We are creatures of habit. This is true in almost every area of our lives. In fact, if it were not true, life would be well-nigh impossible.
It is also true in our public worship. And this is good, subject to two limitations. In the first place, our habits must be good habits. And, in the second place, our habits must not become mere formalities, emptyhabits. Thus, for example, to honor the Lord with our lips, while our heart is far from Him, is an abomination to Jehovah.
In our churches, it is my conviction, we engage in a bad habit which, with a little effort, could easily be corrected. And, I believe, it would improve our public worship if we would correct that bad habit. I cannot say precisely when and why I came to this conclusion. Partly, it was occasioned by study of a passage of Scripture related to the subject. Partly, perhaps, it came about as a result of the fact that I have been sitting in the pew rather frequently in recent months and, as a result, have done some thinking about our order of worship and our acts of worship. Partly, too, my thoughts were triggered by a sermon by one of my colleagues on worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. But the occasion is, after all, not so very important.
I am referring to the fact that in our services we all, minister and congregation, have the habit of closing our eyes at the moment of the salutation and the moment of the benediction, at the beginning and at the conclusion of our services respectively. For the benefit of our readers who may follow a different order of worship, let me explain. In our congregations the service begins with the votum, “Our help is in the name of Jehovah, Who hath made heaven and earth.” Then the minister addresses the congregation, “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thereupon, he raises his hands in a symbolic gesture of blessing and pronounces the salutation, “Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father, and from Jesus Christ our Lord, through the operation of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Sometimes a variant Scriptural salutation is used, as, for example, from the first part ofRevelation 1. At the time of this salutation we have for unnumbered years had the habit that both the minister and the congregation close their eyes as if in prayer. At the conclusion of the service, following the doxology, the Scriptural benediction is pronounced in a similar manner, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.” And again both minister and congregation close their eyes.
This, I claim, is a bad habit. It is both unnecessary and empty. But worse than that, it simply does not make sense. In fact, this phase of our worship exactly losespart of its sense through the fact that we close our eyes.
Let me explain.
In the first place, let me explain that these elements of our worship are not in the nature of a prayer, nor in the nature of a pious wish. I have an idea that we often consider the salutation and benediction to be prayers; and probably this has occasioned our closing our eyes, as we usually do in prayer. But they are not prayers—not in our services. In some churches they are given the form of prayers. And a seminary student, who speaks a word of edification, may indeed employ the language of these blessings in the form of an opening and a closing prayer. But they are not prayers. This is plain from the fact that the minister does not introduce them by “We pray . . . .” It is also plain from the fact that he addresses the congregation, not God. It is also plain from the fact that he says “you,” not “us.” Neither, however, are they mere wishes, much in the same way as you may bid farewell to a friend and wish him the Lord’s blessing. No, in these parts of our worship the minister makes an authoritative pronouncement as the ambassador of Christ and in the name of Christ. And through that pronouncement the blessing of Christ indeed comes upon the congregation that is addressed, even as Christ Himself speaks through the preaching of the Word.
If we understand this, it will already be sufficient reason to keep our eyes open during these phases of our worship.
But there is more.
We must be Scriptural in our worship. And then we must remember that the salutation and benediction used by the minister are borrowed directly from Scripture and that they occur in various epistles in one form or another. But these epistles were historically occasioned letters to various congregations. They were addressed to and read in the churches. And surely, there is no reason to imagine that when such letters were read in the churches, the congregation bowed their heads and closed their eyes at the greeting and the benediction portions of those letters. No, that would not make sense. They were being addressed with the apostolic salutation and benediction.
There is no sense, either for minister or congregation, in the symbolic gesture of blessing if the congregation close their eyes. Surely, we do not believe there is some magical operation in those uplifted hands! But then why, pray tell, should the minister raise his hands in blessing upon a congregation which—if they all religiously close their eyes—does not even see those uplifted hands? That simply does not make sense, either for the minister or for the congregation.
Hence, I propose that we should break that habit. By “we” I mean both ministers and congregations. Open your eyes, preacher: you are addressing Christ’s congregation. Open your eyes, congregation: Christ’s minister is speaking to you in word and in symbolic gesture. No, your eyes should not wander and you should not be looking around to see who is in church and who is not present. On the contrary, all eyes should be straight forward, glued upon the minister of Christ who with symbolically raised hands is pronouncing the blessing of God upon the church. Though it may seem strange at first, by reason of its differentness, I assure you that these solemn moments of our worship will become more significant if we substitute this good habit for the bad one.
I speak from experience—both in the pulpit and in the pew. And my pastor has also made this change.