It is actually somewhat incredible to think about how many opportunities we had to experience worship during our time in Georgia. Though we were only in the country for two separate Sunday’s, we got to participate in worship amongst seven or more different communities and seven or more different contexts. Because of this, it will not be possible to make blanket statements about Georgian worship styles, but rather describe a number of them separately and then find commonalities between each. It is through this sort of multiple expressions of worship that I think Georgian Baptists, and possibly the Orthodox tradition in general understands God – as a mystery that cannot be qualified or quantified. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his book The Orthodox Way describes our faith as a journey upon which the mystery of God is often “well known to the smallest child, and incomprehensible to the most brilliant theologian.” (Ware 12) This paradox describing how God often teaches us supports the advantages of experiencing God in the field rather than the classroom, and is why we often draw closer to God through encountering him through people and expressions of the local church than through gaining ‘knowledge’ from the latest journal article or up and coming theologian.
While God is definitely a mystery that can rarely be grasped, Bishop Ware does provide us with three ‘pointers’ that can lead us to experiencing the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The first pointer that Ware talks about is the world around us. The way the Georgian Baptist church captured this pointer was in fact one of my greatest appreciations of their worship. On the last Sunday we were in Georgia we had the chance to experience Pentecost Sunday at the Cathedral Baptist Church in Tbilisi, the country’s capital city. The very nature of using the church calendar adds some sort of structure out of the chaotic world in which we live. It provides a frame work out of which the church can celebrate events essential to the Christian church (Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost) so to remain focused on the main thing (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord).
Beyond the church calendar, the Cathedral Baptist church also pointed the congregation to God through multiple senses. Often churches in America only use sound (through the word and song) and sometimes taste (through communion once a month) to draw the congregant into worship. At this church in Tbilisi however, the services included smell through incense and grass scattered across the church floor, sight through a liturgical dance, icons, and symbolic gifts during the ordaining of bishops, and sound through a reading of scripture in multiple languages at the same time to symbolize Pentecost – this in addition to the two we depend on in America.
As for something to take back to the church in America, I would agree with something Neville Callam, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, said during an exclusive meeting with him on one of the last days. He said that we as the church in America need to put more emphasis on thoughtful, crafted worship for all the senses. We have become too dependent on the written and spoken word in our worship, which only limits how we can experience God. Though likely providing leadership in a more pastoral role in the future, I hope to work together with the worship leader at whatever congregation I find myself a part, encouraging these sorts of thoughtful expressions of worship.
A second ‘pointer’ that Ware talks about in his book is finding God within ourselves. We best experienced this form of worship through services held in Malcaz’s private chapel where we interacted with the Daily Office of the Order of St. Francis Assisi. As for a tool that helps the believer to really look introspectively at their spirit, I’m not sure I have experienced a better method than the Daily Office we used.
Participating in this form of worship a handful of times during our time in Georgia, it was the setting and timing that allowed the words to really take root. We met in a room that could hold no more than twenty people, each of us lined up in a semicircle on the wall that was focused on an altar with incense, a Bible, the elements for communion, and a beautifully ‘written’ Fresco of Christ on his throne hovering over the altar. As for the timing, we joined together to worship in the chapel both early in the morning and late at night (okay, so not that early or late) to both ready ourselves for the day ahead and reflect on the day that had past. The best experience however was worshiping in the chapel prior to going to worship at the Baptist Cathedral in downtown Tbilisi. I have not been more prepared to worship with a larger body than following this chapel service and fellowship afterwards. And from what we were told, this provides a great context for the leaders of the Cathedral to prepare themselves for leading worship as well as have a time they can look introspectively at their lives readying them to pour out into the congregation later that morning.
And yet, as much as the setting and timing created fertile soil for the Word to be planted in our hearts and minds, it was the Word itself that made the greatest impact on me. Using the Daily Office of St. Francis, along with the common lectionary as a guide, a different person each time took us through scripture, prayers, and reflections in a beautifully orchestrated sequence. Each of the readings, rather than being read by a sole person, were divided among those present so that everyone had a chance to participate in the service. The worship then was concluded by reading a supplemental packet for communion, and together partaking of the bread and the wine.
