Cairns and Inherited Ways of Prayer and Worship
Years ago, during a vacation in New Hampshire, Jonathan and I climbed Mount Washington, which is notorious for erratic weather. It can change from sunny and warm to snowing in a few hours. The wind is so strong that it once held the record for the fastest wind gust on earth. On our hike, we thought we might be blown off the mountain (we have no photos from that day in which my hair is not blown entirely across my face).
And then there’s the fog, which settles so deep and thick that hikers have gotten lost and died. So the good people of New Hampshire have made cairns along the trail: massive, towering rock structures that plot the course. When the fog descends and the weather is dangerous, hikers can make it to shelter at the bottom of the mountain or at the top by walking from cairn to cairn in the white out.
In times of deep darkness, the cairns that have kept me in the way of Jesus were the prayers and practices of the church. When I could not pray, the church said, “Here are prayers.” When I could not believe, the church said, “Come to the table and be fed.” When I could not worship, the church sang over me the language of faith.
Inherited ways of prayer and worship—liturgical practices—are a way that the ancient church built cairns for us, to help us endure this mystery, to keep us on this path of faith, to guide us home.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Discovering Gospel-Shaped Liturgy
I came to appreciate liturgy during a time in our church’s life when we were rediscovering the gospel. We planted the church in 2000, and for the first several years, we struggled to discern the best way to lead and unify the church. Like many church leaders, we chased fads and searched for a “silver bullet” for ministry, something that nourished weary souls and called us to mission.
By God’s grace, the gospel broke through our thick skulls, and we came to see that the answer was not merely the ABCs of Christianity, but the A-to-Z of the Christian life. It was during this discovery that we began attempting to allow the gospel story to shape our gatherings. We wanted to structure the service in an arc based on the story of the gospel, rather than the emotional arc we’d cultivated up to that time.
So we started moving the service through an intentional dialogue that remembered (directly and indirectly) the gospel. We thought we were very clever and original, but all we were doing was rediscovering something that the church had been doing for a long time. In fact, most historical liturgies walk through the gospel story in one way or another.
Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, p.64. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
The Gettysburg Address & Identity Formation
Why is it that countless American school-children memorize the Gettysburg Address each year? Is it a simple civics lesson? An opportunity to learn about the Civil War, a turning point in American history? Yes, it is each of those things, but also much more. The memorization of that short (just two-minute) speech is also an act of identity formation. It is a chance for students to connect to both the ideals and the aspirations of the people who founded this country. This is how Lincoln begins his speech:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address provides an opportunity for every American child who remembers its words to internalize the values and aspirations of their country. As they recite the address, it becomes a part of them.
When the church goes through its liturgy each week, whether it be “high” or “low,” its people are engaging in similar identity formation, through a reenactment of the life of Christ and his call to the church. When we perform the sacraments, we also engage in identity formation, from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. We are reminded of our sin, God’s sending of His Son, and the sacrifice that leads to our reconciliation with the Father. All of this done through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Origins of Liturgy
Once upon a time there was a rabbi who, whenever he wanted God’s presence, went to a special place in the woods, lit a fire, said some prayers, and did a dance. Then God would appear to him. When he died, his disciple did the same. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods, lit the fire, and said the same prayers, but nobody had taught him the dance. It still worked. God appeared.
When the disciple died, his own disciple carried on the tradition. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods and lit the fire. He didn’t know the prayers or the dance, but it still worked. God came.
Then that disciple died. He also had a disciple. Whenever he wanted God’s presence, he, too, went to the same place in the woods, but nobody had taught him how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance, but it still worked, God appeared. That disciple, too, eventually died, but he also had a pupil.
One day this pupil wanted God’s presence. So he searched for the place in the woods, but couldn’t find it. And he didn’t know how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance. All he knew was how to tell the story. But it worked. He discovered that whenever he told the story of how the others had found God, God would appear.
In essence, this story explains how sacred ritual—liturgy—works. Judaism calls this “making zikkaron.” Christians call it “making memorial.” The idea is that a past event can be remembered, ritually recalled, in such a way that it becomes present again and can be participated in.
The Origins of the Word Liturgy
The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, a combination of words meaning “work” and “people.” So the Catholic Church is fond of describing the liturgy and the sacraments as “the work of the people.” But, in fact, “work for the people” would be a better translation of leitourgia. In the Roman world, leitourgia was public work donated to the populace by a rich benefactor. In the same way, the sacraments are donated to us by our great benefactor. Corporate worship is not a work we perform for God’s benefit.
See also Illustrations on Worship
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Liturgy. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!