Sunday, November 10, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 1: 11-18, Micah 6: 6-8, Thessalonians 1: 3, 11-12, and Matthew 6: 5-7
Not happy with how this worship service is going? Been thinking you’d have changed the liturgy a bit—more of this, less of that, a different song here, a different prayer there? Well, you’re following a centuries’ old tradition. As long ago as the eighth century BCE, prophets like Isaiah and Micah critiqued the religious rites of their day. “The Nameless One hates the way we worship,” said Isaiah. “Don’t bow before an altar; instead treat each other right.” Similarly, according to our Gospel reading, Jesus criticized a common practice of public prayer. “Enough with the showy prayers, folks,” said Jesus. “If you’re praying empty phrases to look righteous, cut that out. If the old religious language doesn’t express your reality—even after you have tried to enter those capacious metaphors—change the words and the ways. Don’t fake it with God.”
Both the early prophets and Jesus disapproved, not of ritual, but of empty ritual that failed to change the hearts of people and serve the oppressed. The very ones we cite when we resist change were themselves advocates for changing religious practices.
Our denomination also encourages the evolution of worship practices. The preamble to the United Church of Christ’s constitution affirms “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” Sincere and relevant worship is key.
In that spirit of ongoing reform, I gathered this past week with other clergy and lay leaders across our denomination to look toward the future and imagine the impact of technology on worship, to consider what a “geographically dispersed congregation” might look like and how a virtual church might worship. Already a number of online faith communities worship via social media. Before you automatically discount the authenticity of an internet-delivered spiritual experience, at least think through what, for you, are the hallmarks of worship and spiritual formation.
What, for you, are the essential characteristics of an encounter with the Sacred? What are the AIMS of a transformative spiritual experience—in a communal context. How do you know when you have really worshipped?
I’m offering 3 key marks of a Close Encounter—of the God Kind, and as I do, I ask you to consider: How much of this worship outcome is up to you? How much depends on others? How much is up to God?
AWE. Worship at its best offers a transcendent spiritual encounter with mystery where I overcome my own ego and connect with others and with the Sacred. To whisper awe as my “amen” in worship is to experience an overflow of gratitude, a delight in the unutterable beauty of the arts as well as the natural world, a sense of my own belovedness. Worshipful awe often is, for me, an experience of pondering important questions that take me deeper into the life of God, yet it’s an experience of turning off the analytical mind and simply opening myself to the Silence. Answering questions does not produce awe. Pondering the unanswerable does.
Awe is not created through entertainment. The awe resulting from true worship, like the awe of true art, differs from the excitement, diversion, titillation, and escapism of entertainment. Entertainment usually focuses our attention on the entertainers. Worship points us beyond those speaking, teaching, singing, serving— to God. Awe evokes gratitude, delight, transcendence, love, humility and moves us deeper into the heart of the realest reality. Awe feeds me on life-giving bread and wine. Entertainment, in contrast, takes me away from reality for an hour or so and feeds me with a tub of butter-drenched popcorn and a sugary soft drink. It’s great to be entertained—to know vicarious excitement, laughter, thrills. But let’s not confuse it with worship.
Too bad “awesome!” has become a popular descriptor of things completely incapable of provoking true awe. When I think about the potential power within a worship experience, I am reminded that Annie Dillard cautioned worshipers to prepare for being truly awe struck.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.*
Have you ever left a worship experience feeling that the Waking God has drawn you to new place from which you can never return? Awesome!
CONNECTION is another product of a communal spiritual practice that draws you to others and others to you. Connection leads you to care and love those within the church and beyond; it calls you to see yourself as part of God’s family, to feel responsible for others’ wellbeing. Connection is an experience of profound union where we set aside ego for a while to make space for those on the margins, to reach beyond the self to The More, to God, By so doing, we grow to care as much about others as we do about ourselves. Worship connection is intimate, a deeper knowing, a portal into the Jesus story where we find ourselves walking around inside his historic and ongoing life.
Certainly we need social interaction outside of worship in order to develop social connections. But a spiritual connection is not contingent on sharing a hobby with someone else or supporting the same political party or rooting for the same football team. It is deeper. And you can be connected to a pew mate even if you know little about that person. You can pray with and for that person in a bond of compassion and in common hope. Connections through communal worship draw you to people who are not like yourself.
What aspects of worship help you connect in these ways? What are other ways we can strengthen connections in worship?
TRANSFORMATION is the final worship aim and outcome I have time to explore this evening. The experience of awe and connection make transformation possible—within our individual lives and throughout our larger world. The prophets knew real worship had not happened when the hearts of the worshipers were not changed and the culture they inhabited continued to oppress the widows and orphans and the poor. That’s why Isaiah imagined God pained by worship, crying out, “My soul HATES your ways of worship; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” So “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1: 16-18).
We know we have worshiped when we reach a place of compassion, conviction, and courage. What brings about that transformation in us and in our world might be moments of silence, or the hearing of scripture, sermon, litanies, and poetry, or a call to give our offerings, or the simple sharing in bread and wine so we get practice every week in the sharing our lives. To some extent, worship “leaders” are responsible for your experience of worship, and in some sense you are, and in some sense the uncontrollable Spirit is. Though we can’t orchestrate the Spirit, we can certainly recognize the Spirit’s impact—as a worshiping people become a more loving people who begin to bring compassion, peace and justice to their world. But we have to be willing to be changed within and participate in doing a new thing and being carried to a new place.
Richard Rohr believes that transformation requires a new and contemplative mind that is cultivated through prayer. I’d expand prayer to include all means of worship and agree with Rohr that prayer and other liturgical practices were first attempts to “change our thinking cap” and look out at reality “from a different pair of eyes.” Healthy spiritual practices of individuals and faith communities cultivate this new mind or alternative consciousness. “The single most precise way to describe this new mind is that it sees things in a non-dual way, which is precisely why holy people can love enemies, overlook offenses, see things as paradoxical without giving up their reason, and believe in Jesus as both fully human and fully divine at the same time. Frankly, without the contemplative mind almost all major religious doctrines and dogmas are just silly nonsense, and worse, they are not even helpful to humanity—or God!” I’d add, without the transformation of our minds, which calls us into transformation of the world around us, worship, too, is “just silly nonsense” and “not even helpful to humanity—or God!”
One reason a worship service helps us shift from the ego-controlled mind to the contemplative mind is because it requires us to come to God in ways that sometimes suit others best. You can say, “I need this kind of music to feel God’s presence in worship,” but consider that your willingness to let someone else sing their preferred music is actually a way for you to let go of the ego-controlled mind and take on that new mind and be transformed by the power of God’s love. If praying is all about me, then I’m no better than the egoistic Pharisee Jesus observed.
We’ll continue experimenting with worship. But let’s not worry about getting worship “right” every time. Worship is a spiritual practice. We come together to practice sharing, giving, loving, caring. We practice words in song and liturgy that we might then be able to call to mind in times of trouble. We practice storytelling and story listening. We say prayers aloud to name collective hurts and hopes. We practice the spiritual disciplines of giving up our need to have things just our way, moving from a consumer’s mindset to a worshiper’s mind.
And if one day you walk in here to see children mixing up TNT on the floor, be sure to ask for a crash helmet. Something powerful just might happen.
PRAYER: Unnamable God, we don’t know how to pray. We are not even sure what we are feeling and have no understanding of what we need. Let us simply pause, and pay attention to our feelings, pay attention to this room and the slight shifting noise of those sitting near us. We are hoping that the love and life coursing through each of us will flow out into a world in need of vital energy. Amen
*Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 40-41.