Last week I participated in two worship experiences, each different from the other, and different from my usual fare. I came away with a sense of our many-faceted God, proper worship of whom requires a rainbow array of palpably different expressions. I used to think that divergence in worship had to do with sin. I now see that it’s about his glory.
I taught my first week-long June term course at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, in Ambridge, PA. At this sentinel of orthodoxy in that denomination, each day the community began with Morning Prayer. One morning there was a woman preacher; and then the Celebrant for the Friday Eucharist was a woman—my first time to experience this. I felt like I was in Lothlorien (in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), and I was a hobbit listening humbly to a regal, wise, world-transcending Galadriel.
When worshippers entered their pews before the service, they kneeled and silently prayed—of course, I thought: one kneels before the King of our hearts and the universe. The worship leaders wore simple white vestments over their ordinary clothes—of course: Jesus clothes us with his righteousness. They showed reverence as the cross was carried in—of course: we call God to worship, and he comes. One day the reader of the Gospels brought the Scripture and stood in the center aisle, half-way back, and we turned and surrounded him—of course: the Word in our midst.
I remembered that Protestants reacted rightly to outward pomp and show and inward hypocrisy, arguing that Christianity is inward. But—I realized as the congregation bowed slightly as the cross passed—in living its inwardness, one must express it outwardly. Why? Because the Bible says so. Also because it is humanly impossible to do otherwise.
Embodied beings that we are, we only choose between outward expression that is authentic or that is hypocritical. Even the Protestants for whom religion is cerebral inevitably engage in outward expression. Sadly, so many are oblivious to the distressing mismatch between their words and their body expression. Having acknowledged the inwardness of Christianity, does it then not matter what one does and says with one’s body? And if it matters, why not embody reverence to the King and Savior?
Then this Sunday my daughter, Starr, lover of all things cross-cultural, home for the weekend, said, “Mom! I want you to take me to that African American church you told me about!” Starr has gotten into the habit of tuning into Gospel radio stations on Sundays. I’ve lived here in Aliquippa for almost two years now, and had yet to visit the Church in the Round, where, I had heard, the service lasts for three hours, and the music director has repeatedly refused pleas that he return to the Motown music industry, just to stay at this church.
As we settled into our “pew”, everybody was singing, “Glory, glory, glory! Praise God that Jesus ransomed me!” and I found myself smothered in a hug of welcome. My colleague, Geneva College drama professor, Harvey Johnson, regal in his clerical collar, black suit and radiant smile, had come down off the platform to welcome us. On the platform sat (or stood, depending on the movement of the Spirit), similarly clad men, and older women bedecked in elaborately beautiful white suits, holding lace-trimmed white handkerchiefs which they sometimes waved like Steelers’ Terrible Towels. Most of the women in the congregation were so attired.
The pastor wore a purple robe. He preached on Romans 1:1. And the sermon unfolded the way the anthem had: He intoned a word of the text—“Called!!” All gathered responded: “That’s right! Yes, yes, yes!” “We’re CALLED!” “You got that right!” (A little riff on the keyboard.) “We’re called to be SAINTS!” “All right, sir!” “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
I thought of the Entmoot, the lengthy counsel of ancient trees and tree shepherds (also in Lord of the Rings). If God is eternal and his Word is supreme, of course we should take time to savor it and celebrate it. Starr had to catch a plane, so we left before the end of the service, praises still ringing around us. But we had been there for two hours.
Lesson One: It takes all kinds to give God the glory due his name. That’s the way he likes it! I needed to see that to know and love him better.
Lesson Two: humans speak the Word truthfully or defectively, but they also embody it truthfully or defectively. If we have not noticed this, our epistemology, and our theology, are subpar.
When we hear, or guard, the Word, as worshippers or overseers, we must hear and guard both spoken and embodied Word. And given Lesson One, our guarding, while appropriately sensitive to cultural distinctives, could stand to be less mono-cultural in expectation.
© 2006, Esther L. Meek.