Fri, September 11, 2015

Faith is awe in the face of mystery.

We gazed silently alongside an uncountable amount of people.  The oddity was not in the differences of those of us present but in the symmetry of what we all felt. We were moved by something awe-some. The Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, and it moved us by its mystery.

God is the same way — always more than we can comprehend, “holy other” to our imaginations.

Rudolf Otto once said people intersecting with mystery respond in one of two ways: with fear or awe. What he means is that when we bump into what we do not understand, it is both terrifying and awe-inspiring, and we either push it away or lean into it.

The same is true for church.

We all know people who have run away from the institutional church. They believe the church’s packaged answers no longer satisfy their complex context. They want mystery, but the church gave them fear. This fear manifests itself by ensuring a theology of certainty and, sadly, misses out on encountering the “holy other” nature of God.

Churches that want to connect and grow have to do what Otto describes: stare into the mysteries of the universe (God, theology, hope) with awe and, then, see what happens. They must figure out how not to package, name, or control that moment. It has to remain a mystery.

Faith is not a set of beliefs. It is not a system of theories, conservative or liberal worldviews, nor is it doctrinal creeds. Faith is willingness to stand on the precipice and stare out with a sense of hope that God is there. It’s as Otto says, “. . . awe in the face of mystery.”

And this is where the church must invite people into each Sunday morning. We need more mystery. We need opportunities to stretch our faith, to look out onto the horizon and believe that God has gone ahead of us. We need church to be the place that instills hope and not fear into our hearts.

I stand on this precipice every time the organ hits the opening hymn during Sunday morning worship. I look out at the congregation and am moved by the holiness of the moment. I see how the mysteries of God manifest themselves through corporate worship, and I think, “Surely God is in this place.”

Also at our church, we have a discipline of silence that follows the sermon. We sit for minutes in silence and let the spirit of the living God move. For us, this moment is a primary place where we can experience awe and be reminded of God’s mystery.

Worship is the best barometer for how much faith churches allow others to experience, but it is not the only way. Sunday School curriculum, small group topics, Wednesday night Bible studies, and children’s sermons all reflect how much faith or how much fear we have.

A church that leaves room for mystery, that teaches the “holy other” nature of God, is a church willing to look forward with faith. They can let go of the fear that says all of life’s questions are answerable. They can let go of the lie that says everything we need to know is only written in the pages of scripture. It can, rather, open its worship, its theology, its doors to a world that is hungry for mystery and transcendence.

If we do this, our future and the church’s future will be awe-some. Here’s to looking forward with faith!

Barrett Owen is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.