Recently I was privileged with the task of transforming a worship module that had been written for clergy worship planners into one that was lay-person friendly. The task proved to be more difficult that I had thought it would be. We who plan and lead worship are so immersed in what we are doing that I wonder if we have a difficult time understanding how our programming and performances are actually received by the ordinary God-fearing churchgoer that attends weekly worship hoping for a word from the Lord? I continue to wonder if our tendency to overvalue off the chart worship may have inadvertently produced a clan of spectator-worshippers who come expecting to be overwhelmed each week (by us). If our worship has too much focus on us – what we do, how we do it, how well we do it – and not nearly enough focus on the God who calls us to worship.
Don Saliers, in Worship and Spirituality (1996), reminds us that God’s call to worship is a call to remember. When it is time for a sabbatical, I would love to take more time to explore the symbiotic relationship between faith and memory. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people were called to remember the mighty works of God in their lives. They were called out people through Abraham and Sarah. They were saved from starvation and relocated to Egypt. When things there took a turn for the worse, they were delivered from Egypt and sent on a journey with God that led to a land of promise. Every succeeding generation of God-followers was commanded to learn and carry the story forward. Remembering this story out loud – repeatedly – was an important part of Old Testament worship.
In the New Testament, the human family made still more memories with God. From the Incarnation to the Atonement and all points between, we have much more to remember, much more to add to the story of humankind’s interactions with God. And, somewhere in the mix is your own personal story as well as the story of your worshipping community. When we are called to worship we are called to revisit and rehearse any or all of these interlaced memories: how we came to be called God’s people, how you or I came to be called God’s child, what has happened over the years to God’s children who worship in this field or on this corner….
Remembering is so much more, however, than a feel-good walk down memory lane. Faith memory is a reliable foothold for climbers. Remembering out loud enables us individually and collectively to find a place on the journey that is closer to God. Oft-rehearsed memories are more likely to traverse the huge chasm between head and heart. They remind us of our faith in times of trouble and provide comforting reasons to continue to trust in the God who has always been trustworthy and All-Wise.
In the midst of this remembering, we are called to worship at some midpoint between memory and the kind of faith that is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia. This midpoint is an uncomfortable, tense place because it is much easier to dwell in nostalgic memories of the way things used to be than to adjust to the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Would you be shocked to discover that harsh economic times, political shenanigans, oppression and decaying public values were frequently a part of our world during the supposed golden ages of worship of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries? The same could be said of the worship of first—third century Christians. Yet, how many 21st-century Christians are known more for their pessimism about the future than for their hope? Could it be that some of us have stopped remembering?
Remembering is an act of faith that brings us courage to believe that the pundits of this world do not have the last word. We are citizens of the Reign of God where partly cloudy and threatening to rain might easily become a cloudless day to suit God’s ultimate plan. How do we know? We have memories and testimonies (both written and oral) as proof!
So now, pastors and worship planners, what will worshippers who take part in your next worship gathering be invited to remember?