The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”

Repentant Joy

In preparation for yesterday’s sermon, at one point along the way I found myself pondering the following sentence offered during the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper:

“With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross.”

That’s a strange sentence. It’s peculiar because within it, the petitioners fashion the words “repentant” and “joy” into a singular, personal descriptor.

At first thought, repentance would seem to bear an edge, to be the cutting result of receiving the harder news about oneself, a response acted out in humility, a response borne from a penetrating sorrow for Sin, a full-throated acknowledgement of who we are and what we’ve done. Joy, on the other hand, paints a portrait of one who bounds along without burden, happily unconcerned with the sorrowful things and smiling as though gravity is imaginary and the sun will never set.

In the swiftness of a prayerful moment, these two words seem to be the blending of passionate opposites—like the mixing of oil and water, darkness and light, pessimism and optimism.

To really get what’s behind their comradery, I suppose it’s imperative for us to first realize these words are aimed straight into our guts. In other words, as Christians, we own them in faith. But equally, as they burrow into us, they reach our center, grab hold, and then begin steering us intently toward the end of the sentence in which they dwell—to the sacrifice of Jesus for our Sin.

Both have their eyes set upon the crucified Savior.

The “repentant” half of the phrase reminds us the words aren’t careless. Life is not a bopping along with unconcerned steps. With the cross as the heading, we keep our footing and know our location. We’re bound to humility. We know that even as we live in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness of sins each and every day—that His love is given to us freely and fully—the work to accomplish our redemption wasn’t cheap. It was quite costly. The cross of Jesus Christ stands as the receipt for the dreadful expense. The image itself prompts the recognition that we are in daily need of what Christ won on that cross. Each day we fall short. Each day is encumbered by monsters—Sin, Death, the devil—all maneuvering to eat away at our inheritance as God’s children, and we should never take this lightly.

But deeper still, even as we live in this fallen world well aware of our jagged surroundings, the “joy” half of the phrase is an expression of Christian hope, a truth that knows the death of Jesus for our salvation as it meets with the “right now” but also the “not yet.” We are free to live in Christ right now knowing that our heavenly future is secure. By faith, as God’s beloved children, we are heirs of eternal life.

Repentant joy. Sounds good.

In my opinion, these words together are incredibly thick and immensely real, and even if they were spoken alone, they’d announce far more than the most eloquent and heartfelt pleas. In two words, we learn our identity as ones who live and breathe and move in this world with a joyful confidence located in the forgiveness won by Jesus for the world to come. Or perhaps another way—we live at the ready. We live knowing that in Christ we have the best of all things while remaining honest with ourselves, acknowledging that our Sin-nature knows this, too, and would see to it being snatched away.

I like the phrase “repentant joy,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be more intentional about using it in my daily prayers. I’m going to be a bit more concerted about asking that the Holy Spirit continue to work this in me.

These Things Teach the Christian Faith

I pray all is well and that as the shades of fall are in full swing, you are enjoying the explosions of color across the Michigan landscape. I’m not necessarily a fan of the cold weather that’s on the very near horizon, but I am a devoted observer of the autumn landscape. There are times when the back roads of Michigan are more than breathtaking, and for that, I’m thankful. And for some reason, it always takes me back to my childhood, the days when my brother, sister, and I would bury one another below piles of leaves from a particular tree in our neighbor’s yard. Those were unforgettable moments.

There are other, equally unforgettable moments that are almost always ready and waiting at the edge of my memory’s landscape. And most often the key to their freedom is a familiar song. I think that’s one thing I like about the series of “Guardian of the Galaxy” movies. Part of their charm is that the main character, Peter Quill, has an assortment of music that his mother gave to him as a kid before she died. It’s a collection of favorites from a bygone time. When those songs are playing in the various movies, they are far too familiar to me, too—songs like “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Brandy” by Looking Glass, Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” and a good number of others. The one that resonated the most for me was at the beginning of the second film. The Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” No matter what was on the screen at the time, it almost immediately reminded me of trips to Arkansas with my family to stay at my Papa and Granny’s house on the lake in Cherokee Village. I distinctly remember Jeff Lynne’s voice being one of the last pieces of the north we brought with us before only being able to tune into the car radio the sounds of folks like Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams, Jr., and Elvin Bishop—which by the way, I still love listening to today, as well.

Those days are still with me. The music is a big part of what keeps them cemented in the little compartments of my mind. The funny thing is, I don’t remember really liking the songs all that much back then. But now, I can’t get enough of them.

