We were gone on our recent vacation for two weeks, but for three Sundays. Each Sunday brought us to a different LCMS church: the first was to visit Pastor Matt in RI, the second was to meet my mom’s former interim pastor in Oshkosh, WI, and the third was the church where I grew up in Union Grove, WI, which has had a new pastor since February. Although none of them were my home church and my own pastor, I felt very comfortable in each church that we visited, and I still felt very connected to my home church.
I wondered why this was so. Was it the friendly people we met? The nice, welcoming pastors? The hymns? Then I realized, really it was all through the liturgy. Each church that we went to was using a different setting of our excellent LCMS hymnal Lutheran Service Book (settings 4, 1, and 3 respectively), but all settings have the same elements, with variations in music or wording sometimes. We have used almost all the settings of the Divine Service in our church. It is a refreshing comfort to go to a church that is doing the historic liturgy that you know and love, even though you’re far from home, even though it’s not your pastor. It feels like being home away from home.
One thing I’ve noticed while traveling is because of the liturgy, you don’t even have to KNOW personally the pastor you’re visiting. What he is telling me when he uses the liturgy is that he agrees with the teachings of the LCMS church so much that he will use the synod hymnal, and he will preach on the day’s assigned readings. After that, it doesn’t really matter who he is–he’s just someone who’s delivering the real goodness to me: Jesus.
It’s when we go to a church that doesn’t use the historic liturgy that we have to contend with the personality and beliefs of the pastor. If he’s using a blended service, I usually end up being a bit suspicious. If he’s willing to compromise on the liturgy, where else is he willing to compromise in his theology? That brings me doubt and uncertainty. If he has a praise service (and we usually go many lengths to avoid those), that just brings me discomfort and sadness…because I don’t know how he’s Lutheran or how these praise songs are Lutheran at all. And I probably am so uncomfortable with this kind of service (and a sermon that accompanies a praise service, more often than not, is very law-driven) that I won’t commune. Doubt and uncertainty…this is not Lutheran.
Not that many people know that it was the liturgy that really brought me back into confessional Lutheranism. While attending our previous church, which used a blended service, I began yearning for the liturgy that I had grown up with. “Oh Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.” (Agnus Dei) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with me. Cast me not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit.” (The Offertory) “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou has prepared before the face of all people…” (Nunc Dimittis)
I wanted to ask God to have mercy upon me. Then I wanted God to restore to me the joy of my salvation. I wanted Him to feed me forgiveness and grace in His Supper, and then I wanted Him to tell me to depart in peace. I suppose God could have done all that without restoring to me the joy of the liturgy, but He didn’t. Because ultimately, the liturgy is His Word, and there is no joy apart from His Word. There is no joy and peace for me on Sunday if I have to contend with a pastor’s personality and question his theology, if I have to wonder if this is an LCMS church at which I should commune. The joy comes when the pastor is willing to put himself, his glory, his accolades, his wit, his honor aside and let Jesus give His gifts to us through him.
So I am grateful to Pastor Matt, Pastor Mark, Pastor David, Pastor Jeff and to all the other pastors who set aside themselves and give us Jesus through the liturgy. You are giving us the most precious gift of all. Thank you. “I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh always dwells secure.” Psalm 15