Two years ago, on the Fourth of July, I sat in the high seats of the Cotton Bowl, watching Dallas’ fireworks with a few thousand others and marveling at the experience. How often does one sit with strangers, staring up and joining in the chorus of “ahh!” each time a particularly stunning array of color splits the sky?
You may think it strange, but the “ahh!” moment captures something of the heart of worship.
Humans have gravitated to worship for millennia, reaching out for the something more. We yearn for the “ahh!” experience. Unlike the certainty that modern religion espouses, it’s about acknowledging and pursuing the mystery. Whether in a house of worship or a garden, worship connects soul to mystery.
But it doesn’t happen all the time, and it requires something of us. What exactly?
Worship requires attentiveness. It gives attention to the mystery, often in dedicated space and for dedicated time. One pays attention to what’s happening around and within, hoping for an experience of eternal connection. As in other spheres of life, good habits (practice) lead to meaningful moments. We celebrate the victory moment for Olympic athletes, but what we admire is the devotion and attention given to a singular pursuit. Similarly, those who experience transcendence practice giving attention.
The poet Mary Oliver (In the Kingdom) wrote, “The dream of my life is to lie down by a slow river/And stare at the light of the trees- /To learn something by being nothing/A little while but the rich/Lens of attention.” In a world of endless distraction, developing a lens of simple attention can be a gateway to the deeper life.
Worship also requires vulnerability. It’s about having your heart cracked open and allowing your mind to dance on dreams that the grind of life crowds out. This means, of course, that worship is also about connection. Only through vulnerability, with others and the Divine, can real connection become reality.
When the storyteller/researcher Brene Brown returned to church in adult life, she thought it would be a safe place to deny her chaos. What she found, however, was not a shelter from suffering, but a Presence — of God and others — to be with her in suffering. It was better than what she expected, and enough — not escape or certainty of faith, but connection.
Finally, worship requires selflessness. In true worship one forgets oneself for a while. Our church often prompts people to breathe deeply, forget about grocery lists and set aside a hundred other details. They’re invited to “come away for a while.” Lose yourself to find yourself. Recover your life by letting it go. One definition of worship is “the weekly practice of not being God.”
We live in the world where the sky lights up, where heaven and earth collide and our faces turn upward. If we’re willing to be attentive, vulnerable and selfless, we can experience the transcendent.