First Person Life


Why do we need liturgy? [Updated]

I think this article is an excellent illustration of why we need liturgy and why the liturgy should be firmly founded upon God's word -- as is the case of the ancient rites of the church.

At least 345 Muslim pilgrims have been killed in a crush in the stone-throwing ritual during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, officials say.


One may ask, "What does this have to do with liturgy? People don't die in stampedes in our church services."


What about the songs that everybody loves to sing that are not doctrinally sound, for example -- injecting a synergistic understanding of salvation? Or, what of the unprepared preacher who uses words and phrases which are confusing and turn the Gospel into Law? These are easily stumbling stones for some in the congregation. Then, one member, stumbling into doctrinal error shares their understanding with others... causing them to stumble as well.

If those who were hurling stones had kept in orderly lines and took turns at aiming and throwing their stones... 345 people would be alive today that aren't. And, if orderly lines were established when the tradition started, however long ago it was, the rock and paths would be well worn, making it easy to maintain the orderly lines today and assist those who might trip over something in the path.

Even the best preacher occasionally fails to clearly articulate the truth of scripture in such a way that the all of his hearers understand exactly what is meant. And many of the "favorite hymns" used in our congregations can be misinterpreted to mean something that is not dogmatically correct. The liturgy provides a time tested corrective to the failings of individual songs or the occasional bad sermon. It supplies structure so that whatever might be doctrinally ambiguous is clarified in the context of the service.

One wonders how many souls are jeopardized by excess baggage in the road when people are not guided by the well worn paths of the historical church in her liturgy.

One wonders how much stronger and more vibrant the Church would be today if our churches maintained a strong liturgical connection, that takes care to proclaim the the Word of God in fullness and purity.

The forms and rites of the liturgy have been passed down from previous generations who took great pains to create and refine "well worn paths" of order and structure to make sure that when a person stumbles on the path, they aren't trampled by the confusion and chaos around them, but are put back on the path and stood upright by the sound words of Scripture.

Update 1/13/06 10:45am
This article contains a couple of other pieces of information which extend the analogy discussed above.

Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, as well as the kingdom's interior minister, said the tragedy was caused by pilgrims defying rules by taking their belongings with them and ignoring advice to perform the ritual throughout the day.

This could be compared to the pastor, "worship committee," "praise team," or whomever is in charge of developing the Sunday order and injecting their own thoughts and ideas as to what would be useful rather than sticking to the time-tested simplicity of the Scriptural formulations. What is applicable to the sermon applies also to the sound words of the liturgy.

Many pilgrims insisted on following Prophet Mohammad's example of stoning after noon prayers instead of staggering the ritual throughout the day as some clerics recommended.

Of course, failure to examine the rites and being overly dogmatic about things which are adiaphora are just as dangerous as being too unstructured. We must admit that there must be flexibility and an ability to augment or change. But any changes should be carefully considered along with their ramifications to the souls we serve. They should not be instituted lightly and without due care.

"People insist that they want to finish their Hajj in the way they think is right and you have a limited effect in using policemen to control people in this regard," he said.

Catechesis in the meaning of the liturgy is important. It is certain that people must consider church relevent and the service should be considered relevent as well. But we accomplish this best by explaining how the liturgy is relevent, not by letting peoples feelings (fleeting as they are) dictate what happens. In my opinion, from a parishoner's point of view, there is little difference between having no liturgy and having a liturgy that is foreign to me and devoid of meaning. Relevence occurs with patient and careful instruction with a goal toward understanding.

Perhaps the overall thrust of my argument can be summarized best by Professor Suleiman, the director of the Institute for the Study of the Arab World and Islam:

"Unfortunately, as in this instance, people still ignore official warnings not to bring luggage to the Jamarat Bridge, which caused pilgrims to trip and led to the crush," he continued.

"You get other people who wear flimsy flip-flops and when one comes off they bend down to try and pick it up and start shoving and that's it.

"It only takes one or two stupid people out of a couple of million to cause a tragedy like this."

While there may or may not be "official warnings" based on Scripture to take care to avoid bringing our own "baggage" or thoughts into the worship service, and no matter how we try, "flimsy flip-flops" of poorly worded sermons or songs will come into the service. One good reason for a well thought out liturgy is to avoid a tragedy to be caused by "one or two stupid people." Because ultimately, we all have to admit, each of us is one of those "stupid people" who are steeped in sin and imperfection.

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