Christian worship, especially in the Reformed lineage, has always been about a great deal more than what we do in church on Sunday. “Work is worship” my parents used to say (except on Sunday). Service is worship. And there was a great deal of talk about sacrificing—especially when I became a teenager—referenced to the first verse of Romans 12.
This wide definition of worship, in my experience, has been both a great gift of our tradition and a sorry excuse for impoverished formal worship.
The idea that we should live our daily life, at least from time to time, in the recognition that it is an act of worship to God is a very unusual mindset in today’s North American scene. But it could be world-changing.
The Bible, particularly the prophets, suggest that a conscious intention and effort to live justly is both a prerequisite to God-pleasing worship and a natural and liberating extension of this worship through the church at work in the world. If we put that truth into practice, then we and God’s Spirit-led church would have a richer and more authentic relationship with God, each other, and creation. We would be a stronger force for good in the world and a deeply attractive witness to the coming of all Goodness. We would also be deeply changed.
What Is Worship For?
At a 2006 “Justice and Worship” conference, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff gave some helpful distinctions about what worship is for and what it is not for.
First, he said, worship is not for propitiation. It is not what we do to appease an angry God or put some points by our name in the books of a score-keeping God. It is not compensation for a life of shortcomings and injustice and sin, either individually or corporately.
Second, worship is not spending an hour or two a week in “sacred space” in the sense that we come to God in some “clean room,” shedding our daily lives when we enter and putting them back on when we leave. True worship is quite the opposite. Rather than compensating for or being separate from our lives, says Wolterstorff, worship is for presenting one’s life to God—both one’s life outside the assembly and one’s life inside the assembly.
When we worship formally together as a community of would-be saints, we turn to face our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior. We greet God and each other, lament, ask forgiveness, listen, petition, participate in the Eucharist, and then we go forth.
But here is the catch: our formal worship is deeply conditioned not only by the attitude but also by the actions we bring with us into worship. This seems to be especially true when it comes to our actions in the cause of justice.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isa. 1:15-17)
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. . . . Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21, 23-24)
It is disconcerting for those of us who live in the wealthiest, most powerful places on earth that the Bible is full of passages that make direct connections between how we treat the poor and least powerful and how God feels about our formal worship. But formal worship, facing God in the assembly—in community—is not the end of worship. We then turn around, “with God at our back” as Wolterstorff says, and engage God’s world with renewed courage and humility. This is our ongoing act of worship.
The Daily Act of Worship
Paul says in Romans 12:1 that the core of our spiritual worship is offering our bodies as living sacrifices. This offering of our bodies as spiritual acts of worship seems paradoxical to those of us far distant from a culture of animal sacrifice. But it is only recently that spirit and body have been so conceptually separate. In most societies where I have lived and worked, blood is the life force. It doesn’t just symbolize life, it is life.
In Bangladesh and Senegal, watching my Muslim neighbors make their Eid sacrifice by carefully cutting the neck arteries of the cow or goat and collecting the blood in a specially dug hole in the ground gave me an inkling of the roots of halal (or kosher) rules for slaughtering animals. In those cultures, blood is power. It contains and gives life. Blood does things. One treats it with respect and care when it is taken. Blood sacrifice is a taking and giving of power—real power.
Likewise, a burnt offering is not merely symbolic. It is the transformation of living things into smoke that rises to God. It is real life and power literally given to God in the form of the rising plume of smoke.
And so when Paul spoke about sacrificing our bodies as spiritual acts of worship, his audience would have understood that they were to give their life force to God. But Paul added an important caveat. They were to give up power as surely as blood drained from a sacrificial sheep; they were to be transformed as surely as fire changes the burnt offering into smoke. But this would result in life, not death. They were to be living sacrifices.
A Living Sacrifice Today?
What is this life force that is not actual blood or flesh but that moves our bodies and our whole being?
It is our will.
We are, all of us, created with a self-will that takes many forms. There is the will or instinct for self-preservation. We value our lives above all else and will do almost anything to preserve them. We also have a will to power: a need to control, to be in charge, either actively or passively. We have an insatiable urge to be the masters of our own fate, the planners and implementers of our own lives. And we will go nearly to hell to maintain the illusion that we are in charge.
It is this life force, our will, that we give to God as our daily act of spiritual worship. Every day we offer our bodies—our lives and wills—“as a daily act of concurrence with God’s will.”
So we have faced God in a worshiping community with all our shortcomings, especially those related to living and working for justice, and are now facing the world which we are to engage. How might this sacrifice of self-will, this seeking concurrence with God’s will, actually work in terms of seeking justice?
