The awkward part of the worship service

Not until I read Thom S. Rainer’s blog did I realize how contentious the greeting time in a worship service can be. In each service at Trinity CRC, after we receive God’s greeting, we take a few moments to greet and encourage one another. Usually we simply say “Good morning” or Mutual greetings at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, Anniston AL. Photo from The Anniston Star, found via Google“Nice to see you” to one another; occasionally we more formally pass the peace and say “The peace of Christ be with you,” extending God’s blessing to one another.

According to an informal survey, Dr. Rainer discovered that the mutual greeting time of worship is a big turnoff for people, particularly guests. Reasons for disliking it abound:

  • Some introverts would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a meet and greet time.
  • It exposes the hypocrisy of people who say “Hello” during the mutual greetings but ignore you any other time.
  • Shaking hands with someone who just wiped his nose with his hand is gross.
  • It feels awkward to be told to say something kind to random people around you.

Because this practice can be awkward at best and hypocritical at worst, Dr. Rainer proposes in a subsequent blog post alternatives to the time of mutual greetings including ending the service on time so people have time to chat afterwards if they so choose; putting friendly, extroverted people in key places; and deploying roving greeters.

Around the same time I read Dr. Rainer’s blog, I was reading A Primer on Christian Worship by William A. Dyrness, and – wouldn’t you knowA Primer on Christian Worship by William Dyrness it? – he devotes a paragraph to the practice of greeting one another in a worship service. Dr. Dyrness admits that he, too, sympathizes with those who find this part of the worship service distasteful. But then he takes a step back and observes something valuable in this moment of worship. In his words:

A part of me says, What hypocrisy! Why should I greet these people who I don’t know and who probably aren’t interested in greeting me? But each time I stretch out my hand to a stranger or hug a friend, something happens. I am reminded by [this] practice … of … the kind of people we are becoming in Christ. Whether I feel like meeting someone or not is irrelevant. Our life in Christ has this particular conciliatory shape to it. As a result, this is a community in which sharing and conciliation are core values, and, by the practices of worship, these values are being formed in me.

What I think I hear Dr. Dyrness saying is this: Even when it’s awkward or fake, we practice greeting one another so that we can get better at it which will make it more natural and authentic. We already are and yet still are becoming a community in Jesus Christ; greeting one another helps us work at getting it right even if we don’t at first succeed. In worship, we speak kindness and peace to one another so it becomes increasingly natural to do so, especially after the service is over and during the week.

I like to be sensitive to introverts (such as myself) who dread the mutual greetings. And I simultaneously hope I can convince them (and myself) that the tradition has merit: It gives us a moment to show in a practical way the love that the Holy Spirit is growing among us in Christ as we love and worship Him.

The best part of the worship service

It’s certainly not the longest and maybe seldom the most memorable part, but giving and receiving God’s greeting has got to be one of the best parts of a worship service, imho. It’s near the beginning. People stand. I raise my arms. “Grace and peace to you…” I say.

Grace and Peace graphic found via Google

These are not my words. And these are not words from Trinity CRC’s leadership or from church history. These are Biblical words from God Himself. As a pastor, there’s a simultaneously awesome and humbling thought right there! Think about it: Using my voice, God is welcoming you, expressing His pleasure that people have responded to His call to corporate (that is, group) worship.

The Worship Sourcebook says that these words of greeting “establish the lines of communication in worship. God always comes to us before we come to God. So it is fitting for worship to begin with Scriptural words that convey God’s greeting to us” (p. 56).

As we gather for worship, one of the first things that’s affirmed is that God has graciously brought us together, and that He is mysteriously yet wondrously present whether we come in joy or sorrow, praise or doubt. I certainly cannot think of a better way for the worship experience to begin each Sunday morning!

My colleague, Leon Johnston, has also been reflecting on
God’s greeting
at the start of the worship service.

The most important moment in the worship service

I sometimes wonder how often we thoughtlessly skip right over the most important part of the worship service when we gather on Sundays. I wonder if the most important part of the service is actually that moment of silence before the first note is played on the piano or the first frame is projected in a multimedia presentation or the first word is spoken into the microphone.