While at first I was surprised and uncertain (though excited because of my growing appreciation of St. Francis) as to how or why Malcaz used the readings of St. Francis (I thought prior to the trip that the Order of St. Francis was unique to the Catholic church), I was encouraged to find out that he is a part of the Third Order of the St. Francis network associated with the Anglican Church. While studying at Oxford he has connected with the Anglican church in England and has begun to incorporate the worship expressions of St. Francis with those styles of both the Orthodox church and Baptist church influence in Georgia. As for my own use of both these worship practices and worship texts that have been introduced to me, I desire to connect with the Anglican Third Order of St. Francis in Chicago and possibly find the Daily Office readings to use for personal and more intimate worship setting here in the states.
A final “pointer” to guide our Way of faith amidst the mystery of God is our relationship with other human persons. The best way I saw this lived out in the Baptist Church in Georgia was through their three commitments after receiving freedom from their Russian oppressors. The first commitment was to building the church out of Georgian soil. To do so, they have done lots of work at reclaiming their past, going all the way back to the first successful evangelist of Georgia, St. Nino. They have integrated the St. Nino cross into their own decorations, making it a core part of their identity and flag. A group of women have also joined together to make up an Order of St. Nino, women called ‘sisters’ who spend their days making rounds to visit the poor and elderly who are to sick and senile to leave their apartments.
Another part of their history they have reclaimed is the piety of the Order of the New Desert Brothers, as well as integrating many of the paintings found on the walls of the desert caves into their weekly worship. Included in the practices of the Desert Brothers are frequent pilgrimages or hikes to these desert caves for reflection and silence. As for the paintings on the walls in the caves, we saw these images ‘written’ on Frescos and Icons in the churches and buildings of the Georgian Baptist church. Both the service of the sisters and piety of the brothers sets this expression of the Body apart from many protestant churches in the rest of the world. It is something we need to learn from, and something I hope in incorporate into my own spiritual journey and churches I help lead in the future. While the brothers piety has more to do with introspective aspects of worship (as described in the first ‘pointer’), the service of the sisters is essential in how we as followers of the Way interact with other human persons.
A second commitment made by the Baptist church was to reclaim orthodoxy. To do this, they have maintained common religious language and symbolism with the Georgian Orthodox church, as well as emphasized their ministries to the poor, in order to prove to be a stronger witness to their orthodox brothers and sisters. When Malcaz was describing this tremendous testimony of contextual worship he said something like the following:
“When asked by the Orthodox church about icons, we tell them we have more; when
asked about liturgy, we say ours is more developed and thought out; when asked about
leadership structures of bishops and deacons, we just ordained three new bishops; but
what sets us apart from our Orthodox brothers and sisters is our social responsibility – we
serve more and give more to those in need. The State Church can give no reason before God of persecuting us or putting us on account before God.”
Much like Paul’s plea to the church in Galatians, him being “far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors,” (Galatians 1:14) the Baptist church can say the same about their incorporation of orthodox traditions among the Orthodox believers. This also gives them much more of a voice among the political and religious realm, because though a minority, ears in Georgia perk up when they hear the title “bishop.” But again, it is their continual love and service to the poor, a key part of the early church (which Orthodoxy holds in such high esteem), that makes them in a sense more orthodox than the majority religious faith – and more of a Christian witness to non-believers in Georgia.
The final commitment of the Georgian Baptist church, also connected with this pointer of relationships with other human persons, is to be knowledgeable and active in developing relationships with their Muslim neighbors. We had a great opportunity to see this in action by going to a local Mosque in Batumi, a city in western Georgia, and meeting with some of the leadership at that religious facility. Often the church (especially in the States) has either backed down from these opportunities with Muslims or screwed it up by showing hatred and condemnation rather than love and servitude. Here however, the believers work together with their Muslim neighbors to fight economic and religious injustices, bringing peace and shalom to the cities neighborhoods.
As to these three commitments made by the church of Georgia, the church in the United States should also consider similar commitments carefully. As for what I personally will take out of these expressions of the church, I hope to seriously consider adding a similar order of sisters like those of St. Nino, as well as building better bridges with those of Muslim faith and other faiths. By doing this, the churches I serve at will better understand God through serving others, and better worship God thorough realizing how we too have been served by the Body of Christ.