Holy Fun!

by The Rev. William Cwirla

Liturgical Impressions from Amen-Irvine

The Amen-Irvine youth conference came to its worshipful ending yesterday afternoon, and what a week it was!  Though smaller in numbers than Amen-Scranton and St. Louis, the worship at Amen-Irvine was no less joyful and exuberant.  Dare I say, it was fun.  Did I just say that?  Well, if you were there to hear my last liturgical catechesis, you know what I mean.  Fun.  It goes without saying that play is fun.  And it’s a pretty sad thing when work isn’t fun, at least some of the time.  But worship?  Yes, worship too.

I had great, holy fun serving as chaplain at Amen-Irvine.  I come away from the experience humbled and awed by the power of the Word and the sublime mystery of the Sacrament.  I have a greater respect for my brothers who have served as chaplains at previous conferences.  My thanks go out to all my brothers who served as liturgists, readers, preachers, and assistants, and to the CCV crew who served as our ushers, reminding people to set their phones to the "liturgical" (off) position.  Ten services in four days is lots of hard work, and a great deal of holy fun. 

Our worship space was novel, the multi-use chapel/auditorium on the campus of Concordia-Irvine.  Reflective of 70’s functional architectural style, the curved hard surfaces and poured concrete floor provided a lively acoustical environment.  The art was modern and largely abstract.  We still can’t quite figure out that mobile dangling from the front which looked like 39 ginsu knives twirling above the altar.  I’m told it was supposed to represent the great cloud of witnesses, but they looked more like the stand/sit/kneel people from Worship Supplement (1969).  That’s how it goes with abstract symbol.  As a woodworker, I appreciated the inlaid altar and pulpit.  We added a few Higher Things touches with our long green banners and our processional crucifix. 

The splendid Casavant pipe organ, with its prominent trumpets and that jingly thing called a Zimbelstern, was played expertly by Dr. William Heide.  The pick-up choir, directed by Mrs. Audrey Mink of Lutheran High-Orange, was a fine example of a liturgical choir as they sang the psalms antiphonally with the congregation and chanted the Magnificat in harmony.  They even gave us a playful Easter surprise during the offering in the Divine Service with a lively rendering of All You Works of God, Bless the Lord (LSB #930), the “Song of the Three Young Men,” a liturgical text from the Apocrypha, set to a Jamaican calypso melody replete with drums, wood blocks, and other unidentified percussive instruments.   I thought of Psalm 150:  “Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!  Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!”  I heard that Amen-Poconos actually had loud clashing cymbals, along with timpanis.  We didn’t have any dance, but I was tapping my boots behind the altar.  Such fun it is to live as free people.

The conference hymns cut a wide swath through time and place, from the Reformation to the 20th century.  A Mighty Fortress, Thine the Amen, Lo, He Comes, Eternal Father Strong to Save, and of course, that delightful conference hymn, Our Paschal Lamb, That Sets Us Free with all its Alleluias and Amens.  This kind of richness and diversity is one of the great strengths of our Lutheran heritage, showing the world that we are not some isolated sect mired in any one particular century or mode of song, but that our hymnody, like our doctrine, reflects the true catholicity of the faith and the universality of Christ's redemption.

We had incense too!  We didn't just sing about it - "let my prayer rise before you as incense" - we actually saw and smelled it rising up around the altar/throne of grace, reminding us by way of symbol that our prayers are sweet smelling to God for the sake of His Son's sacrifice for our sin.

My deepest impression, however, is reserved for the young worshipers who were gathered at Irvine over those four momentous days.  What a terrific congregation they were!  Attentive, actively participating, reverent.  They stood and sat without the need for me to flap my arms.  They listened so attentively to the read and preached Word that you could literally hear a pin drop during the speaker’s silent pauses. 

My fondest memory is Evening Prayer on Wednesday evening.  I will cherish this memory all the days of my life.  They had all gone to the beach to play and were scheduled to return by 10 PM.  (I was mired in a meeting - truly there is nothing new under the sun.)  The word came that they were running late.  “It’s going to be late and light,” I warned Dr. Heide.  He played a long introduction.  We dutifully set up the Christ candle and the incense and prepared the little individual candles to hand out, certain they wouldn’t all be used.  When we stepped out to begin the procession of light, lo and behold, there they all were!  A tired, sandy, salty congregation ready for worship.  And they were literally glowing in the dark, wearing multi-colored glow-in-the-dark necklaces and headbands from the beach party!  You are truly the light of the world, a city set high on a hill.

There are many approaches to presiding at worship.  Mine is what a friend of mine calls “relaxed dignity.”  My image of worship is the family of God gathered at the thanksgiving (eucharistic) table, and my role as presider is that of father of the family - strong, loving, wise, gentle, playful, fatherly.  Worship embraces the totality of who we are as redeemed humanity - fear, awe, wonder, reverence, sorrow, joy, laughter, tears.  Here, in the presence of our merciful God we are finally free to be ourselves, baptized into Christ, clothed with Him, sanctified in Him.

David said, “I was glad when they said to me, let's go to the house of the Lord.”  The Word was preached into ears.  The Body and Blood of Christ was put into mouths.  Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving were spoken, chanted, and sung.  There was joy and gladness.  And fun.  It’s fun to be a child of God.  It's fun to worship.  It’s fun to dare to be Lutheran.  Holy Amen fun!

Thine the glory in the night
No more dying only light
Thine the river Thine the tree
Then the Lamb eternally
Then the holy, holy, holy
Celebration jubilee
Thine the splendor,
Thine the brightness
Only Thee, only Thee!


(Lutheran Service Book #680)


Pastor Cwirla serves Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA. He served as the chaplain for the Amen Conference held at Concordia University in Irvine, California. He is currently the Vice President of Higher Things.

Created: July 20th, 2008