I'm not one of those people who longs for the past. I'm not a person who paints some particular decade or period from long ago as idealistically the pinnacle of human history. Maybe the 50's or early sixties were great for you, but chances are if you think that you probably didn't live under the rule of a colonial power, or were a person of color living in the era of segregation, or felt the weight of Stalinist Russia. I don't believe there's ever been a golden age that could be reclaimed.
The best days, I believe, are in front of us, not behind.
I get ridiculed for this as some kind of clueless optimist. People tell me I'm running against the grain of public opinion, and the prognostications of most of my preaching brothers and sisters. Catastrophe, it seems, is just around the corner.
The best of times are still before us? What about economic meltdown? Environmental destruction? Cultural warfare? Overpopulation? Violent extremists hell bent on killing us? How could Jesus' return not be immanent and Armageddon not just around the corner?
Well, to answer this, let me ask you a question: Have you ever experienced absolutely outstanding worship? A time of praise, prayer, reflection, and response that challenged you to the point that you really had to dig down deeper and really turn over the answers you have to the big questions: Why are we are? What are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?
I have. Multiple times.
In many of those instances I was a person out in the crowd, who got absorbed into the Spirit of the Living God moving in our midst. In other instances, I was the preacher, moved by that same Spirit to preach that which I, quite frankly, could have never envisioned or written on my own.
I distinctly remember one particular example. In my last church we used to hold this conference once a year for churches who were thinking about making radical changes in the way they worshipped, in their structure, program, or focus of ministry. As a part of the experience, the folks who attended got to experience every form of worship we offered: traditional, contemporary, supra-contemporary (or just plain "really out there"), and the weekly worship our teens lead for their peers. One year, my senior pastor, Dick Lyndon (God rest his soul) wasn't feeling all that well, and by the end of the second day of the three day conference knew he didn't have the energy or stamina to preach another sermon and then give the final presentation. So, that night, knowing that I don't exactly put in hundreds of hours into sermon prep, he asked if the next morning I could fill in. Me, never turning down an opportunity to preach, accepted.
That night, after a long day, I tried to put something together, put a combination of personal and spiritual fatigue was making it impossible to put a sentence together, let alone 22 minutes worth of rhetoric. Finally, I gave up, went to bed, and just trusted that I'd either be given the words I needed to say, or would flop terribly. I mean, what the heck, if I did flop I could just blame it on Dick being a wuss and my not having enough time to put something together. Sounds a little crass now, but at the time I was overwhelmed. Not only had I been listening to pastors and lay-people dedicated to changing their church talk about the real difficulties they had faced in making that change happen, but we had as a staff been facing some of those same obsticles ourselves. Our church, at that time, was both growing beyond our expectations, and also was wracked with dissention because of the accerating rate of change this growth required.
I remember standing at the front of a sanctuary, packed with hundreds of people desperate to bring the life of Jesus Christ to their communities, and in many instances, their own congregations, singing "Holy, Holy, Holy / Lord God Almighty" at the top of their lungs....
and I was moved. Moved by the Lord. Moved by Christ's gift of life. Moved by Spirit who had been invited into our midst and showed up in full. Moved by the passion of God's faithful servants. It moved me. And what followed that worship, a deep meaningful prayer on the part of one of our staff people, a rousing piece by the choir, and a reading of the scripture by a layperson of deep faith (the late, great Fred Blosser), was a sermon that came from a place I don't get to visit very often. A sermon that was for anyone who felt overwhelmed by the obsticles in front of them, or beat up by the very people they had dedicated themselves to lead and serve. A sermon that proclaimed the message that God doesn't measure us by the same measures we use. Our degree of usefulness, the level of "success" we have attained, the degree of holiness (or lack thereof) that has taken root in our life, etc.... all those things we use to measure ourselves aren't the same measuring stick God uses.
God uses two sticks. One horizontal, and one verticle. Your worth was nailed to them, and no greater a measure could ever be used than the self-giving of a Son and the gift of him to us by the Father.
There was raucous laughter. There was more than a few tears. And silence. The memories, though fading, are still very real for me. And more than once in awhile, when I feel uncertain or afraid or upset, I remember that morning when we worshipped God, and He spoke back to us.
