Peter Marty: Elements of the Lord's Day: Into Our Ears

Luther pushed for oral experience of word of God in worship

If you worship in a Lutheran church, you can expect someone to read Scripture during the service. Count on it. It's going to happen. Somewhere during the first half hour or so a man, woman or child will stand up, walk over to a podium and read some ancient words.

Those words may be printed in a book that's so heavy the altar guild hasn't touched it in years. Or they may come from an unfolded piece of paper, freshly warmed from the reader's pocket. Just don't expect a scroll. Christians let go of those before you were born.

Week in and week out, Christians tie their lives to the testimony of some long-ago-people who felt the pulse of God beating in their hearts. Just when we're ready to dismiss those ancients as irrelevant to our lives, a lightbulb often goes on in our heads. (The Spirit doesn't just use wind, fire and breath, by the way. Lightbulbs are in there too.) 

If we can get our heads into what is actually being read - and out of wondering whether we'll get the leaves raked before dark or the laundry done before dawn-something happens. We find that these prophets and evangelists lived with some of the identical hopes, fears and dreams we tow around today. Their lives were no less scrappy and no more put together than ours seem to be. Their kinship is blessed comfort.

Don't worry if the lector or reader in your church lacks the polish of a TV news anchor. Just be proud of her for doing her best. Speaking a word of the Lord that is throbbing with life and expectation is never easy. It's not like calling your sister on the phone. The knees of all readers should quiver once they realize something holy is in the offing.

If the reader mumbles, that's another story. It probably means he didn't prepare very well for the day. Muttering through Scripture is about as valuable as reading instructions out loud for changing a flat tire. There is a difference between reading words offered for the transformation of the world, and words drafted for a glove compartment manual. 

You may have your own favorite readers within the congregation. I do best with the ones whom I can't detect are actually reading from a page, were I to close my eyes. I do least well with those who are overcoached to make a lot of eye contact. All the jerky head movements make it appear as if they're bobbing for apples. 

If you personally have taken on the assignment of reading Scripture before a worshiping congregation, try to read as if each opportunity of yours is the first, the only and the last time you will ever read those words in your life. If you can read in this way, the people will be blessed. Note: Please do not fall in love with your own voice.

Martin Luther pushed for an oral experience of Scripture in worship. He believed the word of God deserves to bounce off the walls and into our ears. Like a lover sharing tender words with your eyes, instead of writing them down for you to read, Luther found more power in the spoken than the written word. 

"We can't see words," the writer Phyllis Tickle says. "We have to hear them."

By definition, when we see, we stand back and look; when we hear, we draw close. This may be why Jesus left us no written words of his own. The Bible only has words he spoke.

"Let those who have ears, listen," Jesus announced to crowds. He didn't say, "Let those who have eyes, read." In fact, he woud be surprised at the forests we annihilate just to get private copies of the day's readings in our worship bulletins. He'd probably be even more astounded to see everyone's head buried in an insert.

Surely there are times to analyze, evaluate and study Scripture. Most of us have a hankering to dissect it. But when worship rolls over you this coming week, just try to hear the words. Listen intently. God wants to give your inner ear membrane a workout ... and see how it translates into faith. 

Taken with permission from the October issue of The Lutheran magazine.