We have a lot to do and only twenty-four hours per day to do it — or less than that, because we also have to fit in sleep in order to stay healthy and not (heaven forbid!) fall behind. We live under the pressures of jobs, families, social lives, volunteer work, school. And, truth be told, most of these pressures deserve our time. But our good-hearted desire to work and serve can turn into an obsession with busyness. We can’t stop thinking about ourselves.
In the midst of the strain of scheduling, church can feel like ... well, an inconvenience. Going to church is a nice thing to do — when we have time. It is yet another of the volunteer activities on our list. And sometimes the bulleted line that says “church” slips down to the end of the to-do list.
Devoting time on Sunday morning to church can also feel inefficient. If we really want follow Christ’s teaching to take care of the poor, the time we give to church could be better spent on helping out at a homeless shelter or food pantry. Or if we really want to worship, we could listen to one of the thousands of professional recordings of hymns or praise music instead of listening to that squawky soprano in the third pew. Or if we really want to pray, we could do so with less distraction at home.
Worship, singing, prayer, church on Sunday morning — they seem like inefficient uses of the time we don’t have in the first place.
Maybe church is just a waste of time.
Whether you recoil from that statement or embrace it, the claim is actually close to the truth — dangerously close. The church does run on different time — slow time. Not just fifteen minutes behind schedule (though that is often the case). Rather, when we enter church on Sunday morning, we enter a different kind of time. This different kind of time does not run on your schedule. The clock here is run by the love of God. And efficiency is not the first priority.
When we go to church, we fall into a kind of time warp. By daring to walk through those doors, we enter into the eternal praise and worship of the triune God. We find we are not the first here — for millennia other humans have been doing this work of praise. In fact, all creation throughout time and space has been doing this very work of praise. The Psalms tell us of mountains, hills, and valleys leaping and frolicking in praise to God. At church, we join into this business of thankfulness and praise.
The different time of church — that slow, inefficient time — forms us over the long haul to sing and dance to the rhythm of gratitude. Slowly, bit by bit, our hearts “are tuned to sing thy grace” — God’s grace, the grace which drew us in together in the first place.
We come to church to practice gratitude and thankfulness.
Gratitude recognizes you are not the center of the world, and thankfulness recognizes someone has given you a gift. Practicing gratitude helps us avoid those pits of self-pity, self-abnegation, and false humility which tempt us to claim we are less than we are. A grateful person recognizes a gift, receives it, and turns to thank the one who gave the gift.
It seems simple — so simple children could learn it. But, to be honest, such thankfulness takes a long time to learn. And this is precisely the point of church. We come to church to learn to give thanks. And, giving thanks lets us see beyond ourselves to God, and to our neighbors.
How? Where in church do you send a thank-you note? On the whole, all of church is dedicated to giving thanks. But we might think of our education in gratitude as unfolding something like this:
- First, we learn gratitude to God. Church reminds us to celebrate what God has done. At church we hear the preaching of the word, we confess our sins, receive forgiveness, and affirm the old faith which others have confessed before us. We come to the Lord’s Table. Every time we hear the same story: “On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks....” You remember that even Jesus gave thanks at the dinner table, right before his friends (sitting there at the same table) abandoned him to be killed by the authorities. Again and again, week after week, month after month you stand in line and shuffle slowly up to the front to get your food. You are the beggar reaching out for a crumb of bread. You are a child learning your basic table manners. You are practicing those manners for the banquet at the Great Feast to come. At my church, after everyone has been served, my pastor looks around at all those seated at the Table and says with a small smile, “Shall we give thanks?” He knows we are hungry. He knows we are tired of waiting. He knows we are ready to scarf down the piece of bread and go to lunch. But Jesus gives thanks. We must too.
- As you learn your manners at the Lord’s Table, you become aware of others at the Table. To your surprise you discover that squawky soprano is actually your sister. That guy with the stuffy nose is really your brother. You hand him a Kleenex. You learn you should be grateful for them. If you are honest, you realize that might take a while. But sooner or later, something happens, and you discover the startling truth that your faith depends on their faithfulness. The world may be falling apart, your life may be falling apart — your highly efficient schedule finally cracked or cancer put a torpedo through your planner. But you are here. And, they are here. When you can’t sing the songs, they can. You pray along the swells of their voice. You long to sing, but for now, you listen. You close your eyes and give thanks that someone in this space can sing.
- Finally, as we learn our table manners and learn to bless our siblings at the Table, we begin to notice the stranger. We remember we too were hungry once, waiting on the outside, reaching out a tense hand. We remember the stories in the Bible of Jesus inviting the poor, the destitute, the homeless, the outsider, the enemy, and even his betrayer to sit at the Table too. Out of thankfulness for the bread we have found, we extend our once-upon-a-time-clenched hands and invite the other to the Table.
Learning this kind of gratitude is slow work. It cannot be rushed or hurried.
In the patterns of our hurry to do the (often good) work we are given to do, the rhythms of the church guide us through this slow formation of gratitude. In the weekly rhythms of the church — through the worship, singing, sermon, Lord’s Table — we have a chance to learn our manners and practice gratitude. The more we practice, the more we find that choosing church — choosing to practice this gratitude — brings us face to face with God and our neighbor.
There is a catch. The catch to choosing church and this slow work of gratitude is that the choice was already made. The confession that Christ is Lord draws us into this slow formation in gratitude. The gratitude we learn at church, the manners we practice at the Lord’s Table, the prayer, worship, and singing prepare us to fall down with the squawky soprano, the stuffy nose, the rest of creation, and the angels, all exclaiming in thanks to God:
“Holy, Holy, Holy! Is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come.” —Revelation 4:8