I thought yesterday’s post was a little one-off kind of post, published on a Saturday when no one reads blogs. But the post struck a nerve, both positive and negative. I’m fine with people disagreeing with my blog, especially respectfully, but I want to be understood. Some negative comments in particular didn’t seem to locate the critique I was making in the way I intended. I’m sure this was due to my lack of clarity, so I’d like to take another shot at being understood.
First, I didn’t say that any particular worship practice was wrong. I wondered at the end of the article whether how we plan worship might change if we connected silence to the living presence of God in the world. But I offered those as questions, not prescriptions. To focus on specific worship practices obscures my point.
I am very concerned that we are lacking in capacity to be attentive to God, which requires slowing down, absolutely requires it. It requires being still among other things. Absolutely requires it. I think it requires simplicity, which in turn produces a singleness of vision. Absolutely requires it. Silence is not simply a metaphor, as one comment suggested. It’s an actual practice, as are lifting hands and bending knees and singing and praying (which I’m in favor of).
Our world pulls us in exactly the opposite directions. Our lives are frenetic. And, again, to quote my friend, Randy Harris, “if you’re too busy, God didn’t get you there.” We are constantly being bombarded with things demanding our attention, one after another, producing a cultural attention deficit disorder. We have a hard time being still, and our lives are anything but simple. As I argued in previous posts, Matthew Crawford, in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, has brilliantly laid out the case for why we lack the ability to be attentive to anything, much less God, and calls for the preservation of “attentional commons,” public spaces that refuse to be filled with noise or unending ads. I am arguing that churches could be such spaces, but not as we are currently configured.
We don’t slow people down. The biggest sin a worship service could commit is boredom, which places certain kind of performance pressures on those who plan and lead worship. We’re on the clock, members needing to get on to the next thing. And as I said in the previous blog, we are seldom called to silence or stillness. I am of the opinion that this is a deep spiritual challenge that is deserving of our attention.
So, this is my critique. We might be feeding cultural appetites that make it tough to attend to God by offering more of the same in our worship assemblies. So, if you want to disagree with me, you’re welcome to, I may very well be wrong. But I would simply suggest you make this issue of attentiveness the focus of our disagreement.
On a less germane (to my argument) point. Some of you accused me of poor exegesis, particularly in my use of the Amos text. And if by exegesis you mean a historical-critical reading of Scripture, then you might be right. I certainly didn’t study it all out before I used the texts. But let’s check my work a bit.
I don’t see how you could say that Randy’s reading of Habakkuk, which I was following, is wrong. You might disagree with his application of the text, but clearly idols are being contrasted with the living God, precisely at the level of being able to address worshipers. Because God is not a dumb idol, because he can address the world, the appropriate posture is silence. I would go so far as to say that this should be the predominate gesture or posture of worship. It measures the distance between us and God, that God is God and we are not. It says that life works best when we wait for a word from God. You get the point.
But let’s look at Amos. I’ll admit that I wanted a text that contrasted the noise of our assemblies with silence, and Amos was the closest text in memory. I thought about whether or not I should use it, and decided that it was precisely because of its allusive power that I should. A few readers objected to its use, saying that this was a totally unfair comparison, one saying that Amos had in mind people who had abandoned God, which is not what is going on in our assemblies.
Ok, maybe a bridge too far, but…maybe not. I think we could all agree that Amos is concerned with practices of injustice in which the rich are complicit, and that they are papering them over with displays of piety. Would you agree with that reading? Now, Amos can see this clearly. Can those whom he is critiquing?
I doubt they would say that they had abandoned God. They are, after all, praying, fasting, offering sacrifices, worshiping God. Are they deliberately mocking God? If not, what belief would allow them to hold these things together? They might very well be explaining their circumstances as God’s favor related to their piety or to their status as God’s chosen people. These practices of piety, then, function as a hedge against the prophetic voice that they shout down. Amos, needless to say, sees this all very differently than they do.
So, what would be a legitimate analogy? Well, you would need wealthy believers living in the midst of economic injustice that they are at least ignoring, and in which they are likely complicit, but are papering that over with impressive performances in worship, which in turn allows them to ignore prophetic voices.
Well, that clearly doesn’t apply to us. Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, in our country, poverty is a matter of choice. I heard a Christian candidate for president say that just the other day. It’s simply a matter of how hard you work. Poverty in America, at its roots, is a moral problem. The poor must lack the will, the effort, the industriousness, to lift themselves out of poverty.
I wonder if Amos would see it the same way. Anyway, that would be my exegesis of Amos. I’ll let you decide whether or not it has any bearing.
Mark, I totally agree with your suggestion that we need more silence in order to listen. I grew up hearing “Let all the earth keep silence” as a way to shut people up before worship started, but we never taught them what to do with the resulting silence. What a constructive practice that could have been for teaching reflection and awe.
My sister attends a Friends Church in VA and silence is the key. Someone asked when the service starts? The reply was worship is over. I do believe that our time together in “worship” has no time for reflection. Josh did a great job at the table yesterday at EC but as soon as he sat down the music started. Would have been a perfect time for some reflection of God’s mercy, and sacrifice. Great message Mark.