Worship Changes Lives?

October 9, 2011

Today some of us are going to spend the day thinking about worship.


But what is worship?


Here are some definitions to ponder:

Worship is bragging to God about God.

Worship is an act of freely giving love to God.

Worship is the experience of being in touch with the deep wholeness in life.

Worship is when humans meet the divine.

Worship shows us to God and God to us.


Worship is the submission of all our nature to God, the quickening of our conscience by the holiness of God, the nourishment of our minds by the truth of God, the purifying of our imagination by the beauty of God, the opening of our hearts to the love of God, and the surrender of our wills to the purposes of God. (adapted from William Temple)


Of course,we do not have to be in a religious building to worship.


If we are on a mountain top and say “What an amazing view!” we are worshipping, especially if we then say “Thank God for it”. When we wonder at a new life, or the complexities of nature, when we are moved by an act of love or compassion, we are worshipping. It is something that comes naturally to us.


But it is also something that we lose the ability to do naturally or well, especially as we get older or more sophisticated. Worship is a relationship, and like most relationships, we need to give time and thought to it if it is to flourish.


That is what today is about. If our worship is to help us grow in our relationship with God, if it is to transform our lives, we need to work at it.


And all of us need to work at it. Worship is not only the concern or clergy and lay ministers, organists and choir; it lies at the heart of what we are, and who we are as Christians. Anyone, with or without faith, can study the Bible and theology; anyone can do good works and serve their fellow human beings; it is only people of faith who worship God, and only Christians who worship God revealed through Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


When we worship, we can do so on our own. But Christianity is not a religion of individuals. At our baptism, we become part of a community, the Family of God, the Body of Christ. Worshipping together is crucial in forming and reforming who we are. It links us with other parts of the Body across space and across time.


Whenever we meet around the font, to baptise a new believer, we form a community with everyone baptised throughout history. Whenever we read or hear Scripture, we join the great community of disciples – learners – through time. Whenever we meet around the Lord’s Table and share bread and wine, we are joined to the whole community of believers who have been fed with Christ’s body and blood, and strengthened  to be sent out to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in our world.


This is what we believe true worship to do; but it is always possible to indulge in false worship. False worship is worship of the things which are not part of the deep wholeness in life – things like money, power, status and other idols. False worship is worship that seeks silence and peace for yourself as an escape from the world, ignoring the needs of others. False worship is worship that manipulates people, which uses rituals and rites to mould people regardless of what is healthy for them. False worship is worship which embodies the belief that only if you approach God in a particular way can you be in a right relationship with the divine.


When we meet for worship, we could re-invent what we say and do from scratch. But we find it easier to worship together if we have some sort of framework. A clear structure helps people to know where they are going. This is liturgy.


Liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning ‘a public work done for the benefit of the people’. Very often, the work was a facility, paid for by a private benefactor, dedicated to the gods, but which was of benefit to the community. So liturgy is first of all dedicated to God, but also builds up the community. Liturgy is not about me and what I want. It is focused first of all on God, and then on the whole community which worships. (Thanks to the recent writing of Maggi Dawn for this insight).


Liturgy is not just about words. It is about words, actions, movement, music and silence used when people meet for worship, and about the space and time in which they meet.. So the music we use is an important part of liturgy, the time of the church year will affect the details of our liturgy, and the space we meet in will both shape and be shaped by our liturgical tradition.


There is a tendency to think that only church which use elaborate ceremonial and ritual have ‘liturgies’, but this is not true. The procession with the Bible at the beginning of the service in a Methodist Church I visit is as much part of their liturgy as the elaborate censing of the people and altar with incense at another local high Anglican Church. In a charismatic church, when the preacher says ‘Praise the Lord’ and the congregation responds ‘Alleluia’ it’s liturgy, as is raising arms in praise or dancing in the aisles.


Different Christian groups have different styles of liturgy, and people are very sensitive about ‘their’ liturgy. It is important for everyone to be sensitive to the liturgical traditions of a different church when they worship with them, to avoid disrupting the worship of the host community. Genuflecting and crossing yourself in a non-conformist church is as much a liturgical solecism as failing to treat the reserved sacrament with respect in a Catholic one.


