HOW DO I WORSHIP?

In some circles, I might be called a professional worshipper.  Most Sundays, I lead at least one worship service and generally do more than one.  I am also called upon to lead worship in a variety of other contexts:  nursing homes, public events, family functions, life transitions and the list goes on.  I take my task of leading worship seriously.  I spend time preparing worship so that it flows and the elements mesh well.  As much as possible, I try to have the emotional content and the cognitive content complement each other.  When other people are involved in the process, I work to help them be prepared and able to do their part well.  I even periodically use sermons and Bible Studies to teach people what worship is and how we worship.

During the worship service, I am mostly conscious of my role as leader of the worship.  While we are singing a hymn, I am looking up and marking the next one.  When the choir is singing, I am using the time to look over the order of service and make sure I am prepared.  I have all my prayers written out, except for the benediction which I memorized a long time ago.  I even have the Lord’s Prayer written out in front of me so that I can make sure I get it right.

So, when we are worshipping God, I am sometimes not sure that I am really worshipping.  Well, to be honest, I know there are times when I am not really worshipping.  I am too focused on the worship to be able to worship.  I could say that is an occupational hazard and someone has to do it and let it go.  But I too need to worship and I, like everyone else, need to worship not just privately but as part of a community.  The few times a year I get to attend worship and not lead it just don’t do it from that perspective.

So, how do I worship?  Well,  I think it means that I offer to God my leadership.  He has called me to this ministry and so I believe he wants me doing what I am doing–so part of my worship is making him an offering of my leading worship.

When I remember that, I can worship.  I try to begin that before worship.  I greet all the worshippers as they come in–we are small congregations and our buildings have no office or vestry for me to hide in.  Mind you, even when I had an office to hide in, I tended to spend time before worship greeting people.

Then, as worship is beginning, I take a few seconds to open myself to God–I suppose it could be called prayer but often, it is physically not much more than a brief closing of my eyes and a re-focusing on the worship to come.  Sometimes, I use actual words but often, the words actually get in the way.

Then, as worship proceeds, I try to be conscious of doing what I do as an offering to God.  I don’t always succeed.  When I miss something in the order of service, I go into panic mode as I work out how to fix it.  When my eyes fall on the wrong prayer and I begin to repeat the invocation instead of doing the offertory prayer, I get busy revising the prayer on the fly.  When the sanctuary is too hot or too cold, I am wondering how that is affecting various individuals and how I can take care of the problem.

But in spite of my failures, I keep trying.  I know that I can both lead worship and worship myself at the same time–but I need to make sure that I am prepared to open myself to the presence and wonder of God.  In the end, my situation isn’t any different from any other worshipper.  When I put in garbage, I get garbage.  When I approach as an opportunity to acknowledge and praise God, I can worship, even if in the course of the worship I forget the offering or hit the wrong button on the tablet or am worried that the Advent wreath might catch on fire.

I lead the congregation in worship–but when I open myself to God, I can and so worship at the same time.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME, LET US WORSHIP

In the early days of computing, when computers were big and expensive and owned by companies and universities, I used to hang around with some of the computer students–people who would be identified as “nerds” at this point.  Back then, they were the ones who got to play with the multi-million dollar toys in the computer science department.  One of their favourite sayings was “GIGO”–which translates to “Garbage in, Garbage out”.

While they were referring to programming and the results from any given program, GIGO applies in many areas of life, including worship.  Worship is intended to be our heartfelt and sincere response to God, a response that recognizes and acknowledges God’s presence and activity and love and grace and all the rest.  But worship mostly depends on what the worshipper is willing to put into the worship.

Certainly, the worship leader does have some effect on worship–the development and leading of a worship event helps the worshippers a great deal in the process.  But no matter how good the worship leader; no matter how well prepared the service; no matter how good the music; no matter how inspired the sermon, worship depends in the end on the willingness of the worshipper to give themselves to the worship.

When  the worshipper gives garbage to the worship, garbage is the result not worship.  We bring garbage to the worship when we get hung up on the physical setting–too hot or cold or the seats too soft or hard or the windows too bright or too stained glassy or the worship leaders are dressed too formally or too informally or–well, that particular garbage list is endless.

We also bring garbage to worship when we are seeing our fellow worshippers as anything but brothers and sisters in Christ.  When we are at odds with some of them; when we don’t bother to get to know some of them; when we don’t respect them; when their needs and abilities are ignored, we bring garbage to worship because ours is a community faith and we cannot really say that we are worshipping God until we have acknowledged and respected and loved the community that joins together for worship.

