Tag Archives: worship

Stay Hungry

Have you ever trained for something? Whether its music or sports or preparing for a final exam, training takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting. But some of us, who have had our passion inflamed, who have felt a clarity of our callings, find a love that sustains us even as we train. Training takes a certain kind of obsession to be effective, because training is work and work takes energy and time.

I think in our day people value talent, but loath training. Talent is valuable, but the truth is, it can get in the way of training because people feel like they have arrived. Raw talent is an inspiring thing, but it is just that: raw. And some people who already have it feel like they have nothing left to learn, no new heights to obtain, and as the old saying goes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” One of the blinders that needs to come off in the spiritual life is the blinder that tells us, “We have arrived. We have attained. We have taken ahold of what Christ has for us and now we can stop training and get comfortable. We can cash in our chips and punch out for the day.”

But as the Body of Christ we are a Body in training. We have not arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. The question before us isn’t simply whether we will do this work or not. The question before us is, have we lost our passion? Our focus? Are we missing the fuel that will sustain us? The clarity of calling? The hope of arriving someday? Paul points this out in his words: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Renowned scholar N.T. Wright translates this: “No, I am hurrying on eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me!” I like his translation because it fits better with the theme of racing, a theme Paul is really emphasizing here.

Paul had Olympic running in his day, and like the Olympics of our day it was a worldwide competition. Not every country got to compete, but you can bet the Jews of Paul’s day followed the Olympics and knew the outcome. I love his illustration of running because running is all about forward progression. In the spiritual life, we cannot keep looking back, we must look forward for what God has for us next. We must keep an eye on the prize, but with the other eye we have to keep watch on the road before us. We can’t look back, or we could wander off course, or hit a pothole. We could miss the next obstacle and get hurt and have to quit the race.

I love the Friends church. I love our history and heritage. I love our stories of dauntless missionaries and saints. But perhaps the biggest problem with our denomination is that we have such a wonderful heritage we can end up making that the focus. But we can’t be effective runners if our heads are spun around the wrong way. We have to keep one eye on the prize. One eye on chasing Jesus sure, but we have to keep the other eye looking down where our next step is about to land.

We cannot be distracted by side issues. We cannot always be people who look back. We should keep our eye on the prize of reaching out and raising up disciples. That is the main thing and the real reason the church exists. It is the work each of us, in our own way, is called to.

We have a wonderful building. We have a beautiful church family. But we can’t, like a runner who finds himself in 1st place, stop straining on. A race isn’t over until it is finished. We have to work hard not only to keep what we have gained, but gain even more.

We can’t get comfortable, but should live into our vision and values statement that says: “College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.”

The real treasure we seek in the Christian life is Jesus. It is not even the reward of heaven, but of being with Jesus. Heaven is not the goal, He is the goal. God calls us heavenward, but He calls us not only to heaven, but to Himself. And He calls us to be with Him on a journey, a heavenward journey. And Paul goes even further, from preaching to meddling as it were, as he challenges us in verse 15 “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you… Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

We might not always agree about what the next steps will be, but we need to take them together, trusting that God will make it clear for us as we walk together. As we cling to the truth that we have so far… as we cling to that bit of gold we have that God is still refining in us, God will reveal even more to us.

There is a maturity in knowing not only what we already know, but what we don’t know. It was said of Socrates that he was the wisest person in Athens, not because of how much he knew, but because he knew how much he had left to learn. Those of us with real maturity have a humble maturity, one that comes not only in acknowledging our strengths and successes and our victories in the spiritual life, but also in acknowledging our fumbles and foibles and failures.

A maturity that comes in the form of recognizing how far we have yet to go in becoming like Jesus, but seeking it together anyway. So, we live the Christian life as I have said so far, with one eye on Jesus. One eye off in the distance, filled with hope and keeping our eye on the prize. But we also keep one eye down at our feet, looking to overcome the next hurdle. Looking to keep what we have already attained.

Eric Liddell, the Olympian who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire, was a man of intense discipline used mightily by God. As a runner, he refused to run on Sundays, even when it cost him greatly. May we live purposeful lives willing to risk for God. Liddell once said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” It is my belief that the glory he was talking about was God’s glory not Eric’s glory, the glory revealed in us as God’s creatures, as we run the race He has before us. There are limits God gives us, limits like sabbath rest. And we do God’s kingdom little good if we work ourselves to death. But for some of us the greater danger is in letting our training regimen go… neglecting our prayer and bible reading and fellowship together. Sunday morning service was never meant to be the beginning and end of our spiritual nourishment, but the overflow of what God has been doing in our lives all week. Let us bring our best even there.

For those who want to win, there can be no looking back. There can be no pining for days gone by. There is only striving, a striving that melts away all our complacency. Where we want to be where Jesus is more than anything else. We are not looking at the distractions around us, the fool’s gold in our midst. We are not settling for our past successes… we are striving. Striving for even more growth on our journey with Jesus. There will be a time beyond the striving, a time victory is complete. But this is not yet that time. For now, the race is on.

