Liturgy — Brokenness, Forgiveness, Praise

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After posting about “Liturgy — Response to Forgiveness,” I reflected a lot about that post. I thought: “What have I done?” Not that I made a mistake in anything I had written. Rather that post could easily be seen as strengthening the argument against the use of liturgy. In practical language someone could say, “See, there the liturgy goes over my head and misses my heart.” And that is a problem. So let’s step back for a minute and put liturgy within the context of our brokenness, sinfulness, and the role of Church in all this. So this post is about brokenness, forgiveness, and praise from the perspective of how the Church is to be, and then how liturgy connects to that aspect of the life of the Church.

I read several blogs over the past two days that had to do with some brokenness in some devastating areas of life. Personal hurts, public sins, etc. One in particular, grace is for sinners, noted that the Church often is not a place for broken people. We don’t know how to deal with “them,” either from the stand point of the sin (i.e. Matthew 18 in practice) or from preconceived notions about how “we don’t want that kind of person here.” We don’t know how to forgive and restore people who have been broken by their sin. And yet, in each of the blogs, the constant was there: God’s work of accusing and condemning (Law) brought about spiritual death, but more importantly, God’s work of forgiving, renewing, and restoring (Gospel) brought new life.

So how does this relate to the liturgy? The liturgy is not separated from hard realities of life. In fact, the liturgy gives expression to the full realm of life, sin, death, resurrection, and new life. Our shared confession of sin in liturgy is God’s wake up call—for ALL of us. If I have sinned, even publicly, I’m broken when I hear God’s Law. If I stand aloof or indifferent while a fellow Christian is broken or suffers, I have sinned and must be broken by that Law (even though I might not feel it immediately). Confession unites us at the bottom of the pit. Absolution (forgiveness of sin) brings the forgiving, healing, restoring words from God himself. And thus Absolution unites us in Christ.

What would you do if someone was crying during the confession and absolution? Pretend that it isn’t happening, “it isn’t my responsibility,” look away because of embarrassment? Perhaps we have all been there. As we shift in liturgy to praise, that might be the exact time to stand next to the person who is crying. No words, but maybe a gentle touch on the arm, a hug, if appropriate, even your own tears. Some might think that such an action would “disrupt the solemnity of the liturgy.” My theological evaluation of that response is, “Hogwash!” That is the very heart of praise. A quietness shared in the midst of pain, a heart ready to share, a tear of consolation… isn’t that a response of praise? Maybe neither of them can even sing praise right now. And that is okay. But they are part of the praise community. It will bring us all along, in our time, in our way.

There have been times when I have not sung any of the praise responses, occasionally I couldn’t sing the praise. But I listened to everyone else sing and thus joined them. In that quietness my heart was praising, even though my lips were not moving. At times the praising was right at the edge—would I cry now? Men don’t cry! Would I have to leave in embarrassment? No, over the decades I have learned that men do cry (I’m a living example), and when we are talking about forgiveness of sins, that is not embarrassment, but a relief, a joy to be shared, a life to celebrate. God is at work in the most astounding way possible.

Brokenness, forgiveness, and praise then are at the heart of the liturgy. And liturgy is directed to the heart as well as the mind. I hope that we begin to see that liturgy does not obscure God, rather it forces us to deal with God. In stark terms as a “poor miserable sinner” and as “one forgiven and restored.” And that brings us to praise!


Liturgy — Response to Forgiveness

The pew edition of Lutheran Service Book
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What happens after we have received that tremendous gospel declaration, “Your sins are forgiven”? Here I will encounter a recurring problem: what terms should we use? One of the difficulties we have in the Lutheran Church is using Latin/Greek terms relative to worship and think that since we have done so for decades that “everyone knows what that is.” The reality is most people do not know. Pastors, this is a call for us to teach, teach, teach. At the same time, these Latin/Greek terms express in shorthand the essence of a phrase or hymn. Thus, I have used the terms here but with explanations. BTW the latest hymnal from the LCMS, Lutheran Service Book (LSB) offers an excellent service for worshipers by including both the original Greek/Latin terms and a translation. Likewise, LSB provides the Scripture references for every response.

After the declaration of forgiveness, the service moves us to the appropriate response, which includes three major parts: Introit (Psalm)/Entrance Hymn, Kyrie (“O Lord”), and Hymn of Praise. One of the sad things that has crept into the church is that pastors and congregations often move the hymns of praise (praise songs) prior to the Invocation. This change moves the praise away from a response to the Gospel and to become almost a “pep session” to get us in the mood for worship.

