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The Curse Of Practicality

This article is written by Rev. Larry Peters, Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, TN

The curse of practicality. . .

In the modern world, the liturgy is often treated as a thing. It may be an important thing but it is still a thing, something to be done.  It is handled the way you would a meal.  It may be simple or it may be more elaborate but it is, underneath, a practical thing because we eat and eating is essential to life.  In this respect, it is easy to focus on the practicality of the liturgy or its basic function in such way that it gets boiled down to something minimalist. Lord knows, we have all eaten meals in which the focus was on quick, easy, and basic food that simply fills the stomach.  But we seldom want to make this the norm.  We need the nutrients but we also need more than simple nutrition.  We need the meal and not just the food.

Funny how when it comes to THE meal, Lutherans tend to be more minimalist in taste.  Lutherans, at least many Lutherans of late, have taken to seeing the ceremonies of the mass and the ritual to be non-essential and even antagonistic to the essential purpose of that Holy Supper.  We tend to think of these things as getting in the way of the focus on Christ.  Strange.  When it comes to eating, less is seldom more but when it comes to liturgy, it would seem that less is always more. 

This minimalist approach deals with the worship of God from the standpoint of what must be done.  The whole conversation about Lutheran worship seems to be a conversation of what is the least that must be present to satisfy Lutheran identity.  How strange that we would approach the largess of God giving us His Son in flesh and blood and this flesh and blood in bread and wine in minimalist terms!  Whether we speak in terms of adiaphora or whether we speak in terms of what is essential to Lutheran worship, the whole approach is rather dangerous.  The liturgy is not a thing but the place where God speaks in His Word and feeds us Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist.  It is not an indifferent thing even though certain aspects of church usage or ceremony may not be uniform from place to place.  The liturgy is not the place to be pragmatic. 

Chesterton reminds us that there is a difference between what is practical and practicable.
If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi)
There is little that is strictly practical in worship.  If it is practicality we seek, then the most practical shape of worship is individual and private and not corporate and public.  What is practical about coming together to hear together the Word preached -- especially in an age in which we can do everything at home and on our own?  What is practical about coming together to eat together the bread that is Christ's flesh and the wine that is His blood -- especially at a time when people have anything and everything delivered right to their door?  What is practical about candles when we have electric lights that turn on with a switch or singing hymns chosen by another when we have our own musical preferences?  What is practical about praying together when we have closets at home in which to pray? 

Before he was Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
A Church which only makes use of utility music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of glory, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos, itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in The Feast of Faith)  
The point is well made.  What is practical about the temple, the ark of the covenant, the worship of sacrifice and altar, the shape of priest and prophet, and prayer and praise?  We meet God not on our terms but on His, not where we desire but where He has placed His promise, and with the means God has chosen and not our preference.  We come pleading with Him for understanding before mystery that confuses and confounds us, begging for wisdom to repair our foolishness, and seeking nobility where we can furnish only mundane and ordinary.  God does not simply come to us in our poverty but makes us rich.  God does not merely make Himself known in ordinary flesh, Word, water, bread and wine, He makes these ordinary things extraordinary.  God does not merely meet us where we are but leaves us transformed by the majesty of His saving glory.  We are not left who we were but have become new.  That is what happens in the Divine Service. 

As we make our way through Lent, perhaps we ought to repent of our practical natures that seek the gift without the Giver, that ask God to listen without being willing to hear, that command God to think like us when we refuse to think like Him, and that seek to transform God to fit us without being transformed to be like Him.  It could very well begin in worship with our penchant for minimalism before a God who is lavish and our determination to be practical before a God who is so generously impractical -- yet who saves us in spite of ourselves!