A Liturgy of Doubt

By Paul Koch

There is great comfort found in the traditional liturgy of the Church. When you wander into a congregation gathered around the gifts of Christ, the liturgy of their worship provides a rhythm and focus to the things that are happening. There is a movement and purpose that aids in carrying the individual from whatever was going before that moment into a genuine experience with the Almighty located in Word and Sacrament.

And just as there is a rhythm to a single worship service, so there is a yearly rhythm to the life of the Church. We move from the arrival of our Lord in the little town of Bethlehem, to his arrival on a donkey in the city of Jerusalem, to his death on a cross and victorious resurrection. Throughout the church year, we move through emphases of our Lord’s life as we attend even today to his words and actions.

As a pastor, I’ve always found great comfort in the liturgy. I don’t view it as some sort of limiting factor in my vocation but as a crucial tool that frees me to focus on the task of preaching and teaching. I don’t have to start from scratch. I can rely on the well-established rhythms that have served the Church for so many years. My work week isn’t consumed in piecing together a meaningful rhythm that will guide the worshipers into the gifts of Christ; that work has already been sorted out.

Lately, I’ve noticed that just as there is a rhythm to a worship service and a rhythm to a worship year, so there is a rhythm to the life of a preacher of the Word. At least for this preacher.

There is a rhythm of great highs and lows, of spiritual courage and timidity, of praise and even doubt. There is an incredible joy that I find in the lead up to Holy Week. All the services, all the opportunity to preach to the pilgrims who find their way into the house of the Lord for this special time of the year is exciting and challenging. The flow from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday and into the Easter Vigil is simply delightful as you witness brothers and sisters in Christ repent and believe the Good News. And then of course there is Easter Day, the great feast of the resurrection! Full of light and joy and a packed house. Friends and family coming together to sing the praises of God. Oh, how could you not be thrilled on such a day?

And then comes the letdown. The return to the status quo. The regular daily struggles in the lives of God’s people rise once again to the surface. Once again, I wonder about the confirmation students who I pray for and have learned to love though every part of my experience tells me which ones I will most likely not see after they are confirmed. Once more, I’m reminded of the failure of the Church to act like the body of Christ, to love and care for each other even as they learn and grown alongside of each other. Once more I begin to doubt that my work, my effort as a pastor, has been of much use at all.

Turns out, life is not lived on those mountaintop moments of Easter Day worship but down in the valleys of the messy and uncomfortable lives of the people I’ve been called to serve. And there is a liturgy to it, a liturgy that encompasses my doubt. You see the doubt is not in the power of the Word of God per se, nor in the purpose of my calling. The doubt comes regarding my ability to do what I’ve been called to do. The weak link is staring at me in the mirror in the morning.

I have failed. I have fallen short. I have not done what I could have done and have overlooked what I should have focused on.

Yet there is a rhythm to this liturgy of doubt. From the high and confident joy of Easter Day to the grinding, sober reflection in the days that follow, I am returned to the place I most need to be. I am restored to the role of the empty-handed beggar with nothing of my own to offer. If I am anything as a preacher of the Word, if I am any benefit to the congregation, it is through the gift of Christ alone.

It is here that the rhythm moves from confession to absolution, from doubt to confidence, from empty hands to hands full of free gifts of Christ alone. Such a liturgy can hurt; it has a brutality that I would rather avoid, for it teaches me yet again the truth confessed by John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

And on the rhythm of the Church goes.