"Reading The Joy of Worship, is a little like hearing a vast and variegated garden described by someone who has long been at home in it. She knows the beds and paths laid out, why the plantings are grouped as they are, where they got their names, how well they grow in different soils, and the ways in which they change with times and seasons. She can tell stories of how each plot came to have its shape and situation, or point out aspects and features that might go unnoticed." - Charles Hefling Featuring an ecumenical approach to the meaning of worship, The Joy of Worship discusses the work of the Holy Spirit in worship, Jesus' own practice of worship, the importance of worshiping with others, and the practice of discipleship through personal prayer, friendship, and a rule of life. Christians have been worshiping a long time, and Micks has a rich store of wisdom and experience to draw on. Her sources are both ancient and modern, Protestant and Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican.
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THE JOY OF WORSHIP
By Marianne H. Micks
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Marianne H. Micks
All rights reserved.
THE PERIL OF WORSHIP
All human beings worship. At all times and in all places, in every known civilization, men and women have developed systems of symbolic language and ritual behavior to express their religious devotion. The very word "culture" comes from the Latin cultus, a synonym for worship. Our word "cultivate" comes from the same root. Caring and adoring are twin responses to what we think is most worthwhile.
Worship is a complex human activity. Sociologists and psychologists, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists, artists and poets can all teach us something about it. So can linguists and dramatists. No study of worship from one angle only can capture its many dimensions. Anyone who tries to reduce the rich symphony of worship to a single note is clearly tone-deaf.
Nevertheless this study of worship is written from the perspective of Christian theology. It asks you to think about worship from the angle of Christian faith. Therefore it begins by recognizing that worship is not always a good thing to do. In fact, worship can be dangerous.
The dangers of misdirected worship are forever etched in the memories of those of us who looked at pictures of corpses piled up at Jonestown a few years ago. The cultic frenzy which led to that appalling mass suicide of Americans living in Guyana is a complicated human story. It is not simply an instance of misdirected worship. Yet it is shocking evidence that any cultic activity, any human worship, has within it the potential for great evil.
The author of the last book in the Bible would agree. The Seer of the Apocalypse uses the verb "to worship" almost twice as many times as any other New Testament writer. In the Revised Standard Version, the word appears twenty-three times in Revelation and only nine times in the gospel of Matthew, which is in second place on that score. But almost half of the times that worship is mentioned by name in Revelation, it is mentioned in a negative context. The great peril in the author's mind, one literally akin to suicide, was worship of the beast.
In the code language of the book of Revelation, written during active Roman persecution of Christians toward the end of the first century, "the beast" was the symbol for the emperor. Christians who refused to give divine worship to the emperor were executed. It was therefore a great temptation for Christians to worship "the beast," and so most of the Seer's denunciation of worshipers is against those who agreed to do so. But he also indicts those who worship demons and idols (Rev. 9:20), and he hears himself denounced for falling down to worship the angel who inspired his vision:
You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God. (Rev. 19:10)
According to this New Testament writer, worship is clearly not in itself a healthy human habit. Worship is judged by the object—or better, the subject—toward whom it is directed. That subject of true worship is God and God alone. If we are to explore the worship of God as Christians understand it, we need to focus both on the God whom we are worshiping and on the distinctive worship which that God inspires.
But we should not move too swiftly into a positive assessment of worship. The dangers of false worship are too many and too grave—as any reader of the Bible, of human history, and of the daily newspaper knows.
The book of Revelation highlights idolatry as a major danger. So does the rest of the Bible. The book of Revelation also identifies a second ever-present danger that lies in wait for worshipers—lukewarmness. The author does not seem particularly worried about a third ever-present danger in worship, that of getting carried away by fascination with the ritual words and actions for their own sake; but that danger was well known to other biblical writers. And such clutching of cherished words and actions as if they were in themselves a kind of security blanket seems to beset us still today. We need to look more closely at each of these three dangers before we turn to Christian worship in the light of the New Age. Since we still live partly in the Old Age, our worship is still perilous. It is still distorted by our bias on our own behalf.
Unfortunately "idolatry" has acquired an archaic sound in our ears. We think that it refers primarily to the worship of images carved of wood or stone. We assume that it refers to a literal worship of the golden calf that Aaron created out of the Israelites' jewelry, and thus we miss the psychological subtleties of the account of that crisis in Exodus 32. Or we conjure up mental pictures of Cromwell's soldiers smashing priceless statues in England's cathedrals and parish churches, with a fury inherited directly from Moses, and we distance ourselves from such fanaticism. If we look again, we can see more contemporary versions of idolatry all around us. Have we never watched a teenager wash a car? Or listened to people who really believe in the almighty dollar?
Idolatry as it is understood in the Bible and as it is practiced in our culture does not mean just a simpleminded belief that some ancient wood carving or some current product of Detroit or Tokyo assembly lines is itself ultimate reality. Rather, it means that giving our ultimate attention and devotion to anything finite and fabricated is, at best, stupid. At worst it is self-destructive.
