Saturday, May 03, 2008

Corporate Worship and Personal Spiritual Practice

The quest for a deeper spiritual life often draws people into faith communities, be they Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, whatever. And I have often listened to people express their frustration that the worship services they commonly attend or occasionally visit don't meet their spiritual needs.

Maybe it's the use of uncomfortable religious language, maybe it's that people talk during the prelude, maybe it's the wording of the hymns or the cadence of the hymns or the unfamiliarity of the hymns, maybe it's a preacher who isn't intellectual enough or too intellectual, maybe it's perceived hypocrisy on the part of the members of the congregation. Or maybe it's something else.

This litany of complaints has always bothered me and I haven't known quite how to respond to it, outside of listening patiently. I understand completely that longing for spiritual nurture during corporate worship. I've been there...and I've come back again. I rarely feel that disconnect any more, even when I attend services that are much different from what I prefer. I couldn't think why that was, until recently.

The past few weeks have helped me sort out what has brought me to this place.

The kickoff event was our recent ministers' retreat, at which I was the honored Odyssian, the person who is invited to describe her/his life's spiritual journey, outlining the events in a life that has culminated in ministry. I had prepared for this moment for months, ever since I learned that I would be the presenter.

But even though I had done exactly what I had to do to prepare, I had not connected all the dots in my life until one questioner, at the end, asked me, "Kit, where does your spirit of 'happy positivity' come from?" The questioner went on to say that this was how she experienced me, usually cheerful and "up", resilient in the face of life's difficult challenges, and she wondered how I managed that.

It took me a moment to respond, which I did, rather incompletely, I'm afraid. But the question stayed with me and I've spent a good deal of time pondering a better answer.

The following Sunday, my friend and colleague James traded pulpits with me and his topic was "How to become a more spiritual person in 15 minutes a day". Because I preached at his church at 9:30 a.m. and our service is at 4 p.m., I was able to hear what he had to say. He emphasized the attributes of a fulfilling spiritual life as compassion, gratitude, acceptance, and faithfulness. And something clicked for me.

I thought back to another moment at our retreat when another friend and colleague told our small covenant group about the linkage she saw of personal spiritual practice and fulfilling corporate worship. I had asked her to send me the newsletter column she'd written about this idea, so I reread what she'd written.

And the puzzle piece fell into place for me: a regular spiritual practice which helps me focus on the qualities of a spiritual life (as in James' sermon) also helps me find nurture in corporate worship.

Many years ago, I discovered through AlAnon my own need for a regular spiritual practice. At that time, I used AlAnon meetings, work with my sponsor, and sponsoring others as a spiritual practice. It helped me stay on track emotionally and behaviorally, letting go of falseness in my outward presentation and being true to myself more freely.

When I went to seminary, I no longer regularly attended 12 step meetings. But in seminary I began to work with a spiritual director and covenanted with my SD to develop a spiritual practice. What I chose was prayer, that ancient practice which I had used cursorily as a child and almost never as an adult.

I began to pray nightly in 1998 and as I integrated prayer into my daily life, both in the evenings and during the day at moments of gratitude and need, I found my appreciation for all life increasing and my dissatisfaction with others lessening.

When I connected the dots, I could see that my beginning of a regular spiritual practice was also the beginning of a more honest and open me, a less critical me, a more accepting me, a more easily nourished me. This meant that I wasn't getting all my spiritual needs met by corporate worship; I was coming to worship already pretty well nourished and was free to treasure the sense of coming together with people I love, something I can't do by myself.

What my colleague said, in her column, was essentially that corporate worship is designed to meet the needs of the whole body of worshippers; it can't meet individual needs completely. Each worshipper's experience in a Sunday service will be more satisfying, more spiritual, if s/he has nurtured her/himself spiritually during the week with a personal spiritual practice.

So I've really learned something important about worship and spiritual practice. And I'm going to tell people tomorrow during the sermon about this wonderful gift. You'll get a chance to read it when I get it posted.

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