Moving Forward: Why Do We Do What We Do?

by Lisa Allgood, Executive Presbyter

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.                                    – Romans 12:1-2

Many years ago, while Meredith and I were in Turkey, we sat down to dinner next to someone who turned out to be a member of the staff of the Greek Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul.  As an Orthodox priest he was incognito (he said it was the only way he could enjoy a good meal), and Meredith is quite used to me chatting with strangers. So, although unusual that he would speak with women and foreigners, we covered a wide range of topics across two tables for over an hour. The waiters were quite amused.

He invited us to vespers the following evening in the chapel of the Phanar (Patriarchal Church of St. George), the center of the Greek presence in Istanbul and the center of the Eastern Orthodox church there.  A bit more than a century ago, this had been their essential headquarters, if you will.  Now, over centuries of persecution of the Orthodox Christians, fewer than 5000 Greeks remained in Istanbul.

I’ve been to Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox services before.  The Greek and Armenian services were both in Jerusalem – the Greek services both in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Katholikon, as well as one of the Greek chapels, and the other in the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem.  All three services were 2-3 hours long, and once you’re there you’re there – you can’t leave. I knew vespers would be shorter, but warned Meredith dinner might be late that evening – and, as she does, she gamely agreed to come. She’s used to my finding every church in every country we go to, even when the language is foreign.  It’s a family legend, honestly. (Another story for another day was the time I attended mass in Ljubjana Slovenia…)

The chapel was gorgeous –  stunning icons and candles everywhere, although much smaller and less ornate than the cathedral. We were the only guests in a beautiful and moving vespers recitation of Psalms, heads dutifully covered by a scarf.  Neither of us speak Greek, although I can read place names (years of science abbreviations using Greek letters will do that to you).  The Patriarch presided, and nodded at us (I guess his secretary had told him we would be coming).  But – it lasted only 15 minutes.  Because other than two random American women, heads covered and eyes cast down, and the two elderly priests presiding, no one else showed up.  The secretary later told us that was the becoming the norm, and when it happened the priests abbreviated the service because they were embarrassed that the rites were so forgotten. Or ignored. He said “worship has become a secondary part of life for many of our people.”

It was the word “embarrassed” that caught my attention. 

Recently, in reflection on my attending a very lightly attended mass in Buenos Aires, in a very different church-y role now than I ever thought I’d have, I remembered that word and that time, and it really made me stop and think: why do we, those who preside over a worship service, do what we do?

Is it for the “audience” in front of us?  Do we do a “quantity”, a fuller measure, of worship according to the number of people in the pews on any given occasion? Do we work harder, instill more passion and fervor into the prayers and the liturgy, when there are more people there to witness it? Do we measure the success of the worship we oversee based on membership and numbers?

Are we, too, “embarrassed” when no one shows up?

Or do we create worship simply and solely because we are His people, and we want to give Him glory and honor? Is our worship correctly directed only to the One True King, instead of to people? Wouldn’t we do what we do, with as much fervor and passion, even if no one showed up? Shouldn’t we?

Because I’m pretty sure God does show up – even if there’s only one of us in the room worshipping.

The same might be asked of those of us who don’t preside over worship – do we “attend” worship so we can be seen by others? Because we have a role, an assigned task, within the church? Habit?

Or do we worship, truly? Is our worship so fully focused on Him that it happens with full hearts, with fervent gratitude, with emotions of love so deep we actually don’t have words for it, anywhere we happen to be? Even if no one else was there?  Even when we don’t know the language? Even if no priest, no pastor, was there?

I’ve always loved the idea that prayers were being offered 365/24/7 somewhere around the world, incense to God, a pleasing aroma (Revelation 5:8). That at no time was God not being thanked and praised and glorified.  World Communion Sunday was always a day that made me smile at the voices raised in praise in 24-hour of ripples around the world, according to time zomes.

Things to think about…