Whenever the 4th of July weekend rolls around, I'm reminded of times I've traveled in countries where freedom is severely curtailed. Or they were freshly freed from the chains of injustice, and the joy of their release was palpable.
I was in Johannesburg on the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid.
I was in Korea when the border between North and South was electric with tension.
My most powerful memory came from Moscow, where I was teaching shortly after the fall of communism.
One night a group of us went to the famed Bolshoi Ballet. It was a long, wonderful evening, but after we took the subway back to where we were staying, the students said, "Come and let us celebrate." The other two professors with me were as tired as I was, but they were so intent on our joining them, that we went.
And then we found out what celebration meant to them.
They wanted to gather in the dining room and sing hymns and worship God. And we did, late into the night, with more passion and sincerity than I have ever experienced. It didn't matter that we didn't sing in Russian - we worshipped God together.
But I went to bed puzzled. I had never seen such passion for spontaneous and heart-filled worship. I was curious as to why they were so ready and eager to offer God love and honor. I received my answer the following Sunday when I was invited to speak at a church in North Moscow. A former underground church which met in secret (as so many churches had been), they were now meeting openly in a schoolhouse. I had been asked to bring a message that Sunday morning.
I didn't know that I was in for a bit of a wait.
The service lasted for nearly three hours. There were three sermons from three different speakers, with long periods of worship between each message.
I was to go last.
When it was over, I talked a bit with the pastor of the church. I was surprised at not only the length of the service, but the spirit and energy of the people. Throughout the entire three hours, they never let up. In spite of the length of time, they never seemed to tire. Even at the end, they didn't seem to want to go home.
"In the States," I said, "you're doing well to go a single hour before every watch in the place starts beeping." (This was before smart phones). He didn't get my weak attempt at humor, but he did say something that I will never forget.
"It was only a few years ago that we would have been put in prison for doing what we did today. We were never allowed to gather together as a community of faith and offer worship to God. And we are just so happy, and almost in a state of unbelief, that we can do this now - publicly, together - that we don't want it to end. And not knowing what the future might hold for us here, we know that every week might just be our last. So we don't ever want to stop. So we keep worshiping together, as long as we can."
As I left, his words never left my mind. And I thought to myself, "I will never think about worship the same again. I've been too casual about it, too laid-back, taken it too much for granted. These people know what it's about - really about - and because of that, they have been willing, and would be willing again, to suffer for it. To be imprisoned for it. To die for it. Because they've discovered that it holds that high of a yield for their life. It has that much meaning and payoff and significance. It matters that much."
And it should matter that much to all of us.
Happy 4th of July.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.