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Take Two Praise Songs and Call Me Monday Morning

Got time to browse through this editorial before heading straight for the service helps? Great! Let's take a quick tour of heaven together. Yup, heaven—not Sioux Center, not Vancouver—but heaven, the real thing. Will they let us in? Yes, but not to stay. Not yet. Not quite dressed for the occasion? Don't fret. The clothes we received when we took on Christ are whiter than we know. No wrinkles, and not a trace of starch either. So let's take a peek. See that elderly gent over there? That's our tour guide. Name's John.

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

And they cried out in a loud voice:

"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb."

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,
"they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.

Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
—Revelation 7:9-10, 14-17

Overwhelming! The sheer, magnificent elation of it all! Painless worship. No joke! Look again at verses 15-16, line by line:

  • No more sitting in church fretting about work on Monday. Sunday never ends.
  • No more wondering when, or if, we will experience the warmth of God's fellowship with us in our worship. He'll spread his tent over us like Mom used to spread a warm quilt around us, snuggling in front of a warm fire on an icy day.
  • No more skipped breakfast, rushing to get to church on time to avoid being ushered into the ecclesiastical "penalty box"—that dreaded front pew.
  • No more coveting preachers when they reach for that tall glass of cool water while we benchies thirst in silence.
  • No more embarrassing stains on the hymnal left behind by our overheated, sweaty hands because the sanctuary is three degrees shy of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace.

A Touch Irreverent, Reverend?

Am I making light of this celestial vision? Am I underplaying the level of pain endured by these martyrs who "come out of the great tribulation" (v. 14)? Of course—guilty as charged! But their pain is our pain, however cruel or insignificant. Because "they" is us! And I take my cue from the text itself. When we experience release from pain, we get a bit giddy. The deeper the pain, the greater the release, and the more exuberant we become. Look at this heavenly worship service. Quite a chaotic, hang-loose bunch by typical Reformed standards of propriety:

  • billions waving palm branches (v. 9)
  • all shouting with a loud voice (v. 10)
  • angels, elders, and the four living creatures milling around the pulpit and throwing themselves on the floor in worship (v. 11)

Before you flip to the service planning pages, take a moment to delight in John's incredible vision: one day we will worship without pain. We will glorify God, and it will not hurt anymore—any of it.

But next Sunday the hurt will still be there. So much of it—

  • The pain of the empty space in the pew where your husband sat next to you for sixty years and will never sit again; the vacuum where your daughter scribbled on the bulletin during all those sermons —only to grow up to trade the pew for a bar stool.
  • The pain of joining in a catchy praise song when you're so depressed it was all you could do to drag yourself out of bed and into the back bench.
  • The pain of realizing that your preaching would be more edifying if you'd left your sermon in the office and read from the local telephone book instead.
  • The shame of knowing you helped plan the liturgical monster you must now endure, or of hitting three bad notes, two inappropriate stops, and missing the intro altogether; the pain of being chronically undervalued and unrecognized in your role as a worship leader (be sure to read Greg Crowell's article about this on p. 36).
  • The grinding irritation of week after week enduring services that don't meet your tastes, expectations, or values.
  • The bitter disappointment of wafting into church with a heart bursting with joy, anticipating worship that will allow you to explode into joyous praise to God, only to find that the entire service weaves around an imprecatory psalm or the doctrine of original sin.
  • The pain of knowing Jesus is present as promised, but not finding him in any of it, because your experience of his nearness is drowned out by the noise in your head.

Wounded Healers

Last winter I attended a conference for pastors and their spouses. I was asked to speak about worship. They chose me, the organizing committee said, because of the credentials I'd listed in an earlier RW editorial. In that editorial I mentioned that I thought I'd earned the right to talk about worship because of my twenty years as a pastor who dropped live microphones, knocked over flowerpots, forgot the benediction, skipped serving the elders during communion—that sort of thing. I could have added the following: waffled on worship styles, did a crummy job on children's messages, and completely blew past my intended listeners at services for and with the mentally impaired.

I'm glad the organizers mentioned that reason for inviting me. It tipped me off to the fact that these pastors and their spouses really didn't need a sage from "Jerusalem Midwest" lecturing them on how they could help their congregations pull up their collective worship socks. They wanted someone who could identify with the hurt they experienced over and in this blessed act we call communal worship— an act that brings out the best and the worst in every one of us.

We kicked around ways of softening some of the pain: the pain for newcomers, for the members, for the worship leaders, and for themselves. But what really touched me and blessed me were their tears and the tears of their spouses. I came away from that conference heartened by the these pastors' willingness to keep sticking their necks out and to keep on serving as shock absorbers, taking the pain of conflicting views and values without transmitting it further, dumping it instead at the foot of the cross. I came away with a renewed sense of admiration for them. I was touched by their profound desire to pastor their flocks, to let worship nurture and nourish progressives and conservatives, old and young, the joyful and the bruised, male and female.

These people have big hearts. But like all those who attempt to lead congregations in worship, they are wounded healers.

For Now ...

No doubt, we can—and are called to—take away the pain we sinfully inject into worship because of our own selfishness and small-heartedness. But even if we managed to remove 100 percent of that kind of pain, our worship would still inevitably carry the pain of competing life situations, emotional states, values, and tastes. We are all so different. For now we must learn to live with it and drench it in the healing love of Christ, which is "patient... kind... does not envy . . . does not boast... is not proud ... is not rude, ... is not self-seeking, . . . keeps no record of wrongs . . . always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

We must respect our differences and work with them as best we can. Those who come to church on eagle's wings must be willing to sing an octave lower and a bit softer to validate the pain of those who grieve. The joyful may need to recognize that lament is also praise—perhaps in a minor key, but praise nevertheless. Exactly because God is omnipotent and all-loving, we must remain unreconciled to the cruel reality tormenting our sisters and brothers in Christ. God must one day resolve their hurt. So God is glorified not by our stoic silence but by our sharp-edged barbs of complaint against injustice and suffering. In the new creation Jesus bought us—the reality we celebrate in our worship—our suffering does not and cannot compute. An all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God and still this?—it doesn't add up. And together we honor God when we say so.

We also honor God when we sing praise songs through our tears, even when we punctuate our alleluias with sobs. Then our faith already runs ahead of where our hearts will one day surely be (see Hebrews 11). We show the grace of rejoicing with those who rejoice, even though our own circumstances are the pits.

Ministers of the Word are pastors. As shepherds they must help the flock of Christ live with pain. Even with the pain of worship. But that pastoral responsibility does not rest with ministers alone (see John Witvliet's illuminating article on p. 30).

For now we worship, hurt, rejoice—whatever!—in hope. Our peek into heaven refreshes our resolve to do now in brokenness, as best we can, what we will one day do in perfection around God's throne. Pastor Jesus will fully take the sting out of worship:

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
—Revelation 7:17