22 July 2008

Nagel as Preacher and Presider

A Personal Reflection

Two men have shaped my liturgical and homiletical theology more than any others - Dr. Norman Nagel and Dr. Kenneth Korby. I have working closely under Dr. Nagel as a reader, grader, and graduate student for 3 privileged years, and I consider Dr. Korby to be one of my spiritual fathers in the faith. I still keep contact with his widow, Jeanne, a godly woman in the way of Proverbs 31 if ever there was one.

Dr. Nagel as presider was always a sight to behold, and great fun, as he quite innocently ran roughshod over all the fastidious precision of the “liturgiologists.” He would come to the seminary chapel with cassock and surplice rolled under his arm, making it look as though he had just slept in it. A frock of hair would be dangling down over his glasses and a typewritten manuscript with some handwritten “clincher” scrawled on it, likely conceived on his way to the chapel. His disheveled appearance stood in sharp contrast to the “spit and polish” taught in worship classes.

In the pulpit, Norman read his sermon with face buried in the manuscript, occasionally looking up over glasses that were slowly creeping down his nose. These were some of the finest sermons every preached in the St. Louis seminary chapel. So much for modern communication theory. Dr. Nagel’s sermons were intricately woven narratives, often retelling the text in a colorfully embellished way, interweaving the Law and the Gospel in a taut dynamic tension that was the trademark of his preaching.

I recall a lengthy discussion in Dr. Nagel’s office once after a lecture by the sainted Gerhard Forde over the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel. Forde seemed to run these as static categories, and Dr. Nagel appeared somewhat displeased by it all. I asked him, “How would you distinguish the Law and the Gospel in a text?” Dr. Nagel replied, “First, one must look for what of Jesus the text is trying to deliver; then one must look for what gets in the way of the delivery.” I’ve carried that insight with me into the pulpit to this day.

At the altar, Dr. Nagel was unpretentious. He despised excessive pomp and ceremony. For Dr. Nagel, the Office was causa instrumentalis, the instrumental means, by which the Gospel and Sacraments delivered Christ to the people. He was adamant that the instrument never overshadow the gift. Liturgics that drew attention to the celebrant and away from the gifts of Christ would draw a furrowed frown from the good doctor. One sacristan tells the story of being literally thrown out of Dr. Nagel’s office for asking him to impose ashes on Ash Wednesday. Far be it from Dr. Nagel to soil a man’s forehead with the Law.

I recall but one amusing attempt by Dr. Nagel to wear a chasubile. It was in the old chapel/auditorium at St. Louis, prior to the building of the magnificent Chapel of Saints Timothy and Titus. Dr. Nagel abruptly exited to the sacristy after the prayers, and returned wearing a rumpled chasubile, slightly askew, glasses crooked and hair displaced even more than usual from the vesting experience. He never attempted it again, at least while I was at the seminary.

What I learned from Dr. Nagel is to hold the holy things with a rather loose, even dead hand of faith, trusting in the efficacy of the Word to do its killing and making alive work. What matters is Christ and the delivery of His gifts - that the words of Christ go into ear holes and the Body and Blood of Christ go into mouths. These treasures are delivered in weak, earthen vessels, and we can, if we are not careful, get in the way and become a distraction. Dr. Nagel was unpretentiously and transparently himself in the pulpit and at the altar. His eccentricities were natural - to him - and he taught by example that free men in Christ are not afraid to be themselves as they conduct the stewardship of their Office.

At the same time, I acquired a deep and abiding respect for the liturgy as a holy tradition, a trust handed down from our fathers who have come before us. Every paper written for Dr. Nagel was an exercise in liturgical theology, as he demanded from us that we examine how the worship of the past handled the holy things and whether they got it “Gospel right.” I would never have known of the ancient liturgies, both East and West, were it not for all my Nagel classes. Liturgy is doctrine put into practice, as the gifts of life and salvation won at Calvary are delivered in the present time and place.

Dr. Nagel’s oft-quoted introduction to Lutheran Worship (1982) summarizes well this way of faith’s receiving that which is handed down, and handing it on to the rising generation:

“We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day - the living heritage and something new.”

