“Why Would An All-Powerful Being Demand Our Worship?” Pastors get asked this all the time. Some apparently understand worship as demeaning obeisance… God’s insisting on subservience… bowing and scraping before some puffed-up, “supposed” deity. Remember Oz bellowing, “Pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain?”
The question is often lobbed as a fast ball, as if it will knock believers out of the ridiculousness of faith… cause us to snap out of it. The seriousness with which critics take their challenge makes me chuckle. It’s the disbelieving flip side of my saying, “worship is often an humbling act… help remembering I am not the center of the universe.”
Etymologically the English word ‘worship’ can be understood as “taking stock, considering the worth of things.” Combining this with the root meaning ‘religion:’ “to bind up, reconnect, or get it all together,” one might explain ‘religious worship’ as “reconnecting with what really matters.”
I read recently a letter by Tony Robinson written to his daughter Laura, sharing his hope she will always find a worshiping community that works for her. Laura loves to read and explains, “Reading gives me another world.” Her pastor father responds, worship can also be like stepping through the wardrobe door into Narnia. A different world where we see ourselves and others, even life, in new ways. Not a hiding place, though maybe from time to time everyone needs a sanctuary in which we can step back and figure things out. But a perch always helps: like Zaccheus climbing up a tree to get a better view, we are also challenged to come back down, into the world, and be different to make the world better.
There are so few places in our world, so few communities that even aim for trust sufficient to deal seriously, playfully, creatively with questions of what is important in life.
Worship never promises clear explanation or complete understanding. Instead, it offers an experience that often leads us deeper into life’s mysteries. It’s certainly not a performance or a presentation. Better, it’s involvement. A deliberate commitment to take part in the actions of a community.
The same worship service is often a very different experience for its various participants. It might lead us in opposite directions, take us to different, not yet the end of our line destinations. But that common participation in something bigger than any of us calls us to continually recognize and reconsider our values. And in its enlightenments, conflicts and contradictions, its unanswered questions, worship is our movement towards life in its fulness, the promise of a wholeness.
There are so many different ways we get separated, alienated, cutoff. We’re left with fragments. We often feel ourselves broken in pieces. We are desperate for re-unification. Our modern world’s alienations present the opportunity and need for empowering worship, a process by which we bring together all these disparate parts. Worship scotch tapes our world, our relationships and our selves back together.
It centers us in the bigger Reality we all too often fail to perceive. In depths below the surface; in heights we don’t always look up and see. It’s perspective, how we glimpse patterns of grace– the fragments of our experience assembling; making connections with others, the world around us, and God.
Worship is creative, like God in Genesis, fashioning order out of chaos. But it’s not necessarily or only conscious, linear or rational. It may not lead to explanations you can easily articulate or share with others. The connections it forges can also be emotional, experiential, aesthetic, unconscious. And it’s all beyond our control. Suddenly the vertical and the horizontal planes intersect, the mundane is informed by the transcendent (and visa versa).
In some traditions, worship is full of Damascus Roads. All sorts of dramatic, spiritual experiences. People see visions, speak in tongues, pass out. Conversion experiences abound. It’s not unheard of someone going to church one Sunday, and coming out after worship a totally changed person. Really.
But radical revelations and personal revolutions tend to be rare in our mainline traditions and faith communities. One might say we are more spiritually sedate. Or, perhaps, more hopefully: the Spirit works with us slowly, gradually, over the long-haul. As I laughed to one of you recently, “It’s not that any one of our worship services can promise a mountaintop, life-changing experience. But added together, participation in the quiet of a non-pressing, alternative Reality can make a big difference.”
Everyone who shows up has an affect on the whole (remember, worship is about connection!). We welcome all to our worship without judgement. The one-time visitor. The Christmas and Easter Christian. The person who comes once every couple of months. Right alongside the people who never miss a Sunday. We are proud Old First is open to people on their own terms. And we mean to serve people according to their sense of their needs, as they have room for church in their lives.
But I know from personal experience that the more one puts into church the more one gets out of it. Worship is not simple addition; it’s somehow geometric multiplication. Worshiping four times a month bears much more than four times the impact of attending only once a month. It’s not a sin to miss church! And these days, increasingly, our lives include other important commitments scheduled on Sunday mornings. Still, I recommend the spiritual discipline of making church a priority… You might be surprised by the nurture and support, the challenge and the stretching, the discovery that your presence promises.
See you in church,