Dean of Students
After finishing Seminary I have found myself reading fiction that I willfully ignored when I was younger and did not have time for during my years of study. While I am sure that this ignorance has caused me to miss out on a more literarily-robust childhood, a part of me thinks that reading children’s fiction this late in life means that I get far more out of each story than I would have if I had read them at the appropriate age.
Case in point: I only recently finished reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I could not help but read the novel in light of many of my own life journeys. One journey in particular that The Giver continually brought to mind was my own journey into a liturgical tradition.
As Jonas slowly discovered his gift of “seeing beyond” the black and white world of “sameness,” I found myself thinking back to my earliest experience of being moved by a prayer written in a century long before my own. It was so different from what I knew, yet it had a familiar quality. It was new, but not alien to my experience as a human. As Jonas experienced his first “longings” I was reminded of the feeling I could not shake after leaving my first ever Ash Wednesday service. I had attended the service by myself but did not leave alone; I was visibly marked as a member of a community I did not create. This was a new experience, one that left me wanting more.
Neither of these experiences would have amounted to much by themselves. Without an embodied guide along the way, my longing for our colorful past and a sense of belonging to the whole church would have remained just that—a longing and a sense.
Jonas was twelve when it was revealed to him that he would be given one such guide. He had been chosen to bear the memories of human history on behalf of his community, and he would be guided along the way by an older, wiser Giver of memories. The memory of his community’s past were incredibly painful to bear at times. The sterilized environment of his youth was free of war and an understanding of death. He had no framework for understanding the horrors or level of loss he experienced through the memories. Other memories brought him pleasure beyond what he could have ever imagined. He received memories of basking in sunlight, sledding down a hill, and familial love that he had previously never experienced.
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” The Giver
These memories did not appear all at once. They were transmitted to him by an older, wiser Giver. I was an adult when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of Dallas. My wife and I had taken the Canterbury Trail confirmation class together, and I decided that though I had much to learn, I was ready to commit to worshiping as a Christian in the Anglican tradition. Thomas Howard’s opening lines of his (quite helpful) book The Liturgy Explained described my feelings well:
“We are all beginners at the liturgy, really. All of us—from the first-time visitor who finds himself paging helplessly through the Prayer Book wondering what is happening, to the aged priest who has known it all by heart for half a century—are really only on the lower slopes of worship.”
I suspect that I felt this sense of being a beginner more than most. But I take great comfort in knowing that I too have been given guides along the way of exploring a liturgical life.
Reading the Church Fathers has shown me that while so many of these liturgical experiences are new to me, they are not new to Christ’s church. The Book of Common Prayer reminds me that I am not the only one fumbling through the Daily Office, confused at times about what I should be reading and when. The Eucharist—perhaps the greatest of all guides—serves as a memory that is more than a memory.
But like all disciples of Jesus, I find that while I myself am being guided by Givers of all varieties, I am also called to be a Giver myself. My wife, who faithfully followed me into this tradition, and our daughter, who was baptized on the day before the first Sunday of Advent 2013, both need me to guide them along this path of discipleship, just as I need them.
So as I think about my role in the liturgy in light of Jonas’ journey in The Giver, I am reminded of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1,
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
This path of discipleship is one that calls us all to be both givers and receivers of the Good News of God in Christ.