NPR recently replayed an old episode of This American Life from 1996 called “Accidental Documentaries.” The first of three acts is about the Davis family – a father and mother from Michigan who traded reel-to-reel tapes with their son who was in medical school in California in the late 1960s, in lieu of written letters.
Somehow one of their tapes ended up in a thrift store in Chicago, and then it found its way to This American Life. I was fascinated by a portion of the tape in which the wife uses one specific term as she is talking about her dissatisfaction with her husband for failing to take his faith seriously, at least in her mind. Here’s what she said:
“I got up to have my worship this morning – I neglected it over the weekend – and as I did, Daddy came in and sat down beside me,” she says to her son. “And I felt rather funny because I really feel he does this as a duty more than anything else. And when I have my worship, I feel communication with God and I enjoy what I’m reading. And when Daddy came in, there was just … I don’t know, I suppose you’d call it an inner resentment, umm, I didn’t know quite what to do. I was right in the middle of reading a chapter.”
Her voice sounds exactly like Pat MacDougall (portrayed by Georgia Engel), Amy's mother on Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a sincere tone, with a hint of naiveté. I could listen to her talk all day.
“So for the first time in my life, rather than to try to anticipate what he wanted and his needs, I just let him sit there,” she continued. “And I thought if he would say to me, ‘Well, could I have worship with you?’ it would be fine, but he didn’t, so I just continued reading and didn’t say anything at all. He sat there for a little while and then he left.”
I don’t want to talk about her perception of her husband’s faith, because, well – her perception was her reality, as it is with all of us. But instead, I want to talk about her use of the word “worship.” In was jarring to me. In the context in which she was using it, she was referring to it the way the Puritans used to speak about a person’s private time with God, calling it “private worship.” But I’ve never been in the habit of referring to it that way.
Today we call it a “quiet time” or “devotions.” These terms contain certain connotations. Having a quiet time says we are pulling away from the world to confess our sins and reorient our priorities as we meet with and hear from God. Doing daily devotions inherently seems to mean we are devoted to meeting with God for the same reasons.
But the term “worship” is more appealing, at least to me. Worship starts with gratitude for what God has already done. Confession, reorientation and duty flows out of that, rather than the other way around. The woman on the tape touched on this when she said, “When I have my worship, I feel communication with God and I enjoy what I’m reading.”
Admittedly, there have been times in my life when I started my devotions as a duty and stumbled into gratitude, so I’m not against using the more modern terms. But I do wonder if my attitude might be different if I embraced the notion of private worship instead.