Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9 NASB)
I grew up Lutheran, so my faith sprouted and grew in the soil of liturgy—the practice of reciting, often in song, Scripture in public worship. Although I’ve been in non-liturgical churches ever since, liturgy and its power have always been present somewhere in my life.
My family attended Immanuel Lutheran Church at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. A large portion of the Sunday service was Scripture set to music or recited in responsive readings by the congregation. We sang the Kyrie every Sunday—“Lord, have mercy on us; Christ, have mercy on us; Lord, have mercy on us.” The monthly communion service featured Psalm 51 set to music—“Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me”—and a lovely, minor-key Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us,” taken from John 1:29.
The rhythm of the liturgy was peaceful, the melodies calming. Perhaps that’s why I felt safe slipping into the dark sanctuary alone one night after a church outing when I was only 6 or 7. I stood in the back, transfixed by the light of the eternal flame and a sense of something filling the church and enveloping me. Church was where I met God and felt buffered from the world I was growing into. That feeling intensified when I hit puberty and was distressed by my own complex and intractable sin. Meeting God alone was scary. It seemed that the faith to receive the answer to the prayer “Lord, have mercy” only existed in the church, where the music charmed my inner clamor into paying attention to God.
In college, under the influence of the Jesus-freak movement, I learned the liturgy of contemporary worship. Like a Joni Mitchell wannabe, I took guitar in hand one summer and learned a whole catalog of Scripture songs—songs like, “If you abide in me and my word abides in you, you may ask what you will and it shall be done unto you,” as well as classics like They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love and Pass It On. To this day, some four decades on, there are Scripture passages I know by heart because I can sing them. And when I sang with others, that public worship piece, the mystical power of Jesus’ presence was more keenly felt and the words more deeply imprinted. In every decade, the songs of the various fellowships fed my soul and carried me through work, marriage, motherhood, ministry and empty-nesting.
In my time, Creekside has been blessed with a wonderful variety of worship leaders, music styles and instruments. It’s like 1 Corinthians 14:26, where each one brings a piano, a guitar, a drum, a cello or a voice, and all things are done for the edification of the believers.
Last Sunday, with Beth leading, our liturgy in music…
acknowledged God: “Creator God, You are Yawheh”
confessed sin and grace: “You broke my chains of sin and shame and You covered me with grace”
begged help with temptation: “Whenever I say your name, Jesus, let the devil know not today”
and claimed the truth of our well-being in Jesus: “It is well with my soul” and “I am set free.”
Before the last song, Beth said, “If I sing these words, I can believe them.” Sing them, say them, repeat them, memorize them—faith grows from hearing. Through liturgy, I keep at the work of setting my mind on good and excellent things so I have a shot at being ready to obey God and bear fruit every day.
Jani can be reached by email here.