We bring garbage to the worship when we come unprepared to receive the presence of God in all elements of the worship.  I am not the most musically minded person in the world and so if I choose to shut off during the music, I am bringing garbage to the worship.

We worship when we come together, acknowledging each other and our mutual faith as well as our mutual journeying to become what God knows we can become.  Sometimes, that means that we spend time before worship greeting each other and sometimes, it might mean asking for or giving forgiveness.

We worship when we open ourselves to the elements of worship.  Each has place and a part in helping us as we seek to offer ourselves to God.  Music tends to open our emotions to God, the sermon seeks to open our minds to God, the offering seeks to help us worship in a tangible way, the prayers are there to help us become more aware of God.  Worship that is truly offered to God seeks to use each of the elements as a stepping stone on the way to a deep awareness of the God who is already present.

We worship when  we offer ourselves to God. If I come to worship happy, I offer my happiness to God.  If I come to worship stressed, I offer my stress to God.  If I come to worship tired, I offer my tiredness to God.  I offer it all to him because he has seen it all, he knows it is there and when  I offer it to him, he can work in and through and with and in spite of it.

We worship when we come prepared to surrender to God our desire to get something out of worship.  Worship isn’t about what we get–it is about what we give to God.  When worship is about what we want to get, it isn’t worship because it isn’t about God.

We worship when we honestly come to God by seeking to see him as he is:  present, loving and caring no matter where we are or what is going on.  When we begin with attitudes and desires like this, we don’t bring garbage to worship–and we will worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DO WE WORSHIP?

In spite of what you  might think, it can get uncomfortably cold in Africa.  During the long dry season in Kenya, for example, it is often cloudy and chilly–the temperature where we lived can drop to 8 degrees (Celsius scale–I am Canadian, after all).  So, on one of these cold days, I am in worship.  The church building is an unfinished stone building–the unfinished part is the windows, which have wide mesh screening on them and no glass or other shutters.            I am sitting in a plastic chair at the front side which is more comfortable than the backless benches others are sitting on but does have the disadvantage of being by the cold stone wall of the building and beside one of the permanently open windows.

Worship begins.  Technically, we are supposed to be worshipping in Kiswahili, a language I can handle if I pay close enough attention but practically, the worship leader today doesn’t handle Kiswahili well so large chunks of the worship are conducted in Kikamba, a language that I recognize and can speak about 10 words.  The choir is enthusiastic, or at least they are when they all get there–some are still wandering in when the choir selection begins.  The offering and announcements take a long time, as usual–mostly in Kikamba.  The sermon, well, the sermon is in Kiswahili, mostly, but in all honesty if one of my students preached it, they would get a failing grade.  Finally, after about 2.5 hours, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

I’m back in Canada.  We are attending worship in an upscale urban church.  The pastor is a friend of ours and his church is being talked about for its innovative style and approach.  The sanctuary is old, historic, warm, and relatively comfortable.  The music is near professional and accompanied by videos on the screen which also links us with the satellite congregation nearby.  The sermon is illustrated by powerpoint and touches on some of the major struggles that people have and isn’t too bad–this preacher would pass my course.  After an hour or so, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

Now, I am back in ministry leading worship.  There are 6 of us in the sanctuary.  It is fall in Canada and unfortunately, the person who turns the heat on in the building didn’t get it on early enough so the building is chilly.  The pews were built in the era when Baptists distrusted comfort.  It isn’t the week for our guitar lady to be up from the city so the two who can actually sing have picked some music that we can hopefully sing together.  The sermon–well, because of our less than traditional format, the sermon gets interrupted and improved by a couple of good questions and comments from the congregation.  I know that I am biased but I would give the sermon a pass mark.  After about 45-50 minutes, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

Now, of course, in each of those settings, I could have equally well written, “After 2.5 hours (or an hour or so or about 45-50 minutes), we are done.  We have tried but failed to worship God.  That is because in the end, worship doesn’t depend on the setting, the style, the music, the leadership, the sermon, the language.  Worship depends on people who are willing to open themselves to the presence of God.

Certainly, there are peripheral issues that will affect our response to worship.  I prefer being comfortably warm in worship to being too hot or cold.  I prefer a sermon that is prepared and says something to one that is thrown together and consists of empty words. I like the hymns I grew up with more than some of the modern worship music.  I much prefer my worship to be conducted in one of the two languages that I am comfortable with.  But none of these nor any other factor is a worship killer.    The only real worship killer is my attitude, which affects my response to everything else and my ability to recognize that I am in the presence of God.  If I am prepared to open myself to the presence of God, I can worship no matter what.  If I am not prepared to open myself to the presence of God, I cannot worship no matter what.

How do we worship?  We worship by opening ourselves to reality of the presence and wonder of God in our lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO THE REST OF US DO?

I have to confess that I may not actually be the best person to be writing about what people do as worship participants because my attendance at worship as anything but a worship leader is relatively rare.  It is an occupational hazard for clergy that we attend a of worship but because we are leading the worship both our preparation and our worship experience are different from that of people who attend as participants.

However, I do think I have something to offer to the topic drawing partly on my limited attendance as a non-leading participant and my study and observation of worship.  Some of what I write will certainly be biased by my expectations of what the people I lead in worship “should” do but I hope that I am not being too out of touch.

Since worship is about recognizing and acknowledging and praising God, good worship probably begins before the actual service begins.  The worshipped needs to prepare for worship.  When I was just beginning to attend worship, that preparation was normally seen as entering the sanctuary and sitting quietly.  We were supposed to be praying and meditating as we opened our hearts and minds to God.  Reading the Bible at this time was worth extra points.

A more modern approach to worship involves the worshippers talking and laughing together before the appointed time.  People gather in groups, discuss the latest news, make social plans, hold informal church business meetings, look at baby pictures of grandchildren (my congregations are older) and generally make lots of noise.  I occasionally jokingly tell people that the purpose of the call to worship is to subtly tell the congregation to shut up and sit down so we can start.

I am not going to play these options off against each other or reject them in favour of some other option such as worship music or videos or whatever else happens somewhere before worship.  Silence and meditation can help us become open to God.  Talking with fellow believers can do the same thing.  Both can also help us avoid becoming open to God.  The real issue is the attitude that the worshipper brings to worship.

On some of the few occasions that I have attended worship as a worshipper, I have come with depression, frustration and/or fatigue prominent in my mind.   I was at worship because I am a pastor and should be there, even if I wasn’t leading.  But because of my feelings and attitude, I didn’t really come to encounter God–in fact, a few times, I was there in spite of God.  I didn’t want to encounter him because I was somewhat upset with God because of what was going on in my life that he wasn’t fixing fast enough.

The worship leader lead a well prepared and worshipful service.  The choir and organist provided wonderful music that was designed to enable the worshipper to engage their emotional response to the presence of God.  The other participants sang, listened, responded, prayed and hopefully recognized the presence of God.  But me?  Well, I sat there when I was supposed to sit, I stood and made noise when I was supposed to sing, I closed my eyes when I was supposed to pray–I did all the right stuff at the right times but I didn’t worship because my heart and mind were focused on my own stuff, stuff which I wasn’t willing at the time to let God be a part of.

And so I didn’t worship.  And because I didn’t worship, I didn’t get the reminder of the presence and power of God that I needed to help me deal with the stuff that was getting in the way in the first place.  I was not prepared for worship.  I was not willing to look beyond myself to discover the real context of life, a context that always includes the presence and power of God.

When  we worship, we need to be willing to let ourselves become aware of the reality of God’s presence.  We are not letting God in–he is already there.  We are not asking God to come to us–he is already there.  We are, in the end, seeking to let ourselves recognize the presence of God so that we can not only praise and thank him for his presence and power but also receive the blessing of remembering that we are never alone.  That remembrance is both the reason for worship and the blessing of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO LEADS PUBLIC WORSHIP?

             My very early public worship experiences occurred when I was attending Sunday School.  I didn’t realize at the time that what the Sunday School superintendant was doing at the beginning was worship.  I probably thought that we were singing a few songs while we waited for the rest of the kids (and maybe a few teachers) to arrive.  I have never been much of a singer so that time was more useful to me for talking to the other kids, as long as we didn’t catch the attention of the teacher.

Later, our family switched churches and we all began to attend worship as well as Sunday School.  I can’t say that I was overly impressed.  I did like the new church and grew to be really good friends with the pastor who became an important mentor as I grappled with my call to ministry.  Worship was somewhat formal, lead by the pastor with the choir and organist doing a special during the service.  As worshippers, we listened, stood for the hymns, bowed our heads for the prayers and put our offerings in the plate.

