At the theological college where I work (Carey Baptist College), each week on a Tuesday morning we have a chapel service for community worship, followed by lunch together. One of the things we’re unpacking this year is “what helps me worship God?” This week it was my turn to answer that question and I share it below.
My talk started by going through a whole lot of images and short video clips of things I have seen – with brief explanation. I have included the images below, scroll through them to get to the text, which I have adapted slightly.
To me, the people who imagined these things and who made the ideas happen: they’re amazing. They are amazing humans. They amaze me.
Through their work, my perception changes. I see things differently, I see new things, my imagination is fuelled.
We see amazing things all the time which have lost their amazement. Imagine if Henry Ford could see the latest Mondeo, or Tomas Edison the light projected from the screen of the computer you’re reading this on. I think they would be amazed. To us these things are normal and everyday.
Artists (of the visual sense) remind us that there are no limits to the imagination. They communicate what words can not. Art teaches, and reminds, and inspires us in ways other things in life can’t.
Amazing things humans create: provoke, broaden and inspire my mind.
The examples in the photos and videos shown above, the real-life experience of them, for me, is about seeing something, in a particular space, and making sense and connections from the visual experience.
I can’t spell. It’s never really bothered me, and most of the time I actually think my way of spelling words is better than the traditional way. Word processors help me conform. I expect in hundreds of years from now, the English language will have evolved to be completely phonetic – and that’ll be easier for the whole planet.
My mind’s eye
We never get to experience the mind’s eye of anyone else, but from what I gather: we’re not all the same. To use computer-speak: my mind’s eye is pretty much a graphics processor that locks onto and makes sense of images.
My mind’s eye struggles with text – with words, and pages full of small black characters: every page looks the same, books are so visually boring.
For me, engaging with pages of text – opening up a book, it brings about a mild (sometimes strong) sense of physical discomfort – I don’t feel relaxed trying to engage with text, it doesn’t feel ‘native’ to me. I find reading a real chore – I go through phases of forcing the discipline into my life because of the obvious benefits.
I never read when I was a kid. When I was 9 my mum tricked me into reading: she started buying me a weekly British comic – it was a whole new world,and through the speech-bubble interaction between characters: I was reading – consistently for the first time. Every week I consumed that comic from cover to cover. It was the only reading I enjoyed, and in hindsight I can see why: there was something to look at on the page.
When I’m trying to spell a word, the process that happens in my head is to recall an image of the word, or try to recall an image. A word I never get right, which my computer always trys to correct is ‘especially’ This is how it came out when I initially typed it in the previous sentence:
This is how my computer responded:
Microsoft was no help at all.
This is kindof how my mind’s eye sees the word when I imagine and try to recall how to spell it:
Again, no help at all.
There’s a real visual dependency to the way I engage with the world. One advantage of this is I often notice things other people miss (the new scratch on the side of your car, when the window sills on the house down the street have been painted a darker shade of green…)
My point with all this is to say words, pages of text, books – they’re not my natural or easiest way of engaging with the world.
And so the difficult thing for me about the spiritual framework I find meaning and sustenance in: It’s a book!
How unlucky am I?!
I know it’s not a book we worship – (but it often feels like it…).
So much significance is loaded into this single collection of documents. We make such a big deal about ‘Word’:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1 NRSV)
Try to imagine how uninspiring this idea is to someone not energized by text and reading and words. The redeeming thing is a few verses later:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… (John 1.14 NRSV)
Or as Eugene Peterson puts it:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. (John 1.14 TM)
The Word became visual: it became image.
It helps me to imagine, not of the “Word of God”, but of the “flesh and blood of God”. The neighbourhood God. I can imagine that, I have seen that.
One of the problems though, I think we’ve added text to that verse in John:
And the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood, and then became word again.
Church communities can seem more focused on ‘word of God’ than on the ‘flesh and blood and neighbourhood of God ’.
Image of God
I want to make a brief link now to the image of God:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… (Genesis 1.26 NRSV)
Humans are amazing – because God is amazing. Amazing things humans do, are amazing because of God.
