Respecting The Worship Traditions Of Others

I met a gentleman last year who said he attended another church in our town.

“We don’t worship like you do,” he said.

I smiled sweetly but had a couple of thoughts. One is that unless he attended our church--and I’ve never seen him there--he really doesn’t know how we worship. And two, his tone seemed to indicate superiority. This kind of attitude is unworthy.

I thought about this lately as we completed the holiest season of the church year--the weeks leading to Easter. Different churches marked these days in different ways.

One lady came to a support group at our church and mentioned ending her Lenten celebration after giving up chocolate and alcohol.

“I survived, and I feel better,” she said with a laugh.

This discipline was meaningful for her.

We Baptists normally don’t emphasize Lent, nor Ash Wednesday. A story is told about a parish school in Louisiana in which most children were Catholic. The teacher went around the room asking each child what they intended to give up for Lent. Television and candy were named a lot. But one young man had a unique response.

“We’re Baptists,” he said. “We don’t give up nuthin’ for nobody!”

That’s not to say that liturgical worship is bad. Many Christians find spiritual strength in observing holy days and time-tested Christian traditions.

It’s also true that there are varying worship traditions within individual churches.

One saintly senior used to complain to me about the minutes preceding morning worship.

“Preacher,” she said, “they’re like magpies in here. Like magpies!”

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a magpie, but I got her point. She was of the tradition that believed one enters the sanctuary quietly and prayerfully preparing for worship. But I gingerly told her that another tradition is fellowship, and greeting one another before worship wasn’t a bad thing.

A worship leader told me lately his conviction that announcements in public worship weren’t worshipful. And I understand we shouldn’t just read the Sunday bulletin to people without expecting them to read for themselves. But, I responded, announcements about spiritual activities or ministries church members can be involved in isn’t a bad thing. It’s a practical way to express what we often say; namely, we worship inside the four walls, but we go outside the four walls to serve our communities in the name of Christ.

Many churches try to have blended worship with something for everyone. This is a noble effort requiring the cooperation of all. But if we can’t meet the needs of everyone, and some choose other places to worship, we must have the good graces to respect worship traditions other than our own.

Samaritans Among Us

It’s one of those King James Bible phrases that has always intrigued me. John’s gospel said of Jesus, “He must needs go through Samaria” (John 4: 4). Actually, he didn’t have to go through Samaria in his journey north. The typical Jew would veer east or west in order not to pass through Samaria. Samaritans were seen as ethnically impure and spiritually impure since they worshiped idols along with the God of Israel, and Jews despised them.

Jesus didn’t have to pass trough Samaria, but he chose to. He needed to teach a lesson about the worth of every person in God’s kingdom.

In Samaria he met a woman who came to draw water at a well. She was alone, because even her own people had little to do with her. Dr. Frank Stagg used to call her a “three-time loser” since she was a woman, a Samaritan and immoral. She was surprised that Jesus would talk with her and even more surprised when he promised water she might drink and never thirst again.

The Jewish church must likewise have been surprised when Jesus told them not only to take the gospel to Jerusalem and Judea, but also to Samaria. The Christian gospel is stronger than human prejudice.

Prejudice is hard to understand, but it’s universal. I remember a news report years ago about a comedy program in Germany featuring one described as the “West German Archie Bunker.” The character hated East Germans. As an American I cannot understand why there was animosity in that day between these groups, as Germans probably would puzzle over our prejudices. Samaritans are everywhere.

I was a sophomore or junior in high school when our pastor preached a revival in Bibb County. He invited several of us teen-agers to go with him each night. I mentioned to the host pastor that a friend had started a youth organization that could come and conduct a rally with speaker and music if the church was interested. We had a young man in the group who was a fireball preacher and several musicians. The rest of us would go door-to-door and invite people to the event.

I remember several of us meeting with church leaders to talk about this. One of the men said, “There is an area in our community where we wouldn’t want you to go and invite people. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

Joe exhibited some unusual candor when he said, “Everybody’s welcomed to hear the gospel.”

The meeting was soon over, and the event never happened.

What we discovered that day was there are yet Samaritans among us. We still need to hear the words of Jesus, and to follow him.

The Elusive Easter Spirit

There are normally two “spirits” floating around in our churches: the Christmas spirit and the Easter spirit! Christmas covers the world with love. We’re kind to almost everyone and give gifts to people we sometimes don’t appreciate as we should at other times, such as the mail carrier and the sanitation workers. And even those who don’t support their churches too well are drawn to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship.

The same is true for Easter, at least for the Christian community. It’s the high point of the liturgical year. Easter worship doesn’t have to be elaborate since worshipers are excited and joyful. Would that we had this same attitude year-round!

The early church had the Easter spirit. The church was made up of former Jewish worshipers accustomed to biblical teachings about the Sabbath. But Christians moved their worship day to Sunday to commemorate the resurrection. Eight times the church is described as worshiping in the book of Acts, and each time was on the first day of the week rather than the seventh. Every worship day was a reminder of the resurrection.

I think we can continue with the Easter spirit if we commit to several things.

First, we make the resurrection of Jesus the foundation of our lives and teaching. If he weren’t raised, our teaching and preaching would be like teaching Shakespeare. We study Shakespeare for the intricate plots he wove and his masterful character development. But we don’t study Shakespeare in order to change lives. We don’t commit to following Shakespeare like we commit to following Jesus. We believe our living Savior summons us to follow him in a life of holiness, and we walk in partnership with him.

Second, we share the same mission given the first believers. The task given them seemed impossible. They were to saturate their world with the gospel message. This was in a day without modern transportation or modern communication. But the first disciples took this task seriously and we profit today because they were faithful to take the redemption message to the world.

Third, we must be committed to serving Christ, even in days of difficulty. None of us have faced the trials the church faced in the first century. Emperor Nero instigated the first widespread persecution of the church, blaming peaceful and gentle Christians for burning Rome. Christians were arrested, imprisoned and many thrown into the Colosseum to face gladiators or wild beasts.

Their dedication to the Lord puts mine to shame. But we must commit to the Lordship of Christ in every area of our lives in order to live out the true spirit of Easter. We must be faithful until the day of our resurrection.






What Hath God Wrought?

It was a new day in 1858 when America and Great Britain celebrated the first trans-Atlantic cable message from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. The 99-word message took 17 hours and 40 minutes to travel under the sea. The message was transmitted on Aug. 16 and delivered on Aug. 17.

Contrast this with a modern couple who posted photos of their newborn daughter on the Internet within minutes of her birth for their American family to view. Nothing unusual about this, except the new father and mother were in Japan!

A few years ago I got a church ministry assistant in another city on the phone. I sent a photo attachment to her via computer and talked with her as she identified the people in the picture to me.  Such was impossible a few years ago when we relied on mail service that might take days to accomplish. I talked about this in class the next day and the college students simply rolled their eyes!

Young people take instantaneous communication for granted, but I still sometimes marvel at what we have now. We've come a long way since Samuel F. B. Morse's simple telegraph message in 1844: "What hath God wrought?"

Not only is communication far swifter today, but there's more of it. The latest figures available state nearly seven billion cell phones are in use. I still find it hard to fathom that grammar school children have cell phones in their backpacks, but it's a new day. I've chided college students for bringing phones to class fearing they might potentially interrupt, but many students don't wear wrist watches anymore. Their cell phones are their watches.

By the way, I understand the most common question when talking on a cell phone is "Where are you?" Former NPR on-air personality Garrison Keillor was correct when he called them modern-day “locator devices"!

We have a lot to say today and we can say it very quickly.

During this Easter season we focus on a very significant message delivered by an angel at the empty tomb: "He is not here. He is risen" (Matthew 28: 6). 

Angels in the Bible have two purposes: to praise God and to deliver messages. Come to think of it, Christians have the same calling. We praise God corporately in public worship and privately in personal devotion. And we're charged to complete the four Easter imperatives in our lives: come, see, go and tell (vs. 6-7).

We've found forgiveness and new life in Christ. Now it's God's plan that we take the message to others. And God is good to have given us modern technology the church can "baptize" and use to communicate to our world.