Familiarity Breeds Comprehension: What a Trail Taught Me about the Liturgy
It’s been baptized by my sweat. The soles of my shoes have shaped and smoothed its contours. It’s eavesdropped on my conversations with God and men. Through darkness and light, I’ve sped along its vagabond ways, ducking drooping limbs and jumping tree roots. No more than a foot wide and three miles long, the trail snakes its way through the bush-lined, tree-packed bowels of the park near my home. It may be city property, and I may be forced to share it with other runners, but that doesn’t stop me from christening it “my trail.”
It’s a path of untamed beauty, a veritable feast for the senses, but I, a fickle lover, grew bored with it after logging hundreds of hours speeding along its surface. Tunnel vision overtook me. I became blind to the unique features of this narrow stretch of earth. Every tree, every flower, every rock, every blade of grass I thought I knew, so I ran right on past them as if there was nothing else to see. Familiarity bred contempt. So I thought it was time to move on to another trail, a new trail.
Then one Saturday morning, I eased from a run to a jog into a walk, and was startled by what I began to see. A few feet off the trail was a great-great-grandfather of a tree, high and exalted, who had bequeathed one of his enormous limbs to a colony of honey-making bees that buzzed about its bark. Farther along, as the trail zigzagged through dense undergrowth, lay a rotting log along the surface of which sprouted a family of pink and purple mushrooms. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a slight movement in the grass, and there lay a fawn, virtually invisible in her God-given camouflage, eyeing me with those big brown eyes of innocence and caution as I spoke to her as one would talk to a young child. I spied a tree with “Bobby Loves Becky” carved in its trunk, a patch of flowers encircling an old watering bucket, a penny minted the year of my birth. All these little surprises I discovered, some of which had been in my line of vision thousands of other times, but to which I had been blind. Speed had handicapped me. I had grown bored with the trail as if the trail was to blame. But the fault lay squarely within me. Only when I slowed down, and truly looked, did I realize that familiarity need not breed contempt; it can invite comprehension, awareness, a depth of understanding impossible apart from long-term, intimate knowledge.
That was a Saturday. The following morning, as I sat in my familiar pew, in my familiar church, singing songs and confessing creeds and praying prayers that were all familiar to me, I smiled a secret smile that only God would have understood. What a foolish pupil I was, yet what a patient teacher my Lord had been. For he had transformed a trail upon which I ran into a classroom in which he taught me anew how to appreciate and love the beauty and depth of the Divine Service.
We scurry along the surface of the liturgy week after week as if the goal is to get from the invocation to the benediction at breakneck speed. And we can do this because we assume we know the lay of the land. Blindfold us and we think we can still maneuver around the twists and turns of worship. Just as my feet pounded out a rhythm along that trail, while my heart was far away, so our lips rhythmically speak the words, but in our heart it all too easily sounds like, “I confess that I am by nature blah, blah, blah…I believe in blah, blah, blah…The LORD bless you and blah, blah, blah.” The fault, however, is not in the Divine Service. It’s not time to find a new liturgical trail. It is time, however, to ease from running to jogging to walking to kneeling, and there, on your knees, to contemplate the divine riches we’ve been trampling underfoot. It’s time to let familiarity breed comprehension.
In an age when the phrase “new and improved” applies to everything from phones to marriages, when we as a nation mimic juveniles, lustily pursuing the next new thing, the worst decision a church can make is to cater to this weakness. The word of God cannot be improved upon, and it is that word that forms the sum and substance of the Divine Service, bequeathed to the church from prior generations. Here is a trail upon which the believer can walk back and forth a million Sundays, and never see all the beauty therein, for divine beauty is fathomless.
I think it was C. S. Lewis who once wrote that the liturgy is like a dance. When you’re first learning it, forced to concentrate on where to put your feet, where and when to turn, the dance is hard to appreciate. When you’ve finally learned it, however, the more you do it, the deeper grows your love and enjoyment of it. It becomes as natural as any other movement, but full of grace and beauty.
This Sunday, as you sit in your familiar pew, in your familiar church, singing songs and confessing creeds and praying prayers that are probably all familiar to you, don’t rush. Ease from running to jogging to walking to kneeling, and soak in the loveliness of the words that fall from your lips. They are the Lord’s own words. And familiarity with them breeds a comprehension of a divine love for you that knows no bounds.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!