Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Living Liturgy

I remember once when I was a little girl going to visit my uncle and his family. My uncle was a pastor in a small town somewhere in Iowa -- not a Lutheran pastor, though. He was a pastor in the Evangelical Free church. I remember being very disoriented by the bulletin, which hardly had anything in it. Just a couple of songs, and a sermon (a long sermon, I remember). And there was no place in the book (except for the hymns) where I could follow along, as I was used to doing. No prayers to read together, no "Lord, Have Mercy/Christ, Have Mercy/Lord Have Mercy", no "Gloria Patri", no Apostle's Creed.

It was clear to me on that day that this worship service, anyway, was for adults.

I had no such ideas as a child. I grew up with the Red Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, Settings One and Two. As for me, I never felt bored by the liturgy, even though I didn't understand everything about it. Even without understanding, I could participate by singing along, by praying along, by chanting along. And as I grew, I began to understand some things. I remember that my dad used to sit by me and help me find my place in the hymnal. I loved hearing him sing the Bass part on the three-fold Amen. And when I discovered, in the back of the hymnal, the index of "First Lines and Common Titles", I thought that I had learned the secret handshake! Whenever the sermon got a little too long, I would look up my favorite hymns.

Maybe I was lucky because I was such a reader. I would read anything, even a hymnal; it fascinated me. I still have the 5th grader Sunday School book where we learned the meanings of all of the parts of the liturgy: Invocation and Confession, Introit and Gloria Patri, Kyrie and Gloria in Excelsis and Collect. And I remember my confirmation pastor talking about the liturgy as a great drama, where we remember the mighty acts of God and become a part of them.

Now, it seems, for many people, that the liturgy has become a part of the problem. Empty ritual, they call it. And it can be. Sometimes it does seem as if people are only going through the motions when they participate in the liturgy every week.

So people think that something "freer" is more genuine, more authentic. There is something better about a pentecostal praise service or about a less liturgical Baptist service. "They don't have liturgy," is the reason. But I'm not sure about that.

I remember being involved in a non-denominational Pentecostal church sometime during college. I would go to a Thursday night prayer meeting, and sing intently with all of the enthusiastic songs, and really feel as if my heart was in it. Somewhere along the line, perhaps after a month of two, I started to realize that the opening song selection always followed a similar pattern. They may not have had a printed liturgy, but they did have an order of worship, and it was designed to get a certain emotional effect. It became clear to me that there was a purpose to their "liturgy", even though it was not printed out.

Perhaps one of the things that is missing these days is the sense of the purpose of the liturgy. What is it for? Why do we do it? Why do we design our worship in a certain way (other than the historic integrity)? It is not simply to get an emotional effect, but there is, or should be, a sense of movement, a sense of purpose.

I have been taken recently with Dorothy Bass' series of books, Practicing our Faith. I believe that at least part of the purpose of worship is ritual practice for an authentic life of faith. So when we kneel, we a practicing humility and servanthood. When we sing, we are practicing praise. When we sit for the sermon, we are practicing for a life of sitting at Jesus' feet and learning from him. And when we receive communion, we are practicing putting out our hands and receiving from God.

In one sense, though, there are many different purposes for worship. But in another sense, worship is a gigantic waste of time. When you are in worship, you are not serving the homeless, earning a living, signing a petition, doing laundry. On one blog earlier this week, the insightful author critiqued the maintenance mode of most churches. She said, most people who want to save the world, don't say "I think I'll join a church." People who want to save the world have better ways to use their time. But on another blog recently, I saw a compelling image of a circle: "Save the World/Save the Liturgy", was printed around the circle.

That's the challenge I think. Our mission is to save the world -- but it's a funny way to save the world, isn't it? Somehow, worship is an integral part of this mission.


Rowan The Dog said...

Ten hundred thousand million hearty AMENs!

And the sermon, from earlier? You are rockin' today sister.


Diane said...

I'm glad you're back, Rowan and Lindy. I hope you had a good trip.

Jan said...

That was a sermon! Thanks. There have been phases in my life when I thought the liturgy was just words and so meaningless. I don't know if I've changed about this as my faith has deepened or what. I find it more meaningful now to pray aloud words that have been said by and that we're saying with multitudes of believers through the ages. Practice makes perfect? Not necessarily, but sometimes it does. Worship fosters connection between each other and with God--through experience (practice?)

mompriest said...

I think worship is the primary place our congregations meet the world. All people who "visit" our churches encounter us first in worship. Worship is where the rubber meets the road. We need to meet people where they are, both those who come regularly and those who are wandering. It is a tough job to take on. But I think it is possible to do this. Not that I've found the key to it in my setting, but I think we may be close. At least we are intentionally trying.

Thanks for the reflection.

Diane said...

personally, I think there is a time and a place both for free prayer (I often pray freely when I visit people one to one in nursing homes) and using the prayers of the saints from all eras (some of which I think, are actually poetry. And they are genuine expressions of faith.)

ann.markle said...

