Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Big Table

The Scripture lessons for the next couple of Sundays have got me thinking a bit about worship. To say that worship is a potentially divisive issue is to understate the matter almost laughably. If you have been associated with any congregation for any moderate amount of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, just wait a bit; it is a powder keg that virtually every congregation must tiptoe around, attempt to defuse, or risk detonation.

The ironic tragedy is that this time in our lives, meant to physically gather as God’s people, is so often and needlessly marred by conflict and hurt feelings. Seemingly miniscule issues like musical accompaniment, responsive prayers, and the length of a sermon have torn congregations apart, disrupted the church’s mission, and undermined the reputation of the Body of Christ. Why worship is such a lightning rod for division is complicated and clearly a spiritual struggle… and I cannot promise you that we will not argue over worship.

But that does not mean that these differences of opinion will necessarily lead to the kinds of conflict that most of us have seen elsewhere. If we obey the rules of direct and loving communication, there is no reason why these important and difficult discussions need to divide us. In fact, utilizing some helpful imagery regarding worship might even serve to unite us and renew our devotion to one another even through these conversations.

There are two analogies of worship that I find particularly helpful. The first (most clearly articulated by Kierkegaard) is the image of worship as theater. Although I think many of us enter into a sanctuary in the same way we enter a movie theater, this is not at all the intent of this image. In fact it is quite the opposite: rather than our being the “audience” in worship, we are actually the “performers.” What we “act out” in worship is directed solely for God’s pleasure. I appreciate this imagery because it draws us into participating in worship and not simply seeking to be entertained by it. However, worship as theater is not my favorite image for two reasons: theater is not a readily available biblical image and, by definition, theater is not real life.

So my favorite way to look at worship is as though it were a dinner table. First, there are plenty of biblical examples of worship as family gatherings involving food. This isn’t surprising; eating is a universal human experience and sharing food together is an experience that binds us together in a unique way. I believe that, whether positively or negatively, each of our spiritual journeys has been directed somehow over dinner tables.

The dinner table is where we give thanks to God for what we’ve been given. It is where we are more than physically nourished. The table is where life’s lessons are reviewed and preparations are made for the next new day. We laugh, we cry, we learn, we teach, we debate, we commit, we create, we consume; we may or may not have had anything to do with preparing the meal, but we all certainly participate in it.

Of course, like any analogy, there are limitations to thinking of worship as a dinner table, but I think it’s a good way to start: it frees us to remember that different kinds of meals have different table manners (i.e. there is rarely ever room for a food fight, but we may not always need a separate children’s table) and that almost all of the business of being a family that is done around the dinner table can be accomplished by the Family of Faith during worship.

For now, I think only one other thing remains to be said: at the dinner table which is our worship service, you do not need to ask permission before you invite your friends over. There is plenty for everyone and this table always has room for one more.