Tag Archives: ritual

Hymn

Hymn: A song, praise, or poem directed to God. Associated with a religious service with connotations of traditional (rather than contemporary) worship.

It went in phases. First went the wooden pews with their thin red cushions, old and sturdy and uncomfortable. Then went the hymnals, stacked into great heaping piles at the back of the sanctuary. Big projection screens went up, flanking the pipes of an organ from a bygone era.

Someone suggested that “sanctuary” was an antiquated term; we started calling it the “worship center.” The church choir disbanded in favor of a worship team.

During the last of the responsive readings, I was old enough to read along in the program. “It sounds so boring,” I moaned to my parents on the way home from church. I was fifteen: smoldering in my fire for Jesus. “Why can’t they put a little feeling into it?”

I liked my worship loud against electric guitars. I wanted my heart to quicken with the drums, to lift my hands with the crescendos of a repeating chorus.

I wanted prayer to be impromptu, a spontaneous bursting forth of my whole, full heart to God. Good riddance to the Lord’s Prayer and the other tired lines in the hymn books; they were too old and frail to convey my passion.

The changes suited me just fine.

I didn’t understand that there would be a day when I would have no emotion left, no passion, no overflow of my tired heart. In that desperate moment, the praise songs began to sound tinny and hollow to my ear. The evangelical-speak that once sounded so fresh and new began to sound like marketing.

But at Christmas, we take them out: our hymns, our liturgies. We dust them off, speed them up, add a drumbeat. Or we alter them artfully, adding acoustic rifts, new phrases.

We leave the words untouched for the most part, complete with their Thees and Thous, their old phrasing, odd vocabulary. There is something timeless about them; something eternally beautiful, endlessly relevant.

I read them now and find that they are not frail, but strong, full of mystery, full of hope:

O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here

And it’s not about nostalgia, but rather a sense of ancient community, a long, wide heritage of faith. A thousand Christmases in a hundred thousand cities, churches, homes. All those people, holding all those tiny candles, singing the old words:

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The world is new, changing, moving, and we move along with it. We upgrade, replace, move forward. We create. We use the new technology available to enter into the mystery of God’s love in different, beautiful ways. We try to say it differently, stack together new metaphors and similes to describe it all.

But someone is posting the Evening Prayer in my Twitter feed. Liturgy colliding with technology. And it is so old and beautiful and sturdy and true, and it feels like a hand-me-down sweater worn by so many before me.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel!

I wrap the words around my cold places. I let them warm me as I move on toward Christmas.

Dear Jesus

dear-jesus-christianese-redefined

Dear Jesus: The beginning of an evangelical prayer as taught to children. In later years, the “dear” seems to drop, and only the name remains: Jesus or Lord God or Father. But still, there is always a salutation, a signal that we are entering prayer time.

In his room, the WalMart fan rattles and the yellow, 70’s-style-swivel-chair1 squeaks as we rock, rock, rock.

“Should we pray?”

“Pray?” Dane repeats, and he adds my inflection to the end of the word, so it comes out a question.

He is two. He speaks in fragments of our family language, each day repeating new words, forming phrases in the wrong order, sentences missing verbs, words missing letters or shortened into parodies of themselves.

I used to keep a list of his words as he learned them – Mama, Dada, Wa-wa, No! – but now they come too quickly and unexpectedly. Now his baby fat is gone; his legs are strong and scraped from his play.

But in his room at night, he folds himself into my lap, rests his head on my shoulder. His hair smells like sweat and earth. It is thick and blonde and it sticks to my face as I rest my cheek against his head and rock, rock, rock.

“Dear Jesus,” I say. “Thank you for this day. Thank you that you love us. Thank you that you’re always with us.”

They are not my words so much, but words I remember from my childhood, words my mom spoke at night after we’d been tucked under the covers. The short sentences, the phrasing—this is all hers, and I can hear my voice morph into her voice as I speak them now into the darkness of the room, Dane’s ear pressed against my collarbone.

I don’t know where the “Dear” came from—the salutation of a letter, applied to prayer. As if we are writing a letter to heaven. As if God is so far away that he can only be reached by mail.

I don’t know why I feel the need to create a beginning this way (“Dear Jesus”) or an end (“Amen”). Do I want to teach my children that prayer is something we do at specific times? A break in our play before eating, before sleeping? A ritual, a regiment? Or do I want them to believe that life is a running conversation with God. That he is present in our day, always available, always listening?

Or does, as usual, the answer lie in between, somewhere vague and gray that I will navigate sloppily through these early years of their lives?

Dane and I thank Jesus for the highlights of our day. We thank him for our friends. That we got to eat pizza for lunch. We thank him for these tangible things because this is all I know to teach my son about Jesus at age two: the lovely things are gifts from God.

I do not know what I will tell him about the terrible things in life or even the complex, but, it’s okay because he speaks in fragments, in concrete nouns rather than verbs. I am spared, for now, this difficulty, allowed to make my nighttime prayer a litany of thanks.

I hold him to me and say, “We love you Jesus. Amen.” I listen as he repeats, “Jesus” and “Men,” knowing not what the words mean but that they are part of our day, as sure as closing our eyes and falling to sleep.

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