Saturday, January 25, 2014

Worship as Work – and Response

A preaching assignment a couple of weeks ago drew me back into the text of the Old Testament to reflect on worship. There, with the help of friends, I re-discovered a foundational reality. In the Old Testament, there are basically two words, each of which are echoed in the New Testament, that coalesce the understanding of what worship is.

The first word captures the deep, visceral, heart-felt response to encounter with God. This is soul shaking awe, overwhelmed with the wonder of God’s presence – in the sanctuary, in creation, in meditation on the Way of the Lord. More than just experience, but experienced none the less, this moment of encounter pushes us to the limit of our capacity to respond – and then, beyond. It draws us out of ourselves into self-forgetfulness and invites a wide-range of actions – clapping, singing, shouting, dancing, silence, hands raising, bowing down – all arising out of awareness of being in the Presence of an awesome God, who has shown Himself good and great, Whose majesty overwhelms senses and language, with whole being worship being the only possible response.

The second word is a bit more mundane – but prepares for the response described by the first. The second concept gathers together the soul shaping work and discipline of worship – the mechanics of preparation – setting up the equipment, learning and leading the rituals, writing and singing the songs, weaving the textiles, making the tapestries, building and playing the instruments, and so on. It is often translated “serve” and regularly links to the work of the Levites – the tribe of Israel set apart to facilitate and teach worship and the ways of God to the rest of Israel. So important was their work that God instructed His people to set aside a tithe of their income to give to the Levites in support of them and their task. God apparently knew how easily we get knocked out of alignment in our day to day lives – so He set up a system by which to regularly re-align our hearts in worship to Who He is. And that, in turn, helps us remember who we are, and why we are here!

Worship is more than just the emotional and physical response to feeling the Presence of God. It is also the disciplined work of setting the table for such an encounter – because God is worthy. It is a valuable training of the soul in the disciplines of orientation by faith, without succumbing to the tyranny of feelings.

So – come! Let us worship. And bow down.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ordinary Repentance (Luke 3:3-14)

 I grew up thinking that repentance was mostly rooted in feeling bad, maybe even guilty, about some thing I had done. I had plenty of practice! Often the threat of eternal damnation spurred the appropriate feelings for which repentance was the response and solution – and that usually meant ‘going forward’ at the end of a Sunday night sermon and spending enough time at the altar to alleviate the bad feelings.

In the last few years that I have realized that my understanding of repentance had more to do with not feeling bad any more – than with with any necessary change in behavior. It was possible for me to get good at feeling bad. And that was good enough. In fact, sometimes feeling bad produced an emotional reaction that I mistook for the assurance that God had forgiven me. So the strategy was to feel bad enough for long enough for whatever it was that I had done. And that was repentance. Implicit was the idea that, perhaps, I shouldn’t keep doing bad things – but changed behavior was less the content and more the occasional outcome of repentance.

It was a bit of a shock to discover that repentance, as it is used in the Bible, has to do with a change of behavior arising from a change of mind – and that any feelings are more about the desire for the new than they are about shame over the old. Repentance is about living a new way in the light of a new reality. Jesus called his listeners to repent – to live a new way – as an appropriate and necessary response to the fact that the Kingdom of God was now within their grasp. When John challenges his audience to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” it is interesting to notice how he responds to questions from the crowd concerning what that fruit might look like.

He begins by suggesting that radical generosity is the first demonstration of authentic repentance. “If you have two cloaks, and another has none… do the math! And the same with food…”  A repentant tax collector should only collect the amount they are authorized – and not use their position to become wealthy. The soldier under force of repentance should be content with their salary – and not use their cover of authority either to extort money from people, or to make false accusations. Nothing very revolutionary! Or is it?

Imagine what a community shaped by this ordinary repentance – a community made up of people simply doing their jobs, and not taking whatever advantage their position afforded them to get ahead at cost to others.

John thinks that is repentance – living a new way in the light of the Kingdom’s coming. I think he might be on to something.