Liturgy for Lent: The Daily Office as Praying Through Scripture

This is part of a series my friend, Mike Angell and I are posting at each of our blogs. You can read the other posts here.

Mike: Let’s talk about the Daily Office of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In the first English Prayer Books, Matins (the ancient name for Morning Prayer) began on page one. Morning Prayer is where we start, again and again, the liturgical tradition. The services in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people.

Jason: The monastic community is exclusive by design. The Prayer book was created to widen access to this rhythm of life shaped by prayer and Scripture. Yet it doesn’t lose the communal aspect of the monastic tradition. It’s design is still for a community praying and dwelling on Scripture together. This doesn’t mean it can’t be used by individuals, but it is by design a book for a community.

Mike: Exactly, The Daily Office names that we’re not in the praying business alone. Jason, you may find it interesting that Morning Prayer was the most common service on Sunday Morning in Anglican Churches until about the end of the 19th century. Weekly Eucharist is relatively new in Anglicanism. Even today many of the Episcopalians who consider themselves evangelicals (yes, there are Episcopalians who enthusiastically embrace the label) often celebrate Morning Prayer, rather than Eucharist, most Sunday mornings. I think this is because Morning Prayer keeps Scripture at the center of our liturgical life.

Jason: Even a Eucharistic service has a lot of Scripture in it! We’ll get into the mechanics of the Eucharist later. Still, it’s worth noting that many evangelicals would be surprised to find how much Scripture is read during a liturgical service!

Mike: More than anything, The Daily Office is about Scripture. Morning and Evening Prayer facilitate a regular reading of The Bible. The Offices are designed especially around the Book of Psalms. The Daily Office lectionary (calendar for readings) of The Episcopal Church includes psalms to be read at Morning and Evening Prayer, and takes us through the whole book of psalms every seven weeks. Likewise the Lectionary follows a calendar for Scripture readings. Often whole books of the Bible are broken up over several weeks. Sometimes particular readings appropriate to a specific season or feast are provided.

Jason: For those of us that come from other Christian traditions, the reverence shown for the Book of Common Prayer by Episcopalians can be a bit creepy at first. We already have the Old and New Testament. Why do we need another text? This line of critique is often warranted when no one can explain the use of the book or when a Bible cannot be found in a church, only prayer books.

Mike: The Book of Common Prayer, especially in the Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. Many of the prayers in the BCP come directly from Scripture, others quote scripture. No service in the Book of Common Prayer does not include the reading of at least a little Scripture. We may not put Bibles in pews in all of our churches, but our liturgy helps us to read the Bible together. One of the gifts of the lectionary is that liturgical Christians tend to be reading the same scripture. I can turn to another Episcopalian who prays the daily office and say, “Did you read that bit of 2nd Samuel today? What were they thinking?” It’s a bit like a group of friends who all watch “The Walking Dead,” except, you know, with The Bible.

Jason: Studies on congregational health have found that biblical literacy is a key to spiritual growth for Christians. There are lots of tools for studying the Bible out there and a whole industry devoted to churning these out. What I love about the prayer book and lectionary is that these books are ancient tools for doing just this: reading and meditating on Scripture year-round. But they are not designed just for gathering information about the Bible. Rather, they are prayerful–they’re design is for reflection and life-integration of Scripture. Mike, can you explain how this actually works?

Mike: I find that the wisdom of nuns and monks becomes important when I pray Morning Prayer by myself. Because I spent a lot of time in classrooms studying the Bible, I can get distracted, wanting to look up some interpretation or translation of Scripture. The monastics knew this temptation and teach “Lectio Divina” (Divine Reading), a method to keep us from pulling out our Greek dictionaries. Tools like Lectio Divina, help us remember that we read Scripture in The Daily Office for devotion not for academic analysis. (For a great set of methods, check out this post by Sharon Ely Pearson.) The Daily Office itself helps us to keep to this method, because we respond to the readings of Scripture with praise. More on that and the other pieces of the Daily Office in the next post.

Liturgy for Lent: The Daily Office

This is part of a series my friend, Mike Angell and I are posting at each of our blogs. You can read the other posts here.

Mike: The Dean of my seminary, Ian Markham, used to tell a story about one of his former students, a Muslim woman studying at Hartford seminary. She asked him, “when do Christians pray?” As a practicing Muslim, she prayed *salat* five times a day, pausing in the midst of her work or play to kneel down and be with God. For Muslims, prayer is obvious. Prayer is physical. Prayer interrupts your day. When do the Christians pray? Dean Markham liked to tell this story and leave the Christians in the room uncomfortable. When do we pray?

