Why Worship?

Remember flight, The bird is mortal

Image by HORIZON via Flickr

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.

And then

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.

Pasor Bill

33 thoughts on “Why Worship?

  1. Thomas Merton’s words ring true and clear to me – for the act of being, especially mindful being, is probably for me, the closest thing to God-filled-space. It can happen anywhere, anytime, alone or not – always there

    • I resonate with your understanding. I think mindfulness is something very close to Merton’ s experience. He grew closer and closer to Eastern spirituality in his later years. – bill

  2. …the cow grazing in the field praises God by being perfectly itself.

    Every word of your post resonated, Bill, and Merton’s words summarise it well. When even the very stones can cry out to God in awe, then it makes me realise how much I have yet to learn about worship. I enjoyed this.

    • Hi Jamie. Thanks for the concern. We are a good distance from Perth Amboy. Our weather has actually been wonderful. It has been in the high 70’s, low humidity, and very sunny. I also have to get back to one of your posts when I have a bit of time to think about it. I loved th post (old man on a bench).

      My work schedule has returned to its normal hyperactive self, and so I have not had the same time to write and blog as I did in the summer. I will jump in as best as I can. Take care. -bill

  3. A well-considered and sincere post, Bill. I have to come back and read it again and comment when I’m not on the run … I actually came over to see how you and yours are doing … I’m not sure where in Jersey you are. I saw that Perth Amboy was hit by the tornado. Wondered if you were and if all is well. Take it that given a post went up and you have been leaving comments, there’s no problem. 🙂

    Happy Tuesday … Back to visit tomorrow. Thanks for your stops at my site.

  4. “Worship” is, I think, maybe a loaded term for some, coming packaged with some silly customs and “beliefs” that might fall for some people under the category of idolity and having nothing to do with “knowing” and an awful lot to do with “posturing.” Among the Hindi it would be “devotion.” Islam – “obedience.” I think “mindfulness” cracks open this cosmic egg and gets to the true core. Then, I can think of it as “at-oneness” and I’m comfortable. Just me … habit perhaps of thinking things through too much.

    This is a good, thought-provoking post. Thanks, Bill.

    • Hi Jamie. I totally agree with your line of thought here (and I am not just being polite). If I were to unpack the word “worship” it would include devotion, obedience, and mindfulness. In truth, unless those practices are involved, worship has not happened. When they are not embraced, worship becomes a rather empty and pointless ritual. Part of the struggle with the word (and the practice) are the connotations you have named. That is what Dunn opens in his poem “The Mistaken.”

      Interestingly, in other poems Dunn writes with incredible perceptiveness about the experiences and content of faith and even theology. He never embraces faith, but grasps and powerfully speaks to things like devotion and mindfulness. He often writes like someone watching from the outside something fascinating, but not shared. He wrote a wonderful poem about a family sending their daughter to a Vacation Bible School, and not quite knowing what to do when she comes home singing songs about Jesus. He concludes it by writing that they let her sing and enjoy the songs; they had no better story to tell her. He writes another about how true seeking after God always involves searching for something beyond which we can ever grasp.

      But around worship he writes as one troubled by the concept in the way you described. The word does include the atmosphere, and even elements of ancient sacrificial religion. So does Christianity to some extent. It does not need to be owned by those concepts. But they are there. And some factions still embrace them.

      I guess I am trying to redeem the word and practice; as a minister I am working to get Christians to rethink what they are doing, and what the purposes of good liturgy might be.

  5. For me, another aspect of worship is giving thanks. Taking a moment to step back and realize the enormity of the gifts we have received from God–and taking time out of our lives of doing “to be.” To somehow express the faith that we aren’t in charge, that we trust we are cared for. Thanks for your reflections…and the poetry included in them.

    • Hi, thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right! Gratitude and thanksgiving are essential and natural acts of worship. And as someone else said, we seem to forget that we are human beings, not human doings. – bill

  6. I’ve already commented on this but keep returning to see if you’ve posted anything new. Guess God wants to remind me of how much He enjoys our praise. Miss your poetry. Thanks for stopping by my potluck, Bill.

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