July 7, 2009

A Democracy of the Dead

Just the other day, I had a friend who came to visit my church for Sunday worship for the first time. Jeff’s visit was quite unexpected, but I was delighted to see him. So I gave him an impromptu tour of our facility, introducing him to my friends as we went. At last we came to Fred, our minister, and they exchanged pleasantries. “Nice to meet you, Pastor.”

And there it was: The “P” word. It sounded strange to my ears, because I haven’t used it for many years now. So I explained that we simply call our preachers by name; Fred is Fred, Sam is Sam, Dave is Dave, and so on. Jesus told us that we must not call our religious leaders by fancy titles (or the clergyman himself allow it), because it implies a level of honor that belongs to God alone.

Granted, Jeff conceded, but shouldn’t we treat God’s servants with respect?

Good question. But when faced with Jeff’s humility, I suddenly found myself hard pressed to respond with anything more than a stack of pat answers and platitudes. Plus, this would be a very bad time to insult his intelligence or his motives. So this is what I came up with:

As a child, I attended a church that was steeped in many holy traditions. They had a rigidly structured liturgy, and I was required to memorize a number of old rote prayers and recite them at all the right times. I learned how to sit-stand-sit-sing-smile-kneel-chant on cue. And no one ever expected anything more from me.

Similarly, we were all taught to call our minister by a title, whether Pastor or Reverend; it was a sign of respect toward God’s servant. We knew no other way, so we did as we were told.

Here’s the problem: I learned much about rituals and routines, but very little about the mindset and attitudes that I should cultivate as a baby Christian. And as long as I complied, no one questioned my spirituality. In my youth, I was never expected to make a spontaneous expression of my faith. Never had to make up a prayer on the spot out of my own heartfelt love for God. I didn’t have to believe it or understand it. I just had to do.

Mechanical obedience, following the old customs, didn’t make me a Christian. Reciting prayers didn’t teach me how to pray. Following a fixed liturgy required no faith or virtue or devotion on my part. And calling my preacher by a title didn’t teach me respect; my friends and I still had plenty of bad attitudes anyway. It just created a social gulf between us, a separate elitist class within the congregation, where we could never be brothers.

In a less structured setting, however, we don't have such baggage and I can't fake it.

So when raise my hands in prayer;

Or if I make a public show of reverence toward our minister;

Or when I shout "amen" during the sermon;

Or if I should anonymously drop a few extra dollars in the collection plate;

Or when I close my eyes in reflection...

It's not because the deacons are looking over my shoulder, or I have a script telling me that it's the appointed time. Instead, it's because I really want to be there, and I am genuinely moved my the presence of God. It's truly me, truly worshiping my Creator, not just a mindless routine of worshiping the act of worship.

G. K. Chesterton had it right: "Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."

1 comment:

  1. You're right Steve.

    I encourage people not to call me pastor as a matter of habit - but if it naturally comes out on a given day as a signal of respect or honor, I'll accept it for what it is.

    I think I offend some pastors sometimes though by NOT calling them pastor every time I speak to them - maybe I should email them a link to this post!