An Interview about Common Prayer

Here’s an interview we recently did with the publishers of Common Prayer.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Increasingly, people inside and outside the church wonder why they should worship. The pulls of family life, sports, and employment raise questions about why spend one’s valuable time in common prayer. We asked a group of talented writers to offer personal and provocative essays about their experience of worship. In a certain sense, we wanted a collection of testimony for why regular worship is essential, irreplaceable, transformative. 

How is this book different from other books about worship?

There are many fine books about the history and theology of worship. These tend to be abstract, objective, general. We wanted a collection of very strong and distinctive voices, personal essays, first-person accounts that provide entrees into the experience of common prayer through the particularities of flesh and blood lives. We call it theological memoir.

How did you select the contributors?

We wanted a collection that reflects the variety of people and experiences one finds in The Episcopal Church. The writers include academics, priests, lay people, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, acolytes, missionaries, vestry members, poets. The most important thing was that they be willing to be put themselves out there and share something personal.

You edited this book while teaching theology at an Anglican College in South Africa. How did that context shape your experience of working on this book?

It brought home the gift of common prayer, shared forms and patterns of worship. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican tradition and our prayers and liturgies are similar all over the world. Our experiences of worship in South Africa were both familiar and unfamiliar. That’s similar to what we experienced as we read the essays for this book—people opened up the familiar and shed light on differences.

Is this book just for Episcopalians and Anglicans?

Not at all. One of the great gifts of excellent memoir is that through people’s sharing the particulars of their lives, and in this case, experiences of Episcopal worship, readers are drawn in to reflect on their own lives. That is, the particular opens a door to the universal. So people who worship in other denominations or are curious about Christian worship, as well as Episcopalians, can find inspiration for their own reflections on encounters with the divine.

There are pictures in this book. Why? 

Our great editor at Wipf and Stock, Robin Parry, suggested that since these are personal essays, it would be good to put the faces of the writers with the stories. We are so glad he did.

Students at the College of Transfiguration in Makhanda/Grahamstown

An Excerpt From Common Prayer

There are several wonderful books about the theology and development of liturgy. This isn’t one of them. In this book, we gather insights about worship by a number of people in the Episcopal Church who are bold enough to try to find language to describe how worship has formed them, surprised them, amazed them, comforted or confronted them; or rather, how God has done that through Episcopal liturgy. 

We are priests, people who get asked the questions priests get asked: Why worship? Why at that time? In that place? With those words? Sometimes the questions are asked as challenges, other times in wonderment or bafflement, particularly by people who aren’t as in the habit of showing up in church on Sundays as we are. These essays don’t so much answer these questions as they name some truths, some longing, some Love we know we can’t live without.

We originally envisioned this collection as focused on the experience of worship on Sundays, with the working title “Sunday Morning: Reflections on Episcopal Worship.” Some authors, appropriately, ventured beyond Sundays, and the book is all the richer for it. Hence the title Common Prayer.

In these pages, Spencer Reece dresses for his little entrance; Rhonda Mawhood Lee falls in love with Jesus by flashlight; J. Neil Alexander confesses that he is a Sunday-keeper; Sophfronia Scott gets a taste of grace; Lauren Winner wonders what the deal is with communion wafers; Rodney Clapp plays on Sundays; Melissa Deckman Fallon worries she is a bad Episcopalian; Steve Fowl provides a view from the choir; Amy Richter believes in demons; Cameron Dezen Hammon wants to belong to something; Duane Miller sweats in the calid Spanish summer; Paul Fromberg dances in friendship with God; Michael Battle ponders Zen-like riddles and bubble gum-blowing acolytes; BJ Heyboer finds a home at the foot of the cross; Ian Markham tries to be an atheist but fails; Kim Edwards realizes there is no such thing as ordinary time; Luisa E. Bonillas crosses the US-Mexico border every Sunday to go to church; worship saves Joe Pagano’s marriage; Kathryn Greene-McCreight smears ashes on her children’s foreheads; C. K. Robertson blesses heroes; Batman, Robin, and Supergirl show up for the blessing of Amy Peterson’s home; Rachel Stone longs to bring her pets with her everywhere, including church; and Fred Bahnson recounts the legendary chainsaw Eucharist.

We asked this group of writers to engage in an exercise of theological memoir, to write in their own strong, distinct voices about their experiences of Episcopal worship. We were both thrilled with and awed by the result: personal essays that are funny, vulnerable, faithful; people telling of loss, joy, play, belonging, love. This way of writing is risky. But so is engaging whole-heartedly in worship. These authors show us that this way of writing, this way of worshiping, this way of living is worth it. They share their flesh and blood lives with us and we meet the God who meets us in worship. This shouldn’t surprise us. In worship, Jesus shares his flesh and blood life with us; he pours himself out so we may have life and have life more abundantly.

Through the particularity of their reflections on life and worship, we don’t just get to know the authors. There are twenty-three authors in this collection, but the main character who emerges is the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God of, as Steve Fowl puts it, “unrelenting and eager openness.” This book is an invitation to risk offering the particularities of your own life in the worship of the same God.

Praise for Common Prayer

“This gracefully edited collection is a window into the transformative experience of shared liturgy in all its particularity, difficulty, and beauty. May these honest reflections open the eyes of our faith.”

—Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion  and City of God: Faith in the Streets

“If Anglicanism claims to be catholic and reformed, then this winsome volume has the best of both: catholic in liturgy, protestant in testimony. Open this volume and meanwhile open your heart to be strangely warmed by the quirky, the moving, the profound, and the playful.”

—Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London

“In these pages you will see the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—in reflections and recollections that both move the heart and inspire the spirit.”

—The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church

 Find out more:

Available at Wipf and Stock and on Amazon.

Amy Peterson: A Beautiful Inheritance

Meet Amy Peterson, author of “A Beautiful Inheritance.”

Amy Peterson is the author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World (Discovery House, 2017). (Here she is with her family and the book). Amy has taught college courses since 2003; she has an M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. Amy and her family are members of Gethsemane Episcopal Church in Marion, Indiana.

Q & A with Amy Peterson

Q: What are your two favorite hymns for worship? 

A: My favorite hymns are “Be Thou My Vision” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I particularly love the lines 

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

 Seal it for Thy courts above.

Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer

A: I love Ash Wednesday’s reminder that we are dust. One of the first times I brought my kids to this service — when they were about 1 and 3 years old — I left them in the pew as I went forward for ashes. When I returned to the pew, my three year-old daughter said, “Mom, I want that,” and pointed to my forehead. Watching my firstborn request and receive the sign of her death in the shape of our hope is something I’ll never forget.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

A: I’m discerning a possible call to the priesthood, and about to begin a Masters of Divinity at Duke University, so most of my time is taken with preparing to leave my lovely Indiana home and trying to figure out how the next season of life will look. But I’m also in the final stages of edits on my second book Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (January 2020, W Publishing).

Q: Your essay is, in part, about being home and making home, even where and when you didn’t expect to. Christians are both not at home in this world and completely at home wherever we are, if we think of God as home and our call to be present with others as Jesus was present with us. Can you offer some thoughts about this dual reality (not at home and at home everywhere) from your perspective as someone who has lived all over the world and who has made a home where you are?

The view from Amy’s kitchen window.

A: When I was younger, I gravitated towards certain metaphors for the Christian life: I liked to think of myself as a “stranger” and “sojourner” and “pilgrim,” for example, much more than I liked thinking of myself as a “bondservant.” I loved stories about God calling people to leave their homes, and when I moved to Southeast Asia to be a missionary after college, I thought of myself as one of those called-out ones. 

But while living in Southeast Asia, I read the desert monks for the first time. St. Antony said that to please God, we should do three things:

“Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.”

In my first book, I describe how my understanding of the “pilgrim” metaphor began then to change: 

As I read about these monks who stayed quietly in the same places, doing the same tasks and praying the same prayers for years and years, I began to wonder if my own definition of sojourner was missing something. Had I misunderstood this metaphor? Or worse, had I been using a false idea to excuse my own wanderlust, my desire for independence, and my fear of commitment?

When Peter wrote to the elect resident aliens scattered throughout the Roman provinces of Asia Minor, he was writing to Christians facing persecution: his description of them as sojourners and exiles, whether literal or metaphorical, was intended to help them understand how to live with patience and holiness as an oppressed minority in the empire. It was a reminder that Christians ought to live with “reverent fear” wherever we are, aware that our truest identity is as citizens of a different Kingdom. 

But I’d been using the title sojourner to justify my rootlessness. I wasn’t persecuted or oppressed. I hadn’t been forced into exile. I was simply exercising my privilege and freedom to leave my home, safe with a passport to bring me back when I was ready. I was at the top, not the bottom, of the day’s empire economies. To claim that metaphor for my own was to discredit the very real persecution that originally undergirded it.

Here’s the thing I began to realize about my wanderlust: I was not an exile. I was not a mythic hero out to conquer a new frontier, finding freedom in the wild blue yonder. To put it plainly, I was discovering that restlessness is not always a virtue. For anyone to have a meaningful presence in the world, at some point the desire to go must transform into a desire to stay.

So I took the small steps that were the only things I knew to do to practice staying put. I named my kitten Éponine, after a tragic Victor Hugo character who lived on her own, and I figured out how to find food for her. I met the Thai exchange students who lived on the floor beneath me. I had a regular photocopy shop, where the owners made fun of me for using the wrong personal pronouns to address them, and a bakery I visited every day for loaves of French bread. I left my apartment door open so students would know they could come visit.

For the time being, I tried to remind myself that I wasn’t there to save the world or to indulge my independent spirit. I temporarily shelved any grand ideas about fixing structural injustices and instead practiced the small, daily, rooted tasks that are, after all, also a part of doing justice and loving mercy, those simple things the monks also practiced. I made it my ambition to lead a quiet life, and to lead that quiet life where I was, while trying to learn from the people around me. I aimed to become a student of their language and their culture, to find out what love looked like to them.

I was no longer a backpacker. I wasn’t an expat—at least, I was trying not to be. Instead, I was beginning to figure out what it means to be a neighbor.

I think sometimes God asks us to go, and sometimes God asks us to stay; and in either situation, I can find my home in Christ, and continue with the work of loving God and loving my neighbor.

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Check out Amy’s first book: