Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Frog Liturgy: Future and Present in Liturgical Prayer?

Just back from some time in southeastern Alaska and observation of the Tlingit totems, I am musing on the frog as one of their prominent figures. Among other things, the frog lives its life on two levels, submerged in the water with its eyes scanning the horizon and its nose penetrating the life-giving air. Evelyn Underhill plays with the same connection somewhere in her writings on spirituality and prayer. Richard Valantasis, in Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age (Continuum, 2005), proposes that the Christian seeker “lives in two worlds simultaneously: the current real world of daily existence, and the even more real, emergent, eschatological, and divinized world toward which the [seeker] works.” (p. 109)

In other words, the church lives in God's future as its dialogue with the present. What an amazing vocation! God calls us into a dialogue of living fully in the world as it presently exists while keeping the mind and heart on an emergent “divinized” world that is yet to be fully instantiated.

What patterns of prayer in our daily lives and in weekly liturgy habituate us in this dialogue that beckons us to embody the future in the present? What wisdom can we take from the frog? In worship, what are we immersed in and in what realm do our hearts and minds breathe and perceive?

Perhaps that is too many rhetorical questions piled up and awaiting reply. So, one at a time with possible expansion in future blogs.

What patterns habituate us in “frog” liturgy? The liturgical tradition invites us (1) to daily prayer (based on the daily office—Google search “Daily Office”), whether as individuals or in communal expressions, and (2) to weekly gathering around font, word and table (the central things) on the Lord's Day. In this way the community hallows its present immersion in daily life and breathes the air of the coming reign of God, which it is called to witness to and instantiate in concrete and specific relationships. Habitual practice has a bad rap in our “spontaneous” culture, but without patterned cycles of prayer grounded in God’s future we have no horizon on which to fix our gaze in the turbulence of daily life. The pond of our existence is seldom calm. Witness: the daily headlines.

Perhaps spontaneity comes in having a fix on the horizon and trying to swim in the currents of daily existence. This moves us to what wisdom we can take from the frog. Liturgical prayer needs to be tensive; otherwise it looses its torque, its grip on the mind and heart. In liturgy, like the frog, we are “floating” between order and outburst, control and out of control, full and empty, centeredness and eccentricity.

In these tensions, John Wesley is one voice who invites us toward dynamic balance. According to Hal Knight in The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Scarecrow Press, 1992) Wesley sought a balance between what Knight calls “the presence means of grace” and “the identity means of grace.”

The presence means of grace are those that enable us to experience the presence and immediacy of God and guard us against “formalism.” In worship terms, I would list these as extemporaneous prayer, praise choruses, Taize songs, periods of silence, narrations of contemporary experience, etc.

The identity means of grace are those practices that help us attend to the “givens” concerning God (the self-revelations of God) and serve as a hedge against “enthusiasm”—mistaking our own perceptions as the will and truth of God. In liturgical terms these include the Scriptures (generally drawn from a lectionary); hymns, creeds and prayer texts from the historic and ecumenical traditions; worship planned in light of the liturgical calendar; and—interestingly—silence (listed above), by which we not only experience the immediacy of God, but also God’s interrogation of us and our feelings, thoughts and intentions.

No church that I know of or have experienced fully balances the presence and the identity means of grace in worship. Some, with frog-like intelligence and awareness, are trying. Many are immersed in the immediacy of daily existence and the present moment, without adequate attention to God's coming reign. Others are breathing heavily of the future, anticipated, “divinized” reality without adequate connections to the present cultural, ecological and geopolitical realities. My hope and trust is that, as the Irish (and Andrew Greeley) like to say, God draws straight with crooked lines.

Bottom line: frog-liturgy is to be our aim in worship.

Daniel Benedict

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