Wanted: Heart Warmed — Strangely or Otherwise

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 this-hearts-on-firethat 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

JwesleysittingIn 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.

15 replies

  1. I think a lot about worship; my own and other people’s. Each week I work hard to plan worship services that are God honoring, providing opportunities for people to honestly seek God. What I find frustrating is that people seem to come to the services with the expectation that the SERVICE will make something happen inside of them. My understanding is that it is as much about what we bring TO the service as about the service itself. A service that moves and inspires some may leave others cold. The team of people who prepare and present our weekly experiences are faithful and earnest in their desire to create meaningful experiences but we can only do so much. It’s the willingness of the people of God to allow the Holy Spirit to move in their midst that create those “rare and wonderful occasions”. If they are possessed of cold and unyielding hearts looking to be entertained no amount of music, preaching or meditation will pry them open.

  2. Oh, man, thank you SO much. I cannot sing Shine Jesus Shine ever again. What an awful song. I left the church a few years ago because I got fed up, but I have missed it, and I know something important is missing. But I have been visiting churches for over two years, almost one a week, and it makes me sick in my stomach to go to Methodist churches lloking for the worship of God and finding these cheesy, goofy praise services and these too serious but not interesting traditional services, and they’re all really bad. I know people mean well, but come on. The only time God is there is by accident. Preachers have got to know how to do this stuff, right? Anyway, thank you for saying what I feel and for giving me hope that it’s still out there. I want to believe.

  3. But who knows what God likes best in worship? Maybe God’s taste runs to 7-11 praise choruses. Not to be facetious, but it’s not about us and our preferences, likes and dislikes, warmed hearts or lack thereof. It’s about offering ourselves in praise and thanksgiving to God, and the divine response to our offering.

  4. Jerry, that’s my point exactly. For as many who think that a certain song is awful, and take the time to tell me so, there are usually just as many that tell me that it’s their favorite. They come up with all kinds of reasons they have to quit coming to worship, too loud, too quiet, too hot, too cold, too traditional, too cheesy and goofy…the list is endless. As a worship designer it makes my job impossible. You are 100% right about one thing….something important is missing but I doubt it will be found in the STYLE of worship. I’m convinced that God doesn’t care about style….just about the content of the hearts of the people.

    • We DO know what God likes. “I hate, I despise your festivals … let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
      And, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth …”
      Worship that results in right action is loved by God. Worship that is authentic (how do you measure that?) is what God wants.
      Robert Shaw once said, “God hates wrong notes.” Worship that is poorly prepared and sloppy betrays our real “spirit and truth” — we don’t really care.
      Sentimentalism isn’t authentic, for me. That includes (most of the time) hymns like “I Come to the Garden” as well as many P&W songs.
      Right on, Dan. Keep on writing.

  5. The most vivid experience of God — or at least the sense of what it means to be the Beloved Community — came during communion one Sunday. I was sitting toward the front, not my usual place, and as folks came forward, diverse in culture and race, broken in some ways, needing physical assistance to come forward, or a whole gang of little ones brought up from the nursery to partake in communion, it was incredibly powerful. I am frequently moved by music and inspired by sermons or prayer litanies to a greater understanding of what God desires for the world, and for my life. Testimonies offered during the prayer time of joys and concerns make God’s presence known through the lives of others. In worship, I’m looking for both those vertical and horizontal connections that make me more aware of the Divine Presence, the Life that is Eternal. (But I don’t think of myself as a mystic!)

  6. The disappointing thing for me is when bands who lead worship become the only sound that is heard in worship. The most disappointing thing for me when I lead worship is to look at the people’s faces in front of me and the mouths are closed and the minds are elsewhere. When that happens, I feel like I have failed as a worship leader.

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