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May my prayer rise up as incense …


Last month I was sitting in a worship space engaged in the Liturgy of the Hours with a couple of dozen Trappist monks and about as many retreatants.  The liturgy took its familiar pattern.  Mixed in with the psalms which we all chanted together responsively, the monks offered a hymn. On this particular day, the hymn was in Latin.  The melody was beautiful, and I wished that I remembered more of my Latin from my former life. That thought triggered an interesting chain reaction in my thinking about our worship.

First I thought perhaps that they could have sung hymn in English so that those of us who were sharing worship with them could understand them.  Then I reminded myself that these monks were gathered to worship God and those of us there on retreat were welcomed as participants.  Our participation did not depend on our understanding the lyrics to the hymn, since it was sung neither for nor to the retreatants who were there.  Their offering of prayer, scripture, and song was made to the glory of God and for God’s benefit and ‘consumption’ only.

Acknowledging that I did not need to understand what was being sung, enabled me to lift my voice with them – silently – in offering the praise to God.  I could hear the song as a fragrant offering, as incense, raised before the Lord and could let my own prayers rise with it.

Later, I reflected to the friend who was with me how different that approach to worship seems from the typical worship services that most of us offer in our congregations.  On a theoretical level, we all know that God is the both subject and object of our worship.  Still, from a practical point of view, it occurred to me that in our mainline congregations we devote a great deal of time and energy designing worship services around the premise that those who will attend and participate (or not) in our worship services are the primary recipients of the worship.

How often do we design worship services so that they will either attract newcomers or appeal to those who are already participants?  How much energy do we devote to attempting to make our worship accessible to seekers?  Meaningful to those with different musical tastes or different comfort levels with ‘high church’ liturgy practices and rites?  Relevant so that those who have been ‘turned off’ by what they deemed stale or boring worship will re-consider our congregation?

I am not sure what the answer is, or even if there is really a question in all of this.  But I am blessed by and thankful for a group of monks who allowed me to share in their worship of God as well as the gentle reminder of the truest purpose and nature of our worship.  I hope that in the future I am even more diligent in designing worship services, not to attract or appeal, but so that they serve to both enable the gathered community to offer their collective worship to God and enter into the majesty and mystery of the God who joins us in the process.

KMS @ CCD (pinch-hitting for ACL)

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