The Addition of Liturgy

If you’d asked me a year ago what “liturgy” meant, I couldn’t have answered you. I probably can’t even eloquently answer you now, but I’m a work-in-progress, so cut me some slack. We didn’t “do liturgy” on a regular basis in the last three Baptist churches where I attended.

One of the things that turned me on to our current church was reciting prayers and participating in responsive readings as a congregation. Only a handful of times had I ever done that before in previous evangelical churches, and in those particular circumstances I didn’t marvel in the significance of it. Rather, it seemed out of place with our usual praise music and invitation-based sermon. But at the Presbyterian church here, almost immediately I was all, “I like this!” Chuck was entertained by my enthusiasm. He was already familiar with it since he attended a Methodist church for much of his childhood.

For months I couldn’t figure out why I enjoyed it so much. Was it because it wasn’t what I’ve been used to? Is it because the “formalities” of ┬áthe church service were less “touchy-feely” and bit more sophisticated? Am I more “high church” than I realized? I couldn’t figure out why I liked the liturgical services until I read a passage in Jason Boyett’s book, O Me of Little Faith:

The best prayers take our focus off ourselves. That’s what liturgical prayer does for me. In praying with others’ words instead of my own, I’m freed up from concerns about sentence structure and dramatic phrasing and whether or not anyone’s impressed with my word choice. It frees me up from worrying about expressing enough emotion or authority or faith. As I once heard Don Golden say, “A liturgy is something we put on our lips when we don’t feel it in our hearts.”

Using scripted prayers was uncomfortable at first. It felt inauthentic. Then again, I come from a religious culture that values personal, spontaneous prayer and suspects liturgical prayer as being empty words and “vain repetition” Jesus warned about in Matthew 6:7. Those who employ that verse as an anti-liturgical weapon generally point it at Catholics and other high-church traditions, forgetting that contemporary evangelicals use a lot of empty words of their own. (We just come to you right now, Father God, in the name of Jesus, asking you to fill us so our words won’t be empty, Lord God, so we won’t sound like Pharises but will be totally real with you, Jesus.)

These prayers are biblically rich, theologically deep, and lyrically beautiful. But that’s not what gives them meaning. What moves me is the fact that devout Christians have been praying these words for centuries. By joining them, I’m stepping into the same stream of faith as the early Christians, the martyrs, the saints, the medieval monks and common-language translators, the Reformers and Puritans and nineteenth-century revivalists. (pgs. 118-120)

Well, yes, I think that sums how I’ve been feeling. Thank you, Jason, for giving me the words to say when I couldn’t come up with them on my own.

Over the weekend I purchased Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I already started underlining stuff in the introduction, starting with:

Just as people of the world pledge allegiance to flags or sing national anthems with pride and adoration, these creeds, songs, and prayers are ways that we proclaim our allegiance and sing our adoration not to a nation but to another kingdom altogether.

As you’ve probably already concluded, my brain has been in overdrive as we prepare for Lent and Holy Week in an entirely new way for the first time. This isn’t about making resurrection cookies or buying new Easter clothes anymore. It’s not about sunrise services or joking about giving up caffeine for a cluster of 40 days that I never really acknowledged before. To be honest with you I’m very nervous about Ash Wednesday, and I’m nervous about what happens after that.

But I’m not nervous enough to stop searching and asking questions. Chuck remarked to me a few weeks ago that I’ve never been this quiet in Sunday School before. It’s true. I’d always been a chatterbox, even to the point that one of our old Baptist Sunday School teachers nicknamed me “Trouble.” I am quieter now, because that’s what you do when you’re really trying to learn something new. You stop running your mouth and listen.

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