Worship's Joys and Dangers

Enuma Okoro grew up in four countries, including Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, and describes her religious education as "doses of Roman Catholicism washed down with long gulps of multiflavored Protestant theology." Perhaps because of this broad personal experience, Okoro has a down-to-earth, generous perspective on churches, worship, tradition, and the sometimes circuitous path to spiritual community. A former director of the Center for Theological Writing at Duke University, Okoro is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books) and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan). Sojourners editorial assistant Betsy Shirley spoke with Okoro in December.

Betsy Shirley: In your memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim, you write about your experiences in different churches and about your struggle to find spiritual community. How have these experiences changed your understanding of liturgy?

Enuma Okoro: Liturgy really is the work of the people—that’s the direct translation. At this stage of my life, I’m more aware that we get the most out of liturgy when we fully participate in it ourselves and recognize ourselves as a necessary part of it. The ways in which we’re transformed by liturgy is all grace, but we need to be active participants for that transformation to happen. So I’ve come to a deeper understanding of what it means to bring all of one’s self to liturgical practices.

You've written, "Somehow the act of walking through the liturgy together on Sunday morning makes us more pliable the rest of the week ... more open to showing up just as we are -- cracks, fissures, duct tape, and all." What happens when we engage with God through liturgy? I don't fully understand what happens when we engage in regular habits of liturgical praise and worship, but I know that it leads to more pronounced ways of liturgical living. To me, that means living in a way that honors the pattern of what happens in church, a way of living in which I allow room for praise and prayer, for service and offering, and for receiving gifts -- all those things that happen in a service on Sunday. If I naturally begin to translate those things into how I live on a daily basis, that to me becomes liturgical living.

What do you think are the joys and dangers of liturgy? I think the biggest danger is that we might get transformed when we least expect it. The words we say and what we enact in liturgy are serious business. That's part of the mystery of when the community gathers together in Christ. The crazy thing is that the flip side of those dangers are also the blessings. During the Eucharistic rite, there's a section where the minister says, "Pour out your spirit on us gathered here," and I always open my hands to receive the Spirit. At the same time I always whisper "Lord have mercy," because every single time I'm aware of how powerful the Spirit is. It's wonderful and beautiful because it's only for our good, but if we truly believe what we pray, then evoking that Spirit to come upon us can be a very frightening thing.

Once you start partaking in liturgy, you become roped into the work of God. And the work of God is rarely dull, but it’s not always necessarily what we think. Transformation is hard stuff. Seeking to bring about the kingdom of God -- caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, caring for the sick, renouncing demons in God’s name -- you don't do that in a 15-minute lunch break.

What keeps liturgy from becoming rote and stale? Actually, it will become stale and rote sometimes. But I think that's part of the discipline: remembering that journey with the holy is not always about how we feel and trusting that even when we don’t feel like praying, our prayers are still received by God. The simple act of coming to that space when you least feel like it, that itself is worship.

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