High Five or Holy Blessing

This past week I had a chance to spend some time with one of my in-laws on a hunting trip we took together with some other family members. Interspersed amid our laughter, high fives for a good shot, and general camaraderie, he told me of a recent trip back to his wife’s home (LCMS) church.

The congregation was celebrating Holy Communion. My in-law’s family custom (as with many families) is to bring their young children forward with them to receive a holy blessing from the pastor while they partake of the Lord’s Supper.

In this case, as usual, their seven-year-old daughter went forward to receive the blessing. The congregation had a new young associate pastor, who, as I understand it, is well liked by the congregation. They were on his side for the distribution. When my niece came forward for the blessing, the young pastor held his out his hand, however it was not to give a blessing, but to give a “high five.” My niece was puzzled, but obliged, and was then ushered on. Then they all returned to their seats and, as it was related to me, had one of those “what just happened” moments.

I do not know the young pastor, nor is it my desire to disparage his ministry, and I do not know if this is his regular practice. In fact, I am confident he is most likely a fine young man. My prayer for him is that the Lord continues to use him to faithfully feed the lambs of His kingdom. But what strikes me, at least for the purposes of this blog, is how easily sacred rituals and holy acts continue to be traded out for secular and fashionable acts.

It is telling, and perhaps disquieting, when people who long for the holy and sacred notice when they are missing. Unfortunately this is an ever increasing trend among Lutherans. Old Testament (Australian) Lutheran Scholar, John Kleinig, has much to say about it:

I fear that such talk of holiness tends to fall on rather deaf ears even in Lutheran circles for a number of reasons. First, we are traditionally accustomed to equate holiness with morality. Sanctification is then regarded as nothing more than the life of moral renewal and good works which follows on justification. Secondly, we have been told, and some of us have even been convinced, that Jesus got rid of the primitive, half-pagan distinction between the sacred and the profane. After all, didn’t Jesus, and Paul after him, maintain that everything which God has created was good, and therefore holy? Thirdly, much modern scholarship tends to regard those parts of the Old Testament which are dominated by the language of holiness, like the ‘priestly’ sections of the Pentateuch and the book of Ezekiel, as corrected by the prophets and superseded by our Lord. Fourthly, we are uneasy about too keen an interest in holiness, for we tend to associate it largely with Catholic sacramentalism, Calvinist rigorism, Methodist revivalism and Pentecostal enthusiasm. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we have been so indoctrinated by the cultural secularism of our desacralised society that we have lost a sense for what is holy.

Whatever the reason, the language of holiness is as lost on us as a foreign tongue. Many of us have become quite unfamiliar with the grammar of holiness. This loss of a sense for holiness has, I believe, created some problems for us in the Lutheran church. Most obviously, many of our people see little reason for them to attend worship. If they do attend, our pattern of worship makes little or no sense to them. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf; see also his must have Concordia Commentary on Leviticus).

Lutheran pastor and professor, John Pless, has also detailed this for quite some time: Church buildings in their very design were once built to reflect the fact that here we come into the presence of Holy God. The chancel was lifted up giving prominence to the altar as the symbol of the Lord’s presence. An altar rail draws a line between God and the world. The Baptismal font was given a prominent place, often near the door of the church reminding worshipers that we have access to God only through the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. Stained glass windows illustrated the holy history of our salvation. Nowadays church buildings are designed that look very secular, like auditoriums. And it is no wonder that the things which transpire within them have little connection with heavenly realities. Ministers act as though they were talk show hosts, not stewards of the mysteries of God. Homemade liturgies tell us more about the creativity of those who devised them than they do about the Triune God. (“Holy Lord… Holy Things…Holy People,” 1998 Agnus Dei conference paper, pdf.)

Pastors stand as those who have been given by the Lord to give Holy things for God’s Holy people, particularly in worship. As Kleinig notes: The language of holiness is therefore the language of worship, for holiness has to do with God’s presence, and access to that presence is given in worship. Where God is present, there holiness is to be found; where he is worshipped according to his word, there his presence sanctifies his people and everything connected with their worship. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf).

Thus, when a holy ritual (i.e. a blessing of God’s holy name) is traded out for a secular ritual (i.e. a “high five”) God’s holiness is unnecessarily withheld and worshipers are left confused, or worse, taught to see the holiness of God given in worship as equivalent to the rituals of a hunting trip or sports event.

