Something Old, Something New

The Rev. Twila Schock

(from the May-June 2015 issue of Making Christ Known)

Wow!  I love worshiping here.  I was afraid, hearing you were Lutheran, you would make us bow, cross ourselves, and say things at church that we didn’t feel.  Instead, we sing, we read the Bible, and we pray.”

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Thank God!  When we heard about this church were afraid we’d have to give up our beloved Lutheran liturgy.”

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Ironically, these two statements were made about the same worship experience.  The first, by a Methodist refugee from Liberia.  The second, by a member of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. Both by parishioners of mine at the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (MPC) in Moscow, Russia in 1999.

1496355_737611153021582_345578554088214538_oPlanning worship for this congregation was not for the faint of heart; the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy was made of members from over 20 nations and 25 denominations. There were Roman Catholics. There were Copts. There were monophysites. There were Orthodox, Pentecostals, Unitarians and more.

They were ambassadors. They were refugees. They were international health workers, educators, laborers and lawyers. And, they came from Ethiopia, the United States, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Andorra and Indonesia.

What we had in common were two things. Life in Russia was rugged: we needed Christian community. And, we wanted to worship.

But, as this community’s leader, the question of the day became “How do we worship? How do we pray as one in the midst of such diversity?”

Rev. Anscar Chapungco, a Benedictine monk and prolific writer on the cultural adaptation of the liturgy, offers two helpful – yet, seemingly, opposite – perspectives.

First, he offers, “Adaptation of the liturgy to various native genius and tradition is not a novelty, but fidelity, to tradition.” (Cultural Adaptation of the Liturgy, Paulist Press, 1982, p.3). In other words, now is not the time to create something new! Rather, dig deeper than you’ve ever dug to find the worship of the early church.

On the other hand, he suggests, “Liturgical adaptation is a theological imperative arising from the event of the incarnation. If the Word of God became a Jew, the Church in the various countries of the world must become native to each of them.” (Ibid., p. 87.) In other words, we have no choice in the matter. Something new will arise! In the same way that God changed (and willfully limited) God-self by taking on gender and a cultural form to meet us, our worship, too, will change as it takes root in a new culture. It must!

What were we to do in this context where there were multiple cultures operative? With no small amount of insecurity, we returned to the basics. We queried, “What did all of our worship traditions have in common? How did the early church worship?”

We found ourselves drawn to the four headings which shaped the earliest of Christian gatherings: Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending. And, we seasoned the gathering with the gifts of the people: prayers petitions from Ghana, Zulu hymns of praise, banners from India, bread from Germany, Indian invocations and Latin American processions.

And, somehow, with no small dose of the Holy Spirit, it worked! Those who came from outside of the liturgical tradition took particular delight in the prolonged Gathering. Those steeped in the liturgical tradition, took solace in the Meal. We found our common ground in the Word. And, when we were Sent, we looked forward to gathering again.

Having now returned to parish ministry in the United States after 18 years of serving in other contexts, I find myself confronted with a similar, yet radically different, challenge. How, in our worship, do we maintain that fidelity to the tradition we have been handed, while – at the same – finding that marriage of culture and tradition in a digital, fragmented and individualistic culture.

With the same humble insecurity, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to the four headings: Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending. And, I trust that gifts of those I serve, steeped in the Holy Spirit, will bring about that new thing which continues to bring life.