Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Experiencing Wonder in Worship

(Part 4 in the series Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)

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The Three Paths

In the Bhagavad-Gita, the Lord Krishna explains to the young warrior Arjuna that there are three paths to salvation – three ways to achieve oneness with Ultimate Reality. There is the path of selfless action, the path of self transcending knowledge, and the path of devotion. I’m no expert in Hindu philosophy, but when I first read of the three paths to salvation, I saw parallels in my own Christian experience. One can find examples of commitment to religious life that fall within these three categories. For some, action is primary. We see that in the hundreds of charitable agencies and the social justice committees that one finds in many Christian denominations. For others, knowledge is the key. Theological studies come to mind as well as Sunday school lessons and apologetics. Then there are those who focus on devotion. There are many examples of devotion ranging from daily prayer to public worship to Eucharistic adoration and veneration of the saints.

In my own experiences and observations, I have seen how religious groups will emphasize one or another of the three paths. Baptists tend to emphasize knowledge over devotion and action. Pentecostals and charismatics are stronger on devotion with their emphasis on praise and worship. Catholics often emphasize devotion and action. Liberal Protestants are strong on action and knowledge but are less inclined toward devotion. The Salvation Army stakes its whole identity upon action. What about your own faith tradition? What do you see emphasized? Which of these three paths are you inclined to take?

On the Path of Devotion

In matters of public worship, we tend to structure things to be conducive to the experience of wonder, but that wonder does not happen every time. How many ho-hum church services and dull sermons have you sat through? When that moment of wonder and transcendence does come for you, it may not necessarily happen for your neighbor in the next pew. We treasure those moments when they occur, knowing that it does not happen every day (nor would we necessarily want it to happen every day).

By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t fully cognizant of the concept of worship or of any particular experience of mystery and wonder to be found at church. My own understanding of wonder in the context of worship was expanded in an unlikely place while I was still a teen.

I had been invited to attend a special service at a local Assembly of God Church. I was assured that I would receive a blessing if I went. The church was a small cinder block building with a tin roof and plain windows that had to be opened in the summer since there was no air conditioning. The first time I went, I didn’t make it to the front door. I was running late and the service had already started by the time I arrived. Because of those open windows, I heard the service before I even turned off the road. Such exuberant singing and hand clapping was going on, my plain vanilla Southern Baptist nervous system was a bit unsettled by all the commotion. I could not see myself walking into that building, so I used the lateness of my arrival as an excuse to turn around and go back home.

Later, I was able to visit the little church and to get there on time. It was quite an experience to say the least. You have to realize that this was the early 1970s before Pentecostals had entered into the mainstream of society. I was 16, maybe 17 years old, and teenagers were supposed to be hip and cool (I suppose that is still true of teens today). These were backwoods country people who worked hard for what little money they had. You wouldn’t have found a professional or a socialite in this group. Neither was there a businessman or a politician among them.

Joining in the Chorus

I looked around at this rag-tag group of country folk. I thought to myself, I am still in high school and probably more educated most people in this room. What in the world am I doing here? I was accustomed to “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Substantial hymns sung from substantial hymn books. These people were singing Stamps-Baxter tunes from worn out yellowed paperback books. I remember the man who got up to lead the congregational singing. He was a red-faced man with a pot belly and wearing a baggy suit jacket. His idea of directing the congregational singing was to roll up his paperback songbook into a tube and wave it around. To really encourage participation, he began to slap that rolled up songbook into the palm of his other hand as he leaned forward toward the congregation, walking from one side of the church to the other.

After every verse of this one particular song was sung, the song leader directed us to continue with the chorus, singing it over and over. The name of the song was “Some Day.” I had never heard the song before, and have not heard it since, but I still remember the chorus:

Some day, some happy day
From sin, set free;
I’ll live with Christ for aye
Some day, some day.

As a teenager, I wasn’t particularly interested in someday – I was more interested in the here and now. I wasn’t even sure what living “with Christ for aye” was supposed to mean. I don’t know how many times that chorus was repeated, but the red-faced man up front, as well as the crowd in the pews seemed to know exactly the right number of times to sing it in order for it to have the most satisfying effect. While this song was being sung, I was looking around, not feeling any particular kinship with these country bumpkins, still wondering what I was doing there. Then something happened. For some reason, I knew that I should stop being so judgmental and self righteous. For some reason, I said to myself, “You can stand apart or you can join in and see what happens.” For some reason, I decided to join in, singing and hand-clapping with abandon. It was an inner shift that created an inner opening.

Somehow, within the space that those people had created for worship, the possibilities of “some day” cascaded into the “here and now”. I found myself experiencing that divine reality that dwells with us each day. It is part of our breath and bone, present at all times, but often not recognized. We were celebrating that reality together. All of us were caught up in the wonder of a divine and loving presence. I could have missed it, but for some reason on that night I chose to join in with that group of sincere people with whom moments before I had found so little in common. My heart learned something that night. And my friend was right – I did receive a blessing.

Many Avenues

If devotion is your path, there are many ways to get there. Usually it depends upon where you feel most at home. Since I have come to experience liturgical worship, I have found that even within one liturgy there are many avenues. My first experience with liturgy was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Episcopal Church. Later I learned the Roman Catholic tradition, which follows the same liturgy that I had become accustomed to among Episcopalians. My wife and I visited a predominately African American Catholic Church in town. We were impressed that within the same liturgy they took their own music and customs and made the place really rock – it was great! The same was true when we visited the Hispanic Mass at our church – same liturgy, different music, different energy.

Of course, there are many other means to worship and devotion within many other traditions. Sometimes seeing how other traditions connect with the eternal gives one a new appreciation for one’s own tradition.

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