Synesthetic Worship

SynesthesiaIsaiah 6:1-8

When Carol Crane was a child in first grade, she mystified
her teacher and her classmates when she wondered aloud why the number five,
displayed in a row of other numbers above the chalkboard was yellow, when it should
be green.

Her question didn’t make any sense to the teacher and was vaguely disturbing.
So Carol learned to keep her mouth shut about such things. She didn’t know then
that there were others like her for whom the ringing of a doorbell resembled a
series of triangles, or a dog bark seemed like a circle with dots around it.

Today, Carol knows that she is gifted (or cursed?) with synesthesia
(sin-es-thee-sia), a condition that affects about 1 in 25,000 persons.
Synesthetes are people who can actually see sounds, smell colors and taste
shapes. When a synesthete hears the sound of a truck backing up, making a
beep-beep-beep sound, he or she might see the beeps as a series of red dots. In
a string of numbers, the 5’s may be experienced as a different color from the
2’s. Circles smell different from squares, and sour foods sound different from
sweet foods.

People like Carol are hot-wired to join several senses together as altered
building blocks of perception. The condition is seven times more common among
artists, novelists and poets. A list of famous synesthetes includes people like
Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Marilyn Monroe, and Eddie Van Halen. People
with this ability seem to experience the world with more intensity, and they
make unexpected connections between things they see, touch, smell, taste and
hear, all of which is a real asset to people involved in creative work.

Some people just see, touch, taste, feel, hear, experience
the world differently. And while synesthesia is a rare physiological condition,
it doesn’t have to necessarily be a rare experience for the rest of us. In
fact, it may be that what others call weird, we could call “worship”.

Isaiah may or may not have been a synesthete, but when he
comes to worship God in today’s scripture passage, he certainly has a
synesthetic experience – being in God’s presence causes him to see and
experience things that the other worshippers around him don’t.

Isaiah is in the Temple during the Sabbath, a regular day,
another worship service. But then Isaiah has a vision in the midst of the
sanctuary that puts him on his knees. He saw the Lord “sitting on a throne”
(Isaiah 6:1). He heard one seraph call to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the
LORD of hosts” (v. 3). He smelled the smoke that filled the house of the Lord,
and felt the pivots on the thresholds shake (v. 4). He even tasted the live
coal that the seraph put on his mouth to blot out his sin (vv. 6-7).

Isaiah’s senses are completely opened and he experiences the
awesomeness of God in the midst of the ordinary. He hadn’t expected it, but
there it was, there GOD was. I wonder if he nudged the person next to him…do
you see what I see? Chances are, they didn’t.

Worship brings us into the presence of God – not the ordinary,
controlled, institutionalized God we relegate to the background of our lives,
but the awesome, creative, saving God who is “high and lifted up.” When we
intentionally come together, we should expect that God is going to be among us,
and when that happens, as it did to Isaiah, look out!

As Annie Dillard once said (paraphrase), “If we were serious
about worship, we’d all show up with crash helmets on. If God shows up,
everything is going to break loose.”

The basic reason we worship is to experience God, not in a
passive way but in a fully active, synesthetic way, using all of our senses,
all of ourselves, to move toward God and away from ourselves. It’s an
invitation to see a different, divine reality beyond our finite understanding.

From the earliest days of Christianity, worship has been the
central focus and function of the church. It’s our number one job  – it’s the thing I spend the most time
on during the week (someone once asked me, “What do you do all week since you only have to be here on Sundays?” I used an
answer I heard once – I said, “I pray, all day, and if you’d stop sinning, I
could do something else.”)

Seriously, the central focus of what we do as a church is
worship, because worship, being in God’s presence drives the rest of our mission
and ministry. If we do worship well, if we put our whole being into it, it gets
us outside of ourselves and, like Isaiah, will push us to do greater things for
God and God’s Kingdom. But it takes work to make that happen.

The greek word for worship is “liturgia” – where we get the
word “liturgy” – and it literally means “work of the people.” Worship is our
job, a job that we engage in gladly because it brings us closer to God and, in
many ways, closer to each other. Every choir practice, every bulletin handed
out by an usher, every greeting, every scripture reading, every hour spent
preparing a sermon is the “work of the people”- not so that we can “get
something out of it” but because we want to see and experience God.

When we come to worship, we come with senses heightened
because we each experience God in different ways.  Isaiah saw a vision. Others have told me that they’ve heard
God speaking to them on a Sunday through an anthem or a hymn, through the
Children’s Message or through the sermon. These are revealing moments, divine

Our worship is designed to provide the maximum opportunity
for that to happen. Think of all the senses that are present:

The sense of sight: the architecture of the worship space
moves us toward God, high ceilings, pulpit (the place where the word is given),
the altar, the cross, the candles which signify the light of Christ, the
liturgical colors, all act as visual cues, visual connectors to God.

