Tag Archives: Worship

Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

Our church has gone to only one service during the summer, and we are trying to combine elements of both services. This article does a good job of explaining the challenge we face in trying to combine musical styles.

A Question of Style Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.

Source: Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

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Letter 33: Watching and Waiting, an Easter Mediation

Easter is Sunday. In thinking about the Easter story, I was struck by two things. First how unnoticed the first Easter was, and second, how much waiting surrounds Easter. I suppose I should elaborate.

Easter is central to the Christian faith. Without Easter, there is no Christian faith. Given how much notice the seminal events in Jesus life received, Easter is surprisingly low key. Indeed, if one accepts the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel, we have only some frightened women and an empty tomb. Angels will appear, but again, only to some women. The guards are struck as dead men when Jesus rises from the tomb, so they see nothing, and can only report that the tomb is empty.

John reports that the first disciples to inquire again find only an empty tomb. John believes, but Peter has only questions. The risen Christ is finally spotted by the same group of women who have attended Him throughout His ministry, and they at first think He’s the gardener.

At Jewish law, women cannot give testimony, and so God deliberately chooses to reveal himself to people whose testimony cannot count and cannot be trusted. It seems a strange thing to do, as if He is making deliberately difficult to get to the bottom of what He is up to. He confounds the wisdom of the wise, and turns this world upside-down, but we have to work to find it. Why?

Thus the waiting. There is a lot of waiting in the Easter story. Jesus gets shuttled back and forth between the various authorities in Jerusalem waiting for the resolution He knows will come. He is several hours dying on the Cross. Nothing happens quickly. And then comes Holy Saturday, where Christ lies buried deep in the bowels of the earth, unseen. Holy Saturday is the day nothing happens, the day we wait.

There is much to ponder here. Which is why we wait. In the hidden places, God is at work.

resurrection-gloriousicon-1000

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Letter 15: Veni Emmanuel

f2def50dc61dee3d095d9cd167a283e9As with so many other things, the progression of this blog is interrupted by Christmas. The festive season sweeps all before its path, demanding that all pay it attention. Even those who do not celebrate it must account for it, if only to launch legal action to blocks others from imposing Christmas on them.

Nearly every year, I find myself frazzled and spent by this time. Too many activities, constant buying, and the even more difficult business of preparing my own wish list leave muttering with Scrooge that I will boil in his own pudding the next idiot who wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and bury him with a spike of holly driven through his very heart. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

We have built up in our minds, I think, the image of the “perfect” Christmas. This is fed, in part, by depictions in the media, retailers, advertisers, and even the church. We must be surrounded by family. Everyone must be happy, and receive many appropriate gifts. We must celebrate with various social relations, co-workers, lodge members, fellow parishioners. We must be charitable, and if we do give, we become a magnet to every worthy cause, who seek further beneficence from us.

What have these things to do with Christmas?

Take family, for example. The Christmas story is remarkable for its lack of family. Contrast the birth of John the Baptist at the end of Luke 1 with the birth of Jesus that takes up most of Luke 2. John’s birth was a community event. God manages to scare up some shepherds for Jesus, in addition to whatever animals were present. Since Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David,” presumably, he knew somebody in Bethlehem, but he curiously seems to have made no effort to reach them, since they are not present. Worse, there is the possibility that he did tell them, and they refused to help him, given the suspicious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. The first Christmas featured plenty of family disappointment.

Gifts? How retails love to hear the word. Images of wise men are summoned up, and for those more leery of such appeals, the reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to us. But the wise men come later on. Joseph has found a house to live in by then, and Jesus is several years old, since Herod will round up every child under five years of age. And the gifts are really an act of worship, recognizing, as they do various facets of Christ’s identity and mission. Myrrh, as John Hopkins points out in his carol, is used chiefly to embalm the dead, hardly a useful gift for a child. Gold, yes, but myrrh? The “first” Christmas featured less than useful or even tasteless gifts. Anyone want a prepaid funeral plan for Christmas?