No one to my knowledge has ever captured the basic life-or-death contrast between idolatry and true worship better than the poet called Second Isaiah. The gods of the Babylonians, he tells us with superb irony, have to be loaded onto wagons pulled by weary beasts, to be dragged through town in a festive processional on their annual excursion. They soon go back into captivity in the temple. Summing up the impotence of such an idol, he notes how the priests control it:
They set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. (Isa. 46:7)
The Lord, the one true God, is different. He is not one who can be carried about. Instead, he is the one who has borne Israel from its birth, carried it from the womb. He does not just sit there. He moves under his own power.
Old Testament stories, often equally pointed and humorous, also sharpen the antithesis between the worship of God and the worship of substitutes. One example occurs in the cycle of legends about the prophet Elijah. The incident occurs on Mt. Carmel in the ninth century B.C. In it we are again confronted with a life-or-death contest between true worship and false worship.
Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are gathered to offer sacrifice to their god, according to their pattern of symbolic language and ritual action. One lone prophet of Yahweh, God of Israel, is prepared to do the same, according to his rites and ceremonies. Reread and enjoy the story in 1 Kings 18.
The priests of Baal limp about their outdoor altar in procession all morning long—and nothing happens. The prophet of Yahweh taunts them. Perhaps their god is off on a business trip, or taking a nap, or maybe he is just temporarily visiting the restroom. (Our translations are restrained about this suggestion.) Then the prophet of Yahweh comes center stage and we are treated to comic exaggeration. He douses the wood on the sacrificial fire not once but three times. And then he calls on, prays to, the Lord. Immediately the soaking-wet wood is ignited, and all the people fall on their faces (an action that means worship), saying, "The Lord, he is God; the LORD, he is God" (1 Kings 18:39).
In both the Old Testament and the New, worship per se is not necessarily either praiseworthy or efficacious. The real question is, Who or what are you worshiping? The perils of wrongheaded worship are dramatized as vividly and as bloodily in the Elijah legend as in Revelation. At the end of the contest on Mt. Carmel, all of the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are promptly slaughtered.
Death by the sword evokes more colorful storytelling than death by ennui, yet that danger also snared worshipers in biblical times as well as in our own. The author of Revelation accuses the Christian church in Laodicea of being lukewarm in their works—including, by implication at least, their public work of worship, their liturgy (Rev. 2:16). The author of Hebrews also rebukes tepid worshipers who are neglecting to meet together (Heb. 10:25). He exhorts them to lift their drooping hands and strengthen their weak knees (Heb. 12:12).
Today our leaders of worship still call upon the Lord to deliver us from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind in worship. Lukewarmness also manifests itself in now-and-then churchgoing, and that sometimes out of a dull sense of duty. Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers's impeccable British detective, epitomizes that attitude when, in Busman s Honeymoon, he asks his new wife if she can possibly bear being hauled off to church. "I mean, it'll be kind of well-thought-of if we turn up in the family pew," he says; "gives people something to talk about and all that sort of thing."
The ho-hum quality of this offhand invitation to go to church on a Sunday morning is mildly amusing, a passing comment on the human comedy, until we remember that worship is a two-way relationship. Is it possible that God, too, gets bored with the kind of lukewarm worship we offer? That possibility—indeed, that probability—is inescapable if we listen to the prophet Malachi's denunciation of the Temple worship he knew in ancient Jerusalem. "You have wearied the Lord with your words," he says (Mal. 2:17).
Equally as dangerous as cooling off about worship, however, is getting overheated about it. The Bible recognizes the danger of overenthusiasm for worship as well as the pitfall of boredom with it. The mere noise of solemn assemblies exercises a certain fascination for some people; the rites of worship in themselves become all-absorbing. The prophet Amos saw such delight in the externals of liturgy dominating Israel's worship, and he lashed out against it in the name of the Lord:
"Come to Bethel, and transgress;
to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days; ...
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!"
says the Lord GOD. (Amos 4:4–5)
Through Amos, the Lord rejects the offerings of fatted beasts and well-tuned harps. He demands offerings of justice and righteousness instead.
In a somewhat different form, overenthusiasm about worship shows up hundreds of years later in the Christian church at Corinth. It evokes one of the apostle Paul's most important discussions of the early Eucharist and of the role of the Holy Spirit in worship. We will return to his positive thought on the subject. For the moment it is important to notice that Paul, like Amos, realized how easy it is to get carried away in worship and thus to forget the needs of others, especially of hungry people and outsiders.
The criticisms that Amos and Paul levy against the human capacity for twisting worship out of shape, for moving it off target, have notable differences. Amos seems to be charging Israel with formalism, with overfixation on external rituals. Paul seems to be charging the New Israel with informality, with a failure to do things decently and in order. But they share a common conviction that worship is fundamentally connected with the rest of life, and that if worship activities are heated to a fever pitch, such interconnections tend to be lost from sight.
