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.
Entering a Counter-Intuitive Story
[T]he liturgy helps us enter a counter-intuitive story. In an individualistic culture, the liturgy helps us live a communal life. In a culture that values spontaneity, the liturgy grounds us in something enduring. In a culture that assumes that truth is a product of the mind, the liturgy helps us experience truth in both mind and body. In a world demanding instant relevance, the liturgy gives us the patience to live into a relevance that the world does not know. Its counter-intuitive nature makes the liturgy appear culturally strange at first, but in fact it’s more like an intriguing story,full of mystery, that not only attracts but reshapes our perceptions and our lives.
A caution. The liturgy is not a magic potion or carpet ride.
The dreariest services I’ve been to have been liturgical services.
And the spiritually deadest churches I’ve attended have been rich in liturgy.
…But there is a reason the liturgy has continued to be the staple of the bulk of Christendom: it remains a powerful context in which to be transformed by God. Still, it should not surprise us that the liturgy is also one of the best places to hide from God.
The Garden of Eden was a place where Adam and Eve enjoyed the goodness of God and hid from his presence. Yet if we will refuse to hide within the ritual, it can work on us an d in us to transform us. I believe—and it has been my experience—that ongoing participation in the liturgy is ongoing participation in the life of God and, as such, will lead, as C.S . Lewis envisions human transformation, to a life “dazzling, radiant … pulsating all through with . . . energy, joy, and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine.”
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.
“Sheilaism”, My Little Voice, and Christian Liturgy
Much of American spiritual life trudges through the muck of solitary spirituality. Twenty years ago, Robert Bellah described this phenomenon. in Habits of the Heart, with his now famous description of one woman:
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”
“My little voice” guides many lonely people to and through New Age, Wicca, Buddhism, labyrinths, Scientology, yoga, meditation, and various fads in Christianity—and then creates a new Sheilaism from the fragments that have not been discarded along the way. I love Sheila Larson precisely because she articulates nearly perfectly my lifelong struggle: “I believe in God. I am not a religious fanatic….My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheiliasm. Just my own little voice.”
The difference between Sheila and me is that she has the courage of her convictions: she knows her faith is very personal and so hasn’t bothered with the church. I like to pretend that my faith is grounded in community, but I struggle to believe in anything but Markism. Fortunately God loves us so much he has made it a “spiritual law” that Sheiliasm or Markism become boring after awhile. The gift of the liturgy—and it is precisely why I need the liturgy—is that it helps me hear not so much “my little voice” but instead the still, small voice (Psalm 46). It leads away from the self and points me toward the community of God.”
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!