In my last post, I began an in-depth focus on three specifics elements of Christian worship to which I have been drawn within the last few years. I defined and discussed the first element, liturgy, and related how, as I waded into my twenties, the typical liturgy of my evangelical upbringing and faith communities no longer assisted me in the way it once had. I had become wearied by what I felt to be a bland consistency to these church services and gatherings. Part of the time that I was experiencing these frustrations, I was working for a small Baptist church in Waco. One day, while talking about specific church music selections with the woman who helped “lead the singing,” she described praise and worship music as “7/11 songs.” When I returned her a puzzled look, she elaborated. “A song with seven words that you sing eleven times through.” It was funny, I realized later, because, in many instances, it was true.
But the sheer amount of time in a worship service dedicated to guitar-driven and percussion-laden P&W choruses was not the only thing with which I had issue. In fact, I’m still partial to acoustic guitar, and there are moments when a drum of some sort would not be out-of-place in my preferred worship – often it can be a way to outwardly represent the beating of a heart. No, the main problem I was experiencing during all this was that, for whatever reason, the common liturgy of P&W-style worship (joined together with long and winding messages accented with PowerPoint and film clips) no longer enraptured or edified me. Instead, participating in them only left me feeling empty, like a perfunctory chore I was obligated to accomplish. In essence, the very purpose of worship was lost on me.
For several years, I blamed myself for this. I was certain that the reason I had soured to worship was that I no longer performed by quiet time with as much dedication. That I wasn’t praying enough. That I had neglected to continue in Scripture memorization. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this assumption was simply another side to the spiritual insecurity that has plagued me my whole life, the same insecurity that led me to walk a half-dozen youth camp aisles every summer hoping this time I would really be saved and all my doubts and temptations would finally cease.
I even spent the first year of seminary privately pining for a renewal to the things that had once interested me. I had participated in the entire OneDay 2003 Passion event earlier that summer, and I immediately bought tickets to the Passion Tour when it came through Austin. I taught my youth group the few worship songs I knew how to play on guitar. I did my best to lose myself in the “high-energy worship” at their camps. I kept buying the newest P&W albums.
The problem was, I couldn’t shut off my mind. No matter what kind of service I attended, it seemed I was addicted to analyzing the lyrics of each song, and what the Scripture passage and theme of the speaker/preacher’s message had to do with what we had sung about for the last hour. I began noticing that the only time I truly felt as if I had entered into genuine worship was during the occasional observance of the Lord’s Supper, or when the worship leader had beckoned us all into a time of silent reflection. There was something in those things that moved me. It was not long before I came to realize that what I had been missing in my worship experiences was the practice of contemplation. This was what my mind and spirit had been seeking all along, but much of the worship I was engaging in served only to distract rather than facilitate contemplation.
For me, contemplation is the second element, next to liturgy, that drives my worship these days. However, these two go together. As I stated in my last post, everyone practices some sort of liturgy when they worship. I found that the liturgy that spoke to me was one that catalyzed and encouraged a contemplative spirit.
I came to this particular realization during a visit to a place that initially terrified me. In fulfillment of the requirements of a seminary course called Wilderness Theology, my professor took the handful of students in the class to spend a week at a Benedictine monastery, the Christ in the Desert community in Abiquie, New Mexico. Of course, I grew up staunchly evangelical to the point that even Methodism and Episcopalianism were considered iffy. Catholicism? That was synonymous with hell. I’m ashamed to confess that such assumptions didn’t change until after I’d spent some time working as a Baptist missionary in New England, where I got to know several students from the College of the Holy Cross and found them to be some of the most devout young Christians I had ever encountered.
Still, the monastery made me uncomfortable, at least at first. I struggled to understand the purpose of chanting in Latin. While I could perceive the significance of the liturgical hours of prayer, I did not grasp the purpose. And praying to St. John the Baptist during lunchtime made me very uncomfortable. The first few days I spent observing these monks – some of them hardly older than me – and silently judging them. How could they think they were serving God by tucking themselves away in this remote canyon and praying for over half the day? It seemed almost delusional, if not arrogant.
After day four and day five, however, something changed. My seminary professors had taught me to open my mind in more ways than I was comfortable at first; I had always found what I learned exciting, even refreshing. I forced myself to attempt the same thing here. Almost immediately, I was afforded a glimpse, or, more accurately, a series of glimpses into the deep purposes of ritual liturgy and contemplation. I began to catch parts of the Latin. My avidly analytical mind began to dissect the creeds and communal prayers, and I found the theology wrapped up within them to be enlivening. The week shifted from worthless to restorative.
Even on the van ride home, I began making plans to implement contemplation into my life. I was far too wimpy to become a monk, but I wanted to practice contemplation and so much more. It seemed the monks at Christ in the Desert lived a kind of seasonal, cyclical life. They recited the Psalms over and over, they worked the same gardens, stacked the same amount of wood and ate the same basic meals again and again. But there was nothing tedious or unstimulating in these rituals. Rather, this worship-and-work liturgy seemed to foster a consistent sense of renewal. I wanted this. Deep down, I knew this was what I had been looking for all along.
In attempting to include such elements into my life, I found that this only opened up new pathways for me. Words like mysticism, contemplation, meditation and monasticism no longer frightened me or made me assume I was being deceived by demons touting principles of evil Eastern religions. I recognized that what mattered most in worship was expanding my heart and mind and taking God out of the box in which I had kept him stuffed for so many years. This God was my life-giver and was not willing to be nailed down by specifically denominational definitions. This God was interested in freedom, but freedom that challenges and changes rather than comforts and consoles.
I would go on to see this God at play “in ten thousand places,” as Hopkins writes. Because what came next was an expansion of understanding that continues to stretch me, daring me to follow the Spirit into places I never expected to find him before. This is the real journey – the one I constantly encourage my students to take even in the midst of their larger “faith journeys.” Next week, I will conclude this blog series with an examination of what this unnerving journey looks like…