On Mathematics and Worship

Proof of my struggles with math, from my journal, age 9, 1990. Note the gleeful grin of the anthropomorphized mathbook and the distress of the symbolic representation of me.

Proof of my struggles with math, from my journal, age 9, 1990. Note the gleeful grin of the anthropomorphized mathbook and the distress of the symbolic representation of me. Also Math has the curly hair I wanted as a child, while the figure of me doesn’t. Cruel. (You can click for a larger version that’s more readable.)

I am not a math person. Most school subjects come naturally to me, but every form of math was a struggle for me every year of school I had to take it. Numbers are nasty, slippery little things that don’t do anything they’re supposed to in my brain. That’s why when I want to distract myself from crying, I do simple math in my head, because it’s difficult and distracts me neatly.

So, last Sunday a testimony in church and a couple of lovely worship songs extolling the attributes of God combined to make me feel inclined to cry, because such things do, and I didn’t want to because I had very soon to stand up and deliver a sermon on the letter to Pergamum in Revelation 2. A strange thing to be all teary-eyed during. So I distracted myself by adding in my head: 2+2 = 4, 4+4=8, 8+8=16, 16+16=32, and so on, up into the thousands, losing my place a couple of times because numbers are slippery beasts.

Now, this is a mundane, ostensibly unworshipful thing to do during what we are pleased to call a worship service, but I have a philosophical and theological problem with creating a divide between “worship” and the rest of life. Human beings are designed to worship God with all that we do, and I think that assigning the title “worship” to the singing portion of a church service creates an unnatural category in our category-loving minds. Standing and singing worshipful songs to God becomes the totality of what worship is to us, when really it is only a tiny drop in the comprehensive ocean of what worship is*. Anything that is done for the glory of God is worship, and anything that causes a conscious awareness of the  magnificence and gloriousness and beauty of God is a thing that leads us to worship.

In this case it was very simple math, because as I concentrated on numbers instead of songs, I began to detect a pattern, and as I thought about patterns in mathematics I began to think about the logic and orderliness of mathematics in general and how it so clearly reveals the creativity, the orderliness, the intelligence, the very goodness of the Mind who put such precision and order into our world. I wondered how anyone could possibly love math and not fall in love with the Mind behind it and how anyone could possibly be a mathematician and an atheist at the same time. And so, thinking of mathematics, I worshipped its Creator.

I’ve always struggled with the worship service portion of church services. I’ve always felt guilty for my mind being busily at work doing all the things it does: observing, analyzing, criticizing, making connections, theologizing, anthropologizing—being “distracted from worship”—and only rarely doing what they say you’re supposed to do during the singing portion of a church service, which is somehow being so caught up emotionally in the sensations of being in love with Jesus that one doesn’t want to think or do anything but sing songs and wave one’s arms about. That doesn’t happen to me, or appeal to me as a thing to want have happen to me, and the popular conception of Heaven as a place where we’ll stand about having a church worship service for eternity sounds like a nightmare to me. I have in the past actually wondered whether I even loved Him at all because I did not tend to experience emotional sweepings-away in worship service settings. I can’t turn off my mind and its never-ending observing, pondering, and analyzing, and what’s more, I’ve come to a place where I’ve decided I won’t try.

My mind is my greatest asset in worship, whether it’s in the singing portion of a church service, in rejoicing gloriously in being alive while I’m riding my bike, in translating an enthralling Greek verse and contemplating its depths—wherever I am or whatever I’m doing that draws my mind upward to God. The songs that did and do move me are ones that cause me to think wonderful theological thoughts about the nature and person of God. In short, songs that awaken my mind and integrate with the way it works.

I have become convinced that worship is less about going to the right place and performing the right acts and having the right songs, and more about a habit formed of letting anything and everything point to God, whether it be ecstatic singing or contemplating mathematics. When this habit is created, we will worship in church because we already do so in the rest of life, and wherever our minds and hearts turn, we will find something to draw us to God. We will never do it perfectly, but over a lifetime of careful training—training of our minds, I am convinced— we will do it better and better and more and more naturally. Worship won’t be confined to songs and a brief period on a Sunday but will encompass all of life. All of our living. Perhaps we’ll find someday that worship in Heaven isn’t just standing about in white choir robes with harps being God’s eternal choir but that living eternal life with God and in His presence is worship.

*Quote stolen and tweaked a bit from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Categories: Blog, Theological Musings Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

One Response to On Mathematics and Worship

  1. Merrit Olson says:

    I think your words gave some inspiration to the pastor for today’s message. :)

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