The Word as Dynamic Guide for Reformed Liturgical Construction:
Life Giving, Disruptive, True and Authentic
Brian R. Paulson
© January 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Rarely has the creative impulse so thoroughly captivated the imagination of those who worship as in the time through which we live today. It quite naturally stands to reason that the task of liturgical leadership should be challenged by an age that has been framed as a Communication Revolution. Those who worship find themselves confronted by a multiplicity of sights, sounds and senses throughout the course of each day. The advent of electronic and personal media has brought a daily bombardment of messages to the synapses of ordinary modern folk. It is often said that we have not encountered such a cultural transformation in the appropriation of meaning since the Guttenberg Bible was shared in households across Europe.
Therefore we who are given the task of communicating the gospel have the unique opportunity to frame anew the shape of our communities’ regular encounters with the Divine. The variety of forms for this creative challenge has excited many and shocked others. The techniques employed in this task have varied according to cultural setting, evangelical impulse, and historical reference. Consequently, the "worship wars" and common discourse in liturgical circles has often centered upon the particulars of homiletic form, service order or media employed.
This article is not an attempt to propose a new set of required techniques for the construction of worship. My presumption is that there are many liturgical particulars that can be faithfully applied in a variety of settings. What I do wish to offer is a dynamic guide for the creative effort in which so many of us are engaged. In particular, my hope is to offer a guide that is especially resonant with central affirmations of the Reformed theological tradition.
If the sovereignty of God has provided the impulse for worship in the Reformed tradition, then certainly the Word of God has stood central as the source of meaning and purpose for the liturgical task. The centrality of the Word is uniformly affirmed in all Reformed confessions. Its appeal remains as a magnet of purpose and gravity for those who arrive to worship on any given day.
This brief offering will therefore reflect upon the Word as a dynamic guide for Reformed liturgical construction. The scope of this article will not allow a desirable survey of our heritage for a theology of the Word. Rather, the central constructive effort here will emphasize four primary markers for the Word as guide. It will articulate the way in which the Word serves as a life giving force, as a creative disruption to our sensibilities, as a source of unifying truth transcending our lives, and as an authentic personal companion amidst our experience. Markers such as these may serve as valuable tools for evaluating the array of choices for worship that confront our leaders today.
One should begin a thorough review of the Word by traveling back to the Alexandrian school and its understanding of the Logos. The study should then move through its appropriation into the Christian tradition and the competing ways in which it has been applied and misapplied. However, as mentioned above, the shape of this brief project will not allow such a survey. So, let us begin simply and profoundly with the scriptures.
Four Markers (top)
The gospel of John begins with the Word. "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people." One of the most important markers of an encounter with the Word in worship is the sense of discovering life. For those of us who greet people after worship, this sentiment is most clearly visible in their facial expression. I have seen faces open with joy, as they have found hope in the baptism of a child. The surprise of youth dancing in worship or a colorful array of sight and symbol, serve to lift the spirits of those who gather. Those of us who preach observe the changing facial expression of congregants as a sermon runs its course.
Life Giving (top)
There are many ways that the Word can be seen in worship. Yet one of the most important is the manner in which it brings life to those who participate. Music, laughter, movement, tears, embraces and countless other experiences grace the senses of those who worship. At first blush, it may seem difficult to identify these life-giving elements. Yet most congregants can quickly identify the absence of this presence. Countless mornings pass in churches across our land without a sense of life being present in the worship of our congregations across the land.
We would not be true to the insight of the fourth gospel if we assumed that the Word must be confined to the refined contours of intellectual discourse. "All things came into being …" it proclaims. The Word is creative by its very nature. Here is an example that Liz, a young woman in my congregation, offered, "I like it when there are decorations in church as it gets close to Christmas and Easter. It all seems to glitter. Everything gets really pretty. You can tell that people put their time into these things and that they really care a lot." Such services exemplified the creative work of God amongst the congregation. The Word comes into being in worship and brings life.
Yet if our worship serves only as an affirmation of the normal course of our life, it lacks another critical dynamic of the Word in worship. "The light shines in the darkness." That same force, which comes into being as life, is also light. The light creates a contrast with the surrounding darkness. Most people who arrive for worship expect a transforming disjunction between worship and ailments of daily life endured throughout the week. Moreover, there is an expectation of truth to arrive and confront injustice by means of a prophetic word.
Another congregant, named Mark, said that worship creates "a different consciousness level." He said, "I find myself reflecting on the week: how it’s been, how I would like to improve upon it or what I'm thankful for during the week. A lot of those thoughts come to me" during worship. "Here is a good way to put it," he said. Worship is "the point where I let the world go away. I just fade the world to black." The light of the Word in worship creates a contrast to the world, "and the darkness has not overcome it."
Roy Oswald describes the way that often a person will exit the sanctuary almost wincing in pain from the force of the Word, yet will shake the hand of the pastor firmly and deliberately say, "thank you pastor." Such a painful encounter is true to the manner in which Karl Barth would describe the "Krisis" of revelation. Barth’s insistence upon the "logos ensarkos" underscores the way in which the Word’s embodied expression in Christ disrupts our routine. This understanding of the Word refuses to exist as a distant ideal.
