Working at Worship

Yesterday, at the request of some of my parishioners, we didn’t use our normal format for worship (Divine Service Setting 1, page 151 of the Lutheran Service Book).  Divine Service Setting 1 is the service the congregation was using when I arrived five years ago.  Over the last five years as we transitioned to the LSB, I adjusted the worship a bit so that it was more in line with this service setting.  We’re not exact, but we’re pretty close.

But of course there are lots of other services in the LSB to choose from, and one that my parishioners requested is Matins.  I’ve used a stripped-down format of matins for off-site worship services where a full-scale service would be overkill.  The first eight or nine years of my life included this worship service, and I know the setting and the tunes pretty well even after all these years.  But I haven’t led it before, and our music director hasn’t played through it with us before.  I had high hopes that many of the congregants would remember the tunes after a few minutes.  Many of them did.

Still, it was awkward.  People were really working at worshiping, because they were not familiar with this setting so much anymore.  Afterwards in Bible Study we took time to talk through and process some of what we experienced, and I got to present (again) my theology on worship.

I’ve grown up in traditional liturgy – that’s where my oldest memories are formed.  In college I moved to a campus ministry and the new pastor there was a poet.  Every week almost, the liturgy varied.  All of the major liturgical elements were present – confession & absolution, the Word, the Sacraments, etc.  But the wording surrounding these elements was constantly changing.  I remember enjoying that, but now, over a decade since leaving that worshiping community, I can’t remember a single worship liturgy.  Well, I remember one – a liturgy written by the pastor’s best friend called Feast of Life.  I remember that one not only because it was beautiful, but because we did it several times a year and I could get familiar with it.

Parishioners over the years have shared how they can recite the Sunday liturgy by heart.  They know the tunes to the various liturgical settings.  They know the Offertory, they know the Nunc Dimittis.  These things can be a comfort, a reassurance in the midst of struggle.  These tunes and words come back to us – the words of Scripture set to music that is routinely utilized.  I imagine many regular Christian worshipers would be surprised to learn that they have memorized more of Scripture than they think, because the traditional worship settings draw their language almost exclusively from Scripture!

So I like repetition, because it helps lodge God’s Word in people’s mind.  On the other hand, I disagree with those who would idolize a particular worship setting.  Balance is always difficult to maintain!  I don’t have a problem with more creative liturgies that seek to make the major elements of historic Christian liturgy (Western, at least) more accessible to modern ears.  But that needs to be balanced with an acknowledgement that worship is not only about me and my preferences.  Worship is one of the most tangible links congregants have with the larger body of Christ, with the communion of the saints that has proceeded into glory ahead of us.  Worship unites us with 2000 years of Christians – at least it can.  And while we’re free to opt for new things, we would do well as a whole not to completely sever our liturgical links with the past.

I don’t like Matins so much because it omits things like Confession and Absolution.  In doing some historical research I learned that this is because Matins was originally 1/2 of a larger worship setting (the other half is Lauds).  But I think that it’s good to do different things now and then.  It helps shake us out of the reverie we are apt to fall into on Sunday mornings when things are predictable.  It forces us to concentrate on what we’re doing, what the words actually are.  This is good not in the sense of the Law, but rather just from a common-sense sort of standpoint of awareness.  Perhaps the difficulty in moving to a different liturgical setting is worth it, just so people think a bit more about what they’re doing and why.

Some folks didn’t like Matins.  Part of that has to do with change.  Part of that has to do with the awkwardness of adapting to something different.  The compromise I’ve settled on for now is that we’ll do Matins on fifth Sundays.  That will give us a chance to keep practicing, so that one day it won’t be so uncomfortable and awkward.

This theology of worship also helps explain why I utilize the 3-year lectionary, and why we pay attention to the liturgical seasons.  These are good and helpful things.  They give us other ways of thinking about the year, about the passage of time, about seasons.  They give us other things to look forward to, and provide an order that grows familiar and comfortable over time.  They keep me as the pastor from developing ruts in preaching and liturgy that suit my preferences.  They help ensure that the whole counsel of God is preached and experienced over the course of a year.

It’s OK to be uncomfortable when worshiping, but I know it isn’t fun.  I’m grateful that this congregation is willing to deal with some discomfort, even if it is somewhat of a familiar discomfort!

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