July 7, 2019
When I went on my first camping trip as a tenderfoot Boy Scout, I was taken aback by the Scoutmaster's instructions for setting up camp. As soon as we laid out our tents, and before we could even drive in one stake for pitching the tents, the Scoutmaster ordered us to dig small channels, about the width and depth of a shovel blade, around the perimeter of each tent. I knew that moats were useful for keeping intruders out of medieval castles, but they hardly seemed necessary for the protection of our Boy Scout pup tents. The little furrows we dug could not have stopped any hungry vermin, ambitious reptile, or two-legged intruder. What purpose, I thought, could the construction of those miniature moats serve other than to delay our fun? When I mentioned my reservations to some of the First Class scouts, they assured me that on every campout they went through the same routine. Dig ditches around every tent every time.
What a bore! I had looked forward to an exciting weekend roasting wieners, staying up late listening to ghost stories, and playing Capture the Flag in the woods, instead I had to comply with some time-wasting policy of ditch digging, some empty ritual of a killjoy Scoutmaster.
I could see no sense in that boring routine until the next morning. During the night a heavy rainstorm has drenched our campsite. I had heard the rain pelting on our tents during the night, during which time I was grateful that at least my tent did not leak. When I stepped out of the tent in the morning, I was surprised to see that the little ditches around our tents were full of water. Only then did I realize the wisdom of our leader's insistence on burrowing furrows around our tents.
The ditches served as canals for the rainwater, channeling the water away from the ground underneath our tents. Since in that day and age, pup tents did not have their own waterproof floors, we had placed layers of newspapers underneath our sleeping bags to protect them from the dampness in the ground. If the rainwater, which rolled down our tent sides, had seeped into the ground beneath our tent and sleeping bags, we would have become soaked during our sleep. However, by virtue of carrying out that routine task of burrowing ditches in dry ground, we had made sure that when the rain came, the water would go where we wanted it to go. Because we carried out that seemingly empty routine, to paraphrase one Boy Scout motto, we had been well prepared.
My experience of making channels around pup tents contains more than simply useful advice for any would-be weekend campers in our congregation. That Boy Scout experience has insightful similarities to our weekly observance of gathering to worship God.
Some folks downplay the benefit of gathering for worship of God once a week by claiming that it is only a routine, only a ritual. Every week we go through the same activities: we recite the same prayers, collect an offering, read Scriptures, hear a sermon, and sing a few songs. We hear some of the same prayer requests week after week. Many of the Bible stories or stories for children you have heard before. The Christian church has not been very creative in designing what we do in worship: we can read, sing, pray, collect money, share Communion occasionally, read the Bible and preach. Not much originality beyond that.
In fact if one goes back nearly 2,000 years to the earliest thorough description of a Christian worship service (by a church leader, Justin Martyr Apology I 67), one finds the same routines for what we do when we are reading the Scriptures, preaching, praying, offering money, and ending with a benediction.
Not only have churches carried on the same types of activities from year to year, some churches even carry on the same order of these same activities in worship from year to year. The content and order of service in this congregation has not changed much in at least 80 years. The earliest worship bulletin I could find in our church's archives dates from 1937. Then as today we still have a call to worship, an opening hymn, an invocation, a hymn, pastoral prayer, offering, sermon, hymn, and benediction.
However, the fact that these elements, these rituals are repeated year after year and week after week is not necessarily a reason why we ought to change or abandon them, anymore than I ought to change my day after day, week after week practice of kissing my wife before I leave for work. Whatever is good is worth repeating. Rituals are curious sequences of actions we repeat time after time after time in order to help us remember. Rituals are curious sequences of actions we repeat time after time after time in order to help us remember.
Digging ditches around pup tents was a routine, a special Boy Scout ritual. It was a curious sequence of actions our scout troop did religiously on every camping trip. Each time we did it we remembered to be prepared for any change of the weather.