Agape,

James


On Callouses and Callousness…

Where the church isI love the church. I see it as a way that God has blessed the world. For all its (our) flaws, it is such a wondrous thing that God uses us. It is amazing that God sees us as His Bride, veiled in white, without spot or blemish. For many of us, this metaphor about the church seems strange. I think especially men struggle with the thought of being a bride. But it is interesting to think about how the various New Testament metaphors work together to show us something of our calling, anything from the “bride” and “body” metaphors that reveal something of our union and unity with Christ, to the “the people of the Way” that emphasize following the example of Jesus. No one metaphor or even Greek word captures the concept of the church in all its fullness, so what we see in scripture is something like the many facets of a diamond. Each side shows us a bit more about this mysterious role we play “co-missioning” with God.

There are many biblical names for the church, a primary one is ecclesia meaning “called out ones,” a term borrowed from the Greek city state governing tradition. It once meant a meeting place where the citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the political process. The early church borrowed this term and filled it with new meaning, getting back to the “called out ones” definition it implied. Within the church, however, I think it always kept that communal and participatory spirit. One can see this dynamic in our monthly meeting for business. As God’s set apart or “called out” people, we come before God together seeking leadership, but also bringing ourselves into the process of how God’s will will be carried out among us.

Of all these descriptions and metaphors for the church, perhaps the most forgotten one is its most mundane: workers. While lacking a bit in the “romance” department, there comes a time in any relationship where we come face to face with the realities of the ordinary, what Wendell Berry eloquently describes as the art of the commonplace. Many of us can remember fondly a time of our first connection with God, the initial “falling in love” side of our relationship. Like any good marriage however, our relationship with God can take love into some new areas of our lives as our relationship deepens. Yet often love requires work, it requires us actually taking our own baby steps toward the place our relationship with God is going. In the gospel of Matthew we find this short description of Jesus leading His disciples by example—almost daring them to follow Him into a new place, a place it seemed that was full of work we might share with Him:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Mt. 9:35-38)

In our day, work can be so overwhelming. It spills beyond the healthy boundaries we want it to, like a river flooding beyond its bounds. Technology like smartphones has brought the office even to our dinner tables, it would seem. Yet in the sea of opportunities for work that hem us in on every side, how can we keep our eyes open? Jesus saw these people God had put in His life. His eyes were open to their poor state and He had compassion on them. He challenged His disciples to look around at all the work God wanted to do in bringing these people spiritual leadership. He asked them to be willing to be sent out like workers in the fields.

I worked on a farm a bit in Kansas, and I know that there are different stages of farming, stages like planting and cultivation, not just harvesting. When the harvest comes though the work kicks up into high gear. I like many of you, have worked literally from sunup to sundown—for weeks on end—trying to bring the harvest in to be stored away in safety. In farming, as in life, there are seasons. Seasons for planting, cultivating, and harvesting; times of starting new works, developing these works to maturity, and completing them. This works exactly the same in spiritual leadership. There are no shortcuts, and there is a lot of work to be done before we will ever see a hint of fruit. Yet we must keep the big picture in mind. We must be in tune to where we are at in the cycle, and be responsive to the needs of this time. As Jesus reminds us, sometimes the biggest contributions we bring are not our skills, or even our gifts and talents. It is our willingness. It is our eyes of compassion that can see beyond the urgency of the present moment, beyond the ordinariness; eyes to see the ways where we can use our own two hands to make a difference in the lives of those God has put around us.

I have the feeling that so few of us have embraced the part of our relationship with God that helps us see life as workers, not because we don’t love God or have compassion, but simply because we are so busy. In our world today, each day comes to us with a smorgasbord of opportunities, whether they be for work or play. Yet the church is essentially relationships; with God and of course others, both those who know and have yet to know God. If we fill our lives too full, we may well be workers (and working ourselves to death in fact), but we can too easily be workers for the wrong harvest, pouring all our time and energy into things that do not allow us any time for our roles as messengers of God and spiritual leaders who point to Him. Like many of you, I am in the same boat. I have kids and a car payment, and seemingly endless hurdles to jump and deadlines to meet.

How do we discern which opportunities to pursue and which to say no to? We have to say no to some things… or our relationships with God and each other will become dilapidated and we may well even drive ourselves mad. I think Jesus points us to an answer, though it is not an easy one. We have to suit up and go to work. We have to go out into the fields and do what we can, even in the face of more work than we could ever do. I heard a story once about an ocean storm that brought thousands of starfish out of their habitat and onto the shore. As thousands lay dying like “fish out of water,” one small boy started throwing them back one by one. A cynical man nearby tried to tell the boy to stop, that what he was doing didn’t matter in the face of all that need. The boy said, “It mattered to that one!” and “It mattered to that one” and kept on flinging starfish for as long as he could.

