This week I am at the Rostered Ministers Gathering in Atlanta. I am helping with the audio/video logistics as well as sharing a couple of workshops. It has been a great week. Here are some pics:
1 All God’s children have a safe haven where they gather in God’s Spirit.
Rescue is found in God’s Spirit, embodied in the community of God’s people.
2 All people have an advocate and a provider in God.
God shelters from hatred and harm and raises up in the power of the resurrection.
3 There is no thing, good or evil, in all our living and dying that can separate us from God’s love.
All God’s children receive mercy and pardon because God knows their stories. God knows their troubles.
4 In times of plenty, and in times of hardship, God is there.
God is purifying us so that we might last longer and flourish.
1 Children of the heav’nly Father safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given.
2 God his own doth tend and nourish, in his holy courts they flourish.
From all evil things he spares them, in his mighty arms he bears them.
3 Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;
unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.
4 Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh;
his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.
Text: Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903; tr. Ernst W. Olson, 1870-1958
Text © 1925 Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress.
Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.
I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.
Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.
Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.
Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.
I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.
If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.
On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).
After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.
Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”
What is the point?
I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).
As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?
My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)
What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?
If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.
Lent begins this year on March 1 with Ash Wednesday. I have begun to think about all the possibilities of our music and space for worship during the upcoming season. Lent is a time to reflect, to pause, to weigh the costs of discipleship, and to prayerfully prepare for marking time with Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In particular I am thinking about the music for worship in our gathered assemblies. What can be done musically to carry across the layers of meaning we find during the Lenten season? One idea I am exploring is breaking things down. In a musical sense, this means simplifying things. The simplicity of our instruments and ensembles can bring out the themes of Lent.
An article at WorshipLeader.com makes some suggestions for improving congregational singing that I think are helpful: “I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus. Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!” Breaking things down instrumentally and providing simplicity can help the assembly sing – a worthy goal regardless of the liturgical season!
Scott Weidler shared a tip for Lent in a recent ALCM email regarding unaccompanied singing: “Lenten simplifying may well mean singing some music without instrumental accompaniment. If this is new (and, perhaps, terrifying) to your congregation, Lent may be an appropriate time to introduce it. The human voice is the primary instrument given to us by God. Let’s find ways to amplify its centrality. Many settings of psalms, Lenten verses sung as the Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Lamb of God, and other music may appropriately be sung without accompaniment. If eliminating accompaniments completely is unrealistic, try to imagine how to minimize the instrumental leadership in order to maximize primacy of the human voice.”
Breaking things down can be done in many ways. It could be using acoustic instruments instead of electric instruments, hand percussion instead of full drum kit, or just using piano or unaccompanied singing. Try one of these ideas in your context.
You probably see the same things on social media that I see. Ever increasingly, when it comes time to compose the prayers of intercession for weekly worship, all I have to do is open Facebook to see what we should be lifting up in prayer. Disturbing posts like this have become all too common in my feed:
According to Nairobi, one thing worship does is stand against the prevailing attitudes and assumptions of the culture when they don’t align with Jesus’ gospel.
“Worship calls us to alternative visions, questioning and critiquing culture. Praising God may be at odds with what the surrounding culture deems worthy of praise. Worship needs to challenge us to live into the freedom we receive in Christ, a freedom from all that defies God. The counter- cultural lens asks us to reflect upon what in worship does not look and sound like the cultures we take for granted.” (“Can We Talk?: Engaging Worship and Culture,” p. 3)
Worship at Faith this Sunday will be counter-cultural by having the assembly sing in 4 different languages (Shona, Arabic, Chinese, and English). Out of the 8 pieces of music that will be used in worship, only 1 was composed in the United States. The other 7 all come from different corners of the world.
God’s kingdom has no borders or official language, besides the language of love.
Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)
As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.
I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.
It is a humbling honor to craft the prayers of intercession for an assembly gathered to worship. I took extra care this week in writing the prayers on the Sunday after such an eventful week.
A: With the people of God gathered here and throughout the world, we offer our prayers for our nation and those in need of peace during this time.
A brief silence.
A: We pray for the health, well-being, wisdom, and judgment of President-Elect Trump and all who were elected to office this week. Grant our government an orderly and peaceful transition in the months to come, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
A: We pray for those who feel like their deepest hopes were dashed and greatest fears were preyed upon in this election. Grant comfort and courage to our Muslim and LGBTQ sisters and brothers during their time of distress, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
A: We pray for peace among the nations. Make our elected leaders quick to welcome ventures in cooperation among the peoples of the world, so that there may be woven the fabric of a common good too strong to be torn by the evil hands of war, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
A: We pray for those who hunger or thirst, for those who doubt or are terrified, for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit, for our (specific needs), that all experience the healing and comfort given through Christ, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
A: We pray for those gathered in this place to hear the gospel and receive the good gifts of God through Christ Jesus, that guided by the Holy Spirit, we will serve our neighbor and stand against the injustices we might face, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
Here other intercessions may be offered.
A: We give thanks for men and women of every time and place who have died in Christ, and we follow their examples of faithful living, let us pray.
All: Have mercy, O God.
What would you say is the primary symbol of Christian worship?
Have you ever thought about this question? Let me suggest another way to think about this question. If you walk into a room of people engaged in Christian worship, what is the symbol in the room that gives it away? I believe most people would agree that a cross or crucifix would be the main symbol that is a dead giveaway that a room is used for Christian worship. However, that is not always the case.
Last month I traveled to Rochester, MN for a continuing education event. We gathered at Zumbro Lutheran Church to learn more about our Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal on the 10th anniversary of its publication. I was struck by the space for worship at Zumbro Lutheran. What stands out to you in their space?
The first thing that stood out to me was the bold, red letters quoting a passage form 2 Corinthians. This text hovers on the back wall of the chancel, just above the table, and constantly reminds those gathered of God’s mission in Christ.
Next I noticed the object suspended in the air. What does this object represent to you? I can see several things. I could interpret this object as a crown of thorns, a circle of connecting crosses, or the wings of doves. Perhaps you see something different. Then I realized it. There was no cross in this room. At least there was no central, direct, grab-your-attention cross to tell you that this room was used for Christian worship.
Back to my question: what is the symbol in the room that gives Christian worship away? Actually, sorry, that was a trick question. It is a trick question because you may not consider the answer to be a symbol. The answer is people. The assembly gathered is the primary symbol in Christian worship. “Church” first and foremost is a people, not a building. The place in which we gather, the things we do – none of these would occur if not for the gathering of God’s people.
“Baptismal unity will never be that of an “insider” group. Baptism, which constitutes the Church, also calls Christians to identify in solidarity with all people. Its celebration will therefore have certain counter-cultural elements as well. The poor will be baptized with a least as great a dignity as the rich. Women and men, children and adults, and people from all ethnic/class/caste backgrounds will stand here on equal footing, equally in need of God’s mercy, equally gifted with the outpoured Spirit. Baptism, which creates members of the local community, also at the same time creates these people as member of the one universal Body of Christ. Baptism calls us to unity, not to division.” Chicago Statement on Worship and Culture, Lutheran World Federation, 2.3.