|Encountering the Healing Power of God: A Study in the Sacred Actions of Worship, Alleluia! Series|
Robert E. Webber
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Encountering the Healing Power of God is book 6 in the Alleluia Worship Series. It is a 3 part course for small group or individual study consisting of 13 easy to understand sessions. Part 1, Sacred Actions Ordered by the Lord, offers two sessions on each of the "sacred actions" recognized as sacrements throughout the Christian church: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Part 2, Sacred Actions Commonly Accepted by the Church, explores confirmation, reconciliation, marriage, ordination, anointing and Christian funerary practices. Part 3, Other Sacred Actions of Worship, studies foot washing and the "solemn assembly".
|A Study in Sacred Actions
When I was about ten years old, a U.S. Army general came to our town to speak. It was a big occasion in a small town, so the turnout was large. My dad and I went to hear the general and experience the festivities.
After the speech my dad and I were standing in the path of the general’s exit. As he passed by us, he patted me on the head and said, “What ’your name, sonny?” I was embarrassed and scared, so I lowered my head and mumbled my name.
The general walked on, and my dad used this as an opportunity to teach me how to meet people. “Robert,” he aid, “when you meet someone, you look him in the eye, you clasp his hand firmly, and you speak clearly and distinctly. ”On that day I learned that a greeting with a firm hand shake and a clear look is an action that speaks.
Of course we all know that. And we all can remember significant handshakes. It is an instant form of communication, an action that speaks.
Life is full of symbolic gesture and words that speak and act. Events like birth, graduation, marriage, and death are attended by ritual action. We communicate not only through what we say but what we do.
This study is all about action that we do in worship. We want to know how they speak and how we can hear what they have to say.
THE BIBLICAL BASIS OF SACRED ACTIONS
In Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 the creatures of God are worshiping. Both Isaiah and John were smitten with the holiness of God and heard creature around the throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come ”(Rev 4:8,cf.Isa 6:3).
A fascinating feature about this vision is the symbolism that surrounds God on the throne. Isaiah sees God “seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying” (Isa 6:1 –2). John’s description is even more elaborate (see Rev 4:6 –5).
|WHY RECOVER SYMBOLISM IN WORSHIP?
We need to recover symbolism in worship because human beings are symbolic creatures. Recent research in psychology, especially the branch that attempts to understand the neural organization of the human brain, has concluded that the brain functions differently in the right and left hemisphere. The left hemisphere appears to specialize in verbal functions, and the right hemisphere centers on spatial function and other nonverbal skills. While Scripture is verbal, it uses a variety of communication models , ranging from discursive expression to highly apocalyptic language to poetry.
Psychoanalyst Rollo May argues that the loss of symbols constitutes one of humanity’s chief difficulties. When people have no symbol to identify and illustrate the meaning of life, they cannot transcend the crises of life. Hunger, war, death, unemployment, disease, and the other horror that confront civilization on a daily basis seem to be the sum and substance of life. Sign or symbols in this world how people another world, or means of coping with the trial and strain of this world. Without them, people have nowhere to turn but to despair and absurdity.
Furthermore, symbolism is at the very center of life itself. The celebration that marks such occassions a birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, and funerals are all ways of acting out the meaning of things that words alone fail to convey.
PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE THE RESTORATION OF SYMBOLISM IN OUR WORSHIP
First, it is necessary to recognize that earthly worship is modeled after a heavenly pattern. The vision of Isaiah and John affirm the use of symbolism in worship. Obviously it is impossible and inadvisable to literally reproduce the element of their vision .On the other hand, when the earthly church refuses to incorporate visual symbols into it worship, it misses an opportunity to join the heavenly host in ascribing worth to God.
