Lutherans vs. lightbulbs

There’s a terrible old joke that goes, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?”

The answer is: We don’t change that lightbulb.  Ethel Achanbach donated that lightbulb to the church in ’66.  Are you holding an LED replacement, missy?  Do you have a problem with incandescent?!

Yes, Lutherans think they have the market cornered on irascible resistance to change.  But do ya wanna hear a fun fact I learned yesterday?

In 1850s England, hymns that were not psalms began appearing in worship.  This constituted a major deviation to The Way We Do Things for Anglicans, who actually began filing lawsuits because they thought it was illegal to sing non-psalm hymns in worship.

The Darnley Portrait.  National Portrait Gallery, London.
“My dear Charles, thou may’st address thyself unto our hand upon the issue of these hymns, for verily, the face hearkeneth not.”

But it turned out that Elizabeth I had made provision for that particular liturgical option sometime during her reign, and everyone had just forgotten.

So you see, Lutherans don’t have the marketed cornered on the fear of change.  In celebration of this, I have composed some possible alternatives to the traditional Lutheran lightbulb joke:

Q:  How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?

A:  The illumination of the Holy Spirit comes through no work of humankind, but only through the grace of God through Christ Jesus.

Q:  That’s not very funny.

A:  No.  But have you seen the Lutheran Insulter?


I’ve been thinking a lot about liturgical renewal in the Lutheran church this week, mostly because I need to submit a proposal for an STM project by next Monday.  Unfortunately, my brain is having a tough week, and pondering the overwhelmingly broad topic of liturgical renewal in the ELCA causes it to freeze and reboot, and I have to start over with where I am and what I’m doing:

1)  I’m at Yale Divinity School.
2)  I am here to earn an STM in liturgics.
3)  I need to write something about liturgics in order to graduate.

I would really like to write something that a congregation could use if they wanted to revamp the liturgy in their own context but weren’t sure how.  I don’t think I exaggerate when I observe that there are pastors in the ELCA who don’t think they’re allowed to use something in worship if it’s not in the ELW / LBW / Sundays and Seasons.

And I get that.  I do.  We Lutherans might not be alone in our antagonism toward change, but our lack of uniqueness by no means downgrades the anxiety change does cause, particularly when you’re taking on something as steeped in tradition as Lutheran worship.  

Plus, I love traditional worship. I think it’s incredibly cool that pieces of our liturgy date back to the very beginning of the church.  It gives me chills that when we sing “As the Grains of Wheat,” we join our voices with a chorus that’s at least 1800 years old.  That when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy are you,” we’re creating a vision of heaven on earth, achieving for the briefest sliver of forever what Isaiah saw when he looked into heaven.  That when we eat at the table, Jesus Christ is host and meal.

But it took me four years and a seminary education to get the awe and wonder of worship.  To be honest, I spent most of my childhood and young adulthood really bored in church, wondering why we repeated everything so much, why the readers never added inflection to their recitation of scripture, why the preacher talked about “joy” when I looked around our worship space and never saw anything as unrestrained as joy happening.  Fifteen years ago, a preacher used an illustration about an “idiosyncratic penguin” to open his sermon.  I still remember that damn penguin, because to a 14-year-old, that was the most interesting thing that happened in worship throughout all of Pentecost.

As an adult, I understand that the efficacy of worship doesn’t hinge on whether or not my heart feels strangely warmed.  God shows up in worship, because God has promised to be present in a particular and pointed way where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name.  But I long to be awake to that presence. 

As a leader in the church, I yearn to build worship that participates in the beauty of our tradition. At the same time, I would like to craft liturgies that would make a 14-year-old say, “I want to come back next week.”

I would like for said 14-year-old not to base this judgment on the presence or absence of penguins.

African_Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) at De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa. 1 October 2010.  Dick Daniels.
Even though they are super cool.

And while right now I’m deeply uncertain about what criteria means that a liturgy will create that magical environment where both Ethel Achenbach and her granddaughter will cease to focus on the tradition (or lack thereof) because the encounter with the divine other is so compellingly immediate….
…I hope that it’s totally worth writing an STM project about.



6 Replies to “Lutherans vs. lightbulbs”

  1. In our old church one Sunday in April the pews were draped with LWR blankets while the altar was filled with LWR kits-school, layettes, sewing, and health. On that Sunday those articles were blessed before they were shipped to Indianapolis and then on to MN and 50 countries in the world.

    Children’s sermons are a beautiful break in the liturgy. I also feel that our traditional liturgy prevents us from reaching out to non-Lutherans. Americans, maybe better than the English, know how to start anew. We are on new turf from the European past. “Soon and Very Soon” is one of my favorites.

    Computerized screens are also a welcome addition to a service. We need to appeal to the youth’s technological bent.

    All the best if you can change us to LEDs, UFLs, and Halogens. –Martha

    1. Dear Martha,

      Thanks for your reply! I love your sweet spirit.

      These are some great observations, and definitely on point. The LWR Sunday sounds particularly nifty, and I love the way it integrated the Church’s mission with the Church’s worship.

      I wonder if the energy from the children’s sermon could last for a whole service? I was just talking with a new friend about creating “Wiggle Worship,” centered around kids…

      It was also remiss of me not to point out that I’ve been in Lutheran congregations that are either engaged in or primed for this kind of liturgical renewal, and CVLC was definitely one of them! I’m not talking about a mythical beast, like a unicorn. Maybe like a platypus. Less common, but definitely out there.

      1. I know you’re deep in study at Yale, but wanted you to know that I love the New Zealand Anglican liturgy for dog devotions always with St. Francis’ Prayer (in the green hymnal, of all things) and ending with “God Be With You “Til We Meet Again as the ending. I only hope the dogs approve. Matthew has made the mistake of handling on the animal blessing and the rest in our ” scarey” hands. We have to appeal outside the box, right?

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