Jason: For my Episcopalian friends, the jump from a discussion about liturgy to prayer may seem natural. This is not necessarily the case for Christians of other traditions. My experience with the Episcopal church has exposed me to a tradition that articulates a direct link between prayer and worship. The two terms are almost synonymous with each other. Similarly in evangelical traditions, terms such as “music” and “worship” become interchangeable. Now that I’ve clarified this, let me ask you, Mike: Why are prayer and worship tied together in this way?

Mike: Liturgy is the public dimension of prayer. Worship, in my mind, is a form of prayer, of communication with God. The liturgical tradition of the church has always imagined some formal pattern of daily prayer/worship. Monks and nuns still keep this liturgical tradition most fully alive. Since the early centuries of the Christian movement, monastic communities have interrupted their work and gathered to “pray the hours.” From early morning Vigils to Compline just before bed, monastic communities today still pray together in chapel, four, five, six, or even eight times a day. Every monastic rule is slightly different in the observation of the hours, but the result is the same. Day in and day out, in every season, the monks, nuns, and their visitors are immersed in prayer that breaks into their work. Historians even argue that the prophet Muhammad may have based his five-prayers-a-day rhythm on the Christian monks he knew.

Jason: Evangelicals have had an armchair fascination with monasticism for quite some time. No matter our background, my hunch is that most of us desire tools for making sense of our lives–of bringing some kind of order to our everyday chaos. Honestly though, this isn’t easy. My experience has been that liturgy as something we fashion our lives after, as opposed to an once-a-week event, is difficult. It’s counter cultural. But Mike knows I kind of like that!

Mike: Interruption is one of those words that we don’t like generally. The Daily Office is meant to be a bit of a burden, a task. As you’ll see in the posts about Morning and Evening prayer, there are specific scriptures to be read, psalms to be recited, categories of prayer to remember. This gets us back to the idea that prayer is work, and our work shapes us. As the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, “We don’t think our way into a new way of living. We live our way into a new way of thinking.” It is in this sense that the Daily Office comes as an interruption. The rhythm of prayer pulls us out of the constant work and busy-ness that is so common in our lives. I admit, I struggle to maintain a practice of daily prayer. The interruption is often “too much.” The Daily Office seems to demand too much time. I have a hard time making room in my day, but I know that when I do make the time, my day tends to unfold with less anxiety. What is interrupted, for me, is the sense of urgency and hurry that often fills my day. I welcome that interruption.

Jason: It re-prioritizes things, doesn’t it? But we’ve lived with each other before. You and I both know that we are far from monks! While we value the monastic tradition, you and I both do what we do because we want regular people, like us, to experience the richness of the Christian tradition in their lives. I think that’s where my affection with the Book of Common Prayer begins; I like the idea of a prayer guide created for the masses.

Mike: Jason, indeed, we are far from monks. The beer we've brewed with housemates wasn't nearly as good as the monastic beers either. Brian Taylor, an Episcopal priest in New Mexico, once asked a Benedictine monk at Christ in the Desert monastery what it was like to do eight offices a day, every day, the monk responded, “it is relentless.” Indeed, eight services a day seems like a lot. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Reformation put together the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In the Prayer Book, Cranmer was working toward a form of “new monasticism.” He knew that when the monasteries were dissolved at the Reformation, the cycle of the Daily Offices could not be maintained by the people in their entirety. But Cranmer did imagine a daily round of prayer. Cranmer simplified the monastic services by combining the early day and late day offices into Morning and Evening Prayer. The invitation of the Prayer Book is that our weekly worship of Eucharist is shaped by a regular practice of the Daily Office. As such, Sunday becomes the summit of a week of liturgy, not an isolated weekly experience.

Jason: For many of us, there’s an attraction to the sights, smells and sounds–the aesthetics–of the liturgical tradition but there is much more going on here. It’s an open invitation to a way of life!

Let’s get into some of the nuts and bolts of how the Book of Common Prayer can help us with this way of life.

Mike: The Book of Common Prayer begins with the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In the next posts we will explore these services individually, but it is important to note that the liturgical tradition is not simply about what we do on Sunday morning. The tradition of the church is a daily encounter with liturgy. The liturgy of the church is a tool for interrupting our day with prayer. The services of Morning and Evening prayer can work for us like the chapel bell in a monastery, calling us out of the humdrum of our everyday life. Liturgy invites us to spend time each day with God. And, as we’ll see in the next posts, the Daily Office liturgies gives us some structure to lean on as we pray.

