Monday, March 31, 2008

Thoughts on Worship this Easter Season

I've been thinking hard about worship as we have entered this Easter season. I spend a lot of time thinking about worship for each Sunday we are together, but I've been thinking a bit more out-of-the-box, or beyond-the-bulletin lately. What does it mean to be worshippers of the Risen Christ? How do we worship as Christians in a 21st centuray world? What does our United Methodist heritage and the Christian tradition have to tell us about worship, praise, prayer, and Christian community as we gather to celebrate Jesus' Resurrection?

These are heavy questions! I don't have all the answers for our context today, but I do know that what we think is "proper worship," or "the way things have always been," aren't quite so set in stone. I do know that if we have met the risen Jesus, our lives shouldn't be like they used to be. I also know that to worship him means we need to be open to the presence of Christ in our lives, and in our church, and that if the Lord is present, we cannot be in complete control. A traditional way to open worship in Black Methodism is to sing "The Lord is in His Holy Temple, Let all the Earth Keep Silence Before Him." I want to propose, if we think of our lives and our places of worship as The Lord's Holy Temple, and if we believe the Lord is in the house with us, we might find ourselves keeping silence like our brothers and sisters at Green Memorial AME-Zion on Munjoy Hill, where the silence quickly moves to singing, dancing, shouting and praise!

I love old hymns, and I believe that many of the old ways still have power to lead worship well today, but I'm convinced that to be authentic worshippers of the Risen Christ in the 21st century, we need to find ways of communicating the Gospel that are indigenous to the communities around us. For some, that might mean praise music, for others Southern Gospel, for yet others, traditional hymns might work. Whatever music, method, and means we use to communicate with our communities, our worship needs to be truly Spirit-filled. Again, if we really believe the Lord is in the house, if we let the Spirit take the lead, we cannot expect to remain in complete control!

Our United Methodist history has a great deal to teach us about the variety of forms authentic worship can take. Methodists have never worshipped in only one way, and many of those ways might look strange to us today. John and Charles Wesley were high-church Anglicans: They were deeply Sacramental and by all accounts comfortable with formality, vestments, and the kinds of reverence and propriety demanded by 18th century Anglican worship. The Wesley's were also more concerned with helping the people of their society meet Jesus than with preserving worship the way they understand it, and when they found preaching in parish churches a challenge, took to other locations, lining songs without instruments, praying in the Spirit in the moment, and calling for people to give their lives to Christ right where they were. In prayer meetings and some of the early Methodist chapels, some folks found themselves so overcome by the Holy Spirit that they shouted, wept, cried out for God's mercy, fell to their knees and faces, and even shouted with joy, all with little respect for proper order and deference! When the Lord is in His Holy Temple, when the Lord is in the house, there's no telling what might happen!

Over our history, Methodists have sometimes followed John Wesley's admonition to Constant Communion, celebrating at least every Sunday, and often have followed formal orders of worship, with scheduled prayer, singing and silence; we have also followed the Wesley's example, chartering Camp Meetings, Revivals, and other kinds of services, where prayers flow unscheduled, preaching often becomes empassioned, and singing and shouting both in joy and conviction cannot easily be controlled; today, United Methodists worship in more languages and styles than ever before, but at our best, we are always open to the Lord's leadership as we worship together.

I point out our diverse heritage and current practices to suggest that there isn't one right way to worship, but I do want to make two points: there is one thing that all right worship has in common, and there is one thing which we should never let happen to worship. The one thing all right worship has in common is an openness to the work and power of the Holy Spirit, making what we do passionate, exciting, electric, and live! Like all living things, Spirit-driven worship is at least a little unpredictable and open to adapting to its immediate circumstances. The one thing that we should never let happen to our worship is to let it become a dead, dry activity that we try to do without the power of the Holy Spirit. If we are to worship the Living God who made Heaven and Earth, who in Christ lived, died, and rose for us, then we cannot do it without the Holy Spirit, the presence of God with us!

Yes, worship of the Risen Christ is a risky business--but the Church of Jesus Christ is called to take risks in his name, including in our worship! So if the Spirit moves you this Easter season, shout "AMEN!" or "HALLELUJAH!" like those Methodists of old! Raise your hands in the air, in praise or prayer! If the time is right, shout and praise the Lord in the Sanctuary! Dance, shout, jump, and have JOY in the Holy Spirit, like King David and all God's holy people across time!

The Lord IS in His Holy Temple, Let All the Earth Keep Silence Before Him, and Let the Church of Christ praise as the Spirit leads us!

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