William Willamon, of Duke University writes:
At the end of our Easter service this year, a woman came out, grasped my hand and said, “I have been alienated from the church for the last twenty years.”
I thought, “Why do I need to hear this on Easter?”
Then she said, “I have always been turned off by the hypocrisy and the cowardice of the church.”
I said, “Look lady, I work for the church. I know a lot more about hypocrisy than you do.”
But then she said, “Would you please deliver a message to the musicians for me?”
I said, “Well, all right.”
She said, “As I said, I have been alienated from the church, but today in the service, I found God irresistible and completely unavoidable.”
I said, “Well that is great. We would call that a victory here— just one person coming out and calling God irresistible.”
And she said, “You know, I am a graduate of Wellesley.”
And I said, “Well, we would call that a miracle then.”
Worship, prayer and praise, the language of doxology—their place in our lives can be hard to articulate. Witness, for example, the words used by Paul in Romans 11. The apostle abandons the logic of his letter to utter a few words of praise, doxology, worship and adoration.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
It may be that the apostle is even quoting an ancient hymn of the church. But most commentaries, having spilled oceans of ink on the earlier, more didactic portions of Paul’s letter, devote a few scant pages to Paul’s rehearsal of the wonder which overwhelmed him.
And, when we ask ourselves about the motives that drive us to worship, how do we answer? Obligation? Habit? A feeling that we need to somehow “check-in” with God?
Articulating the reasons can be a challenge, particularly in our culture. The functional nature of our worldview, its institutions and its practices, leave us asking questions that would not have occurred to previous generations.
So, at the risk of giving what will, in a sense be a partially (but not completely) “functional” answer to a functional question, allow me to suggest some reasons for Paul’s fit of praise and the importance of ours. Whether you find my explanation convincing or not, perhaps the opportunity to reflect on the shape of that motivation will leave us all a bit more conscious about the shape of our faith and practice.
First, let me suggest then, that worship, prayer, praise and adoration are an important reminders of a central spiritual truth. A two-part piece of wisdom that is the beginning of all other spiritual wisdom. Part one: There is a God. Part two: You are not.
In every decade since 1960, Harvard’s Arthur Levine has been doing a study of college freshmen in which he tries to capture the “metaphor” for each generation. When Levine discussed space exploration with [the fifty-something] generation and asked [them] what first came to mind, most of [them] said, “John Glenn”—John Glenn going up against the Russians, restoring national dignity and demonstrating scientific supremacy. But when Levine asked freshmen in 1990 what their image of space exploration was, they replied, “A teacher getting blown up in the spaceship Challenger.”
There are perilous moments in our lives, when—as individuals, or as a generation—we are overwhelmed with weariness in response to our own solutions, our own wisdom, our own skill, our own cunning. A mishap, an unintended consequence, the abuse of power and suddenly the thin veneer of civilization and achievement cracks wide open.
We have been there more than once in this century. Indeed, the dissonance itself between what we have achieved and what we have failed to achieve may better summarize the twentieth century than almost any other single characterization.
When those moments come we can be tempted to despair, conceit or cynicism. “Swimming with Sharks,” “Winning through Intimidation” —they aren’t slogans, they are the titles of best-selling books from the last quarter of this century. We easily embrace social Darwinism— not just as a theory, but as a rule of engagement.
Singer and musician George Michael writes:
The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
Cause God’s stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all God’s children
Crept out the back door
To some extent that approach is always “on offer” in our culture. There are echoes of it in our politics. There are strategies for doing business that embrace it. And there are “rights” we exercise with a vengeance that celebrate it.
In a world of performance ratings, total quality management and winning through intimidation, how can there possibly be a place for the language of adoration, of worship, for more than few moments on Sunday morning? Paul’s language, like the hymns of praise we sing, feels like a giant non-sequitur —a rough shard of something unreal and Pollyanna in a world marked by colder calculations. In a calculating world, worship feels like foolishness, doxology feels like the language of fools.
But what if the language of doxology, of praise and thanksgiving is more? What if the capacity for worship is the only language that will deliver us from the weariness that comes when we run from a dependence on the Spirit’s work in our lives?
This is a part of what praise and adoration are meant to accomplish. Like the gothic architecture around you, it is meant to draw our eyes upward. And in looking upward, we are liberated, freed from the burden of demonstrating a kind of sovereign competence that is beyond us.
And once we are freed from that make-believe competence we are ready to encounter God. Some of that experience, we will be able to describe. Theologians have been doing it for centuries. Liturgists put some of the experience into the words we use when we worship, mining the experience —as it were—to describe the experience.
