Signs of the Kingdom: Not-so-common Knowledge
By Louis Lotz
“I saw my first fireflies yesterday, so the wild strawberries are ripe,” my wife told me back in early summer.
I rolled over in bed and said, “Huh? What? How do you know that?”
She shrugged and said: “Fireflies mean strawberry pies,” graciously leaving off the “everybody knows that.” Hearing no acknowledgment, she continued, “You know, fireflies break hibernation and begin flying at about the same time that wild strawberries ripen.”
No, I didn’t know that.
People used to know all sorts of things about the natural world—when wild strawberries were ripe, how to forecast the weather by watching birds perched on a wire, how to graft fruit trees. For many people—at least those who grew up in a rural setting—this knowledge came, well, naturally.
That knowledge has been largely lost. We may talk about ecological balance and interdependence, but few of us have any meaningful, firsthand contact with the realities behind those concepts. Granted, recent generations are far better informed about the natural world and have access to more knowledge than grandpa could even dream of. But book learning is not the same as personal experience. What used to be common knowledge is not so common anymore.
It’s true in the church, too. Not too long ago, upon being invited to lead worship at another church, I emailed in advance the customary bulletin information: Scripture lessons, catchy sermon title, brief biography. I included a prayer of confession that I’d composed, saying that it echoed the theme of the sermon. The pastor responded that they did not use prayers of confession in worship: “They just make people feel guilty.” I remember thinking, Well, that’s the whole point. Sinfulness is supposed to make you feel guilty. Guilt leads to confession, confession leads to forgiveness...hello, hello, is this thing on?
How much basic knowledge of the Reformed tradition, which former generations seemed to understand intuitively—our beliefs, our doctrine, our history, our liturgy—has disappeared! Liturgy grows out of theology; thus the prayer of confession was once a staple in Reformed liturgy. Not anymore. Few congregants can even name, much less cite from, our doctrinal standards.
I am not an ecclesiastical Luddite raging against modernity—really, I’m not. I know that the good old days were not nearly as good as we like to think they were. I know that new wine needs new wineskins and how important it is that the church speak to the current culture. And there are some things we lost along the way that it is good to be rid of—things like Elizabethan language, legalism, and prejudice against women. I know, too, that there have been many positive changes in our church life, and that contemporary styles of worship have a richness of their own and lead many to Christ. But there are things that I wish we would have tried a little harder to pass along to succeeding generations—the richness of liturgy, the pleasure of tithing, the majesty of the hymns, the utter necessity of confession, the rhythm of Sabbath, and the rootedness afforded by doctrine.
Such knowledge, once gone, is not easily resurrected.
“Signs of the Kingdom” is written by and reflects the opinions of Louis Lotz, a retired RCA pastor who lives in Hudsonville, Michigan.