Introit: “The Introit marks the beginning of the church service proper. The word Introit means entrance, so called because it was chanted while the officiating clergyman entered the chancel and took his place before the altar” (Walter Buszin, The Concordia Liturgical Series for Church Choirs: The Introits for the Church Year, CPH: 1942). Traditionally the Introit includes three parts: antiphon (response sung by congregation or choir), Psalm verse, and Gloria Patri (“Glory to the Father”). The antiphon highlights the theme for the Sunday.

Kyrie eleison (“O Lord, have mercy”): This is a series of petitions and invitations for all worshipers to call upon the Lord. These responses are often chanted, which I find very comforting and inviting for worship. Of course, chanting is not required, but is a historic practice of singing Scripture texts.

Hymn of Praise: The texts for these hymns vary considerably. A traditional one “Gloria in Excelsis” (“Glory to God in the highest”) is based on Luke 2:14 and John 1:29. More recently, “This is the feast” is based on Revelation 5:12-13 and 19:5-9. I think this is the place where some of the (appropriate) contemporary praise songs could be incorporated. However, just stringing together some contemporary songs does not do justice to this section of worship. Rather, a smooth transition between 2-3 praise songs could be effectively used to enhance the service and reflect the interaction between God’s work and our responses. I have seen this done very well as suits the worship environment.


Liturgy — Confession and Absolution

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Sometimes I am asked why we have the Confession and Absolution(C/A) as part of every divine service (this does not include Martins, Vespers, midweek, etc.). Sometimes the question reflects an attitude of offense: “I haven’t been that bad.” Or indifference: “It doesn’t seem to add much to the service.” Whether it is offense, indifference, or ignorance, it is not a bad question. It forces us to wrestle with why exactly do we include C/A in every service.

I respond that each of us comes to worship with different experiences. Some of us have had a relatively good week; the wife is happy, the kids are okay, and I didn’t even yell at the dog. The implication is that Confession forces me to do something that doesn’t apply to me, at least today. The reality, however, is that no matter how we view how well our week went we have indeed sinned. If not the “big, outward sins” then at the very least, pride in that fact that “I am not THAT bad (this week).” Confession forces us to come to grips with who we really are, “poor sinful humans” who through even one sinful act, through one sinful thought, through one sinful word deserve God’s wrath (James 2:10). Even deeper, even if I cannot identify one actual sin, my sinful self does not want to accept the truth of what I am, a poor sinner before a just and holy God. We join the Pharisee who stated “Thank God I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). Confession may not be pleasant, but it is necessary. It puts every person at the same level, accused and condemned before God. Unless we have seen ourselves condemned under the Law we cannot hear the Gospel.

The other side of C/A is also critical; that is, the forgiveness of sins achieved because of what Christ has done is not only announced but declared. In speech-act theory this is called “performative speech,” that is, by speaking the words, it accomplishes what it says. When the pastor declares “I forgive you your sins in the name of Jesus Christ,” he is not giving you good information, but the very words are giving what they say, the forgiveness of sins.

This is critical for the person who comes to worship and has been “beaten up by life.” This person is only too familiar with the accusations of the Law, and repeated in the Confession. She may be so overwhelmed by this that she might be tempted to think that “this forgiveness is nice, but it must not be for someone like me.” While we put many faces on exterior, it is often astounding to realize how many people feel this way. We join the Publican unable even to lift our eyes to heaven and mumble, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Now the declarative nature of the forgiveness comes to forefront. As the pastor speaks the words God actually forgives the person. This is not information or Bible class material, but words of life, hope, and comfort. God has forgiven your sins — right now!

I encourage people not to rush through either aspect of Confession and Absolution. It is appropriate to take a time of silence to reflect on our sins, to see how horrible we are before God. But even more important to be brought back to life through the Gospel, “your sins are forgiven!” This transform us to move into our hymn(s) of praise so that we can praise God with forgiven, renewed, and restored hearts that truly desire to sing praises to our God.

More on Liturgy

There are parts of the liturgy that remain the same and some that change each week. Regardless, the use of the liturgy invites a common thread over a period of time, not as a straight jacket, but a means to confess the faith faithfully in Word, Sacrament, worship, prayers, etc. While a liturgical church often uses a hymnal, that is not a requirement. In reality, what I have found over the decades (some of which was wandering through the non-denominational route) is that liturgy gets us away from I have noticed: the desire or need or fear that we have to “come up with something new every week.” The common liturgical form allows stability (not my whims) but also freedom. There is also the “catholic confession of the Christian church” that unites us with Christians not just around the world, but throughout history.