I suppose that while I’m saying this, a portion of the discussion we had in the adult Bible study yesterday comes to mind. I spoke at the beginning about the particulars of Lutheran worship and how important it is that we retain who and what we are as we so often find ourselves facing off with a culture trying to strip away our Christian identity and heritage. This stripping away can include seeing the liturgy as less than a blessing, as something boring and uneventful, rather than designed to set us before a loving God who desires to feed and care for us with His loving gifts. It can comprise a lack of embracing the church’s hymnody as precious, as something that becomes a part of us in ways that eventually allow for us not only to know favorite hymn stanzas, but to know the very hymn numbers, too. I suppose I would add to this that from a child’s perspective, just as the songs I mentioned above carry me back to good places in my life, the liturgy and hymnody have the potential for doing the same in a most important way.

But we have to be in the liturgy with regularity for this particular aspect to be true. I learned and remember all those songs because I heard them over and over again time after time. They are now so ingrained in my fiber that I can literally describe the various landscapes of my childhood by the end of the very first verse of each. The same goes for our lives in liturgy and hymnody. They connect us, and believe it or not, they find a way of working into and staying with us. In fact, just ask your kids to sing a part of the liturgy or to sing a portion of their favorite hymn. Even if they don’t necessarily show a glowing love for either, if they are immersed in it, they’ll do it with ease. If not, they’ll struggle. And either way it goes, it will be a valuable lesson for you as to the importance of the liturgy and hymnody of the church. These things teach the Christian faith. They put the Word of God right into the hearts and minds of parishioners in ways that are hard to forget. And when the kids hear them years from now, they’ll remember those days in the pews beside mom, dad, brother, and sister. And while they may not have necessarily liked it all that much then, they’ll most likely have a fondness of heart toward it, will have a lasting sense of the importance, and will want the same for their own little ones.

Keep At It, Mom and Dad!

I love the fact that we have so many children in worship these days. Indeed, it serves the heart well.

This is true because it means that when you look around the room, you’ll see moms and dads taking very seriously the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:19-20 where He instructs and emphasizes that Christians are actually made through the two-fold event of washing with water and the Word (Baptism) combined with a regular diet of all that the Lord has given (teaching). Baptism and teaching are inseparable parts of the same mandate.

To put this into perspective, if someone were to come to me and ask that I baptize his or her child, and yet would state an unwillingness to raise the child in the Christian faith, I would say no. I’d have to. Baptism and teaching go together. You can’t have one without the other.

So, when I look around the church during worship and I see the little ones with their parents, it always makes me smile. It reminds me of the living faith that Christ gave those parents in their baptism, and it points all of us to a horizon where we see the next generation equipped to do the same.

It also makes me want to help those families with children in any way that I can. It’s one reason why we supply the pews with those Kids in the Divine Service booklets, which are designed to be a helpful resource for teaching the “why we do what we do” of the life of faith in worship. It’s also why we encourage parents to take the kids out when they get a little rowdy but then to bring them back in as soon as they are ready. Sure, every kid gets restless, and so when they decide to bang the hymnal against the pew, or shout at the top of their lungs, or run their Tonka truck up and down the hardwood pew, that can be incredibly loud and distracting and it’s a good idea to take them out in respect of others. But once the appropriate recalibration has happened, get them right back into the church as soon as possible. The little ones belong in there with the rest of their Christian family—with their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Are there other things that we can do as a community to help parents? You bet! We can be sure to give mom a hug and say, “Keep at it, mom,” or give dad a pat on the back and say, “Good job, dad.” These gestures and words make a difference. I know they helped us when our kids were smaller.

Another thing to keep in mind (and it’s something that many folks with older children already know so well) is that so often parents of little ones feel as though they are working so hard and doing all they can just to get to and keep the child in worship, all the while feeling as though as parents, they aren’t getting anything out of the service because they’re so busy with the child.

This is a very real concern, and it’s one that when I hear it, I not only do what I can to encourage the parents—reminding them that this is a very important time in their life when faithfulness to Christ in holy worship looks and feels less like something spiritual and more like riot control. Still, they are being faithful to Christ in their service, and He by no means intends to leave the parents out of the blessings being bestowed to the whole Christian family in the worship setting. With this, I also try to remind them that the Word of God is so much more powerful than we often give credit. When it comes to worship, just being there, just being immersed in the liturgy which is entirely comprised of God’s holy Word, is by no means an empty experience for the Christian. To this, in a practical sense, I try to add that for most who come to worship regularly, the liturgy gets written into the heart and mind in a way that allows a mom or dad to do mom or dad things and still receive. Because of the liturgy, the service becomes more or less memorized, and now mom and dad can follow along and be fed without needing to juggle a hymnal, ordo, baby bottle, and infant all at the same time. They become people who live and breathe the words of worship, and what better example do we want to display for our kids than this?!

Thanks be to God for the little ones in our midst. Thanks be to God for the parents who stick with it, who give it their all to make sure that their baptized children are being raised in the Christian faith. “Therefore, my beloved brothers,” Paul said, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Of all efforts in the church, perhaps the job of parents doing all they can to get their kids to and keep them in worship is most appreciated by this text.

To such folks I say: Know that I’m rooting for you, and so are many others in our midst.