09 September 2008

A Liturgical Guy

A friend and colleague at our circuit pastors' winkel posed a question to me yesterday, prefaced by the comment: "You're a liturgical guy." My instant response was, "Aren't we all?" I meant that sincerely, but I could tell that not everyone took it that way. You know how you can feel the stiffening of backs, the twitching of muscles, the hairs standing on end in a room around you? Well, there was some of that. I suppose there were brothers present who thought I was being cute or condescending, and I'm sorry to have given that impression. I honestly meant what I said. Aren't we all liturgical guys? Isn't that what a pastor is to be?

But that isn't what my colleague meant by his comment. In retrospect, I think he was acknowledging the fact that I care about the history and significance of liturgical practices, that I've studied these things and know something about them. It's true that I have. It's funny, though, that I typically don't think of myself in those terms. I'm a pastor, and I set myself to be about the things of Christ in His Church. My liturgical studies have been and are a part of that, and I simply bring them to bear on doing the same things that all of my colleagues are likewise given to do.

At other times, I think there are those who would describe me and my kindred spirits as "liturgical guys," with reference to a certain style or aesthetic. I understand that, too, and I suspect that's what the other brothers at the winkel were thinking when I immediately replied, "Aren't we all?" Whether positively or negatively, being "liturgical" in this sense is viewed as a focus on particular ceremonial practices, a reverence before God and a respect of the traditions of the Church. I'll gladly own all of those characteristics, too, but I don't prefer to define being "liturgical" in such terms. More or less ceremonies do not make one "liturgical."

Tradition is generally a good thing, and I'll opt for the traditional over novelty most of the time, but tradition is not in itself a guarantee of orthodoxy, and the fact remains that our gracious Lord continues to give good gifts to His Church on earth. Love ought to guide our use (or non use) of tradition and ceremony and every other sort of adiaphora (those things which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God). Reverence before God is an aspect of repentant faith; it belongs to the First Commandment and to the humility by which one enters the Kingdom of God. However, such reverence is a bowing of the heart before it is a bowing of the head or a bending of the knee. It can be masqueraded on the outside, or hidden in the heart in pious humility, and I am not given to discern such mysteries in others. I am given to deal with my neighbor according to the confession of the Word of God, not by a standard of outward piety that belongs to the freedom of the Gospel. Apart from those neighbors for whom I am responsible, I am simply given to live by faith and serve in love. My concern is for my own piety and confession, and for the way these may serve and assist my neighbor. A good example will be more compelling than attempted constraint, in any case.

When I use the word "liturgical," and so also when I hear it, I understand it with reference to the Ministry of the Gospel. That is how our Lutheran Confessions define the term, "Liturgy," as being in accord with the Holy Ministry. We could also speak of the Divine Service. These several terms, "Liturgy," "Ministry" and "Service" are practically synonymous, though each may accentuate a different nuance. They are "holy" and "divine" because each refers to the work of God on behalf of His people, and to the ways and means by which He carries out that work with His Word. The "Liturgy," as I have frequently expressed over the years, refers to the Gospel-being-preached and to the Sacraments-being-administered. These are the work of the Holy Ministry, the fundamental order and content of the Divine Service, and the foundational defining heart of the Church. To be "liturgical" is simply to be evangelical in the most tangible and practical of ways, that is, to be about the preaching of Christ and the giving of His gifts according to His divine command, for the blessing and benefit of His people. A Minister of the Gospel will be "liturgical" in a special sense, by faithfully doing this good work that he is given to do by his divine vocation. Any Christian will be "liturgical" in the sense of faith in the Gospel, availing himself of the means of grace, hearing the Word preached, receiving the Sacrament regularly and reverently, all of this in repentance.

To be "liturgical" means that faith and life derive from and return to the Word and work of Christ: where two or three of His baptized little ones are gathered together "in His Name," that is, gathered together by and for His Word of the Gospel. Being "liturgical," therefore, means giving attention to the faithful preaching of Christ and to the faithful administration of His body and blood to His disciples. These are the chief duties of the pastoral office, to which every pastor is called and ordained by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Which is why I am quite honored to be and to be called a "liturgical guy," and why I assume that each of my colleagues in the Office of the Holy Ministry is also a "liturgical guy."

Where we differ in our use of rites, rubrics, ceremonies, hymns and traditions, there we should be asking each other (and challenging ourselves) how we might better serve our respective congregations and the Church on earth. How may we confess the faith and love the brethren more faithfully and clearly? Where does the freedom of the Gospel commend us to charity, so that differences in fasting do not divide the body of Christ? Where does love compel us to call a brother to repentance for the sake of winning that brother, and that the Gospel may everywhere abound? Where must each of us repent and do better? These are the questions of a "liturgical guy."

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