We received the warmest possible welcome when we arrived at the church that was to become our new home. We had moved half way around the world and we were lonely. On that first Sunday we visited, complete strangers offered us the use of their camping gear, in case we wanted to attend the all-church camp-out the following weekend. Week after week, the gospel was preached, and we were loved. We were bowled over, encouraged, included.
And yet, I grieved.
I grieved because we had been in a small church, and this was a large one. I grieved because we didn’t know the words to the songs, and it made me feel out. I grieved for another reason, too, although it took me several weeks to be able to name the sadness that pressed on me each Sunday.
I grieved because I missed the liturgy.
Our new church was buzzword compliant: it had community, worship, biblical preaching, and God-focused and people-loving congregants. Those were non-negotiables we had been looking for and we were so grateful to be there.
But they did not have a liturgy.
At first, I didn’t understand why I missed it so much. I was not raised in a Christian family and my first taste of the faith had been in exuberantly charismatic happy-clappy circles. However, in my college years I had found myself in a little church plant that met in a university lecture hall. There were no robes or smells and bells—but it was a low-church Anglican group, and every service had aspects of the Book of Common Prayer woven into the worship.
At first, I hated it. The congregational readings seemed rote, and I wondered how heartfelt a prayer truly could be if one were reading it off a page. But as the weeks stretched into months, and then into years, I found my soul gratefully sighing into the rhythms of the ancients.
The liturgy taught me to pray in a way I hadn’t before. The collects took the words of scripture and gave me words of intercession for God’s people and God’s world which had been breathed by the saints for centuries before me. I was grateful and aware that I was learning to pray.
The liturgy taught me to participate in a way I hadn’t before. Reading prayers and scripture responsively during a worship service forced me to see myself as part of a congregation, rather than as part of an audience. Communal prayers expressed the priesthood of all believers in a beautiful and practical way. Prayer was no longer something I did at home, while others prayed on my behalf at church. No, now we prayed together. I was grateful and aware that I was learning about corporate worship.
However, it was only after we left and I found myself grieving that I realized I had come to love one more thing about the liturgy we had left behind, and that was this: the liturgy taught me the beauty of beginning all worship with repentance.
For nearly ten years, each of our corporate worship services had begun with a prayer of confession:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
We began every service with a time of reflection and confession for the things we had done wrong, or things we had failed to do right. And then, in every service, the words of grace were spoken over our community.
The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and
remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of
life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit. Amen
Week after week, we began our worship by being called to the carpet for a good, hard look at who we really were. No matter how lipsticked and well-put-together I may have appeared when entering the building, the first few minutes of the service always undid me. The real me, the authentic me, the one who disappointed and screwed up and underperformed and overcompensated—THAT me was acknowledged. And then, O glorious words of grace, that same foolish and fallible me was forgiven and reminded of his love and grace.
The real me was seen. The real me was forgiven. And so, the real me was now free to worship. Restored and forgiven. Known and loved.
I love my new church. I love the faces I see each week, the songs we sing, and the way that people dive fiercely into loving, serving and seeking God. But every now and then I find myself feeling a little too glossy on a Sunday morning, and the smile on my face betrays the ache in my heart.
On those days, I miss the liturgy most of all, and sometimes I find I need to stop singing (yet-another) wonderful Chris Tomlin song, and quiet my heart for just long enough to remember those words, “God, I confess that I have sinned against you, in thought and word and deed, and in what I have left undone….”
Weekly, I need those moments of true repentance, so that I can enter into the moments of true joy.