Even at our best, there is no way we can fix the urgent need of our world for God. We can only do our small parts, yet these parts matter. They utterly and truly matter and it’s easy to forget that. The part we play as workers of the field is important, for we become the hands and feet of Jesus that touch people’s lives. But like the man in the story we can become cynical in the face of the great needs of our world today and this cynicism can paralyze us. The thing is though that we are not trying to do it all by ourselves. We are workers working together… working for the same Master and working on the same harvest. How can we be a church that seeks to live this out? How can we resist the cynicism that paralyzes us and the business that fragments us?

The church is often likened to a sporting event: lots of people in the stands who desperately need exercise… watching a few people on the field who desperately need a break. In our day with all its busyness, a lot of people have not even felt like investing the time of coming to the stands. The problem with all of this is that it misses the point of “co-missioning” with God. Church was never supposed to be mostly something we consume from the stands, it is supposed to be about following Jesus, becoming like Him as disciples. Like it or not, this takes work. It takes risk. It takes us prioritizing our time not merely around worship on a Sunday morning, but around strengthening our relationships with God and each other. Some things, many things in the spiritual life, cannot be done for us. Change starts first in the heart of the one who seeks it. But first we must ask ourselves how badly we want it. May we pray this week that God would give us eyes to see what God wants to do in us and through us. May we see our daily walks with more compassion. May our willingness grow, not merely our skill.

Agape,

James


A Bit of a Snapshot

Pencil hiigh speedMany pastors in the Yearly Meeting serve on various Yearly Meeting committees, and frankly, I was trying to escape from Yearly Meeting last year without joining any of them. At Yearly Meeting, however, I found out that along with accepting this call I inherited a de facto membership on William Penn’s campus ministry committee. Historically the pastor of College Avenue Friends seems to always have played some sort of role in campus ministry, and I am very comfortable with this as it lines up perfectly with the call God has long placed on my heart. In fact the very reason I wanted to avoid joining a committee was because I wanted to deepen my roots to Oskaloosa Iowa, the people of our community, and of course, to William Penn University. As many of you know, with the cutting of Spencer’s position and the restructuring of the campus ministry committee, people are asking new questions about how the campus ministry program at Penn will continue. Various committee members have taken up certain aspects of campus ministry. Scott Biddle will be involved in various ways. Tom Palmer will continue his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). I felt the Lord put on my heart that I should get involved with coordinating chapel, and Bailey Hupp has been indispensable in helping me learn the ropes of how this is to work.

While on my trip to Oregon, a young woman named Beth from the William Penn Chronicle sought me out to ask what is happening with campus ministry at Penn. Though she will likely pull a few things here and there from what I wrote as she was intending to create her own article, as I reflected on what I wrote for her I couldn’t help but include it in full for my newsletter. Beth’s last question on behalf of the students may well be the question many of us at College Avenue Friends are also wondering about. It seemed fitting that after many meetings and a bit of experience now connecting with students at chapel so far that some kind of update was in order. Beth’s questions helped me put into words a bit about what has happened, what is happening, and perhaps a little bit about what God has in store for campus ministry in the future. These were her questions to me and my responses to them are included below:

1.) What position do you hold within the church?

I am the pastor of the church, however I prefer the title released minister. This title fits better with the Quaker idea of the priesthood of all believers in which everyone has a call to ministry and can serve God in whatever vocation they inhabit. Basically it means I am a minister among ministers…

2.) How do you feel about the termination of the campus minister position, and what direction do you think they will take now that there is no one officially in charge?

I have mixed feelings about the termination of the campus minister position. I consider Spencer to be a close friend and a co-laborer in the work of ministry.  On the one hand I feel that Spencer was very effective in one on one connections with students, and his ministry will be sorely missed. He really invested in the lives of students and in the building up of leaders. I also think he took the school’s mission statement seriously regarding the pursuit of excellence, yet he marched to the beat of a different drum and was seeking that excellence in ways that are not easily quantified or understood. On the other hand, not having one person “in charge” and decentralizing the work of ministry resonates with the Quaker understanding of how ministry should be a shared burden. Many people were understandably upset by the decision, fearing it would eventually lead to the demise of all effective ministry at Penn. There is a danger that this sentiment could in fact turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as hurt feelings replace actual engagement, but I see this not as a step toward “the end” but a step toward a new beginning. There is a great deal of opportunity here to reimagine what campus ministry could look like here at Penn. While a volunteer-led model does lack a bit in efficiency (though not necessarily effectiveness) it really opens up ways for people to get involved, to share together in the work of ministry, and strengthen the historic relationships between WPU and Iowa Yearly Meeting, and of course, College Avenue Friends Church.

It was once common knowledge that College Avenue Friends Church was called into being to serve as a light to William Penn University. Before the days of car travel, Quaker students of old wrote a letter to the Yearly Meeting and to a few country churches asking them to consolidate and build a church near the college so that the students would have a sorely needed place of worship. These students sparked a real change with their request, resulting in the birth of our church. Unfortunately a few short years after the church building was built, the college had a tragic fire which resulted in the death of a faculty member and student who attempted to salvage the academic records inside, only to have the bell tower collapse upon them. When the college rebuilt after this tragedy at its current location, I think the role of College Avenue Friends as a place of student worship was eventually overshadowed by Spencer Chapel. Time and other factors have led to a long stretch of growing apart and a weakening of the vision originally cast by WPU students of a place to worship God they could call home.

