Taize makes worship palpable

A newspaper colleague recently described how moved she was to attend a Taize worship service at her church. I understood why.

I discovered Taize (pronounced ‘tie-ZAY’) several years ago and am quite taken with its lovely, repetitive music. But what my colleague’s excitement told me went beyond a worship style. Rather, it said that people hunger for an experience of God, one that engages both the left and right sides of their brain, both their intellect and their spirit.

Many religions have understood this for a long time and construct worship gatherings or festivals that provide this holistic experience. But too often, the mainline Protestant branch of Christianity in which I locate myself has lost its ability to speak convincingly to people who want more than just to be told that God loves them and wants the best for them. They want to feel it in their very marrow.

It’s one reason Pentecostalism has experienced such astonishing growth. That lively charismatic worship style offers people sensory affirmation of God’s presence.

Whether all Pentecostal congregations have been as faithful to engage the mind and to underpin their theology with thorough intellectual rigor is debatable. Sometimes, no doubt, the heart simply overwhelms the head in such worship. But is that worse than worship in which the head all but smothers the heart?

Taize offers Christians a nonthreatening opportunity to lose themselves in an attitude of worship. Its songs are nearly hypnotic, and its invitation to focus on God’s presence is warmhearted.

Taize worship is named after a community in the south of Burgundy, France, where a man named Brother Roger formed an international ecumenical community in 1940. The members commit their lives to simplicity, sharing and celibacy.

Today the community includes more than 100 brothers, both Catholic and Protestant, and is the source of the meditative singing found at the core of Taize worship.

The Taize Web site, www.taize.fr, offers a quote that goes to my point, though it’s not clear whether Brother Roger or someone else is the source of these words: “Right at the depth of the human condition lies the longing for a presence, the silent desire for a communion. Let us never forget that this simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith.”

For several years now, there has been a small Taize songbook on the piano in my living room. A note in it from Brother Roger speaks to the hunger my colleague experienced:

“From the depths of the human condition, a secret aspiration rises up. Caught in the anonymous rhythms of schedules and timetables, men and women of today are implicitly thirsting for the one essential reality: an inner life, signs of the invisible.”

The caution in all of this is that we must discern a true religious experience from merely an emotional one. Definitions can get fuzzy here, but as anyone who has ever been to an exciting college basketball game knows, it’s possible to be thrown into a frenzy by things that have precious little to do with the worship of God. So we’d do well to pay attention to whether we’re seeking — and finding — a mere emotional release or, rather, an authentic experience of God.

One thing, however, seems clear: A spiritual hunger is loose in the world, and people will try to assuage it one way or the other.

I spoke not long ago with the Rev. George W. Westlake Jr. of Kansas City, pastor of a large Assembly of God Church in which the worship style is expressive of the active presence of God. He explained why he thought that worship experience is so attractive to people: “The previous generations you could reach with apologetics. You can’t do that with this generation. The newer generation wants an experience of God.”

“Apologetics” is a term referring to the rational defense and explanation of theological doctrine. It’s what mainline Christians often — but not always — get in sermons. And it has an honored place in most religions because of the need to explain belief and practices in a reasonable way.

But Westlake is right that apologetics is not enough. My colleague’s experience at the Taize service was evidence of the desire many of us have to feel the divine in a palpable way, a way that words cannot exhaust.

Visit Bill Tammeus’ web log at billtammeus.typepad.com.

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