The Samaritan woman at the well, perhaps in an attempt to deflect attention away from her private life, directed a theological question at Jesus: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ response is widely quoted among Christians today: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
While most Christians no longer argue that worship must be confined to a physical location, our worship still appears stuck within the confines of geographical and temporal boundaries.
As an example, let us look at one of the main forms of worship in the church today, the singing of hymns and spiritual songs. How many of the countless worship songs being churned out today still use words and phrases that no longer hold the same value/meaning as they did hundreds of years ago? How many of the songs we sing – especially in our churches in Asia – are simply not relevant to our specific geographical and cultural contexts, more suitable for use in ancient Israel or the Western world where many of our songs are imported from?
Many of our hymns draw upon the rich imagery found in the ancient Jewish texts that form a large portion of our Scriptures. But these lyrics and images are embedded within the social context within which these songs/poems were written. Their layers of meaning can only be understood within these contexts. They are a part of our Christian heritage, and continue to be a valuable resource for the church to draw upon today. So they have a place in our corporate worship, playing an important role in the life of the church as well as that of my own. My concern, however, is that only those who have grown up within the church, who have been exposed to such imagery from young, have the capacity to appreciate them. Many of these images will be foreign to those new to the faith, or those outside the faith.
Do hymns containing images of armies and conquests, of swords and shields, of chariots and banners, of cities made of gold and precious stones, still evoke the same feeling of awe and beauty as they would to a first century Jew or a 16th century conquistador? Will using only male references to God be helpful for those of us who no longer live in patriarchal societies (while we need to be sensitive towards societies that still do), and particularly in societies where Christianity has in the past been seen to promote male chauvinism and the subjugation of women? Will references to God as Father be meaningful at all to the increasing numbers of children growing up with absentee or abusive fathers?
We live in an era when images from the Hubble space telescope and BBC documentaries inspire the public consciousness. Perhaps, here is where scientists, poets and theologians can play a role in informing our worship, providing new images and languages for a new generation of worshippers living in a world increasingly dominated by science. Just as Saint Paul repackaged the message of Jesus embedded in its fully Jewish context into one that was relevant to his non-Jewish audience, I believe it is time for the church to follow suit, not by replacing the old with the new, but by adding to this rich heritage that we have received from those who’ve come before us.
Of course, all acts of worship should ultimately be for the glory of God, and its aim should not be for our own spiritual gratification. However, if we are to worship God in spirit and in truth, the words we express in worship must then also reflect our inner being.
Father and Mother, creator and poet,
Speaking your wisdom in forest and glade:
Telling your glory in ocean and river
Pouring your pleasure on all you have made.
Christ of the cosmos, you sang into being,
Galaxies spinning through measureless space;
Coming among us and sharing our weakness;
Singing your songs of redemption and grace.
Spirit, you danced at the dawn of creation,
Rising, rejoicing on jubilant wings.
Yours is the rhythm of cycle and season,
Yours is the heartbeat of all living things.
Lord, you have made us of stardust and spirit,
Etching your image on ev’ry cell.
We are your lovesong, your poem and rhythm,
All cocreators, your story to tell.