Note that by following the three year lectionary cycle the congregation reads / hears about 75% of the entire Bible. How can that be bad? Most Protestant churches I have encountered in worship cover maybe 10-20% of the Bible. I’ll take the lectionary any day, rather than “What do I want to select this week?” The lectionary is set up with readings from Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel, as well as a Psalm of the Day. The three year series follows Series A (Matthew), Series B (Mark, John), and Series C (Luke). The first half of the church year (1st Sunday of Advent through Pentecost) is focused on the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, while the second half of the church year focuses on the growth of the church. Colors (paraments on the altar/pulpit and stole) help identify the season: Advent (purple or blue), Christmas (white), Epiphany season (green), Lent (purple), Easter (white), and the rest of the year green. Special festivals (red).

BTW over the years as I have taught congregations (and now pastors), I have discovered so many misconceptions about liturgy. When I finish Adult Instruction class in congregations (26 weeks long; the only Book allowed in class is the Bible), the common response is always: 1) What do we study next? 2) I truly appreciate the liturgy now, and 3) Can we receive the Lord’s Supper every Sunday?

“A Liturgical kind of guy”

On another blog, I was asked what liturgy means. I posted a short response there, and repeat it here (slightly edited) because I think it is crucial for us as Lutherans to state where we stand on this issue.

Liturgy = informally described as what is done in a worship service. Even non-denominational churches that claim to be non-liturgical have liturgy. It is just what you do repeatedly service after service. I taught 10 years ago at a Bible college run by charismatics, held at a cutting edge charismatic church. For the worship class, I asked the class members to notice carefully what happened during each service. They were astounded to discover that they were much more rigid in what happened during their service than what is often caricatured as a conservative Lutheran service.

As Lutherans, we specifically state that the proper term for what happens is Gottes Dienst (“divine service”), meaning that God is the primary actor coming to us in Word and Sacrament. We respond to his initiative with praise and thanksgiving. Thus, the Invocation (“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”), the words of our Baptism, are spoken as the saving-God in Baptism now invites us to come into his presence. Note carefully that we do NOT start our service with the generic Protestant rubric: “We make our beginning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To do that reverses the order, putting ourselves as the initiators. The service ends with the Benediction (typically Numbers 6:24-26) in which the “divine service” continues as we leave. Everything that God has done for us, forgiving our sins, strengthening, encouraging, etc. through Word and Sacrament now goes with us until we gather again at the invitation of our saving God. Thus God begins our liturgy and God ends our liturgy… kind of like His saving work.

There’s much more, but I hope you understand a little of what I mean by being a liturgical kind of guy.

Series A — 2nd Sunday After Epiphany

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
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Gospel reading: John 1:29-42

What is the measure of success? In the world, that can be seen in terms of money, power, influence, and the list goes on. Sometimes we in the Church get caught up in the same kind of measuring process. Statistics become more important than people, sanctuary size is above loving them, budget crises outweigh ministering to them, and not offending people pushes out true teaching of them.

This Gospel reading offers us a glimpse of success from God’s perspective. John the Baptizer had everything — a from a worldly perspective. He could speak and even kings trembled. People marveled at his words and life. They considered him a prophet, no, even more than a prophet. He had it made.

But in this text, John shows that his success is tied to one greater than he, Jesus. Thus, when John sees Jesus he identifies him as the one whom he baptized (out of the multitudes!). But he was different, because John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus. The next day he is more direct; he points his own disciples toward Jesus (John 1:35). In other words, “he must increase and I must decrease!” (John 3:30).

Are we willing to be in that kind of partnership in the kingdom? Will we point people to Jesus, or is it a split decision? Will my own needs for survival allow me to decrease so that Christ might increase? Where is my ministry focus?

Epiphany Season

Epiphany season is like Advent, often forgotten and overlooked, especially since it is sandwiched between Christmas and Lent.

This year it might be good to look at the Epiphany season, because it is the longest that it will ever be. The number of Sundays after Epiphany varies each year depending on the date of Easter. Some years there are only four or five Sundays, but in 2011, there are nine Sundays after Epiphany (Jan 9, 16, 23, 30, Feb 6, 13, 20, 27, Mar 6).

Epiphany (“showing forth”) season reveals who Jesus is, starting with the visit of the magi (Jan. 6) and culminating in the Transfirguation. That revelation of Jesus continues even today through the witness of the Church.

