By BFL Spiritual Director, Kathy Staudt –
Something I have heard said often in church circles – and by people I admire – including Verna Dozier and our Bishop Michael Curry – is this phrase: “We have to follow Jesus, not worship him.” The source of this quote is a sermon from the 1920’s by Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was making a distinction between what he saw as the Fundamentalists’ excessive focus on personal salvation and emotional, inward spirituality and the mainline churches’ dedication to social justice. It was part of his polemic in a sermon entitled “Shall the fundamentalists win”, which got him fired from his job at a New York Presbyterian church in the 1920s
But as it has come down to us more recently, that statement “We have to follow Jesus, not worship him,” suggests that faithful service is the only really important practice for Christians, and worship kind of a luxury or a self-indulgence. The Way of Love invites us to push back a bit on this idea, and recover a sense of the deep value of worship and the corporate life of prayer to all other parts of our lives as followers of Christ.
I turn for guidance on worship to Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican laywoman, prolific author, spiritual guide and retreat leader. Her book on Worship, published in 1936 but well ahead of its time, even today, insists that worship infuses and empowers the deep and purposeful self-offering that underlies all faithful Christian service to the world. The language is archaic but the conclusion of this book is worth our attention today: She writes (I’ve modified the language a little to make it more inclusive): Christian worship is a supernatural action; and more than a supernatural action, a supernatural life. It is the response of the human creature to the charity of God: a response in which we move out towards Reality, shed self-occupation, and find the true basis of our life.”(259)
An abiding theme throughout Underhill’s work is that the interesting thing in the life of the spirit is not ourselves and our inward growth, (WHAT a counter-cultural thought in our time!), or even the good works that we do and what a credit they are to us. Conceding that it may be important along the way to sort things out in our interior lives, she insists that interesting thing is God, the ineffable and transcendent presence in the cosmos who is also, somehow immanent in us, and is the ground of our hope and our love. And so for her, the spiritual life always begins in “Adoration,” the awestruck, joyful, receptive contemplation of the Eternal Reality that surrounds, holds and guides us.
In other words, it’s not an either-or: We don’t follow Jesus instead of worshipping Him, and we don’t just go to worship for the lovely Sunday show. Genuine Christian discipleship is grounded in worship. To skip over this step and go right to the good work that we are called to do in Jesus name is to miss the transformative power that is available to us, to keep us going when hope and love seem elusive.
That is why the practice of regular worship, preferably in community, preferably on Sundays and with Eucharist – is an important practice for the Way of Love. Gradually, and over time, without our noticing, it is a practice that makes something of us – God blesses even just the effort to turn our gaze out of ourselves and toward God, to use the words we or others have written to express our love and praise (even when we can’t always feel that love). The activity of worship shapes and sanctifies us, reminds us of who we are, and continuously transforms us into a community of prayer and blessing for the world. It enables us to offer ourselves, more and more, to be agents of that transforming love in the world. Underhill says this repeatedly: that all service begins in Adoration, the awestruck, loving movement out of ourselves toward the Holy One. Going back to Harry Emerson Fosdick, we could even say it this way: we are called to follow Jesus because we know Him, and because we know him, we cannot help but worship Him.