One of God’s great gifts that often goes under appreciated in our “productivity is king” culture is that of slowing down, of the beauty of waiting and listening to something other than our own ambitions. Sometimes the reminder comes as a gentle nudge during a time of prayer. In other seasons, it’s an enormous loss–a job, a dream, a life—that shakes us from the day to day long enough to still our souls. This year, of course, it was a planet-stopping, routine-remaking pandemic that forced us to reconsider, well, everything.
Some of us have flourished in the upheaval this year–exploring new hobbies, making time for old dreams, renovating mid-century kitchens. Others have struggled to put one foot in front of the other–complicated schedules grinding to a halt, difficult areas of our lives exacerbated by isolation and distance, painful family conversations surfacing on Zoom calls. Some have lost jobs, have lost community, have lost health, have lost loved ones.
One way or another, we’ve been forced to slow, consider and adapt to some new way of living.
This month, this week, today can be the start of intentionally carving new space for life-giving disciplines for yourself and your community. It’s one thing to slow and be forced to find a way to exist because everything around us has ground to a halt. It’s another thing entirely to intentionally dig through the details of changing guidelines, expectations and schedules to find a way to thrive.
In John 16, we see Jesus encouraging the disciples to take heart. They were about to betray Jesus, to deny Him and run in fear from the officials that would accuse and crucify Him. The church would soon be formed and scattered, these same disciples losing their jobs, their communities, their health, their lives.
But Jesus, knowing all this, lovingly gave them words to cling to– words filled with hope that would keep them warm in their jail cells, that would wrap around their hearts when they saw their friends and fellow believers being stoned, beaten and killed. He gave them language to use in worship, when their human minds and hearts would utterly fail in knowing how to give voice to their tribulation.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)
Jesus gifted His disciples a bit of liturgy, some words for them to use to lament and to consider the hope they have in the midst of the darkness. Liturgies are simply words meant to help the people of God express the difficulty of being human and the soul-deep joy of knowing God is with us always.
We all go through seasons where we need help to see beyond the shadows and be reminded that our Light will never leave us. Liturgies slow us down and draw us back into that position where the people of God ought to be most comfortable– on our knees. They help us meditate on the promises of God that we know through His Word as we navigate life’s celebrations, sorrows, and everything in between. They often marry the daily moments of life, like parenting challenges, preparing meals for friends, and navigating loneliness as a single adult, with the biblical eternity-shaping promises of God.
God uses those words to surgically repair the brokenness inside us, and then He uses them again to give us language that knits us together as a worshipping community. And yet, when we forget God in the everyday striving, we commit ourselves to believing in a small sense of worth, a self-reliant existence that thrives on the identity of doing, not being.
God uses the gift of liturgy to slow us down and help us remember who we are in Him and who we are to Him. Worship through elements like liturgy keeps us small and humble, yet reminds us we are known and transcendently valuable. In God, we are more than the life we live on earth, more than our strengths and our weaknesses, more than our own ambitions.
God-honoring liturgies are intentional about being honest with ourselves and with the limitations of our humanity. They’re intentional about providing space for self-reflection, personal worship, healing, and celebration, so that we can then go out and love others from an overflow of worship.
Just as Jesus spoke words of hope into the soon-to-be suffering of His disciples, we have an opportunity to use liturgy in this season to do the same– to remember those who suffer, those who feel forgotten or misunderstood, who may find themselves in situations they never imagined this Christmas. Liturgy offers us words to pray for and encourage the suddenly ill and those who will be celebrating Christ’s birth far from family. We can mourn with those who mourn a child they’ve lost or a child they desperately want but do not have in a season that often feels built around children. We use liturgy to love others the way Christ did in His time on earth. We use liturgy to love others the way Christ does now, as He is seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us.
This is the wondrous joy of the family of God; He has given us gifts for the benefit of one another. In the slowing, we can discover those gifts. We can be intentional about cultivating habits that bring life to ourselves and others. Even in the darkness, there is joy in blessing those we love, especially in seasons where our own words may fail us.
Honest worship digs into the hard and dark places, the places most bereft of joy, least familiar with feeling the warmth of Christ. Honest worship unpacks the terror, the trauma, the pain.
And then it reminds. It rebuilds.
The sun on our faces feels warmer for facing together the darkness that Jesus destroyed. The promises of God through Jesus, born in human flesh and risen to power and glory, feel ever more triumphant and near.
Christ is with us. Christ has come.
He has remade us, and He continues to remake us.
Eventually some semblance of pre-pandemic life will return. Children will go back to school full-time. Offices will reopen. Neighbors will gather again at parks and in homes. We’ll worship together on Sunday inside our church buildings.
When that happens, we will rejoice! We’ll be thankful and reflect on the past season with the benefits of hindsight. We’ll sing and shout and remember what it feels like to hug our friends with no thought of social distancing or infection rates.
But my hope is that long before that shift, we will embrace the precious gift God has given us in this season of suffering. He has slowed us for a reason. He has given us new perspectives, new ways and words to use in worshipping Him. He has pressed on our creativity to find ways to have fun, to serve our communities, and to thrive.
Find the gift of liturgy where you’re at. Whose words give life to what you long to express to God? Whose gifts find holy ways to communicate that which you’re unable to conjure in yourself? What are the things in this slowed-down season that humble you at the worthy feet of our Savior King, so that you can just enjoy being His?
Let liturgy, in whatever form it takes, remind you this season of the fullness of our King and the love the saints have for one another. Let’s make time for the gift of slowing down and worshipping our King with renewed intention and uncontained affection, because He alone is worthy of everything we can give.
Lindsay Funkhouser is the Writer Development Program Manager at The Austin Stone Institute and the Managing Editor of Words For Winter, a new book of liturgies for the Advent season, Christmas, and the new year, www.austinstone.org/resources.