Then Sings my Soul

Posted March 15, 2019 by Pam Harris

Wonder as Prelude to Worship

We live in an extraordinary and unprecedented time in the life of the church! For nearly all of us, we find ourselves in the midst of a culture that is increasingly disengaged from the church, and in the midst of a church that is struggling to name its significance. Most denominations have worked mightily to articulate a vision for growth, relevance, and faithfulness. That vision almost always centers on the vitality of congregations and the dynamics that characterize such strength and energy. In the midst of that, you and I seek to give witness to ways in which camp, retreat and conference center ministries are an integral part of this vision. We work to align the outcomes of an experience at our sites with the hopes and dreams of our denominations.

Across all denominational lines, one of the essential dimensions for the visions of congregational vitality relates to the ardor and passion of worship. We often plug camp and retreat/conference ministry into this aspect of a revitalized church by pointing to the worship experiences that persons have at our sites, and the almost universal qualities of engagement, authenticity, and relevance. We practice the passion and ardor that local congregations seek, and so, as we offer this experience, we hope that it becomes possible to graft the experience onto local congregations.

But we suggest to you that there is another fundamental way in which we serve this desire of our church. One of the great deprivations of our culture is the lack of wonder. In our quest to know, understand, and master every aspect of our existence we have shattered our ability to wonder, to be in awe at something that is beyond us, outside of us, much larger than us. While we use the word “awesome” much, much more than previous generations, we have reduced it to refer to nearly any positive experience, person with some impressive strength, skill or knowledge, or any delightful, new product.

Wonder and awe truly happen in our lives only when we realize that there is something unknown and unknowable to us, something much bigger than we are, something outside of us that is beyond our ken and outside our control. Our culture does not point us in that direction; it points in the opposite direction, toward human dominance.

We don’t wonder about much in our world. When it comes right down to it, we think humans are pretty smart, pretty capable, and pretty much in charge. But in order to worship, we have to comprehend that there is something worthy of worship, meriting adoration. Something must render us utterly speechless, and leave us with no choice other than to marvel.

Worship begins with wonder

There is no worship without wonder. There may be engaging and entertaining experiences, but they are little more than multimedia productions without wonder. We do not praise God, and cannot praise God, without the ability to acknowledge the one who is much, much, bigger than we are. Praise does not happen until we are gripped with awe.

The poverty of our culture to wonder, the proclivity to put human beings and human experience in the center of everything, obstructs worship. No matter how polished, upbeat, technologically advanced our events are, without wonder, they are not worship.

One of the essential gifts that we bring to the life of the church is the experience of God’s creation. It is Creation that “introduces” us to the One who is greater than we. Creation, the world around us, not as empirical reality, but as the Work of God, brings us to wonder. When we are in the midst of Creation, we begin to grasp that we are creature.

Most people spend their lives in situations of human construct. Most of our churches are facilities that perpetuate the illusion of human control (think of Gothic buildings, well-manicured lawns and low maintenance shrubbery). Little about these surroundings incites us to wonder, and so church struggles to inspire us to worship.

A crucial element in the quest to develop, support, and sustain vital worship in our congregations is that the folks in these congregations must have the capacity for wonder, the ability to stand, or kneel, in awe. Our ministry in this regard is a “capacity building initiative.” The capacity for true worship depends upon our ability to wonder.

Camps, retreat and conference centers can, and must be, conduits of wonder. This, more than learning music or practicing projection techniques, will enliven and make possible the worship that is both our duty and our privilege. Creation is not just a pleasant backdrop for the experiences of our campers and guests; it is an indispensable element in fulfilling our mission to serve the Church and make known to all the Saving Love of God. Creation is the Work of God which introduces us to the Reality of God.

A much beloved hymn begins this way:

Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul!
(How Great Thou Art, copyright 1955 by Manna Music, Inc.)

We, our kids and grandkids, our adults old and young need to see stars so numerous it causes us and them to gasp in amazement. We need to hear thunder so loud that it fills us with a measure of dread, knowing the power of the storm that bears down upon us. We need to sense the force of the water as we struggle to keep a kayak or canoe on course. When we have had these experiences, then our souls are ripe and ready to sing God’s praise.

Wonder is the thing that predisposes us to God, and so you might say that wonder predisposes us to faith – we worship because we have glimpsed God, and because we worship, we are more able to see God in our midst. Worship is not only the “result” of faith; it also leads us to faith – it forms us into believers. The shape of our worship becomes the shape of our lives. If our worship is impoverished because of our inability to wonder, we are diminished in our capacity to deepen or be transformed in our faith.

A favorite hymn of ours reminds us of this:

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all. He gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well.

[All Things Bright and Beautiful, copyright 1964 by Abingdon Press]

God gave us the eyes and ears to notice God’s Creation in order that we might be able to witness to God’s greatness. Our camp and retreat/conference centers, lead people into Creation so that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the work of God.

Exodus 13:20-22 is the précis of God’s people on a long journey. God went before them as both cloud and fire. In particular, God went before them as fire so that they could travel by night. In our culture, we are part of a church that is traveling by night. We can’t see where we are going very well.  May our campfires and hearth fires continue to be part of the light which leads the way.

This is a critical conversation for our lives and the life of our church. Let’s stay in touch.
Pam and Garrie

Copyright 2011 by Run River Enterprises. Material may be shared as long as source is acknowledged.

Our camp and retreat/conference centers, lead people into Creation so that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the work of God.

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