Going Through the Motions

Standard

The phrase “going through the motions” usually implies a half-hearted or insincere effort.

It is most often used for circumstances when we want people to be engaged and enthusiastic, but instead we see vacant expressions, a sea of zombies. And, like an old high school football coach screaming in the locker room at his sleepwalking athletes, we plea to the listless bodies: “Let’s show some life out there!”

There also seems to be an expectation, at least in the contemporary Western church, that a worship service should be a sort pep rally event, where anything short of people jumping over pews and shouting “hallelujah” is a disappointment.

Many, in defense of their preference for a lively experience, cite David’s dance (2 Samuel 6:14-15) as a proof-text and prescription. They treat this fist-pumping, near-naked and completely undignified affair as a sort of standard. However, this perspective neglects something very important and that something being context of this over-the-top expression.

That context?

Literally a once in a lifetime event.

The most sacred object of Jewish worship, the “ark of the Lord,” the physical manifestation of God in their midst, was being returned to Jerusalem. Recall the ark had been lost for a generation, captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11) and, though back in Israel, had never returned to Jerusalem. Of course this was a joyous occasion, a reason for great exuberance, the glory of God was being restored!

Revive Us…Again?

Those raised in a revivalistic setting often seek after an emotional experience. Unfortunately this is often the spiritual equivalent empty calories, something that feels good but lacks real substance of change, a momentary high often followed by a corresponding crash—a crash of equal (or greater) proportion to the energy boost that leaves many feeling more defeated in the end.

I made the mistake, in one of the most vulerable times of my life, of attending an Evangelical “tent meeting” outside of a nearby town. By chance, coincidence or divine appointment, the ‘impossibility’ (that person who became the physical representation of my inability to find a place in the Mennonite culture and not someone I had wanted to see in that particular place) had decided to attend. Not only that, but the ushers of this event, obviously not knowing of my personal struggle, seated her right in front of me.

Her presence there, combined with a sermon about faith and Peter’s walking on water before slipping under the waves of doubt, was the perfect storm for upheal. The manipulative tactics worked. My body began to shake and, after a few choruses of those familiar “altar call” hymns, I got to my feet and walked to the front of the congregation. Soon I would be wisked away by an earnest young gentleman, who offered to listen, prayed with me, and even checked in a couple times in the weeks after.

But the revival effect was very short lived. A day or two later, after that fleeting moment of assurance, I plunged back into my living hell. That exhausting emotional rollercoaster, the fleeting hopes of resolution followed by soul-crushing deep despair and longing for death, day in and day out, did not end. What happened that night was nothing but a false hope, it left me only more confused, more disappointed and desperate.

What finally did work to bring back some stability of mood was an Adderall prescription. That drug, an amphetamine, is prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and yet did wonders for my anxieties as well and was wonderful while it lasted. The morning after starting this, I woke up with music in my ears and the thought, “wow, this must be what it feels like to be Betty Miller!” It felt like a miracle. My mind stopped spinning in circles. I had confidence because I didn’t think, I simply engaged.

Ultimately, even after going off the drug for various reasons (including my inability to sleep) the effect of that experience was long-term. It is actually what gave me the reprieve needed to launch this blog, Irregular Ideation, and showed me some of the potential that I always knew I had and somehow could never realize. The revival meeting, on the other hand, was simply another episode that convinced me that the religious system I was a part of lacked a critical component and was only useful in that it led me to look elsewhere for answers.

The Cure For Chaos…

There is a big push in our time for spontaneity and casualness. Those trying to bring emotional energy back into worship attempt to accomplish that end by changing up the program. The assumption being that this change of window dressing (or rearranging of the deck chairs) is the key to spiritual renewal and confuse the commotion of the change with something of real spiritual value.

Unfortunately, the ‘pump’ is nearly always followed by the dump. More and more young people are losing interest in the shallow, ever-changing, consumer Christianity of their parents. For some this chaotic environment, supposed to keep them interested, provides them with no escape, no means to be in awe of God, and only feeds their confusion. Not everyone can jump and shout on cue—especially not when there are better adrenaline rushes to be had elsewhere.

What if I were to tell you that worship is about orienting ourselves towards heaven, not our personal preferences?

What if I were to tell you that church is a sanctuary, not a stadium?

It was only after attending a liturgical service that I realized the things missing from the form of worship that was familiar to me. Shockingly, it is in going through the motions, by worshipping in the manner similar to heavenly worship, that I’ve been most profoundly moved. Ironically, despite the order, despite the mundane moments of going through the same old routine, there is also a peace that comes by participating in worship passed down from ancient times.

But, more than that, it is trotting this well-worn path that the practice leads something wonderful beyond words. A cousin of mine, Michael Logen, a professional musician and song-writer out of Nashville, once told me that the key to good art is consistency of practice. In other words, instead of only writing when feeling inspired, he encouraged me to set aside time to write every day and it was in this “going through the motions” that our moments of inspiration could be most fully realized.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” (Bruce Lee)

In this age of instant gratification and ‘worship’ that amounts to emotional pornography, many run from one ‘spiritual’ experience to the next, and miss out totally on the real need of their heart. Tragically, in their constant running from one temporary fix to the next, they miss out on the opportunity to practice a worship that is not centered on them, their whims, and eventually no amount of gimmick will fill that void. No, repeating the same routine, in worship and prayer, will not transform a heart. That said, neither will constantly changing things up.

