All of us want to do something great—something that nobody else could have done, something that will ensure our permanent place in humanity’s collective memory. This seems to be a desire common to all; stories of great battles won at impossible odds, triumphs over the most horrible of monsters, amazing feats of human strength and endurance, and the like have captivated ordinary people since the beginning of recorded history. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that many of us have had this thought at one time or another: “I want a book written about me. I want to be remembered forever. I want to be extraordinary.”
But we often forget that we do not make ourselves extraordinary, nor are we extraordinary for our own benefit. If we look carefully, we may identify these two misunderstandings as the root of humanity’s fall. As Eve looked at the fruit, the serpent told her that it would make her like God, and unfortunately she—and Adam after her—believed that lie. Humankind’s grasping for the extraordinary has been a long-standing tradition of passing that forbidden fruit around, and as we take a bite we realize that we have been lied to before the juice even begins to run down our chins.
I am often asked why I became Anglican. It’s a fair question; nobody in my family is Anglican, and I had never even heard the word before going to college. One of the primary reasons for making that first step down the Canterbury trail was the liturgy, the long-established and steady rhythm of worship enjoyed by Christians since the founding of the faith. It is a tried-and-true method of worship, one that is both profoundly beautiful and, quite frankly, ordinary. Many who have never been exposed to this kind of worship find it confusing, boring, or both, and I have found myself over countless dinner tables explaining and defending this style of worship to people who visit my church (all of them wonderful, faithful Christians).
Liturgy is a far cry from my upbringing. In my youth, I went to services that were designed to cultivate intense experiences, and camp after camp where every second of corporate worship was hand-tailored to transport me to a “mountaintop.” I cried, fell to my knees, came down to the front during the altar call—the whole nine yards. And none of these things are bad, of course. Sometimes I need to remind myself that David danced naked through the streets because he was so overcome by the glory of God. But every time, without exception, I woke up the next morning and sensed that the powerful manifestation of God’s presence I had felt a mere six hours ago had withdrawn. This invariably led me to question whether I had really experienced God at all, and to chase after those experiences that would calm my fears, “recharge” my spiritual “batteries,” and assure me that God was really there.
But you see, “mountaintop” experiences are powerful because they are rare, and the relentless chase for that one night five years ago when we felt the Spirit in a way we never had before will only end in disappointment. We forget that it takes a lot of climbing to get to the summit. And the beauty of the gospel, in fact, is not that God has allowed us to climb the mountain, but that he himself has descended into the valley. With aching knees and shortness of breath, God made the long trip down and wandered into our neighborhoods, with no demand for a royal procession and no place to lay his head.
The liturgy recognizes this paradigm shift. Rather than trying to drag people into God’s presence with catchy rock songs or theatrical preaching, the liturgy reminds us that God is present to us in the most basic of gifts: word, water, bread, wine. Even the highest of the high church, the Eastern Orthodox, make use of incense and icons not to try to force their way into heaven’s gates, but to welcome the kingdom of heaven to earth, to acknowledge that this earth has been sanctified and declared “good.” Liturgy is an invitation to see that God is with us in the most mundane aspects of life.
In a letter to his father, Martin Luther apologized for joining a monastery and ignoring his fathers’s wish that he become a lawyer. The reason he did this, he confesses, was that he wanted to do something extraordinary for God. He wanted to pursue the “highest” calling imaginable, that of full-time service and worship. This put an enormous strain on their relationship; when Luther’s father attended his son’s first mass, he reminded him immediately afterward that “parents are to be obeyed.” In this letter, Luther agrees, and comes to a conclusion that might seem counterintuitive to many of us: the calling to honor father and mother is just as holy as the call to preach or adminster the sacraments. This is indicative of the reformer’s entire theology of vocation. Every duty we must perform, no matter how honorable or banal, is a calling from God. When we change our child’s dirty diaper, we are performing a holy work. When we welcome people into our homes and share a meal, God is there. No spotlight or fog machines are neccesary.
This is one of the most important reasons I became an Anglican. As I mentioned last week, I struggle with unbelief—a struggle which, I believe, has its roots largely in the “mountaintop” spirituality in which I was raised. But every day, in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, I can be certain that I have met God in the reading of his Word. Every Sunday, I know God is with me because I eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Eucharistic feast. I can believe his promises because I see them fulfilled in everyday matter, and in the covenant community who has gathered to be nourished and strengthened by it. The whole world becomes an altar, and the Lamb of God, sacrificed for us once and for all upon the cross, is presented to me in a little church in Birmingham, Alabama. The yoke of unbelief is made lighter, and afterwards I can go in peace to love and serve the Lord knowing that he is in, with, and under me. I don’t know about you, but to me, there is something to that. To me, that is good news.