The ear hears the music, the preaching of the word, the
reading of scripture, the choir, the hymns, the shuffling of children and the
cooing and crying of babies – all of these are sacred sounds, reminders of the
beauty of life in God’s Kingdom. We might even hear God’s voice, but we must be
discerning and listen.

We smell the burning candles, the bread of communion, the
perfume of the lady in front of us. In many Christian traditions, incense is
used in worship as a way of experiencing God’s presence through smell. For me,
the smell of a leather-bound Bible is that incense, a reminder of God’s
presence in the Word.

We taste the bread of communion, the grape juice, the
reminders that we can, indeed, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” We might
feel the water of baptism and remember our own.

And we touch – shaking hands with each other, opening the
hymnal, bumping into each other in the pew as we slide over to make room. It’s
always interesting to me that the only place you can find benches or pews
anymore is in the cheap seats at the ballpark and at church – both places
designed to put people together in close proximity. It’s a communal experience.

See, when we come to worship we not only connect with God,
we connect with each other. While we can certainly worship individually and are
encouraged too, authentic worship is best experienced in community with others.

You might think of it as operating on two planes – a
vertical plane that puts us in touch with God and a horizontal plane that
connects us with the people around us. Ultimately, our relationship with God is
lived out in relationship to others.

PerichoresisAs Christians we celebrate and worship the Trinity – Father,
Son and Holy Spirit – one God in three persons – in reality, a community
seeking relationship both within and without itself. …..In the seventh century,
Greek theologian John of Damascus called this relationship “perichoresis” – a
circle dance. In other words, the Trinity is an image of the three persons of
God in constant movement in a circle that implies intimacy, equality, unity yet
distinction, and love.

As God is in community, we too are called to worship him in
community. Our presence in worship each week is a reminder that as God’s very
nature is communal, so is ours. When we worship together, we are more likely to
serve together. Jesus never invites us to be lone rangers, but a community of
disciples who together represent his body. The church at worship is the first
touchpoint of our discipleship—the place and time where we come before the holy
together. We come not just because we want to, but because we need to. And we
need to because we need God’s grace and God’s forgiveness.

Struck by this intense vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah
realizes that he is inadequate, sinful – “Woe is me! I am man of unclean lips
and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Worship does that to us, for when
we come into God’s presence we realize how short we fall of God’s best. We
don’t deserve to be there.

But that’s when the angel takes a coal from the altar and
touches Isaiah’s lips – a symbol of purging, of cleansing – a chance to start
over. No matter how far apart we find ourselves from God, no matter how dirty
we feel or far gone we are, worship reminds us that God hasn’t left us but is waiting
and wanting for us to come in and be with him, to dance with him again.

Then the voice of the Lord called out, “Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?” And Isaiah, his reality and perceptions altered by his
vision in worship, said, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8). Isaiah knew that the
forgiveness freed him to go in a new direction, not to return to his former
ways. He believed that new life was being given to him so that he could serve
the Lord, and so he offered to go in whatever direction God would send him. He
became one of the greatest of the prophets, speaking God’s word to a troubled,
corrupt and sinful society.

The world still needs prophets, courageous souls willing to
deliver the message “Thus says the Lord” to a society that is quick to block
out divine words. But the world also needs teachers and counselors, preachers
and evangelists, healers and helpers, as well as people of vision and energy
and integrity in every line of work that is being performed today. So be a computer
technician with compassion. A sales clerk with Christian vision. A school
administrator with a sense of discipleship. When we come to worship, we cannot
leave without a mission.

These qualities may not seem to be an obvious or predictable fit. But that’s
synesthesia. That’s the expansion of perception that opens us up to God and to
his will for us. When we worship, we do, in fact, see the world around us
differently. Indeed, worship invites us to imagine the world as God has
intended it to be from the beginning: a world open to the presence of God, a
world where God dwells with us and we with him. Worship invites us to be a
synesthetic people who rise above the ordinary and engage the extraordinary
grace and love of God for the world.

And when you experience that love, when you have a vision of God, you have to
do something. Painters with a vision paint. Composers compose. Poets poet.
Christians “go and tell,” and show and tell. Worship changes everything – most
of all, it changes us.

Worship isn’t just an optional extra for the disciple of
Jesus—it’s foundational. We need to be in worship on a regular basis in order
to encounter God in the midst of community and then be sent as that community
into the world. Worship invites us to imagine God’s kingdom, and then sends us
forth to go and be and do the things that make that kingdom a reality in the


“Do you see what they see?” Discover. December, 1999.










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