If the Word is to remain present in worship, there ought always to be a disruptive element to its presence. I believe that John de Gruchy names this dynamic as "strange and alien" in his discussion of beauty. Perhaps another dimension of this dynamic toward which we more willingly aspire is the sense in which such a disruptive presence is "stunning" in its beauty.
If we find ourselves being stopped dead in our tracks by such a Word, the cause for our stunned demeanor may stem from the fact that we have encountered something true. I realize that truth claims are ever and always suspect in our post-modern world. However, the Word is that quality of life which somehow has the power to transcend our mundane and individuated senses. Somewhere I have read that a critical dimension to preaching, and of course to the whole of worship itself, is the manner in which a gargantuan question hangs over all that we do: "Is it true?"
Those of us within the Reformed tradition routinely turn toward scripture as the ultimate source of authority on questions of truth. So naturally, the Word in scripture flows through our gatherings like a river in which we are nourished, at play, and refreshed. The scripture exists as our standard for truth. It validates our songs, sermons, hymns, prayers and litanies in worship.
Yet the power of the Word in scripture for our congregations derives not from the gold embossed pages upon which it is written. Its power derives from the inward confirming testimony of the Spirit in the lives of those who worship. In this sense, when I speak of a transcendent truth I do not refer to a brittle intellectual ideal. Rather, this transcendence is the kind of unifying truth that exists in the life of every person in a way that is as common and personal as steady as the beat of the human heart.
In this sense, the scriptures recall the telling question Pilate asked for us all, "What is Truth?" The power of this question when posed, of course, is that there was no word adequate for response. Truth stood before Pilate fully embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Such truth is not a clean and sanitary ideal. The Word represents truth to the extent that it can be embodied in the lives of the people who gather for worship. The reality of this truth does not need an abstract and tortured intellectual construct. When wisely received, it can be as simple as the popular question, "What would Jesus do?"
A member of mine named Jim put it this way, "Sometimes it just comes through me reading the Prayer of Confession to myself and saying, ‘Oh, you know, I wasn't very much like Jesus last week when, when I did this thing.’ You know, ‘there was a situation when I acted poorly.’"
Tex Sample has a rich story about a friend of his who was visiting his hard working father in the Deep South. While spending an evening together with the television running in the background, Jesse Jackson appeared on the news. His father interrupted the conversation and said, "Somebody ought to kill that S.O.B." Tex’s friend said, "Daddy you don’t really mean that." "Oh yes I do," said his father, "somebody ought to take a rifle and just shoot him." "Alright," said Tex’s friend. "If you truly believe that Daddy, I think you ought to go to church and pray that somebody would go and shoot him." "Son, what are you talking about? Are you crazy or something?" said the father. "No Daddy," said Tex’s friend, "I’m serious. If you truly believe someone ought to shoot him, then I think you ought to go to church and pray that someone does just that." His father stared at him for one long minute, and then replied, "Son, you are crazy. You know that Jesus wouldn’t abide by none of that!" The truth was brilliant and confrontational in Jesus.
Jesus was the embodiment of transcendent truth in personal form. His presence in our lives sheds the light of truth on all our shoddy presumptions. This fact brings me to the final marker I propose. The Word is alive in worship whenever it can be discovered in an authentic and personal manner.
Another member of mine named Louis put it this way, "I like the fact that you get out from behind pulpit. … Not that you haven’t worked and thought about what you were going say. But it’s more personal because people can hide from behind the pulpit, especially in a big pulpit. People hide from behind the pulpit and say things that affect the congregation and probably by hiding, by being behind the pulpit, they say, ‘it affects you but it doesn’t affect me.’" The great power of John’s understanding of the Word is that it "became flesh and dwelt among us." What affected us has affected him.
As I work with so many young adults, I learn that it is precisely this personal sense of the Word that becomes a magnet for faith. Authenticity is the regular mantra of Generation X and we have that in spades by virtue of the way in which Jesus has embodied the eternal Word. As surely as the Word is disruptive and true, it also gives life in a personal way. The Word speaks in authentic terms to those who gather for worship. An authentic and personal presence is the fourth and final marker I propose for our reflection.
The Word is alive in our worship when we see it giving life, disrupting, speaking truth, and bearing authenticity. These markers are true to both a biblical and a Reformed understanding of the Word. This Word stands at the center of our tradition. These markers can be used in a creative and defining way in our worship construction. They are true to our heritage without being unnecessarily restrictive in their use.
The psalmist describes the Word as being sweeter than honey. When our worship is true to the Word, it offers the gift of life to our people. A woman named Doris put it this way. She said that in worship, "I’m listening. … I’m listening. … And many times it’s … it’s … they’re words that I need to have. Many times they’re words that I want my loved ones to have. There’s just so much to be given, to be here and worship."
When we listen with our whole being in worship. We discover words we need to have. We discover the Word. Thanks be to God.
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