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.

Naming the Elephant: Worldview as Concept by James Sire

This book runs about $10 on Amazon

Lately I’ve been writing and thinking about how reading the Bible works as a formative practice, and it’s led me to think about the concept of worldview.  I found James Sire’s Naming the Elephant helpful in thinking about the concept, both as an abstraction and in terms of the worldviews I see at work in our community. Personally, Sire’s book helped me come towards a better articulation of my own worldview.

Sire has been interested in worldview studies for a while. I know his book The Universe Next Door was used at Harding while I was there, and having gone through several editions, it’s probably been as influential in the way evangelicals think about worldview as anything else, particularly in how we see the differences between ourselves and other faith traditions.  As you would imagine, that has some intense missiological implications, and thus Sire has probably been read mostly in that context.

This shorter book is particularly interested in teasing out the worldview concept itself, and Sire is candid about places where he felt his earlier definitions and examples have perhaps fallen short. Here, he surveys of perspectives on the worldview concept from philosophical, theological, and sociological sources to give a better articulation to what he means by this root concept. Ultimately, he comes the following well-thought definition:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.

Most of the book, which is a quick read at 160 short pages, is the work of setting up this definition and giving it substantial nuance. He teases it out against the backdrop of worldview thinkers over the past two centuries—this is not a casual definition. Sire’s work on critically thinking through the implications of his definition is evident throughout the book, and the little book is quite worthwhile for that reason. The descriptions of Sire’s wrangling with the philosophical decision between the priority of ontology over epistemology is interesting, as is his writing about his growing recognition of the importance of story as a vehicle for worldview.

Less satisfactory are the questions Sire offers as a mechanism for teasing out particular worldviews. He sticks to his guns with the following seven questions, although through the text he expands the questions as including more than they seem to on the surface.

1. What is the prime reality—the really real.

2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?

3. What is a human being?

4. What happens to a person at death?

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

7. What is the meaning of human history?

Sire has used these same questions for years, and in Naming the Elephant he interacts with questions posed by different authors and compares them to his own. There are a couple of places where I still think better questions exist.

For instance, Sire discusses a set of questions posed by Walsh and Middleton,”Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong?” and “What’s the solution?”. Sire wishes to subsume the first (Who are we?) within question 3 above, which seems fair, as does his inclusion of “Where are we”? within number 2 above. However, he also wishes to include the last two (What’s wrong? and What’s the solution?) within questions 6 and 7 above, and it really seems to me that as a set they function importantly enough to merit their own place in worldview analysis.

Another criticism of the book might be that Sire’s assumptions about the Christian worldview seem to me to bypass critical theological issues. Of course, that’s not a fair criticism, since Sire isn’t really doing formal theology here, but implicitly doing practical theology, and his assumptions probably do reflect a good bit of ground level theological thinking in the sort of folk Christianity that exists in America. Beyond that, Sire recognizes that when he talks about a “Christian worldview” he is really thinking about his own worldview, which he perceives to be Christian. By and large I think he’s correct, and articulates the main parts of what might be fairly called Christian worldviews accurately.

This is a fantastic little book. Sire is, for the most part, fair and measured in his analysis, and recognizes his own commitments as they come up within his argument.  Ultimately I think Sire moves the concept of worldview forward in helpful ways, and provides a good resource for anyone wanting to understand themselves, or the world around them, with greater clarity.

Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders

I’ve been thinking about how our understanding of elders and their roles as shepherds relates to the big picture, the story the church has been brought into by Jesus. With elders, as with many other parts of church life, it’s too easy to think about them in isolation, as though we can simply turn to the proper chapters of scripture that address them and retrieve the list of rules that will tell us what to do. A much healthier approach is to start with the larger story in which we live, and let our understanding of the church’s shepherds grow out of that context, out of that story.

That larger story announces the reality of God’s reign in the world and his willingness to love and redeem the world. It is the story of how the creator God remains concerned with his creation, and is active within it. It is the story of how that God made for himself a people, by making covenant with Abraham, and with his rescued descendants at Sinai. It tells of God’s pursuit of Israel even when the covenant was broken. It tells how, in Jesus, God has made a new covenant with his people and opened the door for men and women of all nations to join Israel in becoming the covenant people of God. That story offers a way for humans to live within God’s reign, and warns of judgment for those who continue to live in rebellion against God’s reign. That story brings humans into participation in God’s plan to fight the darkness that has corrupted the world, and announces that his victory is certain, and what is wrong will be made right.

The church exists because of that story. It exists in that story. And it exists as an expression of that story.

When we talk about shepherds and elders, we can’t jump out of that story and imagine that we’re just dealing with a simple fact of ordering religious life. The shepherds actually function, like the rest of the church, within the context of that larger story. Continue reading “Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders”

Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions

Most of the time, when men become elders, they have very little idea of what things are going to be like.  What should they expect in meetings? What’s expected from them outside of the meeting room? What kinds of questions are people going to start asking them that they never would have heard before? What do you do when your thoughts are on the fringe? It can all be shocking at first, and it takes a little while before it begins to feel somewhat normal.  I’ve heard a lot of men say it was at least six months or a year before it felt normal to them—even two years is common!

Typically, churches add elders in batches, and since a new batch can take a little while to adjust, they often assimilate into the way the group already does things, going with the flow while they learn to swim.  Commonly being a part of an eldership is a moderating force on individuals, bringing them towards a center of thought. That’s mainly healthy and appropriate, part of the way the Spirit runs the church, but there is at least one by product of that process which is potentially negative.

Continue reading “Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions”