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Perceptions and our world view

I walked into the service late. They were singing “How Great is Our God.” I like that song. The people at Better Covenant Christian Fellowship do a great job with their worship music. That was the last song before the message, and Pastor Terence Stovell took the microphone at his pulpit. He doesn't actually spend very much time behind that pulpit. It's a clear thing; you can see right through it, but it might as well be solid granite because Pastor Stovell usually walks back and forth with a small towel in his hands, up the aisles, forward and backwards. He is always on the move. He doesn't need the pulpit.

That day he told us to turn in our Bibles to the book of Daniel and he gave the chapter and verse. Evidently, he had intended to preach from that section, but about an hour later, he still had not actually gotten to that section, and he laughed at himself when he started to close the service and realised it. So, he just started to read one part of what he had intended to preach on, and then he read a little more. Then he commented on that. Then he read some more. He was going strong that day, and he was having a hard time stopping.

Every preacher has a style. After they have been at it for any length of time, they develop a rhythm and a pace. It is one thing that helps them to know where they are in terms of the time they still have before they have to pull the service to a close, but on that day, Terence was going long. Something was knocking him out of his rhythm. Or, perhaps to put it another way, something affected his rhythm and gave him a different delivery.

No one knew the stopping place. After about fifteen more minutes, he tried to move us toward an ending by starting to sing a chorus. I cannot remember the words of the chorus. It wasn't a cheer leading song with big sound and a lot of loud voices and instruments. It wasn't a terribly emotional song. It was the kind of chorus that states a simple fact and says it simply. In fact, there were moments when the whole room almost came to a hush, and the chorus and the singing was a whisper bathed in reverence.

Pastor Stovell began to cry. He could not speak. He buried his face in the towel that he was holding in his hands. The people began to moan. They raised their hands. They came out of the aisles. They walked up front. The place was astir but not in a frenzy. That went on for about thirty minutes, and then, as if exhausted, the people stopped. There was no dramatic ending. The Pastor regained his composure, provided a benediction, and then the service was over.

In an essay titled “The Aesthetics of Perception: Form As A Sign Of Intention,” Jennifer McMahon claimed the following:

“Perceived order excites the ascription of intention. The ascription of intention employs background knowledge and experience, or in other words, implicates the perceiver's conceptual framework. In our response to art of every description we witness the incorrigible tendency in humans to construct meaningful narratives to account for events. Such meaningful narratives always implicitly involve the ascription of intention, even when the agent of the intention is not explicitly acknowledged or even clearly conceived.”

In other words, if you go to a gallery and look at a painting, you will likely make up some kind of story for yourself to explain what the artist was thinking about, trying to accomplish, what he or she was doing, and/or how they were attempting to do it. We make up such narratives to make sense out of what we experience.

People in a worship service do the same thing. Some in a service such as the one I was part of might look at it and claim that the Pastor's tears were a gimmick designed to tug at the emotions of the people who saw him. Some, feeling the moving of something in the audience, might have attributed it to the music, regardless of how simple it was. They might have said it was a cultural thing for a black church. They might have attributed what was going on to the needs of the people for an emotional rush, a spiritual high. Like people looking at a painting, people who do not see God or hear from Him attribute God's presence to something else.

The service was indeed a work of art with an evident order. The inability to end, the preaching with passion, the soft and reverent music and the singing softly of a chorus over and over were deliberate, but who was the artist? What happened was not something people created; it was something people were carried along by. If my wife had been in the service, she would have been carried along with it. She would have raised hands, and she probably would have gone down in front, but she would have attributed it to the moving of the Holy Spirit. That would have been her account of those events. I have to say that it was mine as well, but I am a man who is moved to worship by a different kind of form. Regardless of the form, though, when you are witness to a movement of God, you have to step back and call it what it is. What usually gets me, the work of art that causes me to worship, is nature; I can stand at the ocean's edge, gaze out across the sea, and start thinking about the scope of God's work with people — both across the ages and also within the phases of my own life. It makes me bow before His Being.

You take a person who knows God and another who does not, and you stand them side-by-side, either at the edge of the water or on the edge of a service such as the one I described, and what happens? Do they get the picture? One hears from God, and the other does not. One creates for him or herself a this-life-only story, and the other just buries his or her face in the towel.

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Published September 17, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 16, 2013 at 5:31 pm)

Perceptions and our world view

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