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Worship in Tumultuous Times

It was on a Saturday, August 12. The news out of Charlottesville, Virginia went from bad to worse. From the “Unite the Right” rally itself to intimidation and mob violence, then a young woman run down and killed by a white supremacist, finally President Trump’s insipid and infamous “many sides…many sides” comment.

Like you—presumably, I received most of my initial information from posts and tweets.

Lots of my online friends are preachers, or somehow in the church business. Late in the afternoon, it dawned on them that Sunday morning—gathering, worship, preaching—was only hours away. What is a pastor to do?

I started to see posts and tweets like

“White supremacy must be denounced tomorrow!” 
“The church cannot let Trump’s words go unchallenged.”
“How will you speak up about Charlottesville tomorrow?”
“The sound of preachers across the country trashing the sermons they had planned.”
“Pray for pastors now returning to their study to craft another sermon for tomorrow.”

I wasn’t scheduled to preach on August 13, not even to be on the chancel, so it was all theoretical for me. Still I pondered, “What should the church hear tomorrow? What would I say?”

Of course, how one answers is so contextual. Pastors and their congregations have complex relationships. What works in one congregation will not work elsewhere. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts I had about the Sunday after Charlottesville, or really after any calamity.

Pray more. Preach less.” This was the advice given to me by a wise, old colleague. The “prayers of the people,” or “prayers of thanksgiving and intercession” or the “looo…oong prayer”—whatever you call it—can be as powerful as a sermon, especially so in those first hours and days after a tragedy. Our words to God—distraught, hurt, and undone—may be easier to form at that early juncture than trying to proclaim words from God, “Thus saith the Lord…”

Of course, we have all endured—and also practiced—moralizing and speechifying that masquerades as prayer, aimed more at the congregation than the God of heaven and earth. But genuine prayer that carries our confusion, anger, despair, and grief just might be the better choice. When I saw so many of my colleagues focusing on tomorrow’s sermon, I thought to myself, “Worship is more than preaching.”

The more work your liturgy does, the less your sermon has to carry.” These fine words are from none other than Ron Rienstra of Western Seminary, husband of fellow Twelver, Debra Rienstra.

I was struck in the aftermath of Charlottesville by the presumption that the church rarely speaks about racial equality. I think of words our congregation says or hears often when celebrating the Lord’s Supper—words like, “we join our voices with the faithful from every time and tribe…” or “Nourish us that we may live for you—befriending the outsider, sharing with the poor, reconciling with our enemies, and loving our neighbors…”

I don’t believe it takes a theologically trained ear to hear the drip, drip, drip of the liturgy, week after week, carrying not-so-subtle messages to counteract racism. The lectionary’s Psalm for the Sunday eight days after Charlottesville, was 133“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” We used it as a call to worship, followed by singing “In Christ There is No East or West.” Actually, for those who notice, and perhaps they are few—two of our three hymns that day were listed as “African-American spiritual.” No, this isn’t a full-on condemnation of white supremacy, the KKK, and neo-Nazis. But those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

And what about the role of preaching? I don’t want to discount it. No doubt there are times to speak boldly and straight on about the evil of racism. Over the years, when I’ve gone into sermon preparation filled with anger and intending a stem-winder, I’ve found that writing and praying and wrestling with the text often drains off some of my righteous indignation. But how do I know this is the work of the Holy Spirit, and not just me becoming more cowardly as Sunday approaches?

I’ve heard it said that good preaching should tell it slant. Speak in a way that gets behind people’s defenses, that comes to them from an unexpected angle. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a huge United Methodist congregation outside Kansas City, suggests, “It’s easy to irritate people. It’s harder to influence people.” 

In the hours after Charlottesville, people were bombarded by words, often hot words and pointed opinions. I’m in no way advocating silence or making worship a cozy, controversy-free cocoon. But I also realize that people don’t come to hear my views on current events. They can find lots of better social commentary elsewhere. They come, instead, to have an encounter with God. And that will, necessarily, touch on real-world events and pain.

Sometimes in the midst of heartbreak and ugliness, is there not something beautiful and reassuring about worship that continues faithfully rather than reacts hastily? So often scripture and music and prayers that were selected before a calamity convey exactly the right tone after a calamity—a testimony to the power of the Word of God and the boundless creativity of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose that some might read all this as coddling racists, as counseling unending patience and lukewarm Christianity. I have no doubt that my congregation knows not only my own anti-racist views, but more importantly that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always and inherently anti-racist. This wasn’t conveyed, however, in a single Sunday, much less a pulpit tirade or social media rant.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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