The first Christmas was shabby and filthy. It smelled. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle kept a farm in Vermont, which we would visit every summer. We walked carefully through the barn, to avoid the “cow pies.” You would occasionally see either the horses or the cows peeing in their stalls. All of this surrounded the Christ child that night.

Indeed, the visions of joy and serenity fail to grapple with the undercurrent of fear and distress that permeate the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all told, “Do not be afraid.” Then Joseph is told to flee in the middle of night to take the child out from the clutches of those who wish to kill him. Herod is positively terrified of the child. Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child will cause tumult everywhere, and closes with the ominous words, “A sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The wise men depart by another route. Fear and danger are everywhere. John captures this in Revelation 12. A monstrous red dragon awaits the coming Christ child. The streets of Bethlehem ran red with the blood of children.

Historically, the Church seems to have recognized the great tension inherent in Christmas, even without all of our modern pre-occupations. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Stephen, of course, was the first martyr. Two days later, the Western Church honors the Holy Innocents. Christ’s coming brings death, even His own. The celebration is tempered with sorrow.

For the past several years I have wrestled with how to best celebrate this season. I am haunted by a feeling of emptiness. The joy and excitement that I think I should be feeling are far from me. My efforts at producing the expected spirit have fallen flat.

So I go back to the stories of the first Christmas.

In re-reading them, I am impressed at the disruption and the disappointment. For all of the Jews waiting for Messiah to come, it is amazing that none of them are in attendance. This becomes a recurring theme of Jesus’ life. He is not the Messiah they are looking for. Jesus slips by unnoticed, not unlike today.

Do I miss Him?

I am coming to the conclusion that worship is the key to Christmas. The point of our celebration should be Christ, and honoring, and worshipping Him. Perhaps this is not such a digression from our considerations after all. Prepare for the Coming King, do him homage. I think you will that many of the things we usually do this time of year fall away.

Read the old story. Meditate on the words. Sit in the stillness. Appreciate the light and the darkness. Marvel with Mary, tremble with shepherds, worship with the wise men, weep with the mothers of Bethlehem, sing with the angels.

Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King!

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Letter 13: The Building Blocks of Worship

ImageHandlerWhat should we be seeking in worship? Outside of the proscribed sacrifices and festivals in the Old Testament, the Bible does not offer a comprehensive and normative statement of what should be in a worship service. Strangely, beyond the command to keep the Sabbath, there is no apparent obligation in the Old Testament to attend a weekly worship service. Formal worship was strictly centered on the Temple. Given the Sabbath travel restrictions, it is highly unlikely the people worshipped on a weekly basis as we do. We do have example of private prayers (Hannah, David, Daniel), and private altars, (Jacob, Gideon). From the accounts of the temple, we also know that there was music and choirs.

Turning to the New Testament, its authors seem to consciously steer away for any specific instructions on how we are to worship. Temple worship is abolished, so all of the sacrificial rules and regulations are no more. We do know that congregations sang and prayed. Words were spoken, as either teaching or prophecy (see I Cor. 14: 26ff). Given Christ’s teaching (Matt. 5:23), confession was expected, and these meetings were regular. Revelation envisions worship in heaven as including prayer, singing, and offering of praise to God.

This leaves the question of Communion. Christ clearly commanded it, but how often are we to receive it? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are the core of the Christian message, I believe it should be a part of the weekly service. Communion forms a visible and tangible representation of the message, and serves as bond of unity within the body, as we all partake, at the same time. Paul offers some specific guidance on how we are to partake of it (I Cor 1:17ff)), which again highlights its importance and centrality to Christian worship. Here again, Paul makes mention of the need for self-examination and confession, as a prerequisite for partaking.

