Olympic Spirit

I love the Olympic games.  No, what I really mean is, I LOVE the Olympic games!

I have fond memories of watching the Olympics every four years–our entire family gathered around the television to see the opening ceremonies, watching track and field events, figuring out the rules of curling and hockey (we lived in Akron, not a big town for either of those sports at the time!), and cheering on Team USA.  The summer before I turned eight (1984), the Olympics were in Los Angeles, and I remember the Olympic torch coming through Akron on its way to California.  I recall the excitement that washed over the crowd as we lined Main Street, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the old O’Neil’s department store, and the rush of adrenaline as the torch made its way past us–a momentary brush with history.

Those memories return in a powerful way every time the Olympics are on–now every two years, which makes the waiting much less frustrating for Olympics junkies like me.  For me, it’s not the sport, or even any one sport in particular.  I’ve never been very athletic, and watching sports on TV has never excited me the way it does others.  But every time the Olympics are on, I become a fanatic, learning the rules of sports that I normally wouldn’t go near.  It’s not about the sports, but about the spectacle of the whole thing.  Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, the cities that host the games often go into great debt in order to host, but with hosting comes the honor of being, if even for a brief moment over a two-week period, the home town for the world.

I’m particularly excited for this summer’s games, as London will take on the honor of hosting.  The day that London was announced as the host of these games, I hung my British flag outside our home in Marshallville.  And, it’s hanging again outside our home in Ada today, as it will for the duration of these London games.  I’m so proud to be an American–in a way, my time living in England taught me that–but I’m also proud of my “adopted homeland” of Great Britain.  Tonight, I will let the tears flow unashamedly as I watch the athletes from around the world gather in the Olympic stadium in London.  And for one moment in time, I will feel proud to be a citizen of the whole world, along with millions of others who will feel the same.

In the end, that’s what the Olympics is about–feeling proud to be part of something bigger than oneself, proud to be part of the human race.

Go team…everybody!


God is Bigger Than Our Fears

Two stories have gotten stuck in my head this week.  The first is the horrific shooting that happened in Aurora, Colorado, when an obviously troubled young man opened fire on a theater full of moviegoers.  The second is the NCAA sanctions against Penn State in response to the Freeh report, which uncovered a massive cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young children.

In the first case, twelve people died, and fifty were injured.  In the second, fifty-two children’s lives were irrevocably damaged.  Both are tragedies, and both represent two of our greatest fears as a society–that our children are not safe, and that violence can happen at any moment.

In the face of tragedies like these, our gut reaction often tells us that what we need to do is protect ourselves–find a hole somewhere, grab a gun, wrap your arms around your kids, and keep the evil of this world at bay.  But that never works in the end, does it?  If we hole ourselves up, all we get is a groundhog-view perspective of the world–the world is a scary place, and I’m not gonna have anything to do with it.

Well, of course the world is a scary place–it always has been!  Sure, we’ve designed new and inventive ways to be cruel to one another, but we’ve always had to contend with a world that seems mean, arbitrary, and violent.  A cursory glance at history will prove to you that the world has ever been thus, and anyone with any amount of intelligence would tell you that it will probably continue this way for quite some time.

That’s why Jesus, the ultimate Victim of the violence and arbitrary nature of the world, came in the first place.  Christ died at the hands of angry, violent, sinful, very human beings.  He died to show us the folly of our quest for power through violent means.  He rose again to show us that there is a different way–God’s way.  Christ calls us to love God and love our neighbors–to him, all the law and the prophets hang on these two commands.  But he has already won the victory over evil, sin, and death.  Christ has managed to overcome violence through the final act of nonviolent resistance–his very resurrection from the dead, and the promise of eternal life to those who love him.

I don’t want to seem like I’m negating the tragic nature of either Aurora or Penn State, but what I am saying is that these tragedies are reminders to us that our hope doesn’t rest with guns and ammunition, or in powerful and long-standing institutions.  Our hope is in God, through Christ Jesus the Lord, who overcame evil so that we might face the world unafraid.  The world is a scary place, but God is bigger than all our fears.



