What exactly makes worship, worship?
I pondered that question this week, as is my custom. This time, though, there was a snowstorm-spurred urgency about the query! As our staff wondered together about shifts to our schedule, I shared again the mantra I’d adopted subconsciously as the child of David Hull and colleague of Joe Phelps: “If we can get the essential components and people who run them there to the church, we’re having worship!” But just because cameras can roll, ministers can robe, and the building can open, is that really all we need for worship to unfold before God?
I ate my words on Saturday, as the forecast worsened and lengthened. Text conversations with other local and downtown church pastors filtered into my mind as David, Amy, Randy, and I began to wonder about the possibility of even getting together on Sunday morning. With every safety instruction we heard, it became clear that Sunday worship was not to be. Or was it?
For all around the southeast and all around our city, I watched online as sister churches explored different ways to worship God even if they couldn’t gather on Sunday morning as is their custom. Some did Saturday “snow church,” lifting all the events of a Sunday morning and supplanting them on a Saturday afternoon when folks could safely travel. Others provided a digital booklet of prayers, litanies, practices, and a sermon for families to use at home on a Sunday morning. Almost on a whim, I wondered to David, Amy, and Randy about hopping on Facebook Live from my family room on Sunday morning to lead whomever might join us in a brief time of online worship. The idea stuck, and a different form of Sunday worship was on.
That morning as snow piled up outside, a number of us gathered with some virtual visitors on a platform far less majestic but cozier than our Sanctuary. Even though we were not together, we found space to worship God. We passed the peace (via online comments!). We lit the Advent candles. We prayed prayers of confession, assured that God forgives and loves us no matter what. We heard again the prophetic reminder of the coming Messiah who will fill valleys and lower mountains, smooth roads and straighten paths. For with that, all the world will see God’s salvation! To me, our worship felt normal yet extraordinary, customary yet contrary.
This Sunday, we’ll gather as is our custom for worship in our Sanctuary, and oh what a grand morning it will be! Poinsettias have blossomed all over the room, and musicians will fill the space with the sounds of hope, peace, joy, and love made real. Together, we’ll hear again the story of God and the story of us, joined in holy union through Word made flesh. Our time of worship will be guided by lessons and carols, prayers and petitions, blessing and benediction. I imagine worship will feel normal yet extraordinary, customary yet contrary.
From one Sunday to the next, one form of worship to another, and all the holy moments in between, I have been reminded of the rich diversity that God enjoys: worship that gathers us up from all places and possibilities in divine embrace with the One who makes all things new. It is worship that holds God (not ministers or cameras!) to be most essential. In snow or sun, in silence or sound, in solitude or side by side, our worship evokes the praise that stretched one holy night from the heavens to the fields and far places. It is worship hoping to unfold the mystery of the manger before us, where all of creation is gathered up to God to behold the Light of the world. It is the worship, of course, that will become our very lives.
Together in the work of Love,