Liturgy for Lent: Introduction Pt. 2

This is the second in a series my friend, Mike Angell and I are posting at each of our blogs. You can read the first part here.

Mike: As an Episcopalian, I grew up in a liturgical church. That is to say, I grew up going to services which were patterned on an ancient form of praying. I realized the difference one year in middle school, when my mom chose to sign me out of first period to attend an Ash Wednesday service. In previous years we had gone to Ash Wednesday services in the evening. When I got to school, I realized was one of a very few students with smudged foreheads. I saw the confusion on the faces of my fellow students. I got asked if I was Catholic. I realized not every Christian marked the beginning of Lent by hearing “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Jason: If I was younger, and grew up in Denver, I could have been one of those kids looking funnily at Mike on Ash Wednesday. It was never directly communicated to me but I grew up with an assumption that Christians of a more liturgical bent were not really Christian. They did archaic things at church. They drank alcohol.

Interestingly, I’ve experienced something similar with Episcopalians. There are grand, misinformed assumptions made of evangelical Christians by their mainline counterparts. As someone that has worshiped in both worlds, I can confidently say that our assumptions often keep us from learning from each other. There is more in common than most know. Especially when it comes to worship.

Mike: Liturgy translates literally as “work done in public.” In church that public work is public prayer. When we talk about “a liturgy,” in the singular (or liturgies plural), we are usually speaking about a particular church service. A service of Eucharist or Morning Prayer for example. In the Anglican Tradition we put the liturgies we pray together most often in a book called “The Book of Common Prayer.” There are other books of liturgy as well, like the Book of Occasional Service (which, unsurprisingly, you only need occasionally).

Evangelicals also have a liturgical tradition. Evangelicals often don’t call it “liturgy,” but all church is liturgical, because church is a place of organized public prayer. In the Episcopal tradition, we tend to “privilege” the Catholic in discussions of liturgy. But the evangelical churches have a rich tradition of their own. The Moravians and the Quakers have very particular and historic ways of approaching God in prayer. There is a structure, an order to the public services in all churches, wherever they fall on the Evangelical/Catholic spectrum. But Episcopalians are not the only ones who look down their noses at less formal worship. A few years ago, Jason shared a video made by Evangelicals, lampooning their own tradition.

Jason: That video exposes how contrived worship can feel in evangelical circles. I got the same feeling the first time I saw this SNL skit. It hits way too close to home for many Episcopal parishes. The danger in both cases is presenting something seemingly artificial. Like Mike said, every Christian tradition has a liturgy–a form or rhythm they follow in worship. If we are unclear of what those rhythms are for than we end up simply going through the motions.

A strength of liturgical churches is that there is no denying that they draw on something ancient. There is no attempt to disguise the worship experience as anything else. But, again, it becomes meaningless if it is not interpreted for the person experiencing these practices.

Mike: To be a liturgical Christian is to know you walk a particularly well-worn path. The words and gestures used in church have been passed down through the ages. The psalms themselves are the earliest prayer book we have. Most liturgy makes use of the psalms. We pray words together that have been prayed for thousands of years. We stand with the saints who have gone before us. In some ways liturgical Christianity is a bit like a “Life-hacks” article on Buzzfeed. The Book of Common Prayer is a compilation of “prayer-hacks” or “worship-hacks.” Over the years people have figured out what words and motions help people to connect with God together. When we open to the page of a particular liturgy, we pray in a particular historical rhythm.

Jason: I like the way you put this, Mike! It reminds me of the preface of the BCP. The idea of “worship-hacks” alludes to the relationship between the subject and end user. “Hacks” exist to efficiently broaden usability, increase accessibility (it is, afterall, called the Book of Common Prayer). This also implies that in making worship and prayer accessible, we’re additionally showing people how to do it. Yet, I think, this is where liturgical traditions get themselves into trouble. How can leaders use liturgy to shape and inform people when the language and form of this tradition is so foreign to an increasing number of people?

Mike: Jason, you’ve hit the question on the head, but I don’t think the answer is simple. Liturgical churches hold the tension between formation and translation. Sometimes we hold the tension well, and liturgy comes alive. The ancient speaks to the present, and the wisdom of the ages helps us to sense our connection to God. Sometimes we don’t hold the tension well and liturgy feels like pandering (as in both the videos we shared), or we swing the pendulum the other way and liturgy feels like a museum piece, disconnected from reality. Liturgy is an invitation to participate in a different world, a different sense of time. It has to feel “other” but it can’t quite feel “foreign.” I hope as we move forward, we can discuss ways to “hack the hacks.” That is to say, I hope we can talk specifically about what we have learned as we have adapted liturgy to work in our particular contexts.

