Holy Tuesday: Worshipping in Spirit and in Truth
In the household of God, I have stumbled in recitation,
and in my mind I have wandered.
I have interrupted worship with discussion.
Once I extinguished the Gospel candle after all the others.
But never held the cup to my mouth lagging in gratitude.
The Lord forgives many things,
so I have heard
-Mary Oliver, from Thirst
Even as one trained and educated in worship leadership, the first lines of this poem remembering all the ways the poet has “messed up” in participating in worship ring true. I’ve known and been a part of churches who truly value hospitality but are often slow to realize how this applies to worship. Worshipping in “spirit and in truth” does not necessarily mean in perfect order or time.
It’s a delicate balance to on the one hand honor the deep meaning within the rhythms and movements of our worship, and on the other welcome the stranger into these rhythms and movements. At times church culture can be inhospitable to even those on the inside.
I remember on one occasion years ago just before the choir and ministers began to process into the sanctuary, one of our deacons who was also a member of the choir, remembered that she was to offer the prayer that morning. She had not prepared any words and was in a state, worrying that she would fail to achieve the “excellence” in worship leadership that the ministers harped on so.
I remember thinking to myself that we must be doing something wrong if even one of our deacons feared herself inadequate to lead her church in prayer. How would our definition of prayerful "excellence" compare with Jesus's?
For his part, Jesus was not known for abiding by the accepted patterns of communal worship.
Of course, the prime example is when on the Monday of Holy Week he stormed into the temple grounds and began flipping over tables and making a scene—much more disruptive than reciting the call to worship out of rhythm or failing to find the hymn number in time. This would continue into Tuesday when he repeatedly was challenged by the religious authorities and responded with challenges of his own. The substance of much of this back and forth was a fundamental disagreement about what was most important in the communal walk of faith. Was it maintaining the patterns and norms of the institution, or was it extending love and hospitality to others—even to the least among us?
One of the challenges of Holy Week is to pay close attention to where we find ourselves in the story. This is most important for us within the church. In the words of Kierkegaard, when reading the Scriptures, we must always be saying to ourselves, It’s talking to me and about me, to me and about me.
Of course, we all hope to align ourselves with Jesus, fighting for the marginalized and the overlooked. But it’s more often the case—and this is what the gospel writers intend—that we find ourselves on the other side of the argument, defending our precious traditions, patterns and norms.
This is a hard pill to swallow, but Holy Week is a hard story. Praise God there’s good news at the end of it. As we continue our walk, let’s pray that the poet is right in hearing that the Lord forgives many things. Most of all us church folk.