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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.

Faith vs. Fear January 24, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Change, Faith Journey, Fears, Promises, Trust.
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I’ve been listening to some old sermons from the church I used to go to (and still would if it weren’t much to long of a drive). It’s a nice way to start the day with my morning bike commute, and the pastor there is a truly gifted speaker. I haven’t been there in the past three years, so I have plenty of sermons to keep me occupied. The ones I’ve been listening to lately seem to have a very apt theme for my life (and no, I didn’t know what they were about when I downloaded them!) They all seem to be about change, upheaval, stepping out on faith, following God even when it seems crazy, depending on God even in our darkest and most frightening times.

We are now at the 15 week mark from our proposed departure and frankly, I am terrified. I question if this is the right thing to do, if we’re being stupid and reckless. I wonder if I’m being ungrateful by throwing away the good job and health benefits God has provided me with, by leaving all the friends and the support network he’s given us. I fret over how there always seems to be less money than I thought there would be, and worry about how will I ever get a job, or without one, how we will find an apartment with 3 cats and only so-so credit.

In fact, I am currently in a state of panic so acute that it drives out nearly every other thought in my head. It paralyzes me and tries to prevent me from doing nearly everything that I need to do in order to prepare for this transition, including write and look for a job. It’s hard to overcome, but the words I’ve been hearing on my ipod every morning have been a great help to me in combating it.

Three things I’ve learned from my recent sermon-listening that really came home to me in this time of fear and worry:

1) Fear and faith are two sides of the same coin. They both involve believing in things that haven’t happened yet. But fear means you’ve let your mind assume the worst will happen and that God won’t save, while stepping out on faith means that you are believing that God will come through just as he promised. So why do you think the fear option is more likely to come true than the faith option?

2: If you are facing opposition, either mental or physical, then you are probably on the right track. I think about stepping out on faith and I hear whispers telling me I’m being ungrateful, foolish, wasteful. I hear that no one will want to hire me, ever, and that I’m making a huge mistake. I should stay where I am and be grateful for what I have. Don’t rock the boat, make a fuss, or try to chase silly dreams. But I don’t think those whispers are from God.

You see, my fear and uncertainty has forced me to turn to God in a way that never would have happened if I were just continuing on with my life and my soul-crushing job. In fact, I probably would have continued to drift further away from him. The enemy knows this. The last thing he wants is for me to put my life on the line and to turn to God whenever I feel fear and uncertainty. He would much rather have me stay where I am.

3: He will be with me, wherever I go. Scripture records at least 46 references to God, Jesus, his Spirit, or his grace being with his people. I don’t think it matters as much where I go, but rather that I have God with me. He has always provided for me exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it, in such a way that I knew that it was credit to him and not through my own work. And the times when I have been closest to him have been the times when I was closest to the edge.

It’s hard to get past the fear, and even harder not to give credit to the whispers telling me I’ve misjudged everything. But I know in my heart that God is the one leading me. That may not end up looking like what I think it will look like, or even put me where I think I’m headed, but I know he’s leading me and the more fear I feel the closer it will drive me to him.

January 1 is Meaningless December 31, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Change, Growth, Heart Condition, Holy Spirit.
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I was just thinking today, as I imagine most people are, about the new year that is coming in just a few hours. As usual I have various plans and resolutions for 2011,  some of which I’ve made before and failed at and some of which are totally new. But part of what I was thinking is that tomorrow is actually no different than any other day. It has no significance whatsoever other than that we’ve culturally decided that tonight at midnight is the moment that the old year ends and the new one begins. Although necessary for time- and calendar-keeping, it is a totally arbitrary date that doesn’t even have any particularly astronomical, seasonal, or religious meaning to it (unless you count the Feast of the Circumcision, which is a pretty strange day to start a year on) . It’s just a day, kind of in the middle of winter, just like any other.

And yet we hang such importance on it. January 1 is the day we’re going to start that diet, change our lives, be a better person. We make resolutions and promises. We start regimens. We think that somehow the new year will magically empower us to be different than we have always been, than we were on December 31st. We can put all the things that happened in the past 365 days behind us and start over. I do it too, as much if not more than anybody else. New Year’s, the first of the month, my birthday, and arbitrary Mondays – I see them as a chance for a new start, to get the week or month or year right this time. I imbue starts of things with mystical powers that I think will help me be more organized, or more self-controlled, or happier. It’s a very human thing to do.

The trouble is, it doesn’t work. Most of my well-intentioned self-improvement plans come to nothing after a week, a day, or a few hours. And the dates on the calendar are just numbers. There is no difference between Monday and Friday, between January 1 and June 12th, between my birthday and President’s day in terms of my likelihood of keeping a single resolution in the long term. I know that sounds depressing, but we all know it to be true. But I am not feeling depressed right now, because I have realized something.

All those dates that don’t mean anything? They don’t mean anything to God either. Through Christ and through his grace, he is constantly making things new. Take a look:

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

It is Christ that makes us a new thing, not our own efforts, not some random calendar change. The moment we accept Christ into our heart we are a new creature. We don’t have to wait around for a particular date to arrive. It doesn’t mean his work on us is done, but the start of a relationship with him is the new beginning we should look to, not a day of the year.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
1 Peter 1:3

We have a new birthday, a new day to celebrate as the start of our new lives. And although we have to be willing to let God change us, it is not up to us to affect the change. We don’t have to rely on our own willpower, our own strength, our own ideas of who we should be or what we should be doing to change. We need to be malleable, but it is God who will make the true changes in us, not our own list of 11 Things to Change in 2011 .

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do whatever I command.”
Ezekiel 36:25-27

Instead of our own laundry list of resolutions, changes, goals, and things we want, God will, if we let him, put his living Spirit within us to guide our desires and make the changes in us that he has designed us for, not the changes that we think we need to be happy, or to make others happy, or even to make God happy. Sometimes we feel frustrated because we don’t feel that we aren’t changing the right way, or changing fast enough. The questions I need to ask myself in those times are first, am I seeking the change the God wants or the one that I think that God wants for my life? And, second, am I worried about my time, or God’s time?

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Ecclesiastes 3:11

God’s time is not our time, and his plans are not ours. He has a time for everything and a purpose for everything. Sometimes my frustration may come because what I’m striving for is not good for me, or not what I need to be placing importance on. But sometimes it may come from knowing what the right thing is and feeling like it’s taking too long. But God will make me beautiful in his time as well.

So this New Year, if I make any resolution at all it will be to open myself up to the possibilities God has given me to be made new. I don’t often feel like a new creation, holy and blameless with a new heart. But that is because I close myself off from it, I still try to do things on my own. The truth is, the only thing keeping me from being a new, vital, pure creation in God is…me. But the very best thing to realize is that however many times I find myself failing to do something in my own strength, I can never miss my chance with God. He doesn’t allow us to be new in him once a year, or even just once when we first accept him and then it’s gone. No, with Christ every day, every moment is a chance for him to make us new, to give us more grace, and to move us closer to being perfected in him. And no matter how far we’ve wandered from a good relationship with him, no matter how many times we’ve tried to wrest control of our own destinies our of his hands, every single day is a new chance to return and let him start work on us again.

“The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!”
Lamentations 3:22-24