If nothing else, the cutting of the campus minister position has pushed us toward reflecting on the relationship between WPU, Iowa Yearly Meeting, and College Avenue Friends Church.  I believe that the desire to rebuild these historic relationships is a divine appointment. Our church had a meeting to discern God’s leading for us in light of the university cabinet’s decision and it seemed clear God was calling us to step out in faith, and in a spirit of love and humility, seek to strengthen our historic role as a light to WPU, impacting its students, faculty, and destiny as God leads. The spirit of unity at that meeting was palpable, and there was a real sense that we should “take the ball and run with it,” making the most of this new opportunity, and rising to face this challenge with the grace and humility it deserves.

Though there is no one person—such as a campus minister—officially and visibly “in charge” at present, that does not mean no one is in charge of campus ministry at Penn. I am a part of the newly restructured Campus Ministry Committee, a group of wonderful folks honestly trying to go forward in this new direction and help make it work. While some are still wounded by the decision itself, we recognize the importance of serving the spiritual needs of the Penn community. This work has always been larger than one person, and as I mentioned earlier this is opening up new opportunities for service. The piece of this I am taking up is the role of chapel coordinator, something I am very excited about. It is a great way to connect to students, though of course many students have to rush off immediately afterward for class. At chapel we are striving to embrace a sense of hospitality, regularly sharing a home cooked meal together as the early church often did. We are shooting for a more interactive approach, seeking ways to grow in depth and authenticity through table fellowship, discussion, and challenging one another to grow and serve in tangible ways.

Many ministries at Penn such as FCA, Intervarsity, sports devotions, and student led bible studies are largely autonomous, free standing entities. It is exciting to see Team Christ—a newly formed student led group—grow and thrive, reaching out to the Penn community in Jesus’ name. The biggest struggle involved in not having a campus minister is that communication and coordination of all these wonderful student led ministries is a real challenge. Good things come from cooperation and collaboration, and this is harder to do without one person acting as a point of connection. The committee is seeking some graduate assistants to take on the role of Spiritual Life Coordinator, connecting and communicating the work of ministry on campus, as well as investing in Religious Life Scholarship students and being available to minister to students, faculty, or staff. A job description has been created and the committee is beginning to promote the position and seek those whom God is leading to serve in this way.

It is hard to see a great deal of fruit presently stemming from the work of our committee. I for one am still learning the context of my small corner of campus ministry involvement and as of yet ways of gauging effectiveness seem elusive. Yet there are real signs of hope on the horizon. The opportunities present in this new work are something of a new testing ground, calling for creativity and collaboration between students, volunteers, and of course, faculty and staff. So many of the seeds we have been sowing will not sprout until next year and beyond, but the framework we have been working on will hopefully serve the spiritual life of WPU for years to come. I for one am excited about what God is up to and bringing forth in this new adventure.

Agape,

James Tower

Released Minister of College Avenue Friends Church and Chapel Coordinator of WPU


The Cry of the Heart

heartThe final thought I want to leave us with as I conclude my series on worship is, how do we evaluate worship? As with many things, you can’t just ask one person. We all have our opinions of course, but most of us know we can only speak to our own experience. Neither could we ask a certain demographic like young adults, or our more “seasoned” members. I suspect even if we asked everyone at once the criteria for each person would be different, likely based on what was familiar and even what was going on in their lives at that moment. If, as I have tried to point out, performance level or even people’s enjoyment cannot be very good indicators of a worshipping community’s response and participation, is there much left for a person like me who plans worship services to go on?

In reflecting back on a Sunday morning worship experience, there are some occasional feedback comments that spring to mind. To be honest, though, most of what comes to mind is the ethereal looks on people’s faces—the passion or lack of enthusiasm I see on your faces staring back at those of us sitting on the stage. I would love to have some kind of congregationally based planning group to help me evaluate how planning for worship actually “achieved” worship, but so far my own leadership in this direction has been slow coming and difficult to say the least.

I do know one metric I would love to be the sole criteria for whether or not the plans for leading our congregation into worship have been successful: were people’s hearts pointed to and encountering Jesus? Among the various other criteria such as what is biblical and theologically grounded, the historical practices of the church, and the metric of our own sense of the familiar—whatever we end up doing, be that singing, praying, or listening to a sermon, no matter the technical excellence involved, if people are not genuinely encountering Jesus it was hardly worth the effort. There are always things that could have been planned better or gone as planned better and evaluating worship from a technical standpoint cannot be avoided. Moreover, evaluating the technical specifics of worship is both needed and necessary. The only way we can step down that path though is with a great deal of humility, honesty, and open mindedness.

Different elements of worship can both add to, or take away from, the flow of the corporate worship experience. This isn’t black and white territory either, for each person’s experience is subjective.  Amid all of this are bound to be both solid food and hiccups. As long as there is a human element involved, every now and then you get a curve ball thrown your way. One of the most difficult things a person can do is evaluate the technical side of worship with grace, keeping the proper balance of both speaking the truth and doing it with love.

