the writing work of the people

crafting poems, prayers, and litanies for worship

What does worship sound like? What ideas, hopes, dreams, and laments do the words of worship spark or stir or set loose in our hearts and minds? What images of God swirl up out of our communal prayers and hymns to shape what we believe and who we are as people of faith? Words are powerful. How we use words in worship matters.

At Wake Forest University School of Divinity, I teach a course entitled “Liturgical Writing as Spiritual, Theological, and Prophetic Act.” One aim of the course is to encourage students to become liturgical writers, in other words to craft prayers, poems, spoken word pieces, hymn texts, blessings, calls to worship, and more. The course also invites students to explore and name what theologies they are embodying through their choices of language, images, styles, and forms for public prayers and written liturgies. In the course, students learn about elements of worship and explore historic and contemporary examples of how words and linguistic patterns are used in liturgies. Students also share their own liturgical writing efforts each week in a writers’ workshop format. My primary hopes for the course? I want students to explore relationships between the historic and traditional voices of diverse liturgical forms, their unique voices and theologies, and their roles as public prophets, theologians, and spiritual leaders. I also hope that students will attend to elements of style that support vivid and effective liturgical communication: rhythms of public prayer, use of metaphor and imagery, how form and language create atmosphere in worship.

Sometimes students are reluctant to “write liturgies.” In some cases, that is because they come from traditions where most liturgical elements are already crafted for them in denominational worship books or in other resources. Other students come from traditions where writing liturgies is not a common practice. I invite all students to experiment with liturgical writing as a spiritual discipline that can spark greater awareness of their personal theological beliefs. Liturgical writing can also instill confidence in students about the vitality of their public voices as they prepare to become worship leaders.

As students in the course take their initial forays into writing liturgical elements, I encourage them to consider what I call “place-connected” dimensions of worship. What do I mean by this? The most important thing we can do when we craft prayers, hymns, and litanies is to let our liturgies arise as we are fully present to our surroundings and to the story that is unfolding in front of us in our communities–in our places.

Sometimes students request templates to help them frame their written work. I tend to avoid using templates and instead offer students basic information and guidance about the shape and purpose of various worship elements. I want students to explore what it means to be fully present in a pastoral moment and then consider how to express what they experience through extemporaneous and written prayers and other liturgical forms.

The work of hospital chaplains provides an example of the place-connected prayerfulness I hope to encourage in pastoral leaders. Chaplains are often asked to pray at the bedsides of patients. To think theologically on my feet and shape a prayer that arises from the soul of the moment means, for me, noticing everything and every person in the room. Is there a stuffed animal in the room–where did it come from? Who is present? What stories are people telling? Is it winter outside or springtime? What is outside the window? Even the shoes people are wearing can sometimes tell you something about the narrative arc and emotional center of the praying moment.

Having connected with all that is present in the moment (including what is present in the chaplain’s own heart and body), then the chaplain can focus on an image or metaphor and allow a prayer to arise with that image at the center. I find that this gives prayers emotional color and weight that make them memorable and powerful.

Today’s ministry students and pastoral leaders encounter on a daily basis a wide array of multi-denominational and multicultural religious contexts. Ministers are often asked not only to lead in public worship but also to offer prayers for a range of situations and occasions (over family meals, at public events, and for varied ritual occasions, such as commencements, house blessings, and church dinners). As they explore historical and traditional liturgical forms and resources and attempt to craft some of their own worship words, students learn much about the dynamic and often prophetic relationship between what we pray and what we believe.

Note: In collaboration with students in two versions of this course, I have published collections of their liturgical writing. Words Made Flesh: Poems and Prayers for Worship and Uncommon Words, Common Worship; Selected Prayers, Poems, and Laments. Both were published by Wake Forest University’s Library Partners Press.

In My Bones: Holy Week Reflections

Holy Week began a few days ago, on Palm Sunday. Many Christians processed into worship, colorful banners and streamers and emerald palm branches dancing in the air as they went.

