Howard reminisces about his early experiences worshiping in the Church of England. Howard felt a sense of relief that he could kneel in prayer at St. Andrews. “Our innermost attitudes cry out for a shape. They long to be clothed in flesh…we are happy and our face muscles stretch into smiles; we are sad, and our tear ducts go to work…we are exasperated, and we throw up our hands; we are angry, and we clench our fists.” Howard contrasts these natural postures (which to me seem to reach their most effusive expression in Latin cultures) with the unnatural stillness of the Tibetan lama, whose “motionlessness of…body had percolated inwards and assisted his soul to be motionless.”
Actions mirror the emotions, but actions can also guide the emotions. Howard’s observation speaks to a dilemma I often feel in worship services.
In I Tim 2.8, St. Paul says: “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” In an average Sunday worship service, my inner dialogue goes something like this.
“You know the Bible tells you to lift your hands.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Why should that matter?”
“If I do something I don’t feel like doing, I’m a hypocrite.”
“But the verse says to do it without doubting.”
So, I give in, and from a heart burning in anger, bitterness and envy, throw up my hands in surrender to the Lord anyway. And, strangely, I find Howard’s point to be true. Not always, but often enough, the interior softens to match the exterior.
For Howard, the common phrase “worship experience” shows that we worship for ourselves (to quote Victoria Osteen) instead of creating an act of worship to God. Designated times to kneel, designated prayers to pray, and a designated form of worship are the physical things that help our hearts along in creating the act of worship, just like my lifting of the hands in spite of my own attitude generally changes my attitude.
Howard is right as far as that goes, but there’s another side. If the worship experience is not about us, why does Howard recall the relief that he felt in being allowed to kneel when he prayed? Why does the aesthetically rich worship service in the Roman Catholic Church exist to remind our senses of the Gospel? The things which exist to assist our hearts in creating the act of worship can just as easily become ends in themselves, things which we pursue to give ourselves a pat on the backs, and the impression I get when I step into a church steeped in ancient tradition is that of a whole lot of people patting themselves on the back for going through the right motions.
Perhaps the command of Christ to worship in spirit and truth hints at our need for pure hands and clean hearts. Howard, I know, would agree. Our external actions can and should assist us in worship, but when it comes to problems of the heart, external actions are besides the point. The line in the sand is why we lift our hands and kneel in prayer. Doing those acts to help us worship better is commendable. But, let those acts once be done to clean up our souls, and we will find ourselves on our knees among the best of the Pharisees. Our biggest problem — sin — is too deep down to clean up on our own hands and knees. The only remedy is Christ’s death. So, in gratitude to Him, let us bow in adoration and worship!