Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unformed Thoughts on Worship

None of my thoughts are well formed these days, so why should those on worship be any different?

At least that's the excuse I'm using this morning when no, I am not in church. I have some hope, though, that there will be some contributions in the comments that will lead, eventually, to some degree or another of sorting out.

My disorganized thinking on the subject has been generated by Quotidian Grace's
post challenging an earlier post written by Bruce Reyes-Chow, the Moderator of the PCUSA, in which he offers the beginnings of a rationale in favor of twittering during worship services. QG objects primarily on the grounds that we struggle enough as it is to focus during worship. Bruce, as I understand it, finds twittering to offer valuable potential for community response to God and to one another.

It's no secret that I've struggled mightily with worship over the past several months. (Perhaps not a politic admission for a seminarian, but I have concluded that there is some value to be found in addressing the real-life fallout of bereavement.) When I go to my own church (in which, as far as I know, no one twitters ~ but some of us do take notes on the bulletin, and pass occasional commentary back and forth), I am usually overwhelmed by the energy and sense of community ~ aspects of our worship that I treasured a year ago, and for many years before that. (And apparently I also have a bit of PTSD going on. It had never occurred to me before that there might be a good reason to avoid having your child's funeral in your own church sanctuary.)

And yet, I keep returning ~ to other churches when I cannot manage my own. Worship is not, after all, much about me. I try to find places where other people are praying, and singing, and engaging with God in some way, even when it seems beyond me personally. And I am very aware, and grateful to acknowledge in some some way, that what is beyond me personally is being taken up on behalf of myself and my family in synagogues and Catholic and Protestant churches all over the country.

The other day, a friend talked about having gone to church a couple of weeks earlier for the first time in over a year. Her family is in the thick of it these days, contending with her husband's devastating and tenancious cancer. "I was SO BORED," she said. "All that ritual ~ it's boring and meaningless. I'm too experientially oriented for church. A day in the wilderness ~ that's my church."

The wilderness is a church for me, too. God in all things. But the ritual, the liturgy, the sacramental community, the attentiveness to text ~ I love all those things, too. It occurs to me, however, that they all ~ like the wilderness ~ require an education before they can be fully appreciated. I can't comment on where my friend has directed her energies. But I know that I can find God in the wilderness in part because I have invested years in the study of birds, in art because I read and look and listen to what others have to teach me about painting and architecture, in church because I practice (in the literal sense of the word) my religion intently in a variety of ways.

"Twittering" asked my 24-year-old son, when I told him about the discussion. "That incredibly irritating practice?" "How would you know whether it would be a problem in church, since you don't go to church?" I asked him. "No, but I think I understand the point," he said. "And what about the people who have prepared for and work so hard on the service?" he asked. "I don't think I've ever attended a church that lacked a coffee hour ~ why can't people socialize there?"

I will admit that one of the first things I had thought about, in response to the initial posts, was the effort that goes into leading a service, and how dismayed I would be as the minister, the preacher, the music director, the liturguist, the choir member, to know that people were twittering among themselves rather than offering themselves and their attention and participation to the drama of the service. I don't doubt that God is in the twittering, as one of its proponents argues. (Although I have to say, that last one felt like a really bizarre sentence for me to write.) But worship is an opportunity to focus on God's self-disclosure, rather than upon our own, and to respond directly to God, rather than to one another.

In the end, I realize that perhaps my own orientation is just contemplative enough to make twittering during worship an outrageous proposition. I can imagine that if one is directed more completely toward the evangelical (in the sense of sharing), the prophetic, the social, or the kinesthetic in one's engagement with God, then twittering could have its place. Given my own extraordinary challenges these days, I am willing to make room for others to experiment with approaches to theirs in creative ways that might seem frustrating or damaging to me.

I will share, though, as representative of my own viewpoint (with apologies for the unabashed male gender of the language) the following quotes which appeared
here, on the blog The Website of Unknowing yesterday. I found it pretty humorous that they popped up in my blog reader as I was pondering this topic.

The tragedy of modern man is that his creativity, his spirituality, and his contemplative independence are inexorably throttled by a superego that has sold itself without question or compromise to the devil of technology.

The contemplative seeks to liberate his soul from all external control, to purify and detach it from material, sensual, and even spiritual compulsions, and to surrender it to the truth and creative freedom of the Holy Spirit.

I personally question the liberating power of Twitter. But I'm willing to listen to the arguments.


Daisy said...

We are so very busy keeping ourselves distracted. There are too many days when I completely understand having to have outside noise to deliberately avoid hearing one's own thoughts. Eventually though, that respite must end. The phrase "Be still and know that I am God" comes to mind.


Anonymous said...

Yep..and while we women are so proud of the fact that we can multi-task.... as i get older, i become more staunch in my belief in a "zen mind..." Be wholly present wherever you are.... I think church is definately one of those places.... Wouldn't want a cell phone to go off, would ya...? Same thing...essentially.

Anonymous said...

