It’s a Matter of Life: Re-storied by Worship

This article was originally presented as the plenary address at the conference “For Such a Time as This! Worship Meets Justice and the Arts in a Turbulent Time,” held at First Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on October 21, 2017.

Someone is always telling a story about you. That story might include the place you work (or used to work), the organizations you volunteer for, the people in your life who are important to you, or the places you have lived. For me, that includes things like:

  • “She’s the one whose family likes to hike,” or
  • “You know her—the one with curly hair who grew up in New York City, is super energetic, and talks too fast,” or
  • “She’s the one who works at King’s University in Edmonton,” or
  • (my recent favorite) “She’s the one who’s been married 25 years to Will Van Arragon.”

Someone is always telling a story about you. Unfortunately, not all of those stories are things that bring us life. There are other stories being told that are deeply damaging, both to us as individuals and to entire groups of people, such as:

  • “She’s the one who makes 73 cents on the dollar for the same work as a male in the same position,” or
  • “He’s that one measured by what he produces as a worker, and when his productivity decreases, so does his value,” or
  • “They are the group of people who are a threat to our national security and we need to keep them out,” or
  • “This is the country where the best and maybe the only story we can all agree with is this one: We are what we buy; the more we buy, the more status we have.”

The Problem of a Single Story

Someone is always telling a story about you and not all of those stories are good. In her famous TED Talk (which I highly recommend), Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about “The Dangers of a Single Story.” She focuses on the ways that stories can be damaging to entire groups of people: “Show a people as one thing,” she says, “as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” And she talks about how easy it is for those of us in the West to have a single story about Africa: “A place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

She does not exempt herself from participating in the single story either. She grew up in a middle-class family and was told over and over again by her mother that the house boy, Fide, was poor and deserving of her pity. She was so steeped in the story of him as poor that she found herself utterly shocked when visiting Fide’s village and saw the beautifully patterned baskets his family had made. “I was startled,” Adichie explains. “It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I heard about them was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

We are all, in various ways, guilty of the single story. We think we understand something, and so we cast a sweeping narrative over an entire group of people: “Those Africans may be poor, but they are so happy,” or “Those refugees should wait their turn like everyone else,” or “No matter what we do for those indigenous communities it’s never enough.” It’s far easier to do this if you haven’t met a person actually living one of these stories, because the minute you are faced with real people and their real lives, the single story goes out the window.

Single stories become most damaging when they are repeated by people with power so often that others accept them as the whole truth. In some ways nearly every activist movement I can think of is a group of people resisting the single story that has been told about them, refusing to let it define them, and replacing it with a new story. So you have groups of women saying “no more violence,” and you have LGBT people saying “no more discrimination,” and you have black people from many different nations saying “Black Lives Matter,” and you have Indigenous people calling settlers to honor Indigenous sovereignty and protect land and water rights in the “Idle No More” movement.

Re-storied through Worship

Someone is always telling a story about you. And when that story is told by individuals seated within institutions of power, they can be deeply damaging—because sometimes the story is wrong.

I might suggest that as people of God, one primary reason we come to worship is to be re-storied, to resist the stories we are told in a thousand different ways all week long:

  • that we are what we consume,
  • that our value is linked only to what we produce,
  • that it’s okay for us to be victims of violence,
  • that our voices can be silenced by those with power,
  • that we have no rights to tell a different story about ourselves.

To put all these stories in the context of the gospel story and to let that story re-shape us, re-story us, into who God says we are:

  • that we are dearly loved children of God and members of Christ’s body,
  • that we are called to be salt and light, to show the “more excellent way” of love,
  • that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, ministers of reconciliation,
  • that God gives grace and mercy in our times of need,
  • that we are part of a story of brokenness and redemption
  • that ends with a world made new.

You could say that every time we attend worship we learn more of the words of the God story that we put over and against the other stories being told about us. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship puts the language of worship into a framework they call the “vertical habits,” and they include words like:

  • “I’m sorry” (confession)—maybe the most counter-cultural moment in worship: admitting we are wrong
  • “Why?” (lament)—and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we let that “why” stand without always filling the silence with an answer?
  • “Help” (prayer)—an accusation of worship is that we use too many words; this is a good one to start with if choosing only one
  • “Thank you” (praise)—maybe also countercultural for acknowledging gifts

Each of these things in its own way creates a new story in us—one where we recognize our limits, make space to say “it’s not okay” or “I need help,” and express gratitude for gifts beyond our ability to buy them. If we don’t actively resist the stories our culture tells about us, we will find ourselves more and more at the mercy of them or even unable to see how they are shaping us. And if we don’t steep ourselves in God’s story and call upon God’s strength, we don’t have a hope of engaging the long and difficult work of addressing systemic injustice.