Kleinig sums it up well: Every pastor is either a witting or unwitting ritualist. He is, after all, responsible for the performance of that ritual which is necessary for the communication of the Gospel to the members of his congregation. That is not always an easy business, nor is its importance always appreciated; for, while the Lutheran Church has traditionally been a liturgical church, it exists in a culture where liturgical worship, with its emphasis on corporate and supernatural activity, has become alien, incomprehensible, and even nonsensical to many people. So, unless the pastor understands the role of ritual in worship, and creates some appreciation for it by his leadership, both he and his congregation will suffer confusion. They will be caught between the devil of trendy, liturgical innovation, and the deep blue sea of obstinate, liturgical traditionalism. As a church we, therefore, need to perform our rituals wittingly, without becoming either reactionary ritualists, insensitive to the needs of people, or individualistic anti-ritualists who damage our congregations. We may even eventually come to a rather unexpected appreciation of the liberating power and enriching beauty of ritual.  (“Witting or Unwitting Ritualists,” Lutheran Theological Journal 22/1, 1988, 22).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford



6 responses to “High Five or Holy Blessing

  1. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    To be sure, the Lutheran Confessions allow some wiggle room. “Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has, according to its circumstances, the good right, power, and authority [in matters truly adiaphora] to change, to diminish, and to increase them, without thoughtlessness and offense, in an orderly and becoming way, as at any time it may be regarded most profitable, most beneficial, and best for [preserving] good order, [maintaining] Christian discipline [and for eujtaxiva worthy of the profession of the Gospel], and the edification of the Church” (SD X:9). But, I would submit that the reformers were more conservative than we might think.

    I’m not sure if this is uniquely North American, but the loss of holiness presents a very real problem that is not an adiaphoron. We confess the holy Christian and apostolic Church, the one that exists forever, both hidden and revealed. As we approach All Saints’ Day, we would do well to consider that those who have gone before us in the faith still have a say in the Church because they are still part of it. Do the things which we do in worship confess the unending unity in Christ which we share with those who have gone before us?

    God bless!
    Rev. Kevin Jennings

  2. Rev. Gerald Heinecke

    As a relatively new pastor, I found this a very thought provoking article and quite the encouragement to go dig into my Leviticus commentary from Kleinig more. I have great appreciation for the Liturgy and I love the simple, but great mysteries that I continue to mine out of it as we receive Christ’s grace. I would have one question though, you spoke of the role of ritual in worship, but how would you describe it?

    • Dear Rev. Heinecke,

      I would probably describe it very similar to how Dr. John Kleinig describes it is his article, “Witting or Unwitting Ritualists”:

      “On reflection, I am convinced that, for Lutherans, ritual is just as important as doctrine. In fact, the one cannot be understood properly apart from the other… Yet rituals do not just embody the basic values of a community; they constitute and maintain its common life. The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge this function when they insist that rites and ceremonies are necessary for ‘the good order’ and ‘well being’ of the Church. Rituals are not just dramatic performances which celebrate what people have in common; they are performative actions which do what they mean. So, for example, the ceremony of marriage doesn’t just express either the real or ideal form of relationship between a man and a woman; it makes them husband and wife, and so creates a new social unit. The ritual of ordination makes a person a pastor in the church.” (“Witting or Unwitting Ritualists,” Lutheran Theological. Journal 22/1, 1988, 13-22)

      In addition, I would describe the ritual of worship in terms of the ritual of the church year celebrations we regularly mark, along with the weekly rituals found in the Divine Service, including things like (but not limited to) making the sign of the cross, confession and absolution, singing or speaking the Kyrie, eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood, and receiving the Lord’s Blessing at the benediction. In other words, those rituals that either accompany or actually enact the life of faith in receiving God’s grace. To be sure, there is some freedom in the rituals we choose to use, but at the same time, I think there is great significance to teaching why we do what we do in worship (and life for that matter). Hope that helps.


      Rev. Woodford

      • Rev. Gerald Heinecke

        Thank you for the response, I would certainly agree with all you said, although I probably wouldn’t have written it that well! Dr. Klienig is a great blessing to Lutheranism and Christianity as a whole as we struggle with this world who wants to do away with rituals without realizing what they are doing! Keep up the great posts.

  3. Gerald Heinecke

    thank you for providing the link!

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