On Canceling Worship

As a serious winter storm is bearing down on us, it’s been interesting to wrestle with whether to cancel worship. It raises practical questions, certainly, but there’s a lot of gray in between the obvious go- and no-go-situations. And underneath the gray lie our basic understandings of worship and the church.

There is a range of points of view about what it is we’re doing when we gather to worship, and that shows up in the ways we approach the question of closing. (Keep in mind, no one would use this language directly; these points of view are carefully dressed up in proper religious language.)

  • On one end of the spectrum, there are the those who see Sunday gatherings as a weekly class session or club meeting. Canceling is easy in this case; there will be another session next week. It’s an entirely practical matter.
  • On the other end of that spectrum are the folks who see Sunday gatherings as a mystical date with God. Canceling is almost unthinkable; it’s like standing God up. How could we do that?! God is there, waiting for her lover. We couldn’t possibly leave her there, all by herself, tear running down her face, wondering where we are, questioning our love for her.
  • Then there are those who see Sunday gatherings as a duty commanded by a demanding God who’s keeping track of attendance. Cancel at your own peril. One more X on the attendance sheet will most certainly lead to The Look from God, that slightly sad, slightly mad, very scornful “I’m so disappointed in you” Look we all remember from when we were children. It will take us months to regain the trust we destroy if we don’t show up this week.
  • There are folks see Sunday gatherings as an achievement we use to demonstrate our holiness. These are the superheroes of righteousness who find themselves bragging with gems like, “I haven’t missed a Sunday in years!” or “I’ll be there no matter what. You may choose not to come, but I’ll be there even if I need to get a ride with Fred on his snowmobile.” They have adopted the USPS’s “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night…” Canceling is a sign of spiritual weakness or lack of commitment.
  • There are people who see Sunday gatherings as the only venue for worship and spiritual connection. For them, it’s very difficult to cancel because we’re taking away people’s only chance to connect to God for the week. It’s like church is the only recharging station for their lives; we owe it to them to be open so that they can connect to God. What happens if they can’t plug in on Sunday morning? How will their spiritual batteries last?
  • There are those who see Sunday as the revenue day; closing the church on Sunday is akin to closing the cinema on Friday night or the mall over a weekend—too much income would be lost. For them, the masses can’t be trusted to adapt their giving; cancellation is a last resort because it’s too financially costly.

Another spectrum on which all of these perspectives fit: how important is Sunday morning worship? All of the above POVs would fall at different points on the importance spectrum, for different reasons. For some, Sunday worship is the only reason the church exists. For others, it’s simply one activity among many. For some, the church’s activity is the most important thing that happens in the realm of God. For others, church activity is one piece in God’s mosaic self-portrait.

This question of worship cancellation brings to the surface our basic paradigms of what church is. Is it a social service agency—the last hope for people in need? Is it a spiritual mall or a spiritual club—a consumer service provider competing for customers or members? Is it an institution like a business or governmental agency that trades in size, influence, and image? Is it a family, a community, a living organism? Sure, in some ways, church is all of these; but at the core, which of these carries the day for you? Strip away the religious language (put down the ‘Body of Christ’ and the ‘incarnation’ and ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘mission’ and try to use non-church terms) and see what emerges when you try to name it: what is church? What’s it for?

How we answer this question says a lot about who we understand God to be. And how we answer this question drives our activity. How we answer this question matters.

For me, this episode of canceling worship reveals several layers of my POV about church. Every one of the perspectives above is familiar to me at some level. All of those voices are in my head to some degree.

There is a part of me that feels the obligation and is afraid of the scolding disapproval that comes with the charge of laziness and shirking work responsibility. I feel the tug toward being at work at all costs to earn the ‘hard worker’ badge and avoid the possibility of criticism on that front. That same part of me buys into the assumption that the pastor should be the holiest disciple in the church, the most committed, the one working hardest, the first one in and the last one out. ‘Even if no one shows up, the pastor was there worshiping’ sounds right in some part of my soul. That same part of me wants to see Sunday morning worship as the very center of God’s spiritual universe, the pivot around which everything revolves. And I am at the center, scripting, facilitating, directing the Divine drama that is the point of all existence. This part of me is the child, perpetually trying to earn love, forever replaying the anxious childhood game of ‘if I’m a good boy, you’ll approve of me, right?’ And it’s the adolescent, needing the security of self-satisfaction and importance. I am okay as long as I am competent and I matter to others. To this part of me, choosing to cancel worship is like facing a firing squad. This part of me is flinching, just waiting for the shots to be fired.

