Liturgy: It’s not the Work of the People

“I hope and pray that those charged with being custodians of the Church’s worship will do so in a way that honors the gifts and talents of their congregations.” Words on liturgy by the Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson

A Desert Father

One of the more persistent phrases one hears in Episcopal Church circles is that the liturgy is “the work of the people” based on a translation of the Greek word Leitourgia.  This translation of the word often is then used as a way to say that the liturgy should be more “participatory” or involve more lay people in planning or more responsive to the desires of laity.  I would actually agree with all of these though I might quibble with what any of them actually means.

For example, if we say the liturgy should be more “participatory” this is often interpreted as meaning lay people say more or do more.  Yet in a culture in which we are constantly pressured to do and say the actually challenging act of participation may be to simply adore – to learn to be present with our hearts opened to God’s.

Liturgy+Sermon+Series+SlideYet, my…

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the longest night & St. Thomas Day

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I’ve come to believe that there are no coincidences in the liturgical calendar.

I awoke early on 22 December, just as light was beginning to streak the sky, having completely forgotten that the night before was the longest span of darkness for the year before and the year to come.  Something made me realize it as I came awake in bed, and I hoped it was a sign that light is starting to break into the ice jam of darkness in my own mind, bringing to an end the exhausting and isolating but yearly phase of grey. Continue reading

fake it until it makes you

– the point of liturgy.

I’ve heard worship in the Episcopal Church described as a method of “fake it till you make it.”  I think this is close to right.  There’s no requirement or expectation that a person will come every Sunday or walk through the church door and feeling something every single time; there’s no lofty ambition that every attendee will be bowled over by the mystical mind-body-soul connection and the deep meaning of what their bodies and voices are doing during the service. But there is a sort of trust that something profound and shaping is going on at an almost-imperceptible level when our voices are saying the psalms and when our bodies are bowing and folding our hands.

However, unlike the popular adage, it’s not about our own effort, or our feelings about the experience, or even about our own experience of the moments at all.

When learning to cook something new, or trying a new cleaning method for the bathtub, or working on a new regimen for exercise, the steps are clumsy and take a long time and feel foreign and unproductive.  It’s frustrating and unfamiliar–sometimes we even give up, trying this new thing, because it feels so totally useless.  Think of all the things you’ve tried, and worked for, and gained proficiency in, though–these have become second-nature.  Maybe it’s cooking eggs, or swiffering the entire house in just a few minutes, but these things have had a real impact on your everyday life as they were practiced.  They made you into a person who was a master omelette-maker, or a whiz with dusting. These skills might even prove useful in other realms of life, giving you an edge when volunteering in the soup kitchen or providing a subject of conversation when seated next to a fellow shedding-dog-owner.

How much more do we hope and intend for daily Scripture reading and repeated meditation on psalms to change the way we understand the world around us, make us more attentive to the God revealed in Scripture, realign our habits and instincts to be centered around the God who came to be with us.

What a comfort to trust that it’s not up to me to “make it,” but to show up, as willing as I can be–and sometimes it’s not willing at all–for the sake of being trained, habituated, realigned toward Hope.

more pomp & circumstance–why process for the Gospel…

As we gather for worship this morning, I’m going to paint you a picture of our life together; something that might—or might not—help us understand and imagine how we work together as one body, how we are God’s hands and feet in the world.

Somewhere near the middle of our Eucharist service, we read from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John together.  When this happens, have you noticed that a lot of people move?  The deacon, or the celebrant, in the Keenan Chapel services, walks into the middle of the nave, right into the heart of the congregation, if you think of us all gathered here as a “body.”  Once the deacon is there, she proclaims the Gospel to us all.  She’s not just reading what’s written on the page; just like there’s something special about singing together and praying together, as we do when we gather here, there’s something special about listening together—most of us learned about that in kindergarten: we learned how important and transformative it is when we all listen to the same words and instructions at the same time.  Not least, it’s easier for our teachers and leaders to help do their jobs if we’re all paying attention to the same place at the same time.

Many of us turn to face the deacon as she or he shares the Gospel with us from the middle of our gathering.  This is a great and beautiful symbol—someone who has been appointed by God to spend all their time taking the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection into peoples’ everyday lives does that on Sunday mornings, too, in order to remind us that God belongs in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our relationships, as the focus of our attention and our bodies—God is the one toward which we turn and orient ourselves.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!

what a ridiculous outfit

– said by myself, about myself; 10pm last night.

It’s Holy Week over here in Christianity, and as my place of work is rather permissible about dress code, I’ve been wearing a black nightgown since Sunday.20140416-133002.jpg

Sometimes it’s called a cassock, and at the Cathedral, they’re rarely worn (ours is not a particularly stuffy diocese), but I love the frippery and was inspired to wear my black pajamas throughout Holy Week by a Lutheran pastor friend in upstate New York (it occurs to me that he may wear his cassock morning-to-night throughout Holy Week because he serves something like four different parishes, and it’s just impractical to take it off every time he gets in the car to drive to the next church for a service, nevertheless).

I was struck yesterday when a colleague joked with me, “and where’s your big wooden cross?!”  And now you, dear readers, may have a laugh: I hadn’t thought of the cassock as a symbol of suffering or asceticism until that very moment.  Then I realized, of course!–many might see and assume that I was shaming myself, covering my body with black so to be clearly marked as sinful and dead.

My motivation is quite, quite different, however: it’s been my understanding that part of the reason priests have worn cassocks throughout history is to remind themselves that they are dead to themselves (this notion takes stark form when priests lie on the ground during the first set of prayers at their ordination to the priesthood) and alive in Christ (Romans 6:11).

For one, it’s been a bit warm in South Carolina this week, and reminding myself of the moment I laid on a cold stone floor on a December evening is a relieving memory indeed.

For another, wearing a big black dress cuts down on the whistles directed at me while walking down the street.  People stop seeing Emily as an object or a skinny blonde (brunette?) and instead see me as a curiosity, or maybe even as a person.

Finally and mostly, I am a priest, called to point to Jesus in front of others (just as we’re all called to do!), and Holy Week gives me the push I need to drag the beautiful drama of the relationship between God and people out into the world.  We put on special clothes when we go into the sanctuary to worship, clothes that remind us of what we believe we’re doing.  For this week, I’ve gathered up the courage to dance around Columbia’s public streets in those clothes, marching my belief in Jesus as the Son of God into every place I walk.

For whatever reason, I flourish on contradiction; I am addicted to irony.  I joyfully prance around in dark, trench-coat-like clothes, knowing that the death of my ego is the beginning of my real life.  My church growing up didn’t allow women to be spiritual leaders, but instead of leaving the whole project behind, I held onto my Evangelicalism for dear life and became a minister anyway.

Isn’t the biggest (and best) irony of all time that God came to earth to be a human, and if that wasn’t enough, he lived as a poor servant, and if that wasn’t enough, he allowed himself to be unjustly put to death–and if that wasn’t enough, HE CAME BACK TO LIFE! (but I’m getting ahead of myself–it’s not Sunday yet, people.)