The Essence of Worship by Rev. Dr. David M. Neff

As I look out over the congregation, a moment of reflection descends as our music director Jacob Haywood arranges his music to begin the prelude. There are fewer and fewer people in worship these days. For the past two years, I have pastored a small Presbyterian congregation on the south side of Chicago. Our church is interracial – nearly half black and half white. We are affluent and lower income, suburban and urban, GED’s and Ph.D’s – all in an amazing mix that is truly the body of Christ. I peek around the pulpit to watch each saint process in, one by one, regular and faithful in their love for the church, as good as the day is long – I am blessed to sense a moment of transcendence as it unfolds its precious message to me.

As one lady walks in, I think what a miracle it must be for her to just get here. She has four teen-age daughters and one young son in the home; living with her are other relatives, one on crack, another unemployed. That she and her family have arrived – on time – is a feat deserving of recognition.

As I scan the rest of the congregation, I sense there must be other miracles present to me. One "mentally challenged" man arrives, after taking three different busses to get to church; he likes to pour coffee during the social hour. One man who has survived three open-heart surgeries eases into his pew. Another woman, who recently suffered macular degeneration, sits praying, although she can no longer read the bulletin nor see the altar. Several women from a nearby shelter sit in the back pews, minding their children; I say a silent prayer for each. A lady who suffered a stroke is ushered in by one of our Deacons, who gave her a ride. During the greeting line, she will gesture toward heaven with her hands and with teary eyes will stutter the question: "Why?." I will give her a hug and shake my head and tell her I love her. It’s the same ritual every Sunday.

Jacob begins his prelude. If his music could capture the sense of miracle that I feel as each person walks into the sanctuary — each carrying a story full of faith, prayers for miracles in the midst of a thousand hardships in tow — our service will be blessed. If the choral anthem or special music could convey - as it often does — the marvel and the miracle of what each soul carries each moment — the profound struggling to break through the profane - then our worship will reach its exquisite mark. If my preaching could capture the sense of awe and wonder I sense at work in this faith community - as I pray it will, we will be inspired.

When music or silence lifts our eyes toward the numinous, the merciful and transcendent, we are enabled to see, at least momentarily, our own humanness incarnated in the journey and struggle of another human being like ourselves. Our ability to see each person in the image and likeness of God depends on those moments of inspiration and contemplation that worship provides, reflecting back to us our own miraculous story, our own sacred journey.

Whether our preaching or liturgy, our music or our prayers lift us up to that holy place, in a sense, as we enter the house of God, we are already there. The "recognition of miracles daily within us" has opened my eyes to a sense of divine mystery and incredible human drama at work as we begin worship. I give the service over to God and offer all I am, in thanksgiving, as Jacob begins the first few notes of his prelude. Ironically, amazingly the familiar strains begin to reach my heart: "Open My Eyes That I May See."

Rev. Dr. David M. Neff is Pastor at Morgan Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois. His phone is: 773-779-3355