new Mennonite Life logo    September 2000     vol. 55 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

The Trinity as a Template for Worship

Marlene Kropf

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Marlene Kropf leading a worship session at the
(Credit: James C. Juhnke)
Several times during these days we have heard the Trinity affirmed: God as Creator, Christ, Spirit. I, for one, appreciate that emphasis because I believe the shape, activity and relationships of the Trinity are a template for the church and also for worship -- and thus a guide for our project here: a vision for the church of the future.

We heard an implicit Trinitarian image of the church in the opening manifestos. Both Karl Koop and Arnold Snyder spoke of two dimensions or aspects of the church as essential. Karl spoke of doxology and witness/mission. Arnold spoke of spiritual rebirth and the consequent life of discipleship. Behind and forming those aspects of the church are the biblical/theological concepts of God as Creator, Source, the One we praise, and God as Spirit, Energy, Animator in the world.

It fell to a woman to complete the picture. Brenda Martin Hurst's image of the church was the "one-another-community who wash each other's feet" ­ i.e., the church as followers of Christ, the body of Christ. Pastor Pam also affirmed this understanding of the church.

Among them all, we heard that the distinguishing (and hoped for) marks of our church for the future are:

  • a church of doxology, praise, worship of the living God;
  • a church that is a one-another-community, following Christ in washing each other's feet;
  • a church that is a Spirit-energized witness and servant in the world.

Thus the trinitarian identity of God as Creator-Christ-Spirit is reflected and made known in the very being and activity of the church.

To make a connection between this trinitarian vision of the church and the arena of worship, I must make a small detour. Forty or fifty years ago, Mennonite worship was homogeneous. Whether you worshiped in Ontario, Ohio, Oregon, or anyplace inbetween, in my branch of the Mennonite Church worship looked a lot alike anywhere you traveled. Without benefit of prayer books or a worship czar in the denomination, we sang the same songs, preached similar sermons, followed the same patterns of worship, and even our prayers sounded the same.

I know this to be true because I left Oregon as an 18-year-old to attend Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. There I was surprised to hear the same cadences in the Sunday morning prayers, the same themes and phrases as I had heard growing up in a Mennonite congregation in Oregon.

One of my special memories of worship from that congregation is the taste of communion bread. It was like no other bread ever served ­ rich, buttery and wonderful, more like shortbread than regular bread. My grandfather, Hugh Wolfer, was a deacon in the church, which made my grandmother, Ina Wolfer, the deacon's wife ­ and it was the responsibility of the deacon's wife to bake the communion bread. A few years ago it occurred to me that someone in the family must have the communion bread recipe, so I asked for it, and it was found.

Not long ago when I was perusing a Mennonite cookbook from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, what should I discover but that same communion bread recipe! I was able to trace its journey from Virginia to Elida, Ohio, and across the Plains and thence to Oregon. For me, that communion bread stands as a symbol of the simple, sturdy worship of my people which sustained us, transmitted our Christian-Anabaptist faith, and bound us together across a continent and beyond.

All that has changed. Worship no longer looks the same across the continent, let alone in the same area conference or in the same city. What has happened is postmodernity ­ the breakdown of community, the rise of pluralism, and the loss of what was our center. I don't think any discussion about vision for Anabaptist worship in the new millennium can ingore this cultural reality. And as Mennonites we aren't especially well equipped to deal with this shift, having clung to community and conformity as defining features of our way of life.

Three quick comments about postmodernity ­ and then several brief reflections about what this means for worship in the future, especially trinitarian worship.

  • In postmodernity, the world of science has shifted from a mechanistic worldview to a dynamic worldview;
  • the world of philosophy has shifted from confidence in reason to confidence in knowledge gained through experience;
  • the world of communication has shifted from print media to audio-visual media.

The information revolution for baby boomers meant that television shaped our world: tv told us what was funny, what was sad, and what we needed to buy. In contrast, today's postmodern youth control their own choices (or think they do) through participation in a digital environment: they change their screen colors, change the way their music sounds, and even change the wallpaper in digital reality with the click of a mouse.

