As a District Superintendent I go to church a lot, mostly for meeting or the sneak-in visits that are par for this time of year. Tomorrow is when churches and clergy have to turn in their “Advisory Reponse Form” indicating whether each would rather stay put or try something or someone new so I drop in a lot to see how things are going. This is not, however, conducive to healthy spiritual life. I find myself sitting in church pews this time of year grading rather than sitting in gratitude. I’m plucking petals from God’s daisies of love and essentially saying “I love Him!” or “I love Him not!” with more of the latter than the former.
We love rituals, especially church ones! They give us a sense of order and structure in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.
But most of us abhor anything that is routine. Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. Aesop did say, however, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.
But worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented with new things like contemporary Christian music, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others. Children’s Sermons, Advent candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have pretty much been welcomed.
It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty ritual doesn’t cut it. For instance,George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!
No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – who cares just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized. No more Daisy-picking for me when I’m in church!