Monday, June 09, 2014

Joyful Devotion

Joyful Devotion
Acts 2:42-47[1]
  Some of us may remember the debate that arose in the days when two working parents became the norm. It was the debate about “quality time” versus “quantity time.” Advocates for keeping things the way they were argued that children needed to spend as much time as possible with a parent. Advocates for having two working parents argued that what really mattered was “quality time,” not necessarily the quantity of time spent with children. As it became more and more necessary for most households to have two incomes in order to survive, that debate seemed to fizzle out. But I think in part the alternatives were always false: children need both. They need “quality time” with parents, but they also need to spend as much time with their parents as possible, assuming the home is a healthy environment.[2]
  I mention this debate to address another assumption that I think equally misses the point. It is the idea that if you go to worship at least once a week, then you’ve gotten your “dose” of God and you’re good until next week. Now, I’m the last person to discount the importance of participating in weekly worship. But the problem is thinking that’s somehow “enough.” It seems to me, that when it comes to the worship of God, “enough” is a category that doesn’t apply. It’s a bit like the idea that there is some level of children spending time with parents that constitutes “enough.” Just like young children benefit from all the time they can possibly have with their parents, so I think we benefit from all the time we can possibly spend in the worship of God.
  I think our lesson from Acts gives us a glimpse of what this might look like. In the early days of the church, after their experience of the risen Christ and the coming of the Spirit upon them, those first believers spent as much time as possible in worship. According to the Scripture, they were continually devoting themselves to worship, spending their time embracing the Apostles’ teaching, enjoying fellowship with one another, frequently observing communion, and praying without ceasing. It’s no wonder that their quality of life was such that “Awe came upon everyone” (Acts 2:43) and they carried out this devotion to worship “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).[3]
  Obviously, this recounting of the joyful worship of the first Christians is an ideal that may or may not be possible for us in our daily lives of work and family.[4] And yet, I think it’s important to note that their worship was joyful. I think perhaps here too we may have missed the point of worship. We may think of worship as “obligatory.” Or perhaps we may feel that worship should be more “reverent” and serious than joyful. One extreme example of this was the Puritan practice of having a Tithingman, whose responsibility it was to punish young people who might be so brazen as to actually laugh or even smile in worship. But don’t think the adults got off easy; it was also his job was to see to it that anyone who fell asleep literally had a rude awakening. And he carried a stick to rap them on the head to do just that.[5]
  Of course, that represents an extreme that most reasonable people would not approve these days. But the question of whether joy, smiling, and laughter are appropriate in worship is still a problem for some people. Not to mention more obvious expressions like dancing in worship! And yet, I cannot imagine those first Christians meeting together with “glad and generous hearts” and not smiling, or even laughing from the pure joy of being together and worshipping God their Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ![6]
  I think this brings us back to the question of quantity of time spent in worship. When worship is something that we do only occasionally or even haphazardly, it will be something unfamiliar, something uncomfortable, and perhaps even boring to us. However, when we make the worship of God something that we do as often as possible, both in Sunday worship and incorporating it into our daily lives, it will become as natural as breathing to us.[7] We may not be able to pray as much as the monastic orders do, but I think most of us can make more room in our lives for worship. There are all kinds of resources available to help us accomplish that.[8] And with worship, the more we practice it, the more we experience the joy that comes from the presence of the risen Lord Jesus.
  I believe that worship is the most important means for cultivating the joy of Easter in our lives.[9] But for that to happen, we cannot confine worship to one hour a week. Rather than filling the empty spaces of our days with what can sometimes be empty pursuits, we can set aside some of those spaces for worship. To do that, it must become a part of the rhythm of our daily lives. When we devote ourselves to worship in that way, we find joy through our awareness that the risen Lord Jesus is with us constantly.[10]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/11/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Ian and Kaye McKean, “Quality Time vs. Quantity Time: what’s most important?,” who say, “When people are thinking of quality or quantity they are not thinking of relationships because these are egocentric constructs.   That means they focus on us, not the child’s needs.   The real question parents should be asking is not quality or quantity, but what does my child need to preserve an emotional connection with me?” See
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 315-16, where he argues that the best way to describe the relationship the early Christians shared in their devotion to God is with the term “friendship.” He says, “Friendship is a free association. Friendship is a new relationship, which goes beyond the social roles of those involved. Friendship is an open relationship which spreads friendliness, because it combines affection with respect. The congregatio sanctorum, the community of brethren, is really the fellowship of friends who live in the friendship of Jesus and spread friendliness in the fellowship, by meeting the forsaken with affection and the despised with respect.”  Cf. similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, “Making Connections: The Material Expression of Friendship in the New Testament,” Interpretation 58 (Ap 2004): 158-171
[4] On the “idealized” nature of this passage, cf. R. I. Pervo, Acts: A commentary on the Book of Acts, 93; and Johnson, “Making Connections,” 162.
[5] See Alice Morse Earle, The Sabbath in Puritan New England, chapters 5 and 6, accessed at
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74, where he observes that worship should remind us of a celebration of the resurrection, which begins with the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated.”
[7] Cf. The Book of Order 2013-2015, W-5.2001 (p. 133): “The daily challenge of discipleship requires the daily nurture of worship.”  Cf. also ibid., W-5.1003: “The rhythm of the life of the believer moves from worship to ministry, from ministry to worship.”
[8] Some of the most helpful are the PCUSA Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer EditionA Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God; and the ambitious three volume Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle, which simplifies the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  Or you can find daily Scripture readings and Psalms for prayer at
devotions/, or by searching for “Daily Office” on the internet.  PCUSA even has a “Daily Prayer App” for either iOS or Android devices. The volume of material in some of these resources can be overwhelming. I think it's important to remember you have the freedom to select what is meaningful to you, not to feel bound to forging your way through every scripture reading and prayer.
[9] Cf. The Book of Order 2013-2015, W-1.1001 (p. 75): “In worship the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed.”
[10] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 158, defines worship as “to experience Reality, to touch Life. It is to know, to feel, to experience the resurrected Christ in the midst of the gathered community.” But for this to truly become our experience of corporate worship, he recognizes that we must “learn to practice the presence of God daily” (ibid, 170).  Cf. also Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 171-183, where she discusses various ways mainline churches have experimented with transforming worship into the experience of God rather than  reflection about God.

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