The rituals of worship are curious sequences of activities we do week after week after week to help us remember. By gathering in one room (instead of in front of a television screen) we remember that Jesus came to us in flesh and blood not simply through an electronic bulletin board. By reading a call to worship, we remember that Jesus invites us, still calls us to be his friends, even if we have forgotten him during the week. By singing we remember that God wants to touch our hearts, our emotions as surely as music and poetry can touch our souls. By offering our gifts we remember that God expects commitment, not simply a convenience, from us. By hearing the Bible stories, we remember that our life story is a part of God's bigger story. By hearing a sermon we remember that the relevance of God's messages was not exhausted 2,000 years ago but still applies to us.
These rituals, repeated for generation after generation, help us to remember that we are not the first or the only ones to worship God, to love and follow Jesus. Rituals keep us from forgetting, which is precisely why we need to repeat them so often, because we forget so often and so easily what it means to be Jesus' follower and friend.
Digging ditches around pup tents and gathering for worship of God are alike in the first place because both are routines. Let us not discredit routines for being perfunctory or mechanical. Taping a note to the refrigerator door or jotting down a note on the smart phone may seemmechanical, but their common purpose is to be memorable. We must credit routines for helping us remember what otherwise we easily forget.
Admittedly some people discredit routines because the actions sometime seem empty, sometimes seem fruitless. One can go through the rituals, go through the motions of a worship service and sense that little has happened, sense that God's Spirit doesn't touch ours, question if the results justify the investment. But this is not so much a criticism of worship per se, as it is simply a statement of fact about routines in general.
I shampoo my hair routinely. I do not always get that tingly feeling in my scalp that some brands of shampoo are reported to bring. People who shower daily do not always experience a new zest for life just because they become zestfully clean. Singing the Star Spangled Banner before every ball game does not always awaken our patriotic feelings. The fact of the matter is that sometimes routines are empty of emotional impact.
But this is not a sufficient reason to abandon a routine. Sometimes on our Boy Scout camping trips the morning after we had dug those ditches around our pup tents, the ditches were full of water. Other times the morning after we had dug a set of ditches around our pup tents, the channels were empty. But we did not give up the practice of digging ditches because sometimes afterwards the channels were dry or empty. The truth of the matter was that if the channels had never been empty, they never could have become full. If they had never been dry, they never could have held water.
Although I hope it is not the case, I grant that sometimes worship will seem like an empty routine, because sometimes it is precisely that, a routine that is as empty as a ditch is empty, waiting to be filled. But if the ditch had never been dug, it had never been emptied, then the channel would not have been ready when the waters came. One purpose of the weekly worship routine is to keep the channels ready, always prepared so that God can fill them.
Because if we wait with patience, if we patiently keep the channels open, there will come times when God's mighty waters, God's mighty spirit will enliven or stir us. At such times you, like Jacob so many years ago, will leave a very familiar place saying, "Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16-17).
Worship can be a routine, but that is not necessarily bad. For routines help us to remember. Digging ditches helped our Boy Scout troop to remember to be prepared for any inclement weather. Therefore, as one poet in the Bible warned us, seek God in a time when the Lord can be found, so that when the storms of life fall upon us, the floods will not sweep you away (cf. Psalm 32:6). When the troubling storms come, we will be prepared so that the waters can run away rather than douse us.
I readily admit that at times worship can seem like an empty routine, but that is not necessarily bad. Parents spend a great deal of time and energy impressing upon our children the value of routines. We foster the routines of brushing their teeth twice a day, washing their hands before meals, making their bed in the morning, putting their dirty clothes in the hamper, turning off lights in empty rooms, going to bed at a reasonable time, saying their prayers before falling asleep. We observe these routines day after day, month after month, year after year. Parents know that routines shape children’s character, so we enforce them even when our children complain that they are bored or disinterested. Parents know that routines keep life in order, keep us healthy.
At some time or other all routines must be empty. Our routine of working out in the gym three times a week sometimes is drudgery. I’d rather stay home and watch television or play on the computer. But we learned as children that routines protect us even when, maybe especially when, they seem empty. If I had not gone through the seemingly emptyroutine of making empty ditches around my pup tent, the rain waters would not have flowed where I wanted them to go. Whatever is empty is only waiting to be filled. Keep the channels open now so that when the refreshing waters come, God's Spirit can flow into us.