Fumbling Toward Alleluia

I slowly eased into liturgy. I was reading Anglicans first before I entered the doors of their churches. Madeline L’Engle so moved me that I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t love to worship beside her at her Episcopal church in Manhattan. CS Lewis spoke the gospel to me in ways that all my evangelical Bible studies had failed to do all my life. These people understood beauty. And I realized, while reading them, that I did too. (I’d just never had the chance to recognize it.)

Words. Words. Words. Some would say that prayers written in a book, recited by a congregation, are what Jesus described as “vain repetition,” words without meaning. But I found the words of the Book of Common Prayer to be prayers intricately sculpted, made with truth from scripture, shaped to say what I’d always tried to say with my mumbling and my adding-in of Christian prayer-jargon punctuation: “Lord God, I just…” repeated 13 times in a three minute prayer. I realized we are all users of “vain repetition,” whether we adhere to our unwritten language of acceptable out-loud praying or whether we join in the prewritten variety. We’re all fumbling toward prayer.

I was thinking about this yesterday morning in church. August had thrown a fit over Sunday School. He didn’t want to be there. He wept. He insisted that all he wanted was to “go home and be cozy!” So, I let him join us in the service, prepared that I’d have to escort him out after what I imagined would be the first five minutes of the service, for talking at his unusually high decible level and making pens blast off with full-out rocket sounds. But, miraculously, the kid cooperated, whispered loudly sometimes, pulled me to the ground at one point while we sang and held hands (it didn’t take much…I was a little unstable in my shoes), and made pens blast off as rockets (but without too much booster power). Yesterday’s service felt a lot like what prayer has felt like for me all of motherhood. Spurts and stops. The quick holding up of my heart followed by a boy who needs to go potty or a baby who needs to nurse.

Chris, in his husbandly wonderfulness, has been meeting a buddy of his for a Saturday afternoon playdate with August and his friend’s son, giving me some Saturday time alone. We were commiserating yesterday about the problem (impossibility?) of  trying to have a conversation with a friend at while your kids are nearby, asking for help, falling down and crying, making plans to climb jagged rocks: You know, the stuff you have to pay attention to. It was a relief to hear my husband complaining of the same difficulty I’ve felt for years now. The conversation gets interrupted and never goes where it should. Fits and starts. A fumbling.

So there I was in church, the first Sunday of Lent, the cross and the altar veiled in purple fabric, our small reminders of how this is a season of inward honesty, a season of soul preparation. A season where we take the things that we’re comfortable with away because often comfort protects our hearts from seeing truth. We remove the cushion, set our hearts out raw and when it hurts, we remember how fully we must face up to our neediness.

If you’ve ever been in a liturgical service you may recall that at certain points in the congregational prayer or in response to the pastor’s prayer, the community will respond with “Alleluia! Alleluia!”  During Lent, “Alleluia” is generally done away with. This is another reminder of our being in a time of mourning, a season of asking God to reveal our own neediness. The celebration will come at Easter, but for now, it’s time to be reflective. In the places where we’re used to spurting out “Alleluia!” throughout the rest of the year, we say nothing. We stop our words. We come up short.

Oh, but we’re so used to that “Alleluia!” It’s our punctuation mark! It’s our comfortable little prayer marker that tells us we know what we’re doing here in the religion play. We are experts.

And every year that I’ve been in a liturgical church, I stare at the prayer in front of me and wait for the voices who will yell out, with great confidence: ahhhhle… And stop. I imagine their flaming faces around the room, embarrassment at being the one who forgot. Those voices were there again yesterday. And I couldn’t help but feel for them, my three-year-old beside me in the service. Isn’t prayer always like that? We think we know what we’re doing and then, boom! something changes. Whether it’s our circumstances or our connection to God or our inability to see the truth about ourselves.

Though I always cringe a little and wait for the awkward Alleluias, yesterday I found myself strangely comforted by them. I kept my mouth shut and heard the other voices around the room catching themselves mid-praise, and thought, Oh! That’s kind of beautiful. And I thought about how God must see us during Lent, fumbling toward worship, attempting to set this time aside as holy and failing or frustrating ourselves, forgetting who we are and who our God is.

Lent is a time when we strip the cushion away. Sometimes the cushion is our own notion of prayer, our own comfort in worship. Sometimes, we shout it out. Sometimes we’re a mess of a people tripping over each other toward God.

It’s the rawness that God sees as beautiful. The humility. The privilege of falling because when we fall, we fall toward him.


Filed under the Praying Life

14 Responses to Fumbling Toward Alleluia

  1. Fumbling toward worship…….simply beautiful

  2. ‘when we fall, we fall towards him’ … I love this.

  3. “I realized we are all users of “vain repetition,” whether we adhere to our unwritten language of acceptable out-loud praying or whether we join in the prewritten variety.” — So well-said, Micha.

    It’s so easy to cross that invisible line. In one moment, your heart is engaged with the words, in another, they are vain, empty, divorced from your soul. This is the hardest work of prayer for me: keeping myself all the way in it, all the way listening, all the way present.

  4. Oh, that last line is so lovely.
    I especially appreciate the connection to motherhood, to the interruptions and the difficulty of sustaining anything meaningful amidst all the interruptions. And then there’s that C.S. Lewis quote about interruptions being precisely one’s life. And so in mothering, can’t we see that the rocket pens and the jagged rocks are also prayer? That is where the meaning is, and we so easily disregard it. When we are “all the way present,” as Addie said, everything is worship. We fumble and trip and fall toward it.

  5. Danelle

    These words went right to my heart. Easing into liturgy. There is something about the written prayer, not that we can’t kneel before Him with our own words. . But sometimes the prayer speaks what we cannot utter on our own.

  6. Absolutely lovely and resonating piece. I had a similar easing in to liturgy. I’ve recently started going to a church that isn’t fully liturgical but has some of the traditional elements. Every line I read here had me thinking of this new church home, how warm and inviting it has been and how we are all fumbling toward worship together. I see the rawness of faith in the congregation and it has been a balm for my soul. A balm I didn’t even know I needed.

    • Oh, Leigh! So glad to see you here - been wondering if you’d found your way to a new church home. And so glad to see you are feeling welcome and enjoying a bit of liturgy. And you have put it so.exactly.right - “a balm for my soul. A balm I didn’t even know I needed.” That’s what liturgy is for me, as well. Lenten blessings to you.

      • You are so sweet, Diana! Yes, it looks like I’ll be staying in this new place. I plan on writing about it in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know when it’s up!

  7. I’m aching in recognition after this, luv. Yes.

  8. This was perfect. My daughter was crying during children’s church and my son was picking fights with his best frenemy during coffee time. I’m trying to get in a conversation with a girl I know who is new to Christ following, but can’t get in two words.

    Thank you for this reminder that I am a child in so many ways.

  9. I love the idea of prayer like an interrupted play date. Like Love love.

  10. oh Micha, thanks so much. Beautiful, I so love your voice and the thoughts you share with us here. I’ve been meaning to visit your church for a while, still haven’t been able to make it (I live far north Austin) but one of these days I hope I’ll get the opportunity to do so.

  11. Thank you for this beautiful post about our earnest fumbling - a post which didn’t fumble, not even once. Right.on.target. I think that’s exactly what we’re asked to do…fumble toward worship, toward prayer, toward alleluia, toward God. And then we’re met - more than half-way - and blessed and boosted and strengthened for the next round of interruptions. Just lovely.

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