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.
Not long ago I was speaking at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest. After my presentation, a young woman, a leader of the praise band in her church, invited me to think with her about a frustration she had: "What do you do when you only get 15 minutes for worship?" she said. "I need more time than that to get the congregation from here," she said, raising her arms above her head, and waggling her hands, "to here," she said, lowering her arms and folding her hands gently together in front of her, just above her waist.
I remember the first time I used my great aunt’s recipe for ginger snap cookies. I was meticulously following her handwritten notes, certain that everything was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my utter disappointment when the first tray of soppy, run-together cookie dough came out of the oven. Apparently Aunt Mabel had been painstakingly accurate when it came to cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar, but had forgotten to mention flour. A more seasoned baker would have caught the oversight immediately (my wife did!) and added the flour in.
Do you long to see teens and young adults more solidly connected to your church?
Are you a preacher or do you belong to a church that has a preacher?
If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, I invite you to take on the “Preaching Tag-team Challenge.”
The best way to explain the challenge is to tell you this story.
Two wonderful sisters attend our church. One came first. She loved the music and the people. And, as a professional percussionist, found great delight when she soon began to participate. A Christian for much of her adult life, she had been praying her sister would join her. And one day she did.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty—
all things, in fact,
come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
It has perhaps become THE criticism of modern worship songs: replace all references to God with the name of your boyfriend (or girlfriend), and you have a song virtually indistinguishable from the love songs of top 40 radio. Folks like me, who cut their blogospheric teeth on such observations, have made plenty of hay over these kinds of things in posts past. The argument is a justifiable cry that our worship songs need to be more than the mushy, sappy, and touchy-feely. We need doctrine. We need awe. We need reverence.
I can’t wait until November. I’m American, and if you haven’t heard, we are preparing for a general presidential election. During a debate in March, I realized I was tired of the primaries. During the Democratic National Convention, I realized that I was just plain tired. I am tired of the war of words, the hatred, the ideologies. I am tired. I wish November would hurry up and get here, but I’d miss three months of my children’s childhood and my garden’s tomato harvest, so it’s probably not worth it.
The Importance of Preparation
We would see Mr. Tony out on his front porch early on those summer holiday mornings scraping the grates on his large grill, pouring in the fresh charcoal, and starting up the fire that would run throughout the day. He would tend the coals all morning, making sure the flames were just right and that all the coals would get a turn in the middle. He would turn them over, scoot them around, and occasionally pick up a couple that had fallen to the side.
My husband and I moved to North New Jersey in January of 2012 — exactly 10 years and 4 months after the tragic events of 9/11. While 9/11 rocked us to the core, we had moved on. We worked our jobs, I went back to school and graduated five years later, our children grew — our lives continued. We, like many others, paused for a moment on the 9/11s that followed. We said our prayers and then went about our business. We didn’t forget — but the events of that awful day didn’t dominate our lives.
People get ready
There's a train a-coming
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don't need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
The 30-something pastor sat across from me in our local Thai restaurant, and was clearly too excited to eat.
“When we worshiped yesterday,” he began, “I told the congregation that our ninety minutes together was just the trailer for the movie, a tiny glimpse of the kingdom to whet our appetite, and after our worship was over, the real deal would begin: the full length feature movie that develops the plotline and characters and reveals all the gritty details.”
Early this season I returned to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, to attend my Ph.D. commencement ceremony and to be duly “hooded” – i.e., officially welcomed into the company of hopelessly nerdy liturgical and homiletical scholars.
It was the first time I’ve ever sat down for this piece. I had all intention to stand up tall and conduct with precision and as much strength as I could muster, but when the choir processed to the front of the sanctuary and took their places, I looked at their faces, seeing the same deep pain I was feeling, reflected in their brimming eyes, and just couldn’t do it. The familiar three measure introduction rang out from the piano and the choral voices came crashing into the room like a wrecking ball on first impact. “Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
OUR ACHILLES HEEL
I’m a believer in thoughtful worship. I’m a believer in biblical worship. I’m a believer in worship that is theologically deep, historically informed, and intellectually engaging. And yet, many of us who buy into this have an Achilles heel. In an effort to fill worship with meaning, we can end up over-explaining everything.
It’s a question everyone must ask. How do we see our life and our calling? When we find ourselves thinking about the things that fill our days, what images come to mind?