Recently, I attended a worship service with one of our sons and his family.  There were half a dozen people on the stage with guitars, keyboards and drums.  We sang lots of songs, one or two of which I recognized.  Not being much of a singer even now, I found the music a great time to watch our two grandchildren. Eventually, the pastor walked on stage and lead in the dedication of our newest grandson and introduced some people who talked about their experience leading up to the baptism that had just taken place.

As a pastor, I lead two worship services a week.  Neither has the luxury of a worship band–we are actually lucky to have two organists for one and a part-time guitarist at the other.  We sing and even occasionally do some worship choruses.  I preach, unless I am on vacation.  In one, we have lots of congregational participation and sometimes the sermon gets hijacked as we discuss some point from the Scripture readings or sermon that captures the attention of the congregation.

But whether it is Sunday School opening, a traditional worship service, a modern worship service or my own small church reality oriented worship services, there is generally someone in charge, designing and leading the worship.  And that has both good and bad points.

A poor worship leader manages to draw attention away from God.  This can happen for a variety of reasons:  lack of preparation, lack of understanding of the people and situation, a desire to entertain rather than worship, a poor understanding of what worship really is and so on.

A good worship leader tries to design and lead worship so that people are conscious of being in the acknowledged presence of God, something that in the end probably comes more from intuition and art that technique and structure.  And, to be honest, the real leader needs to be the Holy Spirit, whose leading is mediated by the human worship leader.

While it would be nice to be able to suggest that we don’t need any other leader but the Holy Spirit, that would be a naive and even dangerous suggestion.  I have tried doing worship that way a few times and while it does work, it needs a lot of preparation.  Participants have to be prepared before hand; they need to be willing to put themselves in the background, they need to show respect and concern for each participant’s contribution and they need to share.  It can work in the right place at the right time with the right participants.

But mostly, we are going to depend on other people to lead us in worship.  That isn’t particularly wrong or bad but it does put serious pressure on the leader to work closely with the congregation and the Holy Spirit to design and lead worship that enables all to open themselves to the presence of God.  It also requires that the congregation open themselves in trust to the leader and the Holy Spirit, seeking to enter into the worship so that they can become part of offering to God the worship and praise that he deserves.

This seems to put a lot of pressure on the person who designs and leads worship–and it does.  But we who are worshippers also have serious responsibility, which we will look at in another post.

May the peace of God be with you.

O LORD OUR LORD

Whenever I am encouraging people to read the Bible, I warn them about the book of Leviticus, hoping to help them avoid bogging down there.  Leviticus is filled with rules and regulations and descriptions of what to do in a variety of life situations the early readers will face at some point.  While I warn people that it can be slow going, secretly, I like the book of Leviticus, partly because it teaches me to be grateful that I am a Baptist pastor and not a Jewish priest in the days the book was written.

A good deal of the book of Leviticus focuses on worship and how it is done and what the priests and assistants must do and what they must not do.  Worship in the book of Leviticus is serious business as two sons of Aaron find out in Leviticus 10–they don’t follow the rules and end up dead–Leviticus isn’t particularly concerned about seeker-sensitive worship.

Worship in Leviticus is concerned about sacrifices, deportment, and the right attitude on the part of the worshippers.  Real worship in Leviticus is expensive because no worshipper approaches God without a perfect sacrificial animal; it is scary because of the ever present sense of danger of getting something wrong; it is totally focused on pleasing God.

Worship, according to the Leviticus rules, would have been far different from our worship today.  There would have been lots of noise–not inspirational worship music but trumpet sounds, drums and so on, mingled with the bleats and noises of panicky animals about to be sacrificed.  There would have been serious smells–animal smells, the smell of spilling blood, the smell of burning flesh, all mingled with the smell of incense valiantly trying but failing to completely mask the other stronger smells.

Worship had no participant seats.  There were prescribed places for the various leaders and helpers as well as clear warnings about which people could go where but basically, worshippers milled around, following the action around their particular sacrificial animal and hoping they were outside the danger zone should the presiding priest make mistake.

My suspicion is that when worship leaders and worshippers left a worship service the predominant feeling was relief that they had got it right and were still alive after the worship.  Their shouts of “Praise God” and “Hallelujah” came from deep in their being as they realized that they had stood in the presence of God and solely by his grace, managed to survive.

I very much doubt that a worshipper leaving a service at that time would be heard to mutter, “I didn’t get a thing out of that service”–survival was the sign of good worship, not feeling good.