In short, Dr. Nagel taught and celebrated and lived the liturgy “in the way of the Gospel.”

Next, Dr. Kenneth Korby and why I wear boots in the chancel.



Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Thanks for this. I always like hearing stories of profs I never had the privilege of hearing. Dr. David Scaer was for me what Dr. Nagel was for you, although I never saw Scaer preside at the altar for any service (yet, I'm sure that the same descriptors apply). Scaer used to say that a pastor should run his church like a polish priest (playing basketball with the kids in his clerical collar), preach like a Baptist (not sure that Scaer ever does this), and do the liturgy like an Anglican. One of Scaer's biggest liturgical critiques was that guys didn't speak loudly and clearly enough. If "faith comes from hearing" then by darn, they'd better hear the Word!

Seriously, thanks for biographical tidbits. I'm sure each of us has one or two men, professors or other pastors, who have formed and shaped us into who we are today.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Of course, each man's gifts are different, and the way in which he best disciplines his flesh for the sake of the Office (not his own) will differ from the way of his neighbor.

One man's reverence may be another man's awkwardness. And one man's relaxed comfort may be another man's irreverence.

I appreciate your comments, Brother Cwirla, as I have had only limited opportunities to get to know Dr. Nagel (each one of which has been a delight); I have never seen him preside, and have only heard him preach once (though I do appreciate his written sermons). In all of my contact with him, however, I have noted that he exudes a love for Christ and for His gifts and a particularly great reverence for the Holy Communion.

I am perhaps most intrigued by the juxtaposition of your observations that Dr. Nagel would urge men to be comfortable "being themselves," and yet also advises the need to "be careful" lest they become a distraction. I have known pastors who seem to be quite comfortable with themselves, who are thereby quite distracting from the One who ought to be the center of devout attention. Others, among whom I would include myself, find it helpful (and even comfortable) to discipline personal habits and idiosyncracies in order to serve the Office of Christ unobtrusively. That is how I am "careful" not to get in the way of what Christ is saying and doing.

Perhaps if I have ever logged as many miles as Dr. Nagel has done so faithfully and well these many years, then I will have less need to be deliberate about disciplining my personality and hiding my person in the conduct of the Service. For now, I find that the outward discipline of my body and actions, like the use of vestments and following the order of service, assist me in honoring the Word of God as that which does and accomplishes everything.

In any event, thank you for your personal reflections on a dear man who is a true father of the Church in our day. It is evident that he has been such a blessed father to you, and that you are one of those privileged to be among his spiritual sons and heirs.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

For those of us who are in the Office - while it is true that we are there to serve God, it is also true that we are in the Office - and not other people. To that extent, we must be ourselves - not letting the Old Adam run amuck, but God does not send robots out to be Pastors.

One of the finest things that I have learned is that I must become comfortable with the (sometimes seemingly crazy) idea that God has called, me, Eric Brown, to be a pastor. That means that I, Eric Brown, have to be a pastor.

It has to be me preaching, me teaching - and I have to do that with the gifts that God has given me - because the people are in need of the preaching and the teaching. So, I have to preach and teach - not trying to be someone else - while apparently I do a decent Fickensher impersonation, I'm not him. I love the way Cage preaches, I love the way Scaer teaches - they have influenced me - but I'm not them.

It's a balancing act - you must realize that there is an "I", an ego involved - and that that ego has given gifted by God with talents and given to serve - but you also must keep that ego as a servant who points to Christ.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Mason, I had one feeling left, and you just hurt it.


Anonymous said...

I apologize. My comment was inappropriate. Please know it was made with a smile on my face after reading all of the buzz on the blogs with regard to eucharistic piety and such. I happen to be a proponent of "intricate finger gesticulations," although would not bind consciences. All that being said, my poor sense of humor was not a good response.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Your points are appropriate, well-taken and helpful, Brother Brown. Thank you for expressing them in the way that you have.

