The View from the Vicarage

The View from the Vicarage

Encountering the Holy – being scared of the sacred.  Have you noticed the play on words – scared and sacred, simply swap two letters around and you change the meaning completely, scared and sacred.

I often feel that many people in today’s modern secular world, Christians included are afraid or scared of the sacred. Why should this be, possibly because the sacred takes us out of ourselves, out of our comfort zone and even suggests that we lose control and give that control to God, a higher power. One of the other reasons for being scared of the sacred is that entering into the sacred leads us beyond ourselves and our own powers to actually doing something about the sacred – action is required, and here is where it gets unnerving.

We lament the decline in worship attendance within the Church.  We have tried to inspire mission and evangelism by alarming ourselves and others with an unbalanced emphasis on sin and judgment. Churches have too often tried often in panic mode to manage worship and increase attendance with an unbalanced emphasis on obligation and procedure. These attempts are unbalanced because both are missing the same thing: A vision and experience of God’s holy presence and the good news of his kingdom. This leads to being scared of sacred.

Good worship is about all about awe, not strategy. Worship truly happens when people become aware that they are in the presence of the living God. This happened when Moses realized he was standing on holy ground. This isn’t the same as being afraid of God. That will drive us away from Him. It isn’t the same as feeling sentimental about God either. That reduces God to what some spiritual writers call “the heavenly sweetheart.” If we are afraid of God, then how can we ever know him and how can his news be good; if God’s only purpose is to make us happy then how can we call him Lord? These reductions of God’s presence and his good news diminish God and approach him as a force to be manipulated. But when we are in awe of God we are aware of His power and goodness and we are compelled to worship.

Some years ago staying with a priest friend of mine in Minnesota USA and I came across the writings of Annie Dillard, and she has some fascinating things to say about all this.

Annie Dillard in her book, “Teaching a Stone to Talk” 1982, describes awe: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offence; or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Awe should not be reduced to a single emotion. Awe includes many human emotions. For instance, we can be in awe of beauty or majesty. We can be in awe of power and strength. We can be in awe of talent and artistry. We can be in awe of mystery and wonder. Likewise, reverence should not be reduced to a single emotion. It does not simply mean sedate. For instance, we show reverence of marriage at a wedding and it is proper to be joyous. We show reverence for life and loved ones at a funeral and we feel grief and sadness but also may recall happy memories. Awe and reverence involve many moods and styles but they have one thing in common – response! Maybe it is the response element that makes us scared of sacred.

Awe and reverence are about more than “shock and awe” demonstrations of force. Do you recall how around this time a few years ago many people were moved by the movie by Mel Gibson “The Passion of the Christ?” Very few people watched that movie in a sedate, calm, reflective atmosphere. People were moved with grief and sorrow. They were, in the words of Scripture, cut to the quick. I remember at the end when the risen Christ leaves the tomb someone shouted “YES!” and applause broke out. This wasn’t exhibitionism. It was awe and reverence! The film also convicted people. Some responded by changing their lives. I recall coming out of the cinema and watching how people were almost bowing to the screen as if an altar in Church. This is what happens in worship: God’s presence and his actions are revealed and we must respond.

Our Response to God involves elements that we can speak of separately, but we must be careful not to break these down and separate them completely. On the one hand we have the substance of worship: these are things like the preaching of God’s word, praise, the Holy Eucharist, Baptism, prayer, the public reading of the word, confession, and thanksgiving. We include all the actions, forms, and traditions that God’s people have always used to participate in worship and encounter God’s presence. On the other hand, there is the experience of the worshipper and the worshipping church. This involves current events, language, issues, problems, feeling, style, style of church music. 

When a local congregation experiences a tragedy, perhaps a sudden death of a beloved member or leader, their worship that Sunday is going to be different than the congregation that on the same Sunday celebrates because people they have been praying for respond to the gospel. Each church participates in the same substance of worship, but their experience is different. That’s biblical; the psalms are a collection of Israel’s worship songs. Not every song comes from the same experience. Sometimes the psalmist is angry, confused, sad, thankful, joyous, or reflective. The experience can also vary because of culture.

When the substance of worship and the experience of the worshipper combine, worth is ascribed to God. That is the core dynamic of our response to God’s presence and his mighty acts. Combined, these elements represent our way of participating together in our worshipful response to God.

When you break out of the ordinary, the well worn ways of worship, when you dare to take off your shoes, you will find that you are indeed standing on Holy Ground – and what a difference it makes. Today think outside your normal Church of England worship box, let the silence, the lack of familiar words and postures speak to you of a deeper encounter with God.

Your friend and parish priest,

Fr Paul Blanch