Monday, April 16, 2012

Paying for the Ambiance

Recent conversations with a younger colleague have included a fair amount of deja vu, as he has been experiencing many of the same things that I did in my first several years as a pastor. He's a good and faithful man, and I'm impressed with the way that he's handling himself and responding to the various situations that he faces. I know that he's going to do well, but I'm also glad for the chance to serve him as a sounding board and a sympathetic ear, because I know how much it meant to me, when I was at that point, to find the same.

As I listen to my friend and colleague, and as I recall my own past experience, I take note again how powerful ceremonies are. Little things clearly mean a lot, in this respect, and all the rhetoric in the world will not render the actual practice of adiaphora insignificant. Something as simple and unobtrusive as the sign of the cross, or as basic and biblical as kneeling before the Lord, can make a lasting impression. The freedom of such things does not rob them of real point and purpose.

At the same time, I also realize with growing clarity that there is something else at work, which, while it does permeate and inform the use of reverent ceremonies, is already yet deeper than ceremony and prior to it. Of course, I'm not here referring to the constitutive ceremonies of the Holy Sacraments, which are foundational and central to the Church and to the Christian faith and life. Rather, I'm talking about an attitude of the heart and mind that precedes the use of godly human ceremonies, such as vestments and chanting, the sign of the cross, elevation and genuflection.

The attitude of which I speak is a matter of repentant faith, but also of theological conviction. It belongs to personal piety, reverence and worship, but also to pastoral commitment, faithfulness and service. It will insist on that which God has commanded, and refuse what He has forbidden. It will also leave free what God has left free; which means that it may live without the use of godly human ceremonies, and it may allow the use of less-than-ideal practices, in love for the neighbor. Lay people may tolerate more or fewer ceremonies than they prefer, for the sake of hearing the Gospel rightly preached and receiving the Sacrament according to the Word of Christ. Pastors, likewise, may practice more or fewer ceremonies than they prefer, in order to care for their congregations with gentle kindness and evangelical patience. I know that many pastors, including my young friend and colleague, willingly compromise their own preferences for the sake of pastoral care. It is good and right that they do.

Yet, the attitude of which I speak still emerges, no matter how few or many ceremonies it may exercise in practice. It makes an impression and leaves a mark, sometimes in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on. I have in mind an ambiance that permeates every word, every movement, whether in sparse simplicity or with the most elaborate and extensive ceremony. By the same token, such ambiance cannot be faked by any amount of formality, if the attitude of the heart and mind is absent.

A pastor who understands and loves the Gospel as the open heart of God in Christ — by which sinners are forgiven and the ungodly are justified by grace, by the Atonement of the Lord's own Cross and Passion — such a pastor cannot help but preach and teach in harmony with that Gospel. A pastor who knows the beauty and benefit of Holy Absolution will be engaged in genuine pastoral care, in conversation as in the confessional; because the Office of the Keys defines the entire Office of the Holy Ministry, which is not only what the pastor does, but who he is. A pastor who has realized and perceives that Holy Baptism is fundamental and foundational to the entire Christian faith and life, and that the Holy Communion is the beating heart and center of the Church, cannot help but orientate himself and everything he does in relation to those Holy Sacraments. His whole bearing and demeanor will bend and gravitate toward those means of grace, like a plant finding the sunlight; whether he finds himself able to elevate the Sacrament or bend the knee before it; with or without traditional vestments.

Where there is the attitude of which I speak, there will be the ambiance I have in mind: an ambiance that exudes the most reverent High Church Liturgy and the most ancient catholicity of the Lord's Bride, fully adorned as a Queen by His Gospel, even when she must content herself with the simple attire of a humble peasant in her life on earth.

Where there is that attitude and ambiance, a new pastor is likely to pay for it, even as he bends over backwards to accommodate the people of his congregation with gentleness and patient care. He may give up and do without godly human ceremonies, and move ever so slowly with respect to any changes in practice. And yet, the people will perceive that there is something about this new pastor and his practice, something that still says "catholic." They will feel the ambiance, even though they can't identify the source or cause of it. Many of the people may be uncomfortable at first, but, given time, most of them will grow into it and learn to love it, because, in their faithful pastor's preaching and teaching, they will learn to discover its source in the Gospel. Others will continue to chafe at the catholic ambiance they feel, and they will continue to agitate against it. Sadly, in some cases, those people will succeed in driving their pastor into the ground, or driving him away. In other cases, also sadly, they will give up and go away themselves, refusing to receive the good gifts that God would give them through their pastor.

But the pastor who really knows and loves the Gospel, who knows its heart and center in the Sacrament, cannot do away with the ambiance that undergirds his every move and permeates his every word. He may not even realize what it is that's making people respond in the way they are, especially when he's doing everything he can to put them at ease and to earn their trust and confidence as a tender shepherd of the Lord's sheep, as a loving father of the Lord's children. It may well break his heart at times, to see people get frustrated with him, to get angry at him, and even to leave the Church because of what he's "doing." But, in truth, it isn't anything he's "doing," so much as it is simply who and what he is: a man of the Gospel.

The ambiance of the Gospel is the warp and woof of true catholicity, and it neither can nor should be done away with. It is neither artifice nor affectation, but comprises an attitude of genuine affection for Christ Jesus.

Here is the good news, which neither the pastor nor the people have to pay for, because it has been purchased by the Lord Jesus and it is given freely to His Church by Him: The ambiance of His Gospel really does adorn even the humblest celebration of the Divine Service with the glorious beauty of heaven. Where His forgiveness is preached and heard, where His Body and Blood are given and received, there is the Lord's Temple on earth, outdoing King Solomon and surpassing the Emperor Justinian. There is an ambiance that no five-star restaurant on earth could ever hope to achieve. As such, the faithful pastor who must forego the use of many godly human ceremonies should not suppose that he or his congregation are lacking anything in piety, reverence, or worship. Let him constrain and discipline himself in the conduct of the Service, in the administration of the Sacrament, but let him do so in the confidence that the Church and Liturgy of Christ are adorned with His grace, mercy and peace.


  1. Brilliant. It really is the attitude of reverence that offends. "No more children's sermons/puppet shows? C'mon, Pastor, lighten up!"


  2. "Many of the people may be uncomfortable at first, but, given time, most of them will grow into it and learn to love it, because, in their faithful pastor's preaching and teaching, they will learn to discover its source in the Gospel."

    This is why so many pastors, I believe, are surprised by how their people speak of them once they have left for another post. You're always a martyred saint once you leave.

    Our joy as pastors tends toward the "in a little while" that our Lord speaks of in John. Our joy is always coming, anticipated, eagerly awaiting. It is there, but not quite. And so we can move forward, even perhaps with a smirk on our face, knowing that we, in this case, do know a little better than they do regarding what dividends our gracious God will give for this faithfulness and ambiance. So that we will, in much the same way as St. Paul, say "I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers,[a] that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God" (Romans 16:14-17).


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