Sunday, December 02, 2007

cry room

Back when I was interested in Judaism I read an explanation of prayer in Hebrew. The point was not that you absolutely have to pray in Hebrew, only that it's safer to do so. When you pray in any language, with any words, if your heart is in it, and you express yourself correctly and sincerely before God, you have done a good thing. When you pray in Hebrew, using the words handed down by tradition, you're expressing true and right thoughts to God, even if your heart is not in it. In that case, you've also done a good thing. So, it's better to pray in the traditional words from the Hebrew prayer book, because your prayer will always be worth something, and sometimes it will be worth double. There's a strong potential here for a legalistic outlook, but at the same time I think it contains a valuable principle--that sometimes reading right words you don't feel can be good in its own right--that it might be just the thing to "prime the pump" and get you feeling more the way you should. (Whether those right words have to be in Hebrew or not is another matter.)

But I bring it up here to illustrate another pattern. This morning Julie wasn't feeling well, so she asked me to stay with her in the cry room at Bethany until after she'd fed Jenna. Orthodox churches traditionally expect the whole family to worship together in one service. (Though I heard a talk not long ago by a Khouria whose husband had at one point been assigned to a parish that did not allow children in the service with the adults--it was brought up as a decidedly wrong way of doing things.) Other traditions take a similar approach, including some Presbyterian and Reformed churches, but the trend in modern Evangelicalism seems to be to keep kids out. It fits nicely with the "seeker sensitive" mentality--that worship is something to be tailored to the needs of the intended audience. Kids are therefore better contained in their own classes, where they can learn to worship God in their own way, and presumably grow into a more adult form of worship whenever the time is right. A common feature of this model is the cry room, which allows for infants who aren't quite ready to be deposited in the nursery to accompany their parents to the service, without disrupting the controlled, adult atmosphere. (Not that cry rooms don't appear in Orthodox churches as well--sometimes children just get too noisy and have to be taken out for a while.) The typical pattern for us is that Jenna eats in the cry room through the first part of the service and then spends the rest of the time in the nursery.

It's the first time I've really spent in the cry room with Jenna (maybe once or twice with Ian--I can't recall). They pipe in the audio, and there's a window so you can see what's going on. For me, it just felt like something was lacking. Actually, it felt like a lot was lacking. Evangelical worship normally seems incomplete anyway, but sitting in that room, it was almost non-existent. I felt completely like a spectator. Things were going on, but I wasn't at all engaged with them. The effect of being in that room brought to mind the bit about Jewish prayer. In Orthodox worship, the liturgy has an effect of creating worship, in and of itself. I feel it when I'm watching a service on the Internet or listening to music in the car. Actually being in a service, present with the other participants, certainly adds something to it, but the two elements are distinct and cummulative. Today it felt like what I normally got out of worship at Bethany depended solely on the "being there" part. Take that away, even if it's only through the separation of a single wall, and nothing is left.

I don't suppose that this perception can be generalized. I'm sure there are Evangelicals who get something out of the music and prayer itself, whether watching on TV or listening on the radio. Such people may feel that something is lacking when they're removed from direct participation, but can probably still consider it worship. For me, I guess it was just an eye-opening moment about my own connection to Evangelical practice (or lack thereof). There is still an element of the familiar. There are still people I know and love, and the connection I have with them is real; there are still songs that have special meaning for me; there is still a familiarity with services at Bethany. But the actual substance of the interaction, the thing we're there to do, the "about" of the experience--that's what seems to be missing. All that's left is the familiar feel, and when that is cut off, the void is apparent.

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