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.
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.
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.