I sat through another United Methodist worship service — this time bombarded by thumping, lively praise music extolling how awesome, moist, and shiny Jesus is. (If you’ve experienced ‘contemporary’ praise music, you know what I mean…) The energy was high, it was the theology that was missing. Everything was simple and simplistic. It may not be the service that needs adjusting, but my attitude. I want more. I want to be moved. I want to feel the presence of God. I want to feel my heart strangely warmed. I want an Aldersgate experience.
I reread Wesley’s journal entry and I feel jaded. Part of the reason is, I know it’s out there. I still experience the thrill from time to time. Worship still whisks me away to a higher plane. My spirit soars. I am renewed, revived, feeling humbled in the presence of the divine. It has happened in a small church in Rhode Island, a smaller church in Ohio, a new church start in Oregon, and in a store front church in Arizona — all United Methodist. My problem is I’m not near any of those places, and those are only four out of the hundreds of worship services I have attended.
Once again, part of it is me. I am a closet mystic. I need silence. I need centering. I need reflection. I am an unlikely candidate for the United Methodist cosmos, cluttered as it is with busyness, noise, sit/stand calisthenics, multiple musical performances, announcements, etc. I just barely catch a glimpse of God from the corner of my spiritual eye, but there are so many distractions that by the time I turn back to God, there’s nothing there.
I’m not a good one-hour-worshipper. It takes two hours for a good concert, three hours for a football game, two hours for a movie — why do we think we can cover a relationship with God in 60 minutes? Just about the time I get settled in, the benediction and postlude shoo me out the door.
I think it’s why I like small groups better than worship services. The level of engagement is different. People are more focused. There is more give-and-take. People don’t seem to get as nervous if they don’t end exactly on time. And when education and formation happens outside worship, it frees me to be fully present to God when in worship.
I reflect on the times my heart has been warmed in worship, and the feelings sweep me away…
- a young African American woman — maybe fifteen or so — sings Wade In The Water a Capella in honor of her mother who died just days before
- a woman with a severe speech impediment preached a sermon — the first time she spoke in public in her 72 years of life — and the congregation burst into applause when she finished
- a dozen parishioners testified to ways they extended healing love in their community — all older Caucasians reaching out to young Hispanics and Latinos — for the first time in the history of their congregation
- an entire congregation rising as one to help out with an auto accident near their church on a bitterly cold, snowy Sunday morning — bringing back dozens of stranded bus passengers to sing, share soup, and join together in praising God
- a congregation welcoming residents of a group home, including them in leading worship and serving the sacraments
- a preacher confessing a crisis of faith, encircled by the entire congregation who laid on hands, offered prayers, and various members stepped forward to take over leading the remainder of the worship service
- a multicultural, multiracial choir leading the congregation is joyous singing and dancing that took worship in a completely spontaneous and unexpected direction — lasting almost two hours
- an invitation to remain after the postlude for a time of prayer for the congregation and community where literally hundreds of people stayed and prayed together for the better part of an hour
- a candlelight congregation-wide singing of Handel’s, The Messiah, where many voices blend to create true beauty
In almost every case, what made worship special and exceptional was not planned, staged, or in any way anticipated. A serendipitous movement of God’s Spirit broke in on the ordinary, transforming it. Just like with Wesley as he heard Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans read aloud at the Moravian church on Aldersgate Street. In worship, unexpectedly, love broke through in a life-changing way.
It seems that hearts get warmed in spite of our best efforts, rather than because of our best efforts. The most we can do is hold open a sacred space, focused on God, and hope and pray that when the Spirit moves, we are there to experience it. This is why I keep going back to worship. Many times it may fail to inspire. Many times it may frustrate. Occasionally it may even be boring, embarrassing, or an insult to ones intelligence. Ah, but on those rare and wonderful occasions — it moves, it elevates, it inspires awe, it transforms. I go back knowing — trusting — that once again, my own heart will be strangely and wondrously warmed.