“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” So begins Shunryu Suzuki’s beloved Zen classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. When something is new, we bring a fresh awareness, openness, and curiosity. When something is familiar, we don’t have to pay as close attention to it. Maybe we begin to take it for granted. Maybe it even becomes a rut.
We intuitively know this is true. After working on a creative project for a long time, we eventually need a set of “fresh eyes” to help evaluate it. We can bring this fresh set of eyes – this beginner’s mind – to any task or experience. And Zen encourages us to, otherwise we risk going through life stuck on autopilot. Think how rarely we stop to actually notice how beautiful the sunset is. Or how often we walk right past the flowers planted outside without even noticing them. When something is too familiar, even mundane, we don’t have to think about it anymore. We might not even notice it anymore. In Zen we do everything as if doing it for the first time. We bring that sense of initial wonder of noticing a sunset to even the most routine tasks like washing dishes or scrubbing floors. Because those moments are just as profoundly beautiful when we stop to appreciate them.
And we fool ourselves if we fail to notice each moment with a fresh new perspective, because each moment is new. Every time we approach Zazen, it is as if for the first time. Every moment we share with friends or family, at home or at work is a new moment. It has never happened before, and it is something to be experienced with openness, awareness, curiosity, and joy.
For worship this means each time we worship it is a fully new worship experience. It has never been done before. Sure maybe the readings have been read before, but not by the same person on the same day. Sure the music may have been sung before, but not by the same gathering of people. Sure the prayers may have been said before, but not when we are carrying the experiences, feelings, and thoughts that we come to worship with on any given day.
Isn’t this the meaning of resurrection? Isn’t this the meaning of our Baptism? To be made new each and every day? every moment? Suzuki says our small selves die each and every moment. In our Baptism, we die to our selves every moment as we are raised up as something new. Each and every moment is God’s new creation.
So then why does the church spend so much time trying to do old things? Particularly in recreating prescribed worship experiences? As if we can ever repeat a worship experience formulaically? Isn’t it much more exciting and worshipful to realize that we plan worship each and every week as a completely new thing, something that has never been done before? Something people have never experienced?
Instead, we end up feeling like we are in a worship rut. We call it “going through the motions.” We do this, because we believe that there is stability and reliability in repeated traditions. We believe it makes us grounded. We find comfort in the familiar and mistake that for God. We believe over the millenia we have refined worship until we have more or less got it “right.” There is power in the tradition and ritual themselves. We are not beginners at Christian worship. We are experts. We have refined it over centuries, and there is a “right” way to approach any element of our experience of worship.
And what is the cost? Mindlessly reciting prayers from rote memory? Minds wandering throughout the whole experience, without truly being present or appreciating the presence of the divine and the communion of the assembly?
Instead we must realize that all of our elements of worship that we take for granted as real and true are transient. They were crafted by men at a point in time, and they have changed over the years and will continue to change. And they are not the same throughout the world. They provide a false sense of identity and being grounded in something we think is timeless that is actually always shifting, like sand through an hourglass. We want so bad for there to be at least ONE thing that doesn’t change. One thing we can hold onto. One thing we know is time tested and fundamentally true. But there isn’t. Worship is not the same as it was in the past, and it will not be the same in the future.
We are afraid of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” but when we look at these things closely enough, we realize that there is no baby. We cannot assume that God’s grace and presence depends on our worship traditions.
The sooner we accept this, the sooner we approach worship with a beginners mind, open to all possibilities, worship becomes a mindful experience of connecting with God wherever we are, whatever we are doing. And the possibilities are as vast and endless as the blue sky above us.