I grew up going to a Lutheran church where every week we followed the liturgy in the red service hymnal–though I don’t ever remember actually opening the book because by the time I could read, I knew the liturgy by heart. Over the years, it became so engrained in me, I could recite it without having the words penetrate my consciousness. Many Sundays I was like a sleepwalker, mumbling the responses with the rest of the congregation.
Perhaps then it’s no surprise that when God became real to me as a teenager, it was not in the liturgical tradition, but in a more free flowing style. The minister made up prayers on the spot, responsive readings changed every week, the language was less formal. I couldn’t coast on autopilot. I loved the freshness, the newness, the variety, the freedom. I turned my back on all things liturgical, viewing them as stodgy, dead, meaningless, and mechanical.
It took a very long time, but eventually I came to appreciate the use of liturgy in worship. I think the first time was on a visit back to the states when I spent a month at an artist’s colony without a car. In the town of 20,000 people, my worship options were limited to a half dozen churches. [And one has to live in a city of two million people that has only *one* English-speaking Protestant church to understand the irony of the phrase ‘limited to a half dozen’.]
I chose the Episcopal church because I had confidence the liturgical service would be a solid, Christ-centered worship experience. I knew what I would be getting–not unlike opting to eat at an international restaurant chain rather than risk the local greasy spoon.
I’ve had the same experience on a personal level as well. Several years ago, my friend Lynette gave me a set of the Divine Hours, with its three-times a day liturgical prayer format. The brief office draws on the Psalms for different elements and includes a short reading, usually from the New Testament, ending with the Lord’s prayer and a concluding prayer [which I’ve now memorized so I have to really slow down and think about what I’m saying rather than just rattle it off]. For a while, I followed the Divine Hours every day, in a lapsed Lutheran kind of way, not reading it at a fixed time and usually only doing the morning office.
There are still times when I go back to the Divine Hours. When I’m traveling, it becomes a devotional anchor for me. I use the online version run by the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, which allows you to localize the hours for your time zone. ** I don’t have to come up with what I want to say to God, I don’t have to think. I ‘only’ have to tune my spirit in harmony with the words on the page.
Once during a period where liturgical prayer was my life line, I came across this question in a devotional: “Do I relate to God through a specific ritual/routine or do I approach Him as a person, confident in my identity as His child?”
Not only did this question seem to assume that ritual is bad, it also struck me that it wasn’t helpful to put routine and spontaneity in an either/or framework. A child’s life is not all free play. It is also full of routines and rituals. Not just mealtime, bathtime, bedtime, but also special little rituals, sometimes using a game or a song.
The issue really isn’t routine vs. freedom, but distance vs. intimacy. And while it’s true that if I fall into an autopilot mode, rituals can put distance between me and God, it’s also true that freedom can bring distance. I can end up indulging my own whims or never quite get around to confessing my sins. I can conveniently overlook certain aspects of God’s character. Following a liturgical prayer form like the Divine Hours can bring me to places I would never go to on my own.
Divine Hours online