Seven Marks of Vital Congregations – Part Five
I told someone this week that I was going to be preaching on “Spirit-Inspired Worship.” Their immediate question was: Have you ever spoken in tongues? It was not the follow up question I expected. I have certainly been many times among people who spoke in tongues, prophesied, healed, sang and danced in the Spirit, spoke words of wisdom, and practiced any or all of the gifts of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues was never my “gift.” Is this what Spirit-inspired worship is?
Is Spirit-inspired worship, instead, what the silent meeting Quakers have? When they gather, they sit in silent prayer. Anyone who hears something from the Spirit speaks what they hear. Sometimes they spend an hour in silence; sometimes many voices are heard.
In the Reformed tradition, our historical roots, Spirit-inspired worship means, in part, hearing the word read and preached from the Spirit-inspired text of the Bible. Let the word speak, on its own and through its preachers.
On the other hand, many look for “worship” that will be a high, emotional experience, something that takes you away from this world. Such an experience is often carried in contemporary, driving music, full of passionate lyrics sung to God. Is this what Spirit-inspired worship is?
These are only a few of the images which may come to your minds when you hear the term “Spirit-inspired worship.” All of them may be Spirit-inspired; and sadly, all of them can be empty of inspiration. Spirit-inspired worship is not a style of worship, the use of certain instruments, the wearing of particular garb, the particular arrangement or size of the gathering, or the kind of building, or no building, in which the gathering takes place.
In fact, the more I thought about this theme, the more difficult I found it to define. The only thing I could identify is that Spirit-inspired worship produces certain kinds of lives. It brings forth the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of the people who worship: Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Spirit-inspired worship elicits from observers, “See how they love one another!” This is not normal. These people are not ego-driven and self-centered, but accompany each other in humility and peace, and include whoever would join them with generosity and faith.
Spirit-inspired worship brings forth a people who have been called out of the normal cultural expectations into a life of service, respect, bridge-building. Paul was always enjoining in his letters for the churches to be at peace, to consider each other as better than themselves, to focus on the oneness created in us by the life of Jesus Christ and the Spirit Jesus gave to live in us.
So, Spirit-inspired worship is not identified by what it looks like, but by what it does.
An amazing transformation happened in Isaiah when he worshiped in the Temple in the year king Uzziah died. It didn’t make him nicer. He was sent out with a very hard message to proclaim, and I am sure many of the people found him terrifying. But he was calling the people to the same kind of transformation he experienced. And what was that?
First, Isaiah encountered God. The description of the robe of God filling the temple, seraphs flying, voices praising – all of it is a poetic taste of what Isaiah experienced. He experienced awe. And it changed him.
I have never quite understood the word “worship.” Some of you have heard me say this before. In some way, it has always seemed unlike God. Why would God demand creation to grovel on the ground, “to bow and to bend” as the Shaker song puts it? Worship has always seemed like subservience. Yet God showed how little God wanted that by becoming human just like us, and then serving the fellow humans, and even dying at their hands. This doesn’t seem to be a God who requires us to be ashamed of who we are before Holiness. If God is love, and I believe that with all my heart, then love does not ask subservience, but the honoring, lifting up the other.
So, I have somehow, somewhere gotten a pretty negative impression in my head of the word “worship.” Hopefully you don’t have that problem. I think it is a good word, it just triggers some negative impressions in me of mean girls and bullies, who force peers to grovel.
But the research for this sermon gave me a new word: Awe! I finally feel like I have a new word that makes sense of worship. And it doesn’t carry that negative baggage for me. What is “awe?” A simple beginning definition would be “an overwhelming feeling of amazement for something that is grand, special, or unique.”
So what happened when Isaiah encountered God? He was awed to his toes! When he saw how immense and magnificent and other God is, he suddenly saw himself for what he was – small, broken, unfaithful, and born of a people who were also small, broken and unfaithful. You see, he lived among people who thought they were the best, the top of the heap, God’s favorites. And when Isaiah saw God, he knew immediately that this was all wrong.
And so the first response to awe was to give up his self-centeredness. “Woe is me! I am a person of unclean lips, just like my people.” His self-esteem came down a notch. He wasn’t better than the rest, “holier than thou.” He was one among his people. This is exactly what the research into Awe is showing. Awe puts us back into a healthier relationship to all beings because we can see ourselves as who we are – not king of the hill, but included in all that is. We are small in comparison to the vastness which is God, creation, the universe; yet we belong. All this awesomeness is a gift. We don’t need to create it ourselves, or try to possess it. Just revel in it.
Researchers have found that one of the most profound effects of awe is how it can change our perception of ourselves relative to the larger world. In particular, multiple studies have shown that awe can make us feel small, diminished, or insignificant – what researchers call the “small self” effect.  When we experience awe, we feel physically smaller and also more humble – one of the fruits of the Spirit. Awe led people to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and to recognize how outside forces contributed to their successes. It encouraged other fruits of the Spirit, like peace and kindness. When we have a more balanced view of ourselves in the context of God’s greatness, we are more ready to collaborate with the others we may have otherwise seen as less gifted.
Then what happened to Isaiah? He was cleansed, given acceptance. Awe, research is finding, is a healer. It reduces stress and restores a sense of balance and wholeness. It actually decreased the instance of stress chemicals in the body. So, when the Seraphs bent down and purified Isaiah, he was healed. Awe, worship, does that.
What happened next? God had a need. God needed to have some help getting the message out to the people. Right away, Isaiah stepped up: “Here am I, send me!” The experience of the awe of God called Isaiah, and also gave him the courage to step up and help. Awe leads us out of our narrow self-interest to seek the well-being of the larger group. In other words, awe leads us to mission.
The experience of God, the momentary “ah-ha!” of something enormous and wonderful and loving, is something for which we come back to worship every week. And it is worth every moment! We are renewed, healed, set back in our rightful place and in good relationship with God and humanity. Not in a beat down way, but by being lifted up and included in the vastness of all that is holy.
The good news is that this kind of worship, this kind of awe, is not limited to what we do on Sunday morning. It can be a daily experience. I heard this experience of awe in a Facebook post this weekend by Marsha Johnson. Let me read a little of it:
Daylight savings time is so weird. Pitch black by five pm. I have taken to the mornings to walk my Rudy around the block, right at sunrise at 7 am. How lovely are the leaves this year, like thin papers of gold! Best dry fall ever here in Oregon and it has been very nice to get out early and walk the streets of our neighborhood….We are blessed in this city and I am pleased that my morning walks are so engaging and I am able to really feel the changing of the seasons. Coming home to a steaming cup of tea and some tidying before work, a very pleasant time of life!
And it turns out that one of the ways to increase your awe quotient in everyday life is to write about it, just like Marsha did on Facebook. Imagine if we all wrote about awe, made phone calls about awe, or told our neighbors about the awesome little thing we saw. It could change the world.
This is why we come to worship services, after all – to change the world, as we change ourselves and are reminded of who we are – not the big-time successes we may pose as being, but the broken and beloved children of God. We belong in this universe, because God put us here. Sometimes, we need to be reminded.
Spirit-inspired worship is that moment, that time we set aside to open ourselves to the Spirit who enlivens us and connects us as the life and breath of all creation. It doesn’t matter how big or small we may be, when we gather in the Spirit, we are inspired, made whole and made ourselves. We know who we are: the beloved.
 “Eight Reasons Why Awe Makes Your Life Better,” by Summer Allen, September 26, 2018