Worship?

He slips in just as the organist is beginning the prelude and glances at his watch. Why couldn’t they start at 10:45? If they had a head start they could beat the Methodists to Chili’s. He likes the chiming of the hour. He thinks of it as the tardy bell that says you are officially late. He has never cared for the candles. They are a little Catholic for his taste. He yawns during the reading of the Psalm.

When the friendship register is passed he writes other people’s names. Over the last three Sundays, he has written Emma Watson, Stephen Colbert, and Sasha Obama. Someone has to notice eventually. The first hymn seems like a high church hymn. That is why they have Episcopal churches. The second hymn sounds low church. That is why they have yuppie churches. During the children’s sermon he hopes some child will say something the pastor does not want to hear. It does not happen often enough.

He has never been big on litanies. He does not come to worship to participate, although the Lord’s Prayer is not bad. He is used to mumbling it. The anthem is a winner, but the scripture reading goes on too long. The sermon starts slow and drags in the middle, but he likes it when the introduction and conclusion are close together. He is sure the closing hymn is somebody’s grandmother’s favorite, but it is not his. He looks at his watch and then around to see if anyone is going to join. He hopes any new members will wait a week, because the game is at 1:00.

When the offering plate is passed he gives money that he will not miss. He likes the Doxology because it is short and the benediction because it means the service is almost done. He leaves the sanctuary thinking, “It could have been worse.”

Somehow he has gotten the mistaken impression that worship is a spectator sport. He has never understood that attending a worship service and worshipping are not the same. If you asked him why he comes he would have to think about it for a second. If it is to be entertained, it is not much of a show. If he wants to learn something, a book is easier. If he is after self-improvement, then therapy could be more useful. If he wants to feel comforted, then the Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s might be a better choice. The truth is, more than anything else, he comes out of habit.

Too much of what passes for worship is superficial: hugs that would bring sexual harassment charges in other settings, applause that seems to suggest that the true audience is not God but the congregation, the feeling that nothing mysterious is going on, that what is happening is a gathering of nice people enjoying one another’s presence.

Those who lead worship are told to keep it simple. Do not ask soul-wrenching questions. Avoid anything that is offensive. Offer sweetness rather than the hard thinking that the Christian faith requires. Lots of people get just enough dumbed-down worship to inoculate them from experiencing the real thing. Consumer driven worship leads people to the misunderstanding that worship is about our likes and dislikes and not about our commitment to God. Worship is not supposed to be easy. If worship was easy, everyone would worship.

She has had a hard week. She comes to worship to experience the love of God that makes her whole again. At the chiming of the hour, she looks at the cross at the front of the sanctuary and thinks about God’s love. As the candles are lit, she asks God to help her worship. She listens intently as the Psalm is read. During the invocation, she closes her eyes, listens for God, and opens her heart.

She feels the hymns all the way down to her toes. The litany makes her think about the awesomeness of God. When she prays the Lord’s Prayer, there is a lump in her throat on “forgive us our trespasses.” She loves the scripture reading. As she listens to the sermon she wonders what holds her back from a greater commitment. What does it cost to truly worship God?

When the offering plate is passed she gives more than her CPA wants her to, because she knows she is not just giving money, she is sharing herself. She stands and praises “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

When she receives communion, she thinks of it as receiving the strength she needs to live for God this week.

She is grateful for the benediction because it keeps her from hurrying back to life outside of worship. She lives differently because she has worshipped, because she has eaten the bread, because she has given herself to God.

This is an excerpt from Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table, which was recently published by Smyth & Helwys. For more information, see helwys.com.

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Learning How to Eat the Lord’s Supper

When I was five years old, we visited my grandmother’s church when they were having the Lord’s Supper. The worship service had nothing to do with Communion, but after the long invitation that closed the service, the preacher said, “It’s a fifth Sunday so we’re going to have the Lord’s Supper— just like in the Bible.”
My parents would not allow me to eat the cracker or drink the thimble of juice for several years, but on this occasion I was sitting with my aunt, whose theology is suspect. When the tray came by, she handed me a broken piece of Saltine and whispered, “Eat it before your mother sees it.”
The cracker was fine, but it was the grape juice that I had been eyeing for some time. I could not let myself believe that this was finally going to happen, but it did. Aunt Hilma Joyce handed me a shot glass of Welch’s. The nectar of the gods tasted even better than I had imagined. It was enough to make you want to be baptized.
Since then I have learned a few things about the theological significance of the Eucharist, but five-year-olds are not the only ones who do not know exactly what is going on. Why do we call it the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when people look sad? If this is supper, why isn’t there more food? Some of us ask why the cups are so small and we don’t get to drink real wine. What are we supposed to be thinking? How do we need to feel?
The only instruction Jesus gives is “Do this in remembrance of me.” We need to remember the story that started it all. In paintings of the Last Supper Jesus’ friends look wise, but the gospels make it clear that the disciples are several peanuts short of a Snickers.
Jesus picks up the bread and says, “This is my body.”
He breaks it in two and gives it to his disciples, “Take, eat.”
“This is my blood which is poured out. Drink it.”
While the wine still darkens their lips, he says, “I won’t drink this again until I drink it with you in my Father’s house.”
They sing a hymn, but the tune drags like the funeral dirge it is. The disciples gradually remember their way to a tattered courage. God eventually makes saints out of them.
When Elie Wiesel was asked to summarize all of Holy Scripture in one word, he answered, “Remember.”
In the Lord’s Supper we remember. We pretend that the one who breaks the bread and blesses the cup is Jesus. We make believe that bread and juice are flesh and blood and that by swallowing them, we swallow God’s grace into our lives.
One of my minimum-wage jobs during seminary was as a maintenance worker at an evangelical church. My favorite part of the work was setting up for the Lord’s Supper service each Friday evening. The building was quiet on Friday afternoons. The only other person working was Larry—a good-hearted, mentally challenged janitor.
Preparing the elements became my time of prayer. One Friday was particularly holy. As I took bread and grape juice from the refrigerator and set them on the counter, I thought about how amazing it is that these elements become so important. For two thousand years, Christians have been taking bread and cup and remembering.
As I set up chairs I thought about those who would participate. Would they realize how much they are like the first disciples? Would they be awake enough to be humbled?
As I hooked up the microphone I put myself in the place of the leader, “This bread is my body broken for you.” How can you say that without a lump in your throat?
I reverently walked back to the kitchen to find my high holy moment shattered. Larry was chug-a-lugging the blood of Jesus. I grew angry for just a moment before I saw it. Larry and that irreverently tilted mug of Welch’s define the word preposterous, but my place at the table is just as preposterous. What could be more preposterous than people like us sharing in the goodness of God? What could be more surprising than grace that pours itself out for us?
Some argue that every meal in literature is a communion scene. Could every meal in the Bible or even every biblical text be a communion text? The Lord’s Supper is betrayal in the upper room, but it is also dinner in Emmaus and breakfast by the Sea of Tiberias. The themes of the Eucharist are sorrow and hunger, and also joy and nourishment. At the Lord’s Table, we experience gratitude, fellowship, forgiveness, and sacrifice. We learn the myriad ways God invites us to gratefully, reverently, joyfully chug-a-lug the cup of Christ.

This column is an excerpt from the recently published Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table (Smyth & Helwys / helwys.com).

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