Thoughts on Worship (Part 2): Worship in Scripture

Wow!  That last blog post was huge!  I guess I had a lot to say about what worship isn’t.  If you have any more ideas about what worship isn’t, please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/davidemacdonald)  or Twitter (@ONUchaplain).

Today, I’d like to focus on the purpose of worship—a response to last week’s post, in the form of exploring what worship is.  As is the case with these sorts of things, making the argument in the positive has proven to be much more difficult than arguing the negative.  So, I expect that there will be some disagreement with me on some of the points I will make, and that’s o.k. with me.  What I want to do is start an honest discussion about worship that may help in our work here at the ONU chapel, and might spark some discussions in other communities of faith, too.

Let’s Begin with Scripture: This is obviously not an exhaustive list–if you have other suggestions, let me know!

Psalm 122:1  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD!’” (NRSV)

When was the last time you felt “glad” about going to worship?  (Especially if you lead worship, and never get a chance to sit back and just worship without worrying about what’s coming next!)  Worship is intended to be a joyful expression of gratitude and praise to God.  Now, some people express their joy through moving liturgy, symbolic actions, and sacramental acts.  Others express their joy through music, movement, artistic expression, and spontaneous expressions of worship.  Everyone expresses joy in his/her own way.  I once criticized people who had “long faces” when they worshiped, until I spoke with several such people and realized that the joy they felt in worship was no less deeply felt than mine, simply because their facial expressions were staid and stoic.  What brings you joy?  How do you express that joy in worship?  Are you “glad” about worship?  If so, how do you share that joy?  If not, what’s stopping you from fully experiencing joy in your worship?

Psalm 8:1  “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens.”

Worship is an expression of awe and wonder in the face of the Creator.  Look around you.  Where did all this come from?  Who created all this?  How does the bird stay in flight?  Who placed a particular strain of DNA inside that tree to make it look just the way it does?  If you conclude that creation has a Creator, then you can’t not be impressed and awed by the complexity of God’s grace and love for creation.  God’s handiwork is all around us—God’s fingerprints are left behind in the sacredness of the earth and all the gifts of creation.  Worship is a natural response to the feeling that God is something/someone bigger than you or me—and is an opportunity for us to be in relationship with that Creator.

Psalm 29:2  “Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.” 

God is holy.  Only a holy God would be worthy of our worship.  Who would want to worship an unholy God?  Not me!  Worship is our way of standing in the presence of our holy God, giving praise for God’s mighty acts of salvation in our midst.  Worship is an opportunity to recognize that we human beings are not the be-all and end-all of the universe—that there is One who is greater, One who created us all, and One who redeems us from sin and sustains us through life.

James 4:8a  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Worship is about proximity on two planes.  One plane is more noticeable to us—the horizontal plane—this is our proximity to one another.  Worship is about rubbing elbows with other believers (and even with some non-believers and skeptics from time to time, depending on your context).  In worship, we sing together, hear the Word of God read and interpreted, and respond through acts of prayer, giving, and sacramental or symbolic actions.  All of this is done in the context of community.

The other plane on which worship takes place is the vertical plane—our “drawing near” to God.  When we worship, we come closer to God, not so we can puff ourselves up as “God’s chosen people,” or wall ourselves off from the world.  We come closer to God so that God will come closer to us.  Or perhaps more accurately, so that we may recognize that God has already drawn near to us, and that we are in God’s presence, not just in worship, but in every moment of our lives.

Revelation 4:11  “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” 

Above all, worship is wrapped up in the mystery of God’s grace for humanity, and is our recognition of God’s love for us.  God created us, and everything around us, and God continues to love us, even when we disrespect the creation we’ve been given.  The above scripture from Revelation also shows that our worship is part of the heavenly worship of God, which makes us part of God’s kin-dom of worshipers who have lifted up their voices in song and praise for millennia.  Worship makes us part of something that is bigger than any one of us, and together, we form the body of Christ, the family of God—the Church.

I have some more thoughts on worship that I’ll share at another time.  For now, I’d like to hear from those who might read this blog–What scriptures inspire you to worship?  What is your definition of worship?  Do you feel a part of the body of Christ when you worship?

Thoughts on Worship (Part 1): What Worship Is Not.

