Sunday, September 10, 2006

to worship is to work

This week I've been re-learning the Hebrew vocabulary and grammar I learned last year and promptly didn't work on very much over the summer...

Something that hit me as I was reviewing flashcards is the fact that the verb meaning "to worship" (pronounced avad) also means "to serve, work, till." It comes from the root pronounced eved, meaning "servant, slave."

I find this fascinating--I think in our culture we think of worship as a passive thing, something we sit around and do, telling God how great God is (as if God needs a reminder, or flattery), and call this worship. Especially in programmed Friends circles, and other Christian groups, worship has come to mean "singing praise songs." I think the ancient Hebrews had an amazing understanding of praise, and of music, too, but this wasn't all that worship constituted. Instead, worship apparently had a lot to do with serving God, with tilling and working the soil of the heart and community.

This reminder came to me in meeting for worship this morning, and I wondered what work we're doing there. I think early Friends understood that worship was work. For one thing, it was work just to set a meeting time and place and get there in very early Friends times, since they weren't legally supposed to meet together. But the work didn't end with an hour of meeting together. The work of worship called them out into the world, to be active in spreading the Good News of the relationship with God that they had discovered. It called them to make a more just and equitable world through the work of their everyday lives.

What is meeting for worship for now? What work are we doing there? In unprogrammed meetings, are we allowing ourselves to do the work of what Thomas Kelley calls "holy expectancy," of waiting for God to give us words to speak and faithfulness to do so? Are we listening for how we're called to live and work in the world the rest of the week, as our acts of continued worship?

In programmed meetings, do we too easily let the released ministers do the "work" of worship for us, listening and preparing for the meeting in advance, while the rest of us get to sit back and enjoy the "show"? Are we allowing ourselves to be spoken to through those we've released as ministers, and to hear beyond them to the voice of God speaking through them in ways they couldn't have planned? Are we aware of the ways God is calling us to act and work in the world throughout the week, to continue our worship as service, not just as song?

How are we as Friends living worship as work, service, and tilling?


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Oh, an excellent posting, this!

I hadn't caught the fact that the one verb meant both "to worship" and "to work". I thank you for bringing that point out! But of course the motto of the Benedictines is laborare est orare -- "to work is to worship", in Latin -- so they must have figured it out a very long time ago.

I have never been able to make sense of programmatic worship. To me it seems obvious that what God wants is not people saying, "Lord, Lord" but people doing His (Her) will. The truest worship is to behave as God behaves, by emulating Christ demonstrating how genuinely we believe in His (Her) promises and trust Him.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

This reminds me of a little story that I heard so long ago I can no longer give credit to its source. A visitor at an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting sits there for a long time waiting for something to happen and getting more and more puzzled. Finally, the visitor whispers to someone sitting near "When does the service begin?" and the Friend who is asked whispers back "Right after the Meeting." Superficially it might seem that the visitor and the Friend are talking about different kinds of "service", but if "service" in the broader sense and "worship" are actually the same thing, then the Friend's answer is correct after all.

Edward Pearce said...

Thanks for the Hebrew lesson, Cherice. I had noticed that in translating the same verse, some translations of the Bible might say serve, while others would say worship.
A couple of months ago, visiting in Kentucky, I went to Pleasant Hill, the former Shaker settlement that has been restored for visitors. A docent told us that the Shakers would refer to their worship as laboring, while refering to their work with their hands as worship.

GMC said...

Thank you for your insight. I know that it is sometimes hard work to sit in meeting quietly waiting, but now I
understand worship is supposed to be.

cherice said...


That's a good reminder about the Benedictines--I wonder if they'd reverse their phrase and say that not only is work worship, but worship is work? As to programmed worship, I think it attempts to draw people into a place where they can be attentive to the presence of God. But the problem is that those things that are intended to draw people to God often get lost in becoming the focus, the end rather than the means.


I've heard that Quaker joke as well, and appreciate its humor as well as its truth. Hopefully it continues to be true of us as Quakers today.


Thanks for that insight about the Shakers. That's a very cool way of looking at the work we do with our hands.


I'm glad you found it helpful to think of that hard work as the work of worship. May it aid you as you listen to the Spirit.