Sure, there is a time for the emotional display and recklessness of king David. However, there’s probably a good reason why worship at the temple in Jerusalem was orderly and patterned. Like an athlete who goes through the motions, repeating the same routines of exercise and practice to be ready for game time, we too benefit from a worship that doesn’t conform to our own expectations—rather preparers us for a life that requires less spontaneity and more stamina.

Sometimes just showing up, regardless of how we feel, is enough.

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8 thoughts on “Going Through the Motions

  1. kaitlyn

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few years and I also started going to liturgical services earlier this year (Catholic, though I know you’re Orthodox). I remember when you first started posting about going to an Orthodox church, I genuinely wondered why anybody would want to go there? But, you really opened my mind up. I want to thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting! You are a second blog reader who went the same direction, who became Roman Catholic…maybe I need to improve my sales pitch? 🙂

      Anyhow, I appreciate you commenting and would love to hear more about your journey as well. The value of a liturgical service is very difficult to understand for those who’ve never experienced it and especially for those who confuse spontaneity with authenticity. What did I say that turned the light bulb on? I’m curious…

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      • kaitlyn

        I think your posts about the real presence got me thinking. I had never thought about it before, honestly. Just thought that if they say it’s a “symbol”, then I guess it’s a symbol. Also this post —https://irregularideation.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/mennonite-ordinances-and-anabaptist-disregard-for-sacraments/ really made me think. Once again something I had never thought about. I was really hesitant though because I didn’t want to be a “church hopper” or somebody that changed denominations so easily. But then I thought man, people really “prove’ their denominations with a bunch of bible verses every time. Anybody can “prove” their denomination really. Then I started researching into sola scriptura and everything.. pretty much what happened. I do miss the community aspect of Mennonite and even just baptist churches a little bit, is it the same in Orthodox?

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      • It is amazing, almost every time I start to wonder if my blogging makes a difference there seems to be someone like you who reminds me otherwise.

        Anyhow, I was very much like you. I had always accepted it as just a symbol and never really thought beyond that. However, that isn’t what Jesus said, he talks about life coming from eating his flesh and blood in John 6 and uses the same language at the last supper. It was what the church understood for centuries, but somehow Zwingli and us ‘rational’ westerners knew better???

        As far as community, that was definitely a strength (albeit a diminishing strength) in the Mennonite denomination and the Orthodox can’t rival my being with my actual cousins. But there does seem to be a strong community emphasis (albeit also suffering in our hectic times) that centers on keeping up the parish grounds, perogi fundraisers, etc. We also have a “coffee hour” every Sunday, which is a meal and fellowship, which is something that I definitely enjoy…but, still, it continues to feel foreign to me and mostly because it is to someone raised in a different church culture.

        Anyhow, I’m another non-church hopping person who ended up being pushed outside his comfort zone. It is somewhat a bittersweet experience for me, I had never planned on or wanted to leave the denomination of my birth. However, continuing there simply became untenable and Orthodoxy was the only real option I had besides St Mattress.

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  2. patricia

    Hi Joel. Lots of food for thought here. I am evangelical Christian, charismatic for many years, then Baptist, and now attending an Alliance church. Many many years ago, churches had two services on Sundays, one on Wednesday evening, and usually had a choir unless they were so small that it would result in no one being in the congregation. One thing that was different was that it was not unusual to experience the presence of God in church. Eventually that became less and less . Of course sin our own lives can be part of that.

    But it seems to me that reverence and awe somehow disappeared as an emphasis on “freedom of worship” and “freedom on the spirit” came in. I had some good solid Mennonite friends who left to join the vineyard church for that reason, the freedom aspect. The irony is that I think their church at the time, was probably THE most Spirit filled church I’ve ever attended. Not to be too crude but they basically became jerks, Pharisees of a sort which is odd for folks who supposedly left a repressive church with a religious spirit supposedly for one that had freedom to move in the Holy Spirit.

    During my early days as a Christian I remember how we were coached to see the catholic church and Rome as the whore of Babylon. Nothing good could come from the Catholic church with its mary idolatry and praying to saints. And yet even then I sensed that they had a reverence for the Holy that was disappearing from evangelicalism. And I have met Catholics whose walk with God appears very genuine and who do believe Christ is their saviour. I know of Christians who have got fed up with the cotton candy of evangelical churchianity and have become Catholic. Something I am tempted to do because frankly I am not finding much substance in my faith at the moment. Thanks for writing. Very interesting. Look forward to more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you, Patricia, and I agree for the need for reverence and awe in worship or even just in life in general. We live in a time of disrespect for everything, it seems, where meaning and purpose are under attack and people need there sacred space more than ever. That is why Orthodoxy provides such a contrast, something that doesn’t change and remains steadfast in the shifting sands of our time.

      As far as where to go, I recommend Orthodoxy over Catholicism for a variety of reasons. First, Orthodoxy doesn’t share some of the issues of Roman Catholicism. Second, the liturgy we celebrate is over a thousand years old and remains the same. Sure, we have many similar practices, we originate in the same early church, but without the progressiveness and institutional issues that led to the Protestant reformation. I don’t think there is any church more faithful to the tradition of the early church than the Orthodox.

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    • Btw, during my Chrismation, as part of my vow, there was very specific language about the veneration of saints saying “not unto idolatry,” which was of great comfort to my Mennonite dad. It seems most of the serious charges leveled against the Orthodox (even Catholics) are based on lies or distortions rather than truth. Ironically there is more Scripture in our services every Sunday than I’ve ever heard in a Protestant church.

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