Worship has been on my mind a lot lately, as I spend these first few quiet (lonely) days in my new office.  No one seems to be on campus, other than the many wonderful behind-the-scenes folks who keep ONU’s campus looking so beautiful, and a few classes that are in session.  So, I’ve been spending some time thinking about the coming school year, and specifically Thursday morning chapel worship.  Since the time I was offered this position, I’ve done a lot of listening to people on campus, asking what they think about the chapel.  And the one topic that has come up, time and time again, is worship.  Something is “missing,” or something is “off,” or something needs to be done.  The numbers tell part of the story—like many ministries and churches, chapel has seen a decrease in attendance over the last few years.  Part of that is because of a wider trend in American religion, and among emerging adults, to be sure.  But there is a sense that a truly dynamic chapel worship would appeal to more students, and would increase those ever-elusive numbers.  In order to understand a thing, sometimes we have to understand what it is not.  So I want to spend some time thinking today about what worship isn’t.  (Later, I’ll write about what it is.)

One question that keeps coming up in my mind is this—What can we do in worship that will increase attendance?  The answer is—Absolutely nothing!  Worship isn’t meant as the solution to the crisis of dwindling numbers.  The way we worship is an integral part of who we are, and it will certain nurture and grow our members spiritually, but it is not meant—it never was meant—to be our sole means of discipleship and spiritual formation.  Discipleship and spiritual formation, along with outreach and evangelism, are what will help grow our worship attendance.  (More about those topics at another time!)  So, I would disagree with those who say that one “style” of worship or another is the key to growing a worshiping community.  I have known churches that worship in a very traditional, almost ancient, style, that have grown by leaps and bounds, and I have known just as many churches that worship in a totally cool, contemporary and down-to-earth style that are doing the same.  Worship “style” doesn’t determine growth.

Another thought that often attaches itself to worship is that worship “feeds” the congregation.  When people leave a church, they often say that it was because the worship wasn’t “feeding” them.  I have seen a lot of people come and go from worshiping communities in the course of my ministry (I’ve even helped some of them go in a manner that was healthier for both them and the community).  A few times, people have said to me that worship in the community which they were leaving was not “feeding” them.  Then, as we dug deeper into their story, they revealed that the real issue was that they had a conflict with another congregant, or with the pastor, and that worship wasn’t “feeding” because they couldn’t go to worship without focusing on the conflict they were having.  Worship isn’t meant to “feed” us, and when we do think that worship is our main (or only) source of being “fed,” then we have a very poor spiritual diet!  Imagine only eating once a week, and then only on fatty and sugary foods that satisfied you for an hour and then quickly left your system.  If you’re going to worship only to be “fed,” you’ll never be filled with the Spirit of God—at least not completely.

A third thing that worship isn’t is entertainment.  If you’ve been a part of the Christian community  through any part of the last few decades, you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with what have been called “the worship wars.”  Each side on this battle (there are more sides than the false contemporary/traditional, by the way) sees the other sides as promoting worship that is merely “entertainment.”  And I can see where those arguments could be valid.  I’ve been to high masses and Eucharistic worship during which people talked through the whole service, until the bells were rung at the consecration.  And, I’ve been to more than my fair share of “worship experiences” that were more about the worship band’s latest album than about worshiping the living God.  So, let’s all admit that all sides have transgressed in this manner, and let’s move on.  Worship isn’t entertainment.  It isn’t meant to be entertaining.  Although there may be enjoyable moments within worship, those moments are not the reason we worship.  John Wesley addressed this way of thinking in his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion.”  Writing of the sacrament, he said:

Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts:  either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to the love or fear of God.  Now the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural.  And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper the constantly receiving of it must lessen.  But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.

Applied to worship, the above passage points out that our feelings about worship—whether or not we are “entertained”—don’t matter as much as the fact that we are worshiping the God of creation, the Holy and Divine Trinity, Three in One.  That alone should be the focus of our worship, not whether or not the choir was in top form or the worship band’s lighting was effective.  Those elements of worship are important—more on that  later, too—but they are not the main purpose of worship.

Check back again soon to see some thoughts on what worship is. But for now, in the comments section below, or on Facebook or Twitter, let me know what you think—is there something you’ve come across in your experience that worship is not?