Like many of us, I watched the entire funeral service for Senator John McCain on Saturday. The stories, memories and music were framed by the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, all contained within the magnificent confines of the National Cathedral. And like many of us, I was proud to be an Episcopalian.
What stood out for me during the two-and-a-half-hour service was the fact that so many American leaders gathered, yes, to pay respects and to hear tributes for a remarkable, passionate and irascible statesman, warrior and patriot; but more importantly, to worship. Not to worship John McCain (he would have had none of that), but to pay homage to a reality that is greater than an individual or an ideology; and to pray to a divine love that can embrace the diversity of religious doctrines and practices – and that can receive and honor people’s grief, all the while holding out a promise for hope and new life.
It is a primordial instinct for human beings to worship. It is easiest and most tempting to worship something that is within one’s control. Even though they were strictly told not to do so, our spiritual ancestors, when given the slightest opening, reverted to worship gods they could fabricate and that they could see: graven images and golden calves. Or to pay obsequious obeisance to kings and emperors who were given the mantle of divine authority by their infantilized followers.
In recent years more and more people seem to be drawn to worship various ideologies – many of them toxic, if not downright dangerous. On a daily basis we are given the opportunity to choose from a burgeoning worship menu – the need to be right, embracing an entrenched political perspective, preserving capital, overtly or subtly advocating racial and religious superiority. And on and on and on. None of them point beyond the cohort of their immediate followers; most of them claim some sacred meaning – which invariably involves favoring one group over another. And all of them remain static and framed in a frightening certainty.
As John McCain would say, which was recounted by nearly every speaker at his funeral, we are better than that. The act of worship, of investing our souls in a practice that reminds us of the temptation to put ourselves and our cohort at the center of the universe, is critical to our souls’ health. Worship reminds us that God doesn’t do our bidding, but that we are called to discern the bidding of God. Worship reinforces the claim that there is a mystery of life and hope and blessing and peace – and to be better we need to provide spiritual and physical space in order to open our hearts and expand our horizons. That happened for a nation on Saturday.
We are surrounded by an increasing number of idols. On the surface, many of them seem compelling. Beware. The idols offer promises they can’t fulfill, and ultimately leave us with a spiritual emptiness. But the God of love continues to beckon us – to receive God’s grace – and then – and then, to witness to its power. True worship opens us up to that gift.