Keep your laws off my liturgy

“What is sung liturgy,” a friend asked me, a little freaked out at the words. This was in a conversation we were having where I was preparing her to attend church; a place she hasn’t been often in her life. I was hoping I didn’t have to sing the liturgy the week they came, because that would feel even more awkward than it already does to me.

I tried to explain: In church, we have these participatory dialogues, so it isn’t just about coming and sitting and listening to something. People participate in the dialogues, between the leader and the congregation, and sometimes they sing. I tried to demonstrate. “The Lord be with you” I sang. From the kitchen her partner responded, “and also with you” almost as if it hadn’t been 20 years since he last came to church.

She stared at us. “It’s a little weird, I know” I said. I continued the sung liturgy. Steve made up his own words in response. We started joking about how funny it would be if we all walked around singing at each other, and wondered what it would be like to have a “sung liturgy party” where you had to chant all of your conversations.

And so there is this tension in me (welcome to Lutheranism at its best). There is something cool about the fact that Steve can walk into a church 25 years later and know exactly what to do (if he wanted to). And then there’s the reality that it is still so far outside of his life that he likely won’t come back. And then there’s the woman next to him, so nervous about what will happen in this church service; what it will feel like when everyone around her is singing these dialogues they all know, standing up (did she miss the hand signal?) Some people say it is good that church is something set apart from what happens in the world—that’s what makes it sacred and safe. But those things just feel weird and not safe to another set of people. And who said all of life isn’t sacred, anyway? Why is it so important to separate them?

Perhaps it is not for me to say why it is so important to separate sacred from secular or profane or all of the rest of life—however you view it. Because there are people for whom this is an important distinction, and it is not for me to take that away. But I’d rather remove the walls that divide. Can we make space for that kind of understanding too?

Many pastors and liturgy professors speak about how you can’t know how the liturgy is working on you, and you can’t control how it works on others. I have experienced that. But I also think that liturgy can take on different forms, and it doesn’t need to be so far outside life experience outside of the church. My hope is that there is room for lots of understandings within this, lots of ways for good news to be proclaimed. I am pretty sure that when Jesus presided over the first/last supper it didn’t begin with him singing the opening dialogue from an LBW setting. (sorry for the Lutheran jargon: the short story is we have these books—Lutheran Book of Worship, or LBW–of hymns and orders of services, and each order of service is called a “setting.”) So we put formulas around these things and ritualize them. And that is a good thing, as long as it speaks the gospel in a particular time and place, instead of becoming law.

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