Thursday, February 28, 2008

Memorable Worship

I would be interested in hearing from readers about the most meaningful worship experience they remember. It doesn't necessarily have to have occurred in church. This needn't be anything long (unless you feel like being very detailed), but I would be curious to know what made the experience so powerful for you.

Personally, I can think of several, but I'll limit my comments to this one:

Fifteen years ago I was asked to sing a solo for our Easter service. I decided to sing "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah. I had several week's advance notice,and I worked very hard to prepare this piece.

As I was working on it, my Grandmother found out that her cancer, which had been in remission, had returned for the third time. She was 83 years old, and she just said "This is what is going to get me, and I don't want to spend my last days feeling rotten from the treatments." So she just decided to go unmedicated and take things as they came. And, actually, she felt pretty good for some months, so she had that time to enjoy her life and her family.

Grandma had been a very active person, and, like me, a locally active singer. She wasn't really singing anymore, but she was always very encouraging to me about my singing.

Anyway, the day came for me to sing. As I started the piece, I looked out into the congregation and saw that my grandmother was staring at me intently. I can't quite describe the look on her face; but somehow I felt that the words of that song were a connection between us.
"I know that my Redeemer liveth...And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God!" There was no question that I sang that statement of faith the best I have ever sung. I sang it for her. I knew that that opportunity was engineered for me by the Holy Spirit, to encourage my grandmother, and receive encouragement for myself. Though I had believed those words intellectually for a long time, for the first time I internalised them. I don't think I have ever feared death since.

What about you? When have you really connected with God in worship?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Joyful Worship

A few days ago I spoke with my son Paul, proud father of Malorie, 6 months old. He was giving me all the Malorie-news: first tooth is now through, rolls both ways (which is good, because it used to make her mad when she wound up on her tummy and couldn't get back to her back!), and, Paul claims, she calls him Da-da.

I asked Paul, "Are you sure she is really associating the sound da-da with you? Are you sure she isn't just babbling?" (What kind of Nanna am I, to question Malorie's genius!)

"Well we wondered that at first, too," Paul said. "But then we noticed that she will purposely make some sound to get my attention, and when I look over, she gives me a big smile and says 'Da-da'." He went on to tell me that she doesn't say it when he is gone.

Now, I know how Malorie smiles: with her entire body! It looks like she's being tickled. It's something she does that shows pure delight, and seeing it generates pure delight in all around her.

I also know that her Mommy, if she is anything like I was, probably starts telling her, a few minutes before Paul walks in the door each evening, "Malorie, Daddy is coming soon! Won't it be fun to see Daddy?" Maybe Malorie even starts looking around for Daddy when Janel mentions him. I don't know if she is old enough to think about Daddy when he is gone, yet, but hearing his name must conjure up his image for her, and maybe she even anticipates the fun she will have playing with her Daddy. She certainly doesn't know that when he is invisible to her he is really still in existence, working hard to make a living and provide for her. Some day she will understand that, but for now she just lives in the present, and that present sure is great when Daddy is home!

Bear with me; this really is about worship!

You see, hearing this story made me wonder. How many of us get that excited to see our Heavenly Father? How many of us laugh and giggle with anticipation when we think about going to worship on Sunday morning? How many of us, like Malorie, don't know where our Father is if we can't see him? How many of us realize that the best way to see Him is through the Church?
This week, when you come into the Sanctuary, why not anticipate his presence, smiling with your whole body, and calling out "Da-da!"

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Through Other's Eyes

A few years ago our family had the interesting experience of getting to know a wonderful young German woman named Annetta. Annetta was a Fulbright Scholarship student at the university here, and she was a classmate of one of my sons. If you know anything about Fulbright Scholars, they are not only brilliant, but very open and curious about the culture they are visiting. As she and my son became became friends, she discovered that Matt was planning to become a minister. She was very curious about this! Why would an intelligent young man choose such a stupid profession? As they conversed, she became intrigued about the American "obsession" with religion. Eventually, because she was such a curious person, she accepted my son's invitation to attend our church.

