 21st century. People like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, etc., seem to be more engaged in shaping a preferable future rather than hammering the evangelical church into old forms.

I am struck how different the reading list put out by Mars Hill Church in Seattle is from Peterson’s list in Eat This Book.

As I read theology I am finding that while the old systematic theologies are to be read multiple times they are insufficient for our times. This is not because truth changes, but because the shape of our journey changes. Publishing houses like InterVarsity Press recognize this. In fact, I think that keeping in touch with what IV is publishing is a strong signal revealing emerging issues that the church must address to be faithful to Scripture and faithful to effective ministry.