Peace Like a River

Here’s a summer vacation story that comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner. He and his family had gone to Sea World in Orlando Florida, and “There was a lot of hoopla to it, “ he says, “crowds of people, loud music, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and so on, but the main attraction—the whale show—made it all worthwhile.”

“The way the show began was that at a given signal they released into the tank five or six killer whales … and no creatures under heaven could have looked less killerlike as they went racing around and around in circles. What with the dazzle of sky and sun, the beautiful [young men and women running the show,] the soft southern air, and the crowds all around us watching the performance with a delight matched only by what seemed the delight of the performing whales, it was as if the whole of creation—men and women and beasts and sun and water and earth and, for all I know, God himself—was caught up in one great, jubilant dance of unimaginable beauty. And then, right in the midst of it, I was astonished to find that my eyes were filled with tears.

“When the show was over and I turned to my wife and daughter beside me to tell them what had happened, their answer was to say that there had been tears in their eyes, too. [And] I believe there is no mystery about why we shed tears. [You see,] the world is full of darkness, but what I think we caught sight of in that tourist trap in Orlando, of all places, was that at the heart of darkness—whoever would have believed it?—there is joy unimaginable. The world does bad things to us all, and we do bad things to each other and maybe most of all to ourselves, but in that dazzle of bright water as the glittering whales hurled themselves into the sun, I believe what we saw was that joy is what we belong to. Joy is home, and I believe the tears that came to our eyes were more than anything else homesick tears. […] We have joy in our blood.”

And that is Frederick Buechner’s water story, a story about how, in the midst of a tourist trap with all its hoopla, he caught sight of something astonishing, something beautiful and true. And then came his heart’s acknowledgment of the fact, automatically and instantly: his tears. It was a moment of illumination, of how difficult life can be, of how we hurt ourselves and hurt eachother, and yet of the knowing that there is still something deeper we belong to, something always there that we can draw from to give us strength for the journey, something within that is our fundamental compass, directing us towards true north. Joy is in our blood.

This, I would say, points to the essence of a word that we often say together but perhaps do not define often enough: worship. As we gather again at the start of a new program year, as we celebrate our waters, let’s take a closer look.

Worship is when we catch sight of astonishing things, and we are changed. Worth—what is of value—takes on a shape and form, and we establish a personal relationship with it. We are moved to tears, or to action. This is the basic, minimal sense of the term, faithful to its Old English roots, which we must remind ourselves of repeatedly because there are so many other associations and images that go beyond this, examples which we can confuse for the essence, such as bending the knee in adoration to a father-king. Yes, this is a form that worship can take, an example, but so is Frederick Buechner’s spontaneous experience at a killer whale show in Orlando. We don’t want to lose sight of the basic essence, which is when worth takes shape and form and changes us in some way. In the best kinds of worship, you and I find ourselves brought back to our deepest selves, our truest senses, our highest values and noblest purposes. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the surface. It could happen at a rock concert, or during a chat over coffee with a friend, or during a time of silent meditation. But when you are in the heart of authentic worship, you know. You feel restored. You feel recharged. You feel amazed. Worship is whatever cuts through the chatter and the bull to get to the joy. Worship is whatever breaks through the busy-ness and static of life to get to that.

That’s the heart of worship. And besides this bare essence of the meaning of the word, consider something else. How the impulse to worship is simply part of who we are, in our DNA, in our blood, a basic instinct. Ultimately, it means that what we do together every Sunday morning as a congregation has great integrity, since it only tries to contain and give clearer expression to that which is already natural—but more about that in a moment.

For now, just think of your own Sea World whale show moments. Accidental, unplanned worship moments. What comes to mind for me are my years growing up in Peace River, in far north Alberta—nights when I would lift up my eyes and see the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. All so beautiful and mysterious, and to this my very heart would answer back with a sense of wonder and amazement, my very heart would open up and sing. No one taught me how to do this. Somehow there was within me an innate capacity for reverence, a predisposition to be in awe of something larger than myself, and I knew then that I was not the center of the universe and that there are deeper and higher and bigger things in existence, and even more, that in these depths and heights and hugeness was my true home. Northern lights.

