Posted by: dacalu | 7 March 2008

Common Worship II

“It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (I Corinthians 8:7-13)


Common worship presents a common challenge. How can we, as individuals, come together to represent our common love of God? One of the hardest lessons learned in seminary is this one:


            It’s not about me.


Worship is such a deeply personal thing. When done properly it engages heart, soul, mind, and strength. That makes it particularly hard to step back and say, “How is my ego involved in this?” Still, I think it’s very important, not just for ministers and priests, but for all Christians, to remember this phrase:


            It’s not about me.


Jesus has told us to pray in secret, where only God can hear us. That is the place to be most fully and unabashedly individualistic. But Jesus also calls us to pray in public, to gather together and express our love of God and neighbor. So, if I am to say what common worship is for and what it is about, I must start with this assertion:


            It’s about us.


Six days a week and most of Sunday (or Saturday at COTA), we have the opportunity to pray for ourselves and in ourselves. Once a week we come together to pray. Something must be special about that one time and place.


The word liturgy has been overused. Among many non-denominationals it seems to represent everything bad about organized worship—canned prayers, recited without thinking, representing the hopes and aspirations of those long dead. Among Roman Catholics and Orthodox, it has taken on a capital letter—The Liturgy—and become associated with the one perfect and only satisfactory way to talk to God, at least around the altar.


So what does liturgy really mean? The word comes from Greek and you may recognize the parts. The first is leiton, the public building—it related to laos or laity. The second part is –ourgia, work. Think metallurgy or erg or urge. So liturgy began as nothing more and nothing less than “the work of the people.” In the last 20 centuries, it has picked up some baggage, but I think that the work of the people is a good place to start, no matter what your denomination. I like the word liturgy because it conveys the idea of commonality—what we do together—with an air of intent.


I add the notion of intent, because I have found commonality to require effort. I can, on a good day, extemporaneously tell you what I think and how I feel. To express the thoughts and feelings of a community requires charity. It requires a genuine interest in others. It requires openness and listening and patience. It requires selflessness. And in the end, no matter how selfless and wonderful and observant I become, I will never be able to walk into a room full of strangers and pray their common prayers. It requires time. It requires being part of a community, learning their ways, and loving their own peculiar style of communicating with God.


Whoever coordinates common worship has the difficult job of weaving together the hopes and fears of the community. Too strong a leader runs the risk of expressing their own faith—the community becomes an audience rather than participants. Too weak a leader and the members of the congregation each go their separate ways. Worse than that, I’ve been to services where I feel like my worship has been hijacked and I need to get off the plane. The leader has to keep the focus on the common goal and not on the goals of individuals.


It’s about us, and not just us present, but the whole body of people who have brought us to this place. Common worship represents the people in the room, and those too sick to come. It represents those who are traveling and those who had to be elsewhere. It represents those who have died. The central image of common worship is the body of Christ, present in the gathered faithful. The word ecclesia, which we have translated church in our Bibles, means a gathering of people. The liturgy of the word speaks of our common story and the liturgy of the table speaks of our common flesh.


It’s not about me. It’s about being less me when I walk out the door than when I walked in. It’s about being one with Christ in the Church, one with Jesus in the story of salvation, and one with my neighbor in charity. It’s about us.



  1. I couldn’t help adding this CS Lewis quote, as it was very much in my mind while I was writing.

    Advice from a greater to a lesser demon on tempting a human (the patient):

    “But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.” (CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 16)

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