Dion's random ramblings

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Worship - getting it right, and getting it wrong, the difference between a verb and a noun.

For years I have heard Christians debate what kind of worship God truly 'prefers'. Some suggest that God has no time for hymns, other say that God cannot stand any music that incorporates drums.... I am impatient with such simplistic arguments. These positions say a lot more about the 'tastes' of those who arguing, than the God they should be thinking about.

I think God is blessed by who we are when we worship. God is blessed by the joy, life, transcendent perspective, and closeness to one another and God that our worship creates.

Yes, of course, there are right and wrong ways to enter into worship, but they may not be a simplistic as musical taste. They may not be the difference between traditional music and contemporary music, between extemporary prayer and liturgy...

Here's a well written article on worship.

What is worship? Our English word comes from the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe, which means "to honor" or "to ascribe worth." It is interesting that, in this regard, the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, includes within the vows for the solemnization of matrimony: "with my body I thee worship." That is a fairly succinct statement of the biblical understanding of sexuality.

The Old Testament Hebrew word used for worship means "a bowing down." Keep this in mind. For the Hebrews, worship was a verb, something you did. The same idea is behind the New Testament Greek word for worship which means "to serve." In anticipation of what I will be saying later, let me suggest this to you: the difference between a biblical and a pagan understanding of worship lies in the difference between a verb and a noun. For the person of the Bible, worship is something you do. For the pagan, worship is a state of being.

What is it, then, we do when we ascribe worth to God and bow down and serve him on Sunday morning? I believe we engage in a ritual drama. By ritual, I mean we use certain fixed forms of words, i.e., sermons, prayers, hymns. By drama, I mean that the telling of a story is woven throughout those rituals: the story of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Let me give you an example of what I mean from popular culture. When we worship God, we do essentially the same thing I did when I watched on television last month, for the eleventh time, a replay of USC's great 1974 victory over Notre Dame. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this bit of Heilsgechichte (sacred history), that was the game in which USC was down seventeen points at half-time. Anthony Davis of USC received the second half kickoff one yard in his own end zone and ran it back 101 yards for a touchdown. For the rest of the second half USC totally dominated Notre Dame with Davis' runs and Pat Haden's passes to J. K. McKay. The final score: USC 55, Notre Dante 24.

"But," you protest, "you know everything that is going to happen. Why have you watched it so many times?" My answer: That is precisely the point. I watch it over and over again because I know what will happen. Certain values I have are confirmed and reaffirmed. Once again, good triumphs over evil, light over darkness.

You do the same thing whenever you watch your favorite television program. Dramatized, in story form, will be certain values and beliefs you hold to as an American. They will be about life and what it means, its problems and its solutions. Some social analysts call popular television programs, especially the interminable series variety, ritual drama. That's because they, like my favorite USC/Notre Dame game, reaffirm what we believe. They are like worship services. For many Americans they are worship services in that they are weekly, and sometimes daily, confirmations and reaffirmations of the core of values we hold in common as citizens of this country.

The Bible is filled with ritual drama. Revelation 5:9-10 is a good case in point. The multitudes of heaven are gathered around the throne of God. At his right hand stands the Lamb who has just been declared worthy to take the scroll in God's right hand and open it up. The scroll is of immense importance because it contains the decrees of God for the future of the planet Earth. The occasion is one of great joy for the congregation of heaven, so they break into a service of worship of the Lamb singing:

Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth. Ritual drama: that is what we are witnessing in this spectacular heavenly worship service. The story of salvation is in some way retold and its values upheld, all as the worshipers offer thanks and praise.

A pivotal question must be asked here, the answer to which takes us to the heart of what happens in truly Christian worship. In this ritual drama, who is the audience and who is the performer? Clearly, the answer is that God is the audience and the congregation is the performer. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, in Christian worship God is the audience, the congregation the performer, and the minister, choir, and other leaders are the prompters.

