Friday, June 29, 2012

Pre-Flight Rituals and Pre-Scripted Prayers

Female flight attendant of Air DolomitiIf you’ve traveled by air even just a few times, you probably know the drill by now. The flight attendant stands at the front of the plane, and a voice from the overhead speakers asks you to give her (very rarely, him) your undivided attention.

One or two passengers actually complies, while the rest of the passengers simply keep their conversations down low and try their best not to disturb the ritual, while the flight attendant goes through the safety procedures associated with air travel.

No doubt some of you can recite some of the instructions by heart:
“Your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device.”
“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the overhead compartment. Please take one and place it over your face. Although the bag may not inflate, please be assured that oxygen is flowing. Please secure your own mask before helping others.”
“Please identify the nearest exit, and be aware that the nearest exit may be behind you.” 

I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I have never been involved in a situation where I have ever needed to put this information to its intended use. But if I ever were involved in such an incident (providing, of course, that the emergency isn’t so tragic that no amount of training could have helped, anyway), I know enough to be able to do what is necessary.

For some Christians, there is a sense in which some of our forms of worship take on a similar flavor. We say certain prayers that we have said our whole lives. We sing old, familiar hymns that we have known since childhood. Some of us have been reciting the Apostles and/or Nicene Creeds every week at worship for as long as we can remember. We repeat these forms so often, it becomes easy to do so without even paying much attention to what we are doing. Quite a few evangelicals distrust such pre-scripted worship tools for exactly that reason. They fear that worshipers will only say the words of in a clinical, detached, perhaps even “robotic,” fashion, and the intended meaning behind the words could be lost. Even worse, the concern is that we no longer are truly worshiping God when this happens.

While I am all for making sure that worshipers do not become “detached” from their worship, I do not hold the fear that my fellow Evangelicals hold. Rather, I believe that even if a worshiper starts to become so used to those often-repeated worship patterns that he or she becomes numb to them, those patterns become like the safety instructions repeated prior to every airplane flight. Those words become so engrained in our memories that they remain with us no matter what happens. They are there ready for us to call upon when we need them the most.

Far from missing the point of worship, I would go so far as to argue that the believer who comes to internalize those patterns so deeply has actually caught the point in a deep and important way. Our worship has become part of who we are, and is with us at all times, not just for that hour once a week when we gather together. Isn’t that what we want?

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