The priest is coming to the most important part of the liturgy. He lifts his hands to pray, opens his mouth, and says, “I’m sorry. I forgot part of the liturgy.” He smiles sheepishly as the congregation chuckles quietly. “This happens when you haven’t been ordained for very long! I’ll have to go back and do that over again.”
A subdued atmosphere of prayerful worship has fallen over the worshipers at the small non-denom church. The musicians have just finished one of those intimate songs that brings everyone into that special place of quiet worship. They strike the first chord of the next song. Well, one of them strikes that chord. The piano player strikes a completely different and discordant chord. The bass player tries desperately to find the notes to play, and realizes he has to choose between what the acoustic guitar is playing or what the piano is hitting. The drummer is thoroughly confused. The leader suddenly breaks out in uproarious laughter. “I’m sorry folks! Let’s… uh… try that again!”
A youth pastor is speaking to a room full of young people. He has a message to give to these teens. He begins to review what it is they’ve been discussing through this important series. “We were talking about Lot,” he begins. “…and how Lot chose to go pinch his tits…” His face freezes in horror. “Excuse me! ‘Pitch his tents!’ I hope this isn’t on video tape,” he chuckles. But it is on video tape, and within minutes he’s a YouTube sensation.
I’m sure you’ve been in one of these kinds of situations, either as a direct participant in the awkwardness or as an awkward observer. I always find it interesting to see the reactions of the perpetrators of the mistake, and of the people watching it happen. Most often, the reaction is one of humor. Sometimes it’s compassionate cringing. I don’t know about you, but I love these situations. There’s something so incredibly human about them, especially when they happen in the context of corporate Christian worship. They can be great reminders of just how small and silly we really are.
You may attend a very ‘casual’ church, where such moments happen at least once every time you gather. You may attend a more liturgical or program-oriented church, where such moments are rare. However we worship, we usually have some kind of liturgy, even if we’re uncomfortable calling it that. There is a certain rhythm and cadence we become familiar with, and when something happens that disrupts that rhythm, it changes everything.
These moments, whether we realize it or not, are not merely interruptions in our worship. I believe they are encounters with grace. They are moments when something happens that is beyond our control. A bad note, a technical glitch, perhaps even a congregant disrupting the service in some way. How we react to these moments can reveal a lot about what we think of ourselves and what we think about the God we worship. These moments can remind us that we may be in danger of worshiping worship, of thinking somewhere in the depths of our minds that we are not coming to meet a God that is already present, but somehow conjuring his presence through our magical incantations. How dangerous it is to confuse worship with sorcery!
Let me digress here to make it very clear what it is I am not saying. I am not saying that we shouldn’t have liturgies and rhythms to our corporate gatherings. What I am saying is that these rhythms are not so much for God’s sake, but for ours. Rhythms and liturgies can help us move into a frame of mind from which we can more deeply give of ourselves to the Father, and in which we can more deeply receive his love and his graces. I think God enjoys our liturgies very much, but he enjoys them as a Father enjoys playing games with his children. Games are a means to enjoying one another in a spirit of loving playfulness and tenderness. These liturgies, these games, are not ways of winning his approval or of wooing him into our presence. They are to woo us into his presence.
And that’s what’s so important to remember when we mess up the game. We haven’t lost him. His Spirit doesn’t up and leave when the band plays badly or the priest preaches blandly. The Spirit is there, inviting us to remember our childlikeness, to remember God’s Fathering presence with us. It’s okay to make these mistakes into moments of joy.
Let me tell you about the particular church service which inspired this article.
The band was playing well, but there was a problem at the sound board. Nobody could hear the singers. The lyrics to the songs appeared on the screen a little too late and a little out of order, and the order of service was peppered with small, awkward moments of forgotten details. When someone came to the front to share a deeply moving story, many people couldn’t hear it because he couldn’t get it into his head to hold the microphone up to his mouth. The guest speaker was struggled to find the words he wanted, lost his notes, and gave a scattered sermon that went a bit long.
A visiting friend sat next to me. “Well,” I told him after the service, “it’s not usually like that. We’re usually a little more organized.”
His response surprised me.
“I liked it,” he said. “It made it all feel like… family.”
I smiled, and felt an inkling of pride (the good kind, I think) to be part of a church whose heart could shine through in such moments of failure. I also inwardly repented of feeling any embarrassment at our lack of professionalism, of believing in the slightest that God’s presence depended on our performance. In our church’s most awkward hour, the Father was there, enjoying the family he had made, and my friend sensed that.
Should we strive for excellence in our corporate times of prayer and worship? Of course we should, because the Father loves it when we give him our very best, and we should be making mistakes because we’re trying our hardest. Just remember that he loves the beautiful things we give because he loves us. Not the other way around!
Perhaps it would be good for me to remember this principle not just in times of corporate worship, but throughout my life. God’s presence in my life does not depend on my lack of mistakes. Instead, I am invited to be present in his life. Whatever mistakes I make, even mistakes made by others that disrupt and frustrate me, are nothing more than invitations to grace.
When I see them that way, I realize I’m receiving about a thousand invitations a day.
By Aaron Alford