Saturday, February 26, 2011

ReFeeling Worship&Song

Worship&Song is the title of a new collection of resources-- songs, prayers, and other acts of worship-- about to be launched by The United Methodist Publishing House and developed with assistance from staff of The General Board of Discipleship. This new collection of resources will live in print, CD, and, for the first time, in an online format that will allow all existing materials to be viewed and downloaded and new materials to be added for download over time.

The denominational launch event for this new resource, ReThinking Worship&Song, happens this coming week, March 1-3 in Nashville. There, we're gathering wisdom from across the diversity of the denomination not simply to celebrate and explore the new resources, but also to offer some critical ReThinking about what worship and song look like, or might look like, in all the contexts where we worship. It promises to be a rich experience. You can still come and register onsite-- so if you've been thinking about it, by all means do come!

My particular contribution to this event is a workshop that will prompt us perhaps not simply to ReThink, but as importantly to ReFeel worship,  and then to let our ReFeeling inform how we use this new resource, and others, to plan worship where we are. 

Why ReFeel? Because, as nearly every neuroscientist will tell you these days, e.e. cummings got it just about right: "feeling is first." More specifically, as Antonio Damasio discusses in his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, emotional and other  non-cognitive responses in our bodies come first. Next come feelings-- "the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes." (p. 86). Then, and only then, come more thoughts about the content and the experience we are having, thoughts we are consciously aware of in working memory as we experience something in the moment or reflect on its meaning or value later. 

What this means is that emotion and feelings have an immediate and far-reaching effect on how we think about and evaluate anything we experience or do, including worship. One might even say they set the stage for whatever may happen in our minds, as well as our bodies and souls. 

Yet until very recently, in most of the resources and conversations both scholarly and ecclesiastical about worship planning, the focus has been almost exclusively on the content itself. What did we pray, and what does it mean, cognitively? What words did we sing, and how does singing them help us to obtain a better intellectual grasp of God and our relationships with God, the world, and each other? What sorts of thoughts do I need to have consciously in my mind as I receive Holy Communion, or watch or lead a congregation in celebrating a baptism? How can I sing these words or pray this prayer so that it is "meaningful" for me, every time-- where meaningful means I gain some specific, conscious insight?

Perhaps we have either avoided feeling or shunned feeling in planning worship in part because we have not understood its relationship to our souls. We have sometimes abstracted feelings as something other than ourselves (defining ourselves solely in terms of our active cognition-- a commonplace in Enlightenment rationalism) or even at spiritual war with ourselves (as if feelings were primarily signs of what Paul termed "the flesh"). 
Or perhaps we have seen or even been harmed by worship that seemed focused solely on feelings to the point that it was devoid of meaningful or coherent content, failed to teach or proclaim the faith or proclaimed in falsely, or, worse, manipulated the worshipers in some way. 

Christians have always affirmed that God became flesh and dwelt among us fully as one of us in Jesus.  Neuroscience and an emerging cadre of Christian philosophers now also affirm that we are predominantly feeling and desiring animals rather than thinking animals. Our souls feel and desire first. Then we think reflectively on that. And that thinking then helps shape how we feel. And so on. There is not really a war between thought and emotion, between spirit and body in our selves or souls. Instead, what our souls are, or who we understand and tell and act ourselves to be, is an ongoing dialog, with emotion, body and feeling always having the first word in time, but never the last or the only word.  

ReFeeling worship planning then demands of us a thoughtful attention to feeling-- first, but not solely-- if we are to design worship that helps us fulfill the first commandment. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength." And to the degree that such worship happens, it cannot but spill over to help us fulfill the one like to it-- "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

So come to Nashville this week if you want to hear more about what ReFeeling worship might mean where you are.

Or watch this blog and the GBOD website in the coming weeks.

But even now, as we United Methodists are in the midst of ReThinking nearly everything it seems, don't neglect to ReFeel.

e.e. cummings did get it just about right.


Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
GBOD