When I returned from the Iraq war over ten years ago, it was Christian worship that helped me most in my recovery and reorientation.
As a chaplain in Iraq, I gave a number of briefings to Soldiers on what to expect and how to cope when the deployment was over. As a Soldier myself, I sat through a number of similar briefings given by others. At their best, the briefings were filled with practical, common sense advice. Since they were designed for a diverse audience, I don’t recall that any of them specifically recommended going to church.
Over the past decade, “resiliency” has become a popular buzz-word in the Army. Twelve years of war has taken its toll on individuals, families and the institution itself. Some soldiers cope with visible and invisible physical injuries. Others wrestle with post-traumatic stress. Still others bear the weight of moral injury. For some, existing mental and social problems were exacerbated by months or years of deployment. Some families fell apart. Some soldiers lost their bearings. Some took their lives. Many soldiers simply exhausted themselves, having given as much as they could for as long as they could.
Resilient soldiers, we are told, “bounce back” from such stressors. They experience “post traumatic growth” and become even stronger. Today, the Army teaches resiliency skills to all of its soldiers and it has defined five dimensions of comprehensive fitness. One of the domains is the “Spiritual,” which the Army takes pains to describe in a non-religious way. Still, I’m convinced that it is Christian worship that has most helped me endure and grow as a human being.
Recently, I’ve tried to unpack why worship had such a positive impact on my life. I know that my experience is my experience. Not everyone thinks about Christian worship as I do. And I know that many people have had disappointing or even destructive experiences in the Christian community. What follows is admittedly an idealized analysis based on my own life-path and my reflections on how human beings function.
The Divine Dimension
First of all, and most importantly, worship connects me to the divine source of life. Worship’s efficacy cannot be explained in purely humanistic terms. It is in worship that I live out Jesus’ command to “abide in me” as a branch abides in the vine. A cut flower withers and dies because its source of life-giving nourishment has been severed. In worship, God sustains me as I remain rooted in him. I believe that God is present with his people in worship, that he has united me to Christ and his church in holy baptism, that he feeds his people with the body of blood of Christ in holy communion, that he speaks through his word, that he hears our prayers, that he rejoices in our love and praise, that he heals, reconciles and forgives and that he gives us a foretaste of the coming kingdom. In other words, worship effectively builds resiliency primarily because of what God does, not because of what we do.
Consequently, worship is not simply a utilitarian tool that I can use for my own purposes or that an institution such as the Army can use for its own. Worship is God’s instrument for shaping lives for his purposes. God’s interests do not always coincide with Caesar’s interests or even with my own. A utilitarian approach to worship is an abomination.
The Human Dimensions
In our worship, God fulfills his promises, through his own means for his own reasons. Maybe that’s all I need to know. Still, God tends to work in our lives through tangible and comprehensible means. As he does with bread and wine, God transforms the ordinary things of his creation into instruments of his power.
In the following analysis, I don’t take lightly the power of the mysterious and the divine. Rather, this is how I understand the human framework through which God has worked in me.
What, then, are the “ordinary things” of creation which God uses in worship? How has God used the physical, mental and social dimensions of worship to contribute to my resiliency? More generally, what are the human dimensions of worship and how do they function?
This is how I see worship’s human dimension, ordered more or less from “least religious” to “most religious.” Worship is effective at:
- Connecting People with a Community
- Restoring Feelings of Familiarity
- Creating a Feeling of Safety
- Providing a Positive Family Experience
- Integrating the Whole Person
- Affecting Multiple Parts of the Brain
- Telling a Big Story that Gives Structure and Meaning to Life
- Putting People In touch with an Ancient and Enduring Reality
- Promoting Thankfulness
- Creating Hope
- Pointing Beyond Oneself
- Shaping Character over Time
- Facilitating Forgiveness and Acceptance
- Opening the Door to The Transcendent
In addition to the individual topics linked above, here is a link to the entire series in one PDF file: