When I see pictures like this, I think of the times I’ve walked into a suburban megachurch at the start of a worship service. It seemed to be in the “script” that, at a key, emotional moment in the song, a pre-recorded video of a young adult or child would be shown on the giant screens. Usually, they are spinning around in a wheat field at sunset, or next to the ocean. A blissful, almost transcendent expression plays across their countenance. And hands raised. Definitely. Raising of the hands is important. This is Sound of Music style, y’all. Harness your inner Julie Andrews and worship the creator of the universe.
The words of the song continue to scroll across this image. People sing along. I have to be really honest: thinking about this personally awkward experience as “worship” just kind of bums me out.
Because I’m the type of worshiper who just can’t get into a manufactured experience. I’m wired to overthink. I don’t like advertising, even advertising for God.
That’s why, by the second song, I’m either reading my Bible or people watching. So maybe, on this night, I’m people watching. No one seems to have caught the Spirit of the Spinny Spinny. Okay sure, there’s a smattering of folks raising a hand or two with their eyes closed (and I don’t mean to question their authenticity. In fact, I admire their courage – except on rare occasions, I’m still awfully self-conscious doing this. And I’ve been a Christian a long, long time. And it still seems awfully Southern Baptisty for this ex-Catholic that still gravitates towards the solemn liturgy over the Pentecostal ecstasy).
Maybe I’m the only one who feels a little strange at the disconnect, the tension between the words of the song, the anonymous 20 foot high virtual Christian so moved by her/his deep and abiding connection with the God of All during that four minute song…and the six hundred or so fathers, mothers, singles, and teenagers who are singing along but whose body language betrays a certain…
Or is it guilt? Maybe confusion? Because we’re not actually in a wheat field. I want to *worship* God and feel like I’m part of something greater than myself. That’s why I came to church this evening. But all this awkwardness is preventing me from connecting with the Divine.
Paul’s letter to the Roman church was written in 56 or 57 CE. New Testament scholarship generally agrees that it represents the most mature, developed sense of Paul’s theology. N. T. Wright poetically compares the Romans letter to a climb up a tall mountain:
[Romans is] an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages…not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.*
Throughout the first several chapters of Romans, Paul sets forth an argument of behaviour alongside worship. They are interrelated. The Gentiles (the non-Jewish believers in Jesus Christ who have come to be included in the faith) and Jewish believers in Jesus are now side-by-side…in theory. The reality of the situation is of course messier. Some of the Gentiles in Rome have come to look down on the Jews, while certain of the Jewish believers continue to be uncomfortable with the inclusion of non-Jewish worshipers.
It is important to Paul that both groups model the Christian life for one another. So he says this:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
So allow me to “flesh” out Paul’s definition of true, spiritual worship:
The physical goes hand-in-hand with the spiritual. Under the old covenants, animals were sacrificed on an altar to God; now, under the new covenant, we as Christians become the sacrifice, pleasing to God because we are made in God’s image, and because of Jesus’ sacrifice for all to rid us of the blemish of sin. For all the times we come up short, we need only recall that we are a living sacrifice to God.
We must realize, though, that what we do with our bodies is directly and intimately tied into our spiritual health. Your connection with the Divine is strengthened, or weakened, by your actions. The Old Wisdom calls forth from the depths. Does not Wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? (Proverbs 8:1)
It’s why when we pass a homeless man or woman on the sidewalk, and decide for any number of reasons that it’s not our place to buy them food or to make eye contact and turn them down gracefully, at least for God’s sake to offer an encouraging word – there is a violence which rends our spirit from our soul from our body, and we feel divorced from our true self despite our best efforts. It’s why when I think to myself, “I can’t buy everyone food who needs it – I’d go broke!” such thoughts will always fail to soothe that violence, no matter the objective truth of such a statement. The discomfort I feel is not rational; it is spiritually primal.
It’s why our sexual lives are so profoundly interwoven with our spiritual lives. Why sexually broken people often act from a broken sense of the spiritual.
As my DNA is being rewritten with God’s DNA, I will begin to mourn and break at the things that grieve the Divine.
The Holy Spirit, that part of God which we invite into the depths of who we are when we decide to be Christians, is limitless in power and authority. Yet it is so, so very gentle with us mortals. It understands our limitations as physical sacrifices, and that we do not possess the agency or strength within to endure substantial changes in our worldview all at once. So, the Spirit begins to slowly, methodically, rewire us.
Do not conform to this world… I love when I have the opportunity to explain Romans 12:2 to a new Christian, or one still seeking out the Christian journey for themselves. The “world” is the world we are leaving behind. The old you lived in the world, or more accurately was subject to the old world’s harshness and arbitrary evils. The old you was a victim of spiritual forces that sought to do it harm. It does this out of desperation, as it is fading into non-existence. The Old Testament book of Malachi describes it as being on fire, burning all around us. It is who we used to be – disconnected from the Divine, physical divorced from spiritual. It still calls to us, to lure us away.
…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds… I explain, you’re not really losing anything by allowing the Holy Spirit of God to enter the depths of your being, because everything you think you have is passing into the cold night beyond.
For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. (Matthew 25:29) It’s better to be at the start of a journey you want to be on, instead of part way down a journey that leads to terrors and death. And no, I’m not talking about Hell the way you and I were taught to think of it. I’m talking about the Hell of waking up one morning with lines on your face and scars on your soul and feeling, with a start and a pang of unbearable existential pain, that it has all been a terrible lie, this life. That God and Wisdom have been calling out for me since I could reason, and I have ignored it all in exchange for ashes and lies.
The best thing we can be doing as Christians is to allow this rewiring to take place. No, not just as Christians. As people. We must allow God to rewire us. This isn’t a one-time decision, but is made often, as an act of worship. It is a sign of submission to a loving, knowing God.
Singing songs to praise God is Biblical, and for many people it is a fulfilling experience that brings them into closer communion with God and with one another. But this experience is only a smaller piece of a larger whole. Worship is submission. Worship is allowing God to reach in, deeper than we dare let another human reach. To live inside of us, and to rewire us.
*Quote from Tom Wright’s entry in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes.