My past few days have been spent attending Luther Seminary's Mid-Winter Convocation. The plenary sessions have been insightful, the worship inspiring, the time with friends uplifting, the time to make new connections encouraging, but my overall conclusion is that I am an old man.
This year's theme was Worship in a Time of Change, one of those perennial topics that declining mainline denominations love to talk about. The good news is that the plenary sessions presented the conversation as discerning responses to strangers and placing the strangers' needs before our own. I would summarize the take-away questions so:
- How do we respond when strangers come into our midst?
- How do we get strangers in our midst?
As the mainline denominations in the United States continue to decline, these questions are paramount.
So why am I an old man? My response to the worship experiences. I'm not going to comment on any of the particulars, although I do have questions I would ask those who planned and led worship. Instead I want to reflect on my reaction to the worship experiences in light of my comprehensive exams, primarily some reflections inspired by the work of Peter Atkins in his book Memory and Liturgy.
From my time serving congregations, I have a particular take on the idea of times of change, mainly that every time is a time of change. Even the smallest of congregations are filled with people in the midst of grief, joy, pain, comfort, etc. The challenge for those who plan and lead worship is as it has always been: to do so in a time of change.
The amount of novel liturgical elements during the convocation overwhelmed me. The result was that I found myself eschewing worship in favor of spending time with friends or continuing my research reading because there was too much novelty in the worship experiences I did attend. And I should note that after several days of helping clear the snow on campus, my lower back just couldn't spend too much time in the chapel pews.
This is where Atkins comes in. "We can recognize the value in familiarity and in novelty, and the balance between them" (11). The challenge of worship in a time of change--thus, every instance of public Christian worship--is this polarity between the familiar with the novel. It seems that the higher the anxiety about change within a gathered community, the lower any amount of novelty will be accepted. And yes, this is just a different way of saying the old saw, "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." What I want to note is that each of those who gather for public Christian worship are always both comfortable and afflicted.
Jesus said, "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22, NRSV)
How do those who plan and lead worship attend to what God is up to in times of change? How do we help people attend to God's reign in their daily life through worship? The familiar can be a trap of the evil one, and the novelty can be as well. Likewise, the Spirit works through the familiar and the novel.
During this convocation, I have been an old man in that I was caught in myself, my own needs, my own desires, my own expectations, my own buffered self. I have sinned. During this convocation, the Spirit has been at work drowning this old man through sorrow and contrition that the new man within me may rise up.
As was noted several times during the convocation, worship in a time of change is both the old and the new, the familiar and the novel. Worship is also a spiritual battleground. Those who plan and lead worship will make mistakes in managing the polarity between the familiar and the novel because there will be times when the old person will win and lead into sin, or just as likely, lead to a decision that could have been made for different reasons. Yet even here, God is up to something in bringing about new life through the forgiveness of sins.
I'm an old man because I want my familiar and the novelty I like. God makes me a new person by opening me to someone else's familiar and by guiding us into conversation and discernment through relationship about the novel that is only possible because of the relationship God has established with each of us and the meaning of baptism for daily life. God has been using my reaction to the worship experiences of this convocation to invite me into something new--new relationships with worship planners and leaders, and this blog.
Maybe the point isn't a choice between old and new within a familiar cartesian anxiety. Maybe the point is both old and new. Two wineskins for sharing and welcoming, not a choice followed by judgement.