But then there were moments when I wasn’t looking up at the night sky but around me, at the town in which I lived. Moments when I would be wandering around, and I’d happen to see Native Indians slumped over, in drunken stupor, outside the bars—and these were the same Native Indians that I had been studying diligently in school, studying the achievements and beauties of their culture as well as how it was broken down by years of governmental wrong and institutionalized racism. This was in back of my mind as I’d see the Native Indians slumped over, outside the bars, and what I saw was a long history of injustice reflected in them, embodied in them, and the tears in my eyes were hot, I felt fierce and angry, and what was happening was that I was being called back to justice. I was being called back to my senses. I was in the presence of a wrong, and I just couldn’t walk on by without batting an eye. What was wrong needed to be made right. And all this is worship as well. Worship is not just about savoring the world as it is; it is also about wanting to help it become all it might be, healing and restoring it. Saving it.

That’s the heart of the worship experience. Awe and wonder and reverence, as well as righteous anger and a thirst for justice. Worship is all this and more. Whatever calls us back to our senses. And our cup spills over with moments like this. It’s the divine spark within, at work. It’s the still small voice within. It’s just who we are. Joy in our blood.

Which opens up the question: if worship experiences can happen outside of the congregational context, in an accidental, unplanned way, then what is intentional worship for? Why do we invest so much of our congregational time and energy into planning and performing it? Why is it simply one of the most important things we do as a faith community? Why do we invite everyone to participate weekly in worship, as part of their regular spiritual practice?

For me, the answer comes on the heels of another memory. My wife Laura and I are at the Grand Canyon. This is several years ago. We’ve just finished breakfast, during which a squirrel did a pretty good job of manhandling me for some of my yogurt and granola, and Laura took a bunch of pictures and laughed and laughed…. But after this, we went on a hike, and it took us to the rim of the Canyon, and … how to describe the immensity of what I saw? Once again, I felt the tears, I felt the awe and wonder stirring in me, but then also this: a desire to expand on these religious feelings, a desire to give them fuller voice and form. I wanted to pray out loud. I wanted to sing. I wanted to do something with what I was feeling inside, contain it, strengthen it, extend it, externalize it, share it. That’s what I wanted to do. For since my childhood experience many years ago with the Northern Lights, or with the Native Indians I saw slumped over by the bars, I had learned something. I had learned that feelings of awe and wonder or feelings of anger against injustice can come upon a person powerfully and suddenly, but then your attention shifts and things distract you, and all of a sudden, you move right back into ordinary life. All that awe and wonder and righteous anger vanishes like smoke. It all just fades away. The emotions are so powerful, but only for a moment, and then it’s so easy to slip back into sleepwalking, so easy to slip back into the daily grind, so easy to forget that the world is to be savored, so easy to forget that the world is to be saved—so easy to live as if nothing extraordinary ever happens.

I wanted my experience of the Grand Canyon to be different. I wanted it not to just trigger a momentary feeling. I wanted it to shape my life and my character in an enduring way. It felt that important. That’s why I wanted to make my accidental worship experience intentional. I wanted something to make it harder for me to end up acting as if nothing extraordinary ever, ever happens.

And so I worship. So do you. That’s what Sunday mornings are all about, or other worship times, with all their songs and rituals and readings and videos and drama and sermons and symbols. We begin a new program year, singing “Peace Like a River,” and I know that in the course of this year, as in every year, there’s gonna be joy like a fountain, love like an ocean, pain like an arrow, tears like the raindrops, and strength like a mountain. These are all extraordinary things. And so let us worship together, to know them more deeply and to be changed by them. Let peace in this place flow, let joy erupt, let love stream, let pain resolve into action, let teardrops be soothed, let strength grow and grow, until by our lives and our living we feel astonished.