Monday, September 27, 2010

Occasional Remarks on Worship

In an effort to jumpstart my blogging efforts, I'm re-printing a paper I recently wrote here at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary for a class on worship. We were asked to reflect, prior to lectures or readings, what our working understanding of worship was, as well as on the role of spontaneity within that understanding. Hopefully there will be some original posts in the days and weeks to come; in the meantime, while not original by any means, I pray this is as helpful in the reading as it was in the writing.


Working with Reformed Presbyterians as a campus minister for a year, I came to know the opening words of the Westminister Shorter Catechism, and I think the twin means of “glorifying God” and “enjoying Him forever” suggest beautiful foci for the practice of worship. In creation, God created all the earth for the sake of God’s glory, and God gloried in the love with which God created each of God’s unique and unrepeatable expressions of care and creativity. In response to God’s covenant love, first expressed in God’s binding God’s glory to the creation, God also made worship the grain of the universe. In this sense, worship is creation’s vocation.

Worship is also the telos (end, goal) of creation. The Bible is book-ended by worship, whether in God’s command to Adam to work and tend the garden, to the sublime chorus of “holy, holy, holy” which echoes unto eternity in Revelation, all of creation and in particular humanity have been made to enter into the relationship of worship with God. As vocation, worship is also, quite literally, the work (read: the liturgy) of the whole people of God, lived in concert with creation. This means that living in peace and reconciliation with one another, and living life as stewards of the creation, are vital components of worship. As the prophets never cease to remind us, worship and an ethical life of discipleship are but two sides of the same coin.

We know what true and right worship is when we know who it is we worship. Jesus Christ reveals the God of Israel to all nations, and by His death and resurrection, calls forth the Church. In John 12.28, Jesus cries out to heaven, “Father, glorify your name!” to which a voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” John’s Gospel lacks a baptism account, yet this same voice echoes the Synoptic Gospels account of Christ’s rising from the waters to hear the voice declaring him the beloved son. In John, the Father declares He has been glorified in the Incarnation and will again be glorified in Christ’s Passion; thus, Baptism, Incarnation, Passion, and new creation are the stuff of worship. We as Christians know who we worship, who has related Himself to us in creation, and thus, who we are, when our worship is born out of, and participates, in these various forms of the Word unfolding. Incarnation and Passion beget the Sacraments, and with the preached Word, they create the world anew.

Jesus’ outburst in John 12 is spontaneous, preceded by the declaration that “my soul is troubled” (v.27). Likewise, we need not be happy to worship; instead, God’s glory is called forth when we are authentic before God, and this includes the willingness to confess before Him. In our (Lutheran) case, this means, worship begins with confession, and leaves room to be restored to the children we are. It can also mean outbursts of joy and thanksgiving, as we see in Christ in Matthew 11:25 when he declares, “I praise you Father…for such was your gracious will.” Joy and sorrow overflow into relationship with a loving Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Spontaneity is the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul, in Romans 8:25f, reminds us that the effort is not entirely dependent on us, for when our words and emotions fail, the Spirit placed in our hearts, the same Spirit which created the earth and the heavens, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Spontaneity in worship can mean following the Spirit in emphasizing certain words of the written Word, adapting formal prayers to follow and reflect the preached Word, improvising in music to compliment the sacramental Word, or, releasing our need to improvise or create for the sake of a more “formal” gesture that might fit the rhythms of the Spirit in the moment. Allowing the Spirit to give an account on our behalf before the world is not limited, as in the Gospels, to standing before the rulers, but, as the Church always worships publically before a hostile world, we can also trust in God to make worship glorify God’s name, if God’s people humbly pray and enter into relationship with God with hope.

Worship is also a gift and a pleasure for us who worship. God made us for Godself, and when we allow the Spirit to guide us and the Word to shape us, we enter more deeply into our life in Christ, the salvation that is at once arrived and also merely an anticipation and a foretaste of the feast to come. Whether the music is classical or rock, the style High Church or folk, the spoken words educated or simple, when we know with whom we have been made for love and with whom we are being brought into love, we can take delight and rejoice, witnessing to the world the life of love into which God desires to call all people.