But some of it will lie beyond complete description. Like the greatest truths of our lives, like the relationships and loves that sustain us, an encounter with God in worship leaves us with more than we can ever articulate —because God is more than we can ever articulate and because relationships ultimately escape our ability to describe them.
And once are freed from that competence, once we have met God, then other virtues of worship, prayer, praise and adoration become apparent. The language of doxology is the only thing that will help us to see that God’s redemptive purposes are larger than our own, narrow self-interest.
Part of the reason that life in the church hasn’t been as nourishing as it should be of late is because we have forgotten the central place that this activity should have in our lives. Instead the ideologies of right and left have driven God and us away from the sanctuary, leaving us with resolutions, committees and turf war. We need to find a way to remember to worship, even when we rightly confront the challenges the world poses for us.
When that happens, then a third constellation of benefits that come from the experience of worship will be ours. The language of adoration will interrupt the weekly round of calculations and humble us. Reconnect us with the divine. Alert us to the need around us. Open us up to the greater good that God would do through us. Make us more tender and available to those around us. And as a result, even the nature of the remedies that we offer for the world’s needs may look different than the ones we might have offered in the absence of God’s perspective.
When we fail to worship, the spiritual vacuum that is created cries out to be filled by something and the ready alternative is our own appetite. At our best moments, we can be like the individual who gives someone a gift that we most want, rather than the gift that someone most needs. And, so, in the absence of worship there are moments when even our well-doing can be marred by the appetites that drive us.
And, finally, with our own appetites to one side, we may find worship together means far more. The opportunity to pray alongside one another, to declare our faith with one voice, to sing our praises in one song, can become an foretaste of heaven.
One ancient rabbinic story tells of an argument that broke out over the character of prayer and its purpose. Students and rabbis alike offered their ideas, but they finally paused, knowing that the Reb Zalman understood prayer better than any of the rest of them.
To their surprise, he suggested a dream assembly. An assembly in their sleep made by possible by the same prayer that each student and rabbi would say before retiring for the evening. Reluctantly they complied and found themselves in a common dream assembly held in an orchard that none of them had ever seen. Remembering their reason for the assembly, they sought out Reb Zalman, sitting in a corner of the orchard.
He seemed younger and less burdened by the weight of the world. And there was a wonderful smile on his face.
Then Reb Zalman said: “To bring us here together was not a simple matter, far more difficult than finding a ladder reaching from earth to heaven and ascending it. But now that we are here, there is something of great importance that we must accomplish. Know that there is a great mystery concerning the manner in which it is possible for prayers to ascend to heaven. It also is no simple matter. The prayers themselves do not have wings. They have to be carried into the heights. And how are they carried? On the wings of a dove, as it is written, And he sent forth a dove. But what is not known is that each generation requires its own dove that can carry its prayers into the hands of . . . the angel who weaves those prayers into garlands of prayer the Holy One, blessed be He, wears on His Throne of Glory. . . . This, then, is why I have called upon us to assemble here: to bring the prayer dove into being, so that our prayers may ascend in our own generation.
And then Reb Zalman stood up, and the [rabbis] saw a look in his eyes that they had never seen before, a determination so complete that merely to gaze upon him was to be caught up in that power and to have no desire other than to share in undertaking that difficult, nay, impossible task.
Then Reb Zalman looked at Feivel the Dark and said: “You, Feivel, must create the feet of the bird, so that it can perch securely on any branch.” And he turned to Feivel the Light and said: “And you, Feivel, must create its wings so that it can soar into the heights of . . . the highest heaven.” Then Reb Zalman turned to Reb Sholem and said: You, Sholem, must create the body and it must be perfect in every respect so that it can balance not only in the world of men, but in the Other World as well.” Then Reb Zalman looked at Reb Hayim Elya and said, “You, Hayim Elya, must create its beak. This is the smallest part, but it is the most important. For the dove must transmit our prayers with its beak, and if the beak is imperfect in any way, the prayers will slip from its grasp and be lost.” At last Reb Zalman turned to Reb Shmuel Leib and said “And you, Shmuel Leib, must create its heart. For it is the heart that provides the [spirit] without which the prayer has no more meaning than a body without breath.”
Then after speaking Reb Zalman sat down beneath the tree and closed his eyes. And just before waking, the last thing each of them recalled was hearing the song of a dove, and that song was so full and so ripe and so sacred that the memory of it haunted every one for the rest of their lives. For each time they would . . . pray they would hear the echo of the dove. And with its song echoing in their ears they knew, without doubt, that their prayers were destined to ascend into the heights.
In the midst of your prayers on this day, may you find renewed reason to worship and may you find God irresistible. Amen.