Speak Your Truth

Can you imagine what it was like hearing Jesus' message through his disciples in first century Palestine? The twelve have been hanging out with Jesus for a while. But they're illiterate. Uneducated. Yet Jesus entrusts them to go out and share his message.

If you read the Gospels, you can see how often they missed the point–how often they misunderstood what Jesus was up to.

"The Kingdom of heaven is like a ... Wait. John, what did he say that kingdom-thing was like again?"

"Blessed are the ... was it the poor or rich in spirit, Peter?"

"Um, James, I did that thing that Jesus did that one time ... but dude's still blind ... and pissed off!"

You know this kind of thing had to have happened. Still Jesus sends them out to share with others the truth of his message.

There's this phrase, often spoken as advice, that goes something like, "Speak your truth." It's a very postmodern phrase that can imply several things. It may be a denouncement of any kind of universal truth. It may also be affirmation of one's personal experience as valid and meaningful. But what if this phrase implies that we all hold a piece of what is universally known as truth? I still believe there are universal truths. But there are also "universal deceits" as George Orwell once said:

"In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

We need you to find your voice. Your qualifications don't matter.

On a recent episode of Sideshow–a Studio 360 podcast, host Sean Rameswaram interviewed author Cheryl Strayed. At one point in their conversation, Strayed says something like, "When you're telling the truth, you're speaking with a universal voice."

You may be wrong sometimes. You'll make mistakes. That's okay. It doesn't invalidate your experience. You're still trying to find where your experience and the rhythm of God's dream for the world line up. You'll only find it by trying. With practice.

Orwell was right. Lies are daily told about how to survive in this world. The truth is, there's another way to be human. You know part of the answer. Speak up.

For Christian leaders, I think we miss the point of following Jesus when we refuse to give away leadership to the unqualified. Jesus gave leadership to the unqualified. All the time. The disciples were incredibly unqualified. Yet, Jesus trusts them. He gave them a voice. He validated them.

Who do you need to empower?

Who has a truth–an experience–that needs to be heard?

Will anyone else hear it unless you give them a chance?

Liturgy for Lent: Introduction Pt.1

Jason: Mike and I have been friends for a long time. Today, we both work in The Episcopal Church. Mike is a lifelong Episcopalian and is ordained as a priest. I grew up in various evangelical churches and am now a part of the Episcopal Church. Throughout our relationship, there has been an ongoing dialog about Christian liturgies–a healthy “push and pull” between informal and sacramental expressions. We decided to share a bit of that conversation through both of our blogs. Through Lent this year we are going to post twice a week in a conversational introduction to liturgy. In this first post, we introduce ourselves and ask “Why talk about Liturgy for Lent?”

Mike: A few months ago we found ourselves talking about liturgy in a minivan. We were getting ready for the weekly Eucharist at the University of Maryland, College Park. I was filling in as priest that week, as Jason was in the midst of a search for a new campus minister. (Jason oversees campus ministry in the Diocese of Washington.) I had asked Jason whether he was okay with making changes to the order of service. Jason asked, “can you do that?”

We’d come a long way. I remember awkward moments when I first started coming to house church at Jason’s when we lived in San Diego. He would read a bit from First Corinthians and then pass around a tortilla and some wine and say “the body and blood of Christ.” As I received the bread and wine I thought, “can you do that?” I’d grown up in The Episcopal Church. My mom is a priest. I already had my first degree in theology. This informal evangelical approach was foreign to me. It broke the rules. I later lived with Jason and his family while on a summer break from seminary, and the Bishop came to visit us for house church. I asked Jason not to pass around the tortilla that night.

Now Jason works for a Bishop. He’s come professionally into my liturgical world, and he was asking if I was breaking the rules by changing the prayers for the liturgy. Jason had a lot of questions. As I pointed out page numbers in the Book of Common Prayer 1979 and the changeable parts of the service, I realized I had questions as well. I mostly knew the structure of The Episcopal Church’s worship through decades of practice, and I had taken as many classes in liturgical theology as I could in seminary. But suddenly I had a new set of questions centered around one question: “How do I explain what this all means to an outsider?”

Jason: Over a decade ago, I started fumbling around with the Book of Common Prayer and the Revised Common Lectionary. Like many evangelicals, my tradition provided lots of gimmicks for discipleship and worship but I needed something else. We were now more connected with the global community than ever before. While technically savvy, there was a growing fascination with ancient religious practices. In such a context, there’s something winsome about an old tradition that guides you in reading the same Bible passages, or praying the same prayers, as people around the world. While I respected these tools, I was not prepared for the reverence shown them upon entering the Episcopal Church. That reverence made it difficult for me to find anyone able to explain to me why these books are used the way they are in worship.

Mike: Jason asked if I could point him to an introduction to the liturgy for newly liturgical Christians. I couldn’t really. There are fantastic books and posts about the ideas of liturgy and theology, but not much by way of a practical how to guide. We decided this Lent to do a series of co-written cross postings, a crash course in liturgy.

Jason: Every Tuesday and Thursday during Lent, Mike will introduce an idea in liturgy, and I will try to make sure that we keep this as pedestrian as possible. I’ll offer critique and pose questions. Mike will look up–or make up–answers. We hope you will find our mash-up of informal and sacramental approaches to liturgy valuable. We think these two approaches can compliment each other.

Mike: We’ll both post our conversation using the following outline.

  • Introduction: What are we doing and what do we mean by liturgy?
    • Thursday Feb 19
    • Tuesday Feb 24
  • Daily Prayer: The prayer rhythm of the hours especially in their simplification as morning and evening prayer, and how to make it work for you as an individual or in a small family or community group.
    • Thursday Feb 26
    • Tuesday Mar 3
    • Thursday Mar 5
  • Eucharist: The weekly pattern of worship at the Lord’s Table, its parts and pieces, how to plan for a communion service.
    • Tuesday Mar 10
    • Thursday Mar 12
    • Tuesday Mar 17
  • Proper Liturgies for Special Days: Looking at feasts, fasts, and celebrations in life.
    • Thursday Mar 19
    • Tuesday Mar 24
    • Thursday Mar 26

We hope you’ll join us on this journey into liturgy during Lent.

... And To Dust You [Systems] Shall Return

Congregations across the globe will be observing Ash Wednesday today–the beginning of the season of Lent. We are marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads and reminded of our mortality. I'm always amazed at how many are willing to admit their human frailty on this day.

We know we are broken. We know that we need to be reminded of this. Even more, we know that we need to be reminded that we cannot do it on our own, we need a helper–a Savior.

But this morning, as I reflect on this last year I wonder if we also might need to reminded of how broken our systems are. Our judicial system is broke. Democracy is broken. Capitalism is broken. Churches are broken.

Certainly, these work for some people. But not enough.

These are systems made up of people like you and I. They are broken as much as we are.

This does not mean we ought to abandon them. Just as we don't abandon our bodies simply because they are imperfect. Rather, recognizing this–embracing this–allows us to see what needs mending, healing.

As we recognize our brokenness today, may we recognize the brokenness of the systems we have created. May we pray for forgiveness, for ourselves–for our complicity or indifference. And may we pray for forgiveness for systems that fail too many.

Recognizing both of these things, I pray we work to be better people, as individuals and together. There's something about admitting our weaknesses that creates room for hope. So, let's get on to confessing our brokenness so that we may contribute all we can to the Kingdom coming.

I'm 40 ...

I'm 40 today.  I'm forty f#@%ing years old. When your work is mostly with people that haven't yet hit 30 this feels quite old. Over the last year, it has been said to me on numerous occasions, "Well, when you're a middle aged person ..." as well as zingers like, "Shouldn't the Young Adult Missioner actually be a young adult?" Yep, that one felt good. Real good.

Be assured, I write this with a smile on my face. I'm pretty thick-skinned. But I'd be lying if I didn't confess that my poor family has had to deal with a little sulking all week long. Some of it was simply denial. Everyone has a perfect age. My lovely wife will always be 29. But me? I'm really an old man at heart. 40 kinda feels like the beginning of becoming the old fart I was always meant to be.

Enough of feeling sorry for myself! For some reason, I woke up this morning (at 4 a.m. like all old men do), went for a run and realized that I was totally free from the funk I had been in. It felt a little like New Year's Day. I had started the week a little disappointed that I was leaving my thirties behind not having accomplished all I wanted to. But this morning I woke up done with that, realizing there's no time to waste worrying about what's left undone. There's lots still to do. Now I can stop worrying about whether or not someone else approves, or whether it's cool, or whether anyone else likes it. Because I'm forty f#@%ing years old and I'll do what I like (and get off my lawn, dammit!)! I want to make more art, play music again, travel more, get more ink, write more, help more churches thrive and start a few projects I've just been too scared to (Notice how I didn't say what those are? Still scared.).

So, here's to the next decade! May I kick it's ass.