For the Sake of the Weaker Brother

Recently, I attended worshp at the congregation where I grew up.  It is a small rural congregation, so it wasn't surprising to me that even though it has been nearly thirty years since I regularly attended there, the vast majority present were the same people who were there while I was growing up.  There was the same hymnal and song book tucked under the pews.  It was all very familiar. 

One of the familiar faces is "Harold."  I'm not sure what the proper terminology is now, but "Harold" is developmentally disabled, though not severely, and he has been able to live on his own for the most part since his parents passed away.  I remember how "Harold" would come to worship every week with his parents.  They never missed a Sunday.  I also recall how "Harold" would sing along with the liturgy, recite the Creed, and pray the Lord's Prayer, often providing an ill-timed echo to the rest of the congregation, but always singing and responding with gusto.  In my teenage immaturity, it was quite annoying (even inappropriately humorous), but I was always impressed with "Harold's" enthusiasm, if not his technical skills.

I thought of this as "Harold" walked into the worship service and took his place in the pew (still the same spot if my memory serves me correctly.)  Now in his 60s, "Harold" comes to church alone.  His parents are long gone, but he still continues to worship each week.

But something was different this Sunday from all those Sundays of my memories.  I couldn't hear "Harold" sing.  His enthusiastic response was nowhere to be heard.  And I don't think it was "Harold's" fault.  You see, the hymnals stayed under the pews.  There was no formal liturgy.  There was no service written out, where everything except the propers was exactly the same week after week.  Consequently, "Harold" could no longer follow along as easily as he had once done.  He could no longer confess his sins with his fellow sinners and hear the words of absolution week after week.  He could no longer confess his faith in the words of the Apostles' or Nicene Creed.  As he prepared to come up to the Lord's Table for Christ's very body and blood, "Harold" wasn't reminded of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He didn't receive the "peace of the Lord" or pray for the Lord's mercy.  Nor was he able to sing along with Simeon afterward, confident that he was ready to depart in peace.

I don't know why these changes happened.  I couldn't even say that this is a continuous practice week after week.  It doesn't really matter.  I'm sure that there were good motives for doing: perhaps because of time restraints, or to "keep up with times" or to "reach out to others."  And it is well within a congregation's prerogative to make such changes for the sake of good order and according to local needs.  But it had the effect of shutting out one of God's children from full participation in the worship service.  Someone, who more than likely didn't have a voice in making that decision.  And that is a terrible shame. 

I know all the arguments.  The Bible doesn't give us a set form of worship; the form of worship is adiaphora; it's a matter of Christian freedom, and all others.  But aren't we also urged not to abuse this Christian freedom, lest we offend our weaker brother, lest we make it more difficult to them to hear God's Word and to receive His many blessings for Christ's sake through the Word and Sacraments?  Shouldn't we be willing to give up our Christian freedom for the sake of our weaker brother?
Consistency is a key for people like "Harold" who suffer from developmental disabilities.  Sure, they may not learn quickly, but they can learn (and memorize!) much through constant repetition.  What better things for them to learn and memorize than God's Word set to music and prayer?  That's what we have in the liturgy.  And this concern applies to other "weaker brothers" as well.  How about young children?  The elderly?  Those who have lost at least partial use of their sight, hearing, or even mind?  When they have the liturgy committed to their memory they are able to join in with the congregation, angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven in corporate worship.  Why would we want to take that away from them?

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