Our Wednesday Bible study group has been discussing a book and video series by Anglican Bishop and renowned scholar N.T. Wright; it is entitled Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. This past week’s chapter was on the topic of worship and prayer, and one of Bishop Wright’s assertions is that “One of the great spiritual laws is that you become like what you worship” — so that if people worship money, or fame, their faces become distorted, as their hearts grow cold and their lives are “formed — or more often deformed” by the object of their devotion. “Worship is the heart of living as a Christian,” Bishop Wright says, “and when we worship the true God, then we become more genuinely human.”
This video segment led to some intriguing conversation in our group about what each of us have found meaningful in our varied worship experiences — from lighting candles on Christmas Eve, to moments of quiet prayer, to huge gatherings of people singing and spirited preaching in big worship venues. None of us seemed able or willing to say that any single experience of worship was superior or essential; we respected, and even revelled, perhaps, in the mystery and diversity of the moments of worship that we recalled that have formed us. It was a really lovely conversation, and one that I found very informative, even though I have pastored here for quite a long time and been engaged in many conversations about worship over those years.
Earlier in the week, I met with our Reconciling Committee and we engaged in an exercise during which we constructed a definition, and reflected on many dimensions, of the concept of grace. This, too, was a beautiful and illuminating conversation, as we started with our own feelings and experiences of grace and then read a series of scriptures from the life and teaching of Jesus, which made us think more deeply about what it means to be a person filled with grace when we enter into a encounter with another person — especially a person who comes from a different background or who harbors an opinion that is different from our own. We considered how Jesus treated people who wanted to discredit or destroy him, how he engaged with them from a grace-filled place, and it dawned on us that people who don’t experience grace and love for themselves, who don’t realize themselves as worthy of God’s grace, do not really have the capacity to extend grace to others.
We who call ourselves Christian are Easter people. We are experiencers of the ultimate grace. And for us, worship is about connecting with who we are and connecting with the One to Whom we belong, the One we worship, the One whom we are in the process of becoming like. Our doing — that is, our good works, our acts of compassion and kindness, the things we do when we walk out of the church building’s doors — flow out (or overflow out) of this experience of being, affirming who we are, in worship.
I mentioned here last week that I created this worship series from a brainstorm and research on the word “rise” in the Bible and in our body of Christian worship music. I noticed that there’s a good deal of contemporary worship music that focuses on the idea of the praise of people in worship “rising” up to God. I don’t know if that imagery resonates with you, but then a chanted version of Psalm 141 came up out of my memory, from an evening prayer service out of my Lutheran days, and that led to looking up references in the Bible to incense and fragrance. This was quite an unusual scripture study, as it turned out.
The occurrence of these words is very high in certain parts of the Bible — mostly notably in Exodus and Numbers, where incense is regarded favorably (it appears in many instructions for priests). The word also appears frequently in the books of I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles, where it’s just as likely to be used unfavorably, as in telling about a king or the people burning incense to the gods of the other nations rather than to YHWH. The use of this terminology drops off abruptly as you make your way through the Bible; in fact, Psalm 141 is the only one of the Psalms that even mentions incense, and the only occurrence in the gospels is found in the beginning of Luke, in the story of the the birth of John the Baptist, the news of whose immanent conception arrives by an angel to his father Zechariah the priest as he goes to the temple to burn incense, taking his once-in-a-lifetime turn to carry out this task.
The rest of the New Testament uses the language of incense and fragrance more metaphorically — more in the spirit of the Psalm, rather than describing a literal ritual of worship. Instead of burning incense as an act of adoration toward God, in the writings of Paul and others, prayer and good works, or the character of a faithful person, become the “offering” that “pleases” God, and the “pleasant fragrance” that makes an impression on others and draws them toward the Good News of Christ.
Throughout this spring, two of our young people, along with a parent and myself, have been going through a resource for youth called Building Spiritual Muscle. The final session was last Sunday, and I think the participants felt the experience was really worthwhile. They were introduced to, and then challenged — and challenged themselves — to commit to a number of spiritual disciplines, like Bible reading, meditation, fasting, and mission service. It was very touching to hear these young people’s reflections on which practices they found particularly meaningful, and which ones they found especially difficult. At times, they said, the most difficult things — the practices that required the most self-discipline and which stretched them the most — were those that they felt were the best for them. Their responses to this project, somewhat surprisingly, confirmed something I read several years back: that what younger people are craving for in Christian community is not fewer demands or “easy spirituality,” but greater challenges. They want to be stretched. My prayer for them, and for you, is that prayer and praise might rise like incense, in a regular, flowing stream, with thanksgiving and awe, in deep intimacy with the living God, bringing healing and wholeness to those who pray, to those who are prayed for, and to the world, for these practices make a difference, especially as we reflect more closely the One whom we worship. Amen.