David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
©Copyright August 2006, Silverside Church
August 13, 2006
Worship as Inspiration and Celebration
How we think of God has everything to do with how we envision and practice “worship.” Progressive Christians have long since given up on the idea of an angry, arbitrary, punitive god whose greatest concern in the cosmos is who most recently offended HIM by not adhering to HIS demands. Because human beings continually make mistakes, this god is almost always in a snit, offended, and on the offensive. Worship, therefore, is one of several ways of trying, hoping to appease this grumpy god whose rage at humanity gets expressed in all kinds of things that happen to us individually and communally–from acne to anathema, from disease to disaster, from heartburn to heartbreak, from tornados to tsunamis.
We progressives have, indeed, changed our view of God considerably–at least, ostensibly, we have, but our words and ways in worship still look pretty much the same as worship for those who gather weekly to tremble together before a god who could, in a bad mood, strike any one of them dead before they meet together again. Our worship looks still more like bowing and scraping before a despicable despot than a gathering to celebrate God’s love and be inspired by a renewed sense of an affirming God’s presence within each of us.
I know the “God on Broadway” series is supposed to be over, but I can’t help thinking at this point of a monologue from “The King and I” that Mrs. Anna speaks to herself, but as if she were speaking to the King of Siam face to face. The way the King makes his subjects relate to him is exactly how many people–past and present–took/take to be the proper posture and response upon coming into the presence of God. Mrs. Anna’s words she wishes she could say directly to the King himself:
Shall I tell you what I think of you?
You’re a conscientious worker
But you’re spoiled.
Giving credit where it’s due
There is much I like in you
But it’s also very true
That you’re spoiled!
Everybody’s always bowing to the King.
Everybody has to grovel to the King. By your Buddha you are blessed;
By your ladies you’re caressed,
But the one who loves you best is the King.
All that bowing and kow-towing
To remind you of your royalty,
I find a most disgusting exhibition.
I wouldn’t ask a Siamese cat
To demonstrate his loyalty
By taking this ridiculous position.
How would you like it if you were a man
Playing the part of a toad?
Crawling around on your elbows and knees.
Eating the dust of the road!
Toads! Toads! All of your people are toads!
Yes, Your Majesty;
No, Your Majesty.
Tell us how low to go, Your Majesty;
Make some more decrees, Your Majesty,
Don’t let us up off out knees, Your Majesty.
Give us a kick, if you please Your Majesty;
Give us a kick, if you would, Your Majesty!
(lyrics from “The King and I”)
Progressives can’t tolerate such a view of God. This is simply NOT who God is or ever has been. By the way, if we’re not PROUDLY PROGRESSIVE, then we might as well not be progressive at all. And if we are progressive, then our approach to worship, our words for worship practices, and our worship language must match our view of God who is anything but angry and desirous of appeasement.
The foundational corrective we must tend to in our quest to make worship progressively proper is to RE-clarify the fact that the object of our worship is the mysterious, benevolent life-source/life-force we refer to with the word, “God.” Much of Christian worship today centers, however, on the worship of the risen-from-the-dead Jesus. There are many more songs in our present hymnal singing worship-praise to Jesus than there are songs that focus on God as the object of our praise and adoration. Those who sing these songs of praise to Jesus obviously hold to a trinitarian theology developed beyond the present New Testament.
The books of the New Testament affirm a close–even intimate–connection between Jesus and God, but they are not one and the same. Even in the Gospel of John that opens with a poetic co-mingling of Jesus with God as to essence and eternality, Jesus and God are clearly separated. When, in that Gospel, Jesus says that he and God are one, he clearly did NOT mean the same entity, but rather one in purpose. In the odd passage where Doubting Thomas finally understands that the being before him is the post-resurrected Jesus–and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”-- he is NOT calling Jesus his “God”; instead, he’s having a spiritually moving moment in which he calls Jesus “Lord” and, in the same, breath, also calls out to God, “My God,” as a separate entity.
Jesus clearly prayed to God as an entity other than himself. He clearly used his miraculous signs as opportunities not to call attention to himself, but to point people beyond himself to God. Jesus, without a doubt, believed that after his life on earth was over, he was going to another realm to dwell with the God who had given him his mission of love on earth.
In the book of symbols, the book of Revelation, in which the writer has visionary glimpses into heaven, God and Jesus are undoubtedly separate entities. They are often seen in close proximity in the visions, but when the elders and others fall down before God and Jesus, they are worshiping God and honoring Jesus in the same act without any confusion as to who the one and only God is.
Progressive Christians must clarify the object of our worship, and that “object”–if that’s even the correct word–is God, not Jesus. Jesus is our “window” to God–our tour guide, even, on our spiritual pathways. But Jesus is not God, and he did not seek to be worshiped. To be grateful for his ministry and centered on his teachings as best we can understand them is one thing, and that is absolutely proper. But to worship him–that is displacing God as God. Jesus worship is heretical if we use the teachings of Jesus himself as our guide for “faith and practice.”
Having that out of the way, we must do some further self-critique about how well our worship ideas and practices honor the God who remains after we remove from that God all the misunderstandings, superstitions, personal human projections, and lies that have been heaped upon God for thousands of years. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Why not Silverside Church?
