Choosing birthday cards is always a daunting task–they’re either too smarmy, too sexual, too juvenile, too something. The picture is wrong, the sentiment not quite what one had hoped to say. Only rarely does one find that perfect card–and then, one is always tempted to buy seven of the same. In my formative years as a card shopper (not giving a card was a major transgression in my holiday-happy family), I had an additional problem: the length of the verse. My mother was ruthless in her judgment of cards that had long, sentimental odes to maternal blessedness: “Too much reading,” she would drily remark. Construction paper, a few cut-out doilies pasted on the front, and our own little compositions always received a much warmer reception.
My mother’s words reverberate in my head every time I am forced to slog through another interminable liturgy. Of course, right off I should admit that I grew up in a church tradition that never featured much–and, at times, no–liturgy.1 Certainly, we attended services where we sang the doxology or where we would “read responsively” from Scripture, but to be honest the rest of that stuff was a little suspect. All that repetition week after week–it was, my grandmother used to say, like the “vain incantation of the heathen.” How could it possibly be heartfelt? How could people not simply see worship as a rote exercise and be no more than culturally Christian? After all, no real Christian should need to read the service; indeed, it showed a downright lack of spiritual depth to not be able to pray without a script. It was form without function, show without spirit. And anyway, their hymns were incredibly dreary, the volume of the organ exceeded only by the slowness of the tempo.
I’ve come around a little on all this liturgy business, though some weeks I still really miss Fanny Crosby. What vexes me now is “bad liturgy”: there’s the pretentious–more interested in showing how clever the writer is or how avant-garde the worship team; the neurotic–more about working through personal crises or the author’s social agendas; or, finally, the poorly written. Perhaps because I am an English professor, this last one can particularly irritate me and take my mind right off worship. After all, inferior poetry is inferior poetry, even when a lot of religious hoo-haw language gets thrown in.
Despite these reservations, I have come to appreciate the ways in which a more ritualized worship can help articulate a fitting response to God. In particular, I have been struck by how liturgy provides opportunity for us worshippers to express the things we typically don’t say. How often, for example, do we express our gratitude for the Scripture (“thanks be to God”) or acknowledge that it is “the word of the Lord”? Or have any moment in our daily lives where we confess the lordship of Christ. In my church, I relish the moment at the end of the service when the congregation, echoing the words of Romans 10:9, proclaims “Jesus is Lord” before we are sent out by the benediction to try and live out that truth.
But if liturgy is literally “the work of the people,” then it is perhaps not surprising that what really changed my mind about the power of liturgy involves one of the most people-intensive parts of the service. But I must admit that it did come as a surprise to me. When I first started to attend what is now my church home several months ago, I was always a bit flummoxed by what is traditionally known as the “passing of the peace.” This is one of the oldest traditions in Christendom (its New Testament version, the command “Greet each other with a holy kiss,” makes frequent appearances in the writings of the apostles, and repeated mention is made of the practice in early church texts), but I had never belonged to a church that practiced it. Instead, in each of my former churches, we had a time of greeting during which we were to welcome each other. That never felt quite right either–sort of the equivalent of “confess your sins and now say howdy”–but I’m not one to knock a little friendliness, particularly at churches in the Reformed tradition where, as one of my friends–with all of the wisdom of her 80 years in the church–has noted, “many are cold, and few are chosen.”
The first couple of weeks at my new church, then, I felt slightly ridiculous when I was asked to share God’s peace, so I would stammer and stutter a “good morning” or “hello, how are you?” and the people sitting around me would kindly respond by saying nothing but “The peace of Christ.” What’s more they seemed to mean it. Coming as it did directly after the assurance of pardon, it started to make sense to have that promise of concord come not only from the minister, but more importantly, from my fellow congregants. After all, as 1 John argues we are not reconciled to God apart from being reconciled to each other. A place in the service where we remind each other that in forgiveness we are restored to community suddenly and quite wonderfully. Barbara Brown Taylor in Speaking of Sin has written that “We are the people God has chosen to embody the gospel. Our lives are God’s sign language to a sin-sick world, and God has promised us the grace we need to point the way home.” In this liturgical embodiment, I found I felt as warmly welcomed as I ever had before–and perhaps more so.
It was more than that, though. It was certainly important to exchange the peace with brothers and sisters who I barely knew. In doing so we begin to understand the restoration that is available to us all and to remember the church universal that welcomes us back again and again. That made sense intellectually. But, of course, liturgy must work on an individual, as well as a corporate, level if it is to help transform hearts as well as minds. I found myself surprisingly and profoundly moved one midsummer Sunday morning when my best friend turned to me, embraced me, and offered me God’s peace. For several weeks after I pondered why this exchange was unlike all the others. After all, this is a woman I speak to virtually every day–why should two words spoken in the middle of church make any difference? Because, of course, it’s not two words at all. In that brief moment we not only assure each other of restoration but declare our desire for the life we’d like each other to have every day–a life not of momentary respite from guilt, but of the permanent tranquility that can only come from God ? What more could we wish for those whose struggles we know best? What powerful consolation to offer ourselves and those closest to us that, despite the chaos that runs rampant in our lives, we have a security that depends not one bit on our own ability to “fix” things.
In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot tells us that language is at best “a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating/In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” That’s putting it mildly. And liturgical language can be as broken and as mushy as any other. Nevertheless, we struggle so mightily against inarticulateness that I’ve decided that anything that helps me move closer to God and my fellow believers can’t be all bad. And anyway, it is perhaps our sincere efforts at connection through language that matters; as Eliot reminds us in that same poem, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
1Of course, some would argue that all churches have liturgy in the sense that they have an order to their worship and a place for the congregation within that order. I won’t quibble with that definition, but I use the term here in the sense of having prescribed congregational responses (“Thanks be to God”; “And also with you”) as well as a reliance on litanies and the recitation of creeds, etc.