This week in church we prayed Psalm 130 together: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sin, O Lord, who would stand?” Well, actually, we prayed together through an extended paraphrase of it written by John Owen, the 17th-century Puritan theologian who wrote a great big book on that one little psalm that was important in his conversion.
And in between passages of the Owen-paraphrased Psalm 130, we heard words from Martin Luther (16th century), sang hymns by Isaac Watts (18th century), Reginald Heber (19th century), and heard a quotation from Martin Lloyd-Jones (20th century). Furthermore, we read together a confession of sin from the Book of Common Prayer (16th century), which is itself a tour-de-force of Cranmerian biblical allusion.
We were freely fellowshipping with believers from six different centuries, from our position here in the 21st century. But it didn’t feel like just a quotation-fest, for three reasons: first, all those saints we were hearing from were genuinely talking about the same thing we had come together on Sunday to hear about: the forgiveness of sins. Second, we weren’t focusing our attention on those authors themselves as objects of interest, but as co-worshipers directing our attention to God and his forgiveness. Because of that, third, if worshipers didn’t catch or care about the sources of the quotations, the words themselves were aptly chosen and still did the work. We also sang the theology of Psalm 130 in a song composed by our own worship leader, Walt Harrah.
I noticed and deeply appreciated all this historical resonance as it happened, and then came the sermon: Erik Thoennes preached on I John 1:5-2:2 with an obvious zeal for personal application. To apply John’s message to your own soul, you have to be serious about disentangling all the snarled threads of self-deception that you’ve wrapped around your heart. The preacher led the congregation in that with pastoral discernment and a host of current events observations: paraphrases, statistics, illustrations of professional athletes in denial about using performance-enhancing drugs, and more.
And again it happened: All along the way, the echoes of voices from previous centuries kept coming. Augustine. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Augustus Toplady. William Law. C. S. Lewis. Samuel Rutherford. George Herbert. Blaise Pascal. All of them agreeing about the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and drawing us to confess, to listen to God’s voice in the words of First John, to walk in the light.
When we re-gathered as a congregation for the Lord’s Supper later that evening, the cloud of historical references was not quite as thick. There were a few verbal reminders, especially in the songs we sang, of the great heritage of the church. But mostly the voices from the cloud of witnesses were silent as we participated in that universal Christian act of recollection, the Lord’s Supper.
Are contemporary Christians alone in their faith when they are not conspicuously reminding themselves of the long lineage of believers in which they stand? No, we still stand in that heritage. It helps to be reminded of the fact periodically: it fills everything we do with a kind of electrical charge of tradition, by which we know and feel that we are not the first to pray these prayers, to hear this word from God, to be sent on these missions. You don’t have to hear those centuries echoing in the things we say and hear in church, but they are all there if you have ears to hear.
Here is an illustration: Last week I live-blogged the inauguration. As the event unfolded, I jotted down my observations as they came to me. As a recovering political junkie, I’m especially alert to the rhetorical echoes in presidential speeches, and President Obama’s speech was full of them: You could hear Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Kennedy, and much more. Rick Warren’s prayer echoed the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran. I got all that. Aretha Franklin spun MLK Jr. into her vocal improvisations. Got it, loved it.
But then Rev. Joseph Lowery prayed “”God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,” and though I felt the powerful impression that the words made, I heard no echoes. All I could write was “Couldn’t tell if he was reciting a poem, if the rhymes were consistent, or if it was poem-like language.” Well, I googled it later in the day, by which time a number of astute readers had e-mailed me to point out the fact that I had proven myself deaf to one of the loudest echoes of the whole event: Lowery’s first words were an extended quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, a lyric so powerful and influential that it is widely known (though not to me!) as the Black National Anthem.
Of course, I got the point of Lowery’s prayer. But I was missing out on an entire dimension of what he was saying. Picture the difference between my engagement with those words on the one hand, and the feelings and associations they must have stirred for the listeners who heard the echoes in the voice. The words “God our weary years, God of our silent tears” are powerful as they stand, but a well-equipped listener hears beneath them an abyss of depth, a whole world of American history, of black history, of civil rights history, of suffering and vindication. Compared to the richness of the what some people heard, it’s enough to make you feel sorry for my anemic powers of hearing.
Something like that is happening in church. You might just hear the words themselves, and get the main point. But there are echoes sounding powerfully in those same words, and there is real power in hearing them. I think it’s almost mandatory for Christian disciples to be able to hear some of those echoes, the canonical ones. For instance, if the preacher or the hymn calls Jesus the Lamb of God, you really ought to know that John the Baptist is being evoked, and that he was in turn interpreting an Old Testament theme. Beyond those decisive canonical echoes, there are also centuries and centuries of the communion of the saints to be heard resonating in our worship, if you have ears to hear.