Bearings, Part III A: Introduction-- Fluid Motion in Four Movements

When I went looking for images to accompany the first article in this series, most of what I found at Wikimedia Commons were images of machine parts, like these colorful inline skate bearings to the right.

In fact, images depicting nautical bearings were not pictured at all until page three (after item 40) of the search results!

Perhaps, I thought, it's my historical work coming back to haunt. Perhaps I've breathed  too much in the 18th and prior centuries, when the word bearings would have had a primarily nautical context.

Seeing these search results gave me pause... and reason to wonder how these mechanical bearings, which are "top of mind" at Wikimedia's search engine at least, might also have metaphorical value for thinking about and planning worship.

The metaphor of machine bearings became so fruitful, as it turned, that my entry based on this idea grew very, very long.

That's why this one is called "Part III A." By the end of next week, there will be five posts in total in this "subseries," this introduction and one for each of the four places in Christian worship needing an equivalent of machine bearings. 

What Machine Bearings Do

Bearings in skateboards, cars, inline skates and other machines make it possible for two or more parts, each under significant and often opposing forces, to move smoothly past each other to allow the machine to do its intended work.

In the case of the inline skate bearings pictured above, there are several opposing forces at work. There is the force of gravity on the skate and the force of the weight of the skater (gravity acting on the skater's mass), both bearing down on the axles of the skate. There is the force of friction, enhanced by these forces of gravity, between the housing of of the axle and the axle itself. And there is also the force of the lateral motion of the skater along the ground that, combined with the friction between the ground and the wheels, plus whatever momentum the wheels already have, causes the wheels to turn on their axles. The gravitational forces moving down over the axles plus the frictional forces between the skate and the axles would likely make it next to impossible for the wheels of the skate to turn at all. The bearings divert the gravity-enhanced frictional forces from the axle by redistributing the friction across small metal or ceramic balls housed between the inner and out shell of the bearing assembly. This allows the wheel to turn and the skater to skate smoothly.  

Bearings are often lubricated to reduce friction and enhance performance further. But the bearings themselves are not lubrication. Instead, they're an integral part of the machine so it can function as intended. Remove lubrication, and the machine will start to lose performance and eventually seize. Eliminate the bearings where strong opposing forces meet, and it will seize from the start.

Machine Bearings in Worship

How might bearings apply in the planning and offering of worship? We discussed transitions in Part II of this series. Using this analogy, transitions in worship might be something like lubrication applied at several points in a machine, not just on bearings. We still need bearings at the significant "hinge points" of the service where the kind of action the worshiping community engages in makes a significant shift.

In the Basic Pattern of Worship of The United Methodist Church, known as the "ecumenical ordo" or "early Christian ordo" in wider circles, there are four major actions or movements, each with its own focus, forces and integrity: Entrance, Word and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending. For these four different movements to flow smoothly from one into the next, we need bearings-- not just lubrication!-- just before and between each one.

Why? Two words-- juxtaposition and momentum.  

Juxtaposition and Momentum

Gordon Lathrop, the Lutheran liturgical scholar and historian, along with many of his students and colleagues, reminds us that Christian worship functions very much like the parallelism of Hebrew poetry.  In English poetry, rhyme often enhances meaning. But in Hebrew poetry, the meaning itself emerges from the juxtaposition of line against line.

Christian worship, modeled on ancient Jewish patterns, works in a similar way. One action is constantly and intentionally juxtaposed-- set alongside and set against-- another. We are intended to encounter Truth and the Holy not just in each thing itself, but also through the juxtaposition of one action the previous and next.  Lathrop offers this analysis for every element of an ecumenical ordo in great detail in his book, Holy Ground. During the "Word and Response" movement, Psalm is juxtaposed against a reading from the Old Testament, and a reading from the Epistles is juxtaposed against both the Psalm and Old Testament readings. In the response to the Word, we move from confessing the faith with confidence, to praying the faith with hope, not avoiding our fear!  And all of these are juxtapositions within the larger single movement of Word and Response.

Each of the four major movements of the Basic Pattern has its own momentum, its own "fields of forces" that are in turn juxtaposed to each other. Within a movement, the opposed forces of juxtaposition can be managed with careful attention to transitions (lubrication). Between movements, though, the juxtaposed forces can become so great that bearings become indispensible-- at least if the goal is that most of the worshiping community can actually fully participate both in each movement and in the flow-- the ongoing fluid motion-- from one to the next.

Where we need bearings, then, is just before the Entrance, between Entrance and Word/Response, between Word/Response and Table, and between Table and Sending.

Each of the next four entries in this series will explore the bearings at one of these junctures, in sequence. 

Your questions, comments, criticisms or concerns are always welcomed in the comments!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
The General Board of Discipleship of
The United Methodist Church 

Image Credit: Inline Skate Bearings, Photo by Toni V. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.