Sunday, March 20, 2011

world without end

I went to a service at St. Matthew's this morning and much to my great surprise, I think I might be Anglican.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, as things often do. I have always loved the sound and flavour of words. I have always appreciated the immediacy of symbols and their ability to give us something to hold on to in the face of untouchable things. Makes sense that a style of worship that places a high value on both of these things would be right up my alley.

The first hints that I might have found what I was looking for happened while I was reading St. Matthew's website which is, hands down, one of the best church websites I have ever seen. As someone outside of their community I found everything I needed to know right there, easy to find, easy to read. By the time I got to the church this morning I felt I had the information I needed to be able to participate in the service. For someone raised in a string of "contemporary" churches a full traditional liturgy can be a very unfamiliar thing. St. Matthew's site gave me a road map. I wish all churches did that.

The word liturgy means "the work of the people". I love that idea that church is not a place we go, rather church is something we physically do together. The service was incredibly participatory and that really spoke to me. You don't just come in and sit and listen, you speak, you pray out loud, you respond. There were two readings, one from the old testament and one from the new and for the New Testament reading every stands, a visual picture that the news of what Christ has done for us is so wonderful you can't stay in your seat as you hear it. The reading finished and the congregation as whole gave thanks to God right there in the moment as if hearing it for the first time. Did you know that the liturgy is set up so that the congregation hears the entire Bible read aloud every three years?

I wondered if an Anglican church would be formal to the point of coldness but I couldn't have been more wrong. I was warmly greeted, and the nice lady next to me helped me keep up when I got lost switching between the hymnal and the prayer book. It has been years since I went to a church that sang hymns, and I've started to notice lately that I miss them. Verses of hymns I sang a child have been running through my head - isn't it amazing that they're still in there? One of the great things about hymns is that they have such classic chord progressions that even if you don't know the tune you can pick it up by the end of the first first.

Also, it comes back to the words again.

The words in hymns make sense. Not only are they deeply scriptural but the verb tenses are always correct and the point of view doesn't jump around. I know for most people that's not a deal breaker but for me, it pulls me right out of a worshipful mood when the song is simply wrong. There's one chorus about a river where Jesus is the river in one line and then we're standing in the river in the next and then Jesus is calling us to the river. . .and I just can't sing it because I get so distracted trying to figure out which verbs go with which river and why anyone would try to stand IN Jesus in the first place. Hymns hold no such mysteries.

I think my favourite part was the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. I love a word well spoken and the idea of speaking to God in words carefully crafted, patiently selected, thoroughly rooted in scripture, was very beautiful. We use poetry when we want to speak of love, we quote great minds when we want to say just the right thing but lack the words, how lovely to speak to God in the same way. Not that it is the only way to speak to God, but it is a treat to get to bring such pretty words to him. In several of the prayers the phrase "world without end" is mentioned speaking over and over of the timelessness of God, the duration of his love and mercy. It was a great reminder.

It can be hard to hear God amid the noise of life and the busyness of lists. Some days it's even hard to hear him in church. But this morning in the quiet reverence of a service that has been conducted just this way for years on end, I could hear him clearly. Maybe I was wrong about the words, I think that THAT was my favourite part.