Thursday, June 27, 2013

The End of Worship

The word "worship" locks us into veneration and ritual; there's a better way to express faith

Should we incessantly and ritually venerate a monarch? I wondered that as I participated in the centuries-old liturgy—aided by a bone-rattling pipe organ—in a gothic church building during an early morning worship service.

Later that same morning, while standing with my family in a suburban mega church, engaged in what I call rock ‘n’ roll worship, I was struck by the same question. Though the forms and styles were centuries and poles a part, they were the same in essence: monarch veneration.

Is this the best we can do, I wondered? Does this capture the essence of our faith? Does it reflect what the Bible points us toward? Is there something we are missing when we opt to use worship as the central image and activity in our gathering, scattering communities of faith?

Worship is the thing most of us point to as the central descriptor of Christian faith and practice. We quote the first assertion of the Westminster Shorter Catechism--"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"--and assume that worship is the essence of this duty or imperative (I'm not sure how we get "worship" from "glorify" and/or "enjoy"). But, I think church leaders and Christian influence peddlers miss the point when they fixate on worship.

The exaltation of impassioned worship gatherings in churches in recent years--whether a renewal of ancient liturgical forms or contemporary emotive gatherings that all but discard form--is pointed to as a step in the right direction.  We've considered it a step away from self-exaltation, shallowness, and self-righteousness; a step toward a more mature, robust Christianity.  I'm not so sure about that.

Whether contemporary or ancient in expression, worship, as the primary descriptor and focus point of Christian faith has lots of baggage--baggage that Jesus seemed to be pointing his followers beyond.  Granted, there may be some authentic understandings and expressions of worship, but most of what I've heard described, seen enacted, and read about is sub-Christian or pre-Christian.

This is part of the baggage of worship: its very etymology and core images are rooted in veneration of a deity by subjects who are trying to please, appease, or move the deity to assist them in some tangible way.  As such, worship predates the Bible.

Most of the Old Testament passages and images reflect such worship, with some modifications. The OT begins with a simple, profound image of Abraham walking by faith with God--something the Apostle Paul would reassert. But, rather quickly, the OT builds layer upon layer of staged, sophisticated worship ritual centered in the tabernacle and temple.  A few exceptions are found in the Old Testament prophets, like Amos, whose spirituality moves away from the tabernacle/temple cultus to a lived relationship expressing tangible social justice.

Jesus of Nazareth offered an eclipsing experience of faith and direct relationship between people and God. Yet, less than a century after Jesus, the church began returning to ancient, pre-Christian worship patterns and built form and ritual into a highly-regulated system.  Ultimately, great cathedrals as worship centers accentuated this system.

Reform movements have usually tried to reformulate worship as part of their agenda.  The Society of Friends is one striking example.  But those of us who are beneficiaries of Martin Luther's reforms have found ourselves, after a generation or two of simplicity and freedom in worship, returning unwittingly to more ancient conceptions and patterns of worship.

Please do not mistake me: it is not relating to God personally and/or corporately that I am questioning here.  Instead, I challenge the nature and manner in which we express, confirm, celebrate, and bear witness to that relationship.

To the point: as long as we use the word-image of worship, we will ultimately live backward and downward to its limited and limiting meaning.  If we are to live and become the people--personally and corporately--that Jesus beckoned us to be, perhaps we should consider moving beyond worship as the descriptor of who we are and what we do.

In short, God does not demand worship.  God does not need to be worshiped--not as we think of a deity being appeased or impressed, not as groveling subjects bowing to a powerful potentate, not as fearful people giving required honor, not as obligated people dutifully fulfilling prescribed rituals.  God is not like that, nor does that reflect the essential nature of the relationship Jesus models and invites us to.

Jesus clearly points his followers beyond worship when he addresses the Samaritan woman at the well.  She worries about appropriate places, right rituals of worship and her place in the scheme of things.  "A time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth," Jesus assures her.  Enough of the old stuff.  Enough groveling.  Enough about distance and appropriate places.  Enough squabbling over worship rituals and patterns.  Jesus offers something more profound: be in relationship with God and one another in spirit and truth.  "That's the kind of 'worship' God seeks," he says.

Jesus tried again and again to move his followers beyond worship.  Abide in me, he said, just like I abide with the Father.  Think in terms of friendship, not servants, he said.  Think in terms of love, he said.  Think about a relationship in terms of personal counsel.  Or, in terms of yieldedness and mutuality.

Clearly, the direction he repeatedly points to is something beyond what we typically reflect and do on Sunday morning--whether we're in a Catholic cathedral, following the Book of Common Prayer or lifting our hands as we sing full-throated while a rock band blasts out the latest contemporary pop-worship favorite.

I propose an alternative word and image in place of worship.  Try "communion."  We're at the table.  We're invited--us and billions of our fellow humans.  Still, it's accessible and intimate and participatory.  There's mutuality and learning and growth.  We're talking together.  We're breaking bread.  We're drinking from the common cup.  We're being nourished in body and soul.

Communion is full of relational meaning.  There is awe and humility with the One in whose presence and companionship we find our footing and purpose, to be sure, but that doesn't call for subservience or dramatic fawning.  There is Otherness, but it is completely empowering.

