When I was a child and learning my own life story, I went to my parents to fill in the details. Like most children, I wanted to know where I had come from and who I was beyond my own memories and perceptions. I wanted to learn about my parents and grandparents, to understand how deeply our lives were connected, and to imagine my future through them. What might their stories reveal to me about their identities and my own?
When we, as children of God, gather together in worship, we come to know our own life story in relation to the One who created us and continues to love us into being. As we sing in gratitude and cry out in lament, as we read Scripture together aloud and listen to one of us proclaim it, as we share in a meal of Holy Communion, we bring our individual stories into a common story and bless God for it. We expect that in the telling of this story, in this praise and prayer for our world, God will take pleasure in us and reveal God-self to us. We also expect that as this happens, God will reveal to us the meaning of our own lives.
God’s gift to us
As Christians, we participate in God’s story through the mystery of the Trinity, a God who chooses to exist as three persons in one. An ancient word the Church used for this was perichoresis, a divine dance of interconnection, by which God moves within God’s being, giving and receiving of God’s triune self. God enters our world’s story through the body of Christ and receives our story back into God-self through the gifts the Spirit gives us and Christ’s presence among us.
We believe this story has been given to us through the community that listens with and speaks to us, and through the Scriptures handed down to us. God, we remind each other, loved us and our whole world into being, and God refuses to abandon us to sin and suffering. Rather, God is actively at work, healing and moving through the Spirit to bring peace to us and to the earth. This is the salvation story the Church has told throughout the centuries.
Our gifts for God and one another
Because God chooses a way of being that involves both giving and receiving, we as a Church are drawn into this divine life of reciprocity. We receive our story from God so that we might offer it back to God and to one another in word and action.
In our congregational worship, we speak out our story to one another by reading aloud from the Bible, singing hymns and speaking testimonies, sharing with each other the bread and cup in communion, and breathing and moving together as one body. We enter into our story with our whole beings—our words and gestures, hearts and minds, eyes and ears, mouths and feet. We see this story in the images around us, both as God reveals God-self through our sisters and brothers and in the spaces and symbols of the places where we worship.
In our public worship, we remember who we are, so that we might be sent out to bear witness to that identity as we live out our vocations in the world around us. Thus, our worship of God, our participation in this story, is not limited to the gathering of our communities on Sunday mornings but is embodied through lives of service. We receive from God and offer these gifts of praise back to God as we relate to others around us each day. As we worship God, we bring all of our creativity and our desires into the movements of God’s Spirit in the world around us.
Our worship should not isolate us from others but lead us into care for the world around us. Our reading, singing, serving, standing, kneeling, praising, lamenting ought to turn minds and bodies not only toward God but also to God’s beloved creation and the Spirit’s movement in the world. If our congregational worship fails to remind us of those beyond our church walls and of the gifts we give and receive every day through our life in God, then we miss out on the full story of our own lives. We fail to understand the lives of deep compassion God intends for us and the ways God is praised through our daily interactions with friends and strangers and in the careful tending of God’s good creation.
Every life, every voice
As Brethren in Christ, we emphasize that we give and receive through a priesthood of all believers. This means that we recognize our inability as individuals to tell the story alone. When God redeems us, God gives us a way to join the common story we create together through Christ’s presence and through the movement of the Spirit among us.
We exist through and with a communion of Christ’s body across time and around the world, and we need all of our diverse stories in order to hear the saving words that God speaks to us. Without the gifts of the entire priesthood, we deprive ourselves of access to the whole story God’s Spirit wants to offer us. Without language, images, gestures, and spaces that invite all of God’s beloved people—the young and old, the women and men, the differently abled—into the center of our worship, we deprive ourselves of all the voices needed for the Church’s praise of God.
What is this place?
from Mennonite songbook
Hymnal: A Worship Book
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor,
walls and a roof sheltering people,
windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
when we are gathered here,
and know our God is near.
Words from afar, stars that are falling,
sparks that are sown in us like seed.
Names for our God, dreams, signs, and wonders
sent from the past are all we need.
We in this place remember and speak
again what we have heard: God’s free, redeeming Word.
And we accept bread at His table,
broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living,
we are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive
what we need to increase: God’s justice and God’s peace.
Translated by David Smith (ca. 1970)
Similarly, we need each part of the story if we are to honor the whole range of our human lives and the whole world that God loves. As theologian Don Saliers writes, in worship “to meet God is to meet our own human lives in unexpected form, and to ‘pray without ceasing’ is the stretch of a whole lifetime—in season and out of season, in joy and in pain, in great gratitude and in sorrow, in cries for justice and healing, and in sheer ecstatic delight in the beauty of God.”
When we reach for the holy texts through which God speaks to us, we remember both Paul’s words of hope to the churches and the laments of the Psalms, the doubts of Job and the wilderness stories of the exiled Israelites. We enter into the story of Christ’s incarnation, the wonder of human life, the anguish of death, the hope of resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit to comfort and guide us into a reality that is yet unfolding. If in our gatherings for worship we tell only one part of the story, then we are deprived of knowing that all of our experiences can be brought to the God who loves us.
This is our story
Through our worship of God, we claim a distinction between the way the world imagines our common story and the way the Church does. We hold up our lives to the mystery of a God who promises more than we can currently see or imagine.
When we bless God and cry out for mercy, we learn to see ourselves and others differently. God’s word to us challenges any place where certain people are valued and given voice more than others, where communities are divided by race or class or country of origin, where some have and others do not, where some are seen as gifted and others as needy. Rather, we enter into a story where all have been gifted by God and where all must also receive from others in order to live into the story God has given them.
To do so, we need all the diversity of gifts and voices of Christians around the world. We need to learn the riches of our own tradition and the gifts of traditions that are not our own. Worship is not about one kind of music or one way of praising God together. It is not about a particular feeling aroused within us. It may even be tedious and uncomfortable at times. Worship is the way we continually enter a story so deep and wide, that we work our whole lives to know what it means.
We live, as a teacher of mine once wrote, in a world of great beauty and terror. In worship, we bring this beauty and this brokenness to God. This invitation is God’s gift in love to us, and it is through it that we may know God, recognize our neighbor, and come to understand ourselves.