The different styles of liturgy embody different theologies, slightly different beliefs about who God is and what is our relationship to the divine. The music, the words, the building, the furnishings, the artwork, the positions in which different people stand or pray or speak, and the use of silence, all reveal something about the beliefs of the community which uses that liturgy. And since those beliefs will probably change over time, the liturgy will need to change too. God may not change, but the ideas which humans have of God do change, and liturgy will reflect this. Liturgy is always in dialogue with theology and with experience.


However, people don’t all change at the same rate, so change in liturgy will always need to be sensitively handled to accommodate all who use it. Good liturgy is pastoral liturgy, which takes account not just of current theology, but also of the pastoral situation of those who worship.


Liturgy is also a dialogue between the material world in which Christian communities live their everyday lives, and the mystery of the divine. So liturgical language will tend to be slightly different from everyday language, perhaps more poetic, because it is dealing with the mystery of God. At the same time, it will not be too far removed from the common language, otherwise it risks becoming detached from everyday life and turning into a magical rite, or some sort of spell.


There are certain characteristics which are said to define Anglican liturgy. It has a clear structure for worship. It has an emphasis on reading the word of God. It uses liturgical words repeated by the congregation, some of which they know by heart. It uses a collect, the Lord’s Prayer and some responsive forms in prayer. It uses forms and words which are acceptable across a fairly broad spectrum of Christian belief; and it acknowledges that the Holy Communion is central to our worship. (Introduction to Patterns for Worship. 1995)


Anglican liturgy also recognises that there will be a variety of liturgies dictated by local culture. This is not just a modern, politically correct, multicultural insight. It comes from Archbishop Cranmer, who wrote in the preface to the prayer book of 1549 “It (common prayer) often chances diversely in diverse countries.”


The words we use are often the most obvious aspect of our liturgy, particularly when they are changed. The technical term for the form of words we use is a rite.


During my lifetime, in the Church of England, we have changed from using the rites of the Book of Common Prayer (usually in their revised 1928 forms) to Series One, Two and Three, the ASB  (Alternative Services Book) and, since 2000, to Common Worship. Each of these was recognisably Anglican, but embodied a slightly different theology of worship and also a different theology of the church.  We have also in that time been given much greater freedom to use a variety of rites, and to devise our own liturgies.


I have also worshipped and sometimes led worship in churches of the Reformed tradition, like the URC, Methodists and Baptists; and planed and taken part in Roman Catholic masses. I have experienced worship from the Celtic tradition through the liturgies of the Iona Community, and worship fed by the European Catholic and Reformed traditions in the chants from Taizé. I have worshipped in a large conference hall, with thousands of others and in a tiny chapel where the congregation was barely into double figures.


Some of those experiences have been good, and others have been disappointing. But those which have been uplifting have illustrated how worship can transform our lives and our faith, can be an essential part of our mission to draw people into a deeper relationship with God, and can be, as worship should be, a foretaste of heaven.

2 Peter, 1, 16-21; Matthew 17, 1-9


I read an article once about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond  Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ‘flu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.


Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up  to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales. We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration.


I don’t go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in  mountainous regions, especially the Alps.  We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!


Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ‘still small voice’. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and they were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.



And in the New Testament, the high points in Jesus’ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension  – all take place on mountains.


We can see why people who believed in a ‘three-decker universe’ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops are often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. And all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a  powerful illustration of the glory of God. What’s more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.


So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ‘My beloved Son’. It must have been a thrilling moment for Jesus, and for those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.



But human beings cannot live on the top of mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.


And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers  put the story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.


The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesus’ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for them to believe.  Or perhaps they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe.


Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on through the agony of the trial and the cross  to the experience of resurrection.


Many of us will have had ‘mountain top experiences’ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience.


Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with  centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with  a person of spiritual depth brings revelation and a deepening of faith.


But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley , life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubt. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus; and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.


We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.


In our New Testament Reading, we heard how the Christians of the Apostolic Age were sustained in their faith through times of darkness and challenge by the memories of those who experienced the vision of the glorified Jesus, drawing on the mountain top experience as a light shining in the dark places of life.

Those of you who have visited the fjords or Norway may have been told that, during the winter months, the sun doesn’t reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the floor, in perpetual gloom.


When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight.


And we need to build into our lives opportunities to visit the spiritual mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through using seasons like Lent to strengthen our faith, through being part of the Church’s campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.