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Monday, April 12, 2010

Liturgy and the Holy Spirit

This teaching is going to be a little different from others, because I will not be quoting a lot of Scripture this time. As part of my morning devotions today, I listened to part of a very good set of teachings by Malcolm Smith called The Power of the Holy Spirit in Liturgy. As I listened to the first section, entitled "What is Liturgy?" I got a few thoughts of my own relating to my experiences over the years. Today, that is what I want to share with you, so this will be somewhat of a testimony then.

I came into liturgical worship myself rather late in life - I was 25 years old when I began attending liturgical services regularly, and was 30 before being chrismated into the Catholic Church as a Maronite-rite Catholic. Many of you who already know my story are aware I grew up as a Pentecostal basically, although I was born again at age 16 in a Southern Baptist church. However, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that was somewhat diverse, and through marriage and subsequent cousins, we acquired a large branch of the family that was Roman Catholic themselves. My late aunt, Ruth Turner Schroeder, married a man who came from a large Catholic family originally from the Buffalo, NY, area, and my uncle, her brother Maynard Strahin, married her sister-in-law from the same family. Additionally, many of our family originally native to West Virginia ended up in the big city of Baltimore in the early 1960's, and I myself grew up in the neighborhood of Wilkins Avenue in west Baltimore when I was very young. Some of the German Catholic Schroeder cousins also had migrated to Baltimore, and being my Aunt Ruth had multiple schlerosis at the time and was pretty much incapacitated by her condition, Mom and I stayed with her and two of her children, Gale and Greg. Being Gale and Greg were raised Catholics by their father's folks in NY, Gale especially attended Mass pretty regularly in those years. A lot of times, being Mom wanted me to get some religious teaching, she allowed me to go to Mass with Gale then, and it was actually nice. Although a FAR cry from the little mountain churches I was used to, the basilica-like structure of that large Catholic parish in Baltimore nonetheless held an awe over me as a 5-year-old kid, and from that point I have always since had a great deal of respect for the Catholics and their worship. As I grew older and began to understand more, I came to a place in my own life where I needed to know Christ personally, and thus at the age of 16 I was born again. One strong conviction I had as a new Christian was a desire for a tangible faith, one that I could actually reach out for without all the esoteric spiritual jargon that one often finds in Pentecostal and fundamentalist circles, and even as a new Christian I began to be attracted to liturgical worship. Now, mind you, although it is not rampant it is nonetheless feasible to have a liturgical/sacramental conviction as a Baptist or Pentecostal (many African-American congregations of these traditions are a good testament of that actually) and I began to develop one at almost an immediate time after I was baptized in that little Baptist church I became part of in Rowlesburg, WV. One way I did that was to often - once every couple of weeks or so - attend Mass on occasion at St. Philomena's parish there in Rowlesburg upon invitation by two local Lebanese Maronite ladies that owned businesses there. As I did, I began to learn a lot, but it was largely latent for several years. However, that would soon change, as things would progress at a rapid pace after I graduated high school and went off to college in FL.

Let us fast-forward now to the year 1990. It was my first year of college in Graceville, FL, and although I attended a Baptist college, I was no longer Baptist. Back around June 21, 1989, while I was spending the summer with Dad in Brunswick, GA, before going off to college, I began to open myself up to something new as I began to understand more about it, and that of course was the Pentecostal experience. Up until that time, this would have left a bad taste in my mouth, because what I personally associated Pentecostal churches with was this legalistic, judgemental picture of the ignorant mountain churches (or so I thought at the time - it turns out many of those churches were actually telling the truth though later) Mom forced me to go to as a kid that literally scared the hell out of me talking about hell, the Tribulation, etc. The churches themselves were actually not the problem, but rather a bad experience brought on by my mother's then mixed-up faith. Once I really understood what Pentecost was all about, it was actually quite easy to embrace it, because it afforded a joy, a more real relationship with Christ, that until that point I didn't have. And, it opened me up to many things that radically revolutionized my personal faith. But, it was also an important step on my own road to where I was going, and an important event one Friday night in October 1990 confirmed this in a profound way.

After becoming baptized in the Holy Spirit in June 1989 at a little Pentecostal Holiness Church in Brunswick, GA, I began to have a deeper hunger for spiritual growth, and as a result I eventually left the Baptists to become part of the Foursquare denomination. When I did that, things began to change because I began to learn much about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and one that particularly became of interest was prophecy. Due to an invitation from a visitor to our Foursquare church in Dothan, AL, we visited that night in October 1990 this large non-denominational church in Destin, FL, called Christian International. Back then, as they probably do now, CI had a Friday night service they called "School of the Prophets," and on this particular night they had a fellow by the name of Tom Nicholson ministering. At the end of the service, he began to prophesy over people, and when he got to me, he spoke a word I still remember to this day, and it was indeed a word from the Lord, although at that time I didn't fully understand it. What he said was this - he saw me in this deep well, and although I was looking up for someone to get me out, no one I thought would be there was, except Jesus Himself. Then, the vision shifted, and he saw me leading a processional of some sort with banners, and he said that when those banners were lifted up, people would literally be inebriated with the power of the Holy Spirit. Little did this man of God know that at that very time, I was contemplating incorporating liturgy into Pentecostal services as were many others then - the Convergence Movement as it was to be called was beginning to come into prominence at around this time, and it was largely people who, being Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational charismatics, were beginning to study the Fathers of the early Church and were beginning to see that liturgy was an integral part of the NT Church! Liturgy with the gifts of the Spirit - now that was a combination and to some a contradiction in terms, but it was the essence of early Christianity. Four years later, we began attending a charismatic Episcopalian church in Lakeland, FL, and I began to understand this more fully so that by the time I became Catholic officially in the year 2000 at the Easter vigil, I was a sacramental Christian through-and-through. That essentially was my testimony as to how I became what I am spiritually today, but there are a couple of observations now I wish to make that more or less influenced me over the years.

