Sunday, May 03, 2009

the work and worth of prayer, thoughts from Dorothy McRae-McMahon

I snuck out of the office on Friday and sneaked into the back of a liturgy workshop by Australian, Dorothy McRae-McMahon. Most of my experience in writing prayers and creating worship has been intuitive. I simply started writing and creating and the more I have journeyed with people, the more I have seen the power of entwining symbol and tactile experience around creative words.

So it was very stimulating to be able to listen to someone else reflect on their experience. Lots of creative suggestions, lots of helpful framing and a great discussion with Dorothy in the break about words and how they work in community. Above all the encouragement for me to just keep writing words and keep creating spaces. Here are my notes.

Her life journey
Her journey was of finding a community outside church longing for ritual, spirituality, and of a community outside church afraid of Christians and Christian God. This journey has in no way diluted her willingness to be Christian, for to be her is to be very comfortable mentioning God, faith.

The need for not just words “you are forgiven” but also a forgiveness “ritual” – to take people down deeply into pain, guilt, and then move through into hope.

Jews gave us wonderful example of shouting hard questions (Job and Habbakkuk). Less so in the New Testament.

Liturgy needs to ask hard questions. Then those on margins of church will trust us. Don’t pretend to have answers. Everyone has hard questions. To ask them shows our humanity. Our faith in midst of hard questions shows we are people of faith.

Why do we have funeral? Yes, to remember, yet also to create safe place, a structure to hold grief. This is the place of good liturgy, to give structure and thus create a safe space.

We are here together. This “together” carries people through pain

Helpful images in shaping liturgy
– symbols eg holding things – allow us to say and do things people can not normally do with words.
– power of Spotlight Frabric – cheap! – huge variety of cloths –
– images – use images that you see around you normally – begins to link, creating positive memories.
– use baby oil for annointing. Use hands rather than heads (be sensitive to breaching boundaries).
– water – sign of grieving – bowl of tears. Tears can always be transformed into image of water and life.
– image of walking is very important. Walk on cloth together – footprints with felt, or footprints cut from sides of sushi containers. For example – so what’s your hardest question as you journey – place it around Christ candle.
– how to use imagery in larger churches? Invite a representative group to participate rather than whole church.
– if the life situation is very dark, use cloth that has just subtle glimpses of colour. Or a strip of cloth – pain in centre of things.
– look at things with a creative eye. Use imagination.

How to prepare liturgy as a group?
– we use words, but people don’t always need to create the words.
– clarify theme from Scripture.
– ask each other What images or symbols come to mind?
– ask each other What does this remind you of in terms of life experiences?
– ask each other What songs and music leap out? What creative? How could we engage congregation?
– liturgy writing – we always move toward cliches. So to avoid that, we would give people elements.
– flow of worship – here we are – we are in presence of holy – we are not holy so we grieve – we announce forgiveness – then Word comes and lifts our vision – sometimes we affirm our faith – but we will need help, so intercession – and so we’re sent out, blessed.
– so brainstorm words and phrases – who are we …. what are we grieving … what do we believe … what do we want help with … And then give those words and phrases to be formed into prayer. So much fresher, cf cliches. Then a bit of editing to make it flow through overall service.
– teams of 6-8. Congregation owned worship.

In summary
When churches walk lines of honesty and name ordinary struggles, then worship comes alive. So easy to move into cliches.

Cup – drink – give to person lamenting – if you ever think you are less human, or more human, then remember this.

In conflict, ask – why does this matter? Increases understanding, even if we don’t agree.

Words need a certain generality ie Do not confess for others. Rather “Sometimes O God, we are tempted to” or “Often, we are like …

More helpful to use lament “we grieve”, more than saying how terrible we are …

Posted by steve at 11:18 PM


  1. Steve thank you so much for sharing your notes. Very helpful anf pewerful. It is so true that people are frightened of the Christian God, fearful of being judged of what the Bible may have to say to them in their fear and longing.
    There is so much spiritual and biblical illiteracy in our world and yet people still turn to the church or something like it at times of great pain and great joy and we do need to find real words, signs and ways of simply being with folk liturgically and pastorally.
    In times of political or personal distress I often turn to Lamentations or Job and it really is possible to craft something powerful and meaningful that lasts only 15 or 20 minutes and so important in our modern world.
    Thanks fo writing about this it’s given me much to think about.

    Comment by jane — May 5, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  2. If you are ok, I’m going to cite one line from this excellent article (properly refenced of course!) on my blog. Loads got me thinking, in particular : ‘When churches walk lines of honesty and name ordinary struggles, then worship comes alive. So easy to move into cliches’.


    God bless


    Comment by Graham — May 5, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  3. Dorothy is wonderful… and her liturgies are simply beautiful…

    Comment by cheryl — May 6, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

  4. I think that Dorothy McRae-McMahon is a taonga… I have learned so much from listening to her and reading her works… Have made the Spotlight prilgrimage for red and purple and white and black and green… the first three are the clothes I use most often.

    Comment by KSW — May 6, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

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