A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure and honor of talking with Douglas McKelvey about Every Moment Holy, his forthcoming book of liturgies crafted to consecrate and narrate us through the ordinary rhythms of our lives.
The book will be available in just a few short weeks, and you can check out its website here.
Drew: In light of your book of liturgies, I want to begin by acknowledging that the very word “liturgy” is coming back into vogue with Christians in our culture. It seems that we’re reawakening to the fact that liturgies can be useful and not just rote, life-sucking words we say over and over again. What’s your story with liturgy?
Douglas: Well, I have a weird journey. It started when I was six years old. Both my parents had what I can’t truly describe as anything other than supernatural experiences. Those experiences woke them up to the idea that God is real and wants a relationship with us. They had no real theological foundation, however, so as a family we were swept into the backwaters of the neo-Pentecostal tradition. It wasn’t a Pentecostal denomination, though—we essentially became part of a cult, a personality cult comprised of about forty people. Over the decade or so we were there, the pastor exercised more and more control over people’s lives in a very unhealthy way.
I’ve referred to it jokingly as the First Church of Demonology, because in my ten years there, I can’t remember learning anything about Jesus. I heard a lot about demons, so I often went home terrified. I’d lie awake in bed afraid that I was possessed and things like that. By the time I was sixteen, my parents realized that this just wasn’t right and we had to get out.
There was this sense that you can choose truth or you can choose beauty, but there’s nothing holy about beauty. Douglas McKelvey
I went to a Christian university that was completely whacked out, theologically. I realized then that I didn’t have a theological foundation by which to evaluate any of the hundreds of ideas that were being thrown at me. Halfway through my senior year I prayed, “God, I still believe you’re real. I believe Jesus is your son. Beyond that, I don’t know what’s true. So if it’s all right with you, I’m just going to check out until I graduate and then start to think about what’s true.” And that’s basically what I did. It was a dark time, but in hindsight I saw it as providential. I had to reach that point where all the bad ideas were leveled, leaving the most basic foundation of Christianity for me to build upon going forward.
So there was a period of a few years after that when I floated around trying to find a tradition to cling to. One of the things I encountered during that time was an Episcopal church. And that was the first time I was exposed to a liturgical service. The prayers from the Book of Common Prayer—when we read those aloud, there was this instinctive response of, “This is something I can trust.” I was so used to being on my guard about everything I ever heard in church because so much of it was garbage. I didn’t know what was true.
Drew: And then here’s this Book of Common Prayer, which is time-tested. It’s not just one person talking; it’s a book that’s very purposefully crafted.
Douglas: Yes. And that experience at the Episcopal church was a sort of foreshadowing of what was to come. By my mid-twenties, I finally landed in a place where, for the first time in my life, I felt like I could relax and trust what I heard from the pulpit.
There were aspects of the faith that had so much more meaning for me than they ever had before. One of the things that I began to recognize was that these old prayers are so thoughtful. They articulate so beautifully the things I’m experiencing and feeling before I’ve been able to pull it out, look at it from the outside, and name it. There was always someone long ago, in some cases hundreds of years or longer, who sat there and did the hard, prayerful work, and in many cases I believe the Spirit-led work, of sorting through these meandering pathways of the human heart, and the truths of Scripture brought to bear on that, to give them articulation in words that still resonate with us today.
Through that experience, I began to think that maybe I could offer my gifts as a writer to the church.
Drew: Something that strikes me about the Book of Common Prayer’s many liturgies is how sturdy they are. You can really lean on them. Like you said, somebody a hundred years ago wrote this, and yet I can throw my own particular experience onto it and lean up against it. It’s sturdy enough to hold my story. There’s a paradox there that’s incredible to me.
And you wrote these liturgies for people to do that very same thing with. It’s poetry to be spoken by people in their particular moments of life. A lot of it can be extracted and called a poem, but it’s to be read aloud in a specific moment. What was it like writing for that purpose, as opposed to merely writing a poem?
Douglas: As far as the craft side of it goes, my vision from the beginning was for Every Moment Holy to be a book with an aesthetic beauty to it. We wanted readers to be able to pick up the book and casually read parts of it to enjoy whatever aspect of poetry there is in it, as well as the artwork. But that goal of enjoyability was always balanced against the goal of functionality. It couldn’t devolve into abstract poetry.
Drew: It’s useful.
Douglas: Yes, and that’s the thing: it had to be utilitarian as well.
Drew: And that is quite an amazing thing in a time that wants to divorce art from usefulness. We all carry that assumption: for something to be beautiful it must also be useless. It seems that your book on the whole is working for a redemption of utility as something that can be beautiful and of beauty as something that can be useful.
Douglas: That’s important to me because I did grow up in churches and religious traditions of aesthetic impoverishment. There was this sense that you can choose truth or you can choose beauty, but there’s nothing holy about beauty.
