THE BLOG

When Does Worship Happen?

01/21/2012 08:25 am ET | Updated Mar 22, 2012

I am a proud ordained Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Growing up in the National Baptist Church, it has been rather difficult in shifting from more spontaneous worship to more planned and rehearsed type of expressions. As a child, I would be alarmed when one was asked to give announcements and instead gave a sermon. But experiencing two divergent forms of worship has caused me to ponder on when does worship happen?

Worship happens wherever God is radically present, and the result is unplanned, unrehearsed, and uncontrollable.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go, there was no God-given task the ducks could not accomplish. With those wings they could soar into the presence of God himself. Shouts of "Amen" were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard -- and waddled back home.

Too often, would-be worshipers waddle away from worship as they waddled in -- unchallenged and unchanged. Perhaps it is because we are creatures of habit. Week after week, congregants sit in the same place in the same pew, following an order of service that they know by heart, listening to a sermon, which they assume is intended primarily for someone else.

In the book of Isaiah, the call to prophetic service came to Isaiah during an annual celebration of worship. It was for him an encounter with God so profound that afterward he could no longer see himself or his people in quite the same way. To Isaiah it seemed that the entire building shook with the presence of God. But have you ever wondered about the others who were present during that same worship service? Did they have a similar experience to Isaiah's? Did this act of worship affect how they viewed themselves? How they viewed God? How is it that two persons can hear the same music, the same prayers, the same sermon, and one of them be utterly transformed by the experience, while the other is unmoved? What makes the service of worship a profound encounter with God for one and a routine ritual for another?

The answer is found in that the radical presence of God cannot be controlled or programmed; it can only be experienced. But that experience can come to us anywhere, anytime. For Isaiah it happened in the temple, but God does not limit holy moments to holy places. For Moses God's radical presence was discovered on the backside of a wilderness; for Elijah it was in a mountain hideout; for Saul it was on a bounty-hunting excursion to Damascus. And who would have thought that the most radical presence of God imaginable, the Incarnation, would have begun among the distinctive smells of a barn and ended among the death throes of criminals?

Worship happens whenever human inadequacy is met by the grace of God. The radical presence of God caused Isaiah to recognize, perhaps for the first time, the spiritual shortcomings of himself and his fellow Judahites. Under King Uzziah, the nation of Judah had experienced an almost unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Life was good, the economy was robust, the polls showed high consumer confidence, and all of the economic indicators pointed to more of the same. What is more, all of this had been accomplished through human effort and ingenuity.

One can imagine the spiritual satisfaction of Isaiah and his fellow priests as they believed they had captured the essence of God in their religious ceremony. However, as Isaiah was soon to learn, when one confronts the radical presence of God, all claims to wisdom, goodness, and self-sufficiency melt away, and one is left wishing for a pair of seraph wings to hide the nakedness. Isn't that, also, the message of the parable of the publican and the sinner? The one who stands to claim special privilege based on education, religious orthodoxy, and meritorious behavior ends up talking to himself, while the other is met by the radical presence of God because he/she knows that in the presence of the Holy, mercy is one's only hope.

No one so touched by God can remain still. No one who has experienced the grace of God can remain silent. No one who hears in their heart the divine call for service can do anything less than respond with gratitude, "Here am I; send me!" And in moments like this, worship happens.