If just this one fundamental truth were to sink into the consciousness of Christians, worship would be transformed. The overwhelming majority of Christian congregations have the roles reversed. The congregation regards itself as the audience, while regarding the prompters and God, I suspect, as the performers. The congregation comes to have a "worship experience." That is not only idolatrous in its reversal of worship roles, but pagan in its understanding of worship itself. Worship theri becomes a noun, a state of being, an experience induced by God or the choir or the pastor. Biblically, however, worship is a verb, something the congregation or performer does.

At least three implications flow out of this understanding of worship as ritual drama. The first has to ! do with history. God is the God of history: of the past, the present, and the future. The Lamb was slain, and has made us free and we shall reign, say the words of the hymn in the Revelation passage.

Christian worship is essentially an act of remembrance. That is what the Lord's Supper does. It remembers the Lord's death, even as it celebrates his resurrection presence and looks forward to his return. There they are again: past, present, and future.

One of the fallacies and conceits of our times is that God has done little or nothing since the death of the last apostle until right now. We place great stock in the New Testament and first century i church, and in our own. In my congregation there I are those who want to sing only the new songs and those who want to sing only the old songs. What is funny about all this is that the "old songs," at their oldest, may date back to nineteenth-century revivalism.

The God of past, present, and future whom we worship in ritual drama was just as active in the fourth, eleventh, or seventeenth centuries as he is now. Our songs, prayers, sermons, and confessions should recognize this in worship. Besides making us a more biblical people, it would give us a perspective on ourselves and relieve us of a bit of our conceit.

The second implication has to do with preparation. Because we are the performers, we must come to worship prepared. Can you imagine your chagrin if you paid twenty dollars to hear a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the orchestra came into the concert hall late? What if the director stood before the audience and said something like this: "Wow! Have we had a busy month! Lots of travel, several recording sessions, and now here we are, and we haven't had a chance to rehearse tonight's concert. Listen, I have a great idea. Everyone here is an accomplished musician. What do you say we just have a jam session for the next ninety minutes? Just let it flow. Be spontaneous!"

You would be angry if the orchestra arrived late and unprepared because you paid a lot of money for the performance. What did God pay for our performance? The blood of his own Son. What does this mean pragmatically? It means things like a good night's sleep on Saturday. It means things like arriving on time. I believe Sunday morning tardiness is a theological issue. It means things like prayer and Bible study on the days leading up to Sunday morning. Howard Rice has said that reformation worship assumed of the congregation that its individual members had spent an hour a day through the week in Bible reading and prayer!

All of this contradicts what Tom Howard calls the "myth of spontaneity." It is a very appealing myth. It says we would all be free, direct, and spontaneous if we could just dismantle tradition, structures, and conventions. Unfortunately this contradicts everything else we know in human experience. It was hard work, austerity, and discipline that produced the Dialogues of Plato, the B Minor Mass, and the Theory of Relativity. Should it be any different in our relationship to God? Just as not much that is worthy, substantial, and noteworthy proceeds from mere spontaneity in other forms of human endeavor, so it is in Christian worship. I believe God is, at the very least, unimpressed with merely spontaneous worshipers.

A good metaphor for the true freedom of disciplined Christian worship can be found in the dancer's art. Nothing looks more free and spontaneous than a great dancer performing. But beneath all of that freedom and spontaneity are years of drills, repetition, sweat, strain, and more drills.

Sunday morning worship is to the rest of our lives what cultivation is to a garden. We weed, prune, water, and feed to the end that the garden may be beautiful?spontaneous gardens are not; disciplined gardens are.

The last implication has to do with focus. And with this I close, because it sums up everything.

Christ is at the center of Christian worship, not us and our experience. We are not there to get, but to give. The question we should be asking ourselves on the way home on Sunday morning is not, "What did I get out of it?" but rather, "How did I do?" For when all the sermons have been preached, all the anthems sung, all the worship renewal workshops conducted, and all our innovations come and gone, that is all that will have mattered: that we said with our whole being, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"

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