Of liturgy and little ones

Of liturgy and little ones                                            
David R. Weiss, June 11, 1998

I’m appreciating the people in the pews beside me more and more these days. Not that I’ve ever been a reclusive worshipper; I’ve always found worship an experience worth my active participation. Since my youth I’ve sung the hymns and the liturgical responses with genuine zeal and (I hope) a measure of musical harmony. I’ve recited the creed and shared in the various prayers with a real attentiveness to the words. And I’ve even made a sincere effort (some times more successfully than others, I’ll confess) to actually listen to the sermon.

But that’s my point. I’ve been doing all these things for years in the company of my fellow worshippers–but without requiring their assistance to see that they get done. Certainly, the quality of the hymns or the character of the sermon might change if I were the only one singing or listening, but you see what I mean. I’ve come to church for years and been able to do what everyone else does at church, without any problems.

Recently that’s changed. I have an increasingly active two-year old daughter in worship with me. She’s not unhappy to be there, mind you. In fact, it’s often her outright pleasure at being in the pew, that keeps my wife and I so busy. Between her books and her baby dolls, her crayons and her crackers, and her own style of singing and praying, she has no trouble filling the worship hour with her own sort of liturgy.

My liturgical life, however, has suffered after a fashion. Attending to Susanna’s energy has taken me away more than a few times from my own usual participation. I often sing or pray with one eye trained on Susanna as she colors (hopefully not in the hymnal) beside me; I say the creed while getting a few more crackers out for her to nibble; on occasion I miss the sermon entirely while whispering a favorite storybook to the little girl sitting in my lap; I’ve even been known to leave the sanctuary entirely to follow her to that holiest of places in our church: the drinking fountain. All of which I initially experienced as rather disconcerting. Wasn’t I missing out on something? What was the point of being at worship if my attentiveness was so often foiled by my daughter?

Which brings me back to the people in the pews beside me. Liturgy, after all, is the “work of the people.” It isn’t my work alone, or your work alone. It’s our work–together. That doesn’t mean that private devotion is out. But in public worship, “where two or three are gathered,” there’s a peculiar grace available to us. We can be carried along by the participation of our companions. The creed is confessed–and I am included in its confession–even if Susanna’s appetite for goldfish crackers keeps me from saying every word. The Good News is proclaimed and heard–and I am included in that hearing–even if I am busy with the embodied good news nestled in my own lap.

As I’ve realized that, I’ve come to understand liturgy in a deeper and more humbling way. Against the individualism ingrained in us by society, liturgy beckons us to be present before God–together. Liturgy isn’t “my” thing, though my presence, however I am able, is essential. It’s our thing. Our particular way of practicing, if you will, what it means to praise God . . . which ultimately involves our being present to our neighbor.

It seems to me there are two important lessons in this. First, those who are able should worship fully and faithfully, knowing that their liturgy belongs not simply to themselves but to all the saints. Their liturgy in some way carries the rest of ours to completion as well, whether we be parents occupied with young children, or persons with mental disabilities, or children too young to understand, or elders too old to clearly remember.

The second, and perhaps harder lesson in a culture that expects everyone to carry their own weight, is this: that the same liturgy which is our happy task can also come to us as sheer gift. So that those of us who at first glance seem “liturgically limited,” are not really limited at all. We are knit so closely into one Body, that what we are unable to do for ourselves is done for us, as our companions in the pew become the “little Christs” that Luther exhorted them to.

We often assume that in worship the gospel is present simply in Word and Sacrament, in the pulpit and at the altar. But precisely because it is present there, precisely because we are gathered together on that account, in the liturgy it becomes present alongside us in the pew as well. Both as our duty to share and as our gift to receive.

I learned that from my two-year old daughter who has more than once surprised me with good news beyond her couple of years. I trust she’ll keep it up.

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