I often find myself connecting with God, and offering myself to God, when I see something amazing done by humans. In search of God I go looking for amazing things made by humans. I do actually see a glimpse of God when I watch an Airbus A380 fly over. I see a glimpse of God when I see an artist express something never seen before. And these things help me worship God.
Does that make sense? Do you relate to this, or does this sound foreign to you?
Communal worship of God
I could finish this blog post here because I’ve answered the question: what helps me to worship God. But this is the perfect opportunity to be an advocate for people like me. I now want to look at communal worship and a problem with Sunday church services: we’re stuck on a verbal or textual interpretation, or hermeneutic. In my experience of gathered worship, there’s very little, or no visual hermeneutic.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to have a greater response to God through image than words. But you wouldn’t think so in the church tradition I’m part of (which has been Open Brethren, Baptist, ‘Evangelical’). When we gather to worship it’s usually just singing, sermon and spoken prayer: words, words, and more words.
Singing: the singalong
I have written elsewhere about church music and singing: Church music: a wicked sin? where I used a quote from Saint Augustine to support my discomfort with what seems like an over emphasis of singing songs in church services, and Majority resort: Church singing where I introduce a theory that explains why so many people are bored or disinterested in the singalong part of church services, and perhaps even explains why some people leave the church, or why some never fully check-in.
I quite like music, but singing, with its obvious emphasis on words, does not help me worship God. To me, a lot of our songs feel like meaningless drivel that go on and on and on. With their random mix of literal statements merged with metaphor, and hypocritical pledges that can never be sustained. Add to that the mindless repetition of singing the same 5 or 6 songs week after week for months on end.
I hardly ever find connection with God or others in our Sunday singalongs. It’s not worship for me. In fact, the people leading the band – I call them ‘song leaders’, not ‘worship leaders’.
The band and words as image?
What images are offered in our communal worship for people not into words? Mostly we just have a band to look at and a screen of words. If you’ve been to an opera or stage show, or ballet – where are the musicians? (where’s the band?) They’re in a sunken area below the stage – called the orchestra pit – you can’t see them – they’re not a visual distraction, and they have no visual importance. Church music used to do this – the organist was often out of sight.
I can’t figure out why we put the musicians up the front on a stage – why do we elevate them like it’s a concert?
My Dad (who is now dead so you can’t argue with him), he used to think the singers up the front at church look like they trying to squeeze out a poo (like a baby filling their nappies). That’s the image you’re giving us visual people.
Worship is more than singing
If you have the privilege of leading a community in worship, I want you to know that with most church singalongs, I’m bored to tears, waiting patiently for it to finish. I’m not saying we should stop having singalongs – I can see it enables a lot of people to have a certain connection with God together. But who’s not here because of the singalong? Who’s not here because a socialization into singalong worship has failed to connect them with God, and our gatherings have been so thin on anything else, they have left without discovering an authentic way to worship together – they haven’t figured out what helps them to worship God – and we haven’t helped them.
If we’re going to have a 30 minute singalong, lets also have 30 minutes of some other communal worship together. Why not once a month have no singing at all and lead the gathering in other ways to worship God? The possibilities are endless – I’m not just thinking of contemplative spiritual practices, I’m thinking about broadening our understanding of gathered worship.
Occasionally I do feel some sort of connection in the singalong – there are some ‘anthem’ songs with words that I feel I can authentically sing. My suggestion would be to save singing for big ‘events’ such as Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.
I’m not against music – in a much earlier phase of life I playing 2nd trumpet in the horn section of a Christian scar band that even toured the north island…
What helps me worship God? I look for images in the world around me that might be able to represent something of the Creator – I see these images every day, and sometimes in exceptional ways. I know that these images are always hopelessly inadequate, but nevertheless they provide windows to look through – that help me worship God. When I can do this, and share this with others, I feel connected to something much bigger than myself – and it helps clarify my understanding and adoration of God.