Drew: We can even become suspicious of beauty’s alluring qualities—be careful when you watch a movie that captures your imagination because it’s probably feeding you lies! Right? I picked that up somehow, somewhere along the way.
Douglas: Yes, there’s this suspicion of beauty as not having any place within the Christian journey, but there’s also this impoverishment of story. There was no understanding of how wired we are for both story and poetry.
It was a long journey for me to recognize that God is a poet, and that one of the ways his poetry is expressed is that there are deeper layers of his meaning and beauty embedded in creation than we could ever hope to fathom or exhaust. And that recognition was crucial for me.
As I was growing up, I knew from an early age that I had a gift for words. Early on, I wrote flippantly. It was a spigot I could turn on anytime I wanted. Looking back now, there was some nice word choice there, the rhythm of the language was interesting, but there was no real meaning under the surface.
Drew: You were playing.
Douglas: I was playing, and I didn’t realize the difference between that and actually doing the hard work of expressing something true. When I began to develop a more coherent theology, writing became much more difficult because I now had a responsibility to be faithful to the larger story in which we all find ourselves.
Drew: You needed to maintain that integrity between your world and the created order.
Drew: And I felt that as I read these liturgies. I keep coming back to several of them, finding new details each time. One in particular I wanted to hear your story on was “A Liturgy For Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why.”
Douglas: That was one of the very last ones I finished. It had been on my list for months, but as we were coming down into that final week before the deadline, I didn’t see any way to start a new one and get it finished with all the editing that still needed to happen on old ones.
Two years ago, before I ever pitched the idea of this book, I had brainstormed ideas for some of the liturgies. Somewhere early on in that process, I had thought of this idea, “A Liturgy For Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why.” Then a few months ago, we opened up the process to people in the Rabbit Room community to suggest some ideas. Heidi Johnston from Northern Ireland submitted a request for a liturgy “For Those Feeling an Unexplained Sadness.” I put it on the list, and then at some point, I realized those two ideas were essentially the same. So I put it on the short list, but as time passed, it didn’t look like I’d be able to get to it.
Then Heidi and her family came to Nashville to visit and our families got to spend some time together. At dinner we talked about that idea and I told her I didn’t know if I could get to it. Then two of my daughters both said, “Dad, that is the liturgy that we would most want to read.”
Drew: I second that! This particular liturgy reminds me of how you said you were hoping for there to be layer upon layer to come back to. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with this one. Here are a few lines that grabbed me:
“We pine for all the children born into these days of desolation, whose regal robes were torn to tatters before they were even swaddled in them.”
“…aligning ourselves with the self protective lie that would have us kill our best hopes just to keep our disappointments half-confined.”
The idea of sanctifying sadness, that our tears could be an “intercession newly forged of holy sorrow.”
And for whatever reason, this last line gets me the most:
“Anticipating the day when you will take the ache of all creation and turn it inside out like the shedding of an old gardener’s glove.”
Is there anything specific you could share about the writing of those lines?
Douglas: They all came about in a multiplicity of ways and for various reasons. Some of them are distillations of ideas I have considered for years. Let’s take for example that line about killing hope to avoid disappointment: I have chewed on that one for maybe a dozen years, and have articulated it in other ways in other places. It’s a dynamic that is so common to us as humans.
Funnily enough, it reminds me of The Matrix—there’s an explanation in the first movie for why life in the Matrix isn’t this beautiful paradise: they tried that and the humans rejected it because somehow without all the grief and sorrow and everything, they wouldn’t accept it as reality.
We have this aversion to the idea that the good news is actually real. Douglas McKelvey
We have this aversion to the idea that the good news is actually real. Imagine the disappointment if we completely embraced it, hung everything on it, didn’t hold back some of our emotion to protect ourselves just in case, and then found out the good news wasn’t true.
Drew: But then that risk is itself part of the gospel. Leave everything. You have to give up your life for the good news.
Douglas: Right. So I think that dynamic is such an important thing for us to observe in ourselves. Even as those who believe we have a King who is returning and bringing with him the fullness of a Kingdom where everything will somehow be redeemed—and we can’t imagine how because of the depth of grief and sorrow we’ve experienced in this life, yet we believe it is somehow true—even as those who have embraced this story, we still tend to pull back, to protect ourselves, to instinctively keep hedging our bets by investing hope in other things that are more immediate.
Drew: You’re reminding me of a Frederich Buechner quote. He prays over and over again, “You’re too good to be true, you’re too good to be true.” But then at the end he prays, “You’re too good not to be true.”
Douglas: Yes, and I think that’s why we have to keep reorienting ourselves to what our true hope is, but also acknowledge our tendency to numb ourselves to how much we really hope for it. We will always want to chase other things. If you open to this longing for the good news to be true and live into that longing—that’s an ache if there ever was one.
[Every Moment Holy will be released this November. Pre-orders begin October 5th. Visit the website for more information.]