Sometimes things that begin with great excitement and vigor and with a vision to break through the boundaries of the establishment fall into lethargy and habit and, one day, when you look around, you come to find that you have become mired in the structural mud, unable to move and your strength slowly ebbing away… that is, until something – gravity, inertia, centrifugal force, explosive force, or a sudden yank by a tow hook – breaks you free from the miry clay that held you captive… it takes a few days or weeks to regain your footing and then generate momentum but you find it easy to do so because the joy returns.
After the ‘event’ of several weeks ago, I have discovered a newfound joy in the ministry that I’ve been called to. Artificial restraints have been lifted and a return to a more organic simplicity has benefited all of those who remain a part of our church. My passion has been restored and is more evident in our worship and in my talks. The joy of the Lord is our only guide and we pour our hearts in it without concern for breaches of formality that had begun to hinder us. The love of God is moving in us and will once again move through us to others.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
If you haven’t picked up Mark Labberton’s book The Dangerous Act of Worship yet, don’t wait a minute longer. Rather than a how-to, Labberton has crafted one of the finest volumes associating proper worship with justice that I have had the privilege to read. It is a not a book that you will tear through in a couple of days. I labored with this book over weeks because of the repentance motivated by the injustice that my own worship allowed.
He writes in chapter seven about the proper recognition of power and how appropriate worship speaks to it. Safe worship permits the continuation of power abuse while dangerous worship recognizes the true power in God. Labberton says
Nothing thwarts God’s purposes more than twisted power; nothing renews God’s purposes more than redeeming power.
When we explore the danger of worship, pushing out beyond our safety zones to encounter the true and living God, we are struck by His power. Placed side by side with our feeble and unjust practices of power, we see the injustice wrought by our appropriation of what is not ours. Worship that walks us out into the dangerous desert alone with God realigns our thoughts and actions and helps us to discover that the greatest power is found in emulating the Savior’s self-sacrificial love. How many times has this topic been discussed in our worship planning meetings?
Mark asks us to reflect on each of the Church’s worship practices, from the Call to Worship to the Offering and Benediction. Each gives us an opportunity to reflect on true power, to help us realize that the manmade constructs that we often associate with power are but mere facsimiles of God’s supremacy. The brief section on the Offering is especially powerful, given the often contentious feelings that surround this practice. We live in a culture that sees money as power and, in some cases, worships it. The act of offering our gifts at the altar is a significant release that is often given short shrift in the Church today. Laying down the gift can be an exercise in recognizing the true wealth and it source and the more dangerous we make this the closer we bring our brothers and sisters to the practices of justice that it should engender.
Mondays are never popular with people. The weekend is over and work begins again with the promised land of Friday five long days away. For the pastor, Monday is often a day off but for a host of reasons, there is very little joy in having reached our ‘weekend’. Monday is the day on which many pastors consider leaving their post. Monday is the day on which all of our fears, concerns, and doubts come crawling out of the woodwork and infest our depleted souls. Monday is definitely not a fun day.
The vocational pastor’s focus during the week is often looking forward to the big event of the week, the worship service or services. A message must be prepared and a worship service crafted around the big idea of the sermon. While there are other pastoral duties that are assumed during the week, the big event takes most of our energy. Anticipation builds as Sunday gets closer; is the sermon ready? Has the music been selected and rehearsed? Are the video feed, the worship software presentation, and the Sunday school ready to go? Finally, Sunday arrives and the big moment comes. God’s word is preached with all the power given by the Spirit. People are moved, lives are changed, men and women are transformed and through all of the changed people the world is shaken and all of its ills are ended.
And then Monday morning arrives. The pastor sits back, sipping their coffee and wondering if their work had any effect at all. We wonder why God has called us to this position. Week after week we pour our lives into loving our flocks and seeking to infuse their lives with God’s will. Did the message or music change anything at all? Are we as men and women of God inadequate to the task? Are we going to face the same problems in our folks that we did the week before? Thoughts like these and countless others swirl through our minds, discouraging us if things are going badly and stirring doubt where things are on an upward trend. Head in hands, the pastor looks forward to Tuesday.
Ahhh, Tuesday. A new week dawns and a new message invites us back into the Word. Hope springs anew that the message this week will be the one to help this person or initiate change in that person. I can’t wait until Sunday!
In his book, Mark Labberton continues to urge the church toward a reformation in worship that takes the focus off of comfort, stability, and safety and turns its back to the wild and frightening objective of seeking God’s presence that urges us toward a heart for justice. In an interesting turn, the chapter Doing Justice Starts with Rest, Labberton he asserts that rest – in the practice of Sabbath keeping – is essential to empowering the action that he urges on the other pages. To quote, “Scripture’s call to seek justice surely involves action, considerable and costly. But a life that does justice rises out of worship, which starts with rest, is sustained by rest and returns to rest.”
Sabbath keeping is a difficult spiritual exercise in our modern go-go society. To be at rest is often seen through cynical eyes as laziness and a lack of motivation. If we’re not moving and doing, we can’t possibly be accomplishing anything. God wants us to take a different perspective; He wants us to understand that our accomplishments come from Him and that the Sabbath demonstrates our reliance upon His power. God gives us the Sabbath as a boundary, helping us to understand that we can trust in our rest when God Himself took a day off after the greatest creative moments in history. When we practice the Sabbath we finally understand that it is the Father and not us that keeps the world spinning. Worship in its purest form.
When we finally slow down and recognize the providence in which we exist, we find a release that allows our eyes to rise to the One who also rested. Unplugged, our head clears to recognize who we are in the Father’s eyes. We also see who our neighbor is, not in MySpace or WordPress or some other artificial connection, but the living, breathing humans who inhabit our world and the heart of the Father. Imagine if we were all at rest together.
As we come toward the end of another week, for most churches, worship planning for Sunday is well underway. The sermon is taking shape, the songs and prayers will be selected and rehearsed, sound and video are setting up their cues and yet, once again we will fail in our purpose. We will not encounter God, who hardly feels constrained by the boundaries that we lay out around our idea of worship, but we will come face to face with our idol, ourselves.
Labberton continues to challenge in The Dangerous Act of Worship, pointing out that our biggest downfall as followers of God comes from the fact that we don’t realize that our beliefs or the transformed lives that derive from beliefs matter as much as the Bible suggests. We willing to settle for lives that circle around the ‘I’ idol instead of yearning to meet the God of consuming fire and immeasurable righteousness.
We are desperate to tame God in order to avoid the changes that an unfettered God would bring about in our lives. We seek out a God who is what we want and run and hide from any possible influence of the God who is. As a result our worship is filled with lies; we proclaim Him as Lord and the object of our love and yet we hate our neighbor, avoid the oppressed, forget the widow, and withhold nourishment from the starving.
Our worship makes light of the false dangers and avoids the real. Worship is to be transformative, change us as people and changing the world through our influence. Anything less is too safe. Instead of noting the time when we enter the sanctuary we should beg others to tie a rope around our leg as we approach the alter for fear that the awe of actually being in the presence of the almighty God should actually lead us away to a place from which we cannot return.