When we moved to Nebraska from Pennsylvania, I had a really tough time making the transition. My new surroundings threw me for a loop in more ways than one. In my book, I’ve written in great detail about my transition to this part of the world, so I won’t belabor the point here. Just know it was tough for me. One of the factors that made the move so difficult was the enormous shift in my cultural landscape. Taken at face value, there are very few similarities between life on the Great Plains and life on the eastern seaboard of these United States. One of my greatest struggles was with what I perceived to be a great lack of diversity, especially in our church.
Things have changed a lot since we moved here, nearly ten years ago—in our community, our church, and in me. Back then, however, I had a deep ache in my soul for a worship service that included a little bit of gospel music or some shouts of “Amen!” from the pews. Then, one day, I received an invitation to attend a retreat on the banks of the Frio River in a small Texas town.
I packed my bags, boarded a plane and made my way to that beautiful retreat center, but when I arrived I was disappointed to find myself surrounded by people who looked nothing like me. There were just two other brown people in attendance, and—I thought to myself—thank God for them! It’s the simple truth. Take it for what it’s worth.
When it came time for the worship part of the weekend, I made my way to the Great Hall with hopefulness that maybe, by some small stroke of divine compassion, someone somewhere had chosen at least one gospel song for us to sing. Maybe—I imagined with unfounded anticipation—someone would burst forth with a loud “Hallelujah!” or “Thank you, Jesus!” while we sang or prayed together beneath the vaulted ceilings and massive chandeliers.
As I walked through the doors of the Great Hall, someone handed me a “program” and I took it with me to my seat among the crowd of retreaters. I remember sitting down and looking at the program in my lap, my heart sinking as I realized our time together would be filled with liturgy and recitations and readings and—to my mind—lots of generalized boringness. I sat back in my seat and began a brief argument with God. “What in the world? I can’t even get a little bit of soul, here in Texas, all these miles away from Nebraska? Come on, God! Can’t you give me a break! Just a gospel song! That’s all I’m asking!” I say it was a brief argument because God did not engage. At least, not in a way that I hoped or anticipated.
Well, then, someone stood up to begin the worship service and we, the congregation, opened our programs and together joined our voices to collectively participate in the liturgy as it was written and—just like that—I could not stop crying.
Here’s an Hasidic tale that I read today, in Parker J. Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy:
A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and words fall in.”
While I had been doing all of my ranting and raving about gospel music and sacred dialogue, God already knew the words of that liturgy would be the straw that broke my heart open so I could have a more full and rich experience of him. There was not a single gospel song sung, not a single hand raised in worship that I could see, and no one uttered an, “Amen,” that hadn’t already been prescribed by the programs we held and followed word-for-word. But that didn’t deter the Holy Spirit for a single moment.
Because (and you already knew this) God is not limited to my most favorite and comfortable forms of worship. When I’m exposed to different expressions of worship, my own spiritual life is enriched and my understanding of God (if understanding is even possible) becomes more full. Jodi Baxter seems to be experiencing something similar as she learns about and then incorporates the element of praise into her prayer time.
Worship is an intimate experience. That may be why we don’t like it when people mess with the worship experience in our churches. We need advance warning. And we need detailed instructions. But, we also don’t want to be standing up when everyone else is sitting down, or belting out the fourth verse when everyone else stops at the third verse, or eating the bread from the Eucharist when everyone else is holding it in the palm of their hand until the precise right moment for eating arrives.
All of those feelings are perfectly normal, and our corporate worship experiences are different from our personal times of reflection, praise, worship, and prayer. But, what would happen if you incorporated one new thing into your time of reflection, praise, worship, or prayer? A lot of the time, when we see someone worshiping or expressing themselves in a way that is different from what we’re used to, it’s easy to push back against it, instead of pressing in and letting that experience fall in to our hearts.
So, here are your questions for this section of the book:
- Tell us about the last time you went to a worship service, or a book reading, or a community event that pushed you outside your comfort zone. How did you end up there and what happened while you were there?
- What is your reaction to the Hasidic tale I shared today?
- Has anything in the book raised a feeling of resistance in you? If so, tell us about it (if you’re comfortable sharing).
Last week’s conversation was stellar! I’ve gone back and responded to the comments there, and I’ll do the same here, at the end of the week. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this week’s reading and, for those who’d like, feel free to write about this book club on your own blog and then link up here: