I remember a few years into a church leadership role completing a gift audit and being astonished to find that my highest score was for worship leading! I wasn’t male and I couldn’t play a guitar. Both seemed to be a prerequisite for this position in the kind of churches I have frequented over the past 20 years. However, worship is essential to my discipleship and experience of God. It is something I feel really strongly about.
Growing up saying the same Anglican communion liturgy every week, I became increasingly bored by it. I saw the array of books in the pew as a stumbling block for those who dared venture into church and the need to be quiet, stand up and sit down in the right places similarly off-putting, providing plenty of opportunities for the visitor to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. When I first went to a charismatic, evangelical church I loved the freedom and spontaneity of extemporary prayer. Everyone was equal and could express what they wanted to say to the Almighty. The downside was that people didn’t know when to stop and actually there are only so many ways to say ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you God’! But as well as developing a new appreciation for the beauty and poetry of the carefully chosen words in the Alternative Service Book, as it was then, I also missed the sense of progression afforded by the pattern of worship prescribed for us.
Worship is like a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Or maybe it is a reflection of the temple God instructed the Israelites to build. We experience each of the courts in turn, before being ready to cope with the intensity of the Holy of Holies. The wonderful thing about a service of holy communion is that there is a build up to the climax of the ritual which Jesus commanded us to do. Everything is leading us and preparing us for that moment when we are physically and graphically reminded of what Christ did for us and how that self-emptying sacrifice informs everything we are in community together. It is what will sustain and strengthen us through the week ahead and give our lives the meaning and purpose to persevere when we are faced with temptation or doubt. Unfortunately, in my experience, worship can be like sex without foreplay! Wham bam we are expected to be in an ecstasy of praise in the presence of God no matter what state we are in and what the issues we are confronting. I am not an automaton and I do not want to deny or detach from my feelings when I come before God. Worship for me is bringing all of who I am and what I am and seeing that in relation to my Maker and my Redeemer so that I can recognise myself again. It puts everything back in proper perspective.
I think being a mature Christian is so much about holding things in tension. With regard to worship, the tension is between rightly expressing our awe at the power and majesty of God and yet being overwhelmed with gratitude at the intimacy of His love and tender mercy as personified in Christ. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord (Proverbs 14:16) and at the same time Jesus calls us friends (John 15:14). Both are true. Rather than dismissing them as a contradiction, they are like weights at either end of a continuum which keep us from extremism. I have often been called ‘contrary’. But I think I just have an instinctive desire for a healthy balance between opposing poles of thought and belief. I can’t help it – too happy, clappy and I want some depth and reality, dull and formulaic and I am in desperate need of some joy and exuberance! So next time you hear ‘but on the other hand…’ don’t just assume someone is deliberately being difficult. Receive it as an invitation to reassess whether you’re focusing too heavily on one aspect to the detriment of the equilibrium God is constantly challenging us to.