Things being off can be distractions that take away from the experience of seeking God in community. Small details such as sound system quirks, a song leader being too far from a mic or singing too softly to be heard, various musical missteps, the lyric slide arriving too late on an unfamiliar song, a boring sermon—all of these things can play havoc on that faint nerve of OCD within us all. Yet what we do with this negative energy in worship can have a profound effect not only on our own worship, but that of those around us. There are powerful destructive possibilities at play as we find ourselves stepping into a critical role. Being a trained musician, speaker or sound tech means one can no longer be unaware of the many hiccups of a worship gathering. This sort of training in fact pushes us to be aware of things others might not be, as part of this training involves actively searching for fault to correct it. I know my training as a sound person and speaker can at times be an obstacle to being caught up in worship, it can stop me from focusing on a song or sermon in very tangible ways. Even without training, some of us can find ourselves knowing something is off, even if we lack the words to describe it.

Being critical however is not without its strengths. It calls us to ask dangerous questions beyond simply “did people like it?” It also helps us ask big questions such as, “are we merely singing these songs because they are familiar, or popular?” We can learn a lot about what we care about by what questions we are willing, or even are unwilling to ask. It takes a great deal of grace and humility to evaluate worship from a technical standpoint. This is because it pushes us beyond our own preferences and biases. If we are not pushed beyond our preferences and biases, we are simply being ruled by what is comfortable for us. I believe worship should be so much more than doing what we do because we have always done it that way or simply adopting whatever is trendy. I believe worship should be an experience of encountering God. The details are only semi-important, and hopefully help us along the way to that encounter. Yet on the other hand, the details matter a great deal and we should take them with the utmost seriousness.

A popular Christian artist named Matt Redman was a signed and successful professional musician, yet his church in Australia was deeply divided by the worship music. People grew so bitter about the rift between traditional and contemporary styles that the lead pastor took the bold move of cutting music from the worship services. After a few months without music they slowly began introducing spontaneous a capella music into the services. This singing came from the hearts of the congregation, not merely the stage. The church music rift eventually healed and became revitalized. The main criteria of the worship actions on a Sunday morning became “did our actions form a deep experience with Christ in the hearts of the believers in the congregation?” From this experience Matt Redman wrote a song called “The Heart of Worship” that became something of a surprise anthem among the early 2000’s contemporary worship music scene. So many churches resonated with the message of the song that nearly overnight it was sung in many English speaking churches across the globe.

For my final thought concluding thought about this series on worship, I simply want to leave you with the lyrics of Redman’s song, “The Heart of Worship”:

When the music fades

and all is stripped away

and I simply come.

Longing just to bring

something that’s of worth

that will bless Your heart.

 

I’ll bring You more than a song,

for a song in itself

is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within,

through the way things appear,

You’re looking into my heart.

 

I’m coming back to the heart of worship

and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it

when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

 

King of endless worth,

no one could express

how much you deserve.

Though I’m weak and poor,

all I have is Yours,

every single breath!

 

I’ll bring You more than a song,

for a song in itself

is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within,

through the way things appear,

You’re looking into my heart.

 

I’m coming back to the heart of worship

and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it

when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

 

Agape,

James

 


A Rhythmic Life of Worship

Church YearWhen the word “worship” becomes synonymous with the word “singing” on Sunday morning, something is lost. On the opposite end of conceiving of worship as specific actions like singing, praying, or listening to a sermon, is the big picture of “a life of worship.” When we think about dedicating our entire lives to God, giving Him “our moments and our days in ceaseless praise” as the old hymn puts it, we are freer to think about how our story intersects with God’s big story of salvation for the world. We can even begin to see our actions as something that contributes to a divine romance so to speak; even a human/divine dance of activity, intimacy, and rest. I recently preached on Psalm 90, a prayer attributed to Moses about how he found wisdom in “numbering his days.” As I write this and in thinking of its connection to this metaphor of a human/divine dance, it seems a fitting reflection that at some point the “music” will stop and this dance will be over. Then the eternal dance with God will begin as we regroup in the resurrection. For now, it seems, we should just enjoy the dance we are called to at present.

The ancients had a way of thinking about the connection between our story and God’s big story, a way of “numbering their days” if you will, or marking out time in the search for a wisdom filled life. They thought of every year as a journey from the foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and birth (Advent and Christmas) and moving toward Jesus’ death and resurrection (Lent and Easter). While we Quakers struggle with what we perceive as “high church forms,” I think we can gain a lot from slowing ourselves down and putting our “moments and our days” back into God’s big story in our sanctified imaginations. While holidays like Epiphany or Ash Wednesday might seem to be huge distractions or “forms” to us with our simple, Quaker perspective on worship, the church year does not have to be something we eye with suspicion. I think we can see it is complementary to our idea that our whole lives can be sacraments. It fits as a way of experiencing our faith in a new dimension, because we are reflecting on our journey with God as a larger rhythm than we are often conscious of. If all of life is a sacrament, then our time is also a sacrament, and there is nothing wrong with marking it out in ways that remind us of God’s big story of redemption. This sets the story in its proper place, as an active drama being lived out even now.

