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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.

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