Doing Justice Is Easy—and Humbling
A few years ago I received a phone call from a missionary in Guam. He had been visiting a prisoner in the local jail and had noticed an influx of Karen people: an ethnic group which at that time was heavily persecuted by Myanmar’s military rulers. He investigated a little and found there were several hundred or more Karen in custody for having overstayed their tourist visas.
He saw this for what it was: injustice. True, he did not use that word. What he said to me was, “This isn’t right.”
Allison Adams of Wild Goose Worship calls this “epiphany eyes”: the ability to see the wrong that’s right in front of our noses. That is a good description. When we are willing to see what is really happening, we see a little of the truth that God sees. It is not complicated.
The next thing the missionary said to me was unexpected. He said, “I need help.” This seems like a simple thing, and it is. But responding to injustice by asking for help is actually rare. It requires humility, an acknowledgment that the situation is beyond our ability and power, a willingness to submerge our will into a larger enterprise.
In this case, that simple act of asking for help tripped a cascade of events that neither the missionary nor I could possibly have foreseen or imagined. Within a week, blankets and emergency supplies were distributed to those in detention. Within a month, whole networks of lawyers and immigration activists in the U.S. had swung into action, certain rules on asylum had been waived (an act unheard of in U.S. immigration practice), and volunteer immigration specialists were assisting the Karen families on Guam with asylum applications. Within eight months, well over 1,000 Karen and Chan people had been resettled, most by churches, in the U.S.
Because one person visited prisoners, saw something “not right,” was willing to do something apparently beyond his power, and asked for help from his faith community, the world became a little more just— and a lot more just for those Karen and Chan people who moved from persecution and prison to peace and freedom.
Doing Justice Is Hard—and Liberating
One of the deepest instincts of our human will is actually a continuum of self-preservation, with survival on one side and power over our environment and those around us on the other side. Doing justice requires a willingness to believe that following God’s heart for justice is safer than following our own will for power and self-preservation.
A few years ago, while visiting Bethlehem, I accepted the invitation of a group of Palestinian Christians to join them on their regular Friday nonviolent resistance walk to illegal Israeli encroachments on Palestinian farms and villages. That Friday we were to walk to an ancient orchard of olives and apricots about to be confiscated and destroyed for a sewage retention facility serving an illegal Israeli settlement on the high ground just above.
There were maybe sixty of us—Palestinians and foreigners, Muslims and Christians—in the small valley. It was stony and green, watered by an ancient spring. Half the trees had been bulldozed into a tangled mess. On the scarred land rose the foundations of a massive cement tank for sewage.
We spoke and prayed and wept. Very quickly we were surrounded by Israeli security forces demanding that we leave. The farmer whose family had cultivated this small valley for ages showed them his papers. No matter. Leave or you will all be arrested, they said. So we left, paying careful attention to stay on the road, walking slowly,
giving the security forces no excuse to act violently.
But they wanted an excuse. They taunted the younger members of our group, hoping someone would throw a stone. They narrowed the right of way to force us to “trespass.” They followed so closely in their camouflaged Humvees that my calves hit their front bumpers as I walked on the public road.
They hoped we would give them an excuse to unleash violence. But the group was well trained. They stayed disciplined, videotaped everything, and posted the day’s demonstration online and to various news services in the belief that injustice and violence withers in the light.
There was little risk to myself in this demonstration. There was a great deal more risk to the Palestinians I was with. One or two are now in Israeli detention on dubious charges. Many can no longer get permits to travel outside of the West Bank. Their livelihoods are diminished. The costs are real. The risks are life-threatening.
So why do they take those risks? For liberation—and not only the hoped-for social and political liberation of the Palestinian people. Those who practice nonviolent resistance have found that resisting oppression and injustice by submitting one’s own will to God’s heart for peace is a liberation in itself.
And So . . .
Doing justice can be as simple, and as humbling, as being willing to see and name what is in front of our noses, asking for help, and then watching justice roll.
Doing justice can be as hard, and as liberating, as being willing to act like we believe that following God’s will to resist evil is safer than following our will to preserve our own skin at all costs.
Doing justice is to always affirm with the early church that Jesus is Lord—and Caesar isn’t.
Worship and Justice
When we come as a community to worship, we come to meet Jesus and to present our lives to God. A life lived without attention to God’s heart for justice is a poor life to offer. We are all poor.
When we worship in our community of faith, we meet Jesus and each other just as we are. This meeting enables us to sacrifice our own will to God’s will, trusting that the paradox of dying to self-will brings life and liberation.
When we turn to face the world with God at our back and the Spirit within and among us, we engage the world with epiphany eyes and in humility and peace.
If you have ever done this, you know what comes next: we meet Jesus again—in the world, in persons, and in God’s creation. When this happens, we, if not always the world, are changed.
And the great spiral of worship continues.