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Liturgical Life PrinciplesHow Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living
By Ian S. Markham
MOREHOUSE PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2009 Ian S. Markham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Does the Healthy and Authentic Living Project Look Like?
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Being human can be complicated. We mess up so easily. Christianity explains both why we mess up and offers a vision of how we are intended to be. Christians believe that there is a way that we are intended to be. The whole concept of a "healthy and authentic living project" assumes that humans should live in a certain way. Unpacking this assumption is the purpose of this chapter.
The Spiritual Foundation
For the Christian, there is no question. The starting place for healthy and authentic living is in the recognition that we are connected with the Divine. A key assumption of this study is that God is really there. God made us. We are living in a universe that God intended. This vast cosmos wanted human lives to emerge. Fortunately, thanks to discoveries in modern physics this idea doesn't sound as outlandish as it once did. Physicists are very sensitive to the remarkable maths that made the universe possible. Indeed some talk about the anthropic principle: that the probability of the universe being so finely tuned to enable us to emerge is so high that it looks fixed. It looks like this universe was always intended for planets that can sustain life to emerge. And it is remarkable that all the factors came together. It could have so easily been different: all the odds pointed to a chaotic universe in which life would have been impossible. But instead of the likely, we have the highly unlikely. Order emerged out of the potential chaos. Of course, it might just be a giant fluke. However, Christians would want to say that intention and purpose were at work in this universe. God wanted creatures who had the capacity to receive and give love.
The goal of living is that we discover the gift of love. We are intended to be born into families—with parents who teach us how to give and receive love. We are intended to grow into adults and seize those moments when we can create deep, committed relationships with others around us. And most important of all, we are intended to recognize that God loves us, that God desires to surround us with love and peace. It important for us to recognize that God desperately wants to facilitate an appropriate orientation toward love (Liturgical Life Principle 2—henceforth LLP), and God wants to be involved in all our endeavors (LLP 4). (Here we have two references to parts of the liturgy that will be examined in more detail below.)
Once this is recognized, then we can see why the underlying disposition to life should be one of gratitude (LLP 24). This perhaps is the fundamental divide between the person of faith and the person who cannot see God. The person of faith is in a state of perpetual gratitude. Every morning we wake up: miracle number one for the day. Every day we have a body that operates effectively (and, hopefully, most of the time): miracle number two for the day. Every day we notice the dew in the grass, the sun rising, and the beauty of the flower: miracle number three for the day. And so on. If we are surrounded by so many moments of divine grace, we find ourselves perpetually grateful—grateful to God for the miracle of this day.
If we look at the world through the lenses of gratitude, then life is so much more delightful. It creates a sense of joy that cannot help but be healthy. However, this gratitude is not simply for the great gift of being, but also for what we believe God has done for us.
Thus far a person of any faith tradition could affirm the above account. However, faith traditions diverge about precisely what God has done and is doing in the world. We are not just affirming some nebulous "spiritual force" that permeates the universe. This God has told us what he (or she, because of course God is beyond gender) is like.
The revelation of God for Christians is a life. Contrary to the popular perception, the primary Word of God is the life, death, and resurrection of a person—namely, Jesus of Nazareth. All Christian theology is in the business of reading this life. When we ask the obvious question, "How do we know what God is like?" the answer is, "We read what God is like in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus." How do I know that God is loving and identifies with those who are suffering? Because I can see this in the words and deeds—to quote Acts 1—of Jesus of Nazareth. How do I know that God understands our pain? Because I can see this in the death and suffering of Jesus. How do I know that God understands vulnerability? Because God was vulnerable as a babe in a manger. Knowledge of God is grounded in the revelation of God, which is supremely found in Jesus.
This means that it is vitally important to read and study Scripture, for it is in the written word that we learn about the Eternal Word. Consequently, this project highlights the obligation to learn what God is like through Scripture (see LLP 6, 7, and 23). As a result of learning about the nature of God, we find ourselves with a heightened sense of gratitude, for this God is a God of consistent love.
This is the foundation for the healthy and authentic living project. The project is grounded in a claim about the nature of the world: it is not a freak phenomenon but an entity created by a God who intended each and every one of us.
Once we recognize that God exists and that we need to be in conversation with God, the next stage follows logically. The purpose of worship is to acknowledge the appropriate value of everything. When we bow the knee and see in God the fullness of love, beauty, and justice, we start to see the standards by which everything should be judged. Morality for the Christian is not determined by culture or individuals. There is not "a right for me and a different right for you." If this were the case then the Nazi anti-Semitic morality would be on a par with the morality of Nelson Mandela's antiapartheid morality. Christians reject this. Instead morality is grounded in the nature of God. Therefore, worship of God is vitally important in the healthy and authentic living project. It is in worship that we recognize what matters (LLP 3); it is in prayer that we locate our, often very local, worries (LLP 8). And it is vitally important to constantly affirm the divine values (LLP 26).
As a result of the constant, steady worship of God, we find our lives changing. We find that we instinctively know what is right and wrong. Even when the moral situation is complex, we are clearer about those actions at the extreme that would be morally unacceptable. We learn to distinguish with some clarity between actions that are truly life-enhancing and those that are not. It is so easy to deceive ourselves. We can easily imagine that this pornographic Internet website or that opportunity to pad our expenses can be justified. And the act of sitting in the presence of God makes one realize the error of these deceptions.
Dealing with Things
In worship we begin to order our values. Ordering our values can be difficult because the Gospel poses a major challenge. Repeatedly in the Gospels we are exhorted to be very careful with things. Indeed Jesus instructs the rich to give to the poor and warns that it is harder for the rich man to get into the kingdom of God than for a "camel to get through the eye of a needle."
The point of Jesus' teaching is that things can easily become an obsession. We can get addicted. We become desperate to "shop until we drop," thereby accumulating even more possessions that we don't get around to enjoying or using. Possessions can end up distorting our lives. We start imagining that the imported vase is more important than the hungry child. And tragically, we can easily damage our relationship with the child as a result of investing so much "love" into the vase. The less stuff we have, explains Jesus, the more likely we will focus on the things that really matter. So it is important that the healthy and authentic living project recognize the danger of things (LLP 11).
Dealing with the Past
When we are young, life is uncomplicated. We know what is right and wrong. We have ideals; we still believe in uncomplicated romantic love—meeting the right person and settling down. As we become adults life becomes much more complicated. Our ideals are compromised by the demands of modern living; many discover that romantic love doesn't survive day-to-day living; and many of us have behaved in ways that we deeply regret.
Christians believe that God has dealt decisively with the past. God has absorbed our past into the act of God in Christ. God has the authority to forgive us. We can offer the past back to God knowing that the death of Christ on the cross has made all the difference. This is most important for healthy living. The past can so easily haunt us. It is difficult to escape the tentacles of the past, for the past can reach out and destroy the present. So many individuals repeat the mistakes of the past: the woman who escapes one abusive husband only to marry another or the person who was neglected as a child and who goes on to neglect his own children. And even if our experience isn't that dramatic, we often allow the past to destroy the quality of the present. Sometimes it is just the painful memories; for others it is the inability to commit to the possibilities of the present. We are all exhorted to give our past to God.
In giving God the past, we are freed up to enjoy the present. Often the consequences of the past will still have to be tolerated, but the power of the past is eliminated. We are invited to enjoy the work that God has done in Christ. Liturgically, this work is done in two places. During the exchange of the "peace of Lord," we should allow the peace of God to transform our relationships with everyone (both present and past) (LLP 10). And again during the postcommunion prayer, we give to God all this hard work of coping with our past (LLP 22).
The following picture of a healthy person is emerging. This is a person who recognizes the necessity of being connected to the Being that enables us to be. The heart of that recognition is the act of worship, which enables us to recognize those values that matter most. As we worship we sort out our priorities. Among those priorities is the imperative of not allowing "things"—that big car, antique vase, and plasma television—to distort the really important aspects of our life, namely, our relationships with people. In dealing with people, life can become very complicated. And sometimes we find ourselves harboring regret and hurt as a result of mixed and complicated encounters with each other. We have just seen how important it is to offer the past to God. However, in offering the past to God it is important to make sure that our relationships with others in the present are healthy and positive. It is to the struggles in the present that we now turn.
Coping with the Inevitable Struggles
Having dealt with the past, we can now concentrate on the present. Christians have no delusions about people. We are not simply muddled, confused, and often morally ambiguous. We also have the capacity to be selfish, unkind, cruel, inconsiderate, self-absorbed, and sometimes downright wicked. This is all captured by the very simple and prosaic word "sin."
At one level, sin is puzzling. Why do we opt for destruction and hatred rather than building love? Why do we ruin a happy marriage by a one-night stand? Why do we jeopardize a successful career by cheating on our expenses? Why do people choose to torture, rape, and kill rather than enjoy the beauty of creation and the love of others? It seems utterly irrational.
