(Presented at Dixon Center Alternative Chapel 9/18/08)
It’s possible that you’ve heard the following terrific quote:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”
That’s from a letter written by Galileo Galilei, the dude from the early 17th century who suffered a lot of persecution because he had the audacity to assert that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak today about the question, “How do we worship God with our minds?”
When we talk about worship, we come to the table with a number of preconceived notions, many depending on our own worship traditions. For most of us, the idea of worship is largely confined to the walls of a church building. During the week we live and move and have our busy little beings. On the weekend, we take some time out of our hectic existence to make ourselves somewhat presentable, file quietly and reverentially with a lot of other presentable people into a place set aside for worship, a place that is frequently referred to as “The House of God,” and we alternately sit and stand, sing and listen, clap and/or be quiet in the various rituals and practices that, for most of us, define what it means to worship.
While we find that Scripture does in fact support this definition of worship, we also discover that our Sunday behavior is only a small part of what worship is supposed to involve. The Apostle Paul, for instance, says in Romans 12: 1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” And in Matthew 22 Christ identifies the two greatest commandments in this way: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
One of the most pivotal moments of my own life occurred when I was 19 years old. I had just come out of a horribly oppressive and ultra-conservative Christian sect hidden away in a rural part of southeastern Virginia and I was on my way to a small Bible College in the suburbs of Dallas, TX, when I had a remarkable encounter along the road. The Bible has a lot of these roadside marker experiences, which would make a great study subject, I suppose.
On my way to Dallas, I stopped in Fort Worth to visit one of my many uncles and there I had a chance meeting with a man named Manuel, a total stranger whom I met that day and have never seen since. Manuel described himself as an agnostic existentialist. He might as well have swatted me across the face with his gauntlet and challenged me to a duel. I went after him like a fly to a cow pie. My intention was to dismantle his agnosticism then and there and bring him, all trembling and weeping, by force of my all-powerful arguments, to the very throne of grace.
But, oh my! I had no idea what I was in for. In short order, Manuel took me apart, line-by-line, statement-by-statement. He unhinged my confident arguments and overcame my secure defenses in much the same way Hurricane Katrina swept over the levees in New Orleans. I soon found that not only did I not know what I was talking about I really didn’t even know what I believed myself. By the time Manuel left that evening, I was the one left weeping and trembling, wondering how this could have happened to me and even angry at God for leaving me in the lurch.
In retrospect, it was exactly what a mentally driven young person like myself needed, and I’m convinced today that Divine Providence put Manuel in that place on that day to meet me and to blow my false certainties apart.
I have to confess that I didn’t get the message. My initial reaction to this distressing experience was to search for more certainty, to spend hours and hours of Bible reading and study in an attempt to exorcise the constantly questioning demon that tormented my soul. One of my favorite passages of Scripture became Jeremiah 29, where it reads,
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.
And in the true spirit of appropriating scripture to fit my need, I felt that this message to the nation of Israel was God’s secret code, placed there just for me, and I saw my captivity as my ceaseless wrestling with the truth and saw that searching for God with my whole heart meant devoting my time and energy to this pursuit of Certainty, the Holy Grail of my existence. At one point, I was like a Jewish Hasid at the Wailing Wall. I would pray standing up, rocking back and forth, resorting to groanings that cannot be uttered to express the cry of my heart. That was all while I was in college.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. How does this story progress? If this were one of those terrific standard stories such as you find in the works of John Eldredge, I would tie it up in a nice little ribbon, tell you about the time I received the powerful thundering revelation from on high that settled it all for me and answered my riddles, like Robinson Crusoe being rescued at last from the desert island.
The truth may come as an unwelcome shock to a lot of people here today. The truth is that over the intervening years from then to now, nothing has essentially changed. I never succeeded in answering my questions conclusively. I never attained the promised land of absolute certainty. But along the road, I did make a remarkable discovery, and that discovery is the heart of what I want to tell you today, the heart of what I believe it means to worship God with our minds.
What I discovered was Faith and what the medieval Christians called the Mysterium Tremendum, which translates to the “Tremendous Mystery,” but sounds a lot cooler in Latin, so we’ll use that instead. In my discovery of faith, I have come to believe, and I think Scripture supports this very thoroughly, that God is not to be found in the answers. He is to be found in the questions. That God is not in the certainties, but in the ambiguities. That God is not to be found in all the noise and clamor of the clearly identifiable wind, fire and earthquake of our harsh declarations, but in the much less identifiable soft, whispering murmur that we refer to as the still, small voice. He’s in the burning bush. He’s in sound of the cool breeze in Genesis 3.
I’ve always found it curious that devout Jewish believers insist that the true Name of God cannot be said, that to try to pronounce it is an act of deep disrespect and disqualifies you from having any part in him. And I’ve often wondered, as I am sure you have, why Christ seemed to spend more time telling stories with open-ended interpretations than he did declaring certainties.
I believe the reason is that God wants us to use our minds to engage him with questions. Once upon a time I thought this was a marked lack of faith, but now I think the opposite, that God expects us to wrestle with him, like Jacob at Piniel, like Isaiah in chapter 1:18, where God says, “Come let us argue together.” Is God threatened by our questions? No. I think He welcomes them.
I saw a movie recently called Smart People in which a widowed college professor on his first date in years spends the evening lecturing his date about literature. Eventually, she leaves in disgust. He asks her what he did wrong and she calls him a pompous windbag, “You never asked me a single question about my life,” she says as she stomps off.
I wonder how often what we call worship actually does the same thing the professor in the movie did. It seems we spend a lot of time informing God of what’s going on with us, then we tell God who He is, just in case he doesn’t know, then we clue Him in on other things we know about Him, all the while showing proper reverence and gratitude. I doubt there is anything wrong or bad about any of that, really. But do we pause long enough to ask? Do we stop long enough to engage him on that intense, personal level in which we are willing to bring to the fore the questions we have been afraid to ask, but that He is more than willing to hear?
For while I can’t say that I have absolute answers to all my questions, I can say with more certainty than many other things that I have met God, and that while I may know less about Him than I once thought I knew, at least when I have shouted my questions, I have heard that soft whispering murmur that says not only that He is there, but that He smiles when he hears from me.
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Thomas Merton, who writes in his book No Man is an Island: “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.” Let’s not be afraid of the questions. Let’s love God, not just with our heart and soul, but also with our mind.