CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©
We did not understand a single word that was said in that worship service, yet Helen and I agree that it was one of the most powerful and moving worship experiences we’ve ever had. No, not our worship at St. Mark’s UMC last Sunday, or today. That’s good worship, powerful and moving, but I do understand the words.
The time I did not understand the words was in Budapest, Hungary, before the end of the Cold War. It was a big old Catholic cathedral. Most of the other people there were “security,” sullen men in cheap suits who stood and slouched against the pillars and tried to look menacing. They were there mostly for intimidation, to try to make people afraid to worship at all. It didn’t work, not against the priest, nor against the small group of Hungarians gathered for worship, nor against us.
We did not understand a single word, but we worshipped. We understood the meaning of the words even though we did not understand the words.
Methodism is a direct descendent of Anglicanism, which is Roman Catholicism without the Pope. John Wesley, the originator of Methodism, was a priest of England. He did not change the ritual of the worship, just made it available for poor people, and put a greater emphasis upon preaching. So for Helen and me, that Budapest worship, in the dark shadow of Communist malevolence, was “our” worship. We knew the ritual even though we did not know the language.
That is one of the values of ritual.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founder and pastor of the Lutheran House for All Sinners and Saints, says that what her congregation likes most is that they don’t have a praise band. Almost her entire congregation is people not welcome in traditional churches, junkies and drunks and transvestites and parolees and gays and homeless, some of them all those things. Their lives are chaotic. When they come to church, they want something that they can count on, something the same from week to week, the Lutheran ritual straight out of the Lutheran hymnal.
Most of us have less chaotic lives than the folks at House for All, but we need ritual. When the sermon misses the mark, when the hymn melodies are unsingable or their theology untenable, we can count on the words of the ritual to recount God’s action in the world in a way that pulls us toward the altar as a magnet pulls iron filings.
C.S. Lewis said the purpose of ritual is to set our minds free so the Holy Spirit can work in them.
I like new stuff in worship. I like praise bands and praise songs, if they do good music and have good theology. I like drama and liturgical dance and impromptu dance and all the other stuff. But there are days when none of that speaks to me. Then the ritual is a gift. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
John Robert McFarland
I started this blog several years ago, when we lived in the “place of winter” in the title, Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP], where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] May 18, 2015 we started moving “home,” to Bloomington, IN.
I tweet as yooper1721.