At another level, sin is often seen as a calculated risk. We suspect that we can "get away with it," that we will be undetected. Alternatively, we imagine that our power will protect us. As a result, egoism, stupidity, and a delight in cruelty are deeply embedded in each and every one of us. Egoism wants it all: the happy marriage, the public face, and the rendezvous with a lover. Egoism flirts with the illusion that somehow the regular rules do not apply to us. We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are not really destroying our inner integrity by this act of betrayal. Stupidity is seen in the belief that we will get away with "it" and the accumulation of lies once we are detected. We are stupid when we take a risk with everything that is precious to us for the sake of an evening of lust or a less than accurate tax return. And the delight in cruelty is a discovery made by the young, who can mercilessly tease the weaker, smaller, different child. There is a perverse delight and satisfaction that can be found in hatred and dislike. We like the bonding it creates with the group. We unleash pain on others. And perhaps it is only much later that we regret the hurt we have caused.
Sin is not simply a problem with actions. We are not good at recognizing the link between actions and our internal life. Our decision to find a pornography website feeds the imagination. Then we are tempted to live out the fantasy. The desperate quest for power, lived out in an elaborate fantasy of the exercise of power, can lead to destructive friendships and abuse of relationships. The insatiable quest for a new car, where we pore over the magazines and covet the car every time we see it, can lead to fiscal irregularities. Normally our negative actions are an expression of an undisciplined internal life. Jesus saw this clearly. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) teaches that it is important to control not simply actions but also the internal life that underpins actions.
The goal is to create habits so that we no longer run the risks of sin. We want to become vehicles that radiate the love of God. We don't simply want to be able to turn down opportunities for sin; we want to become people who don't want to sin. This goal will take some time to reach, and this is where the liturgical approach to healthy and authentic living comes very much into its own.
The liturgy is constructed in such a way that we will sit through a service saying the general confession and then come back next week and say it all over again. Overcoming our propensities toward sin will take some time (LLP 9). God is deeply aware of the human inclination to praise God one day and behave in ways that are deeply distorted the next (LLP 14). When we turn to God, God becomes a partner in the work of transformation; we are not alone in our struggles (LLP 21). And it is often through music and meditation that we can work through our struggles (LLP 33).
God's willingness to be there for us is the most precious gift of all. We are not doing this work alone. God is there, willing and ready to help us with it all.
Offering God the Details of Our Life
Most books that encourage a changed outlook on life are known as self-help books (so called because we are required to do the work). The liturgical approach to the healthy and authentic living project makes this a God-help book. God is love. God understands the challenges involved in becoming vehicles for love. And God has done everything to make love a possibility in our lives.
When we think of worshiping God, it is important not to turn God into a big person. God is not a giant ego in the sky to whom we pander by saying nice things. However, when we think about God and the muddles of our life, it is entirely appropriate to see God as our cosmic friend (LLP 28). God is ready and willing to walk with us. We are never alone. However difficult life can become, God is present in the difficulties. This does not mean that everything will be smooth. The primary New Testament image for discipleship is "taking up a cross" (a willingness to be martyred). Right from the start, Christianity teaches a God who is alongside us in our pain and suffering, not a God who will eliminate our pain and suffering.
While we recognize the inevitability of pain and suffering in life, we are constantly invited to offer to God all the details of our life. Our concerns, fears, and aspirations are all offered to God. Parents should offer to God their daily worry about their children; children can offer to God their hopes for career and romance. We are constantly surrounded by a cosmic being who wants to uphold us (LLP 24). This God of the details promises to attend to and be present in those details.
Excerpted from Liturgical Life Principles by Ian S. Markham Copyright © 2009 by Ian S. Markham. Excerpted by permission of MOREHOUSE PUBLISHING. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. What Does the Healthy and Authentic Living Project Look Like?....................15
2. Appreciating Liturgy....................27
3. Discovering What God Is Like: The Word....................30
4. Approaching the Eucharist....................56
5. Living Every Day in Gratitude....................77
6. How the History of the Prayer Book Contributes to the Healthy and Authentic Living Project....................87
7. The Power of Music and Symbol....................93
Appendix One / An Instructed Eucharist: For a Congregation to Understand What Is Going On....................99
Appendix Two / Liturgy and Transformation: For the Scholar....................104