Someone gave me a brief, handy definition for postmodernity which helps me understand what we're talking about:

  • the premodern person says: the text is sacred;
  • the modern person asks: what does the text mean?
  • the postmodern person says: who needs a text?

In other words, in postmodernity we make our own text: we do not want to be viewers; instead we want to be doers, makers, performers.

What does this have to do with worship?

In worship, reality is shaped by participants: the virtual reign of God is generated by the creative Word of God. An interactive environment is created in worship ­ dynamic, experiential, multi-sensory ­ in which the reign of God becomes visible. What happens every week on Sunday morning is a rehearsal for the other six days of our week: on this one day we live the way the world is meant to be.

For worship to create such a vision, however, requires the full, conscious and active participation of worshipers: adults, children and youth. And although it would be useful for us to talk about what this means in terms of all that happens in worship ­ singing, praying, preaching, etc. ­ because of our time limits I must restrict discussion to only one arena, an arena which particularly fits the postmodern agenda: the arena of the rituals of the church.

Ritual is a human thing before it is a churchy thing. We will have rituals as human beings. The question is whether our rituals will be life-giving. We must also recognize that Anabaptist-Mennonites have a love-hate relationship with rituals. A bit of history from The Martyrs' Mirror helps us remember this point:

On November 18, 1527, a widow who had been imprisoned for her beliefs was brought to the Hague and arraigned before the governor and full council of Holland. When she was asked, "What do you hold concerning the sacrament?", she replied, "I hold your sacrament to be bread and flour, and if you hold it as God, I say that it is your devil."

For two days a variety of people continued to question her. When her inquisitor asked her what she believed concerning holy oil, she retorted, "Oil is good for salad or to oil your shoes with."

These are strong words. Strong convictions. Modern convictions ­ still spoken today. Not long ago I heard someone say, "It's only water. I didn't feel any different afterward."

But at Jesus' baptism, the story was different: the heavens were torn apart; the Spirit descended like a dove; a voice from heaven spoke gracious words, unforgettable words: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And Jesus' life was transformed.

Our Anabaptist ancestors had good rational explanations for their mistrust of symbols. The state and the state church had attempted to control the sacraments. They decided who could receive God's grace and from whom grace would be withheld (is it possible this is also happening today when we decide who can be a member of the church and who cannot?). The free-flowing grace of God was dammed up, hidden behind a barrier of ecclesiastical tradition and authority.

No wonder the widow said, "I say your sacrament is your devil." Had I been present, I might well have answered the same.

It is true that rituals are sometimes only repetition, sometimes empty, sometimes too leader or priest-oriented, and sometimes leave no room for Spirit. It is also true, however, that the disparagement of ritual has done much to engender our age of anxiety. Human beings cannot live without ritual; we lose our souls when we lose our rituals.

The particular power of ritual is that it is a performance. We do it ­ and we are transformed. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the ancient wisdom of the church, says that first we pray or worship, and then we believe: thus how we pray or worship becomes what we believe and live by.

And here is where we return to the Trinity. Anthropologists, social scientists and liturgists all speak of three fundamental gifts of ritual: order, community, and transformation ­ roughly translated, these represent God, Christ and the Spirit. Let me explain further. The following ideas are my brief summary of chapters 7-9 in Tom Driver's Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual, published in 1998 by Westview Press.

1. Order ­ the first gift of ritual

By the gift of order is meant the establishment of security, boundaries, and a sense of trust. Good rituals not only remind us of an underlying cosmic order ­ that God created heaven and earth and that we are in God's care; ritual also participates in the making and restoring of order. Think of the chaos that erupts when a family member dies and then of the sense of stability and comfort provided by a good funeral rite. A ritual acts like a prism allowing us to see the world through a sacred lens, a lens of ultimate meaning, and restores our trust in Providence.

