Scary Words

Confession: until a few years ago I couldn’t have well-defined the concept of liturgy. I had a vague notion of it involving long, drawn out, boring church services with little rhyme or reason (though maybe that wasn’t the case when the services were created hundreds of years ago). I became a Christian in an environment that thrived on prayer. I learned from the beginning of my Christian life to pray with other people, out loud, for all sorts of things. I learned about things like words of knowledge and wisdom, receiving pictures in place of words to pray over others, prophetic prayer, prayer in tongues (or in the Spirit), and intercessory prayer. All of these things had in common a sense of spontaneity, of immediate utterance and direct interaction with other prayers happening at the same time. We laid hands on people, put good-smelling oil on their heads, and spent hours praying and crying and laughing together.

These were times of incredible growth, seasons in which I discovered how alive and real and interactive God really is. At the same time, being an emotional and changeable girl, I struggled with feeling that the health of my prayer life was directly related to my emotional state at a given time. If I was depressed or anxious, I was virtually incapable of prayer. If I was happy or excited, I really struggled to pray with sincerity for other people who were struggling. While I love that I learned such vibrant aspects of prayer so early on, I admit to feeling a little trapped by my own human fluctuations when it came to prayer.

Then I met some monks. And I read a book called Mudhouse Sabbath. And another called Enter the Worship Circle. And I met people who wrote prayers for other people to use. And I started to understand a little more of what this idea of “liturgy” really means. Literally, the word means “public worship.” That’s not particularly daunting, or dry. I do this all the time; worshiping with other people is one of the most life-giving aspects of the faith journey. Throughout history, when the majority of believers (and people in general) were illiterate, the Church developed methods of teaching that would be easily remembered and used. They created scenes of Scriptural narratives using stained glass pieces in windows of their buildings. They wrote songs with symbols representing elements of doctrine. And they created prayers that were used in every service, prayers people could memorize and pray together at home because they didn’t have the benefit of three Bibles lying around to open up for encouragement and connection with God. Liturgy was made of songs, postures, creeds, Scripture, meditation, written prayers, confession, and spontaneous prayer.

The most well-known liturgical, or communal, prayer is called the Lord’s prayer. Jesus taught a prayer to His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray. Churches have prayed these words together from that time until this one; in it one can find direction for every kind of prayer. It’s a communal prayer because the wording of the pray-er is consistently plural – our Father, our daily bread, our sins. Jesus taught His disciples a prayer to use together.Liturgy reminds us that while prayer is personal, it’s not meant to be private (Mudhouse Sabbath).

Using a book of prayers, like The Book of Common Prayer we use at Imago Dei, keeps us connected in many significant ways. We connect with the Church throughout history, praying prayers that have been vital to the faith community for centuries. We connect with the Church around the world today as we enter into prayers written by the body in Uganda, Bulgaria, Japan, and Philadelphia. We stay connected with the whole story of Scripture (most books of prayer work through the Bible in a one- to three-year cycle), protecting us from becoming narrow in our exposure to the Word. In liturgy we remember that it is to the family of Christ that we owe our allegiance; we pray together across national, ethnic, political, and denominational divides.

Liturgy also protects us from ourselves, from the tyranny of our constant fluctuations. When I am praying the liturgy I am freed from my emotional state; it doesn’t matter if I feel sad, or disconnected, or anxious. Liturgy opens the door to the act of prayer, inviting me into communion with God regardless of my personal condition. Rather than being limited to self-centered prayers (because I am often preoccupied with me), I am reminded to pray for leaders and the suffering Church, for the homeless and the broken. As the author of Mudhouse Sabbath puts it, “When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.”

Whether you practice the liturgy daily or it’s still a dirty word for you, I encourage you to try it. Join us at Imago Dei at 7:30am in the Chapel any Sunday. Join me and some friends at my place at 7am Wednesday evenings. Get some people together on your own time (and invite me :). There is life in the prayers of the Church.



1 Comment

  1. June 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    As a person who struggles with social anxiety, I feel relatively free from such anxiety when participating in a liturgical service. It’s kind of an interesting irony (to go with my collection of ironies) that I actually feel more “alone with God” (in a good sense) when in a church that practices liturgy.

    I think it’s kind of like the school uniform paradox. Though not having a school uniform may limit your self-expression, wearing the uniform actually might actually free some people from the tyranny of clothes and their demarcations. For some, the school uniform might liberate the person to focus on other aspects of his or her personality in his or her relationships with others. When everyone is wearing the same uniform (or saying the same prayer), everyone is already included, in a sense.

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