Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Worship isn’t God’s show. God is the audience. God’s watching. The congregation, they are the actors in this drama. Worship is their show. And the minister is just reminding the people of their forgotten lines.
A parent recently told me of a conversation with a child on the way to church. The child, who could think of many things he’d rather be doing, was balking at attendance. He said to his parents: “I don’t understand why we have to go to church. It’s just he says stuff and we say stuff and he says stuff and then we say stuff. What’s the point?” I wondered how many children of all ages think that about church.
I recently preached a homily at a service. For a variety of reasons, it was important that the service not go on too long. At the door, a friend, with a wink, congratulated me on my sermon. “Great sermon. Seven minutes, four seconds” I was commended for brevity, not profound theological insight or compelling challenge. Shucks.
When this cranky priest hears folks complain about services running long, I confess I wonder what would be a better use of one’s time. I wonder about the ways we regard worship as consumer product, something meant to please us (or else). Why do people pull a u-turn in the grocery store aisle when they see me and haven’t been to church in a while? A voice shouts (in my head): I didn’t go to seminary to be a truant officer.
It’s all got me thinking about how we approach worship. I’m a firm believer in worship 24/7, in church and outside of church. Barbara Brown Taylor calls it worshipping at the altar of the world. I’ve also come to realize that folks sometimes regard church attendance with the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist. Often folks approach worship as if they are doing God a favor by stopping in. Folks sometimes judge church as entertainment, similar to a trip to the theater or movie or concert. If entertainment value is the basis of comparison, church will fall short.
Early in my ministry, a wise mentor told me I needed to do two things in worship:
1. Keep worship to an hour.
2. Leave people more hopeful than when they came.
I’ve worked on both, and I do hope that the worship experience will not be terminally boring, that we can honor people’s busy lives. But I also have had the experience of worship, especially when visiting churches of other traditions, and in other parts of the world when worship went on with a glorious indifference to the clock. In those times, I have often found an encounter with the Holy One that was deeper, richer, more joyous.
As we think about religious observance, why is it that so many folks tolerate church at best, a duty not a joy? Why do they scoot out as early as possible? Why are so many drifting or running away? There are many reasons, and many things we need to work on for sure.
I confess as a priest that there have been times when I have been bored with liturgy I have been leading. That can only mean that I was boring people as well. As presider, I have taken for granted the awesome privilege, the amazing grace that we can come together to encounter the Holy One. I have often been distracted in worship, running through a to-do list in my head while mouthing words, hardly present to the moment. What would it mean for us to come with expectation that we might actually meet God, and that we might actually be changed in that encounter?
A priest I admire has this routine on Sundays. He gets to church well before the first service. All alone, he spends about an hour in the church in preparation for worship. He goes to the narthex and prays for the ushers. He stands in the pulpit and prays for grace in sermon delivery. He moves to the choir loft and prays for the musicians. In the sacristy, he gives thanks for the altar guild and prays for their work. He sits in the pew and prays for congregants who will offer their prayers and praise. In other words, he is elevating expectation for the encounter in worship.
That’s his approach. What’s yours? We can each find our own way to honor the great gift in being called to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Whether our worship is happy-clappy, rock and roll, ancient Anglican chant, contemplative silence, all provide opportunity to encounter the living God, to pray and praise and then to be sent into the world ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
Is there a better thing we could be doing with our time?
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
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