If I say that good worship requires good chemistry, I imagine you’ll think I mean the kind of chemistry that exists between preachers and musicians, or between hymn text and melody. But at The King’s University College we recently discovered that good worship can also include good chemistry of the traditional bubbling test tube, don’t-spill-the-acid variety—and we learned that the converse is also true: good chemistry requires good worship.
At a recent faculty retreat I shared an idea that had been pressed home to me at a worship seminar: worship shapes the Christian imagination like nothing else. The formation of Christian disciples, I urged, is not only about accumulating the right data and developing the right perspective on important issues, it is also about being formed in and by the practices of the Christian community: hospitality, prayer, confession, doing justice, and communal worship.
Soon afterward, the chemistry department challenged me to put legs on those ideas. What would it mean for chemists to worship as chemists, they wondered. What do chemists have to offer the worshiping community at The King’s? Is it possible to plan and lead worship as chemists?
We agreed that I would meet with chemistry students and their instructors in the senior seminar for three weeks and help them think about that question and, tougher yet, work with them to develop a worship service for the entire campus community.
Students struggled to think about how the insights of chemistry could contribute to the worship of the community. How would we convey aspects of chemistry within the worship context without being too “sciencey”? How could we give praise when there seemed to be no obvious links between chemistry and worship? Where could we find songs that reflect the chemist’s joy? Are there intercessions for chemical reactions? Or prayers that confess the pain of chemistry used for ignoble purposes?
But as we spoke about worship, it became clear that authentic worship in the academic community at The King’s should not be deprived of the insights, language, and knowledge that are peculiar to chemists. The whole world belongs to God, we knew. The whole world sings God’s praises, shares in the brokenness and suffering of sin, and is intended to participate in the reconciliation of the cross.
Gradually reluctance was overcome by the confidence that chemists have something unique and wonderful to offer the worshiping community. Chemists can deepen the praise of God’s people by calling to mind the marvels of creation that many people never see; chemists can confess the way in which the natural sciences can be misused and misapplied in ways that destroy the creation; and chemists can see possibilities for redemption where others see only confusion.
One idea generated others in a chain reaction of liturgical creativity. Songs, high “wow-factor” demonstrations of reactions, pictures of molecular structures, stories of chemistry gone bad and chemistry redeemed, prayers—each element would be carefully measured, blended with others into a worshipful compound, and be poured out as an offering, to be catalyzed by the Holy Spirit into a time of praise and celebration led by chemists.
Worship with a Twist
As students and faculty from around the campus began gathering for worship, they were greeted by a variety of chemical demonstrations strategically placed along the hallways to prepare people for a worship service with a twist. Frozen balloons, multiplying crystals, dancing colors, and odd smells welcomed worshipers into the world of chemistry.
In the darkened worship space, the service of praise began with a stunning visual display of images of the intricate microworld of atoms and molecules, while the musicians led us in the singing of “Be Thou My Vision” and “Indescribable.” We then thanked God for the gift of chemicals, chemistry, and chemists (see p. 45).
At the heart of the service were three stories, each of which described how chemical knowledge could be used for good or ill. Each story challenged us with the question, Whom will you serve?
The story of Fritz Haber serves as a good example. Haber was a Jewish scientist who developed a method whereby ammonia could be produced inexpensively in large quantities. His method has been used to produce fertilizers that have dramatically increased crop production and help feed our hungry world. Yet Haber’s method was also exploited to produce explosives for the war effort, and Haber turned his creative energies to leading teams that produced chemical weapons as a “higher form of killing” in the trenches. His discovery was instrumental in causing enormous suffering and grief.
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations,” we were reminded by Professor Peter Mahaffy. But when the leaves are of the ephedra plant, they can be used for healing (pseudoephedrin extracted from those leaves is used to make cough suppressants) or for harm—the same active ingredient is used in the manufacture of crystal meth.
The worship service was a moving experience. We marveled at the amazing world that chemists can show us and struggled with the questions of how such powerful knowledge can be used for good and not evil. We did so in the context of confession of sin and the assurance of the redemptive grace of God that redeems fallen chemistry and fallen chemists. We were delighted with how the Holy Spirit helped us shape a worship time that paid close attention to the peculiar knowledge of chemists, and brought that wisdom into dialogue with the liturgical practices of our campus worshiping community.
The students who planned and led the service were surprised at what they learned. “The process of discovering the interface between chemistry and worship helped me relate my field of study to my faith. It broadened my view of worship as well as chemistry,” wrote Reuben Bestman. Joel Kelly reflected, “One of the things I really appreciated about this project was the placement of worship and God inside of the classroom. We had to frankly discuss what is worshipful about the world of chemistry, and that in and of itself I believe to be an act of worship.”
So what’s next? Worship and math? Worship and
invertebrates? Who knows? One thing is certain, though: good chemistry = good worship.
Demonstrations of the power and beauty of chemical reactions.
Call to Worship and Welcome
Songs and Images of Praise
“Be Thou My Vision”
[Images celebrating the chemical properties of the creation were projected during the singing of these songs. From intricate micro-structures to frozen lakes to bubbling volcanoes, chemistry is everywhere, and everywhere has the power to reveal the glory of God.]
Litany of Praise
We praise you, God, for all individuals intrigued by chemistry;
for their chemical understanding of this great big world.
Bless them, Lord, for their peculiar desire to interpret to us the complexities of our very existence.
Praise be to our God for the chemists in our world!
For the electrons that provide all our electrical needs,
for the protons that keep the electrons in atoms,
for the neutrons that define the benefits of nuclear science,
praise be to our God for electrons, protons, and neutrons!
For the atoms that make up all molecules,
for the molecules that make up the air we breathe,
for the polymers that keep us clothed, build our homes,
and provide us with the nourishing food we consume,
praise be to our God for atoms, molecules, and polymers!
For the combustion reactions that keep us warm,
for enzymatic reactions that keep us alive and well,
for the stereoselective reactions that make each of us unique,
praise be to our God for chemical reactions!
For the photons that create every beautiful image,
for the catalysts that accelerate all types of reactions,
for each and every receptor that absorbs and
acknowledges everything around us,
praise be to our God for photons, catalysts, and receptors!
Honor and glory be to our God for the chemistry in our world!
Chemistry in a Fallen World
Three stories describe the ways in which chemical knowledge can be used for God’s glory and the good of creation or misapplied to render destruction and harm. As in all of life, choices must be made about how we use our knowledge. After each reader’s first story we will sing, “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord, have mercy). After each reader’s second story we will sing, “Glory to God.”
God, we were created as part of YOUR creation. You created us as inquisitive creatures. You have given us dominion over the fishes of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
Whom then do we follow?
You have shown us the tree of knowledge of good and evil. . . .
Whom then do we follow?
God said to Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king; for he has turned his back from following me, and has not carried out my commandments.” Is God honored or shamed by our actions?
Whom then do we follow?
Joshua said, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day who you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, I will serve the Lord.”
Whom then do we follow?
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Whom then do we follow?
Closing Song: “Bring Forth the Kingdom”