Sunday, January 15, 2012


I was talking with a couple over lunch at a day-long event held at a local monastery of the Orthodox Church of America. We were discussing the paths we’d travelled that led us to an interest in the Eastern Orthodox experience of worship.

This couple had travelled some distance across several state lines to reach the monastery for this event, and had come a long way on their common spiritual journey as well. As I recall, they had started out as Presbyterians, growing up as such, but as adults moved to become Lutherans; next stop was the Episcopal Church, and from there to Roman Catholicism; finally, at long last, they found their home in the Orthodox Church of America.

“What was it you were looking for,” I asked, “that you found in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church?”

“We can answer that in one word,” the man said, and his wife chimed in, “Transcendence.”

It was the beginning of a long conversation to explore the landscape of that word. Transcendence has to do with apprehending reality beyond what we can grasp and see. In worship, we look for the presence of God in the risen Christ and the movement of the Spirit.

I understood what they were saying, for I also have found that experience of “transcendence” in Orthodox worship. Yet I’ve found that it’s also possible to experience transcendence in Presbyterian worship, even if sometimes we make it difficult to do so.

I pondered for a long time the sequence of denominational traditions my friends had followed: Presbyterian to Lutheran to Episcopal to Roman Catholic and finally to Orthodox. So what changes from one to the other that leads to a greater experience of “transcendence”, a greater perception of the real presence of the Divine in our midst?

Here’s a sweeping generalization: The change from one to the next that opens the doors to “transcendence” comes from heightened expectation.

Presbyterians, generally speaking, have low expectations about what’s going to take place in worship. The idea that they will have a significant encounter with God in the proclamation of the Word is a fleeting notion. That the Living Lord will become a part of them in the Eucharist is for many beyond comprehension. Not expecting much in the way of transcendence, Presbyterians don’t experience much.

Folks haul themselves to church on a Sunday morning more to stay in touch with friends than to be touched by God. The earthly relationships are more urgent than the transcendent one. They expect and look forward to the one, while the other doesn’t get much of a thought.

Too many come to church without any notion that they might be touched by God and become very different people on the way out than they were when they came in. Change is not on their personal church-going agenda. Not only do many not expect such an encounter, there are those who don’t want it.

The same is true for leaders and planners of worship. For them the questions are, Do we expect to encounter God in the process of selecting hymns, rehearsing the choral pieces, writing prayers, crafting sermons, setting the d├ęcor, printing the order of service, etc.? Is all this just dull routine work, or is it exciting for what it offers to us who are doing it? How seriously do we consider that what we are preparing is really making way for God to be present? Is the worship order merely an agenda of items to be checked off? Are the anthems merely performances? Is the sermon only a religious essay?

If what is anticipated in the worship service is a personal and corporate meeting with the Risen Lord, then a bit of “fear and trembling” is in order. This is not a casual event, and yet it is so often treated casually in a folksy manner, and planning and preparation is too often incidental and even fluky.

Climbing up the rungs in the denominational ladder, you’ll find that the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and Orthodox take this transcendence business more seriously that most Presbyterians do. Perhaps they express more clearly that it is God who is the object of worship, and that standing in God’s presence in worship requires reverence. Quiet humility is the worshipper’s approach; gratitude and praise is the joyous response. The reverent and dignified view of worship tends to encourage expectations of God’s present and saving grace.

What is more, we should be excited about the possibilities for ourselves and for everyone who comes to worship with us, the possibilities of this radical grace touching lives, hope for new life, love chasing out bitterness.

Then, perhaps, everyone would come to church with the same kind of anticipation of transcendence, expecting to be in touch with God, to be touched at the depths by the Spirit, and to be sent into the world to follow a living Lord.

How do you anticipate encountering God in worship?


  1. Perhaps your friends at the monastery were seeking something that would satisfy the hunger within them. For me, expectation finds its foundation in the desire for something that is beyond my own ability to acquire. In a world of “individualism-run- wild” I think many people resist any idea that they may not be self-sufficient. Under those circumstances a person cannot have access to something outside their own power range. Some atheists as well as agnostics seem to cling to that position – “If I can’t see it and control it, IT(whatever that is) must not be real.” That pretty much eliminates any idea of “Transcendence”, doesn’t it?

    If we have no experience of an encounter with God, it is very difficult to expect an encounter with God. My brother made an interesting observation recently about how our expectations affect our physical and mental being. He is a mountain bike rider. He said that when he’s on the trail going up a mountain and there is a sheer cliff to his left, the path in front of him, and a precipice to his right, the strangest thing has happened to him. If he keeps his eyes set on the precipice he seems to steer right toward the precipice. But, if he keeps his eyes on the trail where he wants to be he doesn’t find himself steering toward the precipice. As a medical doctor he often uses this as a metaphor to advise them not to concentrate on their illness but on the road to health that they wish to be on.
    My point being: If people aren’t taught by others, whom they trust who have had the experience of encountering God, about how they go about preparing themselves for the encounter, they won’t be in a position to recognize the encounter as it happens, whether it be in hearing the proclamation of the Word or in celebrating the Eucharist. I’m not sure how much we who are pastor’s have either had the experience of an encounter with God or have been taught about how to help others prepare for the encounter even if we have had the experience.
    I know a few Presbyterians who will go on a retreat where silence and constant prayer are the main emphasis on seeking an encounter with God.

    The evidence that we are only going to see our friends might be indicated by how we dress and carry ourselves, or other things, when we go to church. I often wondered when I’ve seen people come to church in tattered and torn jeans if they would go to meet the President in the Whitehouse dressed like that. If that is all a person has to wear then that is absolutely what they have to wear. God is not seeking out fashion plates. But when those same people drive up in a $30 thousand dollar car – you know they have something better to wear. Again, I stress, the issue is not the quality of our clothing but what our expectations are about worshipping God. To wear tattered and torn clothing to worship God simply conveys that it’s no different than meeting some friends at a local restaurant or bar. In fact, as of late I have seen several people come into the sanctuary with a cup of coffee in their hands. As you say, Don, encounter with God is not really expected, it would seem. And, if we won’t change the way we dress for worship it’s not likely that we expect anything in our thinking or behavior to change either.
    I think that it would be right to think that if “. . . everyone would come to church with the same kind of anticipation of transcendence, expecting to be in touch with God, to be touched at the depths by the Spirit, and to be sent into the world to follow a living Lord.” That we and the Presbyterian Church would truly be a place where we are reformed and always being reformed.

    Thanks for your blog, Don, it helps me to think about and make the effort to prepare myself to be encountered and changed each day by God, for His service in this world.
    Dan Wheeler

  2. Don,

    I have come to understand that the Transcendence of the One, who has made Himself known to us as the Father, Son, and Spirit of the Eternal Life of the Lord God He is,
    indeed, is the Wisdom of the Lord as the Creator of His Creation, a Wisdom that is lost upon much modern Biblical interpretations. When we worship the Wisdom of His Transcendence, we worship in the dynamic Being, Word, and Act He is even before He created the Creation. We worship the Living ONE who is the Great I-AM of life and death, of time and eternity, of the heavens and the earth. When the Wisdom He is becomes no more than a metaphor for us,then we remain alienated from Him and suffocating in our own self-consciousness and so forth.


    Jack McKenna


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