Re-storied through Sacraments

Not only do the words we use in worship tell a new story, but so do the sacraments. It’s not just what we say that allows a new story to form in us; it’s also what we do. So in a world that gives us a thousand reasons to feel excluded, baptism tells us, “You belong.” You belong not only to the caregivers who present you for baptism, but to the entire congregation, to the family of God all over the globe, to generations past and generations of the future. You belong. You are named and celebrated as an individual with an entire cloud of witnesses standing by to support you as you grow.

The Lord’s Supper is also part of the new story that worship gives us. Johann Baptist Metz says the eucharist is a moment of “dangerous memory” because it jolts us out of inertia and calls us to see with new eyes the innocent who suffer today (Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, translated by David Smith. New York: Seabury Press, 1980). When we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, we get a shocking and threatening interruption to the story of hierarchy and progress that names us all week long—challenging our understandings of power and sacrifice. At the same time, the Lord’s Supper is also a source of forward-looking hope, as the work of the cross calls us to participate in the work of the kingdom. The eucharist is a dangerous memory because Christ’s work in the past demands a new relationship to the present.

Through the language of worship and the celebration of the sacraments, worship re-stories and so restores us. But is that really why we attend worship?

For a long time I have kept silent,

I have been quiet and held myself back.

But now, like a woman in childbirth,

I cry out, I gasp and pant. —Isaiah 42:14

Worship as a Matter of Life

The truth is that it’s easy in our culture to see church as one option among many from which we get to choose—and even when we choose to attend a church, we have a huge variety of different communities to consider about which best “meets our needs.”

We might attend because it’s a habit. We might attend because we truly believe that we need to be reshaped by the gospel story, even if we’re not always sure that what happens on Sunday makes space for that to happen. We attend because it’s a choice we make, and if one Sunday we’d rather choose a walk in the woods with a London fog (because that meets our needs better), then that’s probably fine. In the end, I think the main reason many of us attend worship comes back to choice, which is the hallmark of privilege.

I have noted a very different feeling about attending worship in other communities. And I think that’s the difference between choosing justice as an option versus living justice as a lifestyle (Live Justly, edited by Jason Fileta. Portland, Oregon: Micah Challenge USA, 2014.

While we might see justice as a useful focus for a theme service or an occasional sermon, for people in communities whose lives are daily marked by injustice, the worship event looks very different. When I attended a learning tour in Kenya two summers ago, the Sunday worship meant pews packed with bodies and so many children they needed an extra tent outside for them to meet—something those of us from Canada could only look at with wonder.

When we asked a church leader about it and talked about the dwindling attendance in our own communities, he understood right away: “You have money—you don’t need God. We don’t. We need God.”

And it’s true. While for us worship might be a matter of habit, of choice, of looking for a place that “meets our needs,” in other communities it’s a matter of life and death.

This is where the white, middle-class church has much to learn from communities of color and places of poverty both here in North America and in other parts of the world. While middle-class white folks flock to the church during moments of crisis—when there is a shooting in Ottawa or fires in British Columbia, or when someone in the family is facing a sudden illness or job loss—there are other communities who are always in crisis because of racism or lack of access to resources or constant threat of violence. And in many cases, those are the places the church is thriving.

A while back I heard a presentation from Edward Okiror of Uganda. He told us that in Ugandan communities, the church “is becoming like an answer, bringing hope—[because church] is not just about talking on Sunday morning, but about actions of love.” So the people in the congregation don’t just see the pastor talking from the pulpit on Sunday morning—they also see him in the field during the week at the conservation agriculture training that is helping them survive the months of drought.

We have much to learn from the church in places where it’s not just an option, one choice among many, but a matter of life.

God has called people of every nation, tribe, and tongue so that we can listen to one another and learn what it truly means to be the people of God. But how well are we truly listening? How often do we venture outside the church walls to encounter the real human suffering right on the other side of our doors?

Becoming a Midwife for Justice

I read a book by Christiana Rice and Michael Frost called To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2017), and one of the primary metaphors they explore in the book comes from Isaiah 42:14, where God says:

For a long time I have kept silent,

     I have been quiet and held myself back.

But now, like a woman in childbirth,

     I cry out, I gasp and pant.

The book spends a lot of time unpacking this image, and I found it both deeply moving and helpful. If God is the one who gasps and pants for justice, that reminds us of the limits of our own efforts. It reminds us that God is indeed at work in this world. What if our call is to come alongside that gasping and panting, like a good midwife, and support what God is working to birth?

We need to go to the places in our world where that laboring is happening—where people are gasping and panting for a new world as God gasps and pants along with them. One way that people with privilege might learn how to be present in those places is to adopt the same strategies that a midwife uses to be present to a laboring woman. As Christiana Rice explains in the book, the midwife’s work is completely self-effacing in service of the woman before her. She becomes deeply attuned to the woman in labor, “moaning as she moans, swaying as she sways, offering her own body as a stabilizing presence to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold” (Rice, 181).

What would it mean for us to attune ourselves to God that way? To attune ourselves that deeply to communities who cry out, gasp, and pant for justice? To be present with the deepest forms of listening and giving, not prioritizing our own voices or our own agendas, but simply joining hands around the back of the neck of the people who are laboring, swaying as they sway, moaning as they moan, and listening to the Spirit whispering what is needed to bring that new story into the world?

I wonder if one reason many white, middle-class churches are not very good at including justice in the story of our worship is that we don’t really hear the voices of those who are crying out for it. We haven’t developed that deep attunement of the midwife to listen well, to understand at the deepest levels what is going on in places where people are gasping and panting for justice. Perhaps because we haven’t developed that habit of attunement, we don’t see the need to focus on justice. But I suppose that is one definition of privilege: the ability to ignore a problem simply because it does not directly affect you.

Stop, Look, and Listen

This is one reason the arts have such a crucial role in worship. Frederick Buechner says: “The most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen.” This is the same message of the Christian faith: “If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for [God] in what is happening around us and inside us,” Buechner explains. “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors” (Buechner, “Art”). And when we truly see them, who knows where that will lead us?

We need the arts to give us new eyes to see, to help shock us out of the routine of familiarity to truly see what’s happening in the world around us in the same way that Metz describes the Lord’s Supper as a moment of “dangerous memory” because it wakes us up to the appalling contrast between the story we are living and the future we are promised.

Flannery O’Connor said writers with Christian concerns must use words that shock. As she said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures” (“The Fiction Writer and His Country”). And the goal of that is to wake people up—to literally throw a book at them (as happens in one of her stories), or whatever it takes to make an opening for grace in those who have been closed off and no longer see their neighbors or hear God’s call.

One way to frame this perspective is to ask how each element of worship helps us to stop, look, and listen to the gospel story, to see and hear anew where suffering is happening around us, the places where God gasps and pants for a more just world.

The challenge of this is not knowing where it might lead us. The truth is, we all love to talk about justice if we are seen as being on the “right” side of it, if we are clearly partnering with those who deserve it. But it’s a lot less fun to talk about justice when it accuses us or when our lifestyles are called into question.

Many years ago, when I was younger and more idealistic than I am now, I worked for an inner-city community development agency in the US that was part of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), an organization committed to long-term, sustainable change in communities. One of my tasks was to teach a parenting workshop to participants who had been mandated to be there for various reasons. So one of the first meetings there I sat at the front with my binder full of materials, with only the briefest of life experience raising my then-two-year-old and four-year-old, in front of a room composed almost entirely of African-American women. One of the stories that came out at the workshop was a woman whose teenage son was in the car with three white friends from high school that was pulled over by the police.

It turns out that the police found marijuana in the car, but for some reason only one of the youths that night was taken in to the station and arrested—you guessed it, the teen son of this African-American woman.

I remember my outrage. “But that’s not fair!” I kept repeating it because I almost couldn’t believe it. “How could that happen?!” I said, and she looked at me with kindness and patience I probably did not deserve and said simply, “Oh, honey, you don’t know anything.”

