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Is Worshipping Smart?
Beginning the Journey on a True Path
On January 4th, 2015, my wife and I worshipped at our church two days before Epiphany—Three Kings Day—and heard again the gospel of Matthew report that three wise men or Magi came from the east to visit the newborn king of the Jews. The timing of their visit doesn’t sync with other reports of Jesus’ early life and no one knows exactly who these visitors were or just where they were from, so tradition and legend have imaginatively filled in the gaps for us, adding some names and even granting those three mystery guests racial and cultural characteristics.The best guess of scholars is that they were astrologers, stargazers who studied the heavens for clues to important events and came calling when—as reported in Matthew, chapter 2—a great star appeared and led them to the house in which the child and his mother could be found. ‘Birthday’ presents followed and the trio returned home “another way,” escaping the rage of King Herod.
Setting the Scene
Whether or not the Bible record is totally or even partially correct isn’t the issue for me, not at this juncture. Scripture is never totally accurate concerning all things, since it brings with it the aims of the authors and traces of the times and manner in which each passage was written. Nevertheless, the Bible always gives us ‘food for thought’ and ‘food for our spirits.’ So, there we were at worship, along with about 350 other persons—singing hymns, sharing our Lord’s Meal and listening to ancient texts read and a sermon preached.
Here it comes: Is worshipping smart?
And then it happened. The pastor spoke about those three Wise Men in the usual way, but also said this, paraphrasing as closely as I can: “So these wise men came from somewhere else to worship the baby Jesus. We don’t know much about them, but we do know that they were smart enough to find their way across the border from one country into another, and that they weren’t too smart to worship.”
At that, my head snapped up and my ears flapped, at least figuratively. What was that I just heard? The Magi were smart enough to actually find their way from one country to another, but weren’t too smart to worship? Well, that struck me as wrong on several accounts.
Don't sell the Magi short!
First, if these three Magi were indeed professional watchers of the stars and studied them intently, then they knew quite a bit about traveling and were more than capable of finding their way about from one country to another all on their own—far more advanced tourists than just figuring out how to get across the border into another country.
Don't sell any of us short!
Second, and more disturbing though, was that comment about not being too smart to worship. That rankled me. For 41 years I gave sermons each Sunday and taught classes on the Bible and theology and social ethics. I suffered through inane discussions about the dumbest things—like ‘was it really an apple that Eve ate?’ [NO!] and, ‘if Adam and Eve were the first people on earth and had only two sons, where did those daughters-in-law come from?’ [I’ll let you, my readers, answer that one].
People are Smart, even when they worship!
To suggest that worshipping and being smart are conflicting attributes that cancel each other out is ludicrous. You don’t have to be dumb in order to worship, and you don’t have to give up worshipping if you’re intelligent and informed. That statement in the sermon rankled me on several levels. It was a professional blunder that should never have been spoken, let alone to other clergy and lay people who are bright. And, it fostered the enlightenment myth that suggests in order to make one thing good, you have to make something else its opposite and declare it bad. As the pop saying goes, we can ‘walk and chew gum at the same time.’ We can also think and worship concurrently.
How Smart are We?
Here’s why. People are intelligent by nature. We were created (for those who believe we are a divinely inspired creation) made in God’s image, ala Genesis 1:26. For others, who are atheists or at least agnostic, we have evolved quite a ways from the single-cell organisms near the start of our evolutionary chain of events. Our brains and skull cavities have gotten bigger over the eons and we learn more each year about our mental abilities and how our physical brains actually work. Any way you look at it, we’re pretty amazing creatures.
We can think and reason. We can recall the past. We can image the future. We can string thoughts together and conjure up all sorts of schemes. We can write complex musical pieces (well, some people can), we can write books, we can paint and weave and sew and design marvelous buildings (not to mention computers and drones and spaceships that land on Mars and bash into Mercury, and all-electric cars and solar energy devices etc.)
So, why don't churches get it?
In short, we’re pretty smart folk. But it doesn’t follow that worshipping is an act meant only for those missing a bunch of brain cells, though churches for the past 30 years or so have certainly fostered that impression. The most egregious example of this was an ad for a non-denominational church that ran in a local newspaper a number of years ago. The pastor of this particular church said, “We only sing songs written by people who are still alive!”
Now, think about that for a second, all you smart people out there. If that’s truly a virtue, then those ‘backward’ people like Beethoven (whose 9th Symphony theme is the basis for the hymn “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”) and Haydn (“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”) and Luther (“A Mighty Fortress”) and about 40 more!) as well as a host of other composers, poets and ‘intellectuals’ must be tossed out the window and considered dumb, not acceptable in worship. Not only that, but what does that pastor (who so disdained music written by anyone dead) do when one of the composers or text writers of his favorite praise song dies—toss away the song sheet and tell his congregation, ‘That one’s no good now!’
You begin to see the fallacy in the statement that worship and intelligence are mutually exclusive. Yet churches of all sorts have plunged right off that liturgical ‘cliff ‘ for more than three decades now by approaching worship in a manner I call the “least common denominator” or “dumbing down” method.
Getting things right
So, I dare you to find a church signboard in the U.S. right now that doesn’t list one of its weekly services as either “Contemporary Worship” or a “Praise Service.”
Now, let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with using upbeat music, different instruments, body motions, verbal assents, colorful ribbon wands or anything else you might mention in the service of worship—short of doing things that are profane or immoral (after all, we don’t need to reinstate the practice of temple virgins or spring sex orgies in our churches in order to truly be ‘with it’ these days). But there IS something wrong in claiming that any One form of worship is the only RIGHT one!
Vive la différence!
Let’s get real. Different people like different things. I’m tone-deaf about rap, for instance, having played in a symphony orchestra for a half-dozen years; besides, I can’t think fast enough or move my mouth quick enough to make up all those rhyming words, let alone get them out in sequence! We like different forms of worship too. Some people value silence and meditation. Others like loud music with a heavy beat. Still more are partial to a given structure, while their neighbors in the pew are free-wheeling and can appreciate ‘winging it’ from week to week.
Let's head in a different direction!
What’s important is that churches offer everyone what seems meaningful, instead of choosing for them, or—in the worst case scenario—anointing the latest fad and declaring that it's the ONLY thing to do, because that will bring in young people and the seekers.
Worship needs to be bigger than that. GOD is bigger than that. Let’s use all the gifts we’ve been given at birth, and go for it. Let’s expand our ideas of worship and not limit ourselves or our methods. Let’s respect everyone by not forcing one style of service onto the masses or suggesting that one type of worship is really better (or more/less intelligent) than others.
A final word
One ancient definition of the word “worship” is this: “the service of someone who is worthy.” Let’s be smart about our worship, and do what truly is worthy of God . . . the life force . . . the Ground of all Being . . . the cosmic energy that surrounds all of us . . . or any other name or word you choose individually as your reason for giving thanks and praise.