A year ago, I received a brochure inviting me to the Calvin Symposium of Worship, 2005. Even though the dates precluded my attendance, I could not put down the striking booklet, full of black and white pictures of hands: clapping, praying, welcoming, signing hands—hands performing on musical instruments, in drama and painting. The photographer beautifully depicted hands not only engaged in communal worship but also in preparation for worship, across generational and cultural divides. But although the first page listed Word, Music, Vision, and Action as foci of the annual gathering—one picture was missing: a hand holding a pen.
Has the hand at work, writing for worship, become invisible? Perhaps we have discounted the primacy of writing because so many words are utilitarian, even during worship. Maybe we have unconsciously handed “word work” over to the preacher as the keeper and speaker of holy words. But have we forgotten that carefully crafted words form the basis for each song, prayer, symbol, and presentation for worship, even in this multi-media age?
Wonderful Words of Life
Words may be foundational, but are they “art”? Do they join the visual, musical, or dramatic arts to get at the hidden heart of spiritual things? Luci Shaw thought so when she challenged her friend Madeleine L’Engle to write about being a Christian artist. The result is the classic Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. L’Engle’s words challenge me: “To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” Word-artists, along with other creators, attempt to share spiritual meaning.
Our words fleshed out for worship—our litanies, dramas, sermons, prayers, and songs—may come about as mysteriously as God’s Word became flesh in Jesus. How do writers, in particular, move from the unknown to the partially known? Many of us cannot think without a pen in hand or our hands poised on a keyboard. The written word helps us capture our puny thoughts in search of God’s over-arching truths. Inspired by the Spirit, we even reach beyond what we know.
Getting Our Attention
Twenty years ago, I learned the importance of words in worship when Al Hoksbergen, then pastor of River Terrace Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in East Lansing, Michigan, asked me to join a Monday noon review after each Sunday’s worship service. I agreed as long as sermon critique was not out of bounds. I’d listened to a lifetime of sermons, mentally revising the poor ones, especially the taped variety I had listened to during a recent extended illness. The pastor accepted my terms but immediately turned the tables, asking me to write prayers of confession for an upcoming series of sermons. Did he want to teach me a lesson about the difficulty of writing sermons or just aid my recovery? With his chosen texts as a starting point, I labored long and hard to fashion words to express the inexpressible: “How great my sins and miseries are . . .” (Heidelberg Catechism).
That assignment led not only to liturgical prayers but also to a morning habit: read Scripture meditatively, pray the Word, and then write—about five minutes each. Walter Wangerin defined this dialogic method in Whole Prayer: Speaking and Listening to God (Zondervan), emphasizing the transformational power of conversations with God. Taking turns speaking to and listening to God aids the creative process in much the same way that dialogue enhances worship.
More recently, I experienced the wonder of words in our new congregation in Michigan—a worshiping community like none my husband and I had known before. Housed in an old building in inner-city Grand Rapids, the congregation worshiped in a way that left us inspired and refreshed each Sunday morning. Every element of the service reinforced the central theme of the sermon, but the most striking element was the congregational prayer. During my youth, the pastor delivered this “long prayer” before the sermon—a warm-up for the big exposition. But at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, parishioners offer these “prayers of the people.” Week after week, men and women invite us to prayer; teachers and janitors, counselors and nurses, moms and dads come with their prayers to God, on behalf of us all.
Words for Worship
I remained comfortable in the pew until Pastor Mary Hulst asked for volunteers to lead Covenant Group classes. These groups were formed, in part, to repurpose lagging evening worship services. The sessions included a short, informal time of worship and a communal meal, followed by an hour of fellowship in small groups around a study topic. I wondered if anyone would join a group called “Writers in the Spirit,” which would run like a writing workshop, including assignments and critique. Eight people signed up! Together we decided to follow the Revised Common Lectionary and write reflections on upcoming preaching texts. Each person used his/her preferred writing form: journal entries, personal essays, poems, or letters. One person even brought sticky notes with messages that she had placed around her home. Our fellowship goal was to affirm each other as persons and as writers.
Perhaps the class was not a hard sell in a church that already relied on lay leadership in worship and congregational life. However, that first experience convinced me that in every congregation there are latent writers waiting to be invited to contribute words for worship. Two young women in that first group told of writing poetry in college. Could the church use this gift? One new member was searching for bridges between former beliefs and practices into this new fellowship. She wrote a moving piece about footwashing from her Brethren background. An older man who had given up more “active” church work, told us: “I just want to write words of encouragement to members who have special needs.”
At our twice-monthly sessions, we gently critiqued each other’s writing and thought of ways our voices could be used within the church: newsletters, materials for children’s worship, study guides, or motivational material. Eventually we asked the worship planner, Lisa Walhout, how she developed the liturgies and found that she used many sources, such as The Book of Common Prayer, the Contemporary Testimony, The Worship Sourcebook, and various translations of Scripture. She opened the door by inviting us to create “new words” for worship.
