I grew up worshipping from the third to last pew on the pulpit side of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. I often occupied this space with my parents, grandparents, and siblings. Other relatives were spread throughout the sanctuary. It was a big congregation, still is, so many others were, though not blood relatives, brothers and sisters in Christ, the extended family of the church.
Inhabiting that space week after week did something to me. I still carry the effects in my body, literally. I do not need to open a hymnal in order to chant any of the three liturgies included in the Lutheran Book of Worship. Just loft a few notes on the organ, and I'm in. My brain has been permanently inscribed by the the repeated exercise of that familiar liturgy.
By the time I was in high school, I often sub-vocalized the assisting minister and presider parts, one of many early signs I had that perhaps pastoral ministry was my calling.
St. Paul was also a choir church. I sang in a Sunday school choir, a middle school choir, and a high school choir. Our high school choir even toured the Midwest. We took our anthem preparations seriously. I was at church every Sunday morning for worship and Sunday school, every Sunday evening for youth group, and every Wednesday night for choir.
It was in that choir that I learned many of the songs our denomination has grown into, perhaps especially African hymnody that has come into the songbook of the global church via the ecumenical movement. I have Bishop Mike Rinehart to thank for the exposure to those fantastic songs of the church. He was my youth pastor, and choir director.
Why do I tell you all this? Well, lately I have been pondering liturgy. Of course I ponder liturgy all the time. I'm a pastor, after all. My current congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has a rich pattern for liturgical and contemporary worship, facilitated by an amazing set of volunteers (a band and tech support) at the contemporary service, and led by the multi-talented Dr. Robert Mueller with multiple ensembles and instrumentalists at the traditional.
This shift to hosting contemporary worship is something I did not even imagine when I was young. I saw it emerge at St. Paul some time in my seminary years. Now St. Paul has a contemporary service also, attended by a significant percentage of the congregation. My brother sings in the praise band.
Congregations haven't always known what to do with this development in the diversity of worship styles in their own congregations. Sometimes they have approached it as an either/or rather than a both/and.
Going back to my own formative years as a child, one reason I have never struggled at all with the diversity of styles of worship in the church is simple: I spent every summer at camp. So I learned the chant, high liturgy on Sundays during the year, and in the summer I learned the liturgy of guitar, campfire, and s'mores (and mosquitoes).
I still sing songs I learned at that campfire as part of our bedtime routine with our own children. Like the chant of the liturgy, those songs are written on the neurons of my plastic brain. I have the feeling that even if all my other capacities slip away, I'll probably still be able to pray the Lord's Prayer automatically, and sing Father, I Adore You.
Liturgy is a mysterious thing. I'm often reminded of those famous words of Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm:
The higher Christian churches - where, if anywhere, I belong - come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.Yes, this is how we approach liturgy most Sundays. We enter that room, break that bread, wind up that organ, and safely assume God will not strike us down. Perhaps this is why liturgical church is, to some degree, intentionally boring. As another great essayist, James Alison, has it:
When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It's a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn't abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we've been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down.Liturgy is intentionally underwhelming so as not to be confused with the build-up of sacrifice. Perhaps here we might say that a sacrifice in contemporary idiom might be a college football game, or a presidential election, or...
All of that being said, there are more and less compelling ways to host liturgy. Although the beauty of structured liturgy is its rote, familiar repetition, there is a way to speak and sing the liturgy that teases out the sublimity of non-identical repetition. I hope to keep singing setting II of the LBW (which is now setting IV in the ELW) for decades to come, but my deepest hope for liturgy is to sing it so it is the same/not the same.
I think choirs and those who practice liturgical music get this. They rehearse specific refrains, lines, over and over, considering the nuance of the same lines sung not the same way. It's about tone, and breath, and pause.
This is why I often wonder what those who don't sing in worship get from the church's song. Like any other discipline, there's that stage where you simply don't know what you don't know. Our music director writes many of his own anthems for the choir to sing. I recognize the beauty of the music he writes. But since I haven't written much music, I'm sure there's quite a lot I don't notice as clearly as those who do write music.
They say there are health benefits to singing in a choir. This makes sense. The intentionality of being with others engaging in a shared task, breathing together, praising together, it is like communal meditation.
The congregation also benefits from a choir. We all sound better with a choir undergirding us. Like any art, the heights of what is possible are scaled by those who are intentional, persistent, long-suffering, and hearty. To scale such great heights, to approach the throne of God, requires a humility dressed in song.
I think worship has been made even more complex in these latter days by what I guess we might as well call globalization. I don't know if many congregations can keep doing what my home church did when I was growing up. The chant and style of worship at that time assumed a homogeneity of culture that no longer exists. With the decline of such homogeneity, there is a loss. The loss is the less frequent possibility of being able to travel from place to place and find pretty much the same thing you have back home.
But the gain is an experience of the breadth of culture the gospel can inhabit in its varied multiplicity. Although we will all, by nature of our brains, have particular styles of worship that are closer, literally, to our hearts, it is the nature of the global church that it is teaching our hearts to sing the tunes that others cherish in praise of the One God, in ways that resonate with our own.
This, at least in part, is liturgy.