Path, Practice and Knowing God

I recently insulted my friend Derek, who blogs over at haligweorc. He has described the liturgy as a true path to knowing the Living Jesus. And Derek is not alone. Many Christians – not just Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics or disciples of Gordon Lathrop – are dedicated to the liturgy as the chief ministry of the church and primary practice by which Christians are formed.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but I offended my friend (and husband of a dear old childhood friend) when I suggested (in a comment on this post) that a heavy emphasis on liturgy might miss out on God’s presence and activity beyond the church walls. "What does your tradition, or liturgical theology in general, say about the experience of God beyond liturgy?" I asked.

He replied with an impressive litany of quotes from the liturgy highlighting God’s activity in the world. And he is right – our liturgy indeed proclaims and professes much about God’s presence in the world.  However . . .

I would suggest that the liturgy enacts and represents various aspects of life, faith and the divine/human encounter. Enact and represent.

When I say enact, I mean that in the liturgy things happen. In the liturgy we encounter the living God in the prayers, the sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word. This is true and real. God comes to us in the liturgy. Yet also in the liturgy the people of God give a tithe or offering – not simply to pay the electric and gas bills, but to provide for the church’s ministry of the Word and to give to the poor. Concrete things happen in the liturgy.

However, much is also represented in the liturgy. In the liturgy we share the peace and are truly reconciled to those who are gathered for worship, but the liturgy doesn’t mediate a Middle East crisis or provide shelter for victims of domestic violence. In the liturgy those who are present gather around a common table without concern to race, class, or status, but the liturgy itself does not work for justice in the world. In the liturgy we proclaim Creation’s praise of God, but the liturgy itself does not protect or preserve nature. The liturgy does not do these things – it propels us out into the world to do these things, but the liturgy itself does not do these things.

Thus the liturgy is both Jesus and John the Baptist. It is Jesus in that we truly meet God face-to-face in the liturgy, and it is John the Baptist in that the liturgy points us towards God, directing us to God’s presence in the world.

So, respectfully, here’s my problem with any claim that the practice of the liturgy is a sufficient path to knowledge of God: We know God by doing the liturgy and doing what we liturgy calls us to do (ie, sharing the peace and working for peace; hearing/proclaiming God’s work to lift up the lowly and working to lift up the lowly; meeting God in the church and seeking God in the stranger). Or put another way, a truth path to knowing the Living Jesus is the path of liturgy and the path that the liturgy calls us to travel.

Even though a professed emphasis on the practice of the liturgy might assume the practices that flow from it – love for, care of and service to the world – I would suggest that these daily life, in the world Christian practices need to be cited along with the liturgy when describing a path to knowing God. Sin being what it is, I don’t think we can leave it to liturgy alone to guide the Christian life, nor can we assume that faith practices simply naturally flow from the liturgy like water from a spring.  I believe we must enunciate those practices that the liturgy calls us to, those practices that propel us into the world, those practices that lead us to Christ in the world and lead us to be Christ in the world.

Of course, we’re talking here about "knowing God" and the practices of the Christian life – things that would be considered Third Use of the Law, or Sanctification.  Salvation is a different matter – salvation is given in baptism and doesn’t require works to be effective.  But when we’re talking about those practices that lead us into a deeper knowledge of God, I believe we must talk not only about liturgical faith practices, but also about those non-liturgical faith practices through which God forms us, meets us and blesses us beyond our church walls.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Path, Practice and Knowing God

  1. I found your discussion of the liturgy interesting and thought provoking. Although I love the liturgy, I think a great deal of my feeling is sentiment. When I pay close attention, I DO realize that much is being taught in the liturgy, as well as worship happening.
    I don’t think that the “point” of the liturgy is all that obvious, however. Is this taught to young people? Do non-liturgical
    Christians see what we claim to be doing? If it was obvious, wouldn’t a deeply faithful non-liturgical Christian see the point? Or do they just see rote repetition?
    It is easy to be mindless during the liturgy. When I sit in the front of my church, looking out at the people, I see so many that don’t open their mouths, don’t open the book. That is their right; I don’t know if their mind is doing prayer and reflection even if they are not outwardly showing it. Would it make a difference if a pastor taught the people what is supposed to be happening?
    Rhetorial questions only, of course. But one of my pet peeves is when the liturgist or pastor just rattles off the liturgy or prayers as if they are something just to be gotten through quickly, like the “real” reason to be there is to get to the sermon.

