The Disruption of Liturgy

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I love the liturgy of my church, and ache for its full return. When all the world is changing, and everything is disrupted, what comes to mind is what is unchanging: the grace of God.

On Sunday morning my family will wake up and have breakfast. The older kids will feed the animals, and we will do the dishes. Without the old rush out the door, we will gather around our television, some kids will crawl in laps, other kids will snuggle with the dogs sprawled out on the floor. The grown-ups will have coffee mugs in hand, and we will turn on our church’s service. The service itself has kept as much normalcy as possible. One of the pastors will greet us, and remind us of the online Bible studies later on this week. The worship team will lead us in song, as my family rises to our feet, as some of us adjust our pajamas, and we sing together—painfully aware of which kids have musical abilities and which kids are quite tone-deaf.

The other pastor will give his sermon, and then raise his hand in benediction. We will turn the TV off, and then discuss how we will spend the rest of our day at home.

Whether or not a church claims to be liturgical, every church has a liturgy—the intentional order of the service. We do scripture readings that are planned out. We sing songs that reinforce the sermon. We are currently missing the in-person parts. I miss the hugs. I miss just standing around after the service and talking as the kids ask repeatedly if we can go home yet. I miss the smiles from the older ladies as my kids squirm in their seats. I miss communion. I miss going through the bulletin. I miss eating together.

These liturgies connect us with the traditions of the past, and remind us of what has been held as important throughout church history. They ground us in what is good with the consistent rhythm like waves reaching up to the shore over and over again. The seasons of the church- Advent, Easter, Pentecost, and so forth, adjust the liturgy like the tides, as we loop around year after year the story of God.

We find comfort in liturgy, like children have their bedtime routines before they can rest. First the bathroom, then brush teeth, then pajamas, a story, a song, a prayer. Goodnight—all is right in the world and you can rest. The liturgy of bedtime ends with a happy sigh of completion as my husband and I have the liturgy of bringing out the ice cream once all is silent. These rhythms, routines, habits, whatever you call them, give us peace and comfort.

The book of Hebrews is basically a discussion of the disruption of liturgy, as the old way of the law was being replaced with the new way of the gospel. There would be no more sacrifices needed at the temple. The “bris” parties to circumcise newborn boys were no longer required as that covenant found its completion in Christ. I imagine the book of Hebrews being read aloud to an early Jewish congregation. I can almost hear the Jewish mothers asking, “so, am I preparing Shabat dinner anymore or what? What part of the traditions of our fathers is staying, and what is going?”

It wasn’t just a change of routine for the Jewish Christians. Every holiday, every feast, every walk to the temple to sacrifice, every tradition that made up their cultural identity was called into question. Does this one still count?

We need to make a plan. We can’t just float around in our existence. Give us something to do.

While the completion of the law with Jesus’ death and resurrection was likely one of the greatest disruptions to liturgy, for the people of God, it’s not the only one in the Bible. Every time God’s people were sent out of Israel, every time they got a new king who had a different view of God, or even every time God rescued them from slavery both literal and figurative, their routines changed.

Every disruption of liturgy in our individual and communal lives are difficult because they feel disorienting. What do I do next? How do I plan? What’s for supper tomorrow? Do I work, or do I play with the kids? What should I be doing? What is most important? Are the priorities different?

Decision fatigue sets in quickly as every piece of our days and worship is examined, debated over, and we question what will stay and what will go. What takes priority, and what can be set aside for now? Can’t something just be normal? Decision fatigue quickly turns to decision exhaustion, as we are made, or even forced to lay down and rest, maybe even grieve.

I love the liturgy of my church, and ache for its full return. When all the world is changing, and everything is disrupted, what comes to mind is what is unchanging: the grace of God. God’s sovereignty becomes the discussion on everyone’s lips, both Christian and non-Christian, as we are forced to wonder how much God controls when our ability to control anything is paused. “Why is God letting this happen? Is he still in control? Is he good?” Disruptions are a cyclical opportunity to discuss core truths.

The liturgy of massive disruption is usually: wrestling with the sovereignty of God until we bow our knees in exhaustion. As my friend, Nathan Hoff recently said: “The disruptions are opportunities for gracious faith formation or for control freak de-formation.” Perhaps those are actually the same. Tish Harrison Warren says in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary “There is nothing magic about any particular church tradition. Liturgy is never a silver bullet for sinfulness. These ‘formative practices’ have no value outside of the gospel of God’s own initiative and power. But God has loved us and sought us—not only as individuals but corporately as a people over millennia. As we learn the words, practices, and rhythms of faith hewn by our brothers and sisters throughout history, we learn to live our days in worship.”

Perhaps we can learn from imperative set forth at the end of Hebrews as they made their plans moving forward in light of the new covenant: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2a)

Liturgy is often thought of as a schedule, but at its core, it’s actually more of a trained response. When this happens, we respond by doing this. Once that happens, we respond by doing saying that. When we hold tight to the method that points to God more than the God who wrote the method we feel the disruption in what our soul cherishes—our works.

As a mother, schedules in my day are futile unless I account for constant interruptions. God has, and continues to discipline me in my response to interruptions, just as I train my kids to say, “Yes, Mom.” We train them to say “I’m sorry,” as God has trained me to say “I’m sorry.” We catechize our children as to how we respond to theological questions, how we react when things go wrong, how to apologize, and how to forgive.

When routines that we hold dear, and start to think define our faith are disrupted, we are being trained to give a response. Like children, we will do it imperfectly as all of our complaints and anger leave our lips first. What comes after this confession? Absolution. The liturgies are not lost when schedules are shattered and our grip on control is forced open. We confess, and we are absolved. God’s law shows us our sin and then his grace wipes it clean. These foundational truths are placed in a new context so we can see how they flex with their strength. Oftentimes God is giving us a bigger vision of what he can do when our abilities are restricted. No disruption can stop his grace.