For years I have been using the traditions and liturgy that I have received from my Lutheran mentors and forefathers in the faith. These things have been an important part of the way I plan and conduct services, though I don’t always follow them rigidly. Other Lutherans have expressed their appreciation for our traditional liturgy, too.
For anyone unfamiliar with the word “liturgy,” it refers to the structured order of worship, incorporating many different elements. Most of the elements are old. To Americans, anything older than a couple hundred years is positively ancient. By that measure, nearly all of the liturgy we use from week to week is ancient. Yet if you want to make a finer distinction, you will see that the parts of our liturgy come from just about every age between the First Century A.D. and the present. Most of these things are not exactly *required* by our faith. We use them voluntarily, for strong reasons. Quite a few Lutherans feel a close attachment to the orders of worship that they have used since childhood.
Some Lutherans have begun to follow the thinking that has taken American Protestant Christianity by storm, stemming from the so-called “Church Growth Movement.” That name has mostly passed on, but the root still lives in certain attempts to redefine the public face of the Church in order to win the interest, or at least the tolerance of the world. This is usually seen these days in so-called “contemporary worship” services. These services attempt to replace the traditional liturgical elements in the Christian service with contemporary equivalents, with the notion that the world will more easily understand and accept the message of the Gospel. A debate has been raging in some quarters about this shift, which may give the impression that it’s a new thing. It’s not really new. The same approach was noted in Jeroboam, son of Nebat, by a paper delivered at a recent ELS general pastoral conference. This article is not meant to be a part of that long debate. Yet the shift of emphasis that we see in so-called “contemporary worship” does highlight an important truth about our traditions and liturgy: they are not easily understood or appreciated by those who are unfamiliar with them. The same can be said for fine arts, like music.
The main content of our worship is simple. Our Lord God serves us there by bestowing upon us the forgiveness of our sins. Along with forgiveness come other blessings: comfort, strength of faith, fellowship, peace, joy, and even eternal life. Worship is about what God is doing for us, though superficially, it may seem to be the other way around. That’s what we mean by calling our worship the “Divine Service.”
The gift of God in Jesus Christ, which we receive in the Divine Service, is both profound and beautiful. The message may not be complicated, but it means a lot for every aspect of our lives. Yet the gift and the message that delivers it are both contrary to the priorities and thinking of the rest of the world. If you don’t believe the message to begin with, then it will be foreign to you, and you will resist it. In fact, even Christians who believe the message will find that the message is often hard to appreciate, despite its simplicity and beauty. In short, everyone has a tendency to bypass the message of forgiveness. This is a shame, because no other message provides the gift of God in Jesus Christ, and there is nothing more fundamentally precious for human beings than the forgiveness of our sins.
With these things in mind, I’d like to suggest a fine illustration, showing the importance of the Church’s tradition and liturgy. My father worked for some time in a frame-making shop in Sedona, Arizona. The company made many different kinds of frames for artwork. Some frames were complex, others simple. They all required the special expertise and techniques of that particular shop. The company had found a niche in the market because some people understood the importance of having an appropriate frame around the artwork they wished to display. Frames can cost thousands of dollars, and require many hours of work to build. It might seem like wasted effort, but not to the customers of that frame shop. For them, the frame was important because the artwork was important.
What happens when a masterpiece of fine art is displayed without a frame? Even more to the point, what if it were removed completely from the lighting and setting, even from the building or museum in which it would normally be displayed? The artwork itself is no different. Even the people who look at the artwork may be the same individuals who would have seen it in the museum, but the experience of the people might be entirely different. It would become harder to appreciate the artwork, despite its merits or virtues. The artwork might even be ignored completely.
The traditions and liturgy of the Church are an appropriate frame, hand-crafted over many lifetimes, to help us appreciate the main content of the Divine Service, and to help us receive it in faith with thanksgiving.
Not convinced? Consider [this experiment conducted by the Washington Post](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721_pf.html). I’ll summarize it for you, but please also read the article. You won’t be disappointed.
Joshua Bell is a name I didn’t know before reading the article. A native of Minnesota, Mr. Bell is a violin virtuoso, one of the top performers in the world. He plays every engagement on a Stradivarius made by the master himself, Antonio Stradivari, at the peak of his craft in 1713. Mr. Bell appreciates the genius of the great composers, and he brings to life the most challenging pieces of the music he loves. He is truly a master of the art in our day.
The Washington Post asked Mr. Bell to participate in an experiment. For forty minutes, he performed some of the best music ever written at a subway exit in Washington D.C., with his open case in front of him. For the most part, the passersby had no idea that they were listening to the world’s best music performed by one of the world’s best violinists, on a $3.5 million, nearly 300-year-old instrument. They were just on their way to work, or breakfast, or whatever. It was an extreme example of fine artwork without a frame. Again, the story is worth reading.
What happened with Mr. Bell is also a fine example of how the world regards the treasure of the Divine Service. The sublime beauty of God’s message is unequalled. The Gospel was the singular inspiration of Johann Sebastian Bach. This may sound like an overstatement, but the Gospel is an even greater treasure for humanity than Mr. Bell’s instrument or his rare talent. But when we take it out of its frame and place it into any old common setting, even the most extraordinary Gift becomes exceptionally hard to appreciate, and even harder to receive in faith.
The Gospel exists without any added human embellishment, and it remains God’s power for our salvation wherever it may be found (Rom. 1:16). It has that power within it, so that the Holy Spirit actually creates faith through the Gospel whenever it pleases Him to do so — even when the message appears in a common or profane setting. God and His Word do not need a frame to *give* the Gift of forgiveness, but when the Gift comes to us, we *receive* it best when it’s presented within an appropriate frame. The Gospel is like fine art, so that we are best able to recognize and appreciate it in its frame: the traditions and liturgy of the Christian Church. That frame is an important part of the Divine Service.
When Mr. Bell plays in a sold-out concert for people who have paid a minimum of $100 for the experience, it’s pretty safe to say that most of the audience appreciates what they hear. That’s when the artwork is in its frame, with the optimum lighting. Of course, there will also be a few who don’t fully understand what is happening. They may not realize the privilege they are enjoying, or the particular beauty of that performance.
When God’s Word is preached and the sacraments administered, something profound and beautiful is taking place: the salvation of those who hear, receive the gift, and believe it. It’s one of those things that we find hard to appreciate, even without the tendency of our sinful flesh to bypass God’s gifts. The faithful preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the sacraments identifies God’s Church on earth, where the Holy Spirit is at work to rescue sinners from everlasting punishment. If we want to get the most out of the experience and avoid passing it by, we need an appropriate frame. We happen to have received such a frame from our forefathers in the Church: the traditional liturgy. Our liturgy was hand-made from the finest materials and ingredients, sculpted by the loving hands of a hundred thousand Christians, and now it has been passed on to you and me. We aren’t *required* to use it, but considering the value of the Gospel itself, it just doesn’t seem like anything else will do. We need a frame for fine art.