David Neff on the restfulness of liturgy

David Neff responds to an essay from The Anglican Planet by Julie Lane-Gay called “The Liturgy That Gives Rest.”  Lane-Gay writes that: “Instead of feeling that I had to conjure up enthusiasm, I felt like someone had handed me an antique pillow to cradle my weary mind and soul. I didn’t have to think what to say.”

Neff’s response is interesting and discusses liturgy in a way that I’m not used to thinking about it.  I grew up in, and still attend, a church that is fairly liturgical by modern American evangelical standards (at least in our two traditional services), but we don’t talk about the order of service in the way that Neff does:

My own experience was different. I wouldn’t have compared the liturgy to a pillow. But I felt the same relief that I didn’t have “to conjure up enthusiasm.” Conjuring up enthusiasm—and godly grief and glorious rapture and even stillness—all of that was part of what I had been exhorted to do in the religion of my youth, a religion that owed much to American revivalism.

That side of revivalism placed the accent in worship on my feelings. Revivalism fed off of a cycle of duress and release, and it required that I feel the right emotions as we approached the transactional moments of worship. When it came time to (re)dedicate myself to Jesus, the moment was validated or invalidated by my feelings.

The liturgy taught me that there was instead one great transaction. It happened on Calvary. In the liturgy, we celebrate and memorialize that transaction together—together as a local congregation and together with Christians around the globe, together with Christians throughout history and together with those who have gone on to glory. Fortunately, that celebration continues in spite of whatever feelings I may have because the great transaction was completed before I ever experienced my first emotion.

He concludes:

The liturgy must be seen as part of God’s mercy. It is not the words that do “the work for me.” God acts toward me in the liturgy. That is why in Morning Prayer we often say a paraphrase of Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Without God’s help, we can’t even start praising.

When worship loses its bigness, the sense of God’s mercy also contracts. But when we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we also know instinctively that the quality of God’s mercy is not strained.

Neff links to the original essay by Lane-Gay.  It’s short and worth reading too.  Here is her description of her experience in an Anglican church in New England:

Our rector, Sam Abbott, in his early fifties, receding dark hair, thick eyebrows and heavy glasses, as rooted in New England as the Pilgrims, read the liturgy with clarity, gravity and grace. Sunday after Sunday he bestowed something precious. He spoke the truth in love with a seriousness that could not be ignored. His delivery was like the reading of a miraculous will, as we heard of the riches of Christ, as we were told of God’s passion for us.

As I’ve studied church history and become more aware of liturgical traditions, I’ve become more interested in the meaning of liturgy.  It’s still something like visiting a foreign country for me, though.  These articles helped me to understand the language a bit better.

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2 thoughts on “David Neff on the restfulness of liturgy

  1. Interesting thoughts. Quite a contrast to George Barna’s take on liturgy in Pagan Christianity, but one I identify with more myself. I remember the excitement I felt at reading the oldest detailed description of a Christian worship service in Justin Martyr’s apology. It was as if a new window to heaven had been opened, that I had never known existed..

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