Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Liturgy That Gives Rest

Today’s snail mail brought an envelope from Regent College theologian J. I. Packer. Inside was an article clipped from The Anglican Planet. It was titled “Liturgy That Gives Rest.” There was also a note in Packer’s hand commending its author, Julie Lane-Gay.

The article had many good things to say about the Anglican service: Its historicity gives it a “tried and trueness,” for example, and its use of the lectionary means that “old women in India, the Queen of England and surfers in Queensland—we are all on the same page.”

But the article’s main point was about its restfulness. That’s a point I resonate with.

Ms. Lane-Gay writes:

My first Anglican service was quiet and calm. Instead of feeling that I had to conjure up enthusiasm, I felt like someone had handed me an antique pillow to cradle my weary mind and soul. I didn’t have to think what to say.

My own experience was different. I wouldn’t have compared the liturgy to a pillow. But I felt the same relief that I didn’t have “to conjure up enthusiasm.” Conjuring up enthusiasm—and godly grief and glorious rapture and even stillness—all of that was part of what I had been exhorted to do in the religion of my youth, a religion that owed much to American revivalism.

That side of revivalism placed the accent in worship on my feelings. Revivalism fed off of a cycle of duress and release, and it required that I feel the right emotions as we approached the transactional moments of worship. When it came time to (re)dedicate myself to Jesus, the moment was validated or invalidated by my feelings.

The liturgy taught me that there was instead one great transaction. It happened on Calvary. In the liturgy, we celebrate and memorialize that transaction together—together as a local congregation and together with Christians around the globe, together with Christians throughout history and together with those who have gone on to glory. Fortunately, that celebration continues in spite of whatever feelings I may have because the great transaction was completed before I ever experienced my first emotion.

The liturgy “did the work of worship for me,” writes Lane-Gay. She discovered this when “after ten years of marriage, flexibility, and professional success, parenthood upended [their] lives.”

The liturgy took on a startling new role: it did the work of worship for me. I did not have to think up my prayers or create my own confession—neither of which I could have done in my sleep-deprived state. It took the pressure off me to evoke certain feelings. I rested in the liturgy; I sunk deep. … I could say the words just as they were printed, … and leave the rest to God. I did not have to cajole myself into being joyful or thankful or contrite. I could just show up at church, baby in tow, burp stains on my shoulder and participate.

Seven years and three more children later, she writes about being “able to arrive at church and fall into a structure far bigger than I.”

That bigness is what draws me to the liturgy. There’s a bigness in the church's liturgy just as there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

The liturgy must be seen as part of God’s mercy. It is not the words that do “the work for me.” God acts toward me in the liturgy. That is why in Morning Prayer we often say a paraphrase of Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Without God’s help, we can’t even start praising.

When worship loses its bigness, the sense of God’s mercy also contracts. But when we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we also know instinctively that the quality of God’s mercy is not strained.

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Read Julie Lane-Gay’s full essay here.

Public domain image of 1596 Book of Common Prayer via Wikimedia Commons.
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