Sunday, January 10, 2016

Our Deepest Need

Isaiah 8:11-15
1 Peter 3:8-17
Matthew 15:1-8

“I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.”  Henry Ward Beecher

Why do we worship?  Who, or what, is the recipient of our expressions of worship?  What are we focused on in worship?  What do we hope or intend to gain from worship?  For that matter, do we even know what worship is besides “going to church”?  Sometimes we can become so accustomed to something, we hardly notice it when we do it.  Mindlessly, then, we “do” nothing.  Consequently we gain nothing. 

These are compelling questions not only for the laity but for clergy as well – maybe more so.  The danger many clergy face is discerning between “doing the job” (which becomes more about trying to please the “audience”) and genuinely leading the “congregation” in worship, keeping the focus on The Lord.  It is actually the same question to be faced by the choir and the liturgist – worship leaders all. 

So it is all the more important that we ask and answer these questions honestly.  Worship - a giving of oneself to something greater - must be measured by how much of ourselves we truly give.  It is not strictly defined by one's tithe (though there is that measure); it is more fully measured by what we are willing to put aside in favor of reaching for something else.

When it comes to worship of The Lord, there are components of worship intended to do much more than to occupy a space in the weekly bulletin or kill time before the Sunday buffet.  There are reasons we do the things we do, biblical reasons why we should strive to develop good worship habits over time, and spiritual reasons why some things, such as The Lord’s Supper, are worth doing over and over again – even at the risk of developing a mindless, mechanical response to a “thing” we do with no thought or appreciation for why we do it.

As important as worship is to ordering the life of the Church, however, I don’t think we can get a lot out of worship if we do not really understand (or care to understand) the nature of worship, the necessity of actively engaging in worship, or the components of the worship service and setting.  The Sacraments, the Scripture readings, the singing, the offertory, the call to worship, the sermon, the benediction.  If we do not actively engage in each of these and give fully of ourselves to these things, we cannot possibly come to know the meaning these things can have for us nor can we expect to get anything from them.  Some may complain they are not “being spiritually fed”, but the reality may be they are not taking their seat at the table to which they are invited.

It seems clear some things we have taken for granted for so long that we no longer consider worship to be important enough to jealously protect and preserve – and we wonder why we have lost an entire generation.  And if we are asked why worship is so important – like when we try to get people to “come to church” - chances are we cannot “give an account for our hope” that would be satisfactory to someone who really wants to know or needs to know – including ourselves or perhaps especially those we love who have deliberately fallen away from the Church and still call themselves “members” or “believers”.

St. Peter was referring to our faith in what is already given as the hope we have, the faith that drives and motivates us in daily living, but surely our hope transcends a self-serving desire only to one day “go to heaven”!  To look at worship as the central focus and expression of the Church, there must be an element of hope not only because we are responding to something greater than ourselves in what is already given but are also actively engaged in that hope long before we breathe our last.

Finally we may ask: how can worship speak to anyone who considers worship to be spiritual “gravy” (meaning, nice to have once in a while but not totally necessary) rather than the full meal it is?

Worship is a response to something we know.  Worship is not, and must never become, a strict “demand” for something we desire only for ourselves.  This consumerism makes us the focus of worship rather than The Lord.  When this happens, worship planning becomes a free-for-all with impossible demands from this group or that group.  And the worst part of this proposition is that we simply do not care what “others” are getting or not getting.  The Lord Himself does not factor in.

There continues to be a big debate/divide over “contemporary” worship vs. the more “traditional” worship setting or finding a satisfactory “blend” – something for everyone, but even that is something of a “red herring”.  In reading Renovation of the Church, pastors and worship leaders of a very large, happening, hip-hop church found themselves digging a very deep hole for themselves and the congregation they were called to lead because every week, the “production” (and that’s what it was) was getting bigger and brighter and busier than the week before.  They soon realized it would be impossible to sustain for much longer.

They were already physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and soon discovered themselves to be spiritually bankrupt.  They were focused strictly on what they believed people wanted, but they were not leading worship of The Lord; they were entertaining the masses.  They were catering to the consumerist crowd and vainly trying to anticipate “demand”.  The only thing they were not doing, as opposed to a live secular show, was charging admission. 

The congregation was not responding to The Lord’s goodness or their part in the mutual Covenant nor were they even being given a chance to do so; they were reacting to the “show”, the lights, the noise.  When the worship team finally came face-to-face with the monster they had created and tried to move from what they called a “seeker church” (just trying to get people in the door) and transition to becoming a “spiritual formation” church in which disciples are made and accountability comes into play, they lost many at great expense (these “shows” were not cheap!).

Soon there were layoffs because the budget could no longer support the staff necessary to keep that level of “production” going.  But they also discovered something much more compelling; in the “quiet” of their retreats, in their silence as they earnestly prayed and sought The Lord’s guidance rather than new ideas for the next “show”, they heard this: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Mt 15:8).

One author has observed, “Worship … means worship motivated by the life of The Lord.  It can be energetic, spirited worship [but] in conformity with scriptural principles ... [because] it is the altar which sanctifies our [gathering and] offering, making them both holy to The Lord and useful for The Lord’s work, and not the other way around.”

The meaning seems clear enough.  Sometimes we are so determined to have it our own way and do it our own way that the end result is worship of self rather than genuine worship of The Lord … especially if we come to worship empty-handed, bringing nothing of ourselves but expecting everything for ourselves.  It is like calling oneself a “member” of a church but offering and giving nothing, yet expecting the church to cater to our demands.  This is not “being motivated by the life of The Lord” and is certainly no response to His goodness and the Covenant we are offered – it is a consumerist “demand” with an ultimatum: give me what I want, or I will walk.  

How is the Church to respond to that?  The answer, of course, is we can’t.  It can also be said that when we spend less time trying to rock the boat, we will find more time and energy to help row the boat.  Make no mistake, however; there can be only one boat, and that boat belongs to The Lord.  For us it is the “life boat” the very soul of all creation cried out for, the “life boat” our Savior and Redeemer determined we need above all else.  Now that we know it is clearly offered and freely given, how will we respond? 

Our response to this Holy Reality is the heart of worship and the soul of the Body of Christ which is the Church.  Let us strive and pray that our worship be a full expression of what is already given – not a demand for what we covet for ourselves. 

For the Lord Jesus has so spoken: “Whoever comes to Me, I will never drive away” (John 6:37).


No comments: