My experience and interpretation of church, particularly worship, has shifted significantly at crucial formative moments in my life. One of these shifts occurred in seminary. As I learned the theology of Reformed worship and as I witnessed skilled practitioners, I became a critic of sorts. I paid attention to the liturgy in a new way, wondered about the ritual significance of its elements, and expected historical continuity within innovation. I was learning, and part of that learning included a moment of analysis, which of course had to lead back to full, embodied participation.
In the past year, I’ve found myself considering worship through a new lens, through the lens of motherhood. This actually began when I was pregnant—the advent of parenting. Since then I’ve found myself listening anew to hymns, prayers, the passing of the peace, benediction, and yes, the sermon. Is this the message I want my daughter to hear? Do I want her to be formed spiritually in this particular milieu? What would these actions teach her implicitly as well as explicitly about God and herself?
I suspect this reflection will be ongoing, and I look forward to the day when I talk with my daughter about it. For now, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about the kind of Christian community that I long for, for her. Here are a few characteristics of church for my daughter:
One that emphasizes God’s “YES” to humanity. I want her to hear: God is for you; God is with you; God celebrates your beautiful, unique life. I want her to hear: Jesus has reconciled you to God and there’s not much you can do about that (as in change that). You can ignore it, deny it, minimize it. But you belong to God. God’s steadfast love knows no end. And you’ve been baptized, so you also belong to the covenant community. And, by the way, Jesus has upheld both sides of that covenant for us. I want the “no” of God—the “no” to all forms of injustice, inhumanity, and retreats from communion with God—to be embedded in this larger, louder “YES.”
One that emphasizes God’s promise. In the undeniable presence of suffering and sin, I want her to hear God’s “YES” as a promise that has been fulfilled already and that will be manifest fully one day. When she reads the Ten Commandments, I want her to hear them primarily as God’s promise to her. Not a threatening, “thou shalt not,” but rather a loving, promise of God’s redemptive work in her life, “thou shalt not.” This is not spiritual apathy as much as it is trust in God’s work in us and for us.
One that accepts messiness. Some time back, I blogged about a worship service that, if judged by all that I learned in seminary, had gone awry at multiple points. The service was riddled with distracting missteps that assaulted my aesthetic sensibilities. As I sat in my pew cringing, however, I realized that very few others seemed to be doing the same. They laughed, for sure, but judgment seemed to be altogether missing. I realized then and there that the inability to accept human fallibility, even in our worship, is a kind of idolatry or at least a confusion and disordering of divine action and human action.
Now that I have a six-month old daughter, I yearn for that messy worship service or at least the acceptance of our humanity embedded in it. My daughter is not quiet during church. For starters, most church services occur precisely during her morning naptime. And tiredness yields at least three things: talkativeness, giggles, and meltdowns. Plus those moments of silence just beg to be filled by her impressive repertoire of noises: there’s the kitty cat noise, the jackal’s howl, the bubble-blowing and spitting noise, the unabashed belching and the oh-so-grand blowout noise, which thankfully has been reserved thus far for times other than worship.
I suppose what I’m longing for is a community that knows God’s grace and embodies it, that understands creatureliness and doesn’t blink an eye at signs of it. And if truth be told, this is something I long for not only for my daughter but also for myself, for my friends, for my students.