WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous…. Praise the Lord with the lyre…. Sing to God a new song. … For the word of the Lord is upright, and all God’s work is done in faithfulness. God loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. By the word of the Lord the heavens were made…. Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of God…. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of God’s heart to all generations…. The Lord looks down from heaven; God sees all humankind. From where God sits enthroned God watches all the inhabitants of the earth – God who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds. A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear God, on those who hope in God’s steadfast love…. Our soul waits for the Lord; God is our help and shield…. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. – Psalm 33
I have several friends I went to seminary with in the early 1980s with whom I remained in pretty close touch, three in particular. They all three eventually became pastors in churches fairly similar to my first church in Eugene, Oregon. Several times while we were all pastoring, I got together with one or two and a couple of times all three. These were extremely valuable occasions because we shared a great deal in common. We had many useful (and fun) talks about pastoring and church life in our kinds of settings. Our churches were all small, informal churches made up mainly of people pretty well-educated, professional, liberal socially and theologically.
One of the big issues we addressed in various ways was that of spirituality in our congregations. We all agreed that the Sunday morning worship service played a key role in our group spirituality. In our congregations, we tend to live very busy lives, with many interests, activities, and other circles of friends. Church was not the all-week cultural and religious center that it used to be and still is in more rural, traditional settings. In these more urban settings, it is a fairly small part time-wise of most our lives. Nonetheless, it is very important. Something happens during those one to three hours Sunday morning that plays a major role in helping us to make sense out of our lives. This time helps us to find strength and encouragement and hopefulness. So worship plays a major role in spirituality – providing strength for going on with life and going on creatively.
One of these friends, John A. Miller, was pastoring in Calgary, Alberta. A conversation I once had with John was a major catalyst for me in thinking I wanted to spend some extended time reflecting on spirituality. Especially it got me thinking about how worship services and even the worship space in my church in Eugene were an encouragement for my spirituality.
John told me about a woman who regularly attended their worship services and was becoming involved in their congregation. She was from a Catholic background. She had told him that she was going to the Mennonite church for the social contacts. She liked being with the people, sharing many interests and concerns, and working with them on some social issues. However, when she wanted to worship, she went back to the Catholic mass. She told John that Mennonites do not really know how to worship. In particular, she didn’t like was their worship space – they were meeting in a school gymnasium.
After I talked with John about this, I began to think about the worship space in my congregation. I thought about how much I appreciate it, about how worship enhancing and spiritually encouraging it was for me. As well, I had to question the woman’s apparent division between worship and fellowship. At least, I thought about why that distinction did not fit with my experience and understanding. That helped me to reflect on what I find to be important elements of my worship experience and why I find them a source of spiritual encouragement.
When I was pastoring, there was more to Sunday mornings for me than only successfully carrying out pastoral responsibilities. My encouragement was not only over what activities I had completed. It also had to do with what had gone on in the worship experience in general. I felt that something had happened to lift my spirits and touch me with a reality outside of myself. In authentic worship, we are pointed toward the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world of which we want to be part.
This “something” is what I want to reflect on. I will do so not so much by trying to define what this “something” is. Rather, I will structure my comments on various elements which make up the worship service and how I think they combine to provide encouragement. These elements I am calling the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and the meditative parts of worship.
It is somewhat arbitrary to isolate these four points. We could surely add others. As well, the different elements all overlap. We sing, what I am calling an emotional element. However, the singing includes our minds so it is also intellectual and we do it together, so it is certainly social. As well, it often includes a prayerful, meditative element. So, I mean these different elements only to be suggestive for the sake of thinking about happens during our worship.
When I use the term emotional, I am not meaning that worship makes us intensely emotional. I do not mean emotional in the sense as when we say that someone who is fighting back tears is “emotional.” Certainly intense emotions can occur. What I have in mind, though, is simply that of us which we might call the emotional part of our being. The part maybe transcending words or at least something which we can’t describe in strictly a linear way. You could call this the inarticulate speech of our hearts.
The part of our worship that I have especially in mind as “emotional,” in this sense, is our hymn singing. There is something about singing, and hearing others sing, that often touches our hearts in very significant ways. As well, singing evokes something from our hearts, something which touches the emotional part of our being. I can not fully explain it.
I have experienced, though, and I know others have, too, times when I have gone to worship feeling down. The hymn singing, in ways beyond the actual word content of the hymns, acts as a kind of salve on the hurting soul. It’s not magical; the hurt remains. However a kind of soul soothing is felt. It is partly the act of singing, of expressing something with at least a little bit of a sense of abandonment. It is also partly the act of hearing – the piano, the other voices. As well, I have also experienced times of feeling joyful and finding hymn singing an opportunity to put voice to that joy. Singing goes beyond attempts to reduce the emotional experience to words.
I appreciated the acoustics of the church in Eugene. I remember visiting several large churches with organs. Some of the buildings were sound dead to begin with, and when the overpowering organ was added, I couldn’t even hear myself not to mention anyone else. That felt alienating to me, and not spiritually encouraging. I missed the aliveness and sense of presence I felt when we sang in our small, acoustically alive meeting-room at Eugene Mennonite.
The content of many hymns disappoints me if I look too closely at the words. The words we sing are important. The hymns that do combine pleasing content and sound are the ones I enjoy the most. However, my experience of music in church includes more than just ideas. Something more happens. Encouragement and creativity come from having my heart touched as well as my head.
The intellectual element comes to the fore more in other aspects of worship. When we actually do talk, I think what we say is very important. I am thinking especially of sermons here, though also our children’s stories, scripture readings, and other times where just one person is speaking. Our Mennonite tradition has placed a high priority on hymn singing. This has always been a central part of Mennonite worship. So, too, has sermons.
I have to say, in my experience in many churches, the singing is often more satisfying than the sermon. I felt frustrated during a sabbatical a few years ago. I was very much looking forward to visiting other churches, kind of kicking back and hearing some good sermons. Unfortunately, I was often disappointed. I admit I might not be the best critic. I would be nervous to think how those preachers would evaluate my sermons. Nonetheless, a boring, superficial sermon is a problem. I sense many church people almost think of sermons as necessary evils to endure. It doesn’t really feel like church without a sermon, but the effectiveness of the sermon itself doesn’t really matter. We want to have church, so we will have a sermon. The quality is less important.
This kind of attitude, of course, is problematic. Partly because sermons can be a very significant source of spiritual encouragement. In Romans 12, we hear Paul calling for “spiritual worship.” This has to do with the “renewing of our minds.” He calls for is to think – and in new ways. He wants us grow in understanding God’s ways of peace and justice and of our world and our place in it. He urges us to find words to express our soul’s longings and hurts and joys.
Sermons can be opportunities for encouragement to think. The intellectual part of us needs the nourishment of deeper perspectives. It needs the challenges of ways of seeing which are different from ours and the support that maybe some of our ideas are worth staying with after all. The best sermons I have heard provided this nourishment through various means – stories, images, evoking memories, touching emotions, as well as analysis, definition, explanation. I came away thinking about new ways to see. At times I felt encouraged sometimes that some of the old ways are still alright. My mind as well as heart found spiritual nourishment.
In considering helpful sermons I have heard I remember one, several years ago at a peace conference, by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine. He did not so much tell me anything new or challenge my beliefs. What he did, in an effectively emotional way, was remind me that, yes, this approach to life which I had chosen – one characterized by a heart commitment to pacifism – is true. It is true regardless of what the big, bad world says about it. He evoked another world beside the world of power politics. He urged me to be of good cheer and remain confident that this other world, of God’s mercy and love – is the one in which I want to live. This was a sermon of encouragement by reinforcement.
I have also experienced a few sermons that offered me encouragement by confrontation. I guess a good sermon comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Sometimes I have been overly comfortable in the security of the truthfulness of my convictions, of my causes. Sermons have brought me up short and challenged me to remember that sincere people have other views. They reminded me that my job is not to convince the world or fix the world. Treating others with respect and compassion is more important than winning an argument.
So, our worship includes hymns and sermons, both of which in different degrees and different ways touch our hearts and our heads. A third element that also does both is what I am calling the social or interactive element. Here I am thinking of when we talk with each other. We talk both in formal settings such as Sunday school and worship service discussions and in informal settings when we visit before and after our service.