I think it significant that Isaiah, the primary Old Testament reading during Advent (Series A), is also the primary Old Testament reading during this season. Particularly on Jan. 16, the reading is Isaiah 49:1-7, of which 49:6 is critical in the book of Acts.

Isaiah 49:6
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
                to raise up the tribes of Jacob
                and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
         I will make you as a light for the nations,
                that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The last two lines are used by Luke to see the fulfillment and extension of that prophecy in Luke and Acts: Luke 2:32, Acts 13:47. See David Pao (Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, Baker, 2002) for further details on this.

Just some thoughts at the beginning of this great season.

Advent A OT (Series A)

Advent 3 OT (Series A)
Isaiah 35: The judgment on the nations in Isaiah 34 gives way to a vision of God’s restoring work in Isaiah 35. The imagery covers many aspects of change. The changed landscape (“wilderness and desert blossom abundantly”). Encouragement to those who are ready to give up (“Strengthen the weak”). Reversing the effects of sin (“eyes of blind opened… the lame shall leap”). The result is that Yahweh brings the people back to Zion, and they sing with everlasting joy.

For those in Judah who were experiencing and would experience the pain of separation from God because of their sin, these prophecies held out hope in “impossible situations.” How do we view something like this? To many of us in the U.S., who live in relative physical luxury, these promises of God’s restorative work do not excite much hope or passion for the future or God’s work. Yet when we strip away our masks and see ourselves and our lives as they really are, then we see that the future we planned is but a pale shadow of what God desires for our future.

God’s restoring work involves the totality of creation because everything was ruined in Adam’s sin (relationships with God, within ourselves, with others, and with creation). In Jesus, we see the fulfillment “in principle” (Voelz) of all these prophecies (see the Gospel reading). Thus, these promises are real and valid when seen in fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We will join in the everlasting singing going to Zion, God’s dwelling place in heaven.

Discipleship Intro

The following posts will offer some thoughts about discipleship from a Lutheran perspective.


As a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, Who is the Head of the Church, we have been granted great and precious promises, namely, the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of everlasting life in heaven. This means more, however, than attending worship services occasionally. As a member of the Body of Christ, we are a branch grafted into the Vine, Jesus Christ. Our life and health are tied to Him.

We as Christians have agreed to walk together in faith. We support, encourage, ex­hort, and rebuke one another—always in love. We also seek together to do the will of our heavenly Father. The primary task of the Church is to worship God and make disciples. That can be done only through a Word and Sacrament ministry (see Matthew 28:18–20). Every Christian is to be involved in the disciple-making process. God gives us the vision, the resources, and the strength for this most important work.

Continuity of Faith Expression

I have been working on this topic for some time, from professional interest and from a practical application. With so much innovation in worship, there seems to be little continuity even within one congregation. But this is really on the tip of the iceberg. The issue affects worship, catechesis, Bible translation, Bible study, memory work, daily devotional life, etc.

Worship: It makes a difference that there is a commonality of faith expression within the same worship community. By having that common faith expression, we can share the Biblical heritage as well as the worship heritage over the centuries. “Homemade liturgies” might be appealing for a while, but novelty doe snot have staying power. The various forms of the historic liturgy provide more than enough variety with the added advantage of continuing the faith expression of the centuries. The latest hymnal from CPH (Lutheran Service Book, LSB, 2006)  is perhaps the best English language resource available because it gives the historic sense and continuity.

Catechesis: Sadly this area is neglected even among Lutherans who confess the Christian faith. Memory work does not have to be drudgery, does not have to be intimidating, and should not be neglected. Luther’s explanations are fine examples of how to compose material for easy memorization (it works in German, obviously, but also in English translation). Pastors are to be encouraged to have parents and children memorize the catechism. In fact, why not have the whole congregation participate in learning the catechism by heart?

Bible translation: In English we have been blessed with many translations… In English we have been cursed with many translations. The latest figure is around 75 English translations available on the marker today. While from a study perspective such abundance is beneficial, from a continuity of faith expression such abundance is actually a hindrance. Sadly many translations have not been focused on the rhythm and cadence of the translation making it usable for musical and liturgical expression as well as understood by the majority of worshipers. For instance, NIV has been used because of its readability, but it is not as useful for liturgical work. ESV fits better into the liturgical framework and historical continuity of faith expression, but in some (many?) places it is not a good translations for the average Bible reader.

I could go on, but the key thought is that every aspect of the Christian life is affected by being “in Christ.” That includes the faith expression of the gathered believers, the devotional life, the catechetical instruction, and the prayer life.