She came on a Sunday when Pastor Randy was giving a first-person sermon in which he was a character from the Christmas story. Having a pastor preach in costume was quite a surprise to her. It was also a Sunday when the chairman of our trustee board announced that we had finally gotten everything in order to make a substantial addition to our building, an addition that was geared most specifically toward ministry to children and youth. It was an exciting day, and the church was absolutely packed. As usual, after singing and praying for a while, the children were dismissed to go to another room for children's church.

From my perch in the choir loft I was watching with great interest all the responses to the service flitting across Annetta's face. I saw her smile with surprise when the congregation laughed at some little joke that was made by the worship leader. I saw her listen with rapt puzzlement as the building plans were announced and the congregation buzzed with excitement. I saw her crane her neck to watch all the little ones run down the aisles to go to children's church. Being very musical, she sang the hymns from the hymnbook with great enthusiasm. She was probably more completely engaged in what she was experiencing than any one I had seen in a long time.

After the service, I met her, along with my family, out by the coat racks, where all the families in the church always lingered to chat with each other. After introducing her to a few people, we asked her to join us for lunch.

Annetta was full of questions!

First and foremost: how were we paying for the expansion to our building? We told her that all the members of the congregation were giving toward the new wing, because we were out of space for our children's and youth ministries.

This was amazing to her. "In Germany the government maintains all the church buildings. We all pay taxes for that."

It was our turn to be surprised. "Don't the people who are non-believers get mad about that?"

"No, because most of our churches are historic, so they can see that they need to be preserved.", she said.

So we explained that here we had had a separation of church and state since colonial times, and churches were solely in the hands of the people who attended them. No, no, the pastor didn't force anybody to give to the building fund, and there might be a few members who did not choose to give, but most of us really saw the need for the addition, and were glad to help make it happen.

Next, she wondered where all the little children had gone during the service. We explained that they went to another room where there was Bible lesson just for them, since they were too young to understand what the pastor was saying in the sermon. And that it was nice for them, too, because they could have fun and their parents could listen to the sermon without distraction.

"I think this is a very good idea, and they should do this in Germany, too," she said. "In Germany, no takes children to church, church is just for grown-ups. When I was a girl, my grandmother would sometimes take me to church, but I didn't like it. It was just a few old ladies sitting in a little group up near the front. It was cold in there, and you had to be quiet. I didn't like it, and I didn't understand it."

We expressed sympathy. Too bad her parents didn't find a church that had more kids, we said. "There weren't any," she said. "No one young goes to church in Germany. It is seen as something from the past, something that is part of our history, but we don't do it anymore." Then she got more animated. "But here, I can see that it is different. So many young families with children! And people are really listening to what is going on, really singing loudly. It is so different from Germany! You can even tell a jokes and laugh in church here. And people must think that this will be part of the future, or they wouldn't spend so much money to enlarge the building. We don't make churches bigger at home. We just take care of them so they don't fall down in ruins."

'Annetta," I said, "church is not a museum. We have a children's song that goes like this:

I am the Church,
You are the Church,
We are the Church together.
All of God's people, all around the world,
Yes we're the Church together.
The Church is not building,
The Church is not a steeple,
The Church is not a resting place,
The church is the people.
I am the Church,
You are the Church,
We are the Church together.
All of God's people, all around the world,
Yes we're the church together.

"So the building is just the tool that we use to do the things the people in the church need to do."

She looked bemused. "That's what is really different. When you go to a church in Germany, you don't feel anything. But here, you can feel something in the church. I don't know how to explain it-you just feel something that is more alive."

I think about our conversations with Annetta often. Sometimes, when people get a little too "preservationist", resisting change, I think about Annetta's observations and her amazing insights about the difference between dead church buildings and living congregations, dead rituals and Spirit-infused worship. It reminds me once again of the concept of "worship evangelism".

I'm so glad to be here! I need to pray that I never forget to see things through her fresh eyes, never try to turn my building or my church service into a museum piece.