[This image doesn't work if, by communion, we reinforce exclusivity, priestly hierarchy, obsessive scrupulosity, or warring divisions over the meaning of Eucharist. Think more organic, more relational, more mutual than that.] 

I can imagine that folks indoctrinated in Calvin-based traditions will find letting go of worship as the primary or core descriptor somewhat threatening.  Ancient images of worship are part and parcel with the Westminster and Swiss reformer's conception of spirituality.  But, to me, it's worth focusing more on the words, patterns and invitation of Jesus than hanging on to traditions that might serve well up to a point but become limiting to the life and relationship that the living Word points toward and makes possible.

Moving into a communion-based focus also empowers an engagement with life's difficulties, the world's challenges and a Christian's witness in it in a more direct way.  While worship should move us there, more often than not, worship, by its very historic meaning and image, keeps us focused in the cult, inside the walls.  Though there are notable exceptions to this pattern--a few describe worship more as what happens outside the cult than what occurs inside it--the predominant pattern is that folks end their worship when they walk outside the church doors.

If you insist on sticking with worship as your modus operandi of relating to God, then I can only hope that what occurred to Isaiah as he worshiped in the temple will happen to you. Isaiah 6 tells of a vision that transformed Isaiah, changing him from a mere repetitive worshiper into a turned-inside-out, spirit-and-truth prophet.  He moved from worship to communion--with God and his community.  Isn't that the point?

Oh, by the way, see you in worship next Sunday.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rediscover the Public Life

Push beyond overly privatized living masked by a faux public life feel.

I had a great time meeting and talking with
West Indianapolis neighbors during the
10th Annual West Indy Community Day.
We distributed free bike helmets, and locks,
set up a bike safety rodeo, and took kids on
a 2.5 mile ride through this urban neighbor-
hood. Such festivals celebrate and fuel
a healthy public life and drive back fears
cultivated in overly-privatized living.
Having enjoyed a Saturday participating in two different urban neighborhood community festivals, I
think again of the vibrant potential of a healthy public life. I also think of the fear and false assumptions that daily sabotage this potential for many people. And I want to challenge my friends and neighbors, once again, to strive to break through backward notions of the public life and false comfort in private life. 

PRIVATE LIFE VS PUBLIC LIFE? No one has articulated the differences between public and private living, or argued more convincingly for the preservation and renewal of a healthy public life than Parker Palmer. Listen to him in The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life (1981) :

VICTORIES FOR THE WHOLE. “A genuine public life begins with the premise that victories for the whole are greater than victories for any of its parts. We understand that we are members of one another; that the social order will be secure for our own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness only if it is secure for others as well."

A WAY FOR EVERYONE TO WIN. “The foundation of public life is the tenacious faith that we are in this together and can find ways for everyone to win. This is not a faith which accompanies many outbursts of so-called public activity these days.”

FACSIMILES OF PUBLIC LIFE. What Palmer calls a “public life” has been all but co-opted by fabricated facsimiles in the private realm. Do we not generally prefer private places, secluded activity circles, cloistered fellowships of faith, private education, and highly-controlled shopping areas? So successfully has America fabricated the look and feel of a genuine public life that many prefer the facsimile to the genuine article.

GOD IN THE GLOWING SCREEN. Calvin and Hobbs cartoonist Bill Waterson shows Calvin bowing down to a television set and crying out: "Oh, great altar of passive entertainment, bestow upon me thy discordant images at such speed as to render linear thought impossible!" I am betting that most of us think of the public life as what we see flashed before us on TV. And we wonder what the world is coming to. By the way: I keep bringing offerings of chips, cookies, and soft drinks before the altar of TV, but end up consuming them when nothing happens.

WHICH TAKES MORE FAITH? I note that private life takes no faith. It just takes money, control, and a penchant for making everything extremely safe. It turns us inward and often in on ourselves. It is a treadmill that takes a lot of negative energy. Public life, on the other hand, lives by faith--a faith many have abandoned. It is unpredictable, frequently unruly, ultimately uncontrollable--and utterly life-sustaining. It turns us outward, even inside out.

IT KEEPS BREAKING IN. For all our efforts to take things private, the public life keeps breaking out, breaking in, or breaking through our private worlds. Despite our satiation with sameness, neatness, and dullness--and despite being brainwashed regularly by marketing's most sophisticated mind games--we still hunger for a truth-telling solidarity, community, and a Kingdom that is beyond our selectively-picked and tightly-controlled private lives and cloistered cells.

KEEP THE CANDLE BURNING. Keep the candle of a genuine public life burning in our privatized world--and fan its flame.

A few practices that can ignite and fuel a healthy public life:

Turn off the TV, laptop and cell phone for a while.

Go out of your way.

Sit and chat a while longer at a local restaurant (and offer the server a higher tip for the table time).

Meet a neighbor.

"Waste" one evening a month at a neighborhood association meeting.

Choose nonfranchise, local shops, restaurants, etc. more frequently.

Volunteer at a public school.

Study the community council and its issues.

Participate in a parade, a public rally, town hall meeting, and/or cultural event.

If you consider yourself churched and faith-based, dare to collaborate with people who are unchurched and so-called secular (with no intent to evangelize or “win” them).


Do something in and for the community that has nothing to do with church.

Give of yourself to sustain and build up a community-serving organization.

Contribute to making the world real, whole, livable, sustainable, and hopeful for others.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA