Hard hats for hymn singers

Reflections

Bishop Jeremy Greaves asks, “What if we actually believed everything we prayed and said and sang in our worship?”

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As a 19-year-old backpacking my way around Europe and staying in youth hostels, I came across a little book, left behind in a shared kitchen, that I have carried with me ever since. Annie Dillard’s collection of short meditations, Teaching a Stone to Talk, captivated me when I first read it and always repays return visits with rediscovered gems.

At Pentecost when our worship is filled with invocations of the Holy Spirit, I am always reminded of Dillard’s musings about what it is that we do in worship:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we 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 offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”1

It reminds me too of that great Gospel song, ‘Be careful what you pray for…you just might get it’.

What if we actually believed everything we prayed and said and sang in our worship? What if we really expected the Holy Spirit to ‘fill our lives’ or ‘fill our hearts’? What if we truly accepted that we are loved and forgiven? What would our worship be like if we really thought that Christ was present?

I suspect, as does Annie Dillard, that often we come to worship and say our prayers and sing together and share the Eucharist and we come away unchanged…because we have long given up expecting to be changed by any of it. Perhaps, if we slowed down and thought carefully about the words of the liturgy we would be too afraid to join in any of the prayers. Or perhaps we might rediscover their power and their meaning and our lives would be changed, not just for the hour when we are in church, but enough so that we are changed forever.

I visited one congregation where they handed out earplugs at the door, but perhaps Dillard is right and we should all be wearing hard hats.

1 Dillard, Annie. 1982. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 40-41.

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