Worship in the Dark: John of the Cross, Emotional Worship, and Me

Worship in the Dark

In my own devotional time right now, I’m reading a few pages of the works of John of the Cross.

I’d read a little bit in John’s works before, but I recently heard Randy Harris make a comment about how going back to it can feel like it’s a totally different book, and so I’ve gone back in, and I’m finding that to be largely true. I’m reading a few pages most days, maybe a chapter or two, and slowly digesting it, turning it over. I started with The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

As John speaks in the early part of Ascent, it’s repeatedly felt like what he has to say about discursive meditation resonates with some feelings I have about worship, particularly that structured in so-called contemporary forms. Namely, these heavily sensory forms of corporate praise, designed to evoke emotion, simply don’t for me often. For a while, this was pretty frustrating, as I felt like I was losing a sort of capacity that the modern church equates heavily with spirituality—indeed, this often made me wonder if I was being hollowed out, and whether my heart was becoming disconnected from the Lord in a way that was leading me to become something like the trope of the hypocritical spiritual leader that doesn’t really believe what they’re selling that is often highlighted/parodied in our culture. Pretty scary stuff, particularly as I treasure and try to cultivate a sense of authenticity!

However, I don’t think that’s actually the case, because I did feel connected to the Lord in other ways—in the communal silences of the eucharist, or in times of shared prayer with our shepherds (or others, but particularly with our shepherds) or in certain friendship spaces, or in just times by myself. Over time, I just came to moments of worship, particularly singing times, as something that didn’t really do it for me (whatever that means), but that I generally saw as helpful for others. (Some forms of singing, I still really enjoy—particularly songs that proclaim God’s lordship. I feel like now, what I really like are songs that make proclamations. I think they feel like protest songs, and I do find that fruitful.)

Anyway, as I’ve read John, it’s often occurred to me that some of what he says about meditation feels similar to that. Like the sorts of worship that attempt to evoke a certain emotional intensity are sort of like the form of meditation that relies on the imagination, and I feel like it’s giving me further permission to let go of the desire to force that sort of emotion on myself, or work myself into that particular emotional place, and to allow myself some peace in that. I’m not quite sure how to describe the alternative path, but I do think that I’m coming to a place where I approach worship (aside from preaching!) as something that I passively receive or recognize God’s presence in, rather than working myself towards an emotional experience of that. Here’s a passage that seems to resonate with what I think the path forward may look like:

“When spiritual persons cannot meditate, they should learn to remain in God’s presence with a loving attention and a tranquil intellect, even though they seem to themselves to be idle. For little by little and very soon the divine calm and peace with a wondrous, sublime knowledge of God, enveloped in divine love, will be infused into their souls. They should not interfere with forms or discursive meditations and imaginations. Otherwise the soul will be disquieted and drawn out of its peaceful contentment to distaste and repugnance. And if, as we said, scruples about their inactivity arise, they should remember that pacification of the soul (making it calm and peaceful, native and desireless) is no small accomplishment. This, indeed, is what our Lord asks of us through David: Vacate and videte quondam ego sum Deus [Ps 46:10]. This would be like saying: Learn to be empty of all things—interiorly and exteriorly—and you will behold that I am God.” (Ascent 2.15.5)

That last line is pretty great. I’ll probably have more to post about this on another time, but if nothing else, I wanted to post it for those who may be feeling something similar, as though they’re not really sure how to make themselves feel the things in worship that it seems like they are supposed to. John writes about how sometimes seeking the Lord in faith feels like following in the dark—and sometimes everything around us that seems like light is really trying to lead us away from the dim light of faith. As I’ve reflected on that idea, I’ve come to believe that it’s important that we learn to worship in the dark—to give worship to God even when the faith that we are acting on doesn’t reward us emotionally like we expect. We give worship even when faith refuses to behave in such a way as to resolve all the ambiguities around us, or when it doesn’t trip the particular emotional triggers or imaginative experiences that we might expect. The road of faith does not always track with what we think or feel…sometimes it is just a matter of one step in front of another, seeking the Lord and being willing to keep seeking, following the sound of God’s call, even though we’re walking in the dark.