So we have some sense of the basic ingredients of worship: Prayer, Praise, Song, Teaching, Confession, and Communion. How might these flow? Some of this is dependent on what we take to be the apex of worship. We know that the basic models suggest: Communion, Sermon, or Experience. I am not sure any of these are entirely adequate. The worship model depends too much on the state of mind or soul of the congregant. If I do not reach the desired state of worship, I do not really participate in the service, and thus the service fails. In the traditional Protestant model, if the minister mishandles Scripture, again, the service fails, or worse, commits blasphemy. The catholic model offers the advantage of offering every worshipper something that is not limited by any of the participants. But is that satisfactory for the focus of the entire service? I will consider that question next.

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Letter 12: The Architecture of Worship

appealing-church-interior-design-ideas-is-modern-church-interior-design-with-bright-white-themed-1306x979Getting back to worship, much ink has been spilled over the past twenty years or so about worship, particularly worship style. While the debate has been fierce, I believe that nearly everyone involved was missing the point. What should worship be about really should be the first question. Sadly, that question is usually resolved in an unstated assumption, which prevents us from having any meaningful opportunity to determine the validity of each defense.

Church architecture offers three different model of what the church has done over the years. There may be others, but these are the three I’m most familiar with. Whether we are aware of it, how our church is laid out says much about what we believe worship to be about, often more than any formal written statement.

What I’ll call the catholic model, places the altar at the center, where the Host is sacrificed at each Mass. The altar is usually flanked by a lectern and a pulpit, various candle stands, and, if applicable, statues or illustrations of saints. The Eucharist is the focal point of the service. It links directly with the Temple worship of the Old Testament, as the focus is on the sacrifice. By partaking, we receive God and have our sins atoned for. I use the name “catholic” as it is used in the Creed, as this approach typifies both Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as some Lutheran and Anglican churches.

The Reformed model is typical of most Protestant churches. The pulpit is front and center, with the Lord’s Table behind, and, in Baptist churches, the baptismal tank, either before or behind. While the overall focus is on receiving God in His several forms, Word and Sacrament, the Word is foremost. Communion may not be held every week, but the Word must be preached at all times and places. Indeed, in its most severe forms, think colonial Congregational churches, the physical setting is devoid of any ornament or embellishment other than the pulpit. Nothing will detract or distract from the Word.

“Worship” models are a much more recent development. The dominating feature is usually the projection screen where the song lyrics, Bible verses, message outlines, and videos are shown. Everything else is built around this. The focus is on worship as an experience. There will usually be open space at the front where people may dance or be prayed for. The pulpit is usually off to the side, and quite minimal. The worship team will also be very prominent, due to the amount of real estate they occupy. There may or may not be a small table at the back.

Each model has its own internal structure, designed to bring the worshipper to its intended point. The structure of the first two is very similar. There is a call to worship, followed by some congregational singing, followed by some readings and a congregational prayer that can serve to highlight news of the congregation. Here they diverge. In the catholic model, the priest offers a brief message, which leads to the celebration of the Eucharist, which follows its own pattern of confession, institution, distribution, consumption, and conclusion. In the Protestant model, there may be a prayer of confession placed at some point the service. There follows the sermon, which will consume the better part of the service. Both will conclude with a hymn and a benediction.

The worship model starts with an extended time of worship, and can last from fifteen to forty-five minutes. There is no break between the songs, as worshippers are expected to enter into the experience as it builds. This is followed by a time of testimony, and maybe a prayer. The preacher then gives a message, where Scripture may be read, and is followed by more worship and ministry time, where congregants come to the front for prayer. There is generally no confession.

Each of these models seeks to worship God, God of course, but they want you to come away with very different things. Under the catholic model, the central act of worship is tangibly receiving God through the Host of the Eucharist. The focus is entirely sensory and tactile. The Protestant model wants you to hear and receive the Word of God, with the expectation that you will respond to it. Worship is to engage the ears and the mind. The worship model seeks to leave worshippers with an experience that resides largely in the emotions.

These, then, are the way in which we seek to worship God. In the entries to come, I want to begin to develop and outline of worship, to supplement, and correct these models.

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