When someone goes to the gym, there's a confluence of expectations. There's a purpose (to work out), a goal (to increase health, strength, or ability in some way), and an expectation (to be challenged, whether by the workout itself or by a trainer guiding the workout).
We should carry those same things - purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge - into worship with us. How often do you hear yourself say, "I didn't get anything out of worship today," but you didn't put anything into worship either? I can't walk into the gym, sit there for an hour while I watch others lift weights, perform yoga, and spin their hearts out, and then leave expecting that I should reap the benefits of those activities. Even if I go and do all those things without effort or intent, I can't really expect much benefit to come from the activities. Only when we undertake things with purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge do we "get something" out of worship.
Now, that's not because we're the primary performers in worship; in fact, we're not. God is the one who shows up in conversation with our prayers, in inspiration for our songs, in presence through Word and Sacrament. Yet, like any relationship, we can't expect to reap the full benefits of God's selflessness unless we're also investing in God and the experience of engaging with God.
I'm currently at the Lutheran Student Movement National Gathering, where our theme is "The Dis/Comforting God." Micah 6:8 provides the foundation for this theme, where God's comfort for God's people comes through expectation of commitment to justice, mercy, and humility. God's comfort to some is a discomfort to others, but that doesn't make it any less divine. It's uncomfortable for me as a straight, white, cisgendered man to center the voices of others because I'm so used to the privilege of having my voice (and voices much like mine) at the center of the conversation. Yet, the discomfort in committing to that inclusive reality doesn't make it less holy. Through the commitment, and even through the resulting discomfort, God offers comfort in a fashion that's entirely alien to my expectations and often precisely what I didn't know that I needed.
We should enter each worship opportunity with the same intentionality. Coming as a spectator in the gym isn't discomforting. Even doing the same workout in the same place with the same vigor each time won't lead to significant growth. But when you have a purpose, united with a goal and the expectation that you'll be challenged, you're willing to try new exercises, take new classes, increase you reps, change your speed, alter your weight, or use time differently, which will certainly lead to different results.
When we come into worship, expecting only to be comfortable, we're not open to the transformation God offers. But when you come with a purpose (to worship God), guided by a goal (to grow in God's image) and informed by the expectation that fulfilling this purpose and achieving this goal will challenge and change you, then you'll invest in the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the readings, the sacraments, and the rituals in ways that shape and reshape your life. The fullness of God isn't found in comfort, but in the discomfort where we're challenged to become more like God, more full of the Spirit, more reflective of the face of Christ. This takes a full engagement of the worship opportunity. Come to be discomforted and see what you get out of worship. Come to be discomforted and feel how you're spiritually fed.
Of course, this shouldn't stop with worship. This commitment to the challenge of transformation should permeate our entire lives as people of faith. We can begin in worship and see how that practice infuses the rest of our week as well.
So, on this last day of 2017, consider what kind of future you want as a child of God. What's your purpose? What are your goals? How might God challenge you to bring about more divine life in you? Rather than a resolution in 2018, seek the challenge of resurrection that can only be accomplished by God. That's the kind of abundant life available to us in God through Christ. Don't settle for anything less.
“Sixty five? Sixty five!”
I rarely find occasion to pray more fervently than I do when I’m at the BMV. Between my own social anxiety and the palpable frustration of the others waiting on a clerk to call their number - “Sixty six? No Sixty six? Sixty seven, then!” - I know I need God here. As I began to pray, I said something that I've rarely said in my life, but something I intend to say much more in the years of ministry and personal piety to come: Mother God...
Recently, I heard Dr. Christena Cleveland speak to the importance of how we imagine God and the metaphors that we use when we pray, especially for those of us who believe God placed the divine image in humanity and that the divine chose to become human in Jesus. The average human person is a woman of color in the Global south. Even so, our prayer language remains dominated by male names (Father) and pronouns (him/his). We need Mother God.
“Sixty eight!” The tension of people being called like cattle, like sheep led to the slaughter, only adds to the density of this Saturday morning.
Now, before you lose your collective gourds about referring to God with feminine language, remember a few things about scripture. The first depiction of divinity in the Hebrew Bible is of God giving birth to all creation. Through waters. That’s a graphically obvious reference to motherhood. All throughout the Bible, we find images of a divine mother, gathering Her chicks and comforting Her children. Of course, from within an ancient patriarchal culture, many more metaphors in scripture use masculine imagery. Yet, even in that matrix, God’s motherhood remains a core metaphor. God's maternal nature is essential to God's identity.
“Sixty nine? Seventy?” People have started to leave because they’re fed up with waiting, all without comfort. We need Mother God in these places because, well, from where else would our help come from? More than that, though, in the Christian tradition we've been inundated with almost exclusively male images for God. We've seen Jesus's exclusive use of paternal language in a paternalistic culture to become determinative for our conceptions of God. We've ignored the profoundly feminine activity of God depicted in scripture and in our larger tradition. "Seventy one!" We need Mother God to honor the fullness of God's identity through her interactions with all creation.
"Seventy two!" By now, I've noticed with intention that it's two women who are shouting these names, to a room full of mostly women. Mothers and daughters, caught in the dehumanizing assembly line of getting the proper titles for our vehicles. It's one of the nicer BMVs in which I've ever sat, but the marble countertops and chandelier lighting don't create warmth, not the way that a mother's touch does.
Mother God also honors the image of God present within women and femmes across all time and space. The exploitation of women is made easier when the feminine is seen as further from God than the masculine. God's neither male or female, or better both male and female, or more accurately, the fullness of the gender spectrum is within God's identity. That's something that's theologically embraced across most traditions throughout history, but not practiced in most churches, past or present. We need Mother God to see the intimate connections between God and all those who identify as feminine. Which, of course, includes God, and all the women and femmes who've been marginalized through our masculinization of God.
"Seventy three!" I'm next and so my prayer turns toward an end. Then, I committed to myself and to God, the same commitment that I'm now making publicly. From now on, into the fullness of 2018, I'll be using feminine names, pronouns, and metaphors for God in my prayer life and my writing. We need Mother God and God begins to meet that need through our language, our willingness to admit the feminine qualities at God's core. That looks like many things, but likely begins with: Our Mother in heaven, holy is your name.
"Seventy four!" I approach the woman at the counter, and in a way that I haven't before, I see the image of God in her. That's God's work. Mother God's work.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.