God is not an ancient near-eastern despot. God is not an ego-dominated monarch who whips into submission those who fail to respond the way he wants–or, forgetting the whippings, sentences the noncompliant to a hellish life beyond this one.
Our reflective reading for today from the life of the ancient Hebrew prophet Ezekiel is a very moving part of his life–for several
1. One, he and many/most of his people have been taken physically into exile by the expanding Babylonian Empire. They weren’t allowed to stay in their homeland with the Babylonians, Chaldeans, ruling over them the way the Romans ruled over the Jews of Jesus’ day.
2. Two, in that foreign land to him, Ezekiel–one of the most personally unusual of all the Hebrew prophets–still managed to have a sense of the reality of God and not a “distant” God, but rather a God who came to him in his place of despair to give hope to him and his people.
3. Three, the way God insists on relating to Ezekiel touches me and, I think, is very instructive for us in how we’re to understand God and, thus, how we should create worship experiences.
The way the presence of God approached Ezekiel in his vision must have been something to behold indeed; however, the UFO and the four unusual-looking creatures that ushered God’s presence to the despairing, deported prophet is the subject for another sermon or discussion. For today, I want you to focus only on the interaction between the prophet and God.
As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking. The voice said to me: “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And when the voice spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard the voice speaking to me (Ez 1:4-5a, 2:1-2 NRSV).
1. Ezekiel doesn’t know at first that what he sees is an indicator of the presence of God. Let this be a reminder to us that God never stops being mystery. We can never understand fully all that is God. Our most studied and most precise articulations may correctly affirm some aspect, some facet, of God, but we humans will never grasp it all; and we shouldn’t pretend that we can or will.
2. Ezekiel hears something like a voice. He’s not sure exactly what it is he’s hearing. That should be an additional reminder to us that not every mysterious voice we hear is the voice of God. We should be extremely cautious what we attribute to God in terms of God’s will or God’s word.
3. Ezekiel falls down on his face before the presence of God. This is what he’d been taught he should do. Maybe it was a natural response to grandeur and power even; I have no idea. What I do know is, and I’m indebted to one of my great Hebrew scripture professors–the late Dr. Clyde T. Francisco–for initially pointing this out to me, God would not speak to Ezekiel with his face buried in the dirt by the River Chebar. “Mortal, stand on your feet, and THEN I will speak to you,” said God.
Whatever else that may mean, this much we know: God does NOT speak DOWN to us–either figuratively or literally. I fear all the subtle and overt references to God as monarch make it impossible for the average spiritual seeker to stop bowing down and instead stand up to receive God’s communication.
In any case, God is not sitting on God’s throne withholding attention and/or favor from those who fail to approach him in the sycophantic manner he demands of us. (By the way, I’m intentionally using masculine pronouns to refer to the god who is misunderstood and used because those who worship such a god insist that THEIR god is male.) What perspectives of God must we keep in mind in order to be able to worship God in spirit and in truth, as the Fourth Gospel represents?
God is not separated from us by either distance or time and unwilling to come into our presence until we ask correctly–whatever that might mean. God is as near us as the air we breathe. God certainly exists outside of us and beyond the limits of what we humans are able to imagine, but the main place we look for God is within ourselves. Worship, then, doesn’t have us inviting a far-away god to interrupt the divine schedule and make time for us, and agree to come to us.
Worship certainly should begin with us seeking the reality of God within us–not concentrating on some entity far removed from human experience, far removed from our own joys and struggles. This is why more than a few religious groups begin worship with centering and/or meditation activities.
Much monotheistic worship today is boisterous, is anything but meditative or reflective. Silence cannot be tolerated in such contexts, even for a minute; silence is considered proof that some worship leader has lost her or his place or an opportunity for worshipers to begin to think their own thoughts–something the typical worship leader doesn’t want to have happen at all. In the extreme theatrical or charismatic service, worship leaders intend for music and loud speaking to “rev” the people up into a virtually pre-hypnotic state; this kind of thing can get scary as you saw if you remember the highly disturbing videos of Jim Jones moving his followers step by step to their suicides. We saw the same thing, fictionally, in Robert Duvall’s film, “The Apostle.”
The complete opposite of the “souped up” service is what I call the “Sominex Service.” Remember the old, over the counter sleeping medicine? “Take Sominex tonight and sleep, safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep”? The sermon is boring, the music is boring, even the announcements are boring! You heard about the preacher who dreamed he was preaching, right? Yeah, he woke up and found out he was!
Worship should touch us at all the levels of who we are as human beings–just as a meaningful relationship with God does. We should be engaged intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We should be engaged aesthetically, pragmatically, and socially. Worship should be holistic.
I want us to be certain that our worship is all of these while being centered in celebration–celebration of God and celebration of life–and is neither “souped up” nor Sominex.
Well, here I have, gone and messed up the way we comfortably think about worship. It’s not enough that I’ve messed up your expensive, hand-carved from Holy Land wood creches by telling you that the Wise Men never, and could never, have made it to the manger; now I’m telling you that our worship words and images are all wrong for progressive Christians.
