Attitude, not incense, is important

Dave Harvey

During my last year at college, several of my friends and I decided to change our Sunday morning worship habits. We had all grown up in evangelical homes and churches. We were all well acquainted with what we believed and why we believed it but we found worshipping as we had been brought up to be, well, boring. Evangelical worship can be pretty Spartan. In those days you were not likely to find even a lit candle in an evangelical church owing to a fear of creeping idolatry and ritualism.

My friends and I found that we were deeply moved by the eloquence, the pageantry and, what was for us, a feast for the senses when we started attending worship service at a “medium high” Episcopal church. I will never forget the first time we experienced the Easter procession of the cross during the worship service. It was made up of at least a dozen resplendent clergy and laity. Bells were ringing, incense was smoking, and the organist was doing a masterfully passionate version of Mulet’s Carillon-Sortie (which still makes me pray whenever I hear it). The half row of us evangelicals standing up, sitting down, and trying to keep up with all the regulars that morning watched slack-jawed like country boys getting their first look inside Macy's. It was wonderful!

That spring I graduated and moved to the Twin Cities. That fall I got married. My new wife had not shared in my liturgical renaissance and so there was no question in her mind that we would attend the evangelical church she had grown up in, a church very much like the church I grew up in. It all seemed painfully bland to me. I expressed my disappointment with bouts of sullen criticism about all that seemed shallow, plastic and painfully mundane in my adopted church.

Christian spirituality is a cycle of death of self, followed by resurrection of self. I am not sure of the moment that cycle completed itself in me during that first year or two, but I remember the faces of the people God used to do it… Del and Lillian Nyholm.

They were in their 80s when I met them. They were both about 5 feet tall. Dell was balding and Lillian had thick, pure white hair. When I need a picture of what humility and gentleness look like, I think of them. When they asked me how I was doing, they really cared to listen when I told them. They loved on me, they prayed for me and when they prayed they didn’t use prayer as a pretense to preach, rant or otherwise strut their spiritual finery. Del and Lillian just talked to God and it was impossible to believe that God didn’t listen to them. When we lost our second child in stillbirth, Del and Lillian came up to us on Sunday with wet eyes and just held our hands saying only that they too had lost a child. They were without doubt two of the finest Christians I had ever met and they cared about both my wife and me.

I began to see there were a lot of people just like Del and Lillian in that church who were ready to love me by caring, confronting, sharing, serving and worshipping together with me, my wife and eventually my children. I remember finally feeling ashamed of myself for sitting in judgment of that fellowship and realized that it was my attitude… my arrogance, not the lack of incense, bells or even Mulet, that would spoil my worship.

In a consumer society, we are tempted to believe that the Church is just one other commodity that we shop for until we find one that suits our tastes. If the church we choose no longer suits us, we move on. It is easy to miss the Delberts and Lillians because they never call attention to themselves. In the 1940s, C.S. Lewis wrote of his disdain of church people, “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixthrate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

Before worshipping this Sunday, lift up any “solitary conceit” as your first confession. It will open your eyes to see the presence of God in the people worshipping with you.

Each month a member of the Cook County Ministerium will offer Spiritual Reflections. For August, our contributor is Pastor Dave Harvey, who has served as pastor of Grand Marais Evangelical Free Church since February of 2008.

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