On a whim a several years ago I bought an inexpensive copy of the Book of Common Prayer. When the Amazon package showed up on my door I opened it, thumbed through it, found the “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today…” and worked up my best impression of the priest on Princess Bride, and then tossed it aside.
This was before I entered into a season in my ministry that had very much become a do-whatever-you-can-do-to-just-breathe-and-survive kind of existence. God had brought me to a church, fundamental in its belief and practices, beautiful in its expression, and dogmatic in its convictions. And by this time four years had passed and I was tired. There’s something about walking with people through their a journey of faith and weaving through their suffering and heartache that causes pastors to question just about everything there is to question in theology and practice. And on top of my internal frothing and tossing, there was also an external source of pain as I was consistently fielding complaints and criticisms of the direction I was leading the church. I soon found myself empty, hollowed out by whispers and suspicion, my foundation shaken. And so my life, my spirituality, the wholeness of my existence was shattering and I desperately needed something to cling to.
It was here in the midst of this season that I again picked up that Book of Common Prayer (BCP).
Everything within me disdained this little book. In my charismatic tradition the liturgy tucked between the BCP’s covers stood for an oppressive and Pharisaical religious system that snuffed out the life of the Holy Spirit and caused people to follow a form of worship instead of worshiping a living Spirit. It felt a whole lot like LAW and, baby, I’m here for the LIFE! Can I get an amen?! (Did you read that in your inner televangelist voice? You should have.)
But actually, my lack of form in worship had snuffed out the life of the Spirit in me. I had reached the limits of my ability to drum up the Spirit in worship. I didn’t have anymore tricks in my bags. I ran out of words. So the charismatic would say, just pray in tongues. And I did. I prayed in tongues until the oxygen left the room. Prayer and worship felt like I was chasing rabbits from one brush pile to the next. I knew there was something in there but to shake it out and stir it up was exhausting.
And so over and again, this little green book sitting in a stack of unread books on my desk kept coming back to my heart.
One day I opened it up, determined to learn it and use it. I watched a few online tutorials on how to navigate its labyrinth. And day after day I found myself drawn to these pages filled with prayers, Psalms, and intercessions. Repeating them. Growing into them. Living them. Finding the comfort and presence of the Holy Spirit in them. It became the driftwood I clung to as I washed over the watery rapids of heartache.
But why should you begin using it?
1) It provides language for pain.
What I’m about to say can’t be overstated. There are times in life when I simply don’t have the words for prayer. I can’t express the tumultuous emotions that are filling my lungs like seawater. Or if I did try to put words to my turmoil, I felt like I was coming off disingenuous. But within the discipline of praying through the BCP, I found a new language. And the tool the BCP uses to shape this language is the Psalms.
Peterson, Brueggemann, Merton, and others have written extensively on praying through the Psalms and I would recommend their work. The gist? We must make the Psalms very personal. In them we find emotion that is vivid and varied and making a personal connection to it is a stretch at times. But we must. Their language must become our language. Because there will be a time. There will be a moment. There will be a tragic season in life when your smooth talking enemies will lay traps before you, waiting on the path to ambush you. There will be a time when your mattress is soaked with tears because to weep is the only response you can muster. There will be a time when the Shepherd walks you through a valley of death-shaped shadows. And in those moments, if you don’t have a language to express your anguish, your soul will languish. It is here that the Psalms are a gift. They aren’t to be studied and mined for information. They are to be prayed as your own prayers.
This is where the BCP is golden. Used as a daily discipline, the whole Psalter is read every month. Every Psalm every month. All that language. All that anguish. All that joy. All that despair. All that hope. In you. Everyday these words are practiced. Everyday these words become our own.
2) Confession and Absolution
“Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” is a line that is spoken. Again and again. Over and over. Followed by reflective silence, this discipline of confession is where the Holy Spirit reminds us that we are fully known. It forces us to not just acknowledge the old dusty sins that we wrestle with, but to day by day allow the Spirit to plumb the depths of our being to uncover the brokenness and privilege and blindness that we walk with and treat others with. It reveals our limp. And with open hands we humbly present it to God.
And then the magically soothing words are spoken back over us, “Almighty God have mercy on you…,” every day. Over and over. Again and again. It’s uncomfortable and painful. But it’s healing and right. Just as confession is a discipline, so is reaching out our hands to receive God’s love and mercy.
3) Communion of the saints
We Evangelicals are hellbent on individualistic faith aren’t we? “Personal relationship with Jesus.” “My quiet time.” I’m not wholly dismissive of it. Personal faith is important, but faith that is only personal is incomplete. We are baptized into a faith—into a body—into a people. We belong to something.
The BCP connects us back to the vital community of Christ*. It’s full of the language of us, we, and you.
“Let us praise the Lord.”
“Let us confess our sins.”
“O God, make speed to save us.”
And all this “us” language connects us with the hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world who are speaking those same words and prayers in that moment. It gives such a deep sense of belonging and rootedness in the universal Church. Common language has power.
I will admit that at first I felt a little Schizophrenic reading these words while alone in my bedroom,
“The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.”
I am, awkwardly, both the call and the response. But once I understood that I am a participant in both the giving of blessing towards the community of Christ and the receiving of blessing from that same community, the power of these words becomes unquenchable. I am both the blesser and receiver in the midst of community even while being alone. It’s an exercise in humility and vulnerability as I submit myself to the communion of the saints through the Daily Office. There’s something about it that reminds me that I am rooted. I am connected.
*please attend your local church on Sundays
4) Church Calendar and Lectionary
Put down your copy of the One Year Bible and pick up the BCP. In it is a daily system of reading Scripture that takes you through the whole narrative of Scripture in 2 years. Each day there are readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospels. Four readings that, like a silk string, stitch all of Scripture together in a beautiful arrangement of themes that unfold like a beautiful tapestry. This lectionary is also a gateway into celebrating the Church Calendar, which I have so many thoughts on, but do not have enough space here to give it its due. I may splatter some words on a page about that topic soon, but for now, just Google it and use your imagination, which brings me to my final thought.
A colleague of mine, Jerusalem Greer, says that the way to breathe life into the liturgy (which I know is a four letter word in my tradition, but we’re coming around) is two-fold; Memory and Imagination.
Memory: to give this language of love, devotion, and praise a place in your heart through repetition and practice. Imagination: to experience the Holy Spirit meeting us in power through the ancient words, the well worn paths, and the acts of devotion. The BCP gives a beautiful framework for the transformative voice of the Holy Spirit to speak and for us to respond well.
So I would encourage you to pick up a copy. Try it. Immerse yourself in its rhythms. Amazon has several copies that are really inexpensive. There are also a few apps available that help walk you through morning and evening prayer. Blessings to you.
Comments are welcomed and I encourage you to reach out if you have any questions.