And it’s true. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know all the ways the institutions in our city had been historically protecting me while leaving her and her son vulnerable. I didn’t know about the history of redlining, where certain persons of color were denied loans to purchase homes and denied other services based solely on the racial composition of those areas. All I knew was a sense of “fairness” that was rooted in privilege, where the right thing usually happens once people know the story because I was white and middle-class.

Someone is always telling a story about you, and I confess that the story I was telling in that parenting class was rooted in a single story, just like Adichie described—a story where I was the hero, coming in to teach a group of women who needed services that I was graciously providing. The real story was very, very different—and far more complex.

It’s been over twenty years since that happened, and I have since come to realize that just because you speak truthfully about an injustice does not mean that people will want to act to see it remedied. I have come to understand the kind of resigned hopelessness that comes with a long series of injustices that people simply learn to live with because they can’t get past the first step: getting other people to believe what they say is true.

And I have also come to understand, through my own experiences of sexism and violence (both direct and indirect) at the hands of men with power, just how desperately you need space in worship to speak, to be listened to, to lament, to ask “WHY,” to have others who bear witness to your story, and say (agreeing with you), “This story has to change. This story must be put in the light of God’s story, where all people have value because they are made in the image of God, and where no one deserves to be treated as anything less than that regardless of how much power and privilege the perpetrator has.”

I remember the huge relief I felt the first time I heard a worship song with a strong justice theme. I was attending a workshop with John Bell, who is from the Iona Community in Scotland, and he led us in a song paraphrased from Psalm 94 that was addressed to God and went like this: “Rouse yourself and demonstrate justice; give the arrogant what they deserve” (from “O Great God and Lord of the Earth” Bell, LUYH 293, PfAS 94A).

For a while, I sang this rollicking song loudly, over and over, because it comforted me to think that God would give those arrogant men who had harmed me what they deserved. Until I remembered the patience of the woman who said to me, “Oh, honey, you don’t know anything.” And I stopped. Because all at once I realized: Oh, wait, sometimes I am the arrogant.

Including justice in worship is not as much fun when it accuses you, when it calls you to examine your own internalized racism and the ways that you benefit from privilege you did nothing to earn, when it puts your faith in a global context where your time is marked by what you consume in a world where others mark their time by how many hunger months they endure.

The Need for Truth-Telling in Worship

We desperately need to be re-storied. So let me suggest that a crucial element of justice in worship that engages in the work of re-storying is truth-telling. There is enormous relief for people experiencing oppression of many kinds simply in having room in the worship service for truth to be told.

Here are some places to start:

  • Racism is real, and it still happens.
  • Sexism is real, and it still happens (even in Christian organizations).
  • Poverty is real, and it still causes hunger and suffering.

These might seem like obvious points to make, but in a post-truth culture, the hardest thing we come up against when working for justice is simply being heard, or being believed. Because if facts don’t matter, someone can simply dismiss what you’re raising by referring to their own personal truth: “Well, I’m not hungry, so it must be fine,” or, “I haven’t experienced racism, so it’s not a big issue,” or, “Women always blow things out of proportion; sexism isn’t that big of an issue.” (If anyone still doubts that, all you need to do is look at the “Me Too” statements appearing recently on social media.)

The gospel calls us to bear witness to the life of Christ, to draw near to the people Jesus came near to, to listen to their stories, to attune ourselves (like a good midwife) to their suffering, and above all, to believe them, and then to bring those stories into the only place they have a hope of being made new—into the story of Jesus’ life and redemptive work. The work of re-storying is not work for a day or a special theme week; it is work for a lifetime. And we need to remember that, as God is gasping and panting alongside us for that world made new, midwives must above all be patient. Nothing new or beautiful or holy is ever birthed quickly. So we stand by, for as long as it takes, for the gospel story to take root in the hearts of those who have been wounded by other stories, all the while using what power and privilege we have to refuse the damaging single stories being told about people God loves.

The Need for Lament in Worship

You wouldn’t think that truth-telling would be such a relief, but I suspect that is one reason that has led to Sundays being described as the “most segregated hour of the week.” What a comfort to have one place where you don’t have the burden of educating the very people whose privilege causes you to suffer! What a relief to begin with the point of truth—yes, racism happens!—and then to let the story continue.

