COME LET US WORSHIP

I enjoy reading the book of Leviticus.  That probably tells you a great deal about me, because many Christians see Leviticus as a major roadblock which destroys more commitments to reading the Bible through than anything.  Leviticus is a book of detail.  It describes at great length how the people of Israel are to deal with the realities of their lives.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the book is that it shows clearly that God is concerned about all of life and that people who serve God need to submit even the way they harvest their crops to God (Leviticus 19.9-10).   God covers most of life in this book, giving people a clear indication that he is concerned with everything we do, not just the “spiritual” things.  In fact, reading through the book of Leviticus shows that there really isn’t a division of life into “spiritual” and “secular”.

But the other reason I enjoy the book of Leviticus is more basic in many ways.  When I read the book, I am incredibly happy that I am a Christian pastor and not a Jewish priest of that time.  Being a Protestant pastor is demanding and difficult at times but at least I am not slaughtering animals all day or evaluating skin lesions for leprosy or conducting trials to determine the fidelity of wives.  Reading the book of Leviticus makes even the busiest and most demanding of pastoral weeks seem a lot easier and much less demanding.

There is also another insight that I pick up when I read Leviticus, an insight that concerns worship.  The more I meditate on this theme, the more I am concerned about the worship that I help lead each week.  In the book of Leviticus, we discover that worship is costly–no one in the book of Leviticus approaches God without being aware of the cost of worship.

Before they come, they must have the proper sacrifice.  While there are gradations based on the individual’s financial status, everyone must have the best within the category.  The cow or sheep or dove must be perfect–no weak, old, worthless animal need apply.  If all the worshipper has is a weak, lame, sick and dying animal, they are out of luck–until they get a better offering, they can’t really worship.  Worship was expensive–it demanded something of the worshipper.

Now, this is not a ploy to suggest that we all have to give more at offering time, nor is it an attempt to make people feel guilty for sleeping during worship.  Truthfully, I am not totally sure where I am going with this–I have been thinking about this for a long time and am not completely sure what it means to me, let alone to the worshipping community.

I think it partly means that we need to see worship as something more than it sometimes is, at least for me.  In worship, we are openly recognizing the ever-present God.  We are acknowledging our dependence on him.  We are renewing our commitment to him.  Well, we are supposed to be doing that.

But many times, we are going through the motions, making an appearance, doing a job, following a tradition.  Worship doesn’t really recognize the presence of God–it just passed the time and gives us a star for attendance.  And maybe we treat worship like that because it doesn’t cost us that much–a bit of time and a few dollars.

Theologically, our Christian worship is even more expensive than worship in the book of Leviticus.  There, the cost of worship was a perfect animal.  For us, the cost of worship is God’s own perfect Son, Jesus Christ.  We come to worship as Christians because we believe that God in Christ took care of everything.  We come to worship as God’s loved and forgiven children, who now have complete freedom to approach God without any conditions.

But our worship is still expensive–we just didn’t have to pay the price of admission.  We worship because God paid the price himself.  And maybe as we spend some time meditating on that, our worship will become a more significant part of our lives.  When we remind ourselves of the cost of our worship, it helps us open ourselves more fully and completely to the presence of God.  It allows us to really worship the one who values our presence so much that he personally paid the price for our worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

AT THE POTLUCK

We had a potluck supper after one of our worship services recently, something we do regularly.  Since I was one of the last people in the food line, I was still eating and talking to the people at the table when another person who had been near the beginning moved to our table and joined in our conversation while he waited for the desert line to begin–we don’t have enough space to put main course and desert out at the same time.

One of the guys told us that he had been a fisherman for all his life and faced some really rough times on the water and that didn’t bother him at all but when he thought about having to stand in front of a group of people, he was terrified.  The guy who joined us agreed that getting up in front of people was a major source of fear and he really didn’t like it.  Both looked at me and indicated that they figured that I obviously didn’t have a problem with being in front of people.

Both were a bit surprised when I told them that I have preaching and being in front of people for almost 50 years and am still nervous before and during times of being in front of people.  And then, I told them at as a teacher of people who preach and lead worship, I would fail anyone who didn’t get nervous when leading worship or preaching.

