The Heart of it All
Of all the spiritual practices that there are, clearly worship is the central one. All spiritual practices flow from worship and flow back into it. The worship we offer God as Christ’s church is the heart of what God has meant for us and the heart of our dealings with God. This church’s own self-study has noted that of all we do in the church, worship is most important to us. So for those reasons it is helpful to think for a moment about what constitutes Christian worship.
While worship certainly involves us, it is not in a very important sense about us. One pastor of an “Avenue” church in New York tells the story of a church member who complained that she didn’t like the hymns they had sung that morning. He replied, “That’s all right ma’am. We weren’t singing them for you.” Our worship is worship of God and not a matter of inducing a feeling in us. We are not asked to be critics, but participants. But when that is said, we do need to recognize that, then, something does happen to us, for God is worshiped by God coming into us and shaping us. That is why it is both worship of God and a spiritual practice on our part.
The core of Christian worship is a matter of God’s Word given to us and working in us. Thus our worship services, for example, are centered around the Word. In the last generation we have deliberately structured our worship to make the Word absolutely central. The words we use should come from the Word. You may also notice each Sunday that there are section headings for our worship service. In the beginning we gather and prepare ourselves to hear God’s Word, first by quieting our hearts and then by confessing our sins. Then we move to the central part of the service where we hear God’s Word read. First, there is the Old Testament and the sung psalm, which expands on what has just been read; then there is the Epistle lesson (or Acts during Eastertide) and finally, in the place of honor, the Gospel lesson. The sermon is a matter of proclaiming and explaining something of what has just been read. Then, after having heard the Word read and proclaimed, we respond appropriately because we have been filled and need to express the Word we have been given. We therefore confess our faith, using a creed from the church, and we pray for ourselves and others. Confession and prayer are the results of hearing God’s Word. So, too, is our offering and thanksgiving. The Eucharist, which we celebrate each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. and monthly at 10:00 a.m., is a response to God’s Word read; “eucharist” means thanksgiving. But it is also the continued presence of the Word in worship; as Augustine once said, the sacrament is “a visible Word.” Or, as Psalm 116 says: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” Oddly enough, God is worshiped not by our giving something to God, but by being willing to receive what God has to offer. Or, it is a matter of giving God open ears and hearts, and giving God our attention that God may work in us. From there, finally, we are charged to go out into the world, to take that Word placed deep in our hearts that it may grow elsewhere.
For a long time, Presbyterian worship tended to be passive and worshipers even may have thought of themselves as an audience. If they didn’t like something, the reaction was similar to asking that the TV channel be changed. But worship of God is active and by our activity of opening ourselves up, we let God make us over. We need to get our ears and hearts involved, and we need to stand and also to bow our heads. From all of those things, we make ourselves available. And in that is the central spiritual practice of the Christian life.
In this New Year, Peace.