Worship is perhaps the most important act of the church. It is true that there are many other things of importance in which the church is involved, and must be: works of mercy, feeding the hungry, serving the homeless, visiting the sick, working for justice, education, nurture, teaching, etc. But worship uniquely defines the church, and all other work flows out of its worship. But why worship?
Stephen Dunn is a marvelous poet who frequently writes about his struggles with religion. In one of his poems he develops an image of worship and comments on it in a way that I think speaks for many people I have met. If this is the image of worship which they hold, then I can understand why they would prefer to avoid church. He writes:
“For birds salvation isn’t very complicated –
a good meal or two, a few life or death maneuvers
in hostile skies. And how lovely that they don’t
need an invisible Bird-of –All-Birds to bring
twigs and worms to, that they aren’t supplicants
before their own creation.
That error seems to be exclusively ours.”
(from “The Mistaken,” Stephen Dunn, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 191)
I love Dunn’s poetry He enters deeply into the mind and heart of the contemporary experience. He embraces life in all of its concreteness. So it is that he applauds the simplicity of birds because they are fulfilled simply by being birds, without any need for what he considers to be a constructed and imaginary reality beyond this one. The live out of who they are. That is salvation enough.
Worship then, at least in this poem, is a somewhat silly act of bowing before and offering sacrifices to something that is not real. It diminishes the worshiper. It is as if to worship is to apologize for the simple fact that we are alive. It is an “error” that Dunn says “seems to be exclusively ours.”
Worship as I experience it, is something quite different. I am not diminished by my worship. I am enlarged by it. I do not fall down to apologize for my existence, but come before a beauty and mystery that draws me into itself and fills me with awe. In worship I enter a space in which I discover that life itself is deeper, more mysterious and wonderful than I have imagined it to be. In worship I discover that I am more than who I imagined myself to be; I open to the deepest realms of the Spirit, which are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity.
Christian theology proclaims that God is love. In worship I connect my life to the center of all things, which is the very essence and fire of love. And I do it with and in the presence of others.
There are two other contemporary poets who express things much closer to my experience. I share with you some of what they write.
One is Denise Levertov. The poem I would share is “Primary Wonder.” She writes:
“Days pass when I forget the mystery.
problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
Once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything at all,
let alone the cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than the void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.”
(“Primary Wonder.”, from Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov: Selected Poems, a New Directions Book, 2002, 192.)
With Levertov, there are those moments when suddenly I am drawn into the mystery of God who sustains all things. Worship is not a forced apology for my existence, but a deep breath in which I breathe in something of the holy. In worship I find myself caught up in the One who is larger and more beautiful.
Mary Oliver is another poet who speaks powerfully of her faith. She writes:
“Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.”
(from “Coming to God: First Days,” Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press,2006, 23.)
Again, as is it is for Levertov, worship is not a diminishment, but an enlargement of life, and a celebration. It is the deep breath taken in awe before great beauty and in the presence of something sacred and holy.
Worship is the most important thing we do as a church. In worship we come with awe before the beauty of God who calls all things into being and sustains them in love. Everything else we do flows out of our worship. We breathe in. We breathe out. We worship. We serve. And we do it together publically.
My prayer is that we come together often in worship. It is a gift.
I wonder how Stephen Dunn would respond to Thomas Merton, who once wrote in his journals that the cow grazing in the field praises God by being perfectly itself.