Now, I am not advocating a return to Levitical worship.  As a worship leader, I would be in serious trouble.  I regularly forget elements of the worship, including that most sacred of sacred elements, the offering.  I get confused and lose my place in my notes and sometimes do the wrong prayer at the wrong time–fortunately, I think fast on my feet and can re-direct the prayer once I realize I am doing the wrong one.  But based on my track record, I would have joined Nadab and Abihu from Leviticus 10 a long time ago.

While I enjoy reading Leviticus, I don’t want to be a Levitical priest nor do I want to turn worship into a potentially lethal activity.  But Leviticus does, I think, help us by providing a strong and powerful contrast to the kind of worship that is so common today.  Leviticus shows us a worship that is centered on the Divine and requires the worshipper to step outside themselves and their feelings to encounter the fullness of God and his presence.  Leviticus worship wants people to know the fullness of God and have their lives shaped and formed and guided by the serious power and wonder of God.

Worship in Leviticus focuses on God–any effects on the worshipper are by-products and are not the focus of worship.  The writer of Leviticus doesn’t really care what the worshipper feels as long as he or she leaves with the awareness that they have touched the presence of God and seen something of his glory and power and submitted themselves to the God of all creation.

So, how do we worship in a way that focuses on God without being a potentially fatal activity?  We will look at that in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP

In the last few days, I have been part of three worship services.  At one, I was speaking–someone else designed and lead the worship and there were several other people taking part.  The service had several hundred people in attendance, a large band providing music and a well trained community choir.  I was both leader and preacher at the other two worship services.  One had twelve in attendance–a good number for that service–and a musician who lead the music on her guitar–always a treat since the other option is a capella singing.  The third service had about 13 in attendance–just over half our regular number and I was the accompanist–or at least, I pushed the buttons on the remote for the CD player.

All three worship services went well–there were no major mistakes, interruptions or problems.  All three were well received by those attending, or at least the comments I heard and the non-verbals I perceived during and after indicated that.  As worship services go, I would put all three on the positive side of the evaluation scale.  I have been at worship that was better and I have been at worship that was a lot worse.

So far, anything I have been saying about these worship services is pretty normal and common.  We, or at least people I associate with a lot, talk about worship in those terms a lot.  I (and we) are evaluating the worship and we have some basic requirements for good worship.  It needs to have some recognizable structure that we are comfortable with, good music that we can all identify with, an intelligible message that is relatively short and maybe has some point or at least some humor is there is no point and a comfortable number in attendance.  There are probably many other basic requirements–for example, when working in Kenya, I generally preferred a worship service in one of the languages I could understand.

We all have a set of requirements for worship and if enough of them are met well enough, we declare the worship good and feel it was worth our time.  If a major requirement isn’t met or a lot of smaller ones aren’t met, then worship isn’t good and we aren’t happy.  If worship continues to make us unhappy, we will probably adjust our attendance by going less, finding a worship service that meets our requirements better or not attending at all.

We tend to evaluate worship on a very personal level, looking at what touches us and what moves us and what we like and dislike.  And truthfully, that isn’t all bad.  I much prefer worship in a language I can understand.  I have attended worship in languages I don’t understand and while parts of the worship are accessible and understandable, mostly it is a confusing and frustrating activity.  Some worship music helps me focus and some makes me wonder who in their right mind would appreciate that kind of music.

But it may be that in our concern for what moves us in worship that we miss the actual point of what we are doing.  The point of worship is to recognize God, give him praise and thanksgiving, renew our relationship with him, reaffirm our submission to him, remind ourselves of God’s supremacy over creation and generally let God know that we love and appreciate him for all that he has done.

To give God true worship doesn’t require that I end up feeling good as a result.  It may happen but that really isn’t a requirement for true worship since in the end, worship is supposed to be focused on God not on me.  But it is too easy to confuse my feelings with the reality of worship–if I feel good, worship must have been good and if I feel bad, worship must not have been very good.  And so we who lead worship begin to structure worship so that those in attendance will feel good because if they don’t feel good, they probably won’t come back.

I have been attending worship regularly since I was about nine or so leading worship regularly for over 40 years and have actually taught courses on worship to theology students–and I still find myself evaluating worship from my perspective, looking for what makes me feel good and what makes those attending feel good.  Periodically, I need to remind myself of what worship really is–and so that is what I will look at in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.