When thinking about worship, as part of our Holy Habits journey, I paired up two different experiences when I felt stunned to silence. One was a view few from a mountain top in Colorado. The other is of some of the tools of the preaching trade: hymn book, Bible underneath a Circuit Preaching Plan!
In common with many other people, I found the beauty and the majesty of the Colorado scene a pathway to a feeling of awe to the transcendent, creator God, who is beyond us. The other picture reminds me of a deep sense of being compelled to silence during preparation of a service – a sense of an immanent, ever present God: God close to us. Are these really two distinct experiences?
One of the most dramatic encounters with God in the Bible, is set in the poetry of the book of Job. Job is substantially about challenging conventional explanations about suffering. Job’s comforters/tormentors are the type you would not want to be with on a train journey. Whatever ailed you, it was the fault of you and/or yours – you have deserved it because of your own misdeeds, or those of your kin. Thanks a bunch!
God’s responses to Job’s complaints and challenges are not to provide a pat explanation. God is not sitting down with Job to provide standard exam feedback. It was not a case of saying:
“Mr Job, if only you’d just tweaked this a little, you could have avoided all those painful sores, and a few more marks on your doctrine question and your sheep and servants would not have been burnt up.”
The writer is telling his readers – don’t offend those suffering with your demeaning explanations – you haven’t got a clue!
Job himself summarises this in his confession to God in the last chapter of the book (42):
“I know you can do all things,
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know”
Job 42:1-3 (NIV)
A worship circle
How then can we offer worship in this world with its beauty and its agonies? I’ve tried to picture this in a virtuous circle. Many great religious figures have provided a Golden Rule about how to live a life of eternal quality. One was Confucius, who, about the time of the return of the Jews from Babylon instructed:
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
We can imagine Jesus agreeing with this, but thinking this did not go far enough. His more affirmative version:
“Always treat others as you would like to treat them to treat you.”
Matthew 7:12 (Revised English Bible)
Like all circles you can enter this one at any point. Let’s start at the top. A life lived by Jesus’ Golden Rule would mean an awareness, care and mindfulness outside one’s own ego – and at times that can be as if you are stepping outside yourself. There can be an awareness beyond normal self, which might be of an inner depth and a greater reality.
Jesus also summed up the route to eternal life in the two greatest commandments – these are a deeper explanation of Jesus’ Golden Rule.
Imagine that we truly follow these two commandments:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Luke 10:27 (NIV)
Probably the circle with its separate areas is not the best metaphor. These are not separated characteristics but part of a fused whole with God: loving, selfless, God within us and indescribably beyond us. Worship of God is not divorced from how we live, by how we treat others. The way we live will either enhance or quash our worship.
Here are a couple of passages of Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God, which point towards the true reality that came to the character, Job:
“Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has always been part of human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment and contentment.”
and, about religious people:
“They were not bludgeoned into faith by power-hungry priests or kings: indeed religion often helped people to oppose tyranny and oppression of this kind…. Religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to them in dreams, in their contemplation of nature, and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world.”
We are not being bludgeoned into anything. Rather, we are invited to enter into the worship circle, living by Jesus’ Golden Rule, so stepping outside ourself and experiencing the divine that is within our being and across the unknowable reality of God.