To begin with, the traditional way of understanding “praise” of God must be called into question for several reasons–one of which is the story from Ezekiel about which we have been thinking today. I don’t for a minute think that God should become a buddy or a personal genie so that’s not what I’m suggesting. We do need to honor God; we do need to wait in reverence in communion with the very Source of creation and of love. And sometimes, without a doubt, we want to, we ought to, kick it up a notch. There is so much in life to celebrate, and God is somehow the source of all that is good. I think celebration is a better concept or image for us than “praise.”
In many worship services there is much talk of sin; in some of those services there will even be times for confession of sin and reminders or actual bestowments of forgiveness. I’m not as put off by the word, “sin,” as Marge Grant is, but I’m keenly aware of how frequently and how seriously the word has been abused. Probably, we need to stop using it and work with synonymous terms instead. For example, we could speak of selfishness, self-centeredness. We could use the term in a way that picks up its literal sense: missing the mark ethically.
What we have to get rid of for sure if we’re going to ponder human shortcomings at all is the notion that God is offended by human behavior–and not only offended but also invested in keeping track of how often we fall short of our potential. God’s Spirit within us lures us at all times to what is good; if we refuse to go with that inner directive we will suffer the consequences of our bad choices, our selfish choices; but God isn’t sitting on a throne somewhere meting out various punishments commensurate with the level of our failings. People do that, not God!
Another thing that many traditional monotheistic worship services are known for is pleading with God, in one way or another, to do something good for us. Give us this. Give us that. Do this for us. Do that for us. In reality, God is already doing all the good that can be done in any life and in every circumstance. If the cease-fire goes into effect tomorrow, in part at least we’d have to realize that God is luring some people to the reality of peace, and some of them are listening. We don’t have to beg God to do that. If we want to bring the matter of regional or world peace into our prayers, we don’t ask God to bring peace; no, that is already God’s goal and something God is actively trying to effect. We may, instead, thank God for helping us see the importance and the viability of peace in spite of a world sold out to violence and war. The vision is already a reality. The goal is already put before us. We already know God wants that. The issue is whether or not we and others like us are willing to try to live at peace with one another.
I’m uprooting a lot, I know. There are definitely some aspects of worship as we practice it that need to be kept, however. One of those is preaching. We can’t live without preaching; we have to have preaching and preacher!
We definitely have to keep our music. Where would we be without our music? Yet, we have to be certain that the musical sounds and the musical messages as conveyed in words that are sung don’t un-do the theologically progressive emphases we work so hard to establish in other acts of worship.
In worship for those in God’s family who try to follow the teachings of Jesus, I think we also keep communion. The Lord’s Supper isn’t a requirement for a right relationship with God. It isn’t a reminder that God sent Jesus to be executed so that God wouldn’t have to kill us off one by one. It isn’t a celebration of Jesus’ suffering or a savoring of his shed blood. Too many Christians have believed that it is Jesus’ literal blood to which he refers when he asks his disciples at the Last Supper to take a sip of wine, which he describes as symbolic of his blood poured out for them. A synonym for “blood” in this and several other biblical contexts should be “life.” Blood in many of those ancient cultures was taken to be the essence of life so when Jesus asks his followers to remember his shed blood, what he means is that they should remember that he is giving up his life–and giving it up of his own accord rather than to allow either religious institutionalism or politics to keep him from telling God’s story of love.
Communion is a communal, obviously, a communal rite that doesn’t mean just one thing. It helps us remember a host of facts and opens us up to new thoughts and ideas about how to put Jesus’ message into action. The frequency with which we conduct communion doesn’t matter; there is no rule. Some groups celebrate communion every time they worship; some do it monthly or quarterly.
I believe also that we certainly need to keep prayer in our worship gatherings in which we seek both inspiration and opportunities to celebrate. I’m not talking, of course, about prayers to tell God what to do; I’m talking about prayers of meditation and of thanksgiving. Prayers that are spoken aloud by one person in the congregation are intended to guide the prayer thoughts of others–not to do anyone’s praying for her or him or, for that matter, to limit what anyone may incorporate into her or his communion with God. The Apostle Paul once suggested that perhaps our most profound prayers come from our deepest longings and hopes that can’t even be put into words.
I do think it’s important as a community of people who care about each other as we do to make prayers for others a part of worship. When folks who are a part of our group have special joys and pressing struggles, our prayers for them mean something to them, and our prayers may also, as Dr. Glenn Hinson has suggested, be the actual releasing of love energies that connect with God’s love energies being poured into someone who celebrates or struggles.
Finally, worship isn’t an end in itself. It’s a pause along the spiritual pathway for inspiration, for spiritual nourishment. It’s a place, a time, to rest for a moment and to be energized to get back out into the world, actively seeking to make a positive difference in all the ways we can. In this sense, worship is always the beginning of something new. The “postlude” is, in reality, a “prelude” to the way we go forth from worship to bring God’s love to bear on every circumstance we may influence.
So, let’s get up off our knees. Let’s get our faces out of the dirt. Fellow worshipers, fellow mortals, let’s stand up and open up so that God may speak to us.