Oh, this was very interesting to me. I recently sat through a Roman Catholic rosary, having never been to one. I could not leave, being dressed in clerical garb among a very small group of people. It was torture, and brought to mind some of my childhood experiences of being "trapped" by the liturgy, terminally bored, and unable to escape. Funny what primitive emotions surfaced. But today, liturgy is one of the joys of my life, of course. But except on rare occasions (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday), I never allow it to get too long. I've run the liturgical gamut from meaningless torture to sublime experience.

more cows than people said...

very helpful post for me to read this week. thank you, dear one.

and thanks for your kind words of encouragement my way.

P.S. an after-thought said...

I relate to every part of your essay. And it goes to show that using the "book" works. [Note: I don't like the worship folder with every part of the service printed. People aren't stupid; they can follow along if the pastor doesn't take an in-crowd approach which doesn't clue in the visitors as to what is going on.]

I also like that we "participate" rather than just watch and listen to the pastor doing the "work."

A Lutheran church, of another kind, that I sometimes attend seems non-liturgical, although I know that there is liturgy in their hymnal. The sermons are very superficial. So I leave feeling that I have neither worshiped nor have I been fed.

Yes, we do need to continually instruct people, the new members, the youth, confirmation classes, and occasionally the visitors, as to why we worship the way we do. And remind us grey haired folks too. Tell the bench sitters who never open their books or mouths week after week what this is all about.

The pastor who did our marriage service told me that he came back to the church and faith will visiting a "freer" church. I asked why he became a Lutheran pastor, when we were so repetitive. He said, as you found, that the same people said the same things over and over after a few weeks anyway. Might as well have liturgy in which we can all participate.

Pastor David said...


Two book recommendations along that line: one, Marva Dawn's A Royal Waste of Time speaks in part to what you have posted here. The other, Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World talks about the human cerature as being homo adorans; i.e., created and designed for worship.

We absolutely worship not just for those who are gathered, but for everyone outside the doors as well. And the historic liturgy - which connects us with CHristians throughout the ages and across the world - is one of the best ways to do that. Just one of the great aspects of the liturgy is that it makes it not about the charisma of the worship leader, or the wants of the congregation, but about the one who gathers us together.

Thanks for the great post.

zorra said...

I grew up in a fairly "low" church, and came to love liturgy as an adult. There is something so ancient and right about the responses. I remember once in college someone complained of how "dead" liturgy is, and I said, "Not if you mean what you're saying." Worshipping in this time-tested form, I feel a kinship with believers down through the centuries who have said those words in worship. Little praise ditties just don't do that for me!

Diane said...

I have always enjoyed a variety of worship and music "styles", but find as I get older I am getting a little crabbier, especially about the "ditties."

I think that one thing the "evangelicals" do is emphasize conversion (big gasp from mainline church people). I am not in any way negating God's prior claim on us in baptism, but I also believe (looking at my life) that life is a series of conversions in some sense or another, which causes me to learn anew how to "sing it like I mean it."

Also, in my tradition, there used to be "high church Sunday morning" and "low church Sunday evening" prayer and song meetings. Head and heart were both engaged. I think that people miss that, now that once a week has to do it for people.

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

okay - high liturgy I use for the festival days and otherwise its low liturgy (at least low for Lutherans) ha ha ha... meaning we skip the kyrie or the creed or something (i know shocking! gasps of horror!) and Lent is a low litrugy midweek experience too...

Grace thing said...

Thanks, Diane. I loved your distillation of what we do in worship. Today one of the priests at my church expressed a difficulty in accepting help from others. Wouldn't it be good for clergy to "practice" receiving Communion, as a practice in receiving help in a very demanding profession? And not always have to be the ones to feed feed feed?

RevDrKate said...

Loved this post! I resonate with so much of what you said. I have been christened a liturgy geek and wear it proudly. I have to admit I am truly baffled by those who find worship boring and meaningless. When all else fails me I find such comfort in simply sinking into the rhythms of those beautiful words that have been prayed by so many through the ages. I feel one with the communion of saints, and one with believers whom I know are praying those same prayers all over the world. It's powerful and connective and brings me powerfully before God. Thank you for a chance to remember all this.

Diane said...

grace-thing, I agree with you, and at my first church, at the end of communion, the deacon served the pastor communion. It was very meaningful to me. At my current church, the pastors commune themselves... because, according to the "book", that is the "right" way to do it.

Leah Sophia said...

Liturgy and World, history and identity intertwined and interconnected--a loud AMEN! On my theology blog I've been writing a lot about this topic; oh, I know I'm a liturgy geek, but nonetheless...I'm going to link to your post in my next worship/liturgy blog. Blessed September!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, what a lovely post.

There have been times in my life when I was going through the motions at worship services, but those were times when my faith life was weak to dead. Because of my children and the nagging sense that I could be wrong about God not being present to me, I continued to attend church, but my heart was not in it.

Now, I find that gathering with my community in worship is my nourishment, my food that I need to go out and do God's work. I believe that the emptiness had more to do with my own spiritual state than the type of worship.

And you are correct. The churches that seem to be spontaneous do have their own form of ritual.

revabi said...

Well written.
I grew up Baptist, and knew the order itself, but in no way does it have the life and meaning of liturgy.