In my worship planning at College Avenue Friends, I have tried to make room for Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter for this very reason. I want to challenge you as we begin another journey through Advent to pay attention to God’s story and its meaning for you. To do yourself a favor and not cut to the end of the story simply because we already know how it ends, but to try to let the “moments” of this Advent season remind you of the slow journey toward Bethlehem, and the One we are to meet there.

God calls us to a rhythmic life of worship. A life of order and discipline that lets the Spirit prune and sanctify us, even sanctify our imaginations and meddling with the desires of our hearts. In the Old Testament, God commanded a series of feasts, fasts, and festivals. There is something about us that requires this sort of divine nudge toward setting apart time to focus on God as a community. While the liturgical year can seem overly complex to us Quakers, it serves this very purpose of marking out space, of carving out some time in our busy lives for God to enter in to. This starts with creating a worship space in our own hearts—a space with room enough for God’s big story at work in our lives. This measured approach to life is one of holding ourselves back so that we can once again watch and wait for the Spirit’s movement.  May the simplicity that undergirds our Quaker perspective on worship allow us to keep focused on the big story this advent season, the story of love brought into being in the person of Jesus Christ. May we keep Christ at the center—not only of our being—but also at the center of our own stories of living the resurrection life.

Agape,

James


The Work of the People

psalms-139Underneath the surface of our expectations, we all have unwritten rules about how we encounter God in worship. Some have a hard time engaging in worship if they do not sing what they refer to as “the old hymns,” for others, worshipping without a sermon or open worship would be unthinkable. Ironically, the idea of worship in church history, is best characterized by an understanding of “liturgy.” Liturgy sounds funny to us “low church” Quakers, but in Latin it means “the work of the people.” This is how worship has been historically thought of, before our consumerist cultural values have caused us to rethink that. Nowadays we are plagued by a mentality were worship has lost its “work” and worship that requires us to get outside of our comfort zone is looked at with suspicion. But worship is not supposed to be like baseball: a lot of people in the stands who desperately need exercise watching a few others on the “field” who desperately need a break.

As I continue to write about my interview with Jared Ross, the choir director of Barclay College and worship pastor of Haviland Friends Church, an understanding of what is meant by liturgy needs to be grasped to fully understand what he was saying. Especially to understand his response to “What specific goals and objectives do you have for the congregation, as you are leading worship?” Jared answered:

My main goal for them starts in my planning, whatever worship actions I am planning I am hoping to create different worship actions that will allow the people to encounter God in real ways, to experience Him and respond to Him. My goal then is the same as that of hospitality, setting up an environment that is going to allow people to engage and respond to God. For instance, musically I want to pick songs that can be sung by the majority of people. I want to make it easier for people to encounter God and respond to Him, not necessarily just singing the hippest newest thing. My second goal is that they will respond. I want them to participate. Worship is their work.

Jared’s twin goals of attempting to create an environment where people encounter God in real ways and respond to Him speaks from the heart of most anyone planning or leading worship, but he goes further in connecting this to a spirit of hospitality. How would you characterize the level of formality at College Avenue Friends? Would you see elements of that formality that add to a spirit of hospitality, or elements that take away from it? Realistic and healthy expectations about musical talent and ability might add to a spirit of hospitality, in which experimentation and empowerment are encouraged. Whereas unrealistic expectations can actually quench that same hospitality, as people are not encouraged to use their gifts, rather they are encouraged to be spectators who watch the “professionals” do their thing.

You may have noticed at times in my worship planning I try to allow for alternative ways to respond. This has taken a few forms over my time here, involving anything from sticky notes to rocks, or pressing people to share with their neighbor. While I recognize this pushes people a bit out of their comfort zones at times, a crucial part of the reason I do this is exactly what Jared stated his second goal to be: desiring participation. Letting “the people” do their “work.” If worship becomes too bound by our expectations, something is lost. Worship should feel like a journey we are on together, and journeys can take unexpected turns. Worship should allow room for surprise, for being caught up in the moment, not always being too worried about what time it is, especially if we see God’s Spirit at work among us. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, but also the “Convicter.” It is hard to let the Spirit move among us when we cling too hard to the familiar, to the things that comfort us— we can actually miss that engagement element that is a part of true worship.

Ephesians 4:12-13 reminds us that the work of a pastor is not to make people comfortable, but “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This means encouraging the church to passively sit in a pew as a spectator is not a legitimate goal. A pastor is called to push the people to do the work of worship, as well as equip and build the people up.  If my work as a pastor is stretching you to grow and do new things together on our journey with God, that is a good sign. That means I am on the right track. So often we buy into popular models like “the pastor as CEO,” or most commonly “the pastor as superhero.” People can mistakenly expect a pastor to do the people’s “work” of worship for them, or expect the pastor to do all the reaching out to the community, or various other unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.