Another part of me (the part that is more spiritually grounded) sees the church as an organism, global and apart from time as well as local and now. The church is part of the living presence of the Divine, and I get to be part of that. It’s much, much bigger than I can ever know. I’m a speck in the whole, one star in the galaxy. My church is 100 stars in 100 billion. The light I shine matters, and it doesn’t. The light of 100 starts is significant—that’s a lot of light!—and it’s not. I am one gallon in the Mississippi River and my church is 100 gallons. What we do matters, but it matters in the way that ‘chunk’ of water matters in the flowing river. That 100 gallons has an effect on the bank as it flows by, and the river continues to flow regardless of the presence or absence of those 100 gallons. This part of me is free from the grandiose illusions about my importance and the importance of what we do on Sunday morning. Through this lens, I see the church as a family, intending to gather every week to be together and access that greater Presence that we experience when we’re together. And if we’re not able to meet some Sunday, or if we choose to forego our gatherings for a time for the sake of a particular purpose, no big deal. The family is still the family. The organism exists in relationships, not space. Our connection to the Divine happens in myriad ways throughout the week and in every place we inhabit, not just Sunday morning at the church building. Sunday morning is not a consumer product, and the church is not a service provider. The church is Christ living in the world. All are welcome to participate in that Divine life, both through Sunday gatherings and every other way the family of God lives.

Today the life of God goes on uninterrupted, in me, in our congregation, in our neighborhood, in the world, despite the fact that worship is cancelled. Thanks be to God!


New Year’s Resolutions & Tulip Bulbs

’Tis the season for new year’s resolutions. To me, they always come with a tone of get your life in order. Plot out the course for your growth in 2014. Figure out how to fix what’s messed up about you and commit to it. Goals. Targets.

This approach can work well in many settings, like strategic planning and behavioral change. But goals and targets and resolutions don’t fit in the spiritual life in the same way. Resolutions are about control, because I choose the goal. I diagnose my deficiency and find a path to eliminating it. Even if I’m open to help along the way, whether from friends or professionals or God, I’m still the captain of my ship, plotting the course myself.

This was my understanding for a long time of what it meant to be human. I thought that God made me halfway, and my job as a human being was to finish it. Figure out what’s missing, learn it, master it. Fill in the holes in myself. Complete the job. I was given a lifetime to accomplish this task. Then I would be complete. …And lovable. Life is the pursuit of being right and being loved because of it.

When this is the lens through which I see life, there’s a lot at stake in my competence. There’s a lot at stake in my being right in a disagreement. There’s a lot at stake in winning.

Then, a few years ago, the seed of a new paradigm was planted, by my spiritual director, I think. What if I am a flower bulb?  What if human beings are created whole and complete as they are, with growth ahead? What if the raw materials for the flower I am meant to be are already present in me? I’m not incomplete, I’ve just been given a journey of growth and becoming—not as an obligation, but as a gift. And that journey requires the input, the companionship of others. The bulb will need more materials from the soil, the sun, the rain in order to become a tulip. And, at the same time, the design for the future flower is already present in the bulb. With the cooperation of weather and soil, the Creator’s intention for beauty will emerge.

The Creator chose the final expression. The Creator designed the colors and the pattern of the petals. The telos—a biblical Greek word meaning the end, the target, the goal—is God’s.

In this season of resolutions, I’m reminded that the spiritual journey operates differently. For disciples, it’s about submitting to a process of growth rather than setting concrete goals/end points, because the telos is God’s.

My part is to just do the next right thing. I think of Abraham, who was invited to leave his home to go wherever God would show him. He had no idea where the journey would lead, except that it involved promise, and he was invited to trust God on the journey. I think of the Israelites, who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, unable to plot their course because the location of the promised land was unknown to them. I think of Mary & Joseph, who were invited to welcome a child without any idea what was ahead, just a promise that this child would be part of God’s redemption of the world.

As I begin a new year, I’m grateful for the reminder that I’m not the creator of my self. As much as I may feel like mastery is necessary to be loved, I’m the bulb, created complete as I am—with the promise of growth and beauty ahead. And I don’t need to know where it’s all headed; I just grow, one step at a time.