seagull flying

Sunday, August 25, 2013

HEBREW BIBLE READING:  Isaiah 58:9-14   

Progressive theology has not simply introduced us to new ideas. It has caused us to consider the implications of those ideas. For instance, conventional prayers address God in ways that assume God is a being to whom we speak and make requests, but since some of us no longer think of God as a supersized person with super powers, progressive Christians are considering ways our theology might lead us to pray a bit differently.

Similarly, progressives might need to align our worship life with our theology.  For instance, many of us no longer worship a super-human deity with super powers who also has a super ego requiring our adulation. Yes, yes, I know we can worship in ways that emphasizeour need to praise God rather than God’s need to be praised.  Anyone who has seen a child come into this world or heard the softer sounds after a snowfall or tasted a ripe summer peach has expressed the “Wow!” prayer that Anne LaMott recommends. That’s praise at its most authentic. But some forms of praise in worship seem at odds with progressive theology.

I invite you to infer, based on the worship services you’ve participated in here at Open Table, about some characteristics of progressive worship.

First, what aspects of traditional worship seem absent from our services?

Congregation responds.

Next, are there nontraditional aspects of our services that we’ve added?  Any theories about their purposes?

Congregation responds.

Nobody crowned me Queen of Progressive Worship.  But I think progressives should maintain some Christian worship traditions while introducing new liturgical practices or retrieving or adapting some long-discarded liturgical practices –so that our worship is consistent with our theology.

But here’s one hurdle I face in making more explicit my view of progressive worship: worship preferences run deep and are often fiercely defended.  I think the way to avoid the worship wars of the last few decades is to ground our worship life in substance rather than style. So we make our worship choices based on our theology.

Here’s another challenge in commending to you a particular approach to worship: unlike private prayer, worship is a communal experience, so you can’t order up a worship service as if you’re at Burger King and can “have it your way.”  When I preached a few weeks ago about how progressives pray, I assured you that if your private prayer life is working for you, then you don’t need to change how you pray. I explained I was trying to expand the meanings and methods of prayer for those who found it difficult, as progressives, to pray as they once had.

But our worship life is shared.  What no longer works for one member of the congregation might still satisfy another’s spiritual needs. So we’ll try to offer enough variety and thank God for the elasticity of metaphor. But my bias is for worship ways that reflect and reinforce progressive theology because Open Table’s mission is to offer this option to our city and because progressive Christianity will be, I believe, the way Christianity survives into the next century.

Elsewhere in Mobile you may attend a beautiful Greek Orthodox service or a heady Unitarian service.  Elsewhere you’ll find a high church mass, or a moderate “mainline” Protestant service or a charismatic worship experience or a “contemporary” service for youth and young adults.  Those are excellent options. But our worship is distinctive in the perhaps subtle ways we express and live out our emerging theology.  Believe me, the words you and I say and don’t say in this place are far more “progressive” than the electric guitars or multimedia presentations in the worship services held in bars and coffee houses across the country.

Our worship life is formed primarily by theology rather than technology or fashion or personality.  Our theology and worship make affirmations like these: God is love; God offers extravagant welcome; God calls us to do justice; God is still speaking.  That is the Good News we progressives preach and teach and try to live.

Perhaps one of the most important theological statements our worship implicitly affirms is this: God is holy mystery.  Doesn’t sound very earthshattering, does it? But when I assert that God is holy mystery, I must worship in ways that prevent me from arrogant claims that I own God, that God does my bidding.  Acknowledging God as mystery allows me to admit doubts and offers me the spiritual capacity to appreciate paradox: that God is as intimate as the very breath we draw and as unknowable as the universe’s vastness.

Therefore, our worship life should not oversimplify the profundity of the Sacred, should not treat the unnamable Force of Life and Love too familiarly as our buddy or, worse yet, our servant, but should nevertheless support us in paying attention to this presence. We then hope that sometimes, somehow, in this place and time, earth and heaven embrace and we can see through to things far deeper and more mysterious than words can say. Right through to the Really Real, to the Things That Matter. Which is the mystical oneness behind all the seeming separateness of this world.

Frederick Buechner describes such an encounter with the Holy Mystery while out among a stand of maple trees:

I remember a spring or so ago walking with a friend through a stand of maple trees at sugaring time. The sap buckets were hung from the trees, and if you were quiet, you could hear the sap dripping into them: all through the woods, if you kept still, you could hear the hushed drip-dropping of the sap into a thousand buckets or more hung out in the early spring woods with the sun coming down in long shafts through the trees. The sap of a maple is like rainwater, very soft, and almost without taste except for the faintest tinge of sweetness to it, and when my friend said he’d never tried it, I offered to give him a taste. I had to unhook the bucket from the tap to hold it for him, and when he bent his head to drink from it, I tipped the bucket down to his lips, and just as he was about to take a sip, he looked up at me and said, ‘I have a feeling you ought to be saying some words.’
Well, my friend is no more or less religious than the next person, and we’d been chattering on about nothing in particular as we walked along until just at that moment as I tipped the bucket to his lips, he said what he said, and said it partly as a joke. He had a feeling I should be saying some words, he said, as I tipped the bucket to his lips so he could taste for the first time the taste of the lifeblood of a tree. And of course for a moment those unsaid words fell through the air of those woods like the shafts of sun, and it was no joke because the whole place became another place or became more deeply the place it truly was; and he and I became different, something happened for a second to the air around us and between us. It was not much and lasted only for a moment before it was gone. But it happened—this glimpse of something dimly seen, dimly heard, this sense of something deeply hidden.”

My friends, this is a holy time when holy words must be spoken.This is a holy place where glimpses of God might be seen. We are a holy people, not because we are superior to other people but because our intention here in this place and now in this time is to seek together what is worthy of our whole lives.

Beauty and goodness burst into our lives unbidden. We cannot summon them to us. But we can, at regular intervals, pause from our harried, disconnected lives to do the things that human beings have done since Evolution awakened the worshiper within us and taught our ancestors to paint their praise on cave walls and bury their dead with reverence and hope and tell stories that connected them to one another and to something at the heart of it all.  We are not experiencing our full humanness unless we are listening for some holy words to accompany the beauty and terror of our lives.

We have a need to create and participate in rituals that mark off some moments in our lives as different from others. These rituals (and I use that term loosely) aid us in the human enterprise of meaning making, train us to delight in beauty, teach us to aspire to goodness. Yes, we have other means of finding meaning and beauty and goodness. Yes, nonreligious rituals exist.  But worship is regular, intentional practice in being fully human and being connected to what is ultimate. That is why we gather weekly, as Christian tradition prescribes, and listen again to the Jesus Story for words that save us from despair and greed and hatred.  And through the Jesus Story and the stories of one another, we glimpse a God who is both mysteriously aloof and intimately ours.

Beings like us believing in a God like that need worship that opens up rather than closes off possibilities.

So progressive worship includes and welcomes not only a breadth of ideas but a diversity of people.  That means our language and symbols must be inclusive and varied. Yet it also means each of us, from time to time, has to accommodate the language needs of others in this congregation and the language of the founders of our faith. Perhaps it seems inconsistent that we don’t jettison all vestiges of patriarchy, for instance.  We rarely address the Divine as “Father” here, but we still sing the ancient Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy.”  To address God at all runs counter to what our minds may say about this sacred Source of Love. To address God as “Lord,” the archaic title of a nobleman, gives us no cultural foothold and few positive associations. To plead for the Lord’s mercy implies God has to be persuaded to care.  This is an imperfect prayer.  Like all prayers. And all instances of language.  But the Kyrie is one example of a simple, ancient prayer that allows a congregation to give voice to some shared longing and, especially when those words are sung, to transcend literalness into an experience of mercy and grace.

Progressive worship also has moments of silence and stillness that respect our own roles in holy encounters.  Likewise, we make room for the faith stories from the community itself as if they are new scriptures added to the biblical story. We listen to sacred words not only from the pulpit and from the Bible but from one another.

Progressive worship balances sameness and surprise, ritual and experimentation.

Progressive worship speaks poetically rather than dogmatically, depends on art rather than indoctrination, honors nuance and ambiguity and even doubt, uses sacraments to carry meanings that cannot be carried by language.

Progressive worship celebrates the full gamut of human emotions but avoids manipulating feelings or preying upon the pain and fears of worshipers.

Progressive worship appreciates solitude before God—but is fundamentally a communal experience, centered in a communal meal that contributes to community formation, reconciliation, peacemaking, selfless love. In worship we must give up some of our self to participate fully in the shared experience of the Sacred. Again, we PRACTICE for a brief time the communion and union to which we aspire.

Progressive worship sometimes draws from other (nonChristian) spiritual practices and sacred writings—but remains rooted in the story of Jesus the Christ and the biblical story that formed his life.  It is the life and death and mysterious life-again of Jesus that is our guide and goal.

Progressive worship sends us out into the world as agents of Love and Peace and Justice, God’s holiest names. Nothing here matters unless we’ve discovered what really matters in the world.

Progressive worship sensitizes us to the sacred outside these walls and teaches us holy words in case our lips one day taste the dripping lifeblood of a maple tree.

Churches like ours are reforming Christian liturgy.  Maybe years hence Christians will worship in a stand of maple trees, looking very like the ancient Druids.  Maybe years hence Christians will gather exclusively in “online” communities using a technology offering potential for more extensive connections than our species has ever known.

In the meantime, our worship life will evolve here at Open Table.  I hope you and I are ready to preserve and experiment, to honor the past and to pioneer into the future in ways consistent with a healthy, healing, hopeful Christian theology.


Category Prayer, Scripture
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