Worship not forgotten

In our part of the world the Good Friday worship gathering is always one of the most moving experiences of the year. Of course, that is not because of what we do, but because it an authentic engagement with God. The people come with the mindset: bring us together with the crucified Jesus. We know it is hard, we know that if we let the reality of this sink in, our hearts will be broken. But let them break.We  know this is right. That’s why we’ve come.

I don’t think I’m reading that into people’s minds. I’ve watched it happen for almost 30 years.

People come to the 1 PM service or 7 PM service with an appropriate soberness. The lights are dimmed, twenty yards of black cloth are draped on the cross on the back wall of the sanctuary and spread out from there across the platform. A crown of thorns might be sitting on a pedestal. Stringed instruments play as people gather, their voices sending a solemn message.We sing songs about and to the crucified Lord. There is no rush. The service is simple and respectful. There may be slides projected at different points with verses of Scripture or images of the passion. The sound of a hammer and spikes comes from some hidden place. At some point a part of the passion story is read from one of the gospels. It seems that sound has more of an impact than anything visual in the whole service.

The message is succinct. And there is usually an invitation to participate in some way. A couple of years ago we handed a large nail to everyone as they entered the service, with no explanation. People held that uncomfortable bit of hardware through the whole service. Their hands gradually smelled metallic. Occasionally a person accidently dropped his or her nail on the concrete floor, making a conspicuous “ch-ching.” That was unanticipated, but not a problem. Worship should not be entirely predictable. I remember thinking that the crucifixion was not orderly, so our Good Friday worship should not be meticulous either.

But the thing I will never forget is the end of that service. After teaching about the effects of the sacrifice of Jesus and the promise of forgiveness, I told everyone that I didn’t want them to have to go home with the cruel nail they were holding. So they should leave it. Better yet, I told them, if you don’t need to rush off I’d invite you to come forward to the front and pitch your nail at the base of the specially-erected cross on the platform beneath which a black cloth flowed. Now I thought that maybe half of the people would step forward and the others would just leave their nails in their seats, go to their cars, and drive back to work or home.

But quietly, slowly, and intentionally every person came forward. It took more than 20 minutes for all 2,500 people there to step forward. Some tossed their nail, a look of confession on their faces. Others threw the nail with force, like they were casting guilt straight out of their minds. Some stopped and prayed before tossing their nail. Parents brought their children with their own nails. Someone helped a man in a wheelchair get up on the platform itself so he could get close to the cross and rid himself of the nail.

It wasn’t long before the cloth was covered with nails, and so each successive nail made a loud “ting-ching” as it feel against others. Dozens of nails were being tossed almost simultaneously, so for most of that 20 minutes the sound was continual, no more individual sounds, but a river of sound that filled the whole room. It was overwhelming. It produced in me a conflicted sensation of pain and relief. And when the last nails were thrown and most of the people had left in silence, many went back to their seats and stayed another half hour in silent prayer or tears.

Worship is an engagement with God. This was not about me the preacher, or our worship pastor who had planned a beautiful and haunting music set, or our worship assistant who set the whole platform in a memorable way. This was about the people and their Lord. We just set the table, he provided the meal.

And I remember thinking that day, and then that Easter, wouldn’t it be great if we could take moments of connection with God and just lock ourselves in. Here is the church being what the church is supposed to be–like the picture of the worshipping church in Revelation. Let’s just stay right here, because on this day we got it right.

But, of course, you can’t stay there, anymore than a marriage is defined by the day of the wedding. Engagement with God is a movement. Each week holds new possibilities, but also new potential for fragmentation.

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