One of the most heart-breaking books I ever read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. It describes the life of an English butler who devotedly serves his master in the belief that, in some small way, he is helping to advance a great cause. As the book unfolds, he – and we readers – gradually realize that he has sacrificed everything to a leader of the British Fascist movement.
Which, oddly, brings me to the subject of worship. “Worship” is the thing we Christians do together. Worship may play out differently among different congregations. At my former church, if you were invited to a “time of worship” you would come expecting to sing some songs. At the Quaker meeting I attend now, “meeting for worship” means sitting in silence. But members of both congregations would be quick to say that it is not the singing or the silence that is important. It’s the spirit one brings to the occasion.
But what is that spirit? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I’m hoping that some of my faithful readers do. But to start off the discussion, I searched the word “worship” in my favourite online concordance, biblegateway.com .
Awe, gratitude, service
Two themes jumped out at me. First, through much of the Old Testament and some of the New, worship is described as a response of awe, gratitude or surrender. God speaks, or acts, or reveals Himself. And whoever is present – an individual, a household, the army, the nation – bows down and worships Him.
Over and over, these phrases are attached to worship: “bowed down and worshipped,” “knelt and worshipped,” “fell down and worshipped,” “clasped his feet and worshipped.” It is the picture of people throwing themselves down, and acknowledging Someone greater than one’s self.
And after these acts of worship, comes service, gift-giving, vows of obedience, sacrifice and gladness. These are also part of worship – the long, steady response after the first awe-struck moments.
Here’s the second theme. I think if I did a count, I would find that warnings against worshipping far outnumbered encouragements to worship. We are warned against worshipping the stars, sun and moon because these are only things created by God, not God Himself. We are warned against worshipping things we create ourselves, such as things made of gold or wood, because they are powerless to help us. We are warned against worship that leads to despicable things, like sacrificing our children. And we are warned simply not to worship anything that is not God, because one cannot wholeheartedly serve two masters.
My own false gods
So what does this mean for me? I am not tempted to worship stars or statues. I’m not tempted to chase after other gods. Why would I? I believe there is only one God. And although there may be many paths to knowing this God, I don’t think I’ll find Him by sampling other religions or making up my own. Indeed, the “sampling” approach to religion – where I seek out a god who will best serve my needs – is the exact opposite of worship. To me, the best path to knowing God is to go deeper into my own faith, just as the best path to knowing about marriage is to go deeper into my own than to start sampling the field.
But there is a warning in these scriptures that I do need to heed. It’s the warning contained in The Remains of the Day: do not give your life in service to that which is unworthy of you.
And how do we distinguish what is “God’s work” from that which is unworthy of us? In some ways, it is summarized by the Bible’s warnings against false gods. Don’t worship the things your create yourself: your work, your family, your home, your ideas about your own identity. Don’t devote yourself to a cause that prompts you to do despicable things: hiding the truth; ignoring the needy; denying the basic humanity of those you see as enemies, or who simply disagree with you.
But that’s not the entire answer. The butler in The Remains of the Day worked honestly and innocently, and still served a “false god.” So I’m hoping you will be able to take this question deeper.
Friends, what does worship mean to you? And especially, if you understand what Jesus meant when he said, “the day is coming and is now here, when you will worship in spirit and in truth,” let me know! That’s the topic I would have loved to write about if I had known what to say.