I think of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that happened here in Canada as First Nations survivors of residential schools were given a place to simply tell the truth.

And while it came with tears and pain, maybe it also came with some measure of relief because someone was listening. Someone believed the story. Someone honored the pain by giving it space and time.

And once truth is told, then lament finds a place in worship—lament for the ways that people made in the image of God were hurt. Lament for a system that separated families and tore away culture. Lament for a society that stood by and let it happen. There needs to be space in our worship for both of these things.

Because truth-telling is not only a relief to those who have been oppressed, it is also necessary for the oppressors. There is a single story that is told about racism and it is this: It damages people of color. But another story that is equally true is this: Racism distorts those who perpetrate it. It allows pride to go unchecked. It gives a false sense of selfishness and a sense that we have “earned” what we have, and it blinds us to the privilege that allowed us to get it.

The Need for Confession in Worship

Several years ago I listened to a very moving reading at a writing workshop by an artist who had an uncle in the Ku Klux Klan. He wanted to call his book Growing Up Racist, but the publisher made him change the title to something much less offensive, which I think is a shame because racism is an offense. His book was a story about himself as what he calls a “recovering racist,” learning to pay attention to the conscious and unconscious biases that continue to distort his thinking even today. He talked about how growing up that way made him less able to connect emotionally to others, less able to take time to listen even in his closest relationships, and about how it took him years and years to even see how constantly being given a message of superiority had distorted his thinking.

And this is why we need confession in worship. We cannot continue to call ourselves people who represent Jesus unless we come to terms with the damage planted in our own hearts by racism and power. We need the truth of confession to check that privilege as we listen to the truth of those who have been wounded, and we need a chance to say to them and to God, “Forgive me. I have failed. I am sorry.” Without that weekly moment we are reminded that we are not as strong, not as powerful, and not as good as we think we are, and we allow ourselves to be damaged by internalized racism and so many forms of privilege.

The Need for Hope in Worship

Finally, not only does just worship make space for truth-telling that brings relief to the oppressed and is a necessity for the oppressors, it also leaves us with the hope of re-storying for both as we submit ourselves together the God who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Even though your heart has been distorted by racism, God is “faithful and just to forgive your sin and cleanse you from unrighteousness.”

And even though you are paid 74 cents on the dollar for the same job as a man, God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” and “Fear not, your value exceeds that of many sparrows.”

And even though you benefit from privilege at every turn, you can make do with less, give away more, and practice becoming a good midwife by sitting at the feet of the poor as Jesus did and listening deeply to what is happening.

And even though we live in a world that terribly benefits some at the expense of others, you can learn humility. You can offer yourself as a living sacrifice, ready to colabor with God in birthing a world made new.

God’s Story

Someone is always telling a story about you, and we need the weekly reminder of worship to shape our lives and our actions by the gospel story.

It’s easy to be discouraged by all that remains undone, by all the ways that the story of the church is a story shot through with a need for confession for all the ways we have failed. In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, writer Kathleen Norris points out that “church is other people”—which is probably why there are so many problems with it! But she actually sees it as a good sign when Christians “fuss and fume and struggle” because even when we disagree, that is a sign of life, a sign of caring. In the end, Norris says this of the church:

It is a human institution, full of ordinary people, sinners like me, who say and do cruel, stupid things.

But it is also a divinely inspired institution, full of good purpose, which partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts. That is why it is called the Body of Christ.

And that is why, when the battles rage, people hold on. They find a sufficient unity, and a rubbed-raw but sufficient love, and [sometimes even] the presence of God (p. 273).

Someone is always telling a story about you. Let the story be one where we hold on in the church for the sake of those whom Jesus loves.

Let the story be one where we find sufficient courage to offer ourselves and our privilege as living sacrifices to God in service to others as good midwives.

Let the story be one where we resist the story told by our society, where our value is what we produce or what we consume, and instead be saturated by the words of the God whose story claims us, names us, and remakes us.

Let the story be one where our worship is marked by truth-telling and deep listening, with space for confession and lament.

And may God’s Spirit grant all of us the courage to be re-storied on a daily basis to make us worthy to bear Christ’s name.

Someone is always telling a story about you.

Let it be God’s story. Amen.

Rebecca Warren is director of interdisciplinary studies at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.

Reformed Worship 131 © March 2019, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.