It had not been the most edifying week for my involvement in worship. A local church asked me to suggest a "creative solution" for a prolonged controversy about the use of overhead transparencies for praise songs. (My suggestion about installing an impenetrable wall between the traditionalists and the experimentalists and using the wall for projection was not taken seriously). The high-church "Liturgy" Internet board I participate in had a long(winded) discussion about what kind of tablecloth to use on the communion table. The more contemporary "Worship" bulletin board went into interminable detail about equipment. ("I am in the process of eliminating all of the 1/4 connectors. I solder the tips of the wire directly to the banana connectors on a platform. There are some really cool 4-way plugs out there.") I couldn't help but think, "Is this what worship is all about?" Or, as my students might say, "Let's get real!"
Part of my getting real was to ask again—What (really now) is worship? Why is that 10:00-11:00 hour called holy?
When we gather for worship, this meeting is of ordinary folk. On a typical Sunday morning I greet Mr. Holz, who is still wearing a support collar to brace his bruised neck. The Vanders look as frumpy as they always do. Carl helps Susan out of their Mercedes; she still hasn't gotten her hair back after the last cancer treatment. Of course, Joan and Patrick and their troop come waltzing in three-and-a-half minutes after the service starts. The prelude helps a teenager to drop the worry about tomorrow's Civics final and to remember to pray for Grandma. A mother is still trying to get her two children to stop the fight they began in the car. Ordinary people coming together for an extraordinary meeting.
"Our opening hymn of praise is 'Praise the Savior. . . .'" Praise God who has given health and work and a new baby and these people sitting in the pew with me. The sounds of organ and trumpet begin to focus my distracted thoughts. The ringing soprano voice of my neighbor merges with my tenuous tenor to get beyond the ceiling of the sanctuary. God is real, and our speaking and singing puts us "in touch" with him. Or maybe it's more like God is breaking into our lives, gracing us with his presence.
God speaks to us through his Word: "Do not harden your hearts." And the preacher echoes those words. "Dear Christian friends, this is a word from the Lord that cuts to the heart. You and I need this daily reminder to turn from ourselves to the Lord. But also remember, the Lord is gracious. He knows about our infirmities—because he was here! He loves us, his children. And those of you carrying heavy burdens—chuck those burdens of worry and failure and find rest in the Lord."
The Lord's Supper is a glorious mystery. To quote from one of my favorite John Calvin passages:
Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours. . . . And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. (Institutes, 4.17.7).
"Sweet communion, Lord, with Thee." And with your people.
And when we really pray—it's like incense rising up to God. God can virtually touch our sadness about the death of the Marshall's baby. He shares our lament about the brokenness in Bosnia and in our church. He joins in our joy about Ken and Tracy's wedding. We all become pietists, as we whisper "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you for letting us reach out to you. Thank you for listening to us."
The singing may not rival the St. Olaf choir, but it is bracing. "Let God Arise and by His Might" unites us with our psalm-singing Huguenot spiritual ancestors. "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" makes us join in praise with Arminian Charles Wesley. "Humble Praises, Holy Jesus" transforms us all into God's trusting children. "Great Is the Lord" makes our arms (perhaps unused to raising) rise in Hallelujah! praise.
"The LORD bless you and keep you and make his face to shine on you. . . ." Not—"he might," or "maybe he will." No—he does and he will continue to smile on you and cover you with his love.
Ah, yes, that's what worship is all about.
That doesn't mean that questions about tablecloths, vestments, and speaker systems are unnecessary. It doesn't mean that articles about blended services or organ stops in Reformed Worship are unnecessary. But we must remind ourselves and each other—ultimately, it's all about this meeting between God and his people. It's a dialogue, an engagement, a covenant renewal, a touching of heaven and earth, a face-to-face encounter between Creator and creature, between a Father and his children.