I was as surprised as anyone to love it.
I grew up in churches without a formal liturgy, that is, the kind handed down in books and tradition and rituals smoothed by time and use. Going to formal churches with friends or family, the kinds of churches with chants and incense and bowing, made me feel like I was about to break out in hives. It felt like unnecessary human rigamarole. Couldn’t we just come to God? Why did we need all this posturing?
The first time someone gifted me a prayer book, with prayers and readings for the daily hours and special occasions, I spent all of two minutes looking through it, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible number of choices and also a bit weirded out. Why not just pray? Why did I or anyone need the structure, the restriction of it all?
I didn’t open it until months later. I needed something new in my prayer life and was desperate enough to try something new and strange. I was surprised to enjoy it, to appreciate the order and the limited number of choices. I grew to love the structure, the mini-service that I held each morning made up of words of Scripture sewn together into prayers and praise. I didn’t need to find my own, unique words each morning; I could speak these words that were already written, and see what they stirred up. I could rest in the words and in the promises they spoke.
And then, almost by accident (no, really), I ended up pastoring a liturgical church, complete with chants and parts of the service that still went by their Latin names. It was a church outside of my tradition, and sure there were rules and beliefs to learn but worship was one of the things I was most nervous about. I’d hardly been to such liturgical services, how was I supposed to lead them? I felt like I was drowning in unfamiliar phrases like Kyrie and purificator and chasuble. It was so much of what I’d shied away from years ago.
Once I learned the terms, though, I loved it. The liturgy gives the service a rhythm, one that is independent of me. I do not have to come up with words each week; I can rest in these words that were given to me, that have been used in worship long before me and will be again. It feels like being part of the Church, the Church as it’s been lived out across time and nations, and not just being part of one single church made up of however many worshippers.
When my dad was in the hospital, I found myself singing the Kyrie–”Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”–over and over. I had no other words for my worry, my prayers. When the news has gutted me–the Tree of Life shooting, miles from my current churches and my seminary; the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka; the death of Rachel Held Evans–I am so grateful for the liturgy, for this chance to join my voices with the church through the ages and to pray without needing my own words. I can rest in the promises of God, rest in the words of the church as I lead worship through tears.
The liturgy assures me that I do not have to be happy or full of joy to proclaim God’s promises. I can let the words speak for me, proclaim them in hope even when all I have is grief. And when I am full of joy and good things, the liturgy reminds me to return to God, to return to the rhythm that I’ve already created in my life.
I was as surprised as anyone to love it, but now I can’t imagine living without it.