Discovering Liturgy

I've never had much time for liturgy. Brought up in a independent church tradition that tends to reject anything with echoes of organised or state religion, it was something I was totally unfamiliar with. If I'm honest, I thought liturgy was for people who lacked the imagination to think up their own prayers. 

Then I met Doug McKelvey.

My first introduction to Doug was when we were asked to share a session at Hutchmoot in 2015. Reading through his bio, I was more than a little intimidated. Around a week before Hutchmoot began, the fear that we would have nothing in common was further compounded by the arrival of a long liturgy, written by Doug, to be read communally at the close of the weekend. Worse still, I had to read one of the sections. 

It turned out that the thing I was most apprehensive about was one of the highlights of the weekend. If you have met Doug you will know that he is genuine, humble and hilariously funny. (He told me a joke about a worm in the bottom of a bottle of Tequila that still makes me laugh out loud a year later.) He's also one of the most talented writers I've ever met. 

His closing liturgy not only moved me to tears but also began an unsettling shift in my uninformed opinions on liturgy itself. I had always believed that repetition divorced the heart from the head, allowing a show of religion while at the same time allowing the reader to disengage from the deep impact of its truth. While that danger undoubtedly exists, to make such a blanket statement is both false and profoundly unbiblical.

Over the past two years I have been tentatively exploring liturgy, discovering that good liturgy has the opposite effect from what I always imagined. For me, the discipline of coming back again and again to a familiar rhythm has had a recalibrating effect. This intentional focusing on truth acts as a counter balance against the endless distractions of everyday life.

Last November, along with some close friends who were walking through a similarly difficult season in their lives, we decided to celebrate a Northern Irish version of Thanksgiving. Normally our meals start with one of the fathers giving thanks. On this occasion we began by reading one of Doug's liturgies together. Simply entitled, "A Liturgy for Feasting with Friends," it is a beautiful declaration of the significance of these times of feasting together and the truth they represent. There was something profoundly healing about sitting with my children and verbalising our hope, despite all that was happening around us. The tone of the meal shifted so significantly that we repeated the same process at New Year, to similar effect. Very quickly the Liturgy for Feasting with Friends has become part of our family story.

For some people, particularly those raised in a church tradition were liturgy is commonly used, my unfamiliarity will seem an odd thing. For others, this practice may still be a mysterious one. Perhaps just something that people in other churches do. May I encourage you to think again? 

Even a quick glance at the Old Testament reveals how important intentional rhythms were for the people of God. Again and again their days and weeks were peppered with opportunities to stop and remember. To mark a moment out as holy and give thanks to God for His presence in even the most ordinary things. To once again declare their dependance on the God who called them His.

In the Jewish faith, frequent prayers of blessing are common practice. Known as berakhah, they are opportunities to train the heart in thankfulness and remember again that every good gift comes from God. In "Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus", Lois Tverberg describes them like this, "You bless God when you see the ocean for the first time in a long while or a king in his royal procession. You bless him if you see an exceptionally beautiful person or a gifted rabbi. You utter a word of praise if you are reunited with a long lost friend. When you feel a fresh orange and whiff it's bracing, zingy scent, you praise God, saying, "Blessed is he who has given a pleasant smell to fruits."

Not only does this intentional practice train you heart towards thankfulness, it also teaches you to see differently. I am beginning to realise how much discipline it takes to cultivate a moment by moment awareness of God's presence in all things and I am grateful for the new place good liturgy has come to play in this ongoing battle. In the course of two years I have gone from liturgy sceptic to eagerly anticipating the release of Doug McKelvey's upcoming book of liturgy, the beautifully titled Every Moment Holy. Rather than something just for ceremonial occasions, this book of liturgies enters into the practice of seeing everyday life as holy. As well as the Liturgy for Feasting with Friends, it promises liturgies for sunsets, the first hearth fire of the season and many more. Words for apparently ordinary moments, experienced by ordinary people and yet, if we take the time to see it, brimming with holy wonder. It's not often I have the confidence to recommend a book before I read it in its but, from what I have seen so far, I really believe this book will be something special.

If you want to find out more about Every Moment Holy visit the Rabbit Room. If this idea excites you as much as it excites me, you might even consider playing a part in bringing it to life by contributing to the campaign (click here). The great news is that for the month of May, any donation you make will be matched by a sponsor.