Monday, July 12, 2010

Unfinished Thoughts on Worship

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and never felt finished with it, but decided to post it as part of thoughts in process.
I've been thinking lately about what the word "worship" had meant to me in the various contexts of my life. I suppose most recently I've landed on Romans 12:1 as the baseline for how I normally think and speak this word: "...offer your bodies, as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God -- which is your spiritual worship." Worship is the offering of myself to God the Father, in union and only because of the offering Jesus Christ made to the Father, and because He has taken me up into Himself. As a Catholic then, the Eucharist is clearly the supreme act of worship from which all the rest derives.

Ok, I've got the theology student in me satisfied for the moment.

I speak more than one dialect of Christianese however, and this makes me happy.
In another dialect, "worship" gets paired with "praise," as in "Praise and Worship." Praise and Worship has a contextual meaning of a certain form of prayer that is generally done in singing, with instruments, and with the body. I have almost always experienced this kind of prayer in the company of people who have experienced pentecostal manifestations of spiritual gifts, but I understand that in some settings it is simply considered a musical taste toward the modern. So perhaps I will nuance my use of this term by specifying charismatic praise and worship as distinct from praise music.

I was thinking about these things while at Mass today. We sang some great praise songs, including one that I had learned many years ago at Risen Savior Fellowship before I became a Catholic. During communion we sang one of my very favorite worship songs, Take Lord, Receive, which is the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We closed with the Rich Mullins song Step by Step. And I thought, surely a Mass can be powerful and beautiful in the most rudimentary of settings, with the barest of liturgical flourish. Certainly priests have said Mass in dire conditions where they barely dared to speak above a whisper, if that. Certainly there is a very human element that comes into play in worship (for otherwise it would be no worship, just a form) and praise, and Praise and Worship.

God is not the one who needs our prayer. We are the ones who need to pray, who need to worship, who need to praise God, who need to find the way our heart can give itself and, for some, the way we can lead others into worship. Today I was musing on how I miss the way I used to praise God. Mind you, I still attend charismatic praise and worship now and then, but I have noticed that those who lead it (who are either younger or older than I) tend toward the gentle. Gentle is sometimes good; it is sometimes how the Spirit blows. But full-throated and energetic is also good. Sometimes gentle feels like timid, or unsure, and therefore hardly a stance that Christ has before the Father. Sometimes those of us with a melancholy bent need to simply "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" and dance and clap and all that. Now, I know it can get to be not much more than fun, and cease to really bring the heart before God, but let's be honest: so can any sort of worship. The most sublime liturgical celebration can seem like a boring routine, and lively praise music can feel like a bad concert. How do we pierce into the heart of it? How do we touch the heart of God in worship? Of course, we start with the desire to do so, the need, the Reality, and a heart that bows into the Reality.

Recently a friend of mine emailed me a link to this video. It presents very well the heart of the kind of charismatic praise and worship that I cut my teeth on some two decades ago, with all its associated strengths and weaknesses. To me it seems that both the strength and the weakness can be summarized in one word: submission. The strength I see is a tremendous desire on the part of these worshippers to submit themselves to the Word of God. The weakness I see is not the risk toward wild emotional expression, but rather the truncated understanding of the Word of God in the manifestation of word definitions in the original Hebrew. When one longs to submit (and I understand this desire from the inside out) sometimes one ends up submitted fully to something that is penultimate, or even not even close to penultimate, just plain old incomplete. I think the heart of a worshipper longs to give itself as a lover to the Beloved. But we must bear in mind that the One we long for is Transcendent, calling us out into the great realm of Mystery. God chose for the Old Testament to be written primarily in Hebrew, but as Scripture says, the highest heavens cannot contain the Lord, much less Hebrew words.

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