Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's a Mystery

“The view from the pew” which I currently enjoy most of the time, opens my liturgical eyes to some issues I’ve previously overlooked.

One thing I’ve begun to notice more and more is how devoid of “mystery” Protestant worship so often is. In particular, we of the Reformed Clan must have it in our genes to explain everything, and in so doing, we bleach out what cannot be explained but only experienced. On the other hand, a casual, folksy style can quickly chase away any sense of awe.

At the same time, we all know that the “mysteries” of God defy explanation and that worship itself is audacious if not preposterous. Yet we do it anyway. Mystery is at the heart of our faith and in the soul of our worship.

God resists being packaged according to our understanding. Our faith is not dependent on what we know and can explain; it depends on who we know and can experience. Therein lies the mystery of it all.

From the top, we are drawn to worship by some sort of divine magnet pulling on our souls, attracting us into a community of God’s people. We may think we come of our own will and accord, but it’s God’s call that summons us. We don’t really volunteer to worship and serve God—we are recruited. The gathering of which we are a part, the church, is a mystery too.

We are invited to confess our sinfulness in public, “before God and one another,” and if we are at all serious about that, we bare the mysteries of our souls. Such confession is accompanied by a grief for which human language is inadequate. Equally mysterious, even more so, is the forgiveness from God that floods our souls with an exquisite joy.

When words fail, as they do more often than we like to admit, music lends a helping hand. Hymns, psalms and songs, old and new, can sing what we cannot say, maybe even things we cannot bear to say. Music can engage our emotions and allow us to feel what we think we already know, that God’s grace is overwhelming, that Christ’s love makes us disciples.

The responsibility of the pastor or presider in worship is paramount. According to the Presbyterian Book of Order (G-0202a), insofar as the pastor “dispenses the manifold grace of God and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he or she is termed steward of the mysteries of God.”

Anyone who has ever stood at a pulpit to dispense the manifold grace of God knows how utterly impossible it is, but also knows the God-bestowed compulsion to try. The danger is that we preachers might slip into acting like we are the experts, like we know all the answers, when in reality we’re just trying to figure out the right questions. The truth is that we fumble for words, and never quite come up with the best ones. The mystery of preaching is that even so the Spirit speaks through the preacher’s verbiage.

Just as mysterious is the awesome calling to be the steward at the Lord’s Table. That Christ is really present in the breaking of bread and sharing the cup of wine is a mystery beyond compare. Our Lord is the host, and the pastor is his servant, the “waiter” (read “deacon”) who does the Master’s bidding and serves all who spiritually hunger and thirst.

So how do we allow the mystery of our faith to show through in our worship? What can we do, if anything, to let awe and wonderment that their places in our worship? Here are a few thoughts.

The setting of worship can undergird the sense of mystery, or can work against it. The room ought to look like it is to be used for worship, a place where ordinary people come to be engaged by God, to meet in person the risen Christ. In a word, it should look like a church, not a theater or classroom. The décor should offer iconic art, symbols that speak wordlessly of truths that defy speech.

The congregation, therefore, is not a class or an audience, but something closer to a family newly united in this place. I understand that architecture can limit options, yet it would be nice if seats could be rearranged perhaps at angles rather than in parallel rows so worshippers could see one another’s faces.

Leaders of worship should be aware of their own experience of awe, and let it find a natural expression in their tone and decorum. They will be careful, of course, to avoid preacher-y tones and speech patterns that come off forced and phony.

Significant periods of silence for everyone to personally absorb spoken and sung corporate prayers will help. In quiet reflection, the prayers take root in the depths of our souls where the mystery of God’s love is most desperately needed.

Where do you experience the mystery of God’s grace in worship? What helps and what hinders that experience?


  1. I like the way you say that it is utterly impossible to "dispense the grace of God" and how impossible to resist the call to try. Borrowing Will Willimon's idea, expressed in "Worship As Pastoral Care," I believe that people are hungry for a direct experience of God's presence and grace in their lives. I hold this goal before me as I prepare the prayers and sermon for Sunday worship: providing opportunities for God's gracious presence to be manifest.

    I think I do this with a combination of "casual, folksy style" (my prayers and my sermons use simple everyday words) and by bringing my questions into the liturgy. What I hope to convey is that Jesus can be addressed in our own "voices." We don't need to be formal with the One who loves us so deeply.

    As for questions... they are an integral part of my spirituality. They appear most often at the end of my sermons where the "conclusion" should be. As I rarely reach a conclusion when it comes to God's gracious generosity and possibility, I let the congregation hear my own wondering voice end on a question. In a recent sermon about Haiti, I ended with "I wonder... while we're waiting for God to fix the big problems of the world, is God waiting for us?"

    It is child-like to ask questions. What parent hasn't been peppered with questions by their child? When I dwell on the radical and holy graciousness seen in Jesus Christ, I am left with a deep sense of good news and awe. As a preacher, I try to let others join me in contemplation - a contemplation that will surely bring us to the limits of speech.

  2. Life--and religion--is like a pendulum.
    Start with Christ... there was a lot of mystery there. Then the church started to develop--got more and more institutionalized with more and more rules, regulations and "funny stuff." When enough was enough and the Reformation happened, the pendulum started to swing away from what Christianity had become. Some mystery began to be sacrificed. The baby got thrown out with the bathwater in many cases.
    Now the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards a more centered approach which is beginning to allow the mystery back in.
    I count it a blessing that my wife, who was raised in the "Protestant" tradition of yore (the '50's) is looking for more because the "same old" doesn't cut it anymore. I was raised a Roman Catholic and abandoned RC because of a, albeit different, type of "same old" too.
    It's interesting to watch that pendulum swing.

  3. Part of the "setting" for worship is the minister him or herself and how the minister is clothed. If the room should undergird the mystery and not work against it, so should the appearance of the minister and what he/she wears. Almost needless to say, "street attire" or even a suit does little for the sake of honoring the mystery at the heart of worship. Much more preferable is a simple alb with stole. That choice of garb avoids calling attention to the minister per se, but aids the rest of the physical setting in directing one's heart and soul toward the mystery of God.

  4. Charlotte KroekerMarch 15, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    Beautiful piece, Don. I would only add that the arts are a natural vehicle for communicating the mystery you describe, as the arts go beyond what words can say. The space in which we worship, what we see, the arrangement of the space, smell (might there be fresh flowers or incense?), what we hear (are the acoustics live and friendly?), the music that carries age-old texts, the effective (or ineffective) delivery of speakers and musicians, what we experience in the body language of fellow worshippers--all these are very much a part of our worship. And that is why the quality of all of these "communicators" is so important and that they deserve our careful attention. Thanks for listening!


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