Reflections: Honoring God with Our Worship

Reflections: Honoring God with Our Worship

Liturgy Lesson: June 7, 2020 – Trinity Sunday
Call to Worship: Genesis 1:26-28a and Psalm 8
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Holy, Holy, Holy (#100)
Confession of Sin – Job 38:4-7 and prayer
Assurance of Pardon – from Romans 4:21-25, 5:1-5
Hymns of Assurance – Wonderful Merciful Savior; Be Unto Your Name
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 16:14-18
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Account of the Lord’s Supper: Matt. 26:20-29
Prayer for Communion and Reunion
Hymns of Praise: The Church’s One Foundation; Christ is Made the Sure Foundation
Sung Response: This is My Father’s World (vs. 3)

Under normal circumstances, I would write this week about Trinity Sunday or some of the hymns, but…well…these are not normal circumstances. I would like to take this week’s Liturgy Lesson to share some of thoughts regarding our upcoming worship during this time of major transition. If you don’t wish to endure my ramblings, and came here instead to learn about the hymns, then I refer you to the order of liturgy above, where you will find hyperlinks to past Liturgy Lessons. Simply click on the title of each hymn you wish to explore, and you will be whisked away from this burdensome tome into a delightful land full of fascinating stories and spectacular wit.

Still wish to continue? Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Here goes.

We are beginning a phased re-opening of the church property and building, and there are countless concerns that may surface for each of us during this time as we consider coming back to church. My hope is that these meandering musings would spur you on to a greater courage and commitment to our worship, and as always, I hope to foster an enthusiastic and steadfast heart for worship, especially during a time when there are so many obstacles thrown in our way.

Earlier last week, the Governor of Washington State, Jay Eminencelee, made an allowance for outdoor religious gatherings of up to 100 people. In response to his remarkable and surprising gesture, the leadership of CPC has decided to move as diligently and swiftly as possible to take advantage of this window of opportunity. Thursday night the session voted to start an outdoor evening worship service, rain or shine, beginning this Sunday. This is a heartening good-faith effort on behalf of the Elders, and one that highlights the importance of in-person worship. The decision sent all the worker bees (a.k.a. deacons) into a frenzy. There are a gazillion guidelines, piles of paperwork, and more than a handful of hoops to be jumped through in order to pull this thing off. The sheer volume of details is what prevented us from realistically considering meeting last Sunday (a mere 5 days after the announcement). But after enduring a three-month exile, we are all determined and delighted to be able to once again legally gather on the grounds of our church home, even if in the interim we must remain outside the walls of the church. There will be another set of challenges when we enter phase 2 (which allows for up to 50 people in the sanctuary), but the leadership of CPC are prepared to offer as many staggered services (indoor/outdoor, morning/evening) as necessary to provide a seat at the table for our entire congregation. When it comes to the festival of worship, we are committed and so overjoyed to know that we will soon be taking communion together again. Carpe Eucharistia!

On a personal level, words can’t describe my excitement to hear you all sing again. Every Saturday night from here through phase 4 will be Christmas Eve for me. I don’t really care if we have to learn a bunch of new dance steps, I’m just glad that the party is on; and, with your voices back in the mix, the music will be pumpin’! If you told me three months ago that I would have to wear a mask and lead a congregation singin’ in the rain from that old, beat-up honky-tonk piano, I would have laughed in your face and said “no thank you!” But now…I can’t wait!

It must be said that all of our gathered services (both indoor and outdoor) in the coming weeks will not look or feel the same as they did pre-pandemic (will anything?). There will be spaced seating, singing with masks, traffic flow patterns, carefully choreographed communion, and BYOB (bring your own bulletin). The cumulative effect of all this could easily depress worship if we let it. But I would like to encourage gratitude and not grumbling. Blessed are the poor in spirit. The Feasts we enjoyed in February are not the loaves and fishes we currently have in June. But we know what our Lord can do with loaves and fishes. He is not surprised by any of this, and while we are busy altering our expectations, he is preparing to altar (yes, altar!) our hearts. Where two or three are gathered…He will show up! God can (and I pray He will) take all these Presbyterian plans and use them to rain down Pentecostal fire upon each head. If it does indeed rain actual rain during our outdoor service, and we all get drenched in a downpour, let it be a sign of God’s abundant mercies poured out on us. I am prepared to raise my hands to the sky and say in my heart, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have gone over me!” God has poured his spirit into our hearts as a guarantee, and therein are streams of living water.

I must confess during this quarantine I have had real trouble accepting the limitations put on our worship. I have thrown many private tantrums, which have made me feel like nothing more than a Christian toddler. I have seen, all too well, my stubborn, spoiled, and stone heart. I do not readily release what the Lord wishes to take nor embrace what he chooses to give. Rich Mullins said it well, “Surrender don’t come natural to me. I’d rather fight you for somethin’ I don’t really want than take what you give that I need. I beat my head against so many walls. I’m fallin’ on my knees.”

What has helped me get to a softer place of acceptance is understanding our temporary worship losses in the context of history and the global church. Frankly, when I learn of what other believers have had to endure, I am ashamed at my own fickle, first-world fussing.