In Ephesians 4 we find the work of the pastor is not to go alone as a superhero, but to take others along. Really, to equip and build up others to go new places the pastor will not go; to respond faithfully in the ministries God has called them to however exotic or mundane. It is not the work of going alone, but of building up others who will in turn, win, build, and send others. A pastor’s job is not to make people comfortable, but to help them see that we have not arrived, that we still have plenty of growth and plenty of ways God is calling us to reach unity, grow in maturity, and strive for the fullness we have in Christ. I for one do not feel called primarily to a “hospice” ministry—that of keeping people comfortable until they die—but to a ministry of hospitality where people are empowered to use their gifts, to experiment, and to find their own way along their journey toward Christlikeness. I recognize of course that I have a role to play in comforting and loving on people, a role that I am privileged to fulfill. Yet the big picture of connecting “the work of the people” inside and outside the church is not something I can neglect if I truly want to be a pastor, rather than merely a CEO (or a person bound by the messianic delusions of a superhero). So I invite you, humbly, to the work of worship. It is here that we are transformed by an encounter with the living God, a presence far more powerful than our own preferences and comforts. We come to receive grace, even when that grace looks a lot like work; the work of God’s people.

Agape,

James


With Everything

Hello Friends!

A few articles back I had mentioned that I had interviewed Dr. Jared Ross, the choir director of Barclay College and worship leader of Haviland Friends, for my worship class, and that I would be doing a series of articles on “what is worship” that is based on this interview. Jared has dedicated his life to the study of worship, getting his first two degrees in music and his terminal degree in worship leadership. When asked to find a worship leader (generally conceived in Protestant thought as a music leader), I went right to the “top,” and was not surprised that Jared’s insights were both very deep and very practical. I asked Jared, How do you define worship? His response was:

I define worship from three different angles: First, the overall biblical pattern of worship that we find from Genesis to Revelation is God revealing Himself to humans and humans responding, which means worship is ongoing; a relationship. God is not some distant deity; we have to respond to Him. I know that I have worshipped because I have been changed and transformed; when I have to obey what God is asking me to do. Then I know I have worshipped. Just because I have sung my favorite song does not mean I have worshipped. It is much more than the musical side of things. Worship is  also Trinitarian… It has nothing to do with style. It has everything to do with who God is. We respond in belief, with thankfulness, and obey.

There are three things I want to highlight from Jared’s response that resonate with me as I seek to help lead others in worship. The first is that worship is a response. It requires something of us. It makes a claim on our lives. As we come before God seeking to encounter Him, we come expecting to be changed. I do not, however, see this change as always reflecting a movement from spiritual “mountaintop to mountaintop.” I do not expect that every Sunday morning worship will be an unsustainable, drastic life-altering encounter. Yet I do see worship as having an effect on us, even if its effect is slow and subtle like water dripping on a stone. Last week we did a worship activity with prayer rocks where we placed them back upon the altar signifying a willingness to let God use our gifts unhindered. Many people commented during open worship about how the smoothness of the prayer rocks reminded them of the slow and graceful way God had been wooing them along in the process of transformation. My experience with worship reflects this slow and steady work, where rough edges are hewn and polished into something beautiful. If when we worship we do not allow ourselves to be changed—if we do not come with an expectation that God will move through us—we might need to take a deeper look at our motivations for coming to worship in the first place. We as Friends believe that God is still speaking, and should come waiting in holy expectation for God to show up and make an impression on our hearts that leads us to action.

Next, I love that Jared points out the two-way give and take of a dynamic relationship. We come expecting God to reveal Himself to us afresh. We experience comfort for our afflictions and afflictions for where we are more comfortable than we should be. Worship is also Trinitarian in nature: the Father molds us as a Potter into a new creation, the Son redeems us and teaches us by His example, and the Holy Spirit gathers us together in unity as the people of God. We experience this not only as individuals, but corporately. We understand God, not merely as a proposition, but as a person of energetic and frothing immediacy. We connect with God in the present moment, experiencing union with His very identity.

Lastly, this experience is something we take with us into the practical realm of daily life. We follow through with what God is asking of us in sacred obedience. While God does give us mystical experiences and sweet experiences of ecstatic worship, these are not an end unto themselves but seeds within us sprouting up in kingdom building and living into our own unique ministry and calling. Worship then, as Jared points out, is not merely about singing our favorite songs. Worship has nothing to do with musical or liturgical style, formality or informality. It has to do with encountering God and exploring faithfulness together in a lived response to who God is.

What this means to College Avenue Friends, I suspect, is that we should come open to change, open to a God who still moves and still speaks to us and through us, and that we should come open to obey and be led by God. It is easy to put our conceptions of God in a box, a box where we resist change in our innermost being, a box where we rush off ahead of God in our impatience, and where we are closed off to anything that stretches us beyond the comforts of the safety and predictability in our lives. Yet without a willingness to respond with belief, with thankfulness, and with the courage to obey, we make our reservations to response a false god; we hold ourselves back from worship in ways that are justified by fear-based reasoning that stems from our worship preferences. As you wrestle with these three tensions and tendencies in our worship, what ways are you discovering an encounter with God that rises above preferences and style? In what ways can we revive a focus on who God is, rather than what we want, like, or enjoy; on encountering God in an ongoing relationship; and with a faithful response to what we are being called to do, not merely at Meeting for Worship, but out in the marvelous and mundane of our Monday through Saturday lives?

