I was recently invited to step outside of my comfort zone, and I took it. I attended a Bible conference called “The Well,” which is associated with University Bible Fellowship (UBF), a Protestant Christian community.
Catholics can learn from UBF’s love for spontaneity. Their worship experience is built around an embrace of how the Holy Spirit moves them in unexpected ways. That movement often manifests as outbursts of prayer and public proclamations of thanks for God’s love. As a Catholic, I am used to a heavily structured liturgical experience. The average Catholic at a weekly service can provide a detailed description of the order of what has happened so far and of what is going to happen at any given point during Mass.
The spontaneity that seems nearly perfected by the UBF community at “The Well” is almost absent from my experience of Catholic worship. I know, however, that there is a lively charismatic movement within Catholicism worldwide and my experience is very North American. Even in the U.S., there are Catholic communities exploring a more charismatic worship style, including in my own city of Boston, which I have yet to encounter. Regardless, the juxtaposition of my everyday Catholic experience and my experience at “The Well” reveals an area for growth in how Catholics can further embrace the unexpected in how we worship.
For example, though Catholics are reluctant to let go of traditional hymns — and I am among those who are slow to venture from the music I know and love — there is a unique chance for encounter with the divine in praise and worship. Somehow you know the music as it is being sung, even if you have never heard it before. You take joy in everything from the passion of the audience to the musicians’ mumbling a word from the next verse inaudibly such that only the regulars know what is about to come next. You easily embrace the simple message of humility before God and God’s gracious love in spite of your failures. The elements put together contribute to an experience absent elsewhere in Christian worship.
This year’s conference theme was “The Father’s Heart,” which builds off of a previous conference theme, “Abba Father.” The main scriptural focus of the conference was 2 Samuel 18: 1-33, which chronicles the death of King David’s son Absalom. Absalom had betrayed his father, and Absalom’s army was defeated, resulting in his death. When David’s son dies, instead of rejecting the memory of his son, whom he had hoped would live through the carnage, David cries out repeatedly for Absalom, wishing he could take Absalom's place in spite of his son’s treachery.
Relating to David’s love for Absalom, the conference speakers described their experiences as parents. In loving their children, they try to mimic the unconditional love God has for creation. God constantly thirsts for a relationship with us even as we reject God, and God delights in that relationship when we finally embrace God’s love.
This was a beautiful theme to be sure. It inspired deep and meaningful reflection. My hope, however, is that the focus on understanding God’s love as that of a father, though worthy, does not narrowly define our experience of God’s love in a restrictive way. In the constant emphasis on the “father” qualities of God’s love, the God celebrated at the conference felt almost exclusively male.
Of course, this is far from a concern only for UBF. The problem of inequality for women within Catholicism continues to haunt our church. Recently, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley admitted to 60 Minutes that there was a dire need for change in how the church subjugates women and expressed hope that change was imminent. Catholic feminist scholars have noted that the subjugation of women within Christianity has been accompanied by what they see as an over-emphasis on God as He at the expense of any emphasis on God as She.
My reflections alone lack the balance present in the joint reflections produced by official ecumenical dialogues. My hope is, however, that they will inspire other everyday Catholics to also step outside of their comfort zones. Don’t let professional theologians be the only ones to discover firsthand the foreign beauty waiting for us in other Christian traditions. My experience at “The Well” indicates that there is much to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters. We differ in our styles and often in our theologies, but we have many insights to share, which extend from those differences.
[Zachary R. Dehm is currently working toward his Master of Theological Studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.]
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