When I was a kid, I was taught that we had to go to church was because God said so: “Keep holy the Sabbath.” That kind of reasoning works well with children. However, once we mature, we move beyond mere “rule keeping” to a point where we decide to act according to “higher values.” When it came to keeping Sabbath, I realized that its purpose was not to please God – God didn't need my prayers or my worship – but what Jesus taught: that Sabbath practices were made for our good. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you some thoughts about why we gather as a Church community on "the Lord's Day," and how we might better fulfill God's purposes in this great gift.
"Back in the day" society reinforced Sabbath keeping by things like "blue laws," which forbade general commerce. Most stores were closed and business was generally not conducted. Slowly, these restrictions were relaxed, especially in the area of retail sales. About the only remaining restriction in Pennsylvania is in auto sales! (Why this remains a restriction baffles me, to be sure!) This came about, in part, because, in our increasingly diverse society, not everyone's Sabbath observance was Sunday. Jewish people observe Saturday. Muslims observe Friday. And some religious traditions don't have a formal Sabbath at all.
To be sure that we did not favor one religion over another (the heart of our First Amendment religious freedoms), we began to take a more secular approach. Even so, Sunday remains for many people a day off from work. However, because of the availability of so many more activities, it has also become a day for doing many things we can't do during our regular work week. Its specialness has eroded into a day of convenience for errands and other things we can't fit to in our busy lives.
But this is where we have run into a bit of trouble: the notion of a Sabbath day - a day set aside for family, for friends, for God -- has transformed into a day of unscheduled activity.
Regrettably, too often family and friends have given way to lawns and sports. And God? For many people, well, "God will understand how busy we are."
Actually God DOES understand - that's exactly why he gave us the opportunity for Sabbath-keeping. As Genesis puts it, "then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done."
By now, we all understand that God doesn't "get tired" or "need" to take a nap. What the Genesis story is telling us is that we do! Scripture recounts how God rested to teach us that a time to rest from the busy work of acting as God’s partners in creating God’s kingdom is a good thing. That brings us to the present matter.
Over the last several months, attendance at Sunday common worship has been declining in our parish. This has become a great concern of mine. The concern grows out of a deep conviction that this may be a symptom of a spiritual malaise that might be settling on our parish family.
"But with all this talk of Sabbath rest, Father, why would you think to discuss yet one more activity for us to consider?" Good question. But I believe there is a good answer that is thoroughly consistent with and deeply rooted in this notion of Sabbath rest. In fact, I believe there are five good reasons to make worship in common a part of our Sabbath observance. Let’s call them the Five A’s of Sabbath-Keeping:
During the rough and tumble of the week, the hard knocks of life in our broken world can disorient us about what’s truly important. We need our common prayer and worship to clear our head, to recalibrate our spirit, and to jumpstart our weary heart.
A second reason is the dynamic of community — which can provide us with assurance of the love and support of others in our daily lives. The heroes we encounter in life became heroes in part because they participated in faithful communities that fostered and strengthened their values and beliefs. As humans, we were not made to stand solo with no fellows. God made us for community – for one another. Remember that it was God who said that it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2) and Jesus showed us that the best way to remain connected to him was to be connected to one another (John 15). It is when we join together to hear and reflect on God's word and to share at the Lord's Table that we make sure we follow this wisdom.
Common prayer plays an indispensable part in our sanctification — that is, our progressive growth in conforming ourselves to the image of Christ (Romans 8). Common prayer is not only for our “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14), but also for us to behold Jesus together, as “we all . . . are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3). There are times — and we may already have experienced them — when the Holy Spirit takes the Scripture read, the prayer spoken, the chorus sung, or the truth preached and presses it right to the point of our need in a way that not merely informs our Christian walk, but heals our flagging spirits.
One important distinction between common and private prayer is the place of our initiative. Common worship reminds us that our faith is fundamentally a grace, that it is received, not taken to ourselves on our own initiative. In private devotions, we lead ourselves. In common worship, we’re made to receive the leading of others. In private prayer, we’re in the driver’s seat: we decide what passage to read, when to pray, what to pray, how long to linger and meditate, what songs to listen to or sing, and what applications to consider. But in common prayer, we’re led to respond. Others preach and pray and select the songs and choose how long to linger in each element. By positioning ourselves to receive – we open ourselves to the Spirit's leading. And where the Spirit may lead, we never really know until it happens (John 3).
Last, but not least, is the heightened experience of worship in the presence of others. Our own awe is accentuated, our own adoration increased, and our own joy doubled when we worship God together. A Swedish proverb says, “A shared joy is a double joy.” Like when we take delight in expanding our circle of friends, in common worship the joy of deeper, richer and greater adoration and awe expands as we glorify God together with others. Thus, the secret of our joy in common prayer and worship is not only a preoccupation with God and God’s glory but also the happy awareness that we are not alone in having our souls enriched in God’s life.
I hope these reflections provide you with some food for thought. If you are regularly meeting with us for common prayer and worship, I pray that these thoughts will deepen your commitment. If you have not been with us on a regular basis, I pray that these thoughts may have sparked a new insight that would move you to join with us again. In any event, know that I continue to pray for you and for each and every member of our parish family - and that my love for you is the love of Christ that abides in us all.