Way more than twice

Delegates of Synod 2019 with new candidates for ordained ministryLast month I had the privilege of serving as a delegate from Classis Iakota to Synod 2019 of the Christian Reformed Church. We deliberated and decided on many matters including the funding of denominational ministries, responding better to allegations of abuse, rejecting kinism, and approving a biblical foundation for understanding human sexuality.

One discussion that especially held my interest was about worship. It had to do with these particular instructions in the CRC Church Order: “[Each] congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude” (article 51). Trinity CRC, where I serve as pastor, follows the wisdom of this Church Order article with our two services each Sunday in which we seek to glorify God and grow in our faith through the Word and Sacrament. Gathering twice on Sundays “reflect[s] the Biblical practice of morning and evening sacrifice and patterns developed in church history” (Synod 2019 Agenda, p. 509).

However, Trinity CRC is in the minority. Only about a third of CRC congregations hold two worship services on Sundays. So if the Church Order is meant to reflect church practices, the question was raised whether to remove the specific reference to “twice” in article 51. Synod delegates noted a number things, including the multiethnic nature of our denomination: Many congregations that aren’t predominantly Dutch hold midweek services or early morning prayer services. Moreover, “neither God’s Word nor the Reformed confessions mandate a second preaching service; in fact, the goals of rest and worship reflected in the confessions may be met in other ways than by attendance at a public worship service” (p. 511).

At the end of the day, the delegates to synod decided to remove the specific clause in article 51 about gathering twice on Sundays (the rest of article 51 will remain the same). However, we added this next sentence: “Each classis [regional group of congregations] shall affirm the rich tradition of assembling a second time on the Lord’s Day for worship, learning, prayer, and fellowship by encouraging churches to include these items as part of a strategic ministry plan for the building up of the body of Christ.” Essentially we said that if you’re not going to have a second service, look for ways include the benefits of this practice in your church’s other ministries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reaching this decision came only after a fair amount of discussion. Some delegates affirmed that yes, we simply need to update the Church Order to align with current reality. I was impressed with a young adult representative, though, who spoke of the value in giving people multiple opportunities to worship and to fellowship together – that is, multiple opportunities for people to feel they belong. My favorite comment on the matter came from a delegate who lamented that the prevailing trend isn’t to change the Church Order to instruct congregations to gather three or four times each Sunday!

That got me thinking: It doesn’t matter what the CRC Church Order says, we are wired to worship God. As St. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Worship is so much more than the one or two hours you spend in a church sanctuary on Sunday! If we leave a worship service on any given Sunday – even the second service – with the attitude that we can now check “worship” off our to-do list for another week, then the Church Order mandating 10 services per Sunday won’t help us!

The reality is that worship does not end with the blessing at the close of the service. Instead, gathering for worship services propels us into lives of worship all week long. As examples, we strive to do our best at work, and work with integrity and honesty as part of regularly honoring God; we recognize family members and friends as God’s gifts to us and we regularly thank God for them; we delight in the beauty of creation around us and are eager to regularly glorify God for it.

Only by grace do we gather for worship; only by grace are we compelled to live lives of worship. We worship not to get God’s attention, but because God has already given us His attention and we recognize His power and love in our lives and church despite our sins against Him and frequent gracelessness to one another. We worship God not in order that His blessings may flow to us; on Sundays and all week long, we praise God from whom all blessings have already and continue to flow for time and eternity.

See the July-August 2019 issue of The Banner
for lots of reporting on Synod 2019.

Offering my body in worship

During the past few months of blogging, I’ve been looking at various elements of worship. Just as we don’t limit worship to a single day of the week but rather see it as a way of life, so we don’t limit worship to merely something that occupies our minds or our hearts. God invites us to offer every part of our bodies and every aspect of our beings in worship to Him.

I love how Dale Vander Veen expresses this in these reflections he recently wrote…

::– –::– –::

“I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies
as living sacrifices.”
– Romans 12:1

How blessed I am that God would invite me to offer myself to him. How blessed I would be even if God grabbed hold of me and dragged me to his altar! But the God of grace prefers to invite, call, court, woo, wait, allure, and at times nudge me.

How do I offer myself to God? In a very earthy way. “offer the parts of your body to him.” Wouldn’t this be an appropriate prayer?