The interesting thing is that I had actually been thinking about my nervousness as the worship service before the potluck began.  Generally, I arrive early and try to have everything set up and ready before worship begins:  tablet on and with the order of service and sermon called up, hymn book opened to the first hymn and a marker in place for the responsive reading, scraps of paper with last minute announcements prominently placed where I can see them, water glass positioned in easy reach–because I know from experience that if anything isn’t ready when I start, I will fumble and stumble until it is.  That is one expression of my nervousness.

Another is the reality that when I begin, it is a dangerous time–that is when I am going to miss something or say the wrong thing or get my words mixed up or read some number wrong or get someone’s name wrong.  This is all made worse on those occasional Sundays when the majority of people show up tired or down because of the weather and don’t give as lot of feedback as the worship begins.

When I tell people things like this, as I did at the potluck, they tend to look at me with skepticism and tell me that I don’t show it.  My response is that over the years, the one thing I have learned is how to hide my nervousness, which I do pretty well, unless of course the breeze blows the hymnbook to the wrong page or I lost track of the last minute announcements or I make a mistake.

Should I be better at not being nervous?  I don’t think so.  The day I stop being nervous about leading worship and preaching and teaching is the day I will officially retire.  My nervousness comes from the deep seated awareness of the importance of what I am doing.  I am leading God’s people in worship; I am speaking God’s message to his people; I am seeking to let God work through me to touch the lives of his people–and that scares me.

I am afraid that I might get in the way and somehow block God’s approach to his people be letting my stuff get in the way.  I am afraid that I might not block the message but somehow weaken it.  I am equally afraid when the message actually gets through–who am I that God would be willing to work through me?  I stand in the pulpit during worship or sit in the leader’s seat at Bible study very much aware of the wonder and importance of what is going on and really can’t help but be nervous and concerned.

I kind of doubt that the guys at the potluck fully understand these dynamics–but they don’t have to.  I, however, need to understand the dynamics and use the nervousness to help me do a better job of doing what God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO’S TALKING TO WHO?

We had a serious technical glitch develop before worship the other day.  Our choir often sings with accompaniment supplied by a CD played over a portable CD player, a process that works for us and our context.  But yesterday, the choir director brought everything needed for the music except the actual CD, which put our special music at risk.

Because I am something of a techie, I got involved.  Since we had copied the CD to have a working copy while the original remained safe, I just happened to have a copy of the CD on my phone.  I began working to find a way to connect the phone to the CD player but the phone is too new and the CD player too old for them to be able to talk to each other.  Eventually, we decided to put the mic from the PA system next to the phone speaker and work that way, a process that worked.  We had our special music.

However, getting that going took 15 minutes or so and that meant that when I finally had things connected and knew how to make them work, it was within a few minutes of time to start.  I looked around the sanctuary and realized that most people were already present and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to many of them.  They were all engaged in their conversations with each other, some settled in their seats and others having conversations before they headed to their seats.

In the few minutes I had before it was time to start, I managed to get around and at least greet each person there–but I felt rushed and unsettled and extra stressed as I began the worship.  I think the extra stress was partly because of the technical glitch that turned me into the choir accompanist for that service.  But I also think more of the extra stress was the result of not having sufficient contact with the people gathering for worship before we began.  I didn’t really have a sense of the gathering, who was experiencing what and what space they were in–it felt like I was blind and deaf, stepping into an unknown situation.

Well, that is something of an overstatement–but I was very much aware of the lack of a real sense of the congregation when I began worship. Fortunately, we are informal and flexible in worship and by time we reached the offering, I was getting into the worship process and once the choir had sung and I was off the hook for providing the music, I was pretty much back on track–and once the worship finished, I had a chance to talk and connect with the congregation.

People never rush out of our sanctuary after worship.  We talk to each other, a lot.  We don’t need to institute the process of greeting each other during the worship because it is already a part of our worship process–we talk to each other before and after the worship (and more than  occasionally during the worship).