In the democratic west we have gotten used to the liberty to worship anywhere, anytime, and in any manner we please. There is a general understanding that the state stays out of the sanctuary. However, throughout history (and in many places around the world today) worship has been limited, restricted, or forbidden by the ruling powers. For the first three centuries of Christianity, believers were subject to the whims of the emperors. There was terrible suffering under Nero, who scapegoated the Christians for the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. For the next 200 years the early church and the empire teeter-tottered between periods of peace and persecution. For about 40 years in the middle of the 3rd century, the legalized Christian Church flourished in the Roman empire. Then, suddenly in the year 297…

Emperor Diocletian came to power at a time of crisis, and he initiated one last terrible Christian persecution. He demanded that all Christian soldiers resign from the Roman army. He forbade gatherings for Christian worship and ordered the destruction of churches and sacred writings. Christian members of the government were tortured and executed.

In the eastern part of the empire—where Christianity was the strongest—uprisings took place. Bishops and priests were arrested, tortured, and martyred. In 304, Rome decreed that all Christians sacrifice to the pagan gods or face death. Following Diocletian’s retirement in 305, a civil war broke out to determine his successor. It raged on for almost a decade. Even so, the persecution of Christians continued. Galerius, Diocletian’s handpicked successor, hated Christians and organized a war of extermination against them in the eastern empire. Christians were mutilated, burned alive, and crucified. Hundreds of Christian men, women, and children were forced to labor in government mines. Crowds in Roman arenas shouted, “Let there be no Christians!”

The historical evidence suggests that during this time the catacombs were a place of refuge where the Christians could still celebrate the Eucharist. These extensive, multi-storied, man-made subterranean passageways were outside the city walls of Rome. The tunnels were lined with the tombs of early saints and martyrs. For generations, Christians had held commemorative services and sacred feasts in these catacombs. Romans forbade the desecration of graves, and this desecration included emotional and spiritual damage. This means that Romans did not enter tombs of the deceased without the family’s permission. This made the catacombs a safe place where Christians could meet in relative peace, even during times of persecution, when worship was strictly forbidden.

Imagine gathering for prayer at night in the dimly lit catacombs. You are 30 feet below the surface but still able to hear the muffled thunder of horses and soldiers above. They are traveling a road that was once lined with Nero’s “human torches”. You knew all these horrible stories of Roman past, but disregarded them, because for several decades your family had enjoyed favor and freedom to worship in your homes. However, just as quickly as the sun sets, you had to abandon your worship building, silence your songs, hide your relics, and close your prayer books. You and your loved ones are now living as dissidents and outcasts, having been accused of cannibalism or incest, and are deemed as a threat to the empire. You have all gathered here once again to pray in secret. You know these underground passageways by heart, but even down here you are never a breath away from the retributive whims of the local authorities, who at any moment may choose to exterminate the Christian rats once they crawl out of their hole.

I don’t know if I would have the faith to prepare and perform worship where the possible repercussions included imprisonment and/or suffering the latest horrific method of torture. When our worship is limited by local government or gets straitjacketed by suggested safety guidelines, we should measure these grievances according to the annals of church history. Our current and relatively featherweight inconveniences do not hold much leverage on the grievance scales when balanced against the true persecution of fellow Christians both past and present. Yes, singing is awkward and muffled with a mask on, but whining sounds even worse.

If historical anecdotes feel too far removed to be relevant, consider the stories of the contemporary churches in other countries. There are countless tales of perseverance in present-day worship across the globe. In Iran, extreme surveillance of house-churches breeds a culture of fear where “the regime makes you always look over your shoulder.” In Nigeria, terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Fulani militants regularly attack Christian homes and churches, sometimes interrupting worship services to shoot and stab congregants and set the building on fire. There is a recent story of church elders gathering for a Sunday service in their burned-out church, returning to sing praises inside the charred and hollowed out structure. In Nepal, there is an underground church that meets every Thursday night in a different home. Though they pray silently and sing quietly, they must always be on the move. There are similar stories from Somalia and Bhutan, where in order to share a meal together and read the Bible, Christians must gather in a new location every week. One of the most extraordinary things I read this week involves a Christian lady named Hea Woo in a North Korean prison camp. She testifies to holding ultra-secret church meetings in the bathroom stalls. She describes it as ‘toilet church’: “I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly.” In North Korea, Christians meet in small home groups or in remote areas like forests and mountain caves. They dare not sing above a whisper for fear of being discovered by police. Christian parents sometimes choose not to share their beliefs with their children until the kids are old enough to understand the dangers. Owning a Bible could get you killed or sent to a harsh labor camp. Despite the risks, the church is standing firm: there are an estimated 400,000 believers. That is nearly half-a-million Christians risking their lives every week to worship the Lord.

Brothers and Sisters, I don’t deny that this pandemic presents us all with invisible but very real risks when we gather together for worship, and this necessitates precautions. However, we must admit that our perspective from inside the relative safety of a suburban bubble can be skewed. May the Lord bring clarity and courage into our comparatively comfortable and complacent lives. May we hear his voice above the din of the news and all other “experts.” As we submit wisely to the governor, may it be the Lord who truly rules our worship. May he make us a people who are able to proceed in such a way that our deeds and our hearts (not just our voices) can declare truthfully the words of the great hymn by Luther:

And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure, for Lo, His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them abideth
The kingdom and the gifts are ours, through him who with us sideth
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever!

The Lord will grant all his people protection as we seek to honor him with our worship. In the midst of the pandemic, with all its far-reaching ramifications for personal and public life, may you all continue to be steadfast, to sing and make melody with all your hearts. While we are still dispersed, and especially when we start to gather again, my prayer for our worship is taken from the words of Psalm 138. I encourage you to pray this both for yourself and for our church.

“O Lord, I give you thanks with my whole heart; I will come and bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”