When you hear the words "passionate worship", what picture comes up in your mind? I see a person, eyes closed and arms flung high, singing with all their heart, utterly lost in the moment. But then - somehow - it also makes me think of the opposite. The other person, hands shoved tight into pockets, feet shuffling, who watches that passionate person and thinks, 'What's wrong with me? Why don't I feel like that?'
Maybe it's because passion is a two-edged word. We use it to mean a great love, a fervent adoration. But the root of it comes from passio, meaning suffering, enduring - that's why we talk about the Passion of Christ. Sometimes we come to worship full of joyful emotion. And sometimes life is so grey and bleak that it takes all of our energy merely to walk into church, let alone do anything enthusiastic when we get there. So if we talk about passionate worship, maybe we need to mean both kinds. The heights and the depths.
The evangelical/charismatic churches are pretty good at knowing what to do with people who turn up ready to throw themselves into a praise party. Sometimes other traditions of the church are better at knowing what to do with the person who is barely hanging on. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, writes about the power of liturgy and prayer offices. She says:
When we pray the prayers we've been given by the church - the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord's Prayer, the Daily Office - we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves. ... In times of deep darkness, the cairns that have kept me in the way of Jesus were the prayers and practices of the church.
At its best, worship of all descriptions gives us words and music which express what we do believe and what we want to believe; who we know God to be and who we trust he is; who we are and who we want to be. It encompasses the whole range of passion.
You know what I only realised the other week?
Jesus didn't say much at all about worship.
At least, if you search for the word worship in the gospels, you come up with precisely one conversation - the one where he deals with the Samaritan woman's somewhat antagonistic question about the correct location for worshipping God. As far as I can tell, Jesus assures her that the place doesn't matter if you are worshipping "in spirit and truth".1
And while Jesus regularly had hordes of people following him around, he never seems to have taken the opportunity to lead them in song, or even hold a mass prayer meeting. Nor did he encourage them to attend synagogue more regularly. Jesus himself went to synagogues quite frequently, but I get the impression he didn't regard that as the heart and soul of his religious observance. It was more that people gathered at synagogues, so he taught them there; but if they gathered in someone's house or out in the countryside, he was just as happy teaching there as well. For Jesus, his preferred time (or perhaps only available time) to talk to God was on his own, outside, in the middle of the night.
On the other hand, Jesus had quite a lot to say about various religious practices. For example:
If your sabbath observance means that people stay in pain when they could be healed, or stay hungry when they could be fed, you're doing something wrong.2
You're better off hiding in a cupboard to pray, than praying just so that other people think you're holy.3
Don't even bother coming to church if you know you've done wrong to someone and you need to apologise. Go and sort that out first.4
Your worship might look perfect on the outside, but it's the inside that really counts.5
I guess, then, that Jesus would say that worship only makes sense in the context of how we live the rest of our lives. We can only worship right if our hearts are right; and the only way we can tell if our hearts are right is by looking at how we relate to other people. It sounds strange to say this, but it seems like, for Jesus, worship isn't important as a thing in itself. It should be as simple and non-showy as possible, and probably mostly private.
That's interesting, isn't it? I've never thought much about how Jesus worshipped before. But I guess he knows how we worship, too, whatever we do. And I can imagine if he walked into a church, he'd smile at the five-year-old dancing with a streamer down the aisle. He'd be glad about the musicians who are playing the best they can, and the congregation singing with all their hearts. But he'd be looking especially for the person who was sitting there thinking, 'God, I don't even know what I'm doing here, but - well, I'm here.'
And he'd say, 'Well, here I am, too. Let's just sit and be here together for a while.'
Image credits: Pixabay
1 John 4:24
2 Mark 2:23-3:6
3 Matthew 6:5-6
4 Matthew 5:23-24
5 Luke 11:37-41