This is part of being the church.  We worship as a community of people who are in relationship with each other, not as a group of unrelated individuals who come together because it is the most efficient way for the preacher to get the message across.  We are a community and before we can effectively worship, we have to be aware of the community.  After we worship, we need to take our leave of the community.  And even during the worship, we need to recognize the community.

From my perspective, the level of conversation before and after worship is directly proportional to the health of the congregation.  The more people who talk and the more people they talk to, the healthier the congregation and the more we are together helping each other worship and grow in faith.  And the reality includes me as the pastor and preacher.  I can’t be as effective leading worship and preaching if I don’t establish my connection with the congregation before and after we worship.

The technical glitch yesterday reminded me of that reality. And while I love solving technical glitches, I prefer them to happen at times when they don’t interfere with my time  to connect with the people I am worshipping with.  The church worships best when it worships as a community which has taken the time to be a community.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I GET OUT OF IT?

There is an interesting paradox with worship, particularly in our western context of worship.  Worship is often evaluated on the basis of what the worshipper gets out of it.  There are wars in congregations as various groups and individuals within the congregation demand that their particular approach to worship be adopted as the norm and the things they dislike be banned from the service.  To leave worship saying, “I didn’t get a thing out of that” is the beginning of a church fight or a journey to find a “better” church where worship provides what the worshipper is looking for.

The paradox is that the more worship is defined by what the worshipper is looking for, the less it is worship.  Rather than worship being a time when people can consciously and freely concentrate on the wonder of God’s love and grace and presence in our world and lives, it becomes a time when I want my favourite hymns, the perfect temperature, the left side back seat, the proper volume for the music, the kids quiet and under control, the sermon short and funny–or whatever combination of factors I happen to be looking for that particular day.

It is possible to find somewhere or create somewhere everything falls into place and all the elements are perfect or as close to perfect as possible.  When we find that sweet spot and attend the service, we go away feeling that we have received something.  But the question that we don’t want to look at is whether we have really worshipped.  If we are looking for what gratifies us or what we think must be done or what turns our crank, do we really have room to see and worship God?

In Matthew 6, Jesus deals with this issue, sort of.  While not actually mentioning worship, he does talk about people who give their donations with lots of publicity and who make their prayers publically and loudly–they want to be noticed.  According to Jesus, they have received their reward–they are noticed by the people around them. (Matthew 6.1-6). I think the warning there applies to worship.  When we try to make worship too much about us and our needs, we might feel something–but instead of that good feeling being the working of the Spirit, it is more likely the result of the psychological, emotional and physical bubble we have created so that we can feel good.

The solution is not the approach of some of the forefathers in my own Baptist denomination.  Rather than try to give worshippers a good feeling, some of them thought the key to good worship was making people feel guilty and uncomfortable.  So in every way,  beginning with relatively cold buildings in cold climates to seats designed to be uncomfortable to music as unemotional as possible to sermons as long and boring as humanly possible, the goal was to have the worshipper leave feeling unimportant like the worms their theology compared them to.  But this is really the same problem–making worship about the worshipper.

The more we try to make worship about what we want, the less we worship.  Certainly, we might achieve what we want but since worship is about God not us, we will go away feeling good (or bad) and think we have worshipped.  But we will not have encountered the wonder of the love and grace of God–we will only have encountered ourselves and our desires and pushed ourselves a little more into the place God is supposed to occupy.

That isn’t to say that we make worship a dry and sterile event that doesn’t touch us.  Rather, we seek to make worship about recognizing the presence of God and giving him what is due to him.  What we feel is a by-product of good worship.  If we truly worship God, we will certainly experience something, maybe not what we expected to feel because God has become involved, but we will experience something.

When we reach beyond ourselves to see the presence of God and worship God for who and what he is and does, we will experience a blessing in our spiritual lives.  We will grow in faith.  But the paradox is that if we design worship for what we want to get out of it, we might get some reasonable facsimile of what we want, but we won’t worship.  When we truly seek to recognize and acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, we will worship–and we will receive a blessing.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.