One thing I noticed first off was that the Convergence Movement, although getting off to a good start and with spiritually-sensitive leadership initially, soon became lost in the melee that is the charismatic movement. As a result, as of late it has lost its edge, as now it unfortunately has a large percentage of "vested Pentecostals" who are on-board just to see what the next spiritual buzz is going to be. TRUE Liturigical spirituality should outlive spiritual fads. We take the best of what we have gotten from our spiritual pilgrimage and incorporate it into our liturgical experience, instead of just merely becoming another fad. As a result, in recent years I have gravitated personally toward a more traditional liturgy while at the same time maintaining a healthy belief in the spiritual gifts, etc. We can exercise gifts, and even in private devotion be as "Pentecostal" as we want, but the mistake of the Convergence Movement is that it tried to do that during the Eucharist, which isn't possible. Malcolm Smith deals with this in detail in his teaching when he said the liturgy serves as the banks of the river, while the water is our spirituality - if the banks overflow, the resulting flood will be devastating and leave a lot of debris and destruction in its wake. Our spirituality must indeed be vibrant, but our reverence for God as expressed in liturgical worship is what keeps spiritual enthusiasm contained in its proper balance without it becoming spiritual lunacy. That is an important lesson to learn.

A second observation I want to make regards converts to older liturgical churches. It must be understood that many traditionalist Catholic, Anglican, and other parishes broke away from the mainstream because the so-called mainstream church was going in some unscriptural directions - the Episcopalians in recent years come to mind as a perfect example, although to a lesser degree you can see it in a lot of Roman Catholic parishes as well - and they wanted to understandably preserve the Holy Tradition of the Church. Therefore, in a lot of traditionalist parishes, you have memberships that are mostly "cradle Catholics" or "cradle Episcopalians" who are not prepared for some others of us who are converts from non-liturgical churches yet are, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, attracted to the reverence and piety of, say, the 1928 BCP liturgy, the Tridentine Mass, or the Divine Liturgies of the Eastern Churches. Therefore, some resistance from the older membership can be felt by the new converts, as many of the older members have done what they have done for years because "that is the way we do it" without knowing why they do it. New converts to these parishes are hungry, and since many of them are former Pentecostals and Baptists, they may have been used to a more active church life whereas the "cradle Catholic" is content with only attending Mass once a week (if that even, in some cases!). Before long, this apathy on behalf of the traditional parish - which should know better, BTW! - saps the joy out of the new converts, and they either reluctantly resign themselves to it and become "Sunday morning Christians" themselves, or they move on. This is tragic, and I have felt this personally from parishes we have been part of, which is why I am writing this with such candor. The 1928 BCP liturgy, as used by traditional Anglicans, is truly a beautiful liturgy! It is rich in Scripture, it exhorts the participant to take seriously the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and unlike the inferior and dumbed-down 1979 Book used by the mainstream Episcopalians, the 1928 is free of politically-correct hippie-speak and sticks to the tradition of the Church Catholic. Yet, in some traditional Anglican parishes, sitting through the Mass is often like getting a root canal - you want it to be over, or you want someone to shoot you and put you out of your misery! And, there are those other parishioners in these churches - they don't like using incense, for instance, because the senior warden's wife has allergies. You know what, I have some advice for the dear lady - take a Benadryl!!! These old traditional liturgies are beautiful and rich in doctrine and spirituality, and they only need to have the Holy Spirit enliven the people to have a hunger to learn what it truly means to worship God in spirit and in truth, and what the Real Presence is all about. We don't come to church to gain brownie points to get into heaven, as many so incorrectly think, but rather to worship God. And, what better way than through the hands-on expression, utilizing all of our God-given senses, than the Liturgy itself?? These are some things to take to heart for both laity and clergy, and may we do so.

The point in talking about all this is simple - good, conservative churches that uphold the rich traditions given to us over 2000 years are harder and harder to come by, as most churches are given to spirits of entertainment and others are pushing politics rather than following Christ. Therefore, as traditional liturgical Christians, we are called to be different - we are a peculiar people and are about as countercultural as one can get, and most important, we have an unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ to share with the world around us. And, people are looking - more young people for instance are now seeing the value and structure of "old-time religion" and are beginning to seriously consider it. And, for those of us who have either walked that path previously, or those who had the privelege of being raised in a traditional liturgical environment, it is a stellar opportunity. Let us not take it lightly, as the blood of their souls could be accounted for at our hands if we do. God bless your week.