18 April 2013

The Language of Worship

I’ve read that language can shape how we think, as well as how we speak. From my own limited foreign language experience, I tend to think that’s true. German is a highly structured language compared to English, requiring the poor English speaker to memorize dozens of endings for each word, so that each part of speech is properly categorized and matched within the sentence. Spelling is consistent—what you see is what you get. On a visit to Germany in college, I impressed the lady sitting next to me at church with my German. I admitted, sheepishly, in English, that my German was actually very limited. But I could sing a hymn or read a prayer with the best of them, because I knew how to pronounce everything. English, in contrast, greedily poaches words from other languages, pronounces them as it will, and never changes the spelling. Thus, English words have an unpredictability that makes spelling bees a real challenge.

One may argue that the German culture is similarly structured, with defined roles—and rules—to an extent that can seem fussy and even overbearing to us casual, careless  Americans. The ubiquity of American media—as well as near-universal English study at young ages, I would posit—may have “softened” some of the overt social formality in younger generations, but it still exists.  

Recently, we attended Palm Sunday services with my parents in my hometown.  They currently attend a United Methodist church, a recent change for them. Although I grew up “in” a UM church, my parents switched to a Lutheran church years ago, and I, of course, have been a Lutheran since just after I married in 1992. So it’s been a very long time since I worshiped in a United Methodist church. I wondered whether I would feel “at home” despite my long sojourn as a Lutheran, and in some ways, I did. The hymns were all very familiar, the same hymns I sang as a child and teenager—especially “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” which I still have nearly memorized. But the service—even the sermon—felt different in a way that surprised me.

I “converted” (does one convert from one Protestant denomination to another? Seems a strong word when much basic theology remains the same.) to the Lutheran church just after hubby and I got married. He was raised in the Lutheran church and feels comfortable there. But I didn’t switch just for him. I fell in love with the Lutheran liturgy—the ancient and evocative  words, the eerie chanting, the emphasis on Scripture and on Communion. And the foundational Lutheran theology of grace, grace, grace.  Imperfectly lived out, for sure, but one of the understandings on which Lutheran theology and culture rests.

Traditional Lutheran liturgy differs only slightly from Catholic and Episcopal liturgy (though our theologies have more significant differences), and through the Catholic tradition, reaches back into the earliest days of Christianity. Much of the words are taken from Scripture, soarguably the liturgy reaches back even further… to John seeing visions on the island of Patmos (“Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain”), to Simeon holding the baby Jesus (“Lord, let your servant depart in peace”), to David and the Psalms. The liturgy, to me, feels dense with mystery and meaning and history. I slip into it when the service begins, like a comfortable garment. I’m familiar with the order, the movement through the service, the words that seem to echo through the ages and around the world. I am a part of a long line of believers, a tapestry knit together over time and space, singing or reciting or praying the same words, in many languages.

The Methodist worship, in contrast, seemed pared down, simplified. Much less standing, no kneeling. A hymn, a prayer, a reading, a sermon. The service felt open. It had more space, less density. Instead of a layered, woven tapestry, it was a line of polished stepping-stones, each one defined and solid. Few congregational responses, other than hymns. And I thought of Methodist history, of John Wesley and circuit preachers on horseback in the American wilderness, stopping to preach, to sing, to pray with plain-talking, work-hardened pioneers. That the Methodists tend toward minimal liturgy makes sense in the light of their history as well.

Circling around again to languages, I come to my mother, who sees the two services differently than I do. She finds the Lutheran liturgy repetitive, boring, and therefore doesn’t find the same meaning and comfort in it that I do.  I have no real complaints about the Methodist service, other than it seems less participatory, more focused on what’s “up front.” But I do prefer the liturgy.

Of course, the reason we have so many denominations is generally not a good one—despite Jesus’s repeated pleas and prayers that his followers be marked by love and unity, the Church became many churches because of our inability to agree or to tolerate disagreement. But perhaps one of the blessings of having many “flavors” of Christianity is that we also have many languages of worship. Those of us who find meaning in familiar words, in chanting, in kneeling and standing and sitting, can worship God in the language of liturgy. Those of us who find meaning in simplicity, in hymns, in the quiet spaces between prayers, can worship God in their language. And other languages too, the language of a joyful gospel choir and call-and-response; the language of guitars and drums and raising hands to the sky; the language of laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. All are different, and yet all are for the same purpose: to worship the One who made us.

And, someday, I believe, we will worship all together—in every language, in every tongue. Us liturgical folks will be kneeling and murmuring the Lord’s Prayer, and the Pentecostals will be shouting and dancing, and the contemporary praise bands will be playing loud and fast, and the United Methodists will be “telling that old, old story,” in English and German and Spanish and Farsi and Hindi and on and on, and our separate worship languages will harmonize into one song, THE Song. And the Lord God will smile and laugh and love us all at once. And it will be good.

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