I have always been impressed by the liturgy written by my friend and colleague, Jenny McDevitt. Those who attended the NEXT National Conference in Dalls (2012) will remember the beautiful and inspiring words offered in corporate worship. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people” yet I asked Jenny if she would be willing to write a blog about her process of crafting such communal experiences. I am grateful for her response and pray you receive the following as an offering. (Andrew Taylor-Troutman)
by Jenny McDevitt
I am weeks late in submitting this blog entry, in part because I have been unsure of how to respond. “Tell us how you write liturgy,” the request came. And so I have tried to put words to my process. Words that are slightly more helpful than what feels like the actual truth: I stare a blank computer screen and wait for a miracle to happen.
Whatever your scripture(s) for the day may be, read those words out loud. Seriously, out loud. I almost always catch something differently when I hear myself say it. Listen to the cadence. Catch unusually lovely (or just unusual) phrases. Ask questions of what is happening or being said, and let those questions shape the prayers and responses.
Tell a story with your liturgy. Talking about grace? Remind us of moments of grace that began with creation and have happened ever since. Preaching about forgiveness? Craft a prayer with seven instances of shortcoming and then invoke Jesus’ beautiful, challenging, devastating, breathtaking words of seventy times seven. Wind the stories of the Bible with the stories of our culture and the stories of our lives. All of them speak to our experience. Not sure where to start? “In the beginning…”
Liturgy is meant to be spoken, so say it as you write it. I rarely write more than a sentence or two before reading it out loud. If a sentence is too long, if you stumble over some structure — cut it and begin again. While a complex sentence may read beautifully on paper, in liturgy it must also be easy on the ears. And take advantage of things that are pleasing — alliteration, repetition, patterns, effective uses of pauses and silence.
Say it (part two)
Has it been a hard week? Has something happened in your congregation that has broken your collective heart? Are your people angry? Does the scripture passage make no sense whatsoever? Does it seem to ask too much of us? Don’t be afraid to speak the honest truth in the liturgy. There’s nothing particularly holy about having all the answers or having the best theological vocabulary. Giving voice to the thoughts and emotions and questions running through your head may invite others to engage in the same way. It can be a gift. Careful warning: don’t forget the Good News. When lament is called for, lament away. But even the psalmist, who is a champion lament-er, always ends with a word of hope, however fragile it may be. And if it is one of those days when death is everywhere, speak resurrection. Give voice to the promise over and over. Put that hope into the air, let it hoover around you, and let it hold you (and your people) tight.
Some friends disagree with this practice, but I often rephrase God’s words or Jesus’ words. Not because they need an editor, but because we need to hear them in as many ways as possible. I have often summarized the overall point (as best I understand it, anyway), and put it in my own language, even going so far as to say, for instance, “And in response, Jesus simply says, ‘Knock it off.’” Never once has someone come to me, confused about whether or not the bible actually reports it that exact way.
Related note: it’s also very effective to occasionally lift up what Jesus doesn’t say. That can be just as helpful. Case in point:
God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are of perfect pedigree and rosy cheeks, you who have done no wrong and you whose hearts are entirely intact.” God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who have it all together, you who have never said a hateful word and you who wake up every day with all the answers.” God does not say that. What God does say is, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What God does say, over and over again, is, “Come to me, all you who are broken and battered, faulty and frail, disappointed and disappointing. Come to me. You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
I’ve inferred this all along, but it’s still worth saying: write your liturgy carefully, prayerfully, and honestly . . . and then unpolish it. This means two things. First, be sure your liturgy doesn’t sound too smooth. Too certain. Too easy. Too much like “everyone here has it all together.” Because let’s be honest: that’s incredibly unattractive. Not to mention totally untrue. And second (remembering that these are my guidelines and not necessarily yours), occasionally depart from tried and true words of tradition, perhaps the fancy-pants, five-syllable, theological-dictionary language. Or, if you’re going to use those five-syllable words, use much easier words to explain those concepts. In other words, don’t get hung up on sounding professionally, profoundly pious. Just focus on sounding real. Remember, things that are too polished can be slippery and hard to hang on to.
If you lead worship with the same intonation you use when you ask someone to pass the green beans, I’m not going to be convinced you have any idea what’s so good about the Good News. Does this mean crazy-cheesy-fake-happy all the time? No, thank you. Let your voice match the truth of your words, whether it’s sad, elated, lost, or grateful. You’re proclaiming the Gospel even through your liturgy. For heaven’s sake (and all of ours), say it like you mean it.
Here’s an example from Easter, since, as it turns out, I’m better at writing liturgy than writing about writing liturgy.
In the beginning of all days
In the very beginning
It was dark
And chaos hovered over the earth
And you, O God, spoke a word
And light crept in from the corners
And creation began to dance
In the beginning of this day
In the earliest morning hours
It was dark
And chaos hovered over the earth and in our hearts
And you, O God, spoke a word
And light crept in from an empty tomb
And creation began to dance
The word, in both cases, was life
Your word, in all cases, is life
He is risen
Christ is risen
And yet, God,
even as we rejoice and sing and celebrate
we realize for many, the shadows of life have not faded in the morning sun
So we pray your peace for those who laugh and sing
and for those who sit and weep
We pray your peace for those who chase Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies
and for those who chase broken dreams or unrealistic expectations
We pray your peace for those who place flowers on a cross this morning
and for those who stare at flowers from a hospital bed this afternoon
We pray your peace for those who believe in the power of the resurrection
and yet face another day without a loved one
Peace be with you, Jesus says
Peace be with you, Jesus promises
Look at me, he says
I know what it is to hurt
He entered our story so well, God
He entered our story and changed the world
So help us enter his story
And change the world yet again
That would be Easter, too, wouldn’t it?
Help us to be a people whose very lives speak this truth:
death is not the last word
violence is not the last word
hate is not the last word
condemnation is not the last word
betrayal is not the last word
failure is not the last word
No: each of them are like rags left behind in a tomb,
and from that tomb,
Speaking, showing, sharing life
Help us do the same, won’t you?
Help us be your tangible proof to the world
That would be no less an Easter miracle
Creation began in a dance, O God,
and you have made us to sparkle in the sun
So help us get there
Trusting you will, and placing our lives in the hands of Life Eternal,
we pray as he taught us, saying:
Our Father . . .
* Words in italics are borrowed, with gratitude, from Brian McLaren’s Prayer for Pastors. (When you stumble across good words, use them (with attribution at least in printed form). Good words are always worth repeating.
Jenny has been serving alongside the people of Village Church since September of 2012. She loves the way the church cares for one another and for the community, giving great attention to any and all issues of the heart. She loves stories (listening and telling) and believes that questions are an essential part of faith. Originally from Michigan, Jenny is a graduate of Kenyon College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has served churches in Ann Arbor and Virginia Beach. She lives with her dog, Reilly, who is dedicated to chasing the squirrels of Prairie Village.