If people at Shawnee UMC wonder what the heck happened to the reckless wildman, who came back a whole lot more polished, they should know he was changed by worship. Those collective experiences of coming before the living God to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, sometimes directly and other times indirectly, changed me.
Worship still does.
If I've learned anything in my almost 40 years on this planet, its that you only get worked up over that which you really, really care about. That's probably why I took perverse pleasure in USC getting waxed Thursday night by Oregon State. I care about Buckeye football, and so there was something about a team that so soundly beat my team, facing their own day of reckoning that made me care.
And, quite frankly, too often what often should be pleasant diversions, or sources of concern, but not ultimate concern, we care about too much. Pardon me if I sound unsympathetic or callous, but the breathlessness with which the country, me included, have been following the events of the last five or six days - bailout or no bailout - puts an exclamation point on that which we really care about. We are fearful of our economy imploding, as we should be, but let me say this... if we had cared about something greaterthan the economy, we wouldn't be in the predicament we find ourselves in right now.
The depth of our own integrity. The quality of our communities. The respect with which we treat one another. The care that we offer and receive. Our concern for our neighbor and his or her family. The plight of those caught up in a cycle of poverty who want to get out. The tough love we have to, at times administer. Looking beyond our own portfolios and anxieties about that which seems out to get us, at Jesus Christ, who, though afraid, lives and dies for a world where those who claim to be religious, love those who aren't in the same vein that God does. To worship, or rather to kiss the hand in reverance, of the one whose heart is filled with only justice and truth, would leave us by his side long enough that we could learn and experience what's in that heart, and let that passion change our own.
We are a world in need of the kind of worship that turns away from the kind of back-stabbing and short-cutting that only enables a person to get ahead at the expense of others, and toward the one who might lead us down a long-difficult road. A road that might compromise our own fiscal goals by stating the truth that sometimes we aren't called to a life where we are not financially better off than our parents and grandparents. A road that forces us to confront and deal with the hatred and pain and dysfunction we think we hide in the dark crevasses and corners of our soul but is still leaking out, destroying relationships and our own integrity. A road that is narrow and difficult, but one that leads to a happy life:
"If you want a happy life, (or as it's put in the New American Standard, "if you desire life, to love, and to see good days), keep your tongue form speaking evil, and keep your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do dood. Work hard and at living in peace with others. You must worship worship Christ as Lord of your life and if you asked about your hope, always be ready to explain it."
In a world where worship of the Lord is central and primary, the shift in emphasis goes from "my well-being", to "my responsibility". From "performance" to "truth".
I had lunch very recently with a member of our congregation who does real estate appraising. He told me that for the past five or six years that various financial entities, when they were unable to convince he and other long-time appraisers from the community to inflate their appraisals on homes in the community so that people could re-finance their debt load upward. And how when that began to happen, appraisers not from the community were brought in to give the various financial institutions the numbers they were looking for. And how when these mortgages were re-packaged and re-sold, the lack of due-dilligence done entities buying up this debt failed to catch the possibility that maybe the debt being bought up should have never been sought and delivered in the first place. That, he proclaimed, is where the pain and suffering among people who just had to walk away from their homes, or got downsized came from: a combination of greed and desperation. Of worship of an idealized lifestyle, material goods, and a chance to make a profit more quickly than should have been possible.
We are a world that's in need of worship. Worship of that which really matters, so that when the pressure of real life situations comes knocking on our door, the measure we use in our response, is that of a cross teaches us that the truth is painful.. that doing the right thing is a tremendous burden... that calling into contempt the values being celebrated will bring ridicule and mockery... but ultimately will move us closer to the Kingdom, in this world to come, and this life we live, brining life, love, and good days that cannot be stolen from us, because they have been given by the One who does not give as the world gives, and they are not gifts that can be destroyed, burned, or carried away.
Worship that celebrates justice. Worship that lifts up those who do the right thing, even as they are beaten down for it in the world. Worship that frees us from trying to prove our selves worthy. Worship that seeks to venerate, as opposed to interrigate, the motives of the Living God. Worship which provides strength and hope when often
We need to start worshipping God as if our very lives depend upon it... because they do.