Second, it is important to recover worship as an action. It is something we do —not something done to us. The vision given to Isaiah and John indicate that worshipers are not merely passive observers. They are involved in doing something. In John’s account, the creature did not rest “day or night, ”the elder “[fell] down before Him ”and“ cast their crown before the throne” (Rev 4:8,10 NKJV). Worship involves an active response from the worshiper.
|In the history of Christian worship there has been a strong emphasis on what the worshiper does .In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions the worshiper genuflects, kneels, sings numerous responses, bows, says “amen” at the end of prayers, walks forward for Communion, smells the incense, hears the bells, sees the Host, and passes the kiss of peace. Charismatic worship is also quite active. Charismatic raise their hands, speak in tongues, interpret, prophesy, sing in the Spirit, and sometimes dance spontaneously. In this sense Catholic, Orthodox, charismatic, and others who stress the involvement of the whole person in worship are using a greater variety of symbolic action than those who merely sit and expect to be challenged or filled.
Finally, we must always keep in mind that worship is a learned art. The idea that worship is instantaneous, spontaneous, and natural betrays our lack of understanding. We are more than willing to agree that a successful musician, artist, dramatist, doctor, teacher, lawyer, carpenter, or homemaker must learn the art of doing his or her profession right! Yet we somehow feel that the Christian faith, worship, and the communication of Christian truths should all fall into place naturally without any effort on our part. For this reason it is important to emphasize both the learned and the artistic nature of worship. The process by which it has been learned is historical. The interested reader will want to examine various church liturgies for special holy days such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Symbolism occurs in the vestments, architecture, and music of the church, and each area provide additional idea for recovering symbolism in the contemporary church.
We have been able to see that symbolism has always played a very important part in Christian worship. Therefore, the great drama expressed in Scripture, from the fall to the restoration of humanity in Jesus Christ, ought to be communicated not only in word but in action. Symbolic communication in the church is a valid means of communicating truth of the Christian faith. The reenactment of the birth of Christ, the sorrow over his death, the joy of his resurrection, and the power of Pentecost cannot be completely nor adequately communicated through word alone. The same can be aid for the other sacred action that we will study in this course: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, anointing with oil, foot washing, and the many other sacred action of worship require nonverbal means of communication. This study will ask you to pay close attention to these sacred action that communicate the meaning of the gospel.
Read Session 1,“Actions Speak,” before starting the study guide.
PART I: PERSONAL STUDY
Complete the following questions individually.
|1. Life Connection
Think of a special occasion in your life, your family, your church, or the nation that demanded some form of symbolic communication. Recount that event and the significance of each symbol used.
2. Content Questions
Read Revelation 4:1 –11. List as many symbols as you can find in the text. What do these symbols communicate?
Compare the communication skills of the right and left side of the brain.
How does Scripture affirm the use of symbol a well as reason?
Describe psychoanalyst Rollo May’s argument for the use of symbolism.
Give an example of symbolism in everyday life.
State and describe in your own words three principles to keep in mind as we consider the nonverbal character of worship.
Recall a meaningful nonverbal action that spoke to your heart in a recent service of worship.
PART II: GROUP DISCUSSION
The following question are designed for group discussion. Share the insight you gained from your personal study in Part I.
Write out all answers that group members give to the question on a chalkboard, a flip chart, or a dry erase board.
1. Life Connection
Begin your discussion by recalling incident from personal life, family life, church life, or national life that required symbolism to communicate meaning.
2. Thought Questions
Read Isaiah 6:1 –7 and discuss the meaning of the symbolism.
Read Act 2:42 –47 (the earliest description of Christian worship) and discuss the symbolic action that took place in early Christian worship.
Read Revelation 4:1 –11 and discuss the symbolism of heavenly worship.
Ask for examples that would confirm Rollo May’s contention that symbolism is a necessary element of life.
Discuss the three principles that we need to keep in mind as we use symbolism in worship.
Evaluate all the symbols used in a recent worship service in your church. What would worship have been without these symbols?
Imagine a service that is absolutely void of any form of symbolic communication. What would it be like?
Discuss how your present worship could be enhanced by the greater use of symbolic communication. What symbolic form of communication would you add?
Encountering the Healing Power of God: A Study in the Sacred Actions of Worship, Alleluia! Series
Hendrickson Publishers, copyright 1998.