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Worship: Does Close Count?

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Senior Editor Connecting Voices

Mary Domb Mikkelson     Thanks, Rev. Bill…I think.  That “homework assignment” you handed out at Bible study has my brain whirling and Google working overtime.

     It sounded easy enough – “define worship.”  No sweat, right?  After all, we attend worship services regularly.  Worship is second nature to us.  Sure, folks!

     Start at the beginning – the etymology of the word, I thought.  Good idea, confusing can of worms.  In Grady Scott’s “The Meaning of Worship”   I learned that the primary Hebrew word for worship is shachah – “to prostrate (in homage), bow, crouch, fall flat, beseech, make obeisance, do reverence.”    The Greek of the New Testament uses proskuneo, which means “to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand.” sebomai – “to reverence, hold in awe” and latreuo – “to render religious service of homage.”  That “like a dog licking his master’s hand” bit didn’t help a bit.  Somewhere else I read that “grovel” is the literal interpretation of the words above (suspect that was on a dissenter’s website)!

     Other commentaries called for continuous praise and adoration of God and condemned “worshiper centered” worship (loosely defined, it seemed to me, as anything which the worshiper enjoys) as “bowing to the altar of the social gospel.”   Frequent harangues pointed out the fallacy of considering certain hymns as worship:  “How Great Thou Art,” yes; “Serve and Obey, no.”  Rejection of others’ worship styles and practices, were, in fact, the essence of far too many of the “What is Worship?” articles I researched.   The Muslims’ five-times-a-day prayers and pilgrimage to Mecca were, for example, acknowledged as “practiced with sincerity”(1) but “misguided and erroneous,” as was “the erection of totem poles by Native Americans,”(2) an interesting inclusion as totems were not objects of worship (except in the eyes of Christian missionaries).   That which was different was negated as departing from the central truths of the Scriptures and therefore without merit.

     Far more compelling was an article introduction by Lee Campbell, PhD, in which he states, “If it were not for the traditional use of the word ‘worship’ amongst Christians, substantial arguments could be raised against its continued use.  For one thing, the denotative meaning of ‘worship’ is different from the related Greek and Hebrew terms. For another, the connotative meaning of ‘worship’ in the Christian community is substantially different from the biblical teaching on the topic.” Following an examination of biblical words used in reference to worship, he suggests that “serve,” “service” and “minister” would be more accurate translations, as would “walking in love” (Ephesians 5:2)(3).  Or, as another writer contended, “In worship we come to do and give, not receive.”

     C.S. Lewis opined that “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.  And yet…I wonder if awareness and enjoyment of, say, the music (sacred, praise, Sister Act, whatever), inspires, comforts or otherwise brings you closer to God, doesn’t “receiving” lead to “doing and giving.”

     “Doing and giving…” a theme was emerging, one not unlike that of early Christianity when “Christian assemblies looked…more like philosophical associations than religious fellowships” and Jesus, when asked what must be done to inherit eternal life, shared the parable of the Good Samaritan and  said “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37).

     Back to Rev. Bill’s question…to personalizing it.  What does worship mean to me?  What has led and now leads me to God, then sends me, in God, out to “do likewise?”  The list is long…and idiosyncratic, composed of moments – “thin spaces,” memorable words and events, etc. – and surprising flashes of revelation and self-discovery.  It includes:

• hymns that transport – the “golden oldies” sung with passion, spirit and rhythm; gospel songs sung in exultation and lively modern ones, sung to a different beat (and instruments).  In other words, songs that make me want to dance through the church, clapping and swaying, make me “want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem, just like John!”
• sermons and discussions and studies that acknowledge my ability and right to think, inspire me, challenge me and impel me outside my comfort zone
• talking with God – not necessarily prayer
• quiet times when the very silence is a prayer
• becoming “okay with” sharing my faith and my faith journey with others
• putting faith to work to do together what we cannot do alone (now that’s “community!” )
• and, especially, exploring and rejoicing in new paths, new ways to know God, new ways to worship (which for me translates into a special love for our contemporary service)

     I came to UCC with quite the checkered religious background (Jewish-Methodist heritage, Sunday school at the nearest church (everything from DOC to New Thought), LDS, 30 years of non-attendance and Presbyterian) – and found amidst its progressive liberality (which I share) a deep personal faith – and a previously unplumbed capacity for worship – worship defined not in the oft-quoted words of Bob Gilliam as “the humble response of regenerate men to the self-disclosure of the Most High God” but as “walking in love” with God and God’s people.

     Don’t know if I’ll ever get it all right – or if we as a church will.  But I – we – can try…and try…and keep on trying.  As in horseshoes, close counts (or, at least, it used to in horseshoes)…as long as we keep trying to get even closer!
(1) Bob Deffinbaugh, “Worship (Part 1), www.bible.org
(2) ibid
(3) Larry W. Hurtado.  At the Origins of Christian Worship:  The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1999),25.

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