I do not dance with ease or grace on any day. I stumble even more on Palm Sunday. My uncooperative sense of rhythm is only part of the problem. I process with awkward reluctance because my heart and mind are reluctant to grapple yet again with the seven days Christians have marked as Holy Week.

What makes this particular version of Sunday through Saturday holier than other weeks of Sundays through Saturdays? Judging by the headlines in this morning’s news, I think it is fair to say that human endeavors will not do much to create an ecology of particular or peculiar holiness during this week (though I suppose we can be on the look-out every week for those moments when human courage and faith ease or even transform some element of communal brokenness). How do our ritual actions during this week speak of God in and to communities crucified every day to appease the gods of commerce or politics? What do our 21st century embodiments of Jesus’ story mean in a world where disease or violence or war disrupt life and where too many of the wrong things and not enough of the right things are resurrected? These questions trouble my feet as I make my way in fits and starts along well-traveled Holy Week pathways.

But I am a liturgical theologian. So when my heart and head have no insight or energy with which to reckon with what Christian theology speaks, means or accomplishes, my bones take over. I do not understand the physiology or spirituality of why it is the case, but I am somehow able to believe in my bones that something about what we embody in Christian worship connects us to the on-the-ground realities of our neighborhoods and communities. And something about what we embody as community in Christian worship connects us to God’s Spirit.

For me, worship—communal ritual practices—keep our feet on the ground when our thoughts roam without direction through complex ambiguities and when our feelings ebb and flow without rhyme or reason. When we cannot embrace the barest bones of belief, our physical bones incarnate, carry out and do as best they can what we understand God to be in the midst of suffering. When in spite of our lack of rhythm, we decide to keep on stumbling together along potholed Holy Week pathways and let those pathways take us to streets where people are hungry or into neighborhoods where people have been forgotten, ignored or cast out, then we at least stumble together on holy ground.

A Jesuit theologian, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, is helping me to limp with more grace through Holy Week this year. Orobator writes that in the midst of the “flawed words and stubborn sounds” of our worship practices, there remains a prophetic and graced Word. What we do during this week is more than theological abstraction or ritual legalism. What we do during this week is more than scripted rhetoric about Jesus’ crucified body and our redemption.

During Holy Week, we break bread on Maundy Thursday and lean with longing into the silence of a Friday that is anything but good. In that silence, says Orobator, in those moments when Jesus cries out to a God who does not answer, another holy Word is spoken. What Word? The Word that speaks in the lives of unacknowledged, marginalized, and ignored prophets who in their work in their cities and neighborhoods “show the ‘face of redemption turned visibly’ toward the sick, the poor, the refugees.” These ones absent from word-centered religious, political and economic institutional arenas? They are sacraments of God’s saving presence with God’s people. They believe with their bones—with their beaten down backbones, their arthritic fingers, and their road weary feet—and in their believing they incarnate in despairing places the promises of God’s grace and love. By remembering and acknowledging their presence, we remember Jesus.

I drove past a local church this past Sunday on my way to my own church’s Palm Sunday celebration. Their triumphal entry was under way. I looked, and then I looked again. Two women, one in a wheelchair and the other using a walker, waved palm branches in the air as others helped them down the sidewalk and into the sanctuary. At my church? We remembered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then heard in word and music the story of Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ suffering. The choir sang the haunting laments of the season—“O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” The pastor spoke about Jesus’ pain-wracked and broken body. The sacramental irony? I sat in worship just inches away from our community’s newest member, an infant a mere four weeks into this beautiful, joyful, terrifying thing we call human living. As those mournful songs washed over us, that infant yawned, slept, stretched, kicked the air with tiny feet, gurgled, and cooed.

They grounded me again on Palm Sunday, those aging ones who we too often forget and that tiny one who so needs our care. And as I waved my palm branch and smiled at that sleeping child, I felt it in my bones, the tingling presence of Holy Week’s absent One.

So, I will do it one more time, limp through Holy Week, and be glad that my bones, though reluctant and aching as they make the journey, ground me. I pray that they take me, by the power of the Spirit, to the same kinds of human communities where Jesus’ own bones took him.