I think that it is okay if all of the emotions don’t sweep you away in passion-ate worship, and if you’re in a place where you feel distant from all of that, don’t allow it to discourage you too thoroughly. In some situations, that might even be good, a sign that some things that were helpful for you before are now giving way to another stage of your faith’s development and maturity, although I would resist elevating that in relation to somebody else’s more emotive experience—that may be just what they need, and their different experience may be different than yours in ways that you cannot perceive. Comparison in this sort of thing just isn’t our friend.

Cultivating a Bias towards Hope

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No reason to be coy here, to keep up any pretense of objectivity. Let’s just put this on the table from the very beginning: I have a bias towards hope.

Generally and theologically speaking, I trace that seed to the work of God in the world especially the movement of God in Jesus. I haven’t scientifically studied the origin of this bias in me particularly, though I suspect my family and the church collaborated in planting it within me, and it probably also began to take root because of my sunny genetic disposition. The origins are tough to nail down. Easier to see are the fruit of that hope, and I’ll write a bit more on that tomorrow. Today I’m thinking about the middle part of hope’s lifespan…the growing of hope.

Hope doesn’t skip from seed to fruit, and the movement doesn’t happen automatically. Hope must be cultivated. Hope must be nurtured. The seed requires care and attention, or it will shrivel up and die, and there’s hardly anything more tragic than dead hope.

Hope must be cultivated. Hope must be nurtured. Click To Tweet

The importance of nurturing hope becomes even clearer when you think about the opposition it faces. The relentless chatter of cynics stunts its growth, our abundant experiences of scarcity and loss chips at its branches, and our perpetual busyness poisons its roots. The news cycle provokes a climate of stifling fear, and the more sentimental corners of facebook and youTube try to replace real hope with something immediate and shallow.

In the face of all this and more, the seeds of hope wither and die without protection, and cultivation. Hope must be nurtured—and it can be! Here are six ways to actively cultivate hope.

1. Connect with a foundation of hope. For me, this is the resurrection of Jesus, which I take to be a signal to the world of God’s intent to defeat the enemies of hope. This isn’t the only possible foundation for hope, but it’s been a reliable spring of hope for me. So I try and connect with it consistently enough that I can view other stories and events through that master story of hope.

2. Embed yourself in a community of hope. Hope struggles in isolation. It seems to me like there is a tipping point, a place when a community struggles to muster up the courage to believe in the future anymore. On the other hand, a community that holds and practices a sacred hope can sustain your hope and develop its character.

3. Remember you’re playing a long game. Hope requires patience. What you’re cultivating is not going to pay off immediately, maybe even within your lifetime. You can’t allow yourself to be dominated by the demands of the present, even though you seek to be fully alive in each moment you are given.

4. Expect trouble. Don’t shelter your hope by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of dark days. Hope doesn’t benefit from naïveté.  In fact, that causes hope to suffer, as unexpected trouble inevitably come to challenge hope’s promise. But you’re not cultivating a naïve hope, but a resilient one. And that means that your understanding of hope has to be big enough to hold trouble. This isn’t anything new, by the way. Isaiah and Revelation, which are arguably the great books of biblical hope, both arrive at their visions of hope by routes that promise times of suffering. This doesn’t nullify the hope they contain. It fortifies it.

5. See both the forest and the trees of hope. Practice perceiving both the world and individuals through the lenses of hope. Let your sense of God’s future be grand enough for the whole world and gritty enough to hold the complications of flesh and blood people.  Let both of these senses inform each other, and your hope will become more and more robust over time.

6. Pray for God’s future. Hope is formed more deeply within us as we prayerfully look forward to the redemption and reconciliation of creation. The New Testament ends with Jesus’s promise to come and bring about the reconciliation of heaven and earth. “Surely I am coming soon,” he says. And revelation closes with John’s reply: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” We do well to join this prayer, even as we join in his mission of reconciliation in the present.

You might also want to read the next post in this series, The Fruit of Hope: Mission.

Honoring the Gift of Creation

SCULPTURE & ART

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.

In our religious world, it’s difficult for us to grasp what it means to set our minds on things of the spirit. Paul speaks against living according to “flesh”; it’s all too easy to imagine that Paul might have meant for us to become detached from our material, bodily existence. It’s a short leap for us to assume he meant a sort of ethereal disregard for the physical, that he intends us to live with contempt for the created order and our place in it. And yet, when Paul turns to describing what life in the spirit actually looks like, it includes things like showing hospitality to strangers, befriending the lowly, feeding your enemies, celebrating with those who have cause to be happy, shedding tears with the sad, and paying your taxes (Romans 12-13). These are physical matters, matters of skin and bone that take place in the created world. For Paul, living by the spirit is not a denial of life, but a certain way of living it. It wasn’t a pining for the afterlife, but a claiming of the present one for the God who created it.

