Terry Hinks, author of 'Praying the Way with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John' reflects on the 'Strange worship' of recent months.
Strange worship ...
One of the stranger experiences over lockdown was watching myself leading worship from an empty church and praying at home with myself leading prayers. The only way it became real was to think of others watching too and joining in that praying. Together, despite the strangeness of it all, God was being encountered and heard and was listening to our longings, our hopes and fears, joys and pains.
The whole experience has challenged me to look again at what I and the Church mean by worship. At what point does worship become alive and connect with the Living God? Paul commented, ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ (2 Corinthians 3:6) and it’s clear that God’s life-giving Spirit is crucial in enabling us to worship the living God rather than just say the right words or sing the right tune.
Some people from the two congregations I work with are now back in one of the buildings on a Sunday morning, while others continue to watch from their homes. Worship is still strange – with the necessary masks hiding smiles, everyone keeping an appropriate distance from each other and hymn singing being replaced by silence or a little humming. Yet perhaps the strangeness of worship at present can lead us into something deeper.
The apostle Paul knew all about lockdown through his times in prison and over the summer his writings have been helping me widen my vision of worship. In particular, his mighty letter to the Romans has stretched and challenged and inspired. There’s a critical point in the letter when Paul brings to a close his presentation of the gospel - the grace and mercy of God in Jesus - and turns to our response. He has ended chapter 11 by speaking of God’s mercy to all people and glorying in the wonder of God’s reality: ‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33a). Then he starts chapter 12 by saying ‘Therefore’, a simple linking word to remind his readers of all that has gone before and how this must take root in their lives.
‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.’ (Romans 12:1 NIVUK)
Paul urges us to offer our very selves – our fragile bodies, our hearts and minds, our ordinary daily lives, our connectedness with the natural world and to each other – to the Living God, that God’s life might flow through ours. As George Herbert wrote in his poem turned hymn, ‘King of glory, King of peace’:
Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee;
in my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort
to enrol thee:
even eternity's too short
to extol Thee.
That sense of the overwhelming love and wonder of God is the starting point of worship, in whatever situation we find ourselves. It’s the end point too – and the point of it all: in Paul’s words, ‘To God be the glory for ever! Amen.’ (Romans 11:36).
So is worship strange or glorious for you right now? (or both?) Does it connect you with the God of grace and glory, to the Christian community in all its wondrous diversity and to the world in all its need or is it stymied by all the confusion and uncertainty of these times?
When we’re stuck it’s good to go back to that picture of Jesus, up in the hills praying in the early hours of the day to Abba, Father (Luke 11:1-4). His disciples arrive and watch on in awe and longing – and one of them asks, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ They have been taught to pray from childhood, yet this is prayer that is beyond their imagining, that connects so deeply with God and the world, both utterly personal and yet inclusive and outward looking too. As I reflected on this passage in Praying the Way: with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (BRF, 2018) I wrote a prayer that included these words:
Lord teach us to pray
with the whole of your people,
connecting to your followers of every time and place,
connecting to your church in all its varied faces,
connecting to the world with all its joy and agony….
Lord teach us to pray,
to you, with you, in you,
this moment, this life, this eternity.
Terry Hinks is a United Reformed Church minister, serving churches in Hereford, Reading and Romsey before moving to two churches in the High Wycombe area. He served as Secretary to the URC Doctrine Prayer and Worship Committee and contributed the Order of Daily Worship to the URC's Service Book Worship. He is the author of a number of books on prayer.
Through raw and authentic prayers, based on the gospel stories, Terry Hinks leads readers into the heart of the gospels the more clearly to see the needs and joys of today's world. This highly original book helps readers to pray out of, and with, the words of Jesus and to discover the joy of prayer as a two-way conversation - listening as much as speaking to God. for more information and to order click here.