God behind us and face-to-face

“I hate your festivals! I take no delight in your solemn assemblies! . . .
Take away the noise of your songs!
But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a stream.”

– Amos 5:21-24

This text is not often chosen for worship services. Wonder why?

Blunt warnings in Scripture about the link between worship and the lack of justice in our society make us uncomfortable. Like the Israelites, our worship can become an attempt to appease God when we sense that God is probably not pleased with what God sees in our corner of the world. More often, we want worship to be a feel-good escape for an hour from the stress and perplexity of our modern world. Scripture warns us against the disconnect that characterizes much of contemporary worship. We also lose out when it happens.

Nick Wolterstorff, a leading Reformed thinker on justice and on art and liturgy, helps us think differently. When we work in society, he says, God is behind us, and when we go into worship we face God, bringing all our reality with us. Facing God, we lament the mess we are in, repent our role in it, hear the grand story that gives us a vision for a better world and be assured of God’s blessing. Then we go back out again with renewed energy because God is behind us.

Others, reflecting on similar passages in the prophets, highlight the Biblical teaching that justice is a pre-condition for worship. To symbolize that, some churches occasionally spend Sunday mornings in community service instead of formal worship. Some point out, from the other side, that justice work needs the personal renewal that worship can provide for sustainability. Both are true, but I find the posture that Wolterstorff highlights more useful to think about a more practical, integrated approach to worship and our public witness in society.

Real-life social issues

To do this well requires that worship be tuned into our context, rather than escaping the messiness of our world to focus primarily on the vertical and personal elements of our relationship to God. The vertical and the horizontal dimensions of our lives need to come together inside and outside the sanctuary. That intersection is what I often find missing in worship services where I sense the disconnect that the prophets warn against.

My own experience in planning and leading liturgies and chairing worship committees shows that this is not easy to do. It is much easier to focus on God’s love for us and our personal response; that avoids the messiness, complexity and potential controversy that comes with bringing real-life social issues into liturgies, prayers and sermons. Fortunately there are more resources available these days, especially from sources like the Iona worship community in Scotland and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, which are now intentionally focusing on integrating worship and our role in society.

Integrating righteous anger

One challenge I still find is dealing with anger well in worship. Injustice should make us angry because it makes God angry. Anger is different than lament, which we are learning to do again. The beloved Genevan psalms, for example, tend to tone down and personalize the anger about injustice in the Psalms. We pick the positive verses from the prophets, like Micah 6:8, and pass over the raw angry passages that portray the injustices of that day. If I rephrase the angry passages in the prophets into contemporary language for a liturgy, I will certainly be accused of being too political for a worship service, or being too free with Scripture. There is no similar concern when I or popular worship music use contemporary language for love texts. We prefer the soothing tones of love, which is essential, but somehow we also need to find ways to face God with righteous anger about the ways God’s world is messed up today. And it’s hard to go from anger to love, peace and joy within one hour in church.

In May some members of the Christian Reformed Church, coming from across Canada, will participate in an event that tries to bring these elements together. A Canadian CRC National Gathering, to be held from May 6 – 8 in Waterloo, will combine honest and deep reflection on our context in Canada, the messy real world, with worship and spiritual renewal, facing God and ministry in practice, the work we do with God behind us. The more we learn to bring these together well, in special events and weekly worship services, the less embarrassed and guilty we will feel when we read the warning passages in Amos, Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah out loud in church.

A sample call to worship

In the midst of a world where people hunger and thirst . . .
     come worship a God who feeds the hungry.
In the midst of a world where people are abused and oppressed . . .
     come worship a God who calls for compassion and justice.
In the midst of a world filled with wars and rumour of war . . .
     come worship a God who desires nothing less than peace for the world.
In the midst of a world of spiritual emptiness . . .
     come worship a God who gives life meaning.
Come worship a God whose grace and love know no end.

Taken from Sacraments and Seasons: Peacemaking Through Worship from Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.


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