Churches are peculiar places. I have had the opportunity to serve a few of them. Some of my pastoral experiences have been awesome and rewarding – baptisms, weddings, the transformation of individuals and families. Some other experiences have been about as much fun as a sharp stick in the eye. And the churches which I have served have met in a diverse number of places: In the hollow of a school gymnasium; in a leaky storefront on the wrong side of the tracks; in a multi-million dollar sanctuary with all the technological bells and whistles; in an old redbrick church so old it barely escaped the fires of General Sherman’s army. In fact, some of the deacons in that old redbrick church may have served inSherman’s army. Speaking of a sharp stick in the eye, they certainly had the attitude and constitution for it. But I digress.
Here is one of the things that make churches peculiar: The most heated arguments in the church were not over our location or theology or future plans. No, the worst controversies I ever endured were over our style of worship. Should we use hymnals or modern worship music? Should drums be allowed in the sanctuary? Is it blasphemy to move the pulpit to accommodate the children’s choir? What would happen if someone clapped or raised their hands during the solo? These are the questions that send the pastor scurrying to his or her gastrologist. See, with all these exotic locals came an equally exotic variety of worship styles. I’ve preached after a stately anthem performed by robed choir members and pipe organs. I’ve tapped my foot and clapped my hands to the cranking riffs of old hippies with electric guitars. I’ve listened closely to the tight four-part harmony of southern gospel.
I’ve worn a suit and tie to church; I’ve worn shorts and sandals. I’ve delivered time-honored three point sermons with a poem and a prayer; and I’ve preached with the technological assistance of projectors and PowerPoint. I’ve witnessed the traditional Easter cantata; and I’ve even seen a few interpretive dance steps across the church podium. And all this worship diversity was in a single strain of the Protestant tradition! This doesn’t account for the truly wild multiplicity of worship expression that stretches across the Christian sphere from the Pentecostals to the Presbyterians. Praise the Lord and pass the Pepcid.
Which of these styles is “right?” I don’t presume to know. Our form of worship will always be dictated by our traditions, our culture, and our context. A look at how Christians from other countries worship proves this point. “Which worship style is right” is, after all, the wrong question. The better question is this: “Does our worship push us out of our church sanctuaries (or wherever it is we meet) to be Christ to the world?” In other words, “What happens when the worship service is over?” This is the more appropriate question. If our worship moves us past ourselves to the risen and redeeming Christ sent to love the world, then the worship is “right.” If our worship sends us into the community as the Father sent his own Son, then it is empowered with spirit and truth. But if our worship focuses us, even in subtle ways, on ourselves, then it is selfishness at best and sacrilege at worst. It isn’t worship at all.
The final words of the old Latin mass were, Ite missa est – “Get out!” The priests who daily invoked these words over their congregations understood worship’s purpose. When the last song is sung, the last prayer offered, and the last homily delivered, the goal of all worship is to redemptively and missionally leave the sanctuary in service to others. So, take your pick: Sermons or liturgy; southern gospel or rock and roll; drums or pipe organs; corporate prayer or contemplation; kneeling benches or mosh pits. But if these things do not translate into loving action in the community, if these things do not force us out of the building and out to others, we aren’t being worshipful at all. Does worship style matter? Sure it does. But worship substance matters all the more.
There’s a proverb that says if you love something, let it go. If it returns, it’s yours. If not, well, it never belonged to you in the first place. But had my son written that little ditty it would go more like this: “If you love something and it won’t cooperate, stomp the guts out of it.” Braden and I rescued a frog in our garage. I gently placed the little guy in Braden’s hands. We talked about the frog’s warts, his strong legs, and bulging eyes. After the brief science lesson we set him free.
Braden followed his new friend around the yard for a half hour. He tried to catch it, pet it, and steer it. He wanted it back in the garage – back in his hands – to do with it as he pleased. But this little frog wouldn’t oblige. In frustration Braden lurched forward and crushed the little fellow beneath his foot. I was horrified! Aghast, I suddenly realized that my wife and I were raising a sociopath at best or a serial killer at worst.
When I could finally reel in my slack jaw I asked him, “Why did you do that?” His answer was as telling as it was simple: “Because he wouldn’t come to me.”
Some of us think that God is a lot like Braden. If you don’t stay one step ahead of him, leaping quickly from his crushing blow, God will maliciously scrub you into the dust. God will eventually catch up to you and squash you for every evil act ever committed, every wrong thought that has crossed your mind, and for every missed Sunday service. Maybe it stems from an anxious childhood or from bad religious experiences, but we all too often see God for less than he is. We view him as some kind of irritated old school master keeping a ledger of our sins – an Ebenezer Scrooge – selfish, stodgy, and never to be crossed.
