Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

On Worship

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
                 (Betty’s Diner, Carrie Newcomer)

“Church is boring,” a confirmation class sometimes will tell me.
“Yes,” I like to answer, “it’s supposed to be.”

Where else in life do you put the phone on do not disturb,
sit for an hour without a screen or a commercial in front of you,
sing without the radio on,
and accept, even welcome, the challenge
of quieting your heart and your mind,
and just be still?

Now, trust me, nobody hates bad worship like a pastor.
boring is one thing; stinking awful is another.
Unprepared, stumbling, reading scripture like it wasn’t something precious to you,
off-key and unrehearsed—we get it.
And no one is harder on a preacher than a preacher.

some of the most worshipful moments I’ve had
were in a small country church,
simple furnishings and nothing fancy,
without a pianist or a choir,
singing hymns to a pre-recorded sound track,
sometimes only twelve or six or three of us in the room,
stumbling off-key through music they didn’t know,
but every one of them earnest, honest,
participating, involved, absolutely present,
and unmistakably
there to worship.

There are moments as a preacher
when you look out on the congregation
and you see the look on someone’s face
that tells you they are really listening.
It can be unsettling and frightening to realize
someone thinks what you say counts, and is counting on it.

In that little church,
I never doubted that they heard every word,
and it mattered to them
(whether they agreed with me or not, and they didn’t always).

To worship is to say there is something more important in my life than me.
There is a Word worth being quiet enough long enough to hear,
worth the risk of boredom and stumbling preachers.
There is food that cannot possibly be enough,
just a bit of bread and a sip of wine,
perhaps stuck together like two tiny plastic creamers,
yet it carries a promise that can fill you
and carry you through the week.

Lutherans, at least, believe that and wait for it.
Baptism and Holy Communion, from our perspective,
aren’t things Christians do;
those are things God does to us.
God baptizes,
God is present for you in bread and wine.

When you can’t perceive the presence of God anywhere in your life,
including even here at church,
the promise of worship is not that you come to God
but that here God comes to you in ways you can not know,
and in ways you can know;
in things you can touch and feel
when you can’t feel anything like faith within you;
in a word of promise spoken to you by another’s voice,
when you can’t believe
in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, or life everlasting.

Because worship is something God commanded—
not demanded, but commanded,
so that you need have no doubt that here God is for you,
regardless of what you have done,
however unworthy you feel,
however unchristian you have acted,
however filled with doubt or anything like faith you may be,
however empty and poor and worthless you may know yourself to be.

Here somebody will tell you it isn’t so.
Here somebody will tell you that,
despite whatever you think or feel
or are unable to think or feel or believe,
the truth is you are beloved,
you are a gift of God in this world,
you are forgiven,
you are loved and set free to love your neighbor as yourself.
Go in peace; serve the Lord.

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