Silence graphic found via Google

Pastor Steven Rodriguez suggests that “our worship of God begins not with the first word spoken, but with the silence before it. If we speak to God without pausing first, we are just offering ourselves to God. But if we begin with silence, we are opening ourselves up to receive God.

I know at least one colleague who pauses momentarily to quietly pray before she ascends the platform steps to open the service. I’ve been invited to lead worship in at least a couple churches where one of the first elements in the order of worship is 30 seconds of silent prayer. I suspect they’re on to something – intentionally holding their tongues, holding their breath, even, inviting God to fill the moment before they make any sound.

Deer feet

In her book Cracking the Pot, Christine Berghoef writes about a study tour she took to Israel. While there she encountered ibex, an animal similar to North American mountain goat. You hear about them a couple times in the Bible, including when God speaks to Job about his creation. Ms. Berghoef describes them as remarkable creatures with extraordinary feet, able to “scale boulders the size of semi trucks… They trek the cliffs as if they’re the product of some sort of cross-breeding laboratory experiment – perhaps the supernatural combination of Spiderman, a white-tailed deer, and a tree frog” (page 39). It sounds to me like God designed them just right with the ideal feet to thrive in in their mountainous habitat.

Ibex picture found at Wikipedia

With the ibex likely in mind, the prophet Habakkuk confesses,

“The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer…”

I’d like to make this my confession, too. To be honest, however, I’d rather ask God to give me an easy path than a pair of good feet to journey down difficult ones. I pray for things to go smoothly without any hassle or trouble.

Observing the ibex, Ms. Berghoef writes: “Perhaps we ought not to pray for an effortless life, but for God to give us the feet we need to traverse the life He continually unfolds before us” (page 39).

I read something similar in a Words of Hope devotional written by an Iowan pastor named Stephen Shaffer: “Even though the road is hard, Habakkuk trusts that God will not let him fall. No matter where his path takes him, he will not slip. He prays that as he walks the path God laid for him, he will walk sure-footed. Habakkuk asks God not to change the road, but to change him.”

Praying for ibex-like feet is not the easiest prayer, but it’s honest about the tough places along the path. It’s also a hope-filled prayer – I can pray it knowing that God answered this prayer for Habakkuk and countless other saints through history.

The rest of the story

This past Sunday I spoke at Trinity CRC on the Heidelberg Catechism’s Lord’s Day 17 Q&A 45 and mentioned my surprise at how briefly the catechism treats Jesus’ resurrection. It takes eight questions and answers to cover Jesus’ suffering and death but only one question and answer to explain the resurrection. If the resurrection stands at the center of faith, you’d think the church’s teachings on it would be a bit more thorough.

Well, in my research for Sunday’s message, I was reminded how the Heidelberg Catechism was not split up into Lord’s Days when it was first published; the only divisions were the 129 questions and answers. Maybe it’s helpful not to see a big break between Lord’s Day 17 and the ones after it: Everything beyond Q&A 45 can be read in light of Jesus’ resurrection! The rest of the whole document – Q&As 45-129, each one – works out in greater and greater detail what it means that Jesus lives!

Isn’t that kind of how the New Testament reads? Each Gospel clearly attests to Jesus’ resurrection and begins to reveal its implications. From there every book in the New Testament makes at least a passing reference to it, many places actually delving deep into its significance. In fact, by word count, the Bible says more about the resurrection than the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Lord’s Day 17 summarizes the Bible’s teaching of how the implications of Jesus’ resurrection explode in our lives. His resurrection changes everything! We “share in [Christ’s] righteousness,” we’re “raised to a new life,” and we have “a sure pledge … of our blessed resurrection” after we die. In other words, the resurrection is a historical fact for our salvation that brings renewed purpose to life today and gives us hope for the future.

It might not take a lot of words for the catechism to describe this, but it’s Good News that fills entire books and fills all of life.

Empty grave graphic found via Google

Worship is like orange juice

Back when I was serving Telkwa CRC, a wise man once told me that worship is like orange juice. The service you attend on Sunday is theOrange juice graphic found via Google concentrate. But you add water so you can experience it all week long.

