November 8, 2016

Our True Selves

Two wonderful sisters attend our church. One came first. She loved the music and the people. And, as a professional percussionist, found great delight when she soon began to participate. A Christian for much of her adult life, she had been praying her sister would join her. And one day she did.

Most of her adult life this second sister had been searching. In her own words she “tried everything.” She explored Eastern religion and various churches, independent and organized, formal and loose, orthodox and experimental. Nothing “fit.” Until she joined her sister. She said, “By the end of that first service I knew I was home.” But the third worship service changed her life.

Periodically, to “remember our baptism,” and so also our identity in Christ, we, like generations of Christians before us, dip a branch into a bowl of water and fling water into the congregation. I confess as a pastor I was first a bit anxious about this. Would folks think we’ve lost our mind?  Would it feel too showy? Would it detract from the words of confession and assurance that framed it rather than enhance and add to them? The first week my fears were set aside.  

Maybe because we were in a worship renewal year ( of “remembering our baptism?” Or maybe because people were hungry to act out the liturgy? Grade schoolers revelled in the experience, some motioning enthusiastically for more water to come their way; adolescents delighted; some seniors closed their eyes as if gathering memories recent and past.

This sister remembers it well. Because it changed her life. The flung water didn’t seem any more foreign than anything else; every part of worship was new. She had no expectations. But she could not have anticipated what actually did happen. When the water hit her she felt and was new. She said, “I’ve had all kinds of highs, art and music and sex, LSD and marijuana, but this was a high of another scale. It was as if the love of God surrounded me and lifted me off my chair. As if right then, I was baptized by the Holy Spirit. Right then I became a Christian.”

More often the results of enacting the liturgy are less dramatic. Often, when we rehearse the timeless rites of worship, feelings seem minimal or absent. Even when they are present, seen through tears of recognition or deep reflection, they’re often unnoticeable.

The experience of these wonderful sisters makes me remember what the insightful orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmemann wrote: the liturgy “actualizes” the church. In other words, when we enact the liturgy, we become our true self (For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973/2002). We tell our true story; we more deeply enter our identity. We are never more our true selves than when we live out the story—the call to worship, the confession, the assurance, the gospel proclamation, and the Eucharist.

I have two friends who recently lost their spouses. One after decades together. As you might imagine, after so many years of “the two becoming one,” living solo often feels vacuous, lonely, and desolate. The other is a parent of two grade schoolers. Looking ahead to the prospect of decades of solo parenting would feel daunting to anyone. Both are people of deep and abiding faith. And both told me in different times and ways that when they participate in the liturgy, when they are in a worship service, they feel most whole. In their time of grief, the place of consolation is a worship service that rehearses the story of their belonging to the gospel worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Why is that? It’s in part, they’ve told me, because in those moments of worship they are drawn (lifted) up into the community of saints past and present. (Isaac Watts’s “He is Our Refuge,” a new favorite of our congregation, is one example of a song whose lyrics emphasizing this profound reality). And in those moments they are comforted by God himself, often with a sense they are experiencing the same divine glory and comfort as their beloved spouse. It’s also, they’ve said, because in these life-giving words they sense they are being “carried along.” They are not their own–they belong, body and soul–to the Savior they worship. The one who promises to heal all pain and end all dying and make all things right.

This has me thinking. Could thirty minutes of “praise and worship” and an inspiring practical sermon feed their souls in the same way? At the risk of sounding like or actually being a liturgical snob, could a grieving person or spiritually wandering person be carried along in the same way? Or might such apparent cutting edge creativity actually be a stripping down, an eroding of the gospel? One that fails to have the church “actualize” our true story.

A couple years ago we began to celebrate weekly Eucharist. It happened in stages. First we celebrated monthly. Then bi-weekly. Then weekly—like most of the church of all times and places. Some participants, lifelong or converted Protestants were nervous. Wouldn’t this make communion less special? Wouldn’t it become a thoughtless routine? Wouldn’t it be inhospitable to the spiritual wondering people among us?

No. Thank God, no. As it turns out, weekly Eucharist, like the rest of the liturgy, “actualizes” the church. Schmemann was right. With the two sisters, all of us come forward with walkers or confident strides, limps and custom gaits, becoming our true, gospel selves.

Kevin Adams is the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life150: Finding Your Story in the PsalmsThe Book That Understands You, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. In 1991 Kevin and his wife Gerry began Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He was Director of Formation at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, and has taught at Calvin SeminaryWestern Seminary, and William Jessup University. Besides serving as senior pastor, he is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by how worship forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.