Seriously, now – all the quotable lyrics from countless pop songs aside – if someone were to ask you exactly what a kiss is, what would you say? Webster’s, for instance, defines a kiss as “a touch of the lips.” Or you could get detailed about it and answer that a kiss is the simultaneous contraction and contact of two sets of orifice muscles. That would be technically correct… but it really doesn’t answer the question either, since a “technical kiss” is a lot like a “Technical Knock Out” in boxing: neither takes your breath away, and only tells a very small part of the story!
However, if you were to describe a kiss as, say, that marvelous sense of instantaneous comfort and reassurance a child receives from a mother’s kiss; or as the joyous and passionate union of two people in love; or even if you were to wax poetic and speak of a kiss as “a brush with angel wings,” or “a drink from a cup filled with magic and mixed with surprise”…well, then, you’d start to come pretty close to describing what a kiss really is all about! Ultimately, what makes a kiss real and special is in the way it grabs at our whole being: physically, emotionally, even, at times, spiritually. It ought to truly touch the heart; for in the words of that Motown classic, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby!” (you knew I couldn’t avoid quoting a song lyric!)
Actually, it occurs to me that much the same thing can be said about worship.
As much as we clergy-types are prone to denial of this fact (and moreover, often actively work against it!) it’s nonetheless true that by design and by its very nature, there is a certain order, rhythm and routine to the act of Christian worship. This is particularly true of the so-called “mainstream protestant church” of which many of us in the New England Congregational/UCC tradition are a part. This Sunday, for instance, most of us will repeat the Lord’s Prayer (“debts” or “trespasses” depending on the local congregation’s own history), some version of the Doxology will be sung, and the sacred acts of Word and Sacrament will unfold in one way or another. To be sure, part of how this all happens and in what order has to do with the personality of a particular congregation; that is, “the way we always do it in this church,” but it’s also worship rooted in liturgy as old and as rich as the church itself.
At East Church, though we’re not as “high church” as some, nor are we particularly rigid about it all (As I am fond of saying, we tend to be informal about our formality!), from the moment we gather together for praise to when we are sent forth for proclamation there is nonetheless a clear direction and movement to what we do in worship. This is worship that connects us in faith and practice with Christians everywhere, and that is a very good thing, indeed; yet by virtue of the tradition itself it runs the very real risk of fading into something much too technical rather than something excitingly real. In other words, we come to church, we sing the songs and we pray the prayers, but it has become so familiar and as matter-of-fact a process that ultimately that’s all we do! As worship gets done by rote, we stop truly speaking to God; and worse, we fail to listen: and that flies directly in the face of true Christian worship is supposed to be!
I’m reminded here of something Deane Kemper has written in regard to that customary phrase so many worship leaders (myself included here) utter just prior to the reading of scripture: “Let us listen for the Word of God.” More than a mere segue into the day’s Gospel Reading, Kemper writes, “When I tell the congregation, ‘Listen for the word of God,’ I’m speaking a warning as I would to people standing on the railroad tracks when a fast freight is rounding the bend. Something great and powerful is coming, and you should know it. Look Out!”
I wonder; for all of our sincere effort at keeping “all things in good order” in regards to the “act and attitude of worship” just how much of that kind of immediacy and power we miss? That would be tragic; for ultimately, worship is more than just the correct sum of its parts; it’s about the presence and power of God in the world and in our lives. True worship is to be nothing less than our response to the free, spontaneous, unpurchased and unpurchasable overflow of God’s love; it’s what stirs us out of the everyday and commonplace of our lives, but what makes the commonplace take on a much deeper significance. Indeed, if I might put it this way, true and real worship is what happens when you’ve been kissed by God, and have never quite recovered from it!
At worship this past Sunday, I had another “worshiping without a net” experience during the “Ministry with the Children,” and in a very good way. It wasn’t anything specific – I’d brought in some fallen leaves from outside to talk about God’s order of creation and the promise of spring to come – but there were some funny moments; one of our kids, a special needs child, really seemed to be engaged in the conversation; and everybody’s coming to learn the Bible Memory Verse I’ve been teaching this fall (Micah 6:8). It just all seemed to be working; the Spirit was moving, and after having a closing prayer with the kids and sending them off to Sunday School this pastor was so jazzed by the experience I promptly forgot the order of service altogether, skipping right over the Pastoral Prayer and going straight to the offertory!
Of course, my liturgical faux-pas was easily forgiven by a chuckling congregation, and we did get back to the all-important time of prayer (after the offering!). But it did serve as a good reminder to all of us that when it’s “the real thing” in our worship, the Spirit might just lead us in ways and directions you don’t expect.
After all, a kiss is sometimes more than just a kiss…
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry