Saturday, February 15, 2014

Early Worship

It probably began as a conversation or a song.  People repeated in chants what they understood of the Divine and their relationship.  Early peoples understood their weakness and vulnerability very well.  Heat, cold, floods and famine shaped life profoundly.  Not to mention the absolute mystery and unpredictability of diseases.  Lifespan was short, and the majority of children did not survive the first six years of life.

Death was always at the door.   Some force had power over this.  If there was a way to offer gifts and sacrifices to favorably influence that power, people were surely for it.

Cycles of life and activity developed around patterns of the seasons and phases of the moon.  There were times for the people to gather and reflect on the mysterious powers that shaped the world and their lives.  Talking to this power, praying to this power, praising this power, being taught and instructed by this power through the words and deeds of prophets and holy persons became deeply embedded in human life.  It created a moral framework in which people understood the rules of life and their place in it.  And it moved people to do powerful and courageous things on behalf of the people.

Such as spending time in fasting and meditation and prayer to be open to the messages of the Divine.  Also, to trust the Divine power to give them strength in battle against human enemies for the good of their families and neighbors.

Judaeo-Christian traditions of worship that have come to us rely on millennia of human experience and spiritual life that provide much of the framework and vocabulary by which we conceive of spiritual matters and who/what we are as human beings.

Every spiritual system in human experience has had one common feature:  etiology.  That is, the body of understanding and explanation for how things came to be.  After all, what's one of the most ubiquitous questions the three-year old asks with each new awareness of the world?  Why?  Why is the sky blue sometimes but not other times?  Why does the moon come and go?  Where does the sun go?  Where did earth come from?  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?

We live with those questions and concerns even as adults.  We add more to the mix.  What is life for?  What makes sense of me and my life?  Why am I here?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why does/doesn't God do something about all this?

Those are still valid questions even today when we know far more about the cause of diseases, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the solar system and universe.  Who/what are we in all of this?  What does the Divine Creator do these days?  What still fits and shapes my life?  Who is my neighbor?  And what does that mean?  Is there good news to be had today?  Where does it come from?  What does it say?

In the worship of the Israelites, there was a deep tradition of reviewing the moral code, or receiving instruction by reading/repeating parts of the sacred texts.  And discussing its meaning for the people gathered.  There was sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people and to say thank you to God for the gifts of harvest.  The song of the people in music and spoken/sung words and notes was a part of that.  The Psalms were always a part of the expression of the people--both the joy and celebration in good times and the heartache and wailing in bad times.

There was time for singing and dancing.  There was time for silence and contemplation.  The Selah interspersing the segments of longer Psalms was probably a musical interlude in which the hearers could savor and ponder the meaning of the words just said.  Music helps us think with our hearts.  

It was prayer.  Thanksgiving and lamentation.  All together.  Sometimes, the best prayer doesn't ask for a thing.  It simply does an adequate job of stating what is.  It lays all the junk and brokenness right out there.  In pieces.  

Water and fire and food have nearly always been a part of worship.  Fire for light in darkness and consuming the offerings.  Water for washing and cleansing and purifying.  Food both for giving and receiving and sharing together.  We people are least hostile, most community-like, when we share food together.  We are more peaceful, more thankful, when we are fed.  Inside and out.

It gives us the opportunity to know and care about each other, to punch a few holes in our isolation.

We have wise instruction from God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  We have Sabbath time out for God and each other, not because God is a vain and needy God who will go off to pout and toss lightning bolts if he/she doesn't get praised right on Holy Day.  No, the Sabbath was made for us because we need it and all it brings.

Early worship established that.  But more than once along the way, we've lost the idea.

Which gets us back to that first question again:  WHY?

More to come...


Friday, February 14, 2014

Why Worship Anyway?

Over a year ago I went on an excursion.  I didn't leave my house but visited a bunch of church websites.  What was the first thing churches wanted to show me?   Interesting...   

Many churches showed me their buildings.  Some showed me their pastors doing a kids' message on the step of the altar platform.  Some showed me groups of happy workers apparently doing landscaping or yard work around the church building.  For some, it was their choir all bedecked in primary colors and smiling brightly.  Still others obviously were proud of their massive pipe organs.  Some showed me groups of standing worshipers in ecstatic response, arms a'waving.  Others, of course, big praise bands.  

Often, there was a focus-group designed paragraph about "who we are."  Carefully chosen words such as "caring, serving, welcoming, loving, diverse, inclusive" followed as their self-chosen affirmations.  All positive, of course.  Though, curiously, I never found the word "humble" in any of them.  Many had mission or vision statements about "bringing Christ to the nations"--as the old Lutheran Hour radio motto said.  

It's no wonder church websites look much like those of other community organizations.  We are, after all, just that.  However, as a friend said long ago, churches are "just the same--only different."  I hope.  But back to the web search...  

One website stood out from all the rest.  Its welcome mat, the first thing a web visitor might see, was not a statement about the church itself.  In fact, it wasn't a statement at all. It was a question:


Why bother?  Why spend time doing this at all?

What followed was breathtaking.  It led me on a journey that was far more like a poem than a densely packed self-proclamation or committee-crafted mission/vision statement. 

There was space between the lines for me to breathe and ponder.  

It talked about life.  It wasn't an ideal, idyllic portrayal of a church that had it all together in a world coming apart.  It also wasn't a judgmental condemnation of that world.

It was the most honest thing I found in the entire excursion.  It rang true.  It sounded like the world I live in. It sounded like the world that Jesus lived in.  

Better, it sounded like the world that Jesus lives in.  It sounded real.

I was immediately engaged.  I wanted to know more about this church.  Not because it had better answers.

It had better questions.  More accurately, because it had questions at all.  With Jesus there in the middle of them.  

I've never known answers to come in the absence of questions.

"Why?" seems like a very good place to begin.  

Jesus is there in the middle of that.  Thanks be to God!