A significant question that has guided my journey toward becoming Anglican has been, “what is worship”?
I began to pray the Daily Office as part of my ordination process for the Anglican Church in North America back in October. If you’re not familiar with the Office, it is a structure of rhythmic prayer (morning and evening with a few other services) that helps Christians grow in their life in Christ. God has given us time as a precious gift. So the framing of our days around prayer helps us to orient our lives around God, his Word, and His people. These prayer services are structured with readings of Scripture, reflections, confession, reciting of the historic Christian creeds, and with prayers that mark the seasons of the Liturgical Calendar (another way that we can sanctify or “keep time” as a Christian).
After several months, I found myself feeling like something was missing in my prayers. During the season of Lent, I laid on my living room floor one evening overcome with grief to the point of tears. Lent is a season of introspection and lament over sin, the fallen world, and our neediness for Jesus. So on one level this grief was to be expected. But there was something else working on me.
I suddenly realized that it had been four weeks since I had said “Alleluia” in my prayers and during the Sunday liturgy. Alleluia means “Praise God” and it is used to welcome Christ’s presence just before the Gospel reading on Sunday mornings. It is a way that we greet our King. It is a way to say, “God is with us”.
It is customary to omit the use of Alleluia during Lent in order to savor its meaning for the Easter season. This wasn’t a shift I noticed right away. And it certainly wasn’t one that I thought through theologically. However, my spirit grew accustomed to savoring its meaning and I profoundly missed saying it during Lent. So much so that it made me ache with pains of longing for my Lord. Alleluia.
It was then that I realized that my worship had formed me. My prayers had formed me. They conditioned me to long for Jesus, which made Easter Sunday a profound experience of joy and I awaited it with great expectation. The liturgical prayers of the church were a source of precognitive theological formation. Not merely my own ramblings of self-expression (although those are still included the Office).
This leads me back to the question, “what is worship”? I believe worship is both the *expression* of my faith in God but it is also a *formative* activity upon my faith. My faith tradition growing up had done a good job of facilitating the former but had sold its birth-right in the latter. Worship nights, Sunday gatherings, retreats, and conferences, were all oriented in facilitating a contemporary, relevant, worship experience for me to *express* my faith in God but with very little thought on how *what* we were doing would shape our faith.
I’m thinking back to events with all the lights turned off (with exception of a few trendy stage lights), worship songs full of first-person pronouns, and exciting teachings from the front. I have no doubt that these services were used by God to grow and nurture my faith. But could it sustain my faith? And what are those forms saying? Let’s isolate you from community in the dark so you can feel comfortable to express yourself, it’s just you and Jesus, and entertainment value is important. I doubt anyone in leadership meant any of these things, but that is what the *form* of the event communicated.
It is here that I think thoughtful approaches to Christian liturgy can help us in the formation of disciples. It is here that I find hope, grief, joy, and comfort in Anglican liturgy.
I’ve been reading through Eugene Peterson’s book series, Conversations in Spiritual Theology. In the book, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, he says it best:
“Liturgy gathers the holy community as it reads the Holy Scriptures into the sweeping tidal rhythms of the church year in which the story of Jesus and the Christian makes its rounds century after century, the large and easy interior rhythms of a year that moves from birth, life, death, resurrection, on to spirit, obedience, faith, and blessing. Without liturgy we lose the rhythms and end up tangled in the jerky, ill-timed, and insensitive interruptions of public-relations campaigns, school openings and closings, sales days, tax deadlines, inventory and elections. Advent is buried under ‘shopping days before Christmas.’ The joyful disciplines of Lent are exchanged for the anxious penitentials of filling out income tax forms. Liturgy keeps us in touch with the story as it defines and shapes our beginnings and ends, our living and dying, our rebirths and blessing in this Holy Spirit, text-formed community visible and invisible.
When Holy Scripture is embraced liturgically, we become aware that a lot is going on all at once, a lot of different people are doing a lot of different things. The community is on its feet, at work for God, listening and responding to the Holy Scriptures. The holy community, in the process of being formed by the Holy Scriptures, is watching, listening to God’s revelation taking shape before and in them as they follow Jesus, each person playing his or her part in the Spirit.”
When we learn to keep time as a Christian through the liturgical practice of the Daily Office and the Church Calendar, we find ourselves as actors in the drama of the gospel. We are no longer mere “listeners” and “appliers” of spiritual lessons in Scripture. Instead, we become actors in what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls the “drama of doctrine”. We are learning to live our theology one day at a time. We are learning to yearn for Christ during Lent and to celebrate His glorious resurrection every time we say “Alleluia” throughout the year. That is what I call worship. Come, Lord Jesus. Alleluia!