Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is It Time to Get Our Noses Dirty?

When it comes to worship style, I’m a pretty mainstream Presbyterian. The Sunday morning gathering to me means attire worthy of a business meeting or meal at which hundreds of dollars or more are at stake: if not always a suit and tie, at least slacks and a button-down shirt and the kind of shoes men usually shine. In short, “proper attire” means clothes I wouldn’t want to do hard work in. T-shirt? Cutoffs? Flip-flops? Soccer uniform? No way.
How far I’ve come from my all-time favorite Sunday morning gatherings in our village in Papua New Guinea. Folks would show up in their everyday working attire (grass skirts, bark capes, an occasional worn and unsanitary T-shirt), piglets, puppies, and snot-faced toddlers in arm or in tow. They would sit or lie on the ground, dozing, nursing infants, smoking, and chewing betel nut while I’d do my best to turn a series of pictures into a comprehensible story that would give them some idea of who this Jesus was I’d come to tell them about. Sunday was the day we presented the Word of God as part of everyday life, something designed to take home.
So was impressed by my Bible reading a while back with how many times the faithful of Bible times did things that one just wouldn’t do in any “business formal” context, especially Sunday morning in a Presbyterian church: “Clap your hands … shout … with joyful praise” (Ps 47:1); they “wept aloud” (Ezr 3:12), “dressed in sackcloth and sprinkled dust on their heads” (Neh 9:1), “cried” (Neh 9:28), and “called out” (Neh 10:5). Even Jesus would get strange looks in any church I’d feel comfortable in when “he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death” (Heb 5:7).
Notice that we have no trouble with raised voices and funny attire at sporting events. We might think the event itself is not worth the effort some people go to to celebrate it – I mean, really, spending a hundred bucks or more on a costume for a fooball game? – but I for one can’t see being more critical than “I say get a life, but if the game is that important to you, go for it.”
What got me going on this post this time was reading one day that the people “bowed … with their faces to the ground” (Neh 8:6). This was not in our sanctuary with its spotless carpet. It was outdoors, in the dirt. Now I can see our village friends doing that – their standards of cleanliness were not even close to ours. But does God want that from us? People in Bible times did it, but I tend to put it in the “that was fine for them then, but not for us now” category, hoping those people would identify more with my old village friends’ standards of cleanliness than with ours. But then again, while “cleanliness is next to godliness” is heresy, it is an understandable inference from the Torah. What if people in Bible times would identify more with our standards of cleanliness than with those of our village friends? What if they felt as odd putting their noses in the dirt as we would?
Though when it comes to worship, “man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks at the heart,” I often hear (and say) that what we do on the outside is an important part of the picture. And the next sentence is usually “If we’re having a formal meeting with the king of the universe, shouldn’t we dress up for it?” But maybe the opposite is also true: could being unwilling to get dirty to worship God be as disrespectful as being unwilling to dress business formal?
I wonder if dressing business formal for church isn’t a presumptive claim that what we are there to do is “business as usual” with God. Is that a valid assumption?
On September 11, 2001, people who worked in the lower-level offices of the World Trade Center showed up for business as usual and dressed accordingly. They didn’t realize that they were in trouble, that that day life would change dramatically for them. And on September 12, or whenever they next returned to work, they were likely dressed appropriately for moving furniture. (I’m assuming their next remunerative activities involved setting up new offices.)
We don’t have an equivalent of 9/11 to point to, but the church in the US is in trouble. We are shrinking in number and in influence over the culture. Half of our children abandon the faith in young adulthood. We commit sexual immorality, have abortions, and get divorced at the same rate as our unbelieving neighbors. Nations that fifteen years ago we were looking for creative ways to evangelize we have instead turned to rubble. We have provided no alternative to godless education, health, and peacekeeping systems. Need I say more?
Judgment is coming. God will not allow our godless society to go on with impunity. Nor will he fail to discipline a church that has become insipid at best.
Getting back to God looking at the heart, as important as corporate worship is, we know from Isaiah 58:5 that externals, even the most drastic, are useless without a heart change: “You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?”
How do we get that heart change?
No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned [beginning, methinks, with people who grow plants God planted in Eden – QP] and to stop oppressing those who work for you [by taxing them for things they don’t use or want – QP]. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Those are hard words, hard commands to do things that don’t come easily to us in our culture.
Maybe we can start small with other difficult but comparatively easy things. Like literally clapping our hands and dancing in church the way we do at football games and praying with our hands and eyes raised toward heaven. Like kneeling on our real knees and bowing with our faces to the ground, beginning with the sanctuary carpet and progressing to real dirt. Like literally washing each other’s feet on a regular basis.
(Take two minutes to consider the logistics of what Jesus did: how much water and how many rags would it take to wash twelve men’s dusty feet?)
These actions are humiliating, but maybe humiliation in the safe environment of corporate worship will make us willing to humble ourselves when it’s neither convenient nor safe.
A friend once told me of therapy he had to go through to get over a lost girlfriend. His therapist put an empty chair in the middle of the room and told him to say to that chair while the therapist listened everything he could think of that he would want to say to that old girlfriend if she were sitting in it. He said that that was the day he got closure: having the therapist hear his words had the same effect for him that having the old girlfriend hear them would have had, but he was able to say those words only because he was in a safe environment.
Maybe if we literally put our noses to dirt in corporate prayer we would be able to loosen our hold on our possessions and privacy, on “business as usual,” on national honor, and a few more of our idols. Maybe we could do a better job of building the kingdom of God. Maybe we could even forestall the coming judgment.

I must be on to something. My natural response is, “After you.” Better would be, “Let’s do it together.” Best would be, “I’ll go first.”

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