The ELCE is currently having a global ‘Health and Safety’ audit done. Health and safety is a topic that can generate a range of emotions! It is part and parcel of our world and the organisations in which we’re involved. Inspections, audits, paperwork, policies, checks and rechecks are the scaffolding our society uses to keep people safe. I think the issue usually begins with something along the lines of ‘Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility’. Perhaps it is the bureaucratisation of being a good neighbour – because overall we aren’t such good neighbours! The audit however while necessary for churches isn’t designed for them but really for businesses or where the relationship is much more commercial so on a number of occasions the audit check list ‘didn’t apply’ in our situation.
And it got me thinking about health and safety in worship – where this planet’s population comes into the presence of the living God. Many years ago I read the following which submerged into my consciousness and in my understanding of worship. You may have heard it before. It is by Annie Dillard (‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ in the chapter ‘An Expedition to the Pole’ p.52). “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Worship is a death and life encounter with the living and holy God. He is the active one who uses ordinary things like words, water, bread and wine – and sinners! – through which he comes to people to forgive, serve, guide, sustain, nourish, and bless. Somehow in every worship time God is dealing with our old life (which we easily experience) and our new life in Christ (which is ours through the faith God has given us). Thus I think that our experience of God’s encounter with us – bored, indifferent, engaged, enthused, happy, sad, confident, unnerved – is as varied as we are individuals! Yet the key determinant for what worship is about is what Jesus has told us to do – absolve and retain sins; preach and teach God’s Word; pray; baptise; celebrate Holy Communion; and present offerings for the work of gospel and for the poor.
So God works on us in worship – on all who are present – drawing us to him – but it flies in the face of ‘health and safety’. ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ and ‘whoever loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel will find it’ says Jesus. That sounds neither healthy or safe! And yet Jesus offers life in all its fullness! Worship isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a ‘packaged tour of the Absolute’ (oh, look over there, there’s God’s holiness!) but a meeting with the risen Lord Jesus – who still bears the scars of his crucifixion – and who still calls us to follow him – trust him – and live following him. ‘Madness!’ says the world, ‘you’re not safe!’. ‘Maybe’ Jesus’ disciples reply, ‘but my God, my Jesus, is good!’. GS