You’ve probably heard someone say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” They might apply the saying to music, cars, or cooking. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.
Lately, I’ve been saying it about worship.
I’ve probably had more experience of worship than most lay people. Since I was a child, I’ve attended worship services pretty much every week.
As a journalist writing about religion, I’ve attended worship in Africa, India, and South America – places where I understood not a single word said or sung. I’ve worshipped in big churches and small churches, in affluent churches and struggling churches, in churches with long-term clergy and in churches with no professional leadership at all.
I’ve shared the Eucharist with 5,000 at a World Council of Churches Assembly. And I’ve sat with six strangers on wooden benches in a converted garage where a lay preacher harangued me about hell and the woman next to me sounded as if she might be having an orgasm.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons. Some were brilliant. Others — to quote my friend Ralph Milton — “barely dribbled over the edge of the pulpit before expiring on the floor.”
But worship is more than a sermon, no matter how good or bad.
I used to know what worship is. Or I thought I did. Worship meant sitting in a pew and being told what to believe, what to do, what to sing...
In an article I wrote, some years ago, I defined worship as “voluntary submission.” The minute I walked into a church, I relinquished the right to make choices for myself. I let someone else decide the Bible verses I should pay attention to, the hymns I should sing, the content of the prayers voiced on my behalf…
I certainly never stood up during the service and objected that the universe was not created in six days. Or challenged the preacher’s rationale for resurrection.
After all, he (usually “he” back then) was supposed to know better than I did.
And before you ask, I’ve never found worship on the golf course. Or in a fishing stream. I may find awe and wonder out there. But that’s not the same as worship.
A number of factors seem important, although they don’t all have to happen every time.
I need to be challenged, mentally and emotionally, by someone who offers more than platitudes.
I need to feel involved. Participation matters. Pre-packaged responses – whether from a prescribed liturgy or from clergy writing words for me to repeat -- don’t do it. My voice must matter to the singing; my meditation to the congregation’s collective energy.
I need community. It’s not enough just to sit passively for an hour; I need a continuing relationship with those people. I need to know that they care about me, as I care about them. Even the beauty of a sunset means more when shared with another person.
And perhaps most important, I need to feel part of something greater than myself. Greater than just this gathering of people. I need to feel connected to a cause, a movement, a meaning that transcends my human limitations.
So I still don’t know what worship is. But I do know when I have experienced it.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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A number of you commiserated about not being able to give blood, for various reasons. Three examples will suffice.
Anne Hepburn: “I can’t give blood anymore either due to medication. It worries me that increasing numbers of people will similarly be excluded as we age.”
Jane Wallbrown: “I too had malaria so never could give blood. [JT: Like me, Janie was a missionary kid. Most of us also had typhoid, dysentery, cholera, etc.] In my last job, where I was church administrator, we regularly sponsored blood drives in our church. I did what I could to help volunteers; set up the system but always felt guilty about not giving.”
Lyle Phillips: “Like you I cannot donate blood after being diagnosed with melanoma -- it was surgically removed and I am now receiving immunotherapy. However, I continue to volunteer every four weeks and get much satisfaction from that.”
Tom Watson liked the story about Don McCallum: “There's always something each of us has to give.”
Ruth Shaver wrote, “One of the things I encourage people of age (17 with parental permission here in the U.S.) to do is donate blood. There's always a need. And I also encourage people to volunteer at blood drives if they can't, for whatever reason, donate blood or blood products. I've even had youth groups of teens too young to donate recruit donors at blood drives!
“The ability to transfuse whole blood and blood products is a modern miracle; that we can give is a gift from God. I hope that someday very soon, some of the restrictions on who can donate will be lifted as technology improves to detect infectious agents in individuals, thereby growing the pool of eligible and willing donors for all the various components of blood.”
David Gilchrist vented a gripe: “I’m glad to hear that they are going to establish a plasma collection in your area. I was able to give for many years, till I hit retirement, and was told I was too old. By the time they rescinded THAT limit, I was again rejected because of Malaria in my childhood! It has really annoyed me to be urged to give, only to be told that my blood is not acceptable because they don’t bother taking it for plasma any longer.”
A couple of you are way ahead of me in making blood donations.
Margaret Marquis wrote, “Thanks for reminding people of the importance of donating blood. I've been a donor for a number of years (26 gallons so far) and until recently gave platelets. I could give every 2 weeks for a maximum of 22 times a year. Since my body doesn't like doing that anymore, I now give whole blood every 8 weeks. Most people don't realize how simple the process is or how it is actually good for your body to donate blood regularly. Please keep encouraging everyone who is able to give. It truly is the gift of life!
“And please encourage people to be organ donors also. A former student is now waiting for a second kidney transplant (his brother gave him one about 15 years ago, but that one is now failing and must be replaced). Here in the U.S., most states will put on your driver's license that you want your organs to be used for others when you no longer need them. Be an organ donor!”
Richard Best hasn’t given quite as much as Margaret: “I'm somewhere over 3 gallons. Moved around a lot, went to different blood collectors, lost track. Later got back into whole blood donation. A T-shirt, some ice cream sometimes; always a bottle of water and snacks immediately after donation. And, usually, a sticker to wear saying "I gave blood." Very similar to "I voted" stickers. Had to stop for several years because I was taking medication which could be harmful to a woman or her fetus. Got back in the program for several years, now have another med which disallows me. I urge all those who can donate to do so, for you, for me, for others who can't.”
Finally, Lyle Phillips made a connection between last week’s column about donating blood, and the previous week’s column on how individual actions can change history: “Giving blood is another action which changes history,” he reminds all of us.
Rather than using my paraphrase of Psalm 91:1-6 and 14-16, might I suggest you sing Michael Joncas’s wonderful hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings”?
Okay, if you must read something, here’s a paraphrase, written from a small child’s perspective (on the assumption that we have all been small children once, and some of us still are).
I hide behind Mommy’s skirts,
behind her knees,
and peer around them at a fearful world.
I can trust her.
I don’t trust strangers.
Especially men with candy in their pockets,
or men who want me to help them find their lost puppy.
Mommy’s skirts keep me safe.
I don’t need to be afraid --
of ghosts, and goblins, and things that go bump in the night.
Mommy’s skirts protect me.
I think God must be like my Mommy.
God will comfort those
who call her name in the darkness.
God will come.
She will wrap her silken arms around the weeping ones.
She will kiss away their fears,
and tuck them back into their beds.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)