We are recipients of incredible, amazing grace from the moment the call to worship is given in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s the theological story, the vision of what happens in a worship service - we are receivers of grace, beginning to end. But that shouldn’t be the only thing that happens in a worship service.
You can imagine worship as the Temple of a New Eden. And there is a tree from which we need to eat, of course, the tree of Jesus - offered through confession and pardon, prayer, the Word and the Sacraments. But where some worship services, ours included, seem to be lacking, is in what it looks like for us to feast on Christ. Though we take the Lord’s supper each week, a physical act of worship, it seems like eating from the tree is almost exclusively cerebral. We are in our heads. I think we are in our heads too much.
What if we lifted our hands in worship? What if we clapped? What if we said Amen, or yes sir!, or even Thank you Lord! If we did those things we would be reflecting part of the biblical teaching on worship (Psalm 47, 63, 5, 134, 141, 149, 150). I did not even mention kneeling or lying flat on your stomach with your face on the ground. I did not mention dancing or playing the drum, or openly weeping for joy or sorrow, or crying out. These are also part of the way the Scriptures present worship (Rev. 4, 2 Sam 6, Zeph 2).
While physicality can take different forms, Biblical worship has to involve physicality to some degree. Because the God who demands our physical lives should receive them not only in full-bodied service, but full-bodied worship.
When our son or daughter gets baptized or married we react bodily, physically. When our sports team wins, when we get a good parking spot at the library, when there’s one more can of LaCroix left in our crisper (it’s Pamplemousse!), when we look and the ALDI quarter is still in the console when we need it, we react bodily. But we often divide this ordinary physicality from what we consider to be our “spiritual” lives. Theologically we understand that there should be no real division between the “secular” and “sacred,” that rather than asking you to rejoice in worship like you rejoice out of worship, it should actually be our physical worship that shapes our lives elsewhere. The question isn’t “imagine if we worshipped the way we cheer at sporting events?!” That’s silly. Instead it should be, “Imagine if we cheered at sporting events like we worshipped?!” What if we had that much soul, joy, physicality.
Somehow a dualism (theologian-philosophers call this Gnosticism) has compromised the way our worship should lead our lives in physicality, in emotiveness, in joy! When we celebrate the God who has removed our shame, who has taken us off the exhausting stage of religious performance, when we think about our God saving and redeeming us, we do so often without bodily reaction. Let me just say this - the Bible points out to us how the goodness of the Gospel may begin in our minds, but it cannot stop there.
Here’s the objection: “it makes me uncomfortable.” I want you to know that you have my sympathy. I am an introvert. I don’t like public displays of anything. And if, like me, you don’t like public displays then don’t make your bodily worship a public display, make it public thanksgiving. Make it public gratitude, but more than that - make it public joy! It doesn’t have to be hands raised, it can be hands kind of raised, it can be an amen, it can be the swaying, whatever.
A congregant lovingly disagreed with me on this yesterday, saying that they are not very demonstrative outwardly but feel they are very physically involved in worship. I agreed with them! From my place on stage I could see this person physically engaged in worship - they often sway, close their eyes, lift their head, they sing; that’s physicality! I’m not sure they realized they did those things, which are very physically expressive for them. I understand the concern that this is some law I’m establishing, the way you must worship, that I would somehow invalidate the quiet, non-moving, non-physical worship that happens during a worship service. Please know that I get some of you will not respond honestly or naturally in a physical way. Some of you have worked through trauma that makes it difficult for you to even be present in a room full of people. I love you and am grateful for the hard work you have to do just to be at worship. I do not want you to feel condemned in any way. Jesus is for you; He is delighted by your sacrificial worship.
But I’m going to bet that I can count on two hands the number of times I have seen any of the biblical physical expressions I mentioned above present in our worship service. My hunch is that what binds us is not always the way God made us, but one or more of the following:
1. We do not want to embarrass ourselves. We are afraid that we will look foolish, unhinged, TOO RELIGIOUS, or somehow awkward. Probably because we have, ourselves, smirked at physical expressions of worship in the past. We don’t want people to be embarrassed for us.
2. We do not want to make others uncomfortable for not responding physically. We worry that non-churchy people are turned off and pushed away by shows of public piety (emotive/physical response). Or that our physicality will be seen as a judgment on those in the room who do not respond the same way. We don’t want people to be embarrassed by us.
I completely understand this. I also believe we need to work together to overcome both concerns. In the case of personal fear or embarrassment, we need to build a culture of trust and care in the room. Honesty and genuine love will free us to think about how our physicality may free someone else in the room to respond the same way. This will have to happen slowly if it is to happen in a healthy way. It may be that small moments of physicality, along with greater congregational sharing, will help us. Start with swaying. Start with hands at waist level, or mouth the word amen, if you’re fearful of drawing attention. If you know the words to the song perhaps closing your eyes for a time may allow you to worry less about judgment. Ultimately, though, I think that to worship with our eyes open reminds us that we are one body, not individuals in worship.
In the case of the second concern, for those who may be embarrassed by us, I’m not sure we should be too worried. People understand physical expression; what they don’t want is to be manipulated or coerced into physicality. You will not hear us tell you to lift up your hands while we sing, for instance. But more importantly, if we continue to preach and live out a culture of “belonging before you believe,” people will know that we are not trying to make them fake it. Physical expression that has the ring of truth or authenticity is not as offensive as you might think.
All of this may sound like a lot of effort to give for a day of rest. But it’s important. Let me tell you why. When I feel free in a context to talk back during a sermon, to say amen or thank you, to lift my hands in worship, to clap, to shout out, I am deeply moved. And it is good to be deeply moved. God made us to bodily respond to goodness. When I eat good food I sway. John Lewis, the great civil rights leader once said, “when we pray, our feet move.”
More importantly, I’m convinced a great disease that has limited the kingdom-bearing joyful work of particularly white middle class Christians is the gnostic worship of its people. Maybe one reason the Spiritual body of Christ is bound up from doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, loving their neighbors well, giving their lives away, is because the physical body of Christ is bound up on Sunday mornings in polite, cerebral worship.
Now don’t hear me say that you are not welcome if you just can’t get with us here - there will be people not raising their hands, not talking, not participating, not singing, for lots of reasons - some of them very good reasons! But I want this church to be a place that is helpful to the person who wants to express spirituality with physicality, who want to laugh or rejoice or weep or talk back, not because it makes things more worshipful or whatever, but because it is how the whole body honors Jesus. We’ve got to break through the Christianity that resides only in still, quiet, mental worship.
Some thoughts for your week:
1. I welcome your “talk back” during the sermon. If you are moved by the truth of the Gospel to say Amen! Or “that’s true!” Or whatever, you will not be bothering me. I like dialogue. Maybe save your objections for the Q/A after, but don’t worry about making noise. Crying babies and Amens won’t bother me one bit.
2. My hesitation to express myself physically in worship (when I’m not leading) has a lot to do with objection #2 above. I don’t want you to feel awkward. I’m going to commit here to worry less about that moving forward. So when you see me lifting my hands or really swaying in worship, or if I’m Amen-ing Heath’s preaching, it will be because I feel the freedom to respond biblically with my whole body, not because I think you should.
3. Isn’t it possible that one way worship is limited in its power to be formative for us is that we do not enjoy it? We do not physically engage it in a way that communicates deeply to our soul. Marriage has a deeply soulful physicality, so does a typical thanksgiving feast - we love it because it combines, in many cases, the conceptual truth of togetherness and gratitude with the physical truth of good food (that particular way the tast of a good gravy reminds us of the person who makes it). We reinforce the truth of concepts by physical interaction. Jesus does this when he says “do this (eating and drinking) in remembrance/memorial/honor of me.”
4. Maybe most importantly, I hope you hear this: your whole body is welcome in the Temple of the Lord. Your whole body is washed clean in Christ. Worshipping physically can and should be an endorsement of your whole body in a time when the messages we hear about our bodies can be so destructive. Your Jesus, He loves you.