When I lived in Japan, I often went to the movies.
I didn't go to Japanese movies; at my most fluent, I don't think I would have understood what was going on. But there were many popular American movies showing in Japan, in English with Japanese subtitles. Sometimes there would even be a double-feature, something that I had heard of but not experienced in my corner of the United States. There were other cultural differences as well: I remember being surprised -- no, shocked -- to find out sometimes that I would get a ticket to a movie and not be able to find a seat. It was standing room only for a popular movie some days.
And then there were the previews of coming attractions. I don't know if it's just because I am an inordinately curious person, but I started to really like to watch the previews of coming attractions. These WERE actually Japanese movies, in Japanese, and they were full of color and actions and quick shots and sounds (most of which I did not understand), all of which conspired to make me feel that this movie was going to be the most incredibly experience ever. What it was about, I had no clear. But I really really wanted to find out.
So these movie previews were incomprehensible to me, for a number of reasons. There wasn't just the language barrier, but there was also the barrier of just getting the snippets of exciting plot, the little flashes of actions, the hard cuts. But even though (maybe even because) the previews were incomprehensible, they were also fascinating. Endlessly fascinating. There were things I possibly could find out here, and also things I would never, ever know.
This week I spent a little time at a conference called "Worship in a Time of Change." Conveniently the conference was located in the week right before Transfiguration Sunday, an incomprehensible but fascinating story of Jesus' glowing appearance (with Moses and Elijah) on a mountain. Not that we don't try to comprehend it, even year -- is it a mis-placed resurrection story? does it have its roots in Hellenistic mystery religions? or is it something else? When have you ever seen someone's face glow, and their clothes turn white? Even if you've had a mountaintop experience or two, I'll be nothing exactly like THIS has happened to you.
One thing I'm starting to realize, as well, is that for many people, worship is incomprehensible. What is this? Why do we do it? What's going on? My own niece, who is sort of unchurched, but goes with her grandmother on occasion, says, "I like to go, but I don't know what's going on." Incomprehensible. And not fully explainable if it is, indeed (as we say), an encounter with God.
If it is indeed (as we say) an encounter with God, we can even not worry too much if there's some incomprehension in there, as long as there is fascination too. And if, indeed, Surely God is in this Place (as we say), it ought to be fascinating. Not necessarily in a faces-glowing sort of way, but in an awe-ful sort of way. For example -- strange, unexplainable things happen here, like the earthiness of tears and possibility of mercy, like hearing the words, "blood of Christ shed for you" and tasting it. One of the most incomprehensible and fascinating things about faith is how ordinary things can be so holy, and perhaps there should be more ordinary, earthy things in our worship.
Worship in a time of change should be Incomprehensible and fascinating, because we worship a living God, who does not leave us alone. Perhaps that's what we are seeking, in a time of change. A living God, incomprehensible and fascinating, incomprehensibly loving, eternally fascinating, not leaving us alone, speaking words we desperately want to understand.
Maybe. Maybe the first step to creating a bridge for people to come to worship is to admit that it begins by being incomprehensible. Not too familiar. But strange. And (we hope and pray) fascinating.