Liturgical Lessons from the Decalogue: Coveting Your Neighbor's Worship
By Nicholas Zork
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exodus 20:17 NASB)
I appreciate the title of this newsletter, "Best Practices for Adventist Worship." But I have always worried that we might be unintentionally implying something we do not, in fact, believe: that the "best practices for Adventist Worship" are being done by someone else, somewhere else, and we should be imitating them. Of course, we all need to learn from one another's worship practices. Understanding the way that other communities encounter God can broaden our narrow horizons, revealing more fully the God in whose image we are all made and enriching our perception of how we - in our human diversity - can come before God in worship. But "best practices" in one community may not be best in another without significant adaptation.
Moreover, excessive focus on the worship practices of other communities can inadvertently feed the flames of a reality that needs no encouragement: liturgical coveting. We don't often think about the tenth commandment in the context of worship, but the tendency to covet our neighbor's worship is probably more prevalent than we'd like to admit. This reality is evident in the way that worship resources are often disseminated. For example, the worship songs of large, influential Christian churches are sometimes slavishly replicated in contexts quite dissimilar from the contexts in which they were written. Imitation can, of course, be a great way to learn and grow in our worship practices. And sharing liturgical resources has been central to the life of Christian communities since the earliest Christian churches gathered for worship - even the reception of the New Testament as Scripture began through the circulation of letters to be read in worship! But every community is unique; and the way we come before God in worship should authentically embody each community's particular characteristics and distinctive Divine-human relationship. Coveting our neighbor's worship - misdirected desire for a worship spaces, practices or relationships that are not ours - works against the development of this authentic, local worship.
I want to suggest that Jesus' teaching on lust - a related form of misdirected desire - can help us learn from one another without coveting. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you...If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you." (Matt. 5:29-30) Obviously, Jesus is not recommending literal bodily mutilation - nor am I! But his emphasis on embodied action is instructive. Namely, if you are struggling with misdirected desire, take concrete steps to remove opportunities for fostering it. Leaving your eyes and hands intact, consider these specific practices:
- Regularly "fast" from listening to your favorite worship music or watching popular worship videos - perhaps one day a week, one week a month or for an extended period of time. Use this time to call or visit members of your community that you don't know well. Listen to their stories and let them inform the way you plan worship.
- Write or encourage the musicians in your congregation to write one new congregational hymn or song per month. These songs may or may not always be sung on Sabbath morning. But the process of writing out of the community's own experience will enrich the congregation's perception of the particular ways God is moving in their midst.
- Occasionally remove prominent features of your congregation's worship gatherings (all songs, the sermon, public prayers) and work with a team to discern practices that might take their place and serve a similar liturgical function. Ask, how can we praise God without song? How can the Word be proclaimed without a sermon? How can we pray without using microphones? The space created by removing practices might enable a renewed focus on God's faithful presence to us, which is not contingent on what we do. And perhaps we can learn to be more present to God as our worship becomes less cluttered by some of the things that so often invite our attention and desire.