Our administrative committee recently conducted pastoral evaluations which included congregational wide surveys about the general worship life of our church. Most of you are familiar with this and have had something similar done in your own church. I admit I have a love-hate relationship with these evaluations. I love the fact that people, especially people who are usually not vocal, or the regulars standing by the piano to “chat” before I even get off the bench, have a vehicle to share their thoughts and their quiet observations about worship.
Rest is fleeting. Rest is fleeting not like a vapor or a memory, rest is fleeting like the next rung on the monkey bars—you know it, you can see it, but it seems never to be in grasp.
Rest is fleeting as we sit beside our over-weary child, up past bed time, while we respond to a facebook post, while Jimmy Fallon laughs at his own joke and we feign to find the rest that our bodies have been asking for all day. Not just asking for—banging on the door for. Rest has been begging for you to find it.
When we arrived in our current pastoral call, one of the pleasant surprises my wife and I discovered was a Manse where we could host large groups of people, with a living room that could accommodate our two grand pianos without breaking a sweat. We suspected this might lead to some joyful experiences, and last Thursday night we had our suspicions confirmed!
It’s been a good year to reflect on Reformed identity in the context of corporate worship. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has provided ample opportunity to revisit the roots of our joint worship distinctives and practices. There is nothing more “reformed” than going back to the sources to reorient ourselves toward faithfulness in the present.
One evening 15 or so years ago, as I stepped out onto our front porch, I encountered a surprise guest, or I should say, several surprise guests. An adult opossum with a few much younger ones sat quite comfortably in a row on the 3-feet high concrete ledge that wrapped around our porch. They were down on the right side, at the opposite end of where I had come out. They stared at me and I stared at them — all of us frozen in the uncertainty of what to do next.
A True Story
The youth group had just returned from a week-long mission trip to a large, urban center. While there, they learned a rap-style worship song that beautifully embodied the soul of their week together. Still buzzing with the energy of their trip the Sunday morning after they returned home, they sang that rap-song for the congregation with lively, pre-recorded accompaniment, and then shared a couple epitomizing stories from their week.
A Practical Guide for All Ages
A Successful Experiment
A friend of mine came to my office a few weeks ago. His congregation is beginning to think about a sanctuary renovation, and he wanted to talk through some of the dynamics at play when considering liturgical furniture. He had found himself, in an initial meeting, agreeing with those who argued, for example, that a pulpit was both beautiful and indispensable. Five minutes later he found himself agreeing with those who said a pulpit was anachronistic at best and at worst an impediment to hearing the gospel.
You can’t. Just accept it. It isn’t the role of the worship leader, worship coordinator, worship pastor or solo pastor to craft worship in such a way that makes everyone happy. This is impossible. When you try to make everyone happy, you end up making nobody happy. Yet, crafting inclusive worship is the most important thing that we can do for our churches.
Three times within the last week I have heard of churches that are letting people go hired professionals as well as seasoned volunteers, because they do not fit the image the church is trying to portray. The three churches are in three different states, three different types of communities, and two of them are of the “reformed” persuasion. In each case, the church was honest. And unbiblical. Idolatrous, if I can be frank.
Two weeks ago, I played the hymns for my grandmother’s memorial service. My uncles, father, and aunt had quickly gathered to plan the service, which was held only five days after her death. I wanted to serve my family and Grandma, and thought this was a good way to honor and remember her.
But I am thankful I pushed the microphone away from the piano and asked my brother-in-law to lead the hymns. Because during the final hymn, I choked up.
Every congregation knows what it is to go through some kind of major change or transition. Most of us have experienced transitions between pastors - with vacancy, interim, search and finally call. Many of us have lived through, or rather survived a building renovation - paint chips, fabric samples and floor tiling strewn about while the unabating construction dust makes us feel like we’re permanently living in Ash Wednesday.
I started walking last June because of a FaceBook challenge put out by a former student. My job is primarily sedentary, and the goal of 10,000 steps a day seemed like a mountain to me. But I started. It was easier in the summer, and more difficult once school and classes and meetings filled my days. I’m on my fourth “tool” to track my steps. As important as meeting my goal was, the trackers have not been the most helpful aid to meeting my goal. Most helpful has been the music of the Psalms.
A tag line from a decades-old infomercial still makes me chuckle: [announcer voice] “This ____ can be yours. Do not be fooled by more expensive imitations!” There is something so deliciously ironic (and just plain wrong) about that phrase. The first time I heard it I said, “What???” Then I heard it again and again and again—promoting some piece of indispensable Americana plastica that could be “. . . yours for the low, low price of . . .”
How do you end a worship service? It’s not a simple question, is it?
I have a confession. I’m a Reformed Protestant worship director who attends Mass at a Catholic parish on a regular basis. Others in my position will understand that Sunday is a “working day,” and not always conducive to the kind of Sabbath rest and worship necessary for healthy discipleship. Saturday night Mass is something I look forward to for perspective, prayer, and nourishment. In fact, it is the only Saturday night service in our town that I am drawn to attend on a regular basis. Why? Because all the others tend to leave me frazzled or anxious.
One of the themes I loved to stress back in the days when I taught a university course on “Foundations of Worship,” is that worship provides a reality check. I can still hear myself saying to a class, “All week long our understandings of who God is and who we are gets hammered, and gradually becomes more and more out of focus. On Sundays we gather with God’s people to have our communal vision corrected again.”
But what if our worship actually contributes to the loss of focus?
This is the Golden Rule of radio. People like listening to songs that they know because of the feelings and emotions that came with hearing the song the first time all come rushing back. Most every couple can point to ‘their song’, maybe the first one they ever danced to or the one playing when she walked down the aisle. We have songs that are special to our churches too; the one sung when the last pastor retired, when you celebrated the Jubilee Anniversary of the building you meet in and sang ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’.
I occasionally consult with churches who are looking for renewal and revitalization in their worship. Often these churches tell me that they are hoping that I can help them negotiate a transition from offering "traditional" to offering "contemporary" worship. (Though I have consulted with churches moving in the other direction!)
Worship is Work
Worship is a verb. It requires work. Work in preparing all sorts of elements with moving parts including many people. Can it ever be perfect?
In the harmony of a musical triad, the first-third-fifth of the chord, we may have the closest human experience to perfection that we can encounter on this side of heaven. There seems to be an achievable perfection in music. You can even measure it if you have something reading sound waves and frequencies to confirm ‘perfection’.
Right now, people are talking about the intersection of worship and work. Is corporate worship simply a place to leave our troubles at the door and refuel in the presence of Christ? Or is it a place wrestle—in the presence of God and fellow believers—with the challenges that face us in our weekday vocations?
On January 6 (at least in the Western Church), we celebrate Epiphany, marking the revelation of Jesus Christ to the whole world. The central biblical story is Matthew’s account of the magi (astrologers) coming from the East to worship Jesus.
I am struck that Matthew includes this story of the broader world being led to Jesus. Perhaps, I should not be surprised. After all, Matthew opens his gospel by naming Jesus’ family history, including several of his grandmothers who came from other nations.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. -Acts 9:15
Paul was chosen and commissioned by God to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul was the perfect instrument for this task due to his Jewish heritage, Roman citizenship and a classical Greek education under Gamaliel. The question is: for what purpose are we created?
This Advent season, on the eve of the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theology of Martin Luther. Particularly, I’ve been pondering his doctrine of simul iustus et peccator. This doctrine often gets articulated anthropologically—you and I live our lives “simultaneously justified and sinful.” Our experience of life under the simul is described well in Romans 7:15 (ESV): “I do not understand what I do.
Several years ago, I wrote a prayer for Thornapple Covenant Church to use during Advent. It is based on the meditation exercise called “palms down, palms up” in Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline.
In this meditation exercise, Foster encourages the Christian to pray with palms down in a prayer of relinquishment and surrender. (It helps me to hold my hands in the air, rather than on my lap, imagining that God’s hands rest under my own.) Then, turn palms up to demonstrate your desire to receive.