I traveled recently with friends to Olympic National Park, hiking along Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains (pictured), and so I am thinking about mountains. Scripture contains more than three hundred references to mountains: Mount Sinai / Horeb, the place of the giving of the Law; mountains that quake before God’s wrath; mountains whose majesty is exceeded by God’s glory; and so on. One such reference is in Psalm 99: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”
Especially in that portion of Scripture that comes to us Christians from our Jewish forebears, mountains are places for encounters with God, and Jerusalem, Mount Zion, is the privileged place for the worship of God. In his conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus expands this view by insisting that it is worship in “spirit and truth” that God desires and not necessarily worship at Zion (as favored by Jews) or Gerizim (the mountain favored by Samaritans). Indeed, in his gospel Luke situates Jesus’ paradigmatic sermon on a plain in contrast to Matthew’s location on a mountain since according to Greek thought the divine comes down from the mountain to converse with humans and Luke is writing for a community with a significant number of Gentiles whose thinking is Hellenized. (Sidenote: The tallest mountain in Olympic National Park is named after the home of the Greek gods, Mount Olympus.) The Christian Testament insists that Jew and Gentile are welcome in God’s presence. (See also, inter alia, Isaiah 56:7; 66:20-21.)
Changing perspective for a moment, if God can be encountered in level places and on the heights, then God can be encountered in the depths of the ocean and in outer space. If I can encounter God in valleys and on peaks, am I open to encountering God in millionaires and in persons without a penny to their names? Am I open to all the ways in which God is present to me?
Whatever else one does in God’s presence, one worships God. Do I worship God where I am? This question has a bearing not only on how I connect formal worship with my day-to-day life. It applies also to those who, like me, are sometimes in parish liturgies that are metaphorical mountains when what I want is a valley. Or forests when what I want is pastureland.
Worship is fundamentally communal. What does it mean for me to worship in an assembly where many (if not most) are nourished by a mode of worship that I find barren or at least challenging?
I have no ready-made answers here and I am certainly not advocating an “anything goes” approach to matters of worship. I suggest only that answering questions about who is welcome in God’s presence in formal worship and what modes of worship should be favored or curtailed are matters requiring great wisdom, abundant compassion and not a little trepidation.