Or we think of him as a vindictive bully, angry at the world – a cosmic Simon Cowell – one who only lets the best get by, and only then after a severe tongue lashing. Sure, a few will make it through the pearly gates, but God will be none too happy about it. Or we may imagine God, sitting in a high and mighty palace somewhere, breathing threats and intimidation just waiting for someone to cross the line, to be noncompliant, so he can squash them like a bug. Or frog.
Is this who God is? In our imagination, sometimes it is. If you believe some religious extremists, certainly this is accurate. But this is not the God revealed to us by the person of Christ. Jesus reveals a God who loves with such passion that he was willing to drive nails into his own flesh to set free those living in darkness. If we’re not careful these polluted images of God can even corrupt the very linchpin of our faith – the cross. A vindictive God reduces Jesus to just a martyr – someone who finally stood up against this angry tyrant, and paid the price for it. But on the cross God was not saying, “See! Look what you made me do to my Son,” launching the mother of all guilt trips. Not at all. The cross reveals, not God’s anger, but God’s love. The cross, and the love that orchestrated it, was not designed to shame and guilt us into doing something we really don’t want to do.
It was an intentional act of revelation. God was showing us his heart. God was showing us his true nature. God was inviting us to flush away these horrible misconceptions about who he is. In the process he was calling us to himself; to a God worth believing, a God worth worshipping, a God worth loving.
Oh by the way, I don’t think Braden will turn out to be an axe murderer after all. Thankfully, a day later our family paused to say grace over our evening meal. It was Braden’s turn to lead the prayer. Bowing his three-year old head he prayed: “Dear Jesus…I killed a frog.” All was forgiven.
Several years ago, on the courthouse steps of the town in which I lived, there was a rally. A homosexual couple in our community was seeking to become foster parents. You can imagine the kickback that erupted in a small Southern town. But it wasn’t just the members of our community who were most vocal in protest. Gathered on the courthouse steps of our fair city were representatives of a religious group from Washington D.C. and points beyond, to speak out in holy fury. I strolled up the street to check it out, and what I found there was horrifying. Laced with scripture quotations and shaking the abysmally familiar “God Hates Fags” signs, speaker after speaker raged with some of the most vicious and hateful words I have ever heard. I could not believe how angry and poisonous it was.
One of the police officers watching over the proceedings walked up and asked me, “What do think about this, preacher?” I knew this officer. He was a good man but did not consider himself a Christian. So, I turned his question around and asked him what he thought about it. He answered, “This is why you all ought to keep your church and Bible to yourself.”
Dorothy Sayers was fond of saying that Jesus endured three great humiliations: The Incarnation, the cross, and the church. Jesus has subjected himself to a spastic, debilitated, malfunctioning body; a body called the church. And rather than communicating clearly the love and grace of God, we obscure and twist the message so that it cannot be heard correctly. That is what I felt most strongly as I stood near the court house steps on that afternoon. These people, exercising their freedom of speech for which I am so very thankful and for which I would go to the wall, were attaching hateful words and spiteful talk to the name of Christ. Somehow, in the convulsive twisting of the body of Jesus, the message was twisted. I felt ashamed.
The following Sunday I fumed from my own church pulpit about how we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves – even the people we just positively know that God condemns. Love your neighbor with a love that goes beyond feeding their dog or keeping an eye on their home while they are out of town. No, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, I rightfully said that Sunday, is to love whoever you come across, whoever is in need, no matter who they are. If they live across the street or on another continent; if they are black or white; if they are straight or gay; if they are Latino or Anglo; if they are of my political persuasion or not; if they are Christian or Muslim; if they are my buddy on the bar stool beside me or someone I would never shake hands with, they are my neighbor. As a follower of Christ my responsibility is to love them and not condemn.
Oh, it was a virtuous, unfettered, holy tirade; and I felt so very good after it was delivered. But over the course of the next few days all my good feelings ebbed away. These feelings were replaced by genuine conviction of heart. I realized that what had made me feel so “good,” and what eventually disturbed me about myself was this: I hated the people who were hateful. I did not love them – as my neighbors – instead, I loved condemning them. My actions were nothing more than a variation of the words and behavior I found so repugnant.
Street preachers railed against and hated homosexuals, abortionists, teenagers with tattoos and piercings, and the like. In my righteous indignation, I fumed against and condemned them. We were all wrong. Opinions, conviction, beliefs: We all have them and we all have the freedom to express them. But the moment our beliefs are used as motivation and means to hate others, we have left the path of Christ who taught us that the greatest commandment is to love.