Into and Out of the Depths: Letting the text shape the service

3/28 LOFT Planning Meeting

I knew it was coming. After a full season of services with a fairly pronounced sequence of confession and assurance (as is appropriate during Lent), the team articulated at today’s meeting their desire to “do something different” this week.

I told them we can’t just toss the liturgical playbook. Worship isn’t about us. Unless we’re OK with the services becoming some sort of subjective, feel-good free-for-all, we need some objective grounding. What are we doing here? If the answer to that question doesn’t come from the liturgy, where does it come from?

Bless their souls, they responded by asking, “Well, who’s preaching? And on what passage?” (Back to the Bible! Hooray!) Fortunately, Chaplain Cooper (he couldn’t be at the meeting) had given me his info beforehand: Psalm 130—a penitential psalm. And still better, he’d answered our two key questions. “Begin where the psalm begins,” he told me. In the depths. And end where the psalm ends. Declare hope in a gracious God who redeems iniquity.

After studying the psalm, the question of what shape the service would take was easy to answer—bring the congregation, step by step, into the depths before the sermon. Then bring them out after, and let the gracious Word be the fulcrum where it all turns. Just as the text dictates the structure of the sermon, let it dictate the structure of the whole service.

3/29

At working group we talked over the possibility of telling stories in this week’s service (as something “different”). We want to use them to “step down” into the depths, and then offer testimony to God’s coming to us in the depth of our sin, in our brokenness and estrangement. I had thought to find students to tell personal stories, but Cindy suggested we use biblical stories instead. I like it, but which ones?

To do: Look for biblical stories (not teachings, but stories) about God’s grace to folks in the depths.

3/29 Rehearsal Notes

  • First three songs are all psalms or psalmic (how Reformed!). Keep them all in E, and let the guitars lead with those open chords (letting top two strings ring). Have a prayer of invocation (Nate?) after bridge in “Better Is One Day” (from the songbook Worship Together) spoken over soft guitar before returning to chorus.
  • When each of the opening songs ends, let it die rhythmically, but keep the open E chord (no 3rd) sustained. Then we can go from one to the next, bringing it down in intensity and joyfulness just a notch each time.
  • End Psalm 40 (song from U2 album, NIV text) with the “how long?” section, very nearly a cappella, plaintive, leading into prayer.
  • Prayer (Jillayne?) should have confession and lamentation, but emphasis on latter. Not “how we’ve screwed up” but “how screwed up we are.” It amounts to the same thing when we come to God in need.
  • Share that bit from Barbara Brown Taylor (from Preaching Life) about reading Scripture as if each word were pure gold. Have readers (Peter? Meghan?) do this with the story (the prodigal father). Sllloooowwwwly. Lots of space. Sip, don’t gulp.
  • Haugen’s Psalm 130 in Gather (“With the Lord There Is Mercy,” see p. 35) is just right—not too dark, not too light. Can we do Scripture reading as a song? No speaking, just the song. Who’ll sing it? (Jillayne?) And can we come back to the chorus as a reprise after the sermon to begin the bracketing/stepping?
  • “What Wondrous Love”—sing in unison at start of each stanza.
  • Practice transition from open D at end of last verse of “What Wondrous Love (“When from death I’m free/I’ll sing on”) to chorus of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” in D major. Again with the open chord and no rhythm (just like at the start of the service).
  • Change stanza at the end of “Hope to Carry On.” After singing of Jesus hanging on the cross (st. 1) and saying “Father, forgive,” (st. 2) we don’t go back to the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter’s sword. What’s up with that? Replace with new stanza we thought of at planning session: “I can see Jesus rising from the grave/He came to save/Love has come/And it’s given me hope to carry on.”

3/30

Rehearsal was amazing! We were a bit worried about the cultural and musical distance between the Ghanian “Kyrie” (With One Voice, Augsburg; also in RW 48:46) and “Ah, Holy Jesus.” We moved them both to Dm for a smoother transition. But playing them next to each other, we realized we don’t need a transition at all. It’s one song!

Use the Kyrie as a “chorus” between the hymn stanzas. Same pulse, a strong beat (solo djembe, an African hand drum—Call Tom!) on one and three, like folks beating their breasts with sorrow at an African funeral. Add flute or recorder for melody and go through “Kyrie” and the first stanza of “Ah.” The starkness is exactly right. Then back to the “Kyrie,” and stanza 2 of “Ah,” adding the bass line (including a walk down from D going into “Kyrie”). Keep going, adding another vocal part and more instrumental and harmonic texture each verse. (3rd stanza = alto on “Ah,” tenor on “Kyrie”; 4th stanza = tenor on “Ah,” alto on “Kyrie.”) We tried adding organ and really liked the sound, but the logistics were too tough. Still, this was great! It really brings us into the depths.

But how to step out with the same drama?

Split up “What Wondrous Love.” Put the first two stanzas (“What wondrous love” and “When I was sinking down”), accompanied sparingly in the sinking part, Split up “What Wondrous Love.” Put the first two stanzas (“What wondrous love” and “When I was sinking down”), accompanied sparingly in the sinking part, before the sermon (no guitars, piano, maybe bass, and cymbal rolls). Then after the sermon, step back up with the same song—sing the last two stanzas (“To God and to the Lamb” and “And when from death I’m free”) with fuller support after the word of grace has been spoken. We didn’t have much time to tinker, but we liked the sustained electric guitar [add distortion on Sunday?], piano playing both hands extended an octave and a bit more percussion.

4/1

How did we not think of this earlier? We loved the idea of using the story of the prodigal father, but couldn’t decide where to read it. Before the Word? That steals the gracious thunder from the sermon. And to read it after the sermon would diminish the impact of the depths into which the son sinks. Then Cindy suggested . . . (Duh!) . . . split it up! Read up to the son’s confession in the far country before the sermon, and then after the sermon, start there and read up to the Father’s embrace. No other explanation or discourse, just the story. Classic dramatic structure. Step down, step up, with grace at the center of it. Exactly right! God is good!

Excerpt

Service Outline

“Better Is One Day” (Ps. 84)
“Lord Most High”
“I Waited Patiently for God” (Ps. 40)

Prayer

“Kyrie”/“Ah, Holy Jesus”
“What Wondrous Love Is This” (stanzas 1-2)

Scripture story: Prodigal Father, part 1 (Luke 15:11-19)

Scripture: Ps. 130: “In the Lord There Is Mercy”

Sermon

Reprise “In the Lord” (chorus only, piano accompaniment)

Scripture story: Prodigal Father, part 2 (Luke 15: 18-24)

“What Wondrous Love” (stanzas 3-4)
“I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”
“I Give Thanks”

Transition

“Hope to Carry On”

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).