We should have moved into our house today. It is not quite ready yet. Maybe next week? We moved out of our old house on Halloween and half-way settled in to a rental house. We began work on the renovation of a new-to-us, 40-year-old house with some major issues in mid-November. If you asked me right now what most excites me about the move, it wouldn’t be any of the bells-and-whistles of the house itself, or the beautiful lake or pond, or the fabulously eclectic neighborhood. My greatest anticipation is to be found in the renewal of some form of routine for my family, the foundation of “regular” days, unseen since the whole process started back in August. I am longing for the ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum. The iambic pentameter of an orderly life. Full is one thing, chaotic quite another.
I found myself in this same sort of frazzled state spiritually a couple of years ago. The meter and rhythm of my spirit-life over-run by an arrhythmia, irregular beats, leaving my soul feeling jolted and jostled. It took me a long time to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t until I visited a friend’s church on a weekend away that I realized I had been missing the Liturgy. Not just A liturgy, but The Liturgy, the words that fall in lyrical cadences, tumbling from the lips of the community, old and young. Confessions and Creeds, Prayers of Intercession, Thanksgiving and Blessing.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition, we had a certain rhythm to our worship life together. There is a reason I can still sing every word to Just as I am from memory. The emphasis was on song and sermon. And the prayers, too, while not written, had their own sense of repetition and pattern that is still easily recognizable in the table blessings at my extended family gatherings. So, in a sense, this is the Liturgical tradition of the Southern Baptist church. But I suppose for me it simply wasn’t enough. I wanted something more weighty, something that connected me to those outside of my realm of interaction, something that connected me to those outside my place even outside my time. Led to the Lutheran church, I settled into liturgical worship like a dog making a cozy place in a pile of backyard leaves. I circled a few times, getting my bearings. Standing, sitting, kneeling. Page 10 in the front, Hymn 287 in the back, Lord’s Prayer from memory (thank goodness for 6th grade honors choir, I knew that one!). Then, week after week, the words became a part of me. Sure, there are always certain phrases, like the pebbles or sticks the dog can’t get smoothed out in his bed, that poke and jar. The strong commitment to masculine language for God, for example, that never feels quite right. The words of the liturgy won’t always let me linger in my comfort. They challenge me at times to take bold action and, at other times, they lead me to be consumed by questions that I might have preferred to stay buried.
More than the familiarity and unity that I feel personally with the liturgy is the sense of community that the liturgy gives me. It is in shared familiarity and unity that the liturgy has such power for me. The same words are shared in places of worship across denominational and national boundaries, across diverse languages even across the vastness of time and generations. The liturgy crosses borders and breaches that we humans are sometimes afraid to brooch, sometimes are physically unable to step in and out of. I think Jesus would love this about the tradition.
There was that period of time where I lost the liturgy. A pastor, overzealous for his own message, decided to bend and shape and modify the liturgy until it was all but lost in didacticism. It happened slowly, over a long period of time, one thing would change this month, another disappear the next, until after a year it was unrecognizable. I, too, over the course of the year felt like pieces of me were imperceptibly bent, changed, and even ripped out. But I didn’t notice the full effect. Not until I visited my friend’s parish, and we spoke the words of the familiar confession, and I nearly came to tears.
I think we humans have a need for cycles and seasons, for rituals that ground us. We need that ta-tum-ta-tum, that heartbeat that allows our hearts to fall into rhythm together. My family needs that. Our churches need that. We simply cannot be at peace with each other without it.
I am not advocating that all churches use the traditional words of liturgy. I am saying that we all need rituals to center us and to bind us together in community. For those of you who are not familiar with a traditional church Liturgy, I will share with you in closing the words of the confession. Try them on for size. If you have heard these words before, try to hear them fresh. Join in the ritual, the dance of a thousand voices. Are there words you sink into? Are there words that repel you? Are there words that challenge you? Are there words that free you? Are there words that carry a weight for you? Are there words you might need to reclaim, reframe, or liberate from past assumptions?
Most Merciful God,
We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed
By what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
For the sake of your son, have mercy on us.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways
To the glory of your holy name.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.