“For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it.”
—Patricia Hampl in I Could Tell You Stories
“The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures.”
—Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water
Art by Placid Stuckenschneider, from Faith Images 2: Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (© 2000, Sheed and Ward, 7373 South Lovers Lane Road, Franklin, Wisconsin 53132, 1-800-266-5564). Used by permisssion
Creativity in Worship
With this assignment in mind, our writing took on new forms. “Creativity is an important dimension of worship; and the creativity that best serves worship is a process, not a product,” says Ruth Duck in Finding Words for Worship (Knox Press). New writers in the group were very concerned about their products—“This isn’t very good, but . . .” We needed, instead, to focus on the creative process that would transform personal reflections into words for communal worship. Worship writing does not have to rely on a prescribed language of faith—some of which has become cliché—but it must link to the human experience. The witness of one can broaden the view of all.
Each time God uses a prayer, a song, a litany, or a sermon to touch my heart in a fresh way, I know that an artist has been at work. Artists are coworkers in creation. To make something out of nothing is God’s work; to make something beautiful out of other “somethings” is the artist’s domain. Writers play with words to express thoughts and feelings. They experiment with the same literary devices found in the Bible: metaphor, parable, letters, and stories.
The Holy Hidden Heart
In that first writing group we learned, with Frederick Buechner, to “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” (as quoted in Writers in the Spirit). With all their senses, artists experience even everyday moments as key. Seeing with an inner eye, writers can create sensory images with words that will help others see “glimpses of truth.” Glimpses are different from explanations. By grace, word artists catch just a hint of the mystery of the divine.
One person leading the congregational prayer at Eastern Avenue asked God to plant in our hearts the desire for spiritual gifts that would serve the church. Writing for worship could be one of those useful gifts. The Writers in the Spirit group produced a meditation guide for Lent for our congregation. The small booklet contained a Scripture verse for each day, followed by an unfinished thought, leaving room for personal reflection on an open page. Advent is coming and also another meditation guide, to help our worshiping body reflect anew on the meaning of God’s Word made flesh.
The writer’s hand that I missed in the conference brochure may remain invisible, but many hands are at work behind the scenes. Carefully crafted words are the raw material for vibrant worship. Are there undiscovered word-artists in your church waiting for an invitation to write for worship?
“Find new words or put old words together in combination that make them heard as new, make you yourself new, and make you understand in new ways.”
—Frederick Buechner in Now and Then
“Worship may draw from wells of individual creativity, yet our openness to the Spirit is also openness to community—that words may take wing to express the praise, lament, thanksgiving, and commitment of the whole people of God.”
—Ruth C. Duck in Finding Words for Worship.
Prayer of Confession
(based loosely on Luke 3:8-14)
too often we confess our sins with our mouths
but without any meaning in our hearts.
We continue to make the same mistakes
and repeat the sins we repented.
We expect our church attendance, our upbringing, or our good intentions
to win your favor, forgetting that you chose each of us as your children.
Teach us your hospitality and generosity
to replace our greed and gluttony.
Lead us into honesty and peace
in this world of corruption and unrest.
As Christmas nears,
help us to bear the true fruit of repentance,
so we are ready to meet you
when you arrive.
Assurance of Pardon: Zephaniah 3:14-15, 17, 20a
—Written by a member of the “Writers in the Spirit” covenant group
A good story, well told, marches along on sturdy verbs. So also does a good prayer. When the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them how to pray, he provided a prayer that used vigorous verbs as a model for them to follow when making petitions to God:
Give (us today our daily bread).
Forgive (us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us).
Save (us from the time of trial).
Deliver (us from evil).
Notice what Jesus did not say:
Let us today find our daily bread.
We hope that we may be forgiven, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Be with us in the time of trial.
May we escape evil.
—Laurence Hull Stookey “Learning to Pray with Vigorous Verbs” in Let the Whole Church Say Amen! Abingdon Press, 2001, p. 27.
As a seminary student I was always moved by the prayers of John Mackay. They were literate, cosmopolitan, and evangelical. On the other hand I remember an older woman in my first church, Gerty Pickle, who must have had no more than an eighth grade education, but who had a wonderful gift of prayer. She had the eloquence of Fanny Crosby. Her prayers were sincere and lyrical, hearty and sweet like the apple pies she baked for church socials. I could no more pray like Gerty Pickle than I could pray like John Mackay. To pray like such saints one has to be like them.
—Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995, p. 7
Resources for a Writers in the Spirit Group
Ruth C. Duck, Finding Words for Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1995), especially chapter 2,“The Creative Process.”
Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995).
Carol. J. Rottman, Writers in the Spirit: Inspiration for Christian Writers (Grand Haven, Mich.: FaithWalk, 2004).
Laurence Hull Stookey, Let the Whole Church Say Amen!: A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
Also: various links under Christian Writers