I mean actually lost. As in where are we?
I’m not used to being lost in worship.
As a priest, I’m used to knowing exactly where we are. Even if I’m the only one, that’s fine, my job is to be the guide. “The liturgy begins on page 355,” I say and then pause while people find their place.
Whether you’re from a liturgical church tradition or a non-liturgical tradition, you know that a worship service has a shape. There’s a usual order to things, or at least some familiar patterns.
In the Episcopal Church, there are patterns and language we use every time we worship together. So that everyone can participate, most of our words and actions are written down. (Yes, that makes it difficult for people who can’t read or see, but the repetition helps). So that we’re not dependent on our ordained ministers to construct faithful and theologically sound worship on our behalf every week, we worship from prayer books that have been developed over centuries and have been approved in a very slow process with input from our whole Church. We sing from hymnals that, likewise, have been authorized for use in the Church. You may find power point here and there or bulletins that have all the words and music for the worship service, but mainly you’ll find books and bulletins.
To me, moving from Hymnal to Book of Common Prayer, to Bulletin, and back again, red book, blue book, paper, blue book . . . is not the juggling it was when I first joined the Episcopal Church. Now I’m a chef in the kitchen moving between the cutting board, the sauce pan, and the mixing bowl as the recipe calls for, knowing something beautiful and nutritious will reward my efforts. I am a conductor turning to the various sections of the orchestra, bringing forth different sounds in an order that will result in an experience of pleasure and delight.
Not so here. Here in South Africa, I am in a different part of the Anglican Communion, with different books at play. Many books. In the chapel we use four in a service. At the cathedral there are six. Here I am, not quite Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, but nowhere near Julia Child in the kitchen. I am a squirrel digging for a nut I know is down there somewhere, and I hope I can extract it in time for the second verse, or maybe the third. I am the child building the sandcastle with the waves coming in. Just when I get the moat dug, the water washes it away and I need to move on to the next construction effort. I am the person reading the map upside down; there is water around here somewhere—I can hear it, but I’m not sure in exactly which direction to head.
I am frequently lost. But lost in worship is a wonderful place to be.
Our liturgy forms us. We are shaped and taught by our worship in ways that, if we allow them to, affect not just our experience in church, but our entire lives. We worship on Sundays, not so we can give one day to God (or let’s be honest, maybe 90 minutes), but so we remember God wants us to dedicate our whole selves, all our days to God. Our sharing in the Lord’s Supper, gathered around the Lord’s table, is meant, not just to remind us of God’s love and grace in blessing us and forgiving us and uniting us when we are receiving communion, but always. Our meals, even at our home tables, or at our office desks, or wherever, can be echoes of that communion meal, opportunities to share food with one another along with words of hope, forgiveness, thanksgiving, unity in love and joy. Big and lofty experiences of big and important theological truths on Sundays can form us into people who live out those truths throughout our week.
Worship can help form us in more humbling ways as well, ways that are also valuable throughout all our days.
Here are truths forming me through getting lost in worship.
- I do not know everything. Too obvious? Perhaps, but how much time do we spend trying to cover up that fact up, denying that fact, or being embarrassed about that fact? When I’m lost in worship, it’s fine not to know everything. No one is expecting me to. It’s okay that I don’t get to say the whole prayer or that I mess up the words to the Creed or that I say “trespasses” while everyone else says “sins.” It’s really fine that I can’t pronounce the l’s (or g’s or x’s or q’s) properly in Zulu. No big deal. Worship is not a test or an achievement.
What if I let this experience of not knowing form me into someone who can become more honest about and comfortable with not knowing outside of worship too? Imagine what our world could be like if we were all more willing to speak the truth, “I don’t know,” rather than bluffing or making stuff up or switching the topic to our talking points.
Maybe we would also get better at living with the second reality being lost in worship points to:
- I need help from others. A student stands next to me in chapel and very gently indicates a page number in the South African Prayer Book as the priest says the Eucharistic prayer. The same student, who has a deep and resonant voice, gestures to the other book, the white one rather than the blue, as the source of our hymn as he sings the bass line. I need help and people are happy to give it. Our corporate worship is not a solo effort. It’s about community. Community helps.
What if I let this practice—this repeated experience of knowing I need help and then accepting it–seep into me? Perhaps I can be further formed into someone who isn’t ashamed of my limits and needs. Perhaps I can become someone who asks for help before I become frustrated or frantic. Perhaps I will become someone more adept at seeing when others need help as well. Perhaps I will become someone who offers help graciously and gently, like my companion in the pew. Imagine a world where to ask for needed help is not something shameful; to give help something natural, graceful even, like being able to sing harmony while handing someone else a hymnal.
Having to receive help and guidance leads me to a third reality getting lost in worship points to:
- I need to learn things. This is where it gets really fun. When I first joined the Episcopal Church, the books were different than I was used to, some of the words were different, some of the hymns were different. I didn’t get it right away. My first Sunday at St. Andrew’s, Yardley, Pennsylvania, a woman helped me navigate the books. She introduced herself at the Peace. I felt instantly welcomed in that community.
It took about three Sundays to get the hang of it. I learned. I didn’t master it, but with practice I became more familiar with the books and the language and the pieces that make up our worship service.
As I stumble through learning the parts, it’s like being on a treasure hunt. On my way to the right page in the book, I come across all sorts of wonderful things enclosed between prayer book covers, things I wouldn’t have known to look for. So far in my wanderings I have discovered that the Catechism in the South African Prayer Book has sections on angels and demons (not in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) and that there is more than one tune to “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” It’s like going to the library and looking at actual shelves and seeing all the great things on either side of the book you originally came for.
I have envied the churches where a well-appointed usher greets you at the door and hands you a multi-page worship bulletin in which every part of the liturgy appears in order. There are hymnals and prayer books in the pews, but they’re for show or in case someone gets curious enough to look up the Historical Documents or Table for Finding the Date of Easter. Sometimes this bulletin is printed on a heavyweight, creamy vellum, with not a typo to be found. The font is tasteful and easy to read. My guilt at not taking the bulletin home is only slightly assuaged by the fact that the church recycles.
That’s really nice. And I appreciate the effort to be hospitable and make one thing in my life this week a little easier.
But I’m here to tell you, getting lost in worship may be moving me a little closer to losing my whole life in wonder, love, and praise.