We need the concentrate. Without it there’s no juice. Similarly, God puts the desire – the need even – within us to gather with others to worship him. When we miss Sunday services, we miss out on God feeding us through his Word and the sacraments. We miss out on our hearts being stirred and our wills equipped for action through the songs and readings. We miss out on receiving encouragement from other worshipers. These things are like the concentrate necessary for making orange juice.

By stirring in water we enjoy the orange juice for several days. Similarly, the concentrated form of worship we experience on Sundays propels us into a life of worship all week long where we offer every aspect of our lives – from our work to our leisure activities to our time with family – to the glory of God. We can invite God to be the center of our lives all week long.

Then each Sunday we receive more concentrate as we gather again for worship services. Glorifying God together refills and rejuvenates us and our love for him and one another. Ignoring opportunities to worship together is like expecting to be able to drink orange juice indefinitely without adding any new concentrate.

That’s not to say there aren’t times I wish I could do without the concentrate. The concentrate keeps fresh in my mind and on my taste buds what orange juice truly tastes like. But sometimes I don’t want fresh reminders of who God is and who God calls me to be because I’d rather water things down and do my own thing. I’d rather not consider what God would have me do with my paycheck or what kind of Friday night entertainment strains my relationship with him and others. Sadly, I miss out on the real thing God offers, drinking some sort of substitute that will never satisfy like God does.

But when I come to my senses, God always has ready a fresh supply of concentrate. The opportunity to gather with others to worship him and be refilled is always less than seven days away!

Regardless of what your weekend routine currently looks like, consider how participating in a worship service might be like the concentrate in the can that you stir into the rest of your week. I’ve become convinced that allowing Sunday to launch me into a life of worship all week long is the most meaningful way to live. But don’t just take my word for it: Taste and see it for yourself this Sunday and the week that follows.

This is my latest contribution to the faith column in The Rock Valley Bee. It was published this week.

Not for ten million dollars

Anticipating the upcoming Rock Valley Volunteers Day in April,
the good people at
Justice for All and The Rock Valley Bee asked me to write an article about why we volunteer in the first place.
Volunteers respond during the 2014 Rock Valley floodThis was published in
this week’s Bee

One day as Mother Teresa was working in the slums of Calcutta dressing the wounds of a dying leper, a tourist asked permission to take a photograph. The tourist, observing the tenderness with which Mother Teresa dressed the leper’s wound, said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!”

What is it that drives people to do something out of the goodness of their heart with no expectation of reward? Are they motivated by an altruistic desire to help others in need? Do they sometimes hope deep down that someone is watching and impressed? Do they see themselves as the only one who can fill a particular need that’s not otherwise being addressed? Do they think it will look good on their résumé? Do they hope it will help them grow in some way? Do they feel it will help them find discover meaning and purpose in their lives?

Without a doubt there are many benefits to volunteering: It’s a great way to meet new people. You can learn skills that you might later put to use in the workplace. It allows you to connect more with your local community. When and for how long you volunteer is probably more flexible than where you’re employed. You get the sense that you’re making a difference.

I believe there’s a deeper root to any inclination we have to serve others without expectation of repayment. It goes back to the creation account in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where God creates humanity in his image. In our appearance, reasoning, creativity, and compassion, we reflect something of God. Sin has certainly defaced God’s image in us, but it has not destroyed it. So if God is merciful and sacrificial, it stands to reason that beings created in his image also share these traits at least to some extent.

More than that, God is merciful and sacrificial without looking for repayment. Christians believe he offers us life through the death and resurrection of Jesus – the most wonderful gift which no one can ever repay. Yet he offers it freely. Therefore as God’s image-bearers, we are most fully human when we sacrifice without expecting something in return. I’d dare say it’s hardwired into us. We fight how God originally designed us when we are greedy, stingy, and selfish, first asking what’s in it for me.

Volunteering traces its roots back to that most ancient of commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” God gives us this command not just because he figures it’s good for us (which it is) but because through loving others in compassionate and sacrificial ways, we get at something central to what it means to be human.

The tourist remarked to Sister Teresa in Calcutta, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!” Sister Teresa replied, “Neither would I, my friend,” as she continued to tenderly dress the leper’s wounds.