We’ve been talking about the habits and practices that form us in our Newbigin Fellowship cohorts thanks, in part, to a stimulating first retreat of the year led by theologian and author James K.A. Smith. The Fellows loved Jamie’s cultural exegesis, but the discussion became a bit more animated when the subject turned to worship and liturgy. The Fellows wrestled with the ‘ritualism’ of liturgy, questioned the potential arrogance that comes with prescribing a formal practice, noted how it might restrict times for reflection or possibilities of uniquely experiencing God on our own terms. In other words, they put words to what we all struggle with when engaging God – more often than not, we’re stumbling along the way in our attempt to find him.
But consider this. Our habits, as American Christians, have been formed in the crucible of individualism, consumerism, and the therapeutic. We’d like worship served on a buffet – “Pastor, I’ll order a clearly applicable sermon with a pinch of confession, a quick Communion, a tasty selection of songs, sprinkling in a little Jesus.” If we commit an hour to something, we want it to have a kick. If not, we’ll take our worship appetites elsewhere.
Yes, liturgical worship ought to irritate us precisely because it doesn’t promise instant delivery of all our needs. Rather, it does really boring stuff – it re-uses prayers, features predictable rhythms, highlights our low moments (like Confession of Sin), invites prayer for everyone and their mothers (couldn’t we just focus on personal prayer?), and kills spontaneity. For the over-achievers, daily prayer (aka The Daily Office) is even more irritating, particularly for someone like me…inclined to self-focus, with all the prayer buffet trimmings (the give me’s, I really need’s, I’ve been waiting too long for’s, etc.).
Yes, the liturgy is a downer. It irritates me. It seems way too un-concerned with my immediate gratification.
Why the liturgy? For one, it’s chock-full of 4000 years of wisdom about how people grow and mature. It’s also accessible. During our Newbigin retreat, Jamie Smith argued that worship ought to be accessible to everyone, including the mentally disabled. In other words, it’s not elitist…in fact, it’s welcoming to all. Even more, it’s been used throughout history and is used by more Christians across the world than anything else. You’ll find the liturgical rhythms contextualized in the unique practices of Africans, Asians, Latin American’s, or Eastern Europeans. It is in America, perhaps more than in any other part of the world, that we insist on custom-tailored, personally gratifying worship. We like the Buffet.
More compelling to me, though, is that thought that this might actually be a diet that would be good for me. You see, I think I know what’s good for me. I’d like to think that I need to manufacture my own instant fulfillment, my own way. After all, the world I live in tells me I ought to have it my way. But what if 4000 years of wisdom tells me otherwise? The liturgy does strange things…it focuses on God, it requires me to look at my own crap, it tells me that I’m not going to find my hunger and thirst fulfilled elsewhere, it slows me down. Could this be the diet that I need?
I’m convinced that I’ve been trying to find myself for 40 years. The world I live in has tried to narrate me. “Chuck, you need to be loved a bit more. Chuck, you need to be respected. Chuck, you need to be recognized. Chuck, it’s not your fault. Chuck, have it your way.” The pattern of the liturgy, however, is counter-narrative. In fact, it tells me that I’ve been narrated by the dominant worldviews of my day – individualism, consumerism, the therapeutic. And it promises to re-narrate me. It promises, in other words, that I’ll find myself…only as I find myself participating in the Grand Narrative of a God who calls me into a mission of redeeming and restoring a broken world for a better happy ending than any Disney movie could conceive.
Am I a liturgical snob? I suppose so. But it’s not because I think I’ve figured it out. Yes, I think the liturgy has the benefit of history, wisdom, theological substance, and more. But, I’m a liturgical snob because I need the liturgy. My life needs to be re-narrated.
I think I’ll skip the buffet.