An underlying similarity between the poles of form and freedom in worship—or, at the extremes, between formalism and formlessness—will also demand further attention. Both seem to result, however, from overfixation on worship understood as a human enterprise carried on and carried out as if it were its own raison d'être—as if it were simply an aesthetic art form on the one hand, or an orgy of human emotion on the other. Contemporary caricatures of the denunciations of worship brought by Amos and Paul respectively might depict, perhaps, an Anglican cathedral choir "doing" a Bach B Minor Mass versus a television evangelist inducing unleashed enthusiasm in the audience. Although the sawdust trail may now be covered with red carpet on our television screens, the threat of a spiritual elitism such as Paul sensed in the Corinthian situation has not lessened in the Christian church.
Over against these dangers of idolatry, lukewarmness, and overheating, the Bible proposes to us a cardinal text for thinking about Christian worship. It comes from John's gospel. It announces the difference between true worship and false worship, the difference between true worship and the twisted and distorted forms of this cherished and universal human activity. The authentic article is identified very simply:
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
Accordingly we will turn now to the role of God the Holy Spirit in Christian worship, to the ways in which God the Spirit is the one who makes it possible truly to enter his courts with praise. As we noted at the beginning of this chapter, if we are to grow in the understanding of worship as Christians try to practice it, we must constantly remember the One we are worshiping. Since Christians believe in a triune God—one spoken of as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—a trinitarian structure will shape the theology of worship in the chapters that follow.
If we are to guard against the dangers we have identified in this chapter, especially the danger of idolatry, we will have to face on the way the limitations of our inherited language for speaking to God and about God. At this juncture we bow not only to Scripture but also to tradition, and hence to the words of the so-called Athanasian Creed. It is one of our inherited definitions of who it is that Christians believe to be the focus of their worship: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance." In the worship of that one God, the Holy Spirit plays a decisive role, but so also do the Son and the Father. As we divide the Persons for purposes of deepening our understanding of worship, we will try to remain Unitarian about God's substance. The imperative from Revelation is clear: "Worship God!"
THE ACTION OF THE SPIRIT
God is spirit," John tells us, "and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." That sentence from the Fourth Gospel says that true Christian worship is a matter of right relations between human spirits and God's Spirit. As we begin to think about the action of God the Spirit in initiating and sustaining lively worship in the Christian community, we need to emphasize that element of dynamic, personal relationship.
Many of the metaphors that the Bible uses to talk about the activity of God in worship make the Holy Spirit sound like an impersonal force or energy—something like an electric current or a volatile liquid with radioactive properties. When we talk about God's instigation of authentic worship, however, we need to insist that only personal pronouns are adequate. God is never an it.
Nor is God the Holy Spirit to be thought of just as a vague oblong blur, which is the best image some of us can come up with. Mentally handicapped by the archaic language "Holy Ghost," many of us grew up with an unconscious picture of the Spirit not very much different from the sheet-draped spook on a Halloween greeting card. We did not learn that in the person of the Holy Spirit we have to do with the God who comes to be among us—with the One whom John V. Taylor, bishop of Winchester, has aptly named "the Go-Between God."
This Go-Between God gives us the gift that enables us to worship. This Go-Between God empowers us to worship in such a way that our lives are changed, and so also the world around us. This Go-Between God creates a community, a commonwealth of worship which unites us one to the other so that no one ever prays alone. In thinking about worship as gift and as power and as commonweal, we need to keep reminding ourselves that worship always takes place on at least a two-lane highway.
One of the best-known medieval hymns still in regular use in Christian worship bears the Latin title Veni, Creator Spiritus. No one knows who actually wrote it, but tradition links it with a ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus, who also wrote one of the earliest-known essays on the theology of the Lord's Supper. Scholars tell us that none of the many English translations of the hymn captures the power of the Latin original. Among them are: "Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest ..."; "O come, Creator Spirit, come...." In 1693 the English poet John Dryden tried his hand at it. In his version the first line reads, "Creator Spirit, by whose aid—" The invocations continue: "come, visit," "come, pour." The first stanza ends, "And make thy temples worthy thee."
Excerpted from THE JOY OF WORSHIP by Marianne H. Micks. Copyright © 2004 by Marianne H. Micks. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Charles Hefling.................... vii
PART ONE / A THEOLOGY OF WORSHIP....................
1. The Peril of Worship.................... 3
2. The Action of the Spirit.................... 11
3. The Role of Jesus the Christ.................... 21
4. Maker of Heaven and Earth.................... 29
PART TWO / THE BODY AT WORSHIP....................
5. We Gather Together.................... 39
6. Serving the Word.................... 47
7. Making Eucharist.................... 55
8. Reaching Out.................... 63
PART THREE / PRAYING PEOPLE....................
9. Discipleship.................... 73
10. Centering Down.................... 81
11. The Vocabulary of Prayer.................... 89
12. The Web of Glory.................... 99
Questions for Reflection and Discussion.................... 105