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Worship in the Modern Church
by Patrick Oden
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The day is cloudy and cold, no different than how my heart feels. It seems like I have come to an end. An end of what? Whatever. I wake up in my bed this morning, which is fine. I have no memory of coming home last night. That isn’t fine. Somehow I got from there to here, doing who knows what along the way. At least I’m here. Last month I woke up at someone else’s house. Even worse I remember going there, and remember what I did there. Even though I remember I don’t know why I went. It was a fluke, at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t think she knows, but I haven’t been able to look her in the eyes since I came home that evening. She knows something is wrong, only she doesn’t know how wrong. Why does she still bother with me?

What is it with this life? Anyone looks at me and they would think I’m doing rather well for myself. It’s the dream of success that people have always wanted. Everything is so right and so perfect. So why do I go and order that one glass of scotch every night, that one glass that becomes bottomless as the night continues. This isn’t a question. I do it without wondering, do it because at the end of the day I don’t want to come home, nor do I want to go anywhere. I want to disappear, drown my thoughts, those accusing thoughts which promised peace if only I kept embracing my ambition. Now they mock me. I’m here and there is nothing. I’m falling apart, and there’s nothing I can do about it, mostly because I don’t even care anymore.

I wander out to the kitchen, bleary eyed and with a terrible headache.

“Here’s some aspirin,” she says, handing me a couple white tablets and a glass of water.

“Thanks,” I mumble in reply, not looking at her. I know she’s staring at me, I can feel those eyes burning into my skull, judging me.

“Late night again?” she asks, not expecting an answer. I don’t give one.

“I’m going to church this morning,” she says. She goes to church every Sunday these days.

“Okay,” I reply.

“Do you want to join me?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say. Why did I say that? I don’t want to go to church, I’ve haven’t been to church since I left my parents and could choose to do whatever I wanted.

“Okay,” she replies, without emotion. Then she went to get dressed.

An hour later we are on our way to church.

“This is absurd,” I think.

“This is your church?” I ask when we arrive.

I was expecting a foreboding building made of stone and colored glass. Or, at the very least, a steeple in which bells could be rung to announce whatever they wanted to announce.

It is a warehouse. Or at least used to be a warehouse. People are gathering in front of the door. Everyone is smiling, and happy. I was neither. Everyone knows my wife and greet her with seeming sincere excitement. She introduces me, her demeanor more free than I’d seen in years. I try to be polite… the glare of the sun in my eyes didn’t help.

Near the door are two older men who say hello and shake our hands, then hand us some papers.

“It’s a bulletin,” my wife says.

“Let’s sit here,” I say, pointing to some empty chairs in the back of the one time warehouse. The chairs are simple, utilitarian, nothing like the ornate pews of my childhood. They don’t look comfortable.

“I don’t sit in the back,” she said, and led us towards the front, three rows back from the small stage.

There is very little to make me think this was a church. Everything is there for a purpose, and nothing grabbed my attention. I sit down in this old warehouse, feeling like I am sitting down in an old warehouse. I look around to see if I could find the clergy. No one sticks out. My childhood pastor was an austere old man with a thick white beard and stern eyes who could invoke guilt with a mere glance. I was afraid of him.

I closed my eyes for a little bit, as my headache seemed to be disappearing.

“Why am I here?” I ask myself.

“What did you say?” my wife asks me.

“Nothing,” I reply.

“I’m glad you came,” she says, a smile on her face. I don’t answer.

Music begins to play, not the dry singing I remember, more current in style, like they are singing contemporary music. The words are different however, words of praise, thanksgiving, honoring the God who brought us here. There are assorted instruments being played, and everyone seemed to know the words to the songs. It is funny, but the music and singing seems to clear my mind a little bit, a weight seems to be lifting off, my heart seems a little more free. This singing continues for a long time, each song touching on a different aspect of Christ and his work, each song lifting the weight a little bit more. I turn and smile at my wife, she smiles back, laughing as she sings the upbeat song. I try to sing along as well.

Finally, the musicians stop, the music leader in front sits down on some chairs at the back of the stage. Another man gets up, a man dressed no differently than I am, with nothing to show he is a leader or a minister. He stands at the podium for a moment, staring out, a slight smile on his lips.

“God is great, isn’t he?” he asks. Then I notice something. I see it.

It’s in his eyes. There’s a glint of something, some authority and some secret. It’s a twinkle mixed with power, the same look I’ve seen in the eyes of lawyers who know they are going to win a case.

He begins to speak, his voice quiet and measured, his eyes aglow.

“Let me tell you how great God is…”

I was expecting to listen to a dry sermon about Melki begetting Neri, or on how God smote the Israelites for crossing the line once again. It isn’t that at all. The preacher starts by telling us his story. He was a drunk, he says, in jail for a year because he stole money for more alcohol. His life was a mess, he lost his wife and kids. The story is familiar.

Then his tone picks up, he begins to read some Bible verses. Not verses about judgment or guilt but about wholeness and peace and salvation. It shocks me how much his words were affecting me. I had come expecting to be turned off by a holier-than-hou minister trying to impose his authority on me. Instead, this preacher doesn't appeal to authority. He is convincing because he believes it so much. He isn’t telling us what to do, he is sharing with us what he found so wonderful.

“But God...,” the preacher says with enthusiasm. “...But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Do you hear that? You who are trapped in your sin are already saved. Christ died for you, not because of what you’ve done, but because he loves you, because he values you even more than you value yourself.”

I begin to cry as the sermon continues. His sermon is masterful. He makes a point then comes at it from a different angle. There is a strict standard and yet it is not oppressive, it is freeing. I never understood that before how I could find freedom in the rules of the church. It’s true, and the reality pulled at my heart. I needed that freedom.

An hour after he began the preacher says with force, “God wants you, and he wants you now. You need him, you need to have Christ free you. For you are lost, and now you can be found. Come forward, listen to God’s call, let your soul find light in your darkness. Today is the day for your rebirth. Come forward and accept Jesus in your life.”

Without a thought I stand, and walk with a couple dozen others to the front, near the stage. I cry. I kneel down there and weep, asking Jesus to save me from my confusion, to save me from myself. To save me from sin. The preacher comes down and stands in front of me. He puts his hand on my head and speaks words of comfort.

“Christ has forgiven you. Your sins are washed away.”

I feel the power of those words. My sins, even mine, were washed away. I am a new man. The frustration and weight is gone, replaced by what? Joy! My heart is filled with joy! I stand up and laugh. I hug the preacher, and he laughs with me. The musicians start playing again, and this time I join in, singing the words from the depth of my soul, praising the God who saves me.

God is great. All the trappings and symbols were barriers to me. Hearing the words of real salvation I found Christ, and found him more wonderful than I could have possibly imagined. Thanks be to Jesus!

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