Friday, March 15, 2013

Mark's thoughts: The liturgy and pastoral care for the young and for the elderly

When I arrived at Good Shepherd, Beverly was a homebound member because of a stroke.  She was still mentally alert, and while she was able to live in her own apartment with some help coming in at different times during the day, she was no longer able to speak.  Bev could think the thoughts but she was completely unable to speak the words.

Visiting Bev was a very frustrating experience for both of us.  You could tell that she was a sweet, dear woman.  She was frustrated because she couldn’t have a conversation with me. I was frustrated because I knew that she had great stories from her past.  I learned from my head elder that Bev had been a secretary in the office of the Green Bay Packers from the time of Vince Lombardi to Brett Favre.  Even as a Chicago Bears fan, I would have loved to hear the stories she had to tell!  Yet because of circumstances our conversations could only go in one direction, as I told her about what was happening at church and in the life of my family.

Very early on we were celebrating the Divine Service in her apartment using the order of service for the communion of the sick and homebound.  I was speaking all of the parts of the liturgy.  When we arrived at the Sanctus, suddenly, I heard Bev say the words: “Holy, holy, holy.”  I was so shocked, I almost stopped what I was doing.  Somehow, something about those words that she has sung all of her life triggered her mind in such a way that she was able to speak them.

Pastors who use the liturgy experience things like this over and over.  We visit aged homebound members who suffer from various degrees of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  The person may be confused about where they are during the time that we visit with them.  But then we begin to celebrate the Divine Service, and something amazing happens.  Lips begin to move as the member speaks the Creed; the Preface; the Sanctus; the Our Father from the liturgy.  They hear the comforting words of Christ’s Gospel gifts and respond in words of praise.  They are no longer simply in a nursing home, but are linked to their congregation and the community of faith throughout the ages.  For that time, the monotony and trials of life are broken by the experience of heaven on earth as they join the saints and the heavenly hosts in the liturgy.

The liturgy is made up of Scripture and it has been built around the reading and proclamation of God’s Word, and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these gifts as it teaches us the faith.

The liturgy is also one of the most important tools for pastoral care that the Church possesses.  The repetition of the liturgy is not mere repetition.  Instead it is implanting words into us so that are ready to be used by the Holy Spirit in the reception of Christ’s gifts and the response of praise – no matter where this takes place.  The repeated use of the liturgy makes it part of us and thereby allows us to experience the Divine Service in spite of age and illness.

It is therefore crucial that we teach our children the liturgy – both for the present and the future.  This is a task that a congregation needs to take seriously in the weekly celebration of the Divine Service, in Sunday school and in catechesis at all levels.

The noted Lutheran musician Carl Schalk offers some helpful comments about this topic in a brief piece entitled “Growing Up in Worship” that appears in his wonderful little book First Person Singular: Reflections on Worship, Liturgy and Children (St. Louis: Morningstar Music Publishers, 1998, 45-46):

Young children like to pretend they are adults.  When they think no one is watching, girls dress up in their mother’s “grown-up” clothes, or try on their mother’s makeup.  Boys like to hop into the driver’s seat of the family car, grab the steering wheel, and pretend to drive.  Children are eager to show they are growing up and can do new grown-up things.

And parents are proud to see their children grow and mature.  “You’ll never guess what little Johnnie can do now,” say proud parents to their friends and neighbors.  “My, how you’ve grown,” say proud grandparents.   Parents are proud of their children and grandchildren as they mature, grow, and learn to do new things.  And parents help their children learn what they need to know as they develop and mature, and help them avoid that which stunts or retards their growth.

Everywhere, apparently, but how about in church?

Not that churches are not teaching their children.  In every parish children are learning about worship.  In too many, however, they are learning the wrong things.  In some churches they soon discover that real worship is for “adults only” as they are whisked out of the sanctuary to “children’s church” elsewhere in the building.  In others, they learn by example that, above all else, worship must be fun.  They quickly catch on that worship – in many places trivialized beyond belief – is seen essentially as entertainment. And they soon learn that in many churches any serious attempt to teach and nurture children – to help them grow up – in the worship of the Christian community seems to have no place at all.

Many other churches are helping young children to grow in worship. More congregations are helping children to participate by teaching them the simple melodies of the liturgy, helping them to learn the songs of God’s family in which they, too, can participate.  As children from the congregation gather around the font at baptisms, pastors and parishes are helping children learn what baptism means in their lives as well.

As children participate in singing – whether at their parents’ side or in parish school choirs – they are beginning to learn the songs of God’s people at worship: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  In many ways and in many places, parents, teachers, and congregations, by their example and patient teaching, are nurturing children in the worship life of the church.

As parishes begin another year, perhaps it is not too much to ask that the nurture of children in the worship life of the church takes on a new seriousness.  For many churches it is the continuance of a task they have always taken seriously.  For others, it will be a seriousness which, in too many places, will be a first.


  1. The liturgy teaches us how to die... with the Word on our lips. "Who dieth thus dies well."

  2. In our church when I was a kid, we attended church. Sunday School was right after church and began with the slightly shortened version of Matins that appears in The Children's Hymnal. In some churches, the kids are in church up to the beginning of the sermon and then taken to Sunday School.