It seems to me that there is the danger of falling into extremes on either side of the road. One can emphasize the Office to the exclusion of the man whom God has called into the Office; but one can also emphasize the specificity and particularity of that man to the detriment of the Office to which he has been called. I don't believe there is any one simple technique by which to avoid those dangers on either side; other than daily repentance and a reliance on the same Gospel that we are called to preach and administer.

In my own pastoral practice, I find that rites and ceremonies, vestments and orders of service lead me into the means I am given to bestow. They strengthen my weakness, and they temper my strengths (or what I presume to be my own personal strengths). They catechize me in that which I am called to preach and administer. Especially in my early years as a pastor, the stability and substance of the Liturgy enabled me to give the people what they needed, and assisted me in staying out of the way. As I have gotten older and more experienced, I find that I continue growing into the same Liturgy; I love and appreciate it all the more. It helps me, and it helps the people entrusted to my care, because it serves and supports the Ministry of the Gospel of Christ.

My use of certain ceremonies, such as I have recently described, aids me in humbling myself and focusing upon Christ and His Word, upon His gifts. In those particular cases, I literally bend myself low and lift Him up as the One who does what He says and gives Himself to us in love.

Regarding our fathers in Christ, I think this offers another example of the balance and tension between the Office and the office-holder. I have different fathers in Christ than Brother Cwirla, for example (though I am grateful for the few opportunities I have been given to learn from both Dr. Nagel and Dr. Korby). Yet, my own fathers, with all their individual strengths and weaknesses, are the men whom God called, ordained and sent to catechize me in the faith and to form me for the pastoral ministry. Each of our various fathers has passed on to us aspects of his unique character and characteristics; which, even in weakness, are not to be despised. But along with that, they have all been servants of the same Word, of the same Lord Jesus Christ, and of the same God and Father of us all. Thus, we call no man "father" in that absolute sense, and we do not claim to be "of Norman," "of Kenneth," "of David," or "of William." We are of Christ, who died for us, in whose Name we are baptized. And we are all sons of God the Father in Him.

The way I think, the way I speak, the way I approach the Scriptures, the way I preach and teach -- all of this has been shaped and formed by my fathers in Christ. But so is it all shaped and formed by my interaction with brothers in Christ and in the Holy Office. And all of this shaping and forming works together with the "raw materials" of who I am. Thus, I will not become any of my fathers or brothers in Christ; nor will any of my brothers or sons in Christ become me. Yet, we are all together recipients and servants of a common heritage, a common confession, a common faith, hope and love. In that, we are given the mind of Christ and conformed to His Image, to the glory of His Holy Name and for the benefit of His Holy Church.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Mason, I thought it was rather, well, hilarious.

I understand that gesticulators get quite gesticulated when somebody tweaks their gesticulating tendencies.


WM Cwirla said...

This could be the first time Paul McCain has been flipped off in the blogosphere.


WM Cwirla said...

"I am perhaps most intrigued by the juxtaposition of your observations that Dr. Nagel would urge men to be comfortable "being themselves," and yet also advises the need to "be careful" lest they become a distraction."

That's not quite what I wrote. Dr. Nagel was unabashedly himself in the pulpit and at the altar, and therefore, drew little attention to himself. People who act like Nagel, or anyone but themselves, including those who self-consciously draw no attention to themselves by robotic rubrics, inevitably draw attention to themselves. I learned to be myself by watching and hearing Nagel be himself.

Presiding and preaching demands authenticity and integrity that comes by embracing our liberty to love ourselves as we are in Christ.

I recall a conversation with Don Johnson of the ELCIC, a fine liturgist. I asked him how he did it - he was gentle, firm, fatherly, warm, truly a model of "relaxed dignity." He said to me, "You will get it when you become comfortable with who you are and stop trying to be who you are not."

He was right.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

First time, are you kidding?

: )

Anonymous said...

I thought I was being original. I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun. But isn't that the problem with novelty?

WM Cwirla said...

No, actually it's the problem with flipping off McCain. No matter how novel the venue, someone has surely done it before you.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Ben Mayes taught me how to place left thumb under right thumb, and even the Latin phrase for it.

So there!

What you choose to do with your fingers is entirely your business.

: )