GOD wants our attention. That's why it is called worship.

I too love teh liturgy, teh rituals adn do not choose to attend my own church's contemporary serice, going instead to the comforting service with an order and and few surprises, a choir that has rehearsed a song to honor our Creator and a message from the Lectionary (although I would dispense with it's insistant sameness over time). There are nough times in this service and the times before and after to catch up with others and share fellowship. Worship is focus time for us to notice God.


Jennifer said...

I'm conflicted--I'll admit that the idea of twittering in church made me cringe as I read it. But just this morning, as my mind wandered during the sermon, I desperately wanted to pick up my Palm Treo, search our a favorite blog, and find God there! Perhaps I'm better for persisting in trying to attend, but I'm not sure....The addictive quality of all technology is something I'm aware of, and thus loathe to bring into the sanctuary. There are days I long for coffee, too, or perhaps a nice big bowl of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, but I'm also grateful it's not customary to lug these addictions into worship with me! I loved your sentence about worship being about God's self-revelation....this hit the spot for me!

Choralgirl said...

"But worship is an opportunity to focus on God's self-disclosure, rather than upon our own, and to respond directly to God, rather than to one another."

YES. That's the heart of it for me.

I'll cop to the fact that, as someone who sweats over the offering of worship experiences, it seems a bit of an affront to not have people tune in; it seems like an extension of our lack of focus on human connection--on our inability to focus on actual conversation without doing six other things simultaneously. But that's not the worst of it for me.

The worst part is that it seems like such a losing battle to try to teach something so foreign as contemplation to people so happily immersed chin-deep in a thoroughly technophilic culture.

That's also part of the reason I have a visceral resistance to PowerPoint and video in worship (though not all of it)...despite reasonable arguments to the contrary.

This, from a blogger who has also checked Facebook four times today...

(rolling my eyes at myself and vowing to stay open to the questions)

Stushie said...

Great post, GG.

I wonder if we're also missing the sabbatical nature of worship where we rest in God's embrace. If we're too busy twittering and tweeting, how will we ever experience such a blessing?

Kathryn said...

I'm a convinced tweeter, enjoying the chance for new/rapid connections several times a day, but I'm also responsible for leading worship in 2 churches...& I'd hate it if I thought that tweeting was going on during the service. I've only once read a tweet sent thus - & it was a teenage protest at an overlong & (from her perspective)dull sermon. She could have waited til the end of the service to share her feelings of dismay. SOMETIMES I guess you might experience something in worship specially apt for a friend or a wider circle...but won't it keep?? If it was good you risk missing what comes next.
Just. Not. The. Right. Place.

PS Verification =reclusn & I wouldn't want that either.

Quotidian Grace said...

Fabulous post, GG. Sorry I'm late in getting too it.

Also love the comments which add much to the discussion. Thanks everyone!

ellbee said...

I will confess to being a fairly consistent Tweeter, though not as prolific as some. I will also confess to resisting the urge to do so in more than one worship setting. One place it would have been snarky observations, but in one service, it was a desire to share a particularly insightful thought from a sermon.

In the former, I resisted because it just was wrong and I knew it in the moment. In the case of the latter, I opted instead to write it down on my bulletin. Not because I was more likely to tuck it away and type it into my blog later, but because I knew that there were those around me who would be distracted and wondering why in the world I had my phone out in church. 50-50 guilt and concern for others.

Most of my friends/followers aren't even in my city, much less my congregation. I haven't wrapped my head around how one might improve worshipping together that way. At least not until I see a community of faith that has really mastered the face-to-face variety.

Michelle said...

I suddenly imagined a set of tweet bubbles, akin to thought bubles, appearing above the altar -- unseen by the presider/reader/homilist, etc...

It was not a pleasing sight!

Laurie said...

Oh, my. I wish I was as optimistic as those who believe church twittering is all about the sermon and God. I highly doubt it, myself. I find twittering the most ridiculous,self-absorbed activity yet and if I never heard the words "twitter" or "tweet" again (except from birds) I would be very happy.
Signed, your friend Laurie, the curmudgeon Luddite

Debbi said...

Jennifer's word 'cringe' was my reaction, as well as incredulity. Say What!!??? I could not even begin to wrap my mind around this concept. I was tired when I read the blog, decided to just forget about it and get to bed. Then lo and behold I was browsing the June 1 issue of TIME and there it was, with a full color photo and bold black lettering: Twittering in Church. Now I get it, kind of. I do bring a journal with me, take notes if moved to do so, sometimes talk about it afterward in the courtyard, and occasionally exchange a homily-related email with a friend, but a 'Twitter Sunday' as described in the article is not for me. However, the truth is that there are more grayheads at our service than twentysomethings and my denomination in general is experiencing a decline. The article quotes a pastor that is a responsibility of a church to leverage whatever's going on in the broader culture to connect people to God and to each other. If my church chose to add twittering to ONE of the services and it opened spiritual doors to more people, I would have to say alleluia.