This article is part 3 of a 10-part series on Episcopal worship and liturgy.
The Series Introduction is here.
As we come to the third in our series of questions about Episcopal worship, we turn to a practical matter which many people struggle with: boredom in worship. After all, if worship is not entertaining or at least stimulating, why bother?
Such thinking is the product of our secular, market-driven culture, and is flawed for many reasons. To take just one reason, this line of thought is illusory (and therefore dishonest), in that it cannot deliver what it promises. Consider the alternative lifestyles on offer to us modern consumers. Whether one’s particular lifestyle revolves around online video gaming or virtual communities, golf, physical fitness, the great outdoors, academia, or the club scene in downtown Austin, boredom and “let down” inevitably ensue. This is a fact of life.
Consider the realm of relationships, perhaps with a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. All relationships have “ups and downs.” My relationship with my wife, for example, is full of vibrant life and energy. And yet, do you think that Bouquet is never bored with me? Of course she is; this is just a part of life.
The real problem, though, is not the boredom. The real problem is with a world and a culture which pretend to provide endless thrills. I am reminded of what CS Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, where he says that the thrill of romantic love is like a spark, designed by God to get a long-term love relationship up and running, sort of like the spark plug of an engine.
Once the engine, however, is ignited by the spark, then what? Folks who are expecting “the spark to never die” find themselves ditching their spouses or lovers, trying to find someone more “sexy” or “thrilling.” Not only is this kind of behavior dysfunctional, it is non-sustainable and deeply damaging to others.
Indeed, as Lewis goes on to point out, there is something better than the spark: the long-term, deep and steady running of the engine or the relationship. Much of my life, personally, over the last ten years or so has been precisely about this issue of learning to live a life “beyond thrills.”
Worship has been key here. The purpose (the Greek word here is telos) of worship is not entertain or to stimulate, or even to make us feel better about ourselves. The purpose of worship is to put us into real and living relationship with God and the reality of his inbreaking kingdom. Often times this does in fact end up make us “feel better.” To put it another way, it “stacks the deck” in favor of health and happiness.
However, the health and the good feelings are merely a bi-product of our worship, and my feelings are an unreliable barometer of the reality of what’s going on in worship. A much better barometer is faith.
Why is worship sometimes “boring?” One reason is that, as we have seen in our previous “questions,” worship is a discipline, the cultivation of habits which do not come naturally. In addition, though, worship is sometimes “boring” because we have been conditioned by our culture always to expect thrills, and also because, sometimes, what we perceive as boring is in reality the best thing for us.
But I close with a thought similar to the one with which I opened. I would challenge people to name any healthy and sustainable practice or activity in our world that never seems boring. Work? Sex? Food? We live in a broken world which will never fully satisfy us all the time, and is it OK to admit this.
And sometimes, when we admit the boredom and come face to face with it, it vanishes away and God visits us with his presence in truly transformative ways. Even He can’t do this, though, unless we show up and participate in his presence, in worship.