Preaching to a group of people who are focused on the word being shared is a rare occurrence. People may be listening or paying attention, catching a phrase here and there, or having their ears tuned in when a statement comes around that piques interest. I don't blame people for whatever takes their attention away from worship. Getting bits and pieces of scripture readings, picking up a phrase from a sermon, or remembering a line of a song in worship is one thing. Focus on a worship service is another. I don't expect perfect focus from anyone--but when focus is there in a worship service, I take notice. A sample of when I have experienced worship focus:
+ At worship services in a prison ministry setting.
+ At a funeral.
+ When a worshiping community is experiencing acute distress.
+ Last night at the Blue Christmas service.
Focus in worship is hard. Focus is especially hard for me when I am escorting my children to a house of worship. They're interested in things that happen in worship. But they don't pay attention to anything for 60 minutes, even if they like what is going on. So I attend to their needs, which takes me away from focus in worship. But I also want my children in the sanctuary-and I can see from my own experience the multitude of ways in which our connection with God at a worship service is fragmented. People have a lot on their minds, it's hard to decompress and focus. It usually takes me hours to defragment my brain to the point where I can take in a worshipful and prayerful experience. I think we could take a lesson from the Quakers about silence leading to worship and being filled by the Holy Spirit. I don't think we would have any community if we held three hour worship services with the first two hours filled with silence.
Blue Christmas was a time of focus in worship. I had never been a part of this kind of worship service in the past. I had to learn about its flow from my wife (her congregation in Sioux Falls hosted annual Blue Christmas services) and other congregations who posted their experience on the internet. I invited people who didn't feel like celebrating during the holiday season for whatever reason, yet wanted to observe the birth of Christ. We sang some of the more peaceful Christmas hymns (What Child Is This, O Little Town of Bethlehem). As I looked out into the congregation during the readings (Isaiah 7: 10-14, Matthew 1: 18-23) people were focused. What I realized is that these people were not there out of habit, social convention, or some scope of expectation (family, community, personal faith, traditional faith). The people who gathered last night appeared to be there out of pure need to have some peace and hope in the midst of pain. What a powerful evening of the in-breaking of God in Christ--Immanuel.
James Boyce from Luther Seminary offers great commentary about the Matthew story of Jesus' birth, which was the text focus for my sermon last night. Boyce talks about the presence of God in a set of messy circumstances, where Joseph is making decisions related to law, family, marriage, divorce, and community-of-faith-expectations. Joseph is obedient to the vision of Mary having a child who will be Jesus, Immanuel--but God breaks through expectations and meets humanity at the mess in which we live. Christmas as we celebrate it is often about what we do and what we expect to happen--and the carnage that often comes when we are so anxious about our expectations, and those expectations aren't met. This is what I find is most troubling about "The War On Christmas" (Thanks to Toby Keith and Stephen Colbert for their War On Christmas satire). This "war" is focused on what we do, and not on what God is doing. People came to worship last night to find out what God is doing in the midst of their pain--and were they ever focused. People who struggle to celebrate Christmas at a particular time in their lives because of personal pain heard (hopefully) that God broke into the world in the midst of at least one person's (Joseph) struggle amidst messy relationships and powerful community, personal and traditional expectations--and that God is present in their lives. There is nothing wrong with having expectations for the wonder and joy of our celebrations, but it is more important to know that God continues to break in to the world regardless of our expectations and execution of those expectations. God meets us where we are--and nothing will separate us from the love of God.
I found great joy in meeting a need last night that was not encumbered by many different levels of sometimes crushing expectations. We gathered last night where pure need and the pure grace of God in Christ met. Thanks to all of those who worked to provide parts of the service. Thanks to all of those who reached out when we extended an invitation. Thanks be to God for the gathering through the Holy Spirit.