How do we worship in times of suffering?

“Our small congregation has really been through a lot recently—several deaths, serious illnesses, unemployment, people moving away….we’ve been hit hard.”

My friend was describing what he’s been facing as a ministry team volunteer, and I took no joy in letting him know he had also just described the exact condition of the small congregation I serve on the other side of town.  Over coffee we commiserated and talked about worship during times of trial and suffering.  Not meaning to sound trite—there seems to be more than enough suffering to go around.

Events of last week brought more suffering into view.  I was assisting a local university’s Service Learning Program in Los Angeles consisting of six days of intensive, hands-on education at social service agencies of which just a partial listing includes an adult day care center for those suffering with Alzheimers, a global human rights agency fighting against genocides and caring for refugees, a social/psychiatric treatment center (including a lock-down facility) for teens, a food drive for HIV/AIDS patients, a food pantry for the needy, dance instruction for children with special needs, a world hunger organization, a social club for developmentally and mentally disabled adults,  and an addiction rehabilitation and recovery center.

As you all know, during that same week Haiti was hit with a massive earthquake.  So the head of the world hunger organization that was giving a presentation to us understandably cut his message short to continue making emergency calls on his cell phone—setting resources into motion in an attempt to alleviate suffering.

Those experiences last week brought into focus serious needs of people often overlooked in our own community, as well as highlighting needs and suffering around the world.  At the same time we saw volunteers and professionals coming alongside and serving those in need.  But seeing so much need all in six days was somewhat overwhelming.

Arriving home for the weekend I took a call from our dear friends from Sri Lanka and learned of their recent struggles with unemployment, pneumonia, and lack of insurance.  A visit was set up.

My wife reminded me it was our family’s turn to serve the next evening with our church volunteer team in helping prepare warm meals and setting up cots and handing out blankets at the cold weather shelter for the homeless.  More suffering.

Given the theology that drives this blog about worship, we regularly refer to the risen, ascended Minister of the Sanctuary, the Son of God and Son of Man—that is the person Jesus—as standing in the midst of each congregation as we worship and presenting us to the Father.  And if that is so, what is Jesus doing while being surrounded by so much suffering?

If you’ve not already done so, I invite you to visit The Surprising God blog (link is on right side of this page under “resources”) and read Ted Johnston’s January 15 post, “Where is God when the world suffers?”  In short, Ted says he believes Holy Scripture indicates that Jesus is present with us in the Spirit and is suffering with us, weeping with us, and is also sharing his love and compassion and reaching out through caring people to comfort and bring aid to those suffering.

Ted reminds us, “There is one God who is Father, Son and Spirit.  This one God, in three persons is of one mind; one heart; one will.  God, in Christ, loves us, and in the Spirit is fully present with us.  In our suffering.  And he is now and always at work to bring to us a new heaven and a new earth in which sorrow and suffering is gone.  That is the hope for us all.  In the meantime, let us embrace and extend to others the compassion of our suffering God.  We know him, because we know Jesus.”

So while our worship regularly celebrates Christ’s victory over sin and death, I suggest we ask if the worship services we put together also reflect the caring and compassionate mind, heart and will of God that is present as the Suffering Servant.  With the compassionate heart of Jesus for our own congregation and for people around the world (whether or not they are believers), do we sing songs of petition?  Songs of confession?

The service needn’t sound like a funeral, but do we sing any laments, or any prayerful or meditative songs that are sensitive to and offer comfort and support for those who suffer, or is the balance weighed almost entirely on the louder voices of victory and triumph?  Are we taking time to weep with those who weep?

The inaugural post of this worship blog (9.08.09) quotes T.F. Torrance from Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry and mentions that although the worship and message of the Church proclaims the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9), we must also remember that Jesus and the Church are still the Suffering Servant, mercifully ministering to the needs of others, and are in patient endurance fulfilling what the prophets of the Old Testament saw from afar (James 5:10-11).

Scripture assures us that despite any and all appearances to the contrary, God really is with us and for us, even (perhaps especially) in the midst of trials, tragedy and suffering.  Please feel free to let us know how Jesus is leading worship in your congregation in ways that share the Suffering Servant’s patient love, great mercy and compassion.