First, we light the candle. The flame is a physical hallowing of our living room space, where we hold weekly family worship. As we’ve transitioned from our previous church and not yet started attending a new church regularly, these times serve as a spiritual huddle for my husband, our 3-year-old son, and me (and the baby, if he’s not napping).
We’ve been using a prayer book to guide us through these times. It is a liturgy of sorts, with an order of songs, psalms, Scripture readings, and scripted prayers, along with space for silence and free-flowing intercession.
The words reflect and liturgy combined with 3-year-old might seem incongruous. Maybe you think of splattered candle wax, wiggly legs making unholy bumps in the silence, and rushed readings. That is sometimes the case. More often than not, though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much Oliver has taken to the liturgy, and by his innate attraction to holy things.
“It’s shivering,” Oliver says, as the flickering candle holds our gaze. The tiny flame creates a hush, a set-apartness, which immediately slows our pace and makes us take notice. The first item in the liturgy is a song, which Oliver selects at random from a tattered red songbook. The songs in the book are simple and repetitive, which gives him a chance to join in after a couple rounds.
“Our soul is waiting for God. Our hearts find joy in the Lord.” We sing this slowly, eight or nine or 10 times. The words etch grooves on our hearts, which we can return to at other times of the day to touch wonderingly. I’ve found Oliver humming the tunes we have sung, or muttering snippets of songs before falling asleep, “Jesus, remember me [when you come into your kingdom] …”
A psalm is next—Psalm 71. I explain what refuge means—a shack, say, in a thunderstorm. Later, Oliver interrupts, “What is ‘awe’?” We go back to the thunderstorm example: “Something that makes you go, ‘Wow!’” Then come readings—one from the Old Testament and one from the Gospels, followed by another song, then a time of silence. Sometimes we set a timer to help contain the minutes for Oliver. Today we play it by ear, moving on when he gets too fidgety.
Sometimes we set a timer to help contain the minutes for Oliver. Today we play it by ear, moving on when he gets too fidgety.
Next are “Intercessions.” We take turns bringing up people we know—my parents, whose house was flooded in Hurricane Harvey, for example. When nobody says anything for a while, Oliver (who has inherited my type A personality), prompts, “Baba, it’s your turn. Mama, do you have anybody else?” We move on to some scripted prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, and end with a song. Most importantly for him, Oliver gets to blow out the candle to signal the end of “church time.” His desire to participate in whatever small ways he can reassures us that what we are doing is sinking beneath the surface level and into his heart.
My husband and I are coming out of a season where we have been burnt out by church—by expectations of a certain level of involvement, by the pressure to appear pious. What I appreciate about this prayer book are the reasonable expectations. You show up, even if you don’t have anything particularly poignant to say. The psalms, readings, and prayers shared by others near and far, living and now dead, carry you along. Like the paralytic in the Gospels, whose friends carry him to Jesus, the liturgy carries me, in my spiritually injured state, to the altar. There, I sit with God in silence.
Children, too, require carrying. “In His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom,” says Isaiah of our Shepherd God (Isa. 40:11). Liturgies, through their ritual nature, also serve our young ones, forming a worship “habit.” The order of songs, readings, prayers, and even the uncomfortable minutes of silence create a shape for our hearts, helpful especially for those of us (me included) who find ourselves in a time of transition. For children, the liturgy holds a sacred space in which to explore and wonder.
We might not come from liturgical traditions, but most Christians have some form of public worship that includes prayers, responses, and orderly progression—what some people call an order of worship. What this does is make clear that our worship is not something we created ourselves but rather something we receive from those who came before us (though we have the freedom to make adjustments, as our family does to include our children). These ties ground my generation and the ones to follow by reminding us we are part of something deeper and broader than the present moment. You might call this Church with a big C, Church at its best. I think that this sense of belonging to the Church, of touching a current steadier than the ebbs and flows of our own short lives, is part of what Oliver is responding to when he joins in. It is something to look for in the new church we’ll call home.
Illustration by Michael Kirkham