Lord, take my feet that I may walk in your ways.
Take my legs that I may stand firm in you.
Take my knees that I may bow in worship before you.
Take my arms that I may embrace your children.
Take my hands that I may do your work.
Take my fingers that I may write your thoughts.
Take my heart that I may pulse with your love.
Take my lungs that I may breathe the freshness of your Spirit.
Take my lips that I may speak your words.
Take my eyes that I may see your world.
Take my ears that I may hear the cries of your people.
Take my mind that I may think your truth.
Take my will that I may be wholeheartedly yours.

I am blessed, blessed indeed, from head to toe, inside and out.

Graphic found via Google

…Dale offers these reflections with the prayer that today you and I see God’s altar as the place of your life, not your death.

The end of worship

When is worship over? With the blessing? The final note of the closing song? The postlude? When we leave for home?

I believe that just as the worship of God began long before I entered a church sanctuary, worship doesn’t end the moment I leave it. The heavens have been declaring the glory of God for millennia as have His people through all time; I join their ongoing song each Sunday in community with other travelers on the way. And even after I’m long gone, the song will continue. It never ends.

Acknowledging this invites me to learn from the worship practices of the ancient church as well as those of my grandparents. It creates within me interest of how the church in other traditions and in other parts of the world brings praise and lament to God at the same time I am. It also reduces anxiety in me when it comes to changes in music or style. In short, knowing worship doesn’t start and end with me helps me see a bigger picture.

I worship with others on Sundays because God is worthy but also to motivate and equip me to join creation and His people in glorifying God all week long at my job, in my leisure, and with family and friends at home. I glorify God when I use the talents He’s given me to do my work to the best of my ability. I glorify God when I see His artistic hand in a sunset or hear His power in a thunderstorm. I glorify God when I reflect His love to my wife, children, neighbors, friends, and even strangers I meet in town. Sunday worship helps me recognize how all of life is lived in the presence of God where He’s inviting me to see Him graciously at work in, through, and around me and others.

You could say that I see worship not simply as a once- or twice-a-week activity wedged into an already crowded calendar. I see it as a lifestyle where I dedicate my everyday life every day to God. What happens on Sundays helps me realign my orientation to God as I’m easily distracted as the week progresses. And receiving encouragement from others when we gather goes a long way, too. The “concentrated” worship on Sundays fuels worship all week long. That way I’m following the good counsel of the apostle Paul: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Graphic found via Google

The gift-receiving part of the worship service

I sometimes worry that people treat the blessing at the close of the worship service as just a fancy way to say “Good bye, see you next time.” In reality, these are powerful words God invites us to receive as coming directly from Him. As you receive the blessing before you leave, God affirms that you do not go out alone: He is with you to guide and strengthen you in everything that lays ahead of you in the upcoming week.

I love the article that Pastor Lee Eclov wrote entirely about the blessing (a.k.a. benediction) in which he describes it as “sort of an uber-promise:”

[The blessing] doesn’t tell us what God will do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people…  I wonder if the best analogy would be that it is God’s wedding vow spoken to his people. It’s his way of saying, “I take you for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and death will never part us.” The benediction is like God renewing his vows to us.

This is more powerful than someone just wishing you well before you leave to go somewhere. It’s also much more appropriate than ending the service with a command to obey. As The Worship Sourcebook warns, a command at this point in worship could “imply that the Christian life is only about working hard to earn God’s favor” (p. 367). No. Instead of this, God pronounces His unfailing love to you.

At Trinity Christian Reformed Church, I invite everyone to respond to the blessing by saying “Amen” in unison. It’s a way of the congregation declaring “This is indeed so. We receive God’s blessing.” I’ve seen people hold their hands out during the blessing, palms up. This is very appropriate, too, as it shows how God’s blessing is something to be received. Like a gift our gift-giving God is eager to give.

Palms up graphic found via Google

Blessings, of course, need not be reserved only for worship services. May I leave you with two right now? The first is one Dr. Neal Plantinga regularly spoke at Calvin Theological Seminary chapels when he was president there. The second one is likely the most famous one in the Bible from Numbers 6.

God go before you to lead you,
God go behind you to protect you,
God go beneath you to support you,
God go beside you to befriend you.
Do not be afraid…
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.

The melodious part of the worship service

Why do we sing in worship services? Why not simply use spoken words? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, the Bible is filled with songs. The very first words uttered by a human being are poetic. In fact, upon seeing Eve for the first time, I think Adam actually breaks out into song:

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh…”

Following their harrowing escape from Egypt, Moses and Miriam sing praise to the Lord. The Psalms were originally sung, enabling people to express devotion to God in virtually every emotional state known to humans. In jail, Paul and Silas sing in the middle of the night either to assure themselves of their Savior’s presence to because they were assured of His presence (or maybe a bit of both).

