Pastor Shawn Hannon
Hope Lutheran Church Arcade, NY
I’ve become increasing certain in recent days that one of the devil’s favorite games to play with the church is to convince us that our similarities are actually differences, or, at the very least, to convince us that our subtle differences are church-dividing. Consider the Lutheran and Catholic position on communion. Catholics believe that bread and wine become Jesus’ presence. Lutherans believe that Jesus’ presence is in bread and wine. If they sound remarkably similar, it’s because they are. Even the Latin names for the teachings are just a little prefix apart (trans vs. con-substantiation). Yet, when Lutherans and Catholics get together they can’t share the Lord’s Supper.
I bet the devil gets a kick out of that.
Another place I see it is in the conversation around postures of worship and types of prayers. Truth be told, I lived out this debate. When Carol and I met she was the lead singer of the praise band on campus at Geneseo and worshiped at an Evangelical church in town. I, meanwhile, was already on my way to Lutheran seminary and worshipping weekly at the Episcopalian congregation around the corner from hers. On Sundays we alternated between worship spaces. The following would inevitably include some type of debate. One week she’d wonder why Episcopalians keeping kneeling and standing and saying only printed prayers. The next week I’d wonder why the guy next to me kept raising his hands. Did he have a question or did he just really want everybody to look at him? And regarding the prayers… well… I’d simply ask if people really preferred prayers that repeated the stanza “Lord we just…” 15 times to eloquent ones that were written down.
We went in circles. It didn’t end our relationship (obviously), but neither was it easy. And, again, I’m certain the devil was quite amused.
I wish it were true that 13 years after Carol and I had these debates the church might have figured it out, but we know that is not true. The conversation lives on. In fact, these days, it’s not merely a conversation between mainline and non-denominational churches. It’s often a conversation within individual churches themselves.
But while the conversation lives on, you’ll have to forgive me for no longer picking a side. (And that’s not merely to keep the peace with my wife.) I now experience this conversation as a trap. When I hear people arguing for either side of the worship posture debate I hear them literally arguing the same points as each other.
As a traditional liturgical worshiper, let me say this: People who worship in services that incorporate bodily movement like procession, crossing yourself, dipping your hand in a font, bowing your head, kneeling to pray, and standing to honor and receive Jesus should be the last people to look at a worshiper choosing a posture of raised hands to praise Jesus and tell them that they are doing it wrong. How can a person not understand another’s desire to raise their hands as they themselves bow and kneel and stand? And on the other side of that, how can a person who recognizes the power of their posture in worship (like raising their hands) not understand how another Christian might find similar strength and comfort in falling to their knees.
We do the same thing. One church just prints it in a rubric in a bulletin. Yet we fight and, worse than that, we judge each other. We claim not just to be different, but better than our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And the devil laughs.
And these arguments about our differences distract us from God’s actual purpose for his (one) church.
I graduated to go to seminary 2 years before Carol from Geneseo. After I left campus Carol rejoiced at her opportunity to simply engage with one worshipping community for a change. And, surprisingly, she chose the Episcopalian Church. At first, it didn’t make sense to her, but as she worshipped more and we talked together she found that the rituals that seemed dead at first were full of ancient wisdom and life. And meanwhile, I had fallen in love with forms of worship that invited expressive praise. And we are both better for it.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking that something your brother in Christ thinks or does is “from the devil” remember: that’s exactly what the devil wants you to think. Instead have a conversation. You may quickly realize your standing on common ground and those differences don’t divide us, but build us up and widen the (one) church’s door so that all can see that they are welcome here.