I remember as a young boy, being trained to be an acolyte in my home congregation. In some ways it was exciting; but in others it was frightening—filling a child with exceeding amounts of anxiety over something (in my opinion) as simple as lighting candles. Though those who instructed me on acolyting had probably intended to highlight the reverence of this important role in worship—hoping to shape a youngster’s faith in life-giving ways—between my immaturity and the fear of being scolded (based on other experiences in that place), it honestly was either something done with little thought or given such great thought that the rest of worship was overshadowed by it. Vividly, I remember the white robes, white gloves, bronze candlelighters, synchronized lighting and extinguishing, and sitting alone in the front pew. I’m sure there were times when I enjoyed being an acolyte—I was one of those ‘weird’ kids who was eager to participate in church. Yet, I also know there were times when I wanted nothing to do with it—and that was it.
Aside from worship, I also recall hearing and repeating the word reverence countless times as a Boy Scout. In the oft recited Scout Law, we would monotonously say: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” There were a few times as a scout when conversations regarding faith came up; but mostly reverence meant we gathered each week for our meetings at a Roman Catholic Church across town, and our troop Chaplain (a position I held a few times) offered a short prayer to begin our time together. Despite my upbringing in the church and basic awareness of the word, reverence was something I still hadn’t considered too deeply in my adolescence. At best, for a long time (and for better or worse) reverent was synonymous with religious. I had encountered some very mean and downright disturbing religious people. If that was what it looked like and meant to be reverent, I’m not sure I wanted anything to do with it.
My first January in seminary, I went with a group of classmates to Israel/Palestine for an interim study and to see firsthand the Holy Land. It was there—thousands of miles away—in a place and culture far different than anything I had ever experienced before, that I came face-to-face with a reverence that was new and in many ways enticing for me. Welcomed into the place (Church of the Holy Sepulchre) attributed to Jesus’ death and burial, I remember the smell of incense filling my lungs and a presence resting upon me—drawing me to silence and stillness, peace and prayer. Another time, invited into a mosque to share in a daily prayer time, I remember taking off my hat and shoes, washing my face, hands, and feet before entering into a space that felt special and symbolic and taking a humble position of obeisance. Standing before the Western Wall of the Old Temple, I remember covering the crown of my head with a kippah, resting my hands on the ancient stones, and being filled with a trust that God was listening to my deepest stirrings even if I could not find the words to speak. I’m not sure I within myself was reverent, but in each of those places I felt overcome by something beyond myself that drew me to think, speak, pray, and respond with something resembling reverence.
Even now, I talk from time to time with friends who are also colleagues about our ministry contexts. Inevitably, we’ll differ on how certain aspects of worship should be approached or to what height they should be held. Each of us has our own take on reverence/piety, diverging on where and to what extent. In visiting with those both within and beyond the congregation, it is always fascinating to see where and how others place reverence. Many of those recovering from negative and harmful church experiences, though they are giving corporate worship a second chance they do so functioning with little to no (intentional) reverence—which I find understandable. When visiting other places of worship, my confirmands and I will discuss signs of reverence we see demonstrated and how such signs of personal faith make us feel. With that, I encourage the students to share in some of these reverent acts out of respect for those welcoming us into their worship. Perhaps in the participation they might be drawn to a new viewpoint they would have otherwise missed.
I wonder sometimes: Should I push more reverence for our youth to demonstrate in worship? Am I being any less faithful of a pastor if I don’t make it explicit for others? Do I encourage confirmands to think about it and consider what is most meaningful for them, or do I let them come to it (or not) on their own—trusting the Holy Spirit to guide and enlighten them? Neither wanting to make reverence a negative for others nor operating with an “anything goes” mentality, how does one walk the line of inviting others in to ponder and practice reverence and prayerfully wrestle with what works for each person? Should a pastor push a high reverence, even if they themselves don’t hold to such personally? Or, is reverence in the eye of the beholder? At the end of the day, does Christ look upon our reverence as anything more than something nice but not crucial? Or is one’s faith really so hinged on how a person approaches certain parts of the faith? I pray—whatever the answers to these questions may be—that God continues to work in and through me, using even my struggles with reverence as a means to point to Christ Jesus. May God’s grace, love, and forgiveness be greater than any expectations of how we enter in to worship.