Is liturgy dull, boring and dead? When we say something, a prayer, a creed, a confession together in worship does it express your feelings, does it address your concerns? What if it doesn’t? What should you do? If your congregation routinely prays the Lord’s Prayer or says the Apostle’s Creed are you merely repeating words or is something authentic and profound happening? Do words have the power to shape us?
There is an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine this week about the effect language has on us. Words are powerful and influence us in ways we don’t even recognize. Modern people may be surprised by this, perhaps because it is so important for us to be autonomous individuals. Ancient people had less difficulty acknowledging the power of words. Remember when Issac blesses Jacob rather then Esau? (Genesis 27). Once the words are spoken they cannot be undone. Or when Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel and Balaam pronounces a blessing? (Numbers 22- 24) Or when the centurion comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his sick servant, not by coming to his home but by speaking the words. (Matt 8:5-13) Ancient people knew that words are powerful things.
We moderns accord words respect as well. But in a different way. We are not as concerned that the words will shape us as we are worried that the words won’t express who we are. If the words I say are not “my” words, how can the be authentic and true for me?
Kathleen Norris tells the story of an Orthodox theologian who was a visiting lecturer in a seminary classroom, speaking about the historical development of the creeds. A student in the class asked a question that produced an illuminating exchange: “What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?” [The student’s question may have been, in other words, “May I stand politely, but silently, while the congregation recites the Creed? Or shall I say aloud only those lines that I’m sure I believe?”] The priest responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.”
…The student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, “What am I to do…when I have difficulty affirming parts of the Creed…?” And he got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it…”
The student raised his voice, “How can I with integrity affirm a creed which I do not believe?” And the priest replied. “It’s not your creed, it’s our creed,” meaning the Cred of the entire Christian church… “Eventually it may come to you.” he told the student, “for some it takes longer than for others…” *
We are to be shaped by the words of scripture and our tradition. Not a congenial idea for modern self made individuals. But there it is. We are formed by a lifetime of communal prayer and creeds and reading. We are formed by a lifetime of sacraments and ritual. It is part of how we take our place in the great cloud of witnesses. It’s our creed, our prayer, our scripture, our church.
I don’t mean that we should recite the creeds and prayers without thinking and without reflection. We probably ought to struggle with them more than we do. But at the end of the day, actually at the end of a lifetime, the creeds and prayers and Bible verses and hymns and sacraments help make us who we are, part of the whole people of God. We can’t do it alone, by ourselves. We need each other and the saints who have gone before us.
I’d like to know, what has your experience been reciting the creeds and prayers? Have they shaped you in recognizable ways?
* Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books:1998), pp.64-65 quoted in “Creeds and Prayers” Ronald P. Byars in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony (Grand Rapids Michigan:Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) 2005. Leanne Van Dyk, ed pp.88-89