Years ago, the Cooke family spent Christmas at the Mohonk Mountain House about an hour and a half north of New York City. It’s an incredible place – 140 years old, and a reminder of another time. Someone told me they spent the holiday watching classic Christmas movies, but at the Mohonk Mountain House, we lived one. The rooms still have fireplaces.
On Christmas Day, we noticed the resort had a small Christmas service, so we thought we’d check it out. About 50 people showed up and it was led by Dr. Samuel Speers, Director of the Spiritual Life Office at Vassar College. I was fully expecting a boring, shallow “hotel service,” but what we encountered was exactly the opposite – but not for the reasons you may think.
On Christmas day, what Samuel Speers did was quite remarkable. I should say it was “remarkable” not because of what he did, but what he didn’t do. First, he didn’t preach. The service was made up instead with responsive readings from the scripture, Christmas carols, and prayers. Second, it wasn’t about him, it was about the gospel. He even sat down during the responsive readings, refusing to be the focal point of the service. Finally, when he did speak, he chose instead to quote great Christian writers, which brought a power and majesty to the service as we listened to their thoughts about the birth of Christ.
In short, it was a transforming experience, and something that caught me completely off guard. As I sat in that small audience in the old hotel parlor, I wished every pastor in America could have witnessed what I saw. I wished that they could see just how compelling a real encounter with the scripture, the great hymns, and the thoughts of brilliant writers can be. I wished they could see that it’s not about them, but about the scripture and the sacraments. I wished they would see that it doesn’t take flashing lights, hip music, and video presentations to create a profound spiritual experience.
Certainly I’m not against those things. In fact, our company helps create them for many church clients. But at the same time, I was reminded that worship isn’t about what WE do, it’s about what HE’s already done.