Can’t Believe I’m Writing This …

I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and was inspired to write (or to think, then to write).  The book is pretty incredible, as most of his stuff is … Eugene is kind of an author-mentor of mine … and yes, we’re on a first name basis.  Either way, I’ve gone off on a tangent; back to the point.

While I was struck by a number of different ideas that were presented in the book, one, towards the very end, seemed to strike a particular nerve within my psyche.  In speaking of practicing obedience in blessing or worshipping our Creator, Peterson has the following to say:

“We are invited to bless the Lord; we are commanded to bless the Lord.  And then someone says, ‘But I don’t feel like it.  And I won’t be a hypocrite.  I can’t bless God if I don’t feel like blessing God.  It wouldn’t be honest.

The Biblical response to that is ‘Lift up your praising hands to the Holy Place, and bless GOD!’  You can lift up your hands regardless of how you feel; it is a simple motor movement.  You may not be able to command your heart, but you can command your arms.  Lift your arms in blessing; just maybe your heart will get the message and be lifted up also in praise.  We are psychosomatic beings; body and spirit are intricately interrelated.  Go through the motions of blessing God and your spirit will pick up the cue and follow along. ‘For why do men lift their hands when they pray? Is it not that their hearts may be raised at the same time to God?'”

I’ll just go ahead and say it … this makes me very uncomfortable.

[As a note of precaution, the rest of the post has the potential to be slightly offensive; I am simply explaining my experience and opening up conversation, not claiming that my experience is more valid, legitimate, or God-pleasing than anyone else’s.  Hope you’ll join in the conversation!]

I don’t know exactly why hand-raising is such big deal to me, but it always has been; I’ve never really felt like raising my hands in worship … it always seemed unnatural to me, and so consequently, I’ve had a hard time understanding people who’s hands, seemingly involuntarily, shoot up in the air every time they hear delay on an electric guitar riff.

My experience of corporate worship has ventured into a number of different settings, from the medium-sized presbyterian church that I grew up in, to high school FCA (the denominational mutt), to the mega-churches that I’ve either worked for or been a part of since the beginning of college, to youth workers conferences, to emergent church cohorts … I’ve seen a lot of hand raising … sometimes even convinced myself, begrudgingly though it may have been, to join in , but there was always this one little issue that I had with it; I have always believe that raising of hands in worship was a display of how close to God the person was feeling in the moments of worship.  And though I realize that this is not definitely true, the act has often seemed to me to give off a little bit of a “hey everyone, look how spiritual I am” vibe.  I remember not liking, or at least not trusting the hand-raisers in high school and college and thought that they were being hypocrites by acting so “showy” in corporate worship settings, but then living no differently than the rest of us.

On a few occasions I was coerced by worship leaders into raising my hands in worship. I don’t remember feeling any different other than simply becoming uncomfortable and worrying what people were thinking about me.  If they thought the same things about me that I thought about other hand-raisers, my feelings were certainly going to be hurt.  But what choice did I have?  The cool-haired worship leader had convinced me that I wasn’t really worshipping God with my whole self if my hands weren’t in the air.

I’ve often wondered why God would care whether or not my hands were up … it just seemed a bit arbitrary to the act of worship.  Kneeling, even laying prostrate, I could understand (though I am no more comfortable with either of those actions).  At least they are symbolizing the subjection of self to the authority of God in a kind of “Wayne and Garth: We’re not worthy” way … if anything, raising hands usually seems like the opposite, does it not?

And, though I do not believe this to be the primary purpose of acts of worship, I do wonder what the non-Christian thinks when he or she see a commercial selling a worship album full of songs that debuted 20 years ago, and the images are of thousands of jubilant Christians with hands high in the air, singing to their Lord.  My educated guess is that the majority are not seeing those images and thinking, “How can I get what those people have?” but rather, they are thinking “What a bunch of naive, elitist, arrogant people.”  And in a way, I can’t blame people for thinking this way.

What’s interesting is that Eugene doesn’t talk about raising hands in worship as a response to feeling a certain way (namely, particularly close to God), but as an act of obedience, designed to be a catalyst to feeling, or at least to changing the state of the heart … this is a whole new concept for me, and off the bat, seems to make much more sense of hand-raising as an act of worship.

The difference is subtle, but significant.  What if rather than raising our hands because we are so overwhelmed by how “saved we are” we raised hands because of how broken we are and how saved we still need to be … not as a show of our closeness to God in a given moment, but in response to knowing that our heart is far from God – reaching out in need/desire/hope to connect with God when the reality of our heart and our world is that humanity’s relationship with the Divine is still broken.

The action could no longer be thought of as the self-affirming act of pious Christians, but as the obedience of real people of faith, who know that their hearts are easily distracted and deceived.

Does this motivation for a given posture of worship not fit more cleanly into the narrative which we have been given in the Scriptures?  The Bible is a story of the people of God, old and new testaments, constantly being pursued by God, but rarely responding adequately.  It is a story of tearing sackcloth and crying out “my God, Why have you forsaken me?” … of captivity and crying out “Deliver us!”

And it is our story.  We at the same time live in exile because of ourselves and deliverance because of God. We choose distance, but God chooses closeness; and so all we can do in worship is to reach out in obedience – in spite of ourselves – knowing that God accepts our physical reach, even when our emotional/intellectual/spiritual ascent is nowhere to be found, and uses that reach to transform our hearts and even raise them up to God’s self, so that even our ability to worship God calls for our gratitude.

I don’t know how much of this is theologically defendable, but I do know that it is easier for me to write than it will be for me to do … maybe because theory is rarely reality, and patterns and perceptions are hard to change.  So how do those of us who have lived in discomfort with hand-raising (our own and that of others) adequately respond to the commands in scripture to raise our hands in worship – and to the challenge put forward by Eugene and other authors to do this as an act of obedience having nothing to do with feeling beyond acknowledging its lacking?

Comments encouraged 🙂

~ by Will Norman on April 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “Can’t Believe I’m Writing This …”

  1. What excellent thoughts, Will. I share your perspective in many ways. I doubt I will ever be a “hand raiser,” though I think I can compromise by craning my neck and looking to the heavens as a corporal sign of obedience and longing. Whether that “counts” as much as hand raising, I don’t know.

  2. I think this thought is incredible, “What if rather than raising our hands because we are so overwhelmed by how “saved we are” we raised hands because of how broken we are and how saved we still need to be … not as a show of our closeness to God in a given moment, but in response to knowing that our heart is far from God – reaching out in need/desire/hope to connect with God when the reality of our heart and our world is that humanity’s relationship with the Divine is still broken.” Thanks for the inspirational words…

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