The spirit of worship

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. 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The spirit of worship

  1. Paul Dowling

    Thanks, Joy.

    The following note was sent out to the Beach United congregation on Friday in preparation for a worship service in recognition of the 85th anniversary of church union.

    Worship is . . .

    How shall we complete the sentence?

    Derived from the Old English worthscipe meaning worthiness or worth-ship, in worship we give worth to something or someone. In a spiritual context, we give worth to God, to one another, and all creation.

    On Sunday during our service we will reflect together on what worship means to us, as individuals and as a gathered community. To get you thinking, here are thoughts from a variety of people:

    Jack Hayford: President of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
    Worship changes the worshiper into the image of the One worshiped.

    Lamar Boschman: LaMar Boschman is a Song Writer, Author, and President of International Worship Institute
    When I worship, I would rather my heart be without words than my words be without heart.

    Symon Hill: Director of Ekklesia: A New Way of Thinking
    Being a Christian community is not only about worship services. It is not even primarily about them. Worship in a fuller sense means seeking to model the radical inclusivity of Christ in our daily lives, both as individuals and communities.

    Johnny Markin: Pastor of Worship & the Arts, Northview Community Church, Vancouver, Canada
    Worship is by its very nature a complete ‘life commitment’. It’s an all-week, all-year, every year thing! It must impact our thought and deed. Do we simply tack on our Christianity as some compartmentalized part of our life? Or does Christ truly influence how and who we are in everyday life? If this is really the case, consider yourself a ‘worshipper’.

    What is worship for you?

    Abigail Johnson’s sermon on Sunday was inspiring and thoughtful as always.

  2. Clark Whitney

    Great comments, Paul.

    When I read your blog, Joy, a couple of things came to mind as you moved from “how to” worship to how / what “not to” worship.

    This made me think of the startling opening to the Old Testament and the creation of humankind in God’s image. (Lot’s of debate and discussion about what it means to be made in God’s image throughout the ages.) One thing begins to become clear, however: after those opening passages, the remainder of the OT talks more about ‘idols’ then image. The movement is from “the image of God” to “a graven image” and all of what unfolds when humankind attempts to fashion idols as representative ‘images’ of some sort of god. Very connected to authentic or ‘true’ worship’ versus warnings against worship of false gods.

    Being made in God’s image, and the renewal of that image gets picked up again in the New Testament, and mostly uniqely and perfectly in the person of Christ. That said, part of being created in God’s image seems to be the ‘call’ (dare I say vocation) to image God–to be God’s image–rather than create some other image. When we fail to appropriate this ‘image’ as gift, we end up missing our vocation and attempt, instead, to image some alternative ‘no-god idol’–isn’t this at the core of ‘false worship’? Worship does change us into the image of the ‘one’ worshipped to borrow from Paul’s quotes above.

    Extending that thought a bit, if we think about worship as focused ritual, it might be worth asking what kind of focused rituals we participate in and enjoy on a daily basis? (On Saturday I picked up some summer reading; coincidentally (?) the book actually focusses on worship: “Desiring the Kingdom–Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation,” James K. A. Smith.) Smith has a small sidebar where he encourages his readers to spend a bit of time thinking about these focused rituals; he asks: What does your time look like? What do you think are the most important ritual forces in your life? What do you think are the most potent practices in our culture? Or, if you have kids, what are the cultural practices you don’t want your children shaped by? What are the ritual forces to you do want to share their desires?

    Without being moralistic, then, can I ask those questions of myself in a way that gets to some of what I value and practice on a daily basis? This is not an easy thing to do, I think, for someone like myself who is basically middle class: what kind of rituals does my life reflect? In other words, can you tell who or what I worship by following me around for a day?

  3. Barbara Anderson

    Thanks, Joy, for a very provocative essay.
    The reference to “Remains of the Day” is very apt. It does matter what/who we worship not just that we worship or are honest, compliant, and obedient to “something.”
    That is why we need to question authority including the authority of ‘groupthink’.
    I’m sure there were very ‘good’ German people who thought Nazism was a good thing for the country; it brought order and “stability” for many. However, it also had a dark side.
    However we define god for ourselves we must be aware that we are the ones defining and that the God we worship as we define that god may have a dark side – our own dark side. (I’m not trying to be like Yoda here) I just think we are drawn to certain attributes of God like justice, love, truth etc. sometimes because of universal values and sometimes because of our own inadequacies or desires.
    That’s why a community of faith can help balance us but we also need the challenges of individuals to question ‘groupthink’ in our worship and beliefs.
    The dark side of justice might be a lack of mercy, the dark side of compassion might be a lack of accountability and keeping someone in a state of infancy.
    I believe strongly that we need to care for the environment and I try to live that out in my use of energy etc. But that doesn’t mean I want to jump on a bandwagon that says that climate change will raise all ocean levels and melt all the ice by 2030 or 2050 (the date keeps changing) and that we need to send billions of dollars willy-nilly to developing countries to wash away our guilt.
    That is groupthink at its worst. It makes us worship the environment, makes people into gods who believe we can have an impact on the earth beyond God, and makes the end justify the means. As a Christian I believe we need to be good stewards of the planet but I do not think we should make idols of ourselves whether to castigate ourselves or make ourselves more important than we are. We must stop damaging the environment but painting some as villains and others as victims doesn’t solve the problems. Humans cannot control the climate of the planet. That has been changing continuously for millennia.
    There is no awe in a faith that believes mankind is the epitome and can control all the elements. There is no hope in calling for people to stop having children etc. Worship needs to have awe, gratitude, service and hope. Hope gives us the strength and courage to go out and serve.

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