Felt good to come back from the holiday and get back into A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson. Chapter 4 looks at the topic of Worship with the help of Psalm 122.
No matter what excuses may be voiced for not going to church to worship, there is only one sufficient reason, Peterson says, and that reason is God. As much as we put forth other reasons, that one reason for must ultimately become more compelling than those against. Peterson makes the point that though we are forced into or away from many behaviors, attendance in worship is something that is not forced (save children as long as their parents decide to force them to go). People are there because they want to be.
There are three reasons that Peterson sees in this Psalm for going to church to worship, and (like a good 3-point sermon…) let’s just take them one by one.
1. “Worship gives us a workable structure for life.” Just as the place for worship (Jerusalem for the Hebrew festivals, the church sanctuary for Christians), has been designed architecturally to fit together well, so also worship provides an architecture for our souls and our communal life as a church. On the personal level, when life is disjointed and confusing, continuing to go to worship helps frame things up according to “the way God created us, the ways he leads us.” On the communal level, worship has the unifying power to bring together persons who differ widely–in status, power, wealth, intelligence, race, etc. I might press Peterson on the realities of this, for I know of persons whose lives are turned upside down by tragedy and who stay away from church for some time because of their grief. How I have longed for them to come to worship, yet it took time. Others clung to worship in the midst of their grief. And the church has struggled since the earliest Christian writings to live into the vision of worship as the great unifier (one thinks of Paul and the Corinthians for starters!). But this is consistent with the biblical vision and witness because Paul was at work trying to get the Corinthians to live into and up to the vision that the sacraments proclaim and enact for us.
2. Worship “structures our need to be in relationship with God.” Peterson quotes Augustine: “A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to foot.” Is that you? Sometimes it’s me, but sometimes not so much, or at least not as enthusiastically. It is here that the command is helpful–“To praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel” (v4) is how it reads in the TNIV; “To give thanks to the name of GOD–this is what it means to be Israel” is how it reads in The Message. I love that paraphrase of Peterson’s because it seems to draw out the true sense of the Hebrew understanding given the Exodus story found in the books of Exodus and Levitcus. They were delivered for a purpose–worship and celebration of God.
Peterson addresses the issue of persons staying away from worship on a particular week (or week after week) because they “don’t feel like it.” Feelings are certainly a part of the human constitution and are not to be unduly despised, but they can ebb up and down unreliably at times. If our steadiness in worship is to rely upon our feelings, we are in trouble. We need not get caught up in thinking that if we are in worship when we don’t feel like it, we are being hypocritical, for “we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting.”
3. In worship “our attention is centered on the decisions of God.” “The biblical word judgment means ‘the decisive word by which God straightens things out and puts things right.'” I think of Hebrews 4:12, which says, “the Word of God is living and active.” Peterson reminds us that “this Word of God is everywhere in worship”–call to worship, prayers, Scripture reading/s, sermon, hymns/songs, creed, benediction. And we become better hearers of the Word of God because hearing God’s Word in worship keeps us from reading it on our own, subject to our own prejudices and limitations. Hearing it in the community of faith means that we are broadening our perspective and reading along with the Church Universal.
Finally, Peterson concludes, “Worship does not satisfy our hunger for God–it whets our appetite.”