The Ordinary Otherness of Worship
I was reading another blogger’s reflections on worship services a while ago as well as pondering something that had arisen in my own blogging briefly. It got me pondering about the reasons that I have so much enjoyed high liturgical (a.k.a., smells and bells or a worship service including a highly structured format, usually including written prayers and a more solemn atmosphere) services in the past several years. It is something that seems to feel like the ordinary otherness of worship.
Let me start off by noting that I am not trying to disparage low liturgy or the way typical Evangelical churches run their worship services. I have my issues with them, most of them probably more emotional than theological, but I think certain styles of worship are more suitable for one person or another. Still, I’d like to think that some of the thoughts that I’ve been mulling over are applicable across the gamut of worship styles.
A worship service needs, I think, to be other in some way. When Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, he was awestruck, mortified by himself in the presence of what was unimaginably holy and striking (Isa. 6:1-5). The Israelites were terrified to go near Mt. Sinai in the desert. The Jewish law demanded that people be ritually clean or undergo various purification rites before entering the temple area. There is something separate and awe-inspiring about going to worship. The very word, holy, is primarily based on the concept of separateness (though there is, as I understand it, a great deal of uncertainty to its actual root and core idea). One of the things that I believe a worship service can do well to include is a sense of holiness, separateness, otherness.
Even psychologically this seems to make sense to me. When I’ve read from books on how to have a quiet time or devotional time or simply a time to read Scripture, one of the tips that comes up often is to have a place set aside for this. Your mind and body (and, I would suggest, spirit and emotions) grow used to this space as being different from the rest of your life. This is a separate place, meant for something specific. The aesthetics of such a place may not seem important to some, but images, sounds, smells (in particular given the rapid olfactory connection to the brain and memory center), and general ambiance of such a place can reinforce the separateness of it, how this time and place are different from ordinary life. Being surrounded by something grand can draw us towards the vastness of God. Placing ourselves somewhere that feels different from ordinary life, different in style, ambiance, etc., can remind us that God is not like the world.
I don’t think every worship service must strike with awe, nor do I think that God is utterly unlike the world and thus we can have no connection to the world in our worship space. God is immanent and intimate as much as He is transcendent and beyond us, and God is present in all things around us and can often be seen in the natural world. Still, if worship becomes too similar to our everyday life, how easy it becomes to fail to realize the immensity of God and relegate Him to one of many pieces of life. God loses His place as over all if our worship of Him is so similar to everything else that it seems no different. Personally, I find that high liturgical services are profound for this. (Your mileage may vary.)
And yet there is an ordinariness that must also be incorporated into our worship. I have heard the line, “Let’s just put everything aside and worship God,” more times than I care to remember. I’ve probably used that line from my college days when I led worship for the campus fellowship I was with, and that thought now makes me cringe. In a way, we do set aside things to worship God in that we stop doing other things and turn worship into our focus the same way that we may set aside other things so that we can do our jobs or study something. While we are setting aside activities, however, we don’t want to set aside ourselves. Worship cannot be so separate and special that we must become something or someone else when we step into it. We must be our ordinary selves when we engage with God – tired, bored, frustrated, elated, expectant, etc. As I like to point out, the largest category of Psalms is laments, 40% of them. As the Israelites brought the stuff of their lives to God in worship, so must we also. When we come to worship, we may not feel like rejoicing, but rather than setting aside that part of ourselves, what if we took that part to God and acknowledged where we are, offering our non-rejoicing self to Him? It’s not our job to fix ourselves anyway; that’s His power and task. What if worship was a place where we laid ourselves before Him, offering our bodies, both the good and bad of them, as a living sacrifice to God?
I think we have a tendency to want to switch these. We want to make what needs to be ordinary other and what needs to be other ordinary. Our space and music and atmosphere and so forth we try to make similar in style to our homes and offices and so forth. Yet we seem to tell ourselves that we must be happy and excited about God when we may not be that way at all. A worship space, it seems to me, ought to be other in a way that pushes aside the world so that we are drawn up into the transcendence as well as the immanence of God, but our engagement of Him must be with our usual, real selves rather than what we think we’re supposed to be like so that we can worship “properly”.
I want my space to be other. I want myself to be ordinary. I’m fairly certain about these aspects of the nature of worship, though for the specifics, like I said, your mileage may vary; see soul for details.