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Value in Liturgical Prayer? February 7, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Books, Change, Identity, Prayer, Sectarianism, Worship.
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I grew up a non-denominational Evangelical Christian, and have attended many churches for over the course of my 26 years. This means I have not been subject to many (or any) consisten religious traditions in my life. Evangelical churches tend to set themselves up in direct opposition to Catholics, Episcopalians, and other “mainline” denominations, and as such have almost a pathological avoidance of standardized ritual, rite, or prayer. Even the things that are fairly standard such as baptisms, the taking of communion, the lighting of the advent wreath have taken on wildly different forms depending on the church I was attending.

This is something that I both love about the Evangelical church and that frustrates me. I adore the fact that we don’t tie being a Christian to certain objects or ceremonies. I understand that it’s very easy when you have a ritual to replace God with it, to have it lose all meaning, and to lose God in the ritual entirely. At the same time, I often find myself longing for a bit more structure to help guide me along when I’m foundering.

In hopes of this, and for other reasons (gay rights, women’s rights, and views on evolution), I briefly attended an Episcopalian church. I liked the prayers, loved the reverend, and enjoyed her homily. But I was baffled by all the robes and ceremony, standing and kneeling. The music bored me and all the people were much older than I was. I didn’t feel at home at all, and I didn’t feel like the church was alive in the Spirit or growing.

So when I read Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s article in Relevant Magazine about liturgical prayer I was intrigued. They’ve compiled an updated prayer book, based on the Book of Common prayer used by the Episcopal church for many decades. They make a compelling case for the value of prayers prayed in common by the body of Christ, prayed regularly, and prayed often. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and have been interested in, but whenever I get my hands on a prayer book I am completely confused about how to use it and what to pray when, and I usually give up almost immediately.

I do realize there is a danger in rote prayer, in that it is easy to just end up repeating the words without meaning. It is easy to put the act of repetition itself on the altar instead of Christ and have our Christian lives become dry and soulless. And I certainly don’t think pre-written prayer should be the only way we talk to God.

However, I’m starting to agree that there is also a value to set, daily prayer (or the “daily office”, as it is called, which includes also songs and Scripture readings). First, it doesn’t allow us to pick and choose just what is on our minds at the time. It is a well balanced program of praise, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. The readings take us through the Bible in a coherent and rational way, and don’t let us skip the parts we don’t like, as we all tend to do when reading on our own. And having a set appointment with God helps keep us regularly in touch with him.

Written prayers take us out of ourselves and remind us to reaffirm what we believe on a daily basis. How often on my own do I remind myself of Jesus’ identity or sacrifice, or pray the Lord’s prayer in earnest. Almost never. And lastly, a pre-written prayer will sometimes allow me to express what is in my heart better than I could have on my own. Sometimes I avoid my quiet time when I feel frustrated and aren’t sure what I want to say, but if I have a set prayer waiting for me it takes the pressure off and allows me to get in God’s presence and reach the point where I can speak what’s on my heart, in my own words.

Again, I don’t think that a liturgy should be our only, or even primary, means of talking to God. There is such value in being able to approach him as friend and Father with our personal concerns and fears. But there is also value in approaching him with a sense of awe and wonder and formality that I feel I have lost along the way. And for someone like myself, who is so easily distracted and so terrible at maintaining a regular prayer time, having a written text to follow can focus my thoughts on God and allow me to commune with him more effectively than I could if I was struggling to find words and keep my mind on track.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to give daily, written prayer a try. I’ve found a website that each day lays out the daily office for morning, noon, evening, and bedtime prayer, without requiring me to fumble through a prayer book I never learned how to use. The prayers are good, scripturally based, and change with the day and season. I’m actually going to try to pray seven times through out the day for the rest of February.

I’m going to try praying as soon as I wake (which I already typically do, even if it’s just “Father, help me get through today!”), when I get to work, mid-morning, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and right before bed, using the written services for guidance at the main times, and in between just talking to God on my own. I’m not going to limit myself to the written services and prayers – if I want to keep praying afterwards then of course I will. But I am going to try to follow them and see if this kind of liturgical prayer as a discipline will help me tame my spiritual ADD and be more consistent about my time with God.

I started this morning. It was hard to sit down and go through the praise, reading, and prayer first thing – before I even checked my email or clocked in, but I felt so much better going into the day. It reminded me to glorify God first thing, instead of just thinking of my own desires and presenting them to him in a laundry list. It reminded me what the focus of my day was. I read Psalms and scripture passages I often skip over, but they were short enough for me to contemplate them instead of just skimming to be done.

Saying the Apostle’s Creed (which I did NOT grow up with in any capacity) helped me remember what the core beliefs of Christianity are, and that even though I often feel like an outsider, my liberal views and politics actually have nothing to do with what really makes me part of the body of Christ. And finally, I took great pleasure in the fact that other people around the world were praying the same prayers at the same time as me. It felt like my prayers were powerful and that I was truly part of a community, which is a good feeling for someone who feels so out of place even in her own church. In short, it was an amazing experience for me. I felt really, truly fed by God.

One of the prayers particularly really summed up what I want to start the day with, far more eloquently than I could have on my own: “Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

It will be an interesting experiment. Will I continue to grow and find the liturgy uplifting and revelatory? Or will the novelty wear off, leaving me just mouthing the words and feeling suffocated by the repetition? I don’t know, but I’ll report back in March and talk about what my experience has been like, and whether I’m going to continue fully or in part.

Quote of the Day: August 3rd August 3, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Books, Parable, Quote of the Day, Sacrifice.
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From a satirical novel by a staunch atheist, who appears to understand Christianity better than most of the rest of us.

“But I bet that now they’re arguing about what they actually saw, eh?”

“Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions—”

“Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs.’ You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ’cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: “Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ’cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say, ‘oh deary me, we must debate this.’ That’s my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ’cos you’ll never catch it.“ She added, almost as an aside, “But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.”

Terry Pratchett (Carpe Jugulum)

Books: Forgotten God by Francis Chan – First Impression August 2, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Baggage, Books, Holy Spirit, Prayer, Trust, Worry.
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I am far too tired to coherently write what I had originally planned for tonight. However, on the well-timed recommendation of a friend, I did just finish reading “Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit” by Francis Chan. Or I should say, I finished reading it for the first time. In my eagerness to devour this fantastic book I read it far too quickly (as I am apt to do), and am going to need to go back and read it more slowly and thoughtfully (with a Bible in hand) to really absorb the meat of it. But I wanted to get some thoughts down while they were still fresh in my mind.

I have to admit, I was wary of a book about the Holy Spirit. Extremely wary. Chan understands this, and in the introduction one of the first things he says is that we all have “baggage” about the Holy Spirit. Oh, boy, do I!

I was raised by a mother who asked me at the age of six why I wasn’t speaking in tongues yet (I ended up pretending by babbling gibberish when I would pray for the next year just to get her off my case). When I was naughty and did something typically kid-like such as talk back or shove my toys under the bed instead of putting them away, she would pray to cast the evil spirits of  Satan’s influence out of me and that the Holy Spirit would give me good spirits instead. I really would have preferred a spanking at that point. When a friend’s mom had a mental breakdown she decided it was because the people who had lived in the house before them were Satanic and spent an entire day anointing all their doorposts with oil and praying for the Holy Spirit to cleanse the house. And she refused to sell our house to a nice gay couple who bred border collies because she had spent so many years getting it spiritually “clean”.

So yes, I am a bit gun-shy about the Holy Spirit. Or rather, about the ways other people try to use the Holy Spirit to do some creepy and weird crap. But while I don’t have an actual problem with the Holy Spirit doing stuff (as long as no snake-handling is involved), I also don’t really spend any time thinking about him as a separate part of the Trinity. I tend to think of him as kind of an extension of God the Father. When something mysterious happens that I know is from God, that’s the Holy Spirit. But that’s about all I give him. And I certainly don’t think about being indwelt by the Holy Spirit – isn’t that kind of a Jesus thing?

Apparently not. And Chan is right, we have neglected the Holy Spirit. Whether through ignoring him in our lives and churches as much as possible, or attributing things to “the Holy Spirit” that have nothing to do with him and are only to satisfy our own ideas of how God should be working or what we should be doing. It is neglect all the same.

Chan points out that if we were to have read the Bible knowing nothing about Christianity or church tradition and then were to walk into almost any modern day church we would be appalled at how the Holy Spirit is (or in many cases, isn’t) treated. The Holy Spirit, he says, is central to the Gospel and the scriptures. And this is true. I sat down and cracked open the New Testament at a couple of more or less random spots and neither Jesus (in John) or Paul (in the Timothys) go very long without talking about the Spirit. This is something I need to adjust my thinking on, and just spend time reading and reading with new eyes and a new perspective on the Spirit. And thinking about what it actually means to have the Spirit living with in me – as opposed to just floating around out there somewhere, intervening sporadically and unpredictably.

The other thing that really hit me was Chapter 6, entitled “Forget About His Will For Your Life”. Quite a provocative statement, given that I thought that was what we were all supposed to be seeking above all else. But Chan is not saying that God’s will doesn’t matter, only that we spend so much time asking and obsessing over getting an exact blueprint for our lives (or at least a five-year plan) from God that it becomes completely paralyzing and we end up doing nothing.

Living out of the Spirit means letting him guide us. But we are never promised a complete road map. It’s more like a flashlight, that illuminates just the next step or two ahead.

And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.
Isaiah 30:21

This is not talking about God’s will for our entire lives, this is talking about just our next move. And as Chan points out, if we can’t even live today, one single day, by the Spirit, how can we possibly hope to follow a divine plan for the rest of our lives. And if we had such a plan mapped out for us, would we even bother to ask him for daily guidance?

I am so susceptible to this. I am a planner and a schemer, and a control freak. When Indy and I went on vacation last summer I literally had an accordion file with folders for each day containing directions to where we needed to go, phone numbers of anyone we might need, where we were going to stay, what hikes we would take and what sights we would see, as well as a contingency plan in case that didn’t work out.

This works fantastically for a vacation. Less so for a Spirit-filled life.

There is so much in this book I want to unpack and will need to really deal with: What does it actually mean to have the Spirit? Why do we even want to have the Spirit? And am I really ready to surrender that level of control in my life to him? And so many more things, which I will probably go into in the future as I process them.

But I think the main message for me, for now, is to wake up each day and ask the Spirit to dwell within me and show me where he wants me to go today. Just today. Do I go to the right or to the left? Because that simple act alone can lead me places I could never imagine at the moment, if I have the ears to hear and the courage to obey. I am going to try not to worry about the future, or plan and contingency plan, or beg God to show me the shape of my future life so that I can feel better about things. I am just going to try to wake up and ask the Holy Spirit: “Okay. So which way now?”