When we begin the first song Sunday morning, we’re not really starting something but actually joining our voices in the singing that has been ringing out since the dawn of creation. We join with those who have gone before us in a meaningful way to express ourselves and worship God.

Graphic of people singing found at worshipblogger.com

Second, words set to music penetrate our minds and hearts in a way that regularly spoken words do not. Mike Cosper, who used to serve as a pastor of worship and arts in Louisville, Kentucky, explains this well:

Songs have a way of sticking with us… Songs stay lodged in our memories, their words showing up in our thoughts when otherwise, we might struggle to speak. Songs are both a reference point and a tool; a resource that enables us to articulate our faith while we live in the wilderness of everyday life…

As we sing these songs, we not only pray the words, we absorb them. They equip us with language that describes our experience. We cling to them like life preservers when our faith is challenged.

In a difficult moment, it’s a song that might give me some strength and hope. I have heard numerous stories of families gathered around the sickbed or deathbed of a loved one, someone who is mostly unresponsive yet perks up as the family begins to sing his or her favorite songs. Words set to music trigger a unique response in us, sometimes all the way to our dying moments.

Third, as we sing because we are created to. We are made in the image of God – the God who sings, according to the prophet Zephaniah. When we sing, we’re imitating our Creator.

I think Zephaniah’s prophesy is the only place in the Bible where we read of God singing; all the other instances record the songs of people. What blows me away is what God is singing about – not His own greatness or the beauty of creation. I’m in His mind as He sings!

The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in His love He will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.

It kinda makes me want to joyfully break out in song.

The time-traveling part of the worship service

I love mind-bending time travel stories. Some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek use the time travel plot device. I’m fascinated by how messages were sent through time in the movie Interstellar. And I’m just a sucker for the Back to the Future trilogy.

Doc Brown and Marty McFly watch the Delorian disappear into the future in Back to the Future

You can only imagine how excited I was to realize that there’s a point in a worship service where it feels like I do some time traveling.

Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist), I feel I’m being brought back to the past. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we re-enact the last supper that Jesus shared with His disciples before His death. The words and actions resonate through history: “This is my body… This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins…” Through our eating and drinking, we symbolically proclaim “the Lord’s death.”

I need to add, however, that we proclaim the Lord’s death “until He comes,” to finish the apostle Paul’s quote. There is a future aspect to celebrating the Lord’s Supper in that it helps us look forward to gathering around the table of the feast of the Lamb in the new heaven and the new earth. Speaking symbolically, Jesus Himself said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” The Lord’s Supper takes us not only to the past, but also creates anticipation within us for the future as it gives us a foretaste of it.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper helps us recognize God’s work in us and the church in the present. It unites us to fellow Christians throughout the world who hold to the faith. What’s more, through it the Holy Spirit does something within each believer personally. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely He nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with His crucified body and poured-out blood” (Lord’s Day 28 Q&A 75). Notice the present tense: Through the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Stained glass window at St Michael the Archangel Church, Findlay, OH; from the Wikipedia entry on Eucharist“nourishes and refreshes my soul.” It is a means of grace that not only connects us with the past and creates anticipation for future but also blesses us in the present.

The past, present, and future come together when I gather with my church family around the Lord’s table. It’s a moment in eternity (and perhaps eternity in a moment) filled with richness and grace.

The acrobatic part of the worship service

You might think that when it’s time for the sermon, you have reached the part of the service where you are the most passive – just sit back quietly and take it in.

Microphone and congregation graphic found via Google

In The Preaching Life, author and Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that we look at both the preacher and the congregation as two acrobats performing a routine in the circus who both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment and trusting each other not to let go. The routine will only be a success if both acrobats play their part.

Similarly with the sermon: As the preacher actively brings God’s Word to the people, the congregation also has an active role to playThe Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor in receiving it. With candor, Pastor Taylor writes:

A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher from whom they clearly expect to receive good news. (p. 77)

And that says nothing about how we can actively prepare for and follow up with a sermon. Several ways come to mind:

  • praying beforehand for the preacher as s/he speaks and for myself that I may listen well
  • familiarizing myself with the day’s text(s) before the service starts
  • allowing the prayers and songs after the message to strengthen in my mind the theme and point of the message
  • reviewing the text and message with family or friends over lunch following the service
  • taking a practical step in living out the implications of the text and message

When both the preacher and the congregation see themselves as two acrobats, two active players in the process of hearing God’s Word, we’ll be blessed with some of the best sermons ever preached.