Transcendence, Worship, Openness, and Empathy

I have this severe desire to encounter god unmediatedly. Not attributable to mental state. Not attributable to something I do, say, believe, or think. Not attributable to social construct, be it ritual, theology, ceremony. Not attributable to my sleep patterns and resultant moods. Subject to transcendent subject encounter. Is that just not how it works and I need to come to terms with that? If god is transcendent, I believe he’s doing a good job at that. I long for the deity’s immanence. Would I be unable to handle it, and that’s why it doesn’t happen? Is theology actually non-essentialist, and therefore, convoluted word play? If that is so, is my quest futile to begin with. I will admit this: I am clueless.

This morning we had a worship set in chapel that was refreshing. I sang the songs. Some familiar. Some not. It was refreshing. It was not what I would call an encounter on my part. I was very aware of my surroundings. But I won’t speak of my inner experience so much as what I witnessed on their faces. Maybe reverie isn’t the right word. Bliss might be closer to it. Just people lost in pleasure in their experience of god. It was quite soothing to me. People in surrender to what was happening to them. I miss that state. Is there any going back? Maybe I can go through the motions until the worship experience becomes “real” again. I mused on what they were thinking about. Undoubtedly, some were probably focusing on god’s love for them and others. Others were probably thinking about his mercy bestowed on their circumstance, and thankfulness for it. Some may have been merely caught up in the music, which I don’t tend to believe to be evil. A mighty few may have been checked out, thinking on their tasks for the day.

What would it be like to trade minds for a day? What if I picked a handful of people from that chapel setting, have us all experience a similar worship set again, but this time we thought with each others’ cognitions? Would they worship the same? With some of the verses I pointed out here, notably Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6, would others still be able to worship? Might they have an experience, belief matrix, or understanding that would allow me to worship again as they? I can’t cavalierly dismiss those verses with a “You need to check the context,” when the

Source: Virgin Media
Source: Virgin Media
context sort of reinforces what the “proof texts” are saying. But maybe it is that simple. Maybe I’m a touch rash when it comes to expected Evangelical responses. It may turn out that some of those explanations are true. I just don’t think so at the moment from my experiences and study. Back to worship. Would we grow closer if doubts were raised in the open, truly heard, and issues wrestled with to give constructive responses, or would that process do what many fear, and the Church would crumble like a deck of cards? If the latter, how fragile an institution to belong to. To me that’s like the poor Chinese government thinking it will topple if its people remember Tiananmen Square.

Maybe that’s a pipe-dream. Many people aren’t willing to share their feelings or thoughts with their significant others, much less the public. Many have been hurt by virtue of their raw authenticity. They share, only to have their faces shoved down in it until they choke. Some fear that definitely real possibility. But I think there is much to be gleaned from open sharing. It reduces what I guess I would call “others-idolatry,” where others are put on pedestals as gods, to the humans that they are, beings in process and imperfection. It opens up at least the opportunity for help in moving beyond what has kept one burdened in the past. What if I had opened up today when we huddled for prayer, really letting loose? What if, instead of playing it safe, asking for prayer for sleep because of my newborn son, I let fly with the father from the old story, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief”? Would I receive sympathy in my questioning, or lame attempts

at answering during what is supposed to be a time of prayer? Are some things only safe to share with some but not others, so it’s best to pick which occasions to be open? Is that authentic? Would shotgun openness build moral courage, or merely be narcissistic, masturbatory self-aggrandizement? What if when we heard someone question an established practice, we let them voice it, probe them for more, and then left them with some sort of affirming bodily gesture? I think still others are afraid of openness because they feel they have to have an answer (of which they happen to be ignorant) to the question/issue, missing the point that sometimes sharing is just a feeler put out for connection, not answer-time. Maybe some are afraid of openness because they have never asked such questions, and now they have anxiety, because, man, those are some good questions. And maybe I’m in the vast minority, and some think faith has nothing to do with questions, but with the naked exertion of belief against all odds. I’ve heard these people exist, and they probably do in great numbers; I’ve just never encountered them.

In church language, I covet your thoughts. Drop a line. If you don’t feel like putting it all out there for others to see, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com. I’d love to correspond with you.

3 thoughts on “Transcendence, Worship, Openness, and Empathy”

  1. I honestly don’t think its possible to worship without preconceived notions of theology. I don’t even know how it might be possible. Every single time I try to worship I find myself reflecting on the lyrics and weighing them against whatever theology I subscribe to. Maybe this is a result of my having studied for so many years.

    I was reading some comments on Patheos (thanks for the link, btw) and someone who was a long time student from seminary said he felt that going to church (i.e., after going through seminary) was sometimes like being proficient with advanced mathematics and then watching a video demonstration on how to do basic algebra. You feel like you already know the answers.

    I cannot imagine, knowing what I know now and asking the questions I ask, ever going back to the sort of worship experience I had when I was but a young Christian in my teen years. But, perhaps that’s good and maybe this transcendent experience we all want would be based on knowing more than we used to. I am not married, but we all know some couples who were married for decades. Many of the ones I know always talk about how they love their spouse more now than they did the day they got married. Perhaps that sort of thing is applicable here, but I am not wise enough to apply it.

    One last thing: You mentioned how you started observing others during the chapel worship. I found myself doing that a lot in a church I attended a few years ago. Sometimes during worship I would just stop singing and look around at other people. I often found myself praying either for people specifically or just the group as a whole. It certainly enhanced the experience for me, one of those situations were you are doing something to expend spiritual “fuel” (for lack of a better term) and praying for God to do something in the life of another. More often than not, either another song or the sermon would fill me up again and by the time I left I felt like the whole experience was worthwhile.

  2. “Are some things only safe to share with some but not others, so it’s best to pick which occasions to be open?”


    “Is that authentic?”

    No, but it’s safe. Not everyone is trustworthy, and we’d be silly to demand everyone, even Christians, to be equally trustworthy.

    “Is that just not how it works and I need to come to terms with that?”

    Well, it is called “faith” for a reason, but I guess some people do see visions, though that could be attributed to a mental state. I’m amazed by your desire to know 100% via unmediated experience. Only a burning bush will suffice? Why do you think this is this so?

    1. Magnus, concerning your final question, I’ve given it a lot of thought. And I think I’ve come to this. If he exists and cares about humanity, if he is omnipresent and omniscient, if he desires relationship, why would I settle for anything less than direct experience? If I’m being asked to give up everything in my life for obedience merely because of something possibly said (scripture) which is so bound up in literary and historical baggage? I ask along with Pharaoh, “Who is this god that I should obey him?” though I ask with less defiance and more inquisitiveness. Who is he really? Is he the fluffy guy who loves children and comforts abused women, or is he the destroyer of towns, the genocidal chieftain? If he gives a damn, where is he to wipe away the tears? Should I seek that from my wife and not from god? In fact, everything I long for from god, should I merely approach him with “faith” (something I’m only asked to do here but nowhere else in my life experience- if I want my driver’s license, I don’t tell them I have faith in my abilities and ask them to have faith in my driving skills; I go through a class and booklet, and take a driver’s exam) and get the actual sustenance I need from EVERYWHERE else except him? Without the “burning bush” or unmediated experience I desire, there isn’t actually any relationship going on. It’s me talking and doing things, with no help on my life from my parent.

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