The flesh for Paul is a way living that is enslaved by appetites beyond our control. It is a distortion of physical life that craves and is never satisfies, that seeks after strength only to be confronted by death and decay. It is a force that hollows physicality, leading to a way of being in the world separated from the creator’s will. It is existence totally turned in on itself, in which relationships to the creator and other creatures are sacrificed to the appetite and fear of the individual.

For Paul, life by the spirit of God represents a different way of living in the world, a way filled by God’s own life. “Spirit” is one way of talking about God’s own person, but it can also be alternative orienting force. By attending to the spirit, we allow God to turn back our lives to a trajectory that includes attending to God’s will and presence. God’s own being defends against the pullings and pushings of our own appetites and other fallen powers which, left to themselves, corrupt life and dislodge it from its divine direction. “Setting our minds on the spirit” means orienting ourselves to that way of life which was the creator’s gift to us in the beginning, a way of living that allows us to experience communion with God and each other, and to live in peace with the rest of creation. It is a way of living not in spite of creation, but fully honoring the gift or creation and our place in it.

God desperately wants to give us this life.

The creation itself longs to share it with us.

The question that remains is: do we desire this sort of life? Is it the sort of life that we are ready to accept, or have we become so accustomed to the way of the flesh that we are unwilling to be pried from it? Can we be persuaded that the way of the flesh is a sham, a poisoned apple drugging us and dragging us to the grave?

Can we be persuaded that there is a life that is truly life, and a peace that is truly peace?

May God’s own spirit make it so!

Different

This past week’s sermon was from Luke 18, specifically the part where Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to worship, and whose prayers evidence that they are miles apart—only not in the way that both of them seem to assume.

Scripture seems full of stories like this. Lately that theme has relentlessly pushed me toward the conviction that disciples of Jesus have to change the way we see our neighbors. Naming on the basis of categories like class, race, or any external factor just isn’t an option for us—Jesus seems bent on teaching us how to to see people differently.

One effect of this in my own life is that over time, God has been bringing me more and more friends whose lives aren’t mirror images of my own—they have different starting places, different twists and turns, different challenges and obstacles, and echo with different tones. All of that may not seem unusual to you, but—and here’s the big point—it is different to me. Much of my life, at times intentionally and at other times just by force of habit, has been lived in the midst of similarity— real, assumed, or pretended. My experience of church has been set in homogeneity; my brothers and sisters had often seemed to have had backgrounds that looked a lot like mine, and followed a similar plot.

I don’t think of myself as a closed person. Indeed, I’m often fascinated by hanging out with people from different backgrounds, who have different stories—but lately I’m realizing that these aren’t the same as having forged friendships. I wonder what it will take for me to develop that capacity.

The Strange and Formative Word

The Bible is a strange book.

Written over hundreds of years by a collection of named and anonymous authors, it spans genres and themes as diverse as power and money, family and sexuality. It alternates between genealogical lists and colorful histories, ritual law and love poetry, all managing to say something important about what it means to be human, the nature of the world, and God.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how the Bible is both a product and a means of God’s mission in the world. It is a witness to the things God has done in the past to shape and recreate people, and it is itself a part of the process of shaping those who read and receive it.

For instance, take the story of Nathan confronting King David (1 Samuel 12). It’s both a witness of how God was confronting and shaping David to be the king he was supposed to be. But at the same time, as we read the story and allow ourselves to live in it, the story shapes us as well, challenging us to think about how we use power, or our own tendency to cover up our sin with even more sin.

As we read stories like that, or meditate on the poetry of the prophets, or read along with the first century churches in their letters from Paul, we’re pulled into the story of God through time, and are shaped to be more like God, and less like the world.  We become gracious where the world is judgmental. We become joyful where the world is bitter, and mourn in the places where the world wants to celebrate. We become peaceful in the middle of a world at war, or we become generous in a world of selfishness.

The Bible is a strange book.

But, that’s okay.  We’re a strange people.

By God’s grace, and through God’s word, we’re becoming stranger every day.