  2. It makes me uncomfortable that you say that the liturgy is both Jesus and John the Baptist. Specifically, I don’t know if you can posit a separate place for John the Baptist any more, as he is the last of the prophets, and with Jesus, God fulfills the promises to Israel and humanity.
    I’m uncomfortable with the rest of your post as well, actually, but I’m not quite sure how to say it. I guess part of it is that you seem to indicate that the liturgy is “not real.” Granted, you say it’s true and real, but say that we should work for “real” peace and “real” justice after the liturgy. Never mind the fact that any earthly peace/justice we can achieve is necessarily provisional and incomplete. In the liturgy we experience God’s peace and mercy (and our sainthood) as a given and as something beyond our capability to achieve and understand, (and this is good news!) and we witness to it in our “liturgy after the liturgy.” It leads us to a longing to actualize what truly is (such actualization, again, being of necessity partial and incomplete). Perhaps this is just a difference in emphasis, but I feel it’s important.

  3. Oh, I wasn’t *that* insulted… 😉
    But I think you’re missing something important here. Yes, things happen in the liturgy and yes things are represented but there’s yet another category.
    In its use of repetitive texts, it teaches and re-enforces a distinctively Christian way of looking at the world. Like I pointed to, we have a icture of what Christian social justice looks like because we sing the Magnificat every evening and see and here about God’s dramatic reversals. The use f confession–whether its before a Rite 1 prayer office or the Brief Order out of the LBW confronts us with a certain honesty about who and what we are before God: “If we say we have no sin…”–you finish the rest. And you know what? You *can* finish it and your daughter will be able to finish it before age 5 and it ain’t because of the number of times she’s read 1 John. This is what I believe is so important about the liturgy that most Lutherans aren’t in touch with–the liturgy forms us into a biblically-derived world-view that gives us something inside that strives with the empirical materialsim that American consumer culture bombards us with from the time we’re able to process images. That’s why I suggest that the liturgy teaches us the logic of the mind of Christ.

  4. Chip,
    Huh? I’m sorry, I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say. When I wrote that the liturgy is both Jesus and John the Baptist, I’m speaking metaphorically. Jesus is God’s incarnate encounter with humanity, whereas John the Baptist is the one who points to the incarnate God coming into our midst. Thus, in my humble opinion, the liturgy both incarnates God for us and sends us out to seek and serve the incarnate God in the world. And yes, the liturgy is real (I never said it wasn’t), but so is God’s presence in the world, and I suggest that this too should be lifted up as a spiritual practice and divine encounter.

  5. Derek,
    Thank you for your clarification. I understand your agrument that a life devoted to the practice of the liturgy – the daily offices and the weekly eucharist – would form the faith and life of a Christian in such a way as to heighten their awareness and experience of God not just in the liturgy, but “in the world” as I’ve been saying.
    Still, though, there is part of me that wonders if the liturgy and the Word needn’t always lead or be the primary formative experience. There is something raw, something scary, something unbound about an experience with God in the sick, in the poor, in the changing of a diaper that speaks for itself. All I suggest is that we intentionally lift up these experiences as places of divine encounter, that, along side and informed by the experience of liturgy, constitute the Christian Life.
    But, of course, if our lives are marked by the pattern of the daily liturgies, then this “daily life disconnect” from which so many Main Line Christians suffer is theorhetically not an issue (I’m not sure I completely agree, but I’ll go along with it for a moment). On the other hand, perhaps any faith discipline – be it daily office, daily service towards the poor, or daily Bible study – would provide the formative experiences to open the eyes of disciples to God in their lives and in our world (yes, this is where we diverge).
    I see your point, Derek (sorry it has taken me so long!). Yet if the people in my parish are asking to immerse themselves in deeper practices of faith, I’m not sure that I’m inviting them into a deeper practice of daily prayer or liturgy as often as I am sending them to visit the shelter. In both settings we meet a Living Jesus eager to shape our lives and change the world.
    That is, in a conversation about faith practices, I wouldn’t give the daily office a priority over other faith practices. I see your point about what it can do in the life of a believer, but I am confident that other practices might be just as or more worthy of our time, dedication and devotion.

  6. Yet if the people in my parish are asking to immerse themselves in deeper practices of faith, I’m not sure that I’m inviting them into a deeper practice of daily prayer or liturgy as often as I am sending them to visit the shelter.
    But why make it an either or? The Office really doesn’t take as much of a commitment as you seem to think. We use the ning-time short version known as “Devotions for Families and Individuals” (in the BCP) as bedtime prayers for Lil’ G. It takes less than five minutes and it’s simple enough that she almost has the whole thing memorized. If a 3 year old can do it, why not a 30 year old?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: