For the Love of Liturgy

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By Bronwyn Lea | Twitter: @bronleatweets

A_BronwynWe received the warmest possible welcome when we arrived at the church that was to become our new home. We had moved half way around the world and we were lonely. On that first Sunday we visited, complete strangers offered us the use of their camping gear, in case we wanted to attend the all-church camp-out the following weekend. Week after week, the gospel was preached, and we were loved. We were bowled over, encouraged, included.

And yet, I grieved.

I grieved because we had been in a small church, and this was a large one. I grieved because we didn’t know the words to the songs, and it made me feel out. I grieved for another reason, too, although it took me several weeks to be able to name the sadness that pressed on me each Sunday.

I grieved because I missed the liturgy.

Our new church was buzzword compliant: it had community, worship, biblical preaching, and God-focused and people-loving congregants. Those were non-negotiables we had been looking for and we were so grateful to be there.

But they did not have a liturgy.

At first, I didn’t understand why I missed it so much. I was not raised in a Christian family and my first taste of the faith had been in exuberantly charismatic happy-clappy circles. However, in my college years I had found myself in a little church plant that met in a university lecture hall. There were no robes or smells and bells—but it was a ­low-church Anglican group, and every service had aspects of the Book of Common Prayer woven into the worship.

At first, I hated it. The congregational readings seemed rote, and I wondered how heartfelt a prayer truly could be if one were reading it off a page. But as the weeks stretched into months, and then into years, I found my soul gratefully sighing into the rhythms of the ancients.

The liturgy taught me to pray in a way I hadn’t before. The collects took the words of scripture and gave me words of intercession for God’s people and God’s world which had been breathed by the saints for centuries before me. I was grateful and aware that I was learning to pray.

The liturgy taught me to participate in a way I hadn’t before. Reading prayers and scripture responsively during a worship service forced me to see myself as part of a congregation, rather than as part of an audience. Communal prayers expressed the priesthood of all believers in a beautiful and practical way. Prayer was no longer something I did at home, while others prayed on my behalf at church. No, now we prayed together. I was grateful and aware that I was learning about corporate worship.

However, it was only after we left and I found myself grieving that I realized I had come to love one more thing about the liturgy we had left behind, and that was this: the liturgy taught me the beauty of beginning all worship with repentance.

For nearly ten years, each of our corporate worship services had begun with a prayer of confession:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

We began every service with a time of reflection and confession for the things we had done wrong, or things we had failed to do right. And then, in every service, the words of grace were spoken over our community.

The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and
remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of
life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit. Amen

Week after week, we began our worship by being called to the carpet for a good, hard look at who we really were. No matter how lipsticked and well-put-together I may have appeared when entering the building, the first few minutes of the service always undid me. The real me, the authentic me, the one who disappointed and screwed up and underperformed and overcompensated—THAT me was acknowledged. And then, O glorious words of grace, that same foolish and fallible me was forgiven and reminded of his love and grace.

The real me was seen. The real me was forgiven. And so, the real me was now free to worship. Restored and forgiven. Known and loved.

I love my new church. I love the faces I see each week, the songs we sing, and the way that people dive fiercely into loving, serving and seeking God. But every now and then I find myself feeling a little too glossy on a Sunday morning, and the smile on my face betrays the ache in my heart.

On those days, I miss the liturgy most of all, and sometimes I find I need to stop singing (yet-another) wonderful Chris Tomlin song, and quiet my heart for just long enough to remember those words, “God, I confess that I have sinned against you, in thought and word and deed, and in what I have left undone….”

Weekly, I need those moments of true repentance, so that I can enter into the moments of true joy.

___________________

About Bronwyn:

unnamedMy name is Bronwyn. I’m addicted to ice-cream and the sound of my children laughing. Grace is my lifeline. Mostly, I pack and unpack the dishwasher, but when I can sneak away–I write at bronlea.com.

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  • Bronwyn, your connection to the liturgy has helped me understand a friend who grew up in the same church as me but has found her home with the liturgy in a new church. I’ve never had a problem accepting her change but as liturgy hasn’t been part of my tradition I can now see how she has connected so deeply to it. I pray God is continually filling your soul with his words of grace.

    • Thanks for sharing this Debby, and for your prayer. I am so glad to be able to offer some words “from the other side”, and am happy for your friend that she has found a place where she is thriving spiritually.

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    How I have longed for a place where the gifts of both (all) traditions are embraced. It is beyond me why we cannot have worship services with liturgical “Book of Common Prayer” elements as well as the freedom for expressive, spontaneous praise and creative innovations.
    Bronwyn, I totally get your experience at both places and I sympathize, believe me.
    Reading about your longing raises my own feelings of grief and frustration over the institutional church at large and the way its idolizing of control stifles the freedom Christ promised us. When the One we worship is a God of endless variety (I mean, just consider prickly brown ocotillo bushes and luscious leafy Lilies-of-the-Valley) why limit ourselves to just one form of congregational worship? Why not all kinds of astonishing music from motets to bar songs, written and spontaneous prayers, ecstatic dancing and confessional kneeling, silent contemplation and litanies, responsive readings and drama, processions and poetry? Why not?????

    • I share your feelings Donna-Jean. I guess this is something we will look forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth – a place where worship is finally complex and complete!

  • Julie R

    I grew up in the Presbyterian church and now attend a happy clappy evangelical one, so I definitely relate to this. More than the prayers, I miss the liturgical calendar with a season to celebrate Christ’s birth followed by a season for focusing on His death and resurrection. I feel disconnected when I don’t get to focus on the proper things during their proper time.

    • Julie! Yes! I miss the liturgical calendar too and LOVE that you also think of it as having ‘seasons’. I wrote about that just last week, when I realized that our church had totally missed Pentecost… I reckon a non-liturgical church is a little like living in San Diego – lovely all year round, but you sometimes long for the seasons. (http://bronlea.com/2014/06/13/a-year-without-seasons/)

  • fiona lynne

    I love this, Bronwyn. I’m attending a (wonderful) nonliturgical church now but I miss those rhythms of prayer and calendar, the very ones I didn’t appreciate to begin with! I miss prayers of confession especially. There’s something so powerful there in taking an honest look at where my heart is, and then hearing and really receiving that pronunciation of Grace Grace Grace…

    • The grace, grace, grace pronunciation is glorious, isn’t it?

  • Bev Murrill

    I’m so interested in what makes us different and what makes us the same. You’ve expressed this so beautifully, Bronwyn. I can’t say I feel the same, but it helps me see how liturgy really makes a difference for people. But I’m glad too that the other things your new church has given you are a blessing too.

    • I’m so glad – thanks Bev!

  • Sarah Joslyn

    I feel this, too. I have loved many communities that were not liturgical at all, but I am so moved by the way liturgy draws me in and supports the truth of my faith. Love this Bronwyn.

    • Thanks, Sarah. And thanks for the beautiful picture 🙂

  • sandyhay

    I so agree with you. I grew up in a Presbyterian church, walked away for years, and then found Christ is a charismatic Episcopal Church..the best of both worlds. We sang the liturgy which planted those words of scripture firmly in my brain. I’ve moved since then, yet like you every so often I crave what I call the intimacy of that type of worship. ( Aaron Niequist has several CDs with liturgical music that is beautiful. )

    • I had not heard of Aaron Niequist – thank you for the recommendation 🙂

      • sandyhay

        I think Aaron’s albums are titled Litergy. (He’s married to Shawna Niequist, Author of Bread and Wine) They’re a sweet change up from my usual “happy clappy” music 😉

  • pastordt

    ‘feeling a little too glossy. . . ‘ PERFECT description of this experience, Bronwyn. I totally get this. Our community is what I would call semi-liturgical. We don’t do a weekly confessional, but we do have a liturgy of our own – as does the church you’re a part of, I imagine. EVERY church has a liturgy, whether they own it or not. The non-negotiables, the order of worship, the choice of songs and their placement. Yeah, it’s a kind of liturgy, too. But it’s not the one with the words, and it’s the words that we miss. The beautiful, old, thoughtful, communal-yet-deeply-personal words. You’ve written this out so very well – thank you!

    • Thanks so much. I would say our earlier church was semi-liturgical too – but the seminary i attended in that denomination took us deeper into the Book of Common Prayer and taught us how to craft services to include all the elements, even if we weren’t using the words of the book directly. Learning the format of the BCP taught me so much about putting thoughtful words into every aspect of the service, and I am so grateful!

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  • I really resonate with this post. We moved last year and are now attending a Presbyterian church that’s a happy mix between evangelical and liturgical and we absolutely love it. We’ve found such grace there, after being part of a non-denom, semi-charismatic church (yes that’s a mouthful, and yes there’s a story there) for the past 4 years. My favorite part of our service is confession.. sometimes we use a traditional prayer like the one above, other times it’s one written by one of our pastors. It steadies me and connects me to the congregation and to God. This church has been so healing and so freeing and I attribute so much of that to our culture of repentance together.

    • *sigh* it sounds so wonderful. We too used to switch it up between confession “by the book”, and sometimes different variations. But it was always there: a service where sin was acknowledged at the get go, and grace was pronounced. Worship, then, felt like a RESPONSE to grace, and I loved that.

  • I love how God has designed each of us to respond and appreciate different things. I love not being glossy, and yet I myself am not drawn towards communal liturgical prayer. This was a beautiful, gentle post Bronwyn. It makes me appreciate church so much.

    • Thanks, Michaela. I am learning to appreciate beautiful things in each, different church setting God leads us too as well. I am currently in a large Baptist church – it couldn’t be more different, and yet I love it too!

  • Anne-Marie

    Hi Bronwyn, and thanks for this window into your heart in worship. I’m a bit of a closet liturgist. Especially love the night prayers, which I read online through C of E. The ancient prayers, I agree, are a wonderful joining with the past bearers of our hope, and bring me much comfort, and a sense that things aren’t quite so serious, or big, as they may loom. Perspective, I guess! Thanks for this.

    • Thank you Anne-Marie. How glorious heaven will be, with all the diversity of the ages and the varieties of life – all brought together, tensions resolved, at last!

  • “But every now and then I find myself feeling a little too glossy on a Sunday morning, and the smile on my face betrays the ache in my heart.”

    *sigh*

    I’m so there, Bronwyn. I don’t know what brings up the walls of glossiness for me. In some seasons (mostly childhood), I found it so easy to use liturgy as a shield to be glossy behind. The words were already written for me, so my heart didn’t necessarily reflect on the weightiness of *what* I was actually saying/confession. And in other seasons, I can find the security (glossiness) in the comfort of a Starbucks-esque church foyer. Coffee cup in one hand, iPhone in the other, catching up over summer plans and new sandals instead of weeping on my knees in the back corner.

    I’m learning there is beauty in the full rainbow of church and choosing to be authentic, awake and vulnerable is a choice I have to make. And I’ve also given myself permission in the past few years to articulate the unmet hungers I feel in the environment of worship. So, I seek out churches that do liturgy in certain seasons (like Lent, Christmas) and attend my current church as well, because they are family and they teach me how to love myself and people well.

    But I hear you! I SO hear you about the grief and tension of BOTH AND.

    Loved having you join our SheLoves family! WELCOMEWELCOMEWELCOME.

    *big hugs*

    • So I’ve been gone for a month and just read your comment today… *big hug!* and YES! and thank you! and oh girl!

      All that, and more. Thanks, Teen.

  • Donna McCoy

    I love this. It speaks directly to what I am yearning for. I grew up in Charismatic churches, but visited an Anglican church by the campus of Wheaton College and loved it. They had a nice mix of the old and new. I now live in San Diego and have been searching for this…haven’t found it yet…if anyones knows of one in my area, please let me know…Thank you!