When Kathleen and I began attending the Eugene Mennonite congregation in the late seventies, we were coming from a pretty intense, zealous church. We had an agenda to change the world – through evangelism, through activism, through the intensity of our community. Our first sense of the Mennonites was certainly positive, which is why we kept going back. However, we also thought that the group was not that far from being, as we said it, “just a social club.” We did not see that the congregation was doing that much – certainly not compared to what we thought a church should do. So we felt a little disdainful.
However, my thinking has changed a lot since then. I do think that congregation is and always has been more than “just a social club.” I also am not nearly so critical of the idea of being a social club. At least, I think being the kind of social club we are is not just a social club. Maybe no social clubs are. I see the social-ness of our being together as part of our worship of God. It is a powerful force in encouraging us to be spiritually alive and fruitful in our lives in the world.
We need to have a sense that we are part of something bigger than just our individual selves. We need other people who we like, who like us – more than that, who we trust and respect and who trust and respect us. We need to have a sense that we matter. We need to have people with whom we can talk, people who affirm us as significant beings. We do not get this in all that many places – certainly not in our mass, consumer culture.
Our church community, and our socializing, especially, offers to meet these needs, at least in part. As I said, this socializing includes our formal discussions. Here we have opportunity to make ourselves heard to other people who actually listen and act as if what we say is worth listening too. We have the chance to think together on big issues (and little issues) which interest us and affect our lives. We also find enjoyment in the human contact, our senses of humor, and the give and take and stimulation of thought processes.
This socializing also includes our informal conversations, where we touch base, make new acquaintances, share news and hopes and fears. None of this probably happens enough to make us fully content. However, it does happen and we do well not to take this rareness of human fellowship for granted.
Kathleen and I met briefly with a group of people drawn together around a cultural analysis-periodical called the Utne Reader. We noticed at our first meeting how many of the people spoke of their desire to get together out of a sense of loneliness. Most everyone expressed a longing for community. It made me think how I do feel a sense of community in my church life – imperfect though it may be.
The element of our worship having to do with talking with each other is a very important part of the whole. In this area, I am pretty Quaker in my theology – at least as far as I understand it. Some people accuse Quakers of being non-sacramental because they do not observe the Lord’s Supper. However, they believe they are sacramental, in that they experience Communion in their fellowship with one another. I think there is something to that. We can understand our time together as the “sacrament” of Communion occurring via talking and listening, enjoying each other, learning of the God which is part of each of us. This is a central part of worship.
The fourth element I want to mention is what I am calling meditative. I have in mind our times of quiet and prayer during the services. I find it hard to slow down. I also think that quiet sometimes stands in tension with the other elements I have mentioned – singing, preaching, and socializing. So I do not have much to say about it. However, I think meditative silence as part of worship is something learned. We do would do well to work at this a little. I hope we can grow more in this area – I hope I can grow more in this area. I believe that simply being quiet together is a nourishing, encouraging experience.
I think, too, of another aspect of this meditative element. That is our worship space itself. My talk with my friend John Miller about worship space helped me to appreciate the Eugene Mennonite worship space a bit more. I was not conscious of how I felt being in that room before. I realized, though, that I simply felt good being there. I always have. It is peaceful space. Simple, elegant, clean in its design. This space evokes a sense of God for me. Not God as in mystery and awe with grand sweeps and stained glass and statues. Rather, God as in wood and simplicity and people being with people. Understated, quiet – but honest, warm, accepting. An alternative to shopping malls, cement courthouses, impersonal buildings, glitz and flash.
I believe that our worship proves to be encouraging to me because with our worship we join in constructing an alternative world to the rat race around us. Our singing, our thinking, our talking and listening, our meditating all help shape that world. We connect with values, with hopes, with a spirituality. These all point toward a new world. This is where people, where relationships, where love, respect and compassion – all enlivened by a caring God – are affirmed. We confess these as true, as genuine, as at the center of what we want to be as human beings.
We call forth this alternative world very tentatively and imperfectly. However, we do make contact with it. In doing so, we find some hope, some encouragement, and some reason for continuing on. That is what spirituality is about.