Listen To Article
I was at a gathering this weekend that began with worship. The worship leader offered a short devotional, encouraging us, in the words of Jesus to the woman at the well, to “worship in spirit and truth.” In his (and others) interpretation of this text, we were encouraged to bring, not just our heads to worship, but our hearts. To bring our emotions into worship, to really contemplate what we were singing or saying or hearing, instead of just going through the motions and approaching worship as a duty or a routine.
I get what he was after. And I don’t disagree with him. Mostly. Worship can certainly become a rote act, something we do without thinking. In general it’s probably best if we bring our whole selves into worship and ponder and treasure the great truths we speak.
But sometimes I need worship to be a rote act. Because sometimes the truths we speak don’t quite match the emotions I’m feeling.
On September 4 I sat in my regular seat, four pews from the front of the sanctuary, shuffling through my sermon notes rather anxiously. Church was the last place I wanted to be. Three days earlier my twenty-six-year-old cousin had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary hemorrhage. He had so much life to live, and then he was just…gone. We stood to sing – “This is my Father’s world…” and I dissolved. “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet,” we declared. “Really?” I wanted to yell. “Is he? Recent evidence would suggest otherwise.”
A friend who knew what had happened came to sit next to me, tissues at the ready. She bore me up during that service. But I was also borne up by the steady, sturdy act of simply going through the motions. There were words in front of me to speak. There were song lyrics to mouth. There were routine actions of sit, stand, shake hands, bow head, to rely on. It was rote action, but it got me through.
Five days later I sat in the sanctuary of Church of the Servant, a robust funeral liturgy in my hands. The night before we had gathered as family, and all we could say to each other was, “There are no words.” But here, in these pages in my lap, were words. They spoke of hope, and faith, and love. Through my tears I spoke words I believed to be true but didn’t feel in that moment. Liturgy, in this way, brings us to a posture of trust – there is truth that abides.
My sister, sitting next to me, was having her own struggles with the liturgy. My sister, who has Down Syndrome, doesn’t like to be sad. Who does? She kept insisting over the week that our cousin would want us to be glad as we remembered him. She had her pencil out during the funeral, scratching out the words “grief,” “pain,” and “sadness,” scribbling in “peace,” “comfort,” and “hope” instead.
“It’s okay to be sad,” I told her. She shook her head. She didn’t give up her battle against the sad words all throughout the service. But I hope – I trust – that the liturgy bore her up, making space in her world for the existence of joy and sorrow.
Ten days later, as so many did, I got up early to watch the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. There was a great deal of pageantry and processionals, marches and music, ritual and rite. But the services themselves, both at Westminster and Windsor, felt remarkable in their simplicity. Prayers, litanies, hymns, Scripture readings – all written out, all expected, all routine. Carefully thought out and crafted, of course. And yet…simple. What made the event extraordinary was the person, the history, the magnitude of what her death means to so many. It’s almost impossible to put words to such a moment as this. But this moment was borne up on the simple words of a funeral liturgy, walking us through the extraordinary, giving us a place to steady ourselves in the face of something that feels so momentous.
Perhaps it didn’t feel that momentous to you. But I wondered, as I watched the hearse pass the thousands gathered, as I thought about the millions tuned in and watching, as I thought about my own life and the loss and change and ever-shifting sands this season has brought…if this funeral was for the queen, but also for everything else we have lost in these last years. If the death of this monarch, who has been a constant presence for the entirety of most of our lives, symbolized for us the death of things that felt familiar and known in a world of evermore change and anxiety.
Perhaps. And so perhaps this funeral liturgy gave us a place to direct our own sorrows and fears and heartaches and laments over all we have lost – over everything we fear losing. That which we cannot fully name or comprehend, but that which we know sits in our souls. That which a funeral service gives some words to.
And so, I think, the liturgy – the words, the hymns, the prayers, the movements – is simply there, sometimes, to bear us up when we cannot believe, when we wish not to believe, when we cannot comprehend. The great truths we utter do not always elicit corresponding emotions, particularly when our faith feels fraught. But like the pallbearers shuffling the coffin up the steep steps of St. George’s Chapel, the liturgy holds us up, and carries us forward, awkward step by awkward step, into a place of trusting rest.