Jan 29, 2016

My Old Adam Thinks He Knows Just How to Pray

By Heather Judd

In the 2003 film Luther, there is a brief exchange between Cardinal Cajetan and Aleander, his young Roman Catholic protégée, as they watch the funeral of the warrior pope Julius II:

Cajetan: What is it you seek, Aleander?
Aleander: To serve God. To serve Him with all my heart.
Cajetan:  And that is how you will be tempted.

Cajetan’s wise observation stuns Aleander, as it should us. The devil knows what we seek, and what he then seeks is to turn that to our harm. Even the most pious desire to serve God becomes the foundation for pride.

I have realized for years how blessed I have been in the liturgically-rich, theologically-deep churches where I have found myself. From the formative experience at the congregation where I did my student teaching, to the school where I have taught for many years, to the church I attended during graduate school, I have consistently received the Word and Sacraments from profound, learned pastors whose flocks eagerly embrace excellent hymnody, teaching, and theology.

Right now my congregation is more than six months into a vacancy, and things admittedly just aren’t the same. We have been blessed with faithful and skilled pastors to supply the vacancy, but no matter how excellent these men are, church life cannot help but feel a little shallow.

Pride, my Old Adam, agrees with me. We sigh that the Divine Service lacks some of its radiance when the responses are spoken instead of chanted. We commiserate over how much we miss the historicity and depth of the One-Year Lectionary. We make snide mental comments about the generic hymn selections. We decide to skip Sunday School because it’s just a simplistic prepackaged Bible study. Every step of the way, Old Adam is there to assure me that I’m perfectly justified in my actions because I’m not getting the depth that I need.

But what do I really need? I need “the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” That’s it. That’s the whole list of how we find the true church. I’d sure like to add to it. A few modifiers would improve Augsburg Confession VII, wouldn’t they? How about “the pious, intelligent, and loving congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely, richly, and engagingly taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered with proper decorum”? Of course, this is neither promised nor wholly possible on earth, as the confessors wisely realized.

When I repent and humbly submit myself to the simple reality of the church on earth, oh, how Old Adam protests! He practically screams at me that I deserve preaching that caters to my intellectual bent, hymn selections that reinforce the lectionary, and pious genuflection that heightens the awe of the Sacraments. These things are good! They are to be preferred! They feed the mind and soul!

Yes, they do. But simple preaching and services also feed the mind and soul. The liturgy is, in fact, designed to make sure the mind and soul will not starve. Go to church, and if the liturgy and lessons are used, you will have provisions to last you the whole week even if the sermon was mediocre and the hymns were annoying.

It may be the difference between a simple diet of bread and a feast of rich courses, but if that is the difference, then we should remember that fasting and self-denial have great benefits, too. And even if Old Adam continues to protest that the soul should really receive a regularly balanced spiritual diet, we must rebuke him with the knowledge that all we receive on earth is a shadow of what is to come in heaven.

What I, the Pharisee, realize is that I have become so enamored of the liturgical riches that I have begun to overlook their contents. I cling to the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Service Book, and the historic lectionary for their own sakes, when they plead for me to cling to Christ:

One thing’s needful; Lord, this treasure
Teach me highly to regard.
All else, though it first give pleasure,
Is a yoke that presses hard.
Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving,
No true, lasting happiness ever deriving.
This one thing is needful; all others are vain—
I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain.
(LSB 536 - stanza 1)

Even the very worship service itself becomes the hard-pressing yoke if I find my pleasure in its beauty apart from Christ’s forgiveness.

So, humbled by simple words, I strip off my Pharisaical pride, leave Old Adam to rant on his own, and join the publican in the corner where we utter the simple words that are the only ones I really wish to speak before the heavenly throne, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

He is merciful indeed, and in His Divine Service—no matter how plain or majestic—He forgives my pride and all my sins, feeds me with the Bread of Life, and promises the day to come in which all worship shall be perpetual, magnificent, and deep enough to drown all memories of earthly disappointments.


***

Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.  

Image: "The Mourning Virgin with St. John and the Pious Women from Galilee," by Hans Memling, Fifteenth Century

3 comments:

  1. What a beautiful testimony, Heather. I know this is a ladies' blog, but allow this old boy to comment, because I have been convicted of this as well in this past. As a Cantor, I certainly share your love for rich liturgy, excellence in hymnody, and, as you say, "proper decorum." Yet it, too, like so many of God's gifts, can become an idol. As salutary as it is to promote and to teach good practices, we must continually keep ourselves fixed on Christ and take care to be clear in our teaching about worship, as this type of idolatry is easy to fall into. How often have I seen people eschew good, confessional preaching and truly evangelical liturgy in favor of both the "trimmings" of tradition on one side or entertainment on the other. But whether they go to one heterodox congregation for the sake of smells & bells or to another for the sake of rockin' drums, they are falling into the same trap that seeks to ensnare us all: elevating things we do in worship over what God does.

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  2. Thank you for your comments. In worship as in so many other areas, the need to to turn away from our favorite forms of idolatry and back to Christ is perpetual. I am reminded of Luther's thesis that when Christ said "repent," He intended for the entire life of a Christian to be one of repentance.

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  3. This is closely related to Bonhoeffer's commentary on Christian community: "Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial."

    A convicting man, that Bonhoeffer.

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