Have you ever been to a foreign country where the language and customs of its people were utterly strange to you? Visiting some countries is nearly an extraterrestrial experience and interestingly enough, going to the divine service for the first time can feel like one has traveled to Mars! Understanding what is going on in the divine service can be daunting for the “noobie” Lutheran, to say the least. I know something about this, since I am not a lifelong Lutheran and my first divine service was somewhat puzzling to me.
Prior to becoming a Lutheran, I was an atheist. I spent eighteen years of my adult life trying to push God out of my mind. Although, before I was an atheist I had grown up in Pentecostal groups and eventually found myself in a Conservative Baptist Association church. In fact, my last “worship service” was at that church, which followed all the cutting edge church growth methods of the day. All I ever knew about worship were the fads of the pop-church. The only exposure I had to pipe organ music, flowing robes, and chanting in a “service” was through science fiction movies like Beneath the Planet of the Apes where a nuclear bomb is the center of a liturgical service… of sorts. Ahem.
When our Lord plucked me up off the atheist trash heap and breathed faith into me through His precious Holy Word, I had no clue where to look for His Church. I firmly believe it was divine providence that brought me to my current congregation, Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and that is where I attended my first Lutheran divine service.
I hesitatingly set foot into what was to become my church home to this day. Walking into the narthex sent me into culture shock. I tried to avoid as many people as I could while I quietly slipped into the nave, found a pew and sat down, not knowing what to expect. The pastor found me and introduced himself. Honestly, I was completely shocked by his appearance. He was wearing his clericals, and I thought I must have stumbled upon a Roman Catholic church by accident. After his warm welcome my pastor disappeared into the sacristy to get dressed into his vestments, which was yet another surprise for me. I was used to seeing pastors either wearing expensive handmade suits, or going business casual. What had I gotten into?
As I sat in my pew amazed by all the colorful “thing-a-ma-jig-a-bobs” (which I later learned are called ‘paraments’ used to denote times of the Church year) hanging at specific places, the organist started playing some music. I wondered where it was coming from, since I saw no instruments at all. All the churches I previously attended had praise bands at the front of the sanctuary, but that wasn’t the case here. Looking behind me I found that the organ was in a loft at the back of the nave. At the time I found that very odd, having no idea why anyone would hide a perfectly good musician in the back of the church.
Earlier an usher had greeted me and welcomed me to the service, handing me a bulletin. At first, I thought it was just the congregation’s weekly newsletter. The Baptist church I had attended years ago had a weekly newsletter. Didn’t everyone? When I opened up the bulletin I didn’t know what I was looking at. It was somewhat familiar. I saw where the sermon was to be given, and there was the point in the service when the offering would be collected, and here and there was a reference to a hymn number. I could make something out of the bulletin, but I didn’t fully understand what I held in my hands. For instance, what is a “divine service setting”? What about “invocation” and “confession”? What are “introit” and “kyrie”? What did it all mean? I felt a little light headed and confused.
The organist warmed up to the opening hymn of the service. I turned the pages in the hymnal to find our music selection. Didn’t these people know there are projection screens? How was anyone going to wave their hands in the air if they have to hold a book? Several of these sorts of questions went through my mind; remember my only exposure to worship was Bapticostal. I began singing along with the congregation, clearing my throat and sputtering along for I am unable to carry a tune. I didn’t allow my less than average vocal talents dissuade me from loudly butchering the lyrics as I joyfully “sang” along. To this day I feel sorry for those who sit in front of me. It’s hard to listen to an ex-atheist with a horrendous voice belt out a hymn with gusto! Was that a sigh and a whispered “kyrie eleison” I heard from the parishioner within earshot of me?
The song was over and everybody started standing up. Oh, yes, I saw the queue to stand right there in my bulletin, too. The pastor came out and faced this huge ark-like looking thing which I was to learn in adult catechism class is the altar. The pastor bowed, turned and faced the congregation and declared, “In the name of the Father and of the Son…”—all around me people started making the sign of the cross and as I was about to try to do the same when—“…and of the Holy Spirit…” everyone said with one voice, “Amen!” I couldn’t keep up and right when I thought I was at a complete loss, we arrived at confession. I didn’t have to know what was going on to understand this. “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.” Yes! That is me, O’ Lord! I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed! And after confessing my sins something wonderful happened. My pastor told me that God Almighty, for the sake of His Son who died for me, forgives me all my sins. “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Tears began stinging my eyes. I didn’t see that the congregation members were crossing themselves again, my eyes were closed and my head bowed. For the first time in my life a pastor spoke with authority, with Christ’s authority. Jesus had spoken and forgave me of all my sins! That day I learned what a divine service is about: Christ coming to me with His forgiveness.
Over time the strangeness of the divine service became a blessed understanding of the intersection of heaven with earth at the altar of Christ. It took several months, but I eventually learned in my pastor’s adult catechism class about things such as Confession and Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, the division of “Service of the Word” and “Service of the Sacrament,” and about church furnishings such as paraments, the altar, and the font. Through practice I learned to chant the Introit (Latin for “entrance”) and pray the Kyrie Eleison (Greek, “Lord have mercy”) and otherwise follow along through the divine service.
Today, I understand what is going on in the Divine Service quite a bit more than when I first attended it. I am still learning new things, but looking back I am not surprised by the lack of understanding I once had of the divine service. I had been dead in sin for quite a long time; not able to comprehend the things of God.
Just like going to a foreign country, I would never think about demanding the denizens of that country change its culture just so I could feel comfortable. Instead, I would try to learn something of the language and culture of the country of which I was a guest. Likewise, there was no sense in demanding the congregation change the divine service to cater to my lack of understanding. Instead, my understanding had to be changed through teaching and that is exactly what happened. Indeed, much of what I have learned about Christ was through the divine service itself. It doesn’t feel anymore much like what it might be like to go to Mars.