2. Community ­ the second gift of ritual

A second great gift of ritual is community. Ritual not only brings people together in physical assembly; it also joins them emotionally and spiritually. Tom Driver reminds us that "a ritual is a party at which emotions are welcome." We weep tears of joy at a wedding or baptism; we succumb to our grief at a funeral; we solemnly remember Jesus' death when we break bread and share the cup on Maundy Thursday; we sing for joy and celebrate the feast of the risen Christ on Easter Sunday.

Even Menno Simons got caught up in the joy of communion! In a rather weighty essay on Christian doctrine, he breaks into ecstasy in an attempt to describe the glorious and holy mysteries of the Lord's Supper:

Oh, delightful assembly and Christian marriage feast (he says over and over again) where the hungry consciences are fed with the heavenly bread of the divine Word, with the wine of the Holy Ghost, and where the peaceful, joyous souls sing and play before the Lord (p, 148, Complete Works).

Imagine that: Menno playing before the Lord!

In the midst of these simple human actions ­ washing, eating, drinking, anointing ­ and in the midst of shared sorrow and joy, a people is created and a new community is born. Someone compared this function of ritual to the action of a mother bear who licks her cubs into shape after birth. We are "licked into shape" as a people, as a community, by our rituals.

3. Transformation ­ the third gift of ritual

A third gift, a wondrous gift of ritual, is transformation. Good ritual not only supports the order that has come down to us; it transforms that order, and it transforms us. Perhaps this is the most important function of ritual ­ this capacity to let us jump ahead to the end of the book and get a glimpse of the end of the story.

That transformative function of ritual happens in two ways: in the words we speak and in the actions we perform. The words of ritual are powerful words. As we speak, God moves ­ not in a magical sense but in the moment when our intentions open us to God's transforming power. Think of baptism, for example, and the direct address to the powers being confronted.

The new Christian is asked, "Do you, in the presence of God and this assembly, solemnly renounce the Devil and all his works, and declare the Lord to be your God?"

He or she says, "I do."

And the celebrant says, "Upon your confession of faith, I baptize you with water in the name of God the Creator, the Redeemer, and Sustainer. May God baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

And a new creature is born.

Such transformation happens all the time in our rituals. As recently as last Sunday I heard this story in my own congregation ­ a story of a footwashing ritual. For our purposes here I'll call the characters Bill and Bob, the first a man in his 50's, the second a man in his early 30's.

Bill and Bob had known one another in another state before moving to Indiana. Bob worked on the staff of a church institution; Bill served on the board of the institution. When a conflict arose among the staff and the board was slow to respond and take remedial action, Bob wrote a heated letter of complaint to the board. Eventually the crisis was resolved. Though there were wounded feelings and a loss of trust, Bob and Bill communicated with one another and thought they had patched up their differences.

Then came Maundy Thursday in our church fellowship hall. After a simple meal and communion, the basins and towels were set out for footwashing. Bob sat at one table, Bill at another. Bob said, "While we waited, I saw Bill out of the corner of my eye. An inner voice said, "You ought to wash Bill's feet." I thought, "No, we've taken care of our differences." And then Bob said, "I asked, 'Is that you, God'?" And the inner nudge came again.

So Bob asked to wash Bill's feet. They embraced afterwards ­ and something broke open in both of them. Later they had lunch together where they completed the restoration process. And last Sunday on Pentecost both of them stood before the congregation to tell their story ­ a testimony of the Spirit's enlivening, transforming work made possible in the midst of ritual.

In postmodernity, many of us are spiritually at risk. We are stuck in a world without a center. As a word of comfort and hope, someone has said: "Ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied a ceremony of love" (Andre Dubus in The Times Are Never So Bad). The church of the future, inhabiting a secular, postmodern landscape, will need rituals, a trinitarian theology and yes ­ the memory and practices of our heritage ­ to continue to dance this ceremony of love we call worship.