Agape,

James


Church Music: A Young Person’s Perspective

church musicA few weeks ago in a closed FaceBook group, I had a lively discussion on church music. It was a discussion that really bridged the generational divide and it was an honor to be a part of it. What sparked the discussion was an article entitled, “Why I have stopped singing in your churches,” in which the author lamented the excesses of contemporary worship music, and pined for the olden days of the hymns. This person refused to sing in church because his expectations were not being met, and after a great deal of pent up frustration railed against current trends in worship music with an emotionally charged critique. At the end of our conversation online—much of which seemed to pour out of me—I looked at all I had written and thought “healthy churches should be able to talk about these things.”

Many of the tensions that came out in the discussion are at work in every church in America, but the issues involved have proved so divisive many churches have stopped talking about them out of fear it will do more harm than good. The musical worship preferences across generations have proved to be one of the major obstacles to church unity, and clearly a healthy balance, rather than one generation getting its way should win the day. I see great harm in the current trend of splitting people into two styles of service, one traditional and the other contemporary. This is not a compromise that values relationship over preferences, and it is fracturing the church. Still, what is often missing from the conversation is the perspective of a young person, so it is with as much humility, grace, and tact that I can muster that I want to lay out what many young people would never dare to say.

Music changes

Music changes in the church a great deal more than many people are willing to admit. Case in point the hymns were once a radical innovation from canticles (singing parts of the Bible). When hymns first came out, people in the church openly questioned their validity. They asked, “how can we set the highest thoughts of theology to simple drinking music, the music of sinners?” Charles Wesley, the most prolific hymn writer who ever lived wrote tens of thousands of hymns and yet people today know only a handful of them. A few have lasted, but most have not. The truth is this should show us that there really isn’t that much staying power in worship music. It is ever changing with the times and that is mostly a good thing.

Every time a new hymnal is created it is a snapshot of popular music at a given time. Some things last, but lets not forget that Amazing Grace was once a contemporary song. Just as our modern songs, it was once popular and new and touching people’s lives. Expecting young college students to “sing the old hymns the old way” can be very unrealistic at times, as they may know a hymn only by way of remix off the radio and not from ever hearing it in the church they grew up in. Yet young people dusting off an old hymn and sharing it with us in worship should be praised, not unappreciated. It may even be the very new life that adds staying power to an old hymn that might otherwise just fade into obscurity.

Music is a bridge to the present and the past

People changing musical styles to connect with and encounter God is a healthy and natural thing. No less than six times in the Psalms we are told to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Charles Wesley might not have appreciated the musical stylings of today’s Christian recording artists, but he would salute their attempts to connect with people at the popular level. Luther new his Reformation would not last without the help of poets and songwriters capturing the hearts of the common people, so he actively pursued them. We should think more like missionaries, and like Wesley, be willing to adapt the Christian message in a way that is accessible to people who have not yet heard the gospel. If we simply parachuted in to this time and culture and were thinking as missionaries, we wouldn’t probably be asking people to sing in archaic English or be talking about which week to play an organ. Stained glass and hymns have their charm, but they both have roots in connecting the gospel to illiterate people. They come to us as a heritage, but that heritage is not only about aesthetics, it is about bridging a chasm back to the common people by meeting people where they are at.

Motives are not based on style

I hear a lot of people talk about individual performance and its effect on leading people into an experience of worship. My concern of course is that judging the motives of the people who are trying to help lead us into worship is a slippery slope, but even worse, we are in essence saying that what a person is doing is equated to why they are doing it. Is this not more the mentality of David’s nagging wife who was shocked as he danced naked before the Lord (2 Sam 6), than it is the mentality of David himself swept up in a spirit of worship that is at work in such thought? Can the people on the stage attempting to lead us in worship not be swept up in worship without being accused of “individual performance or seeking personal glory? Is not evaluating performance itself one of the biggest distractions to fully engaging in worship?

Forms and Formulas

I once heard a joke about the difference between hymns and choruses as lampooned by a farmer communicating the message that the “the cows are in the corn.”

As a chorus:

MARTHA,

O Martha MARTHA MARTHA,

The cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows,

The black and white cows,

The COWS COWS COWS,

Are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,

CORN, CORN, CORN

As a hymn:

‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, Hear thou my cry,

Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth,

Turn thou thine whole wondrous ear by and by,

To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.

Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,

Have broke free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed,

Then goaded by minions of darkness and night,

They all my mild Chilliwak sweet corn have eschewed

Like a sonnet, worship music has expected forms. These forms are often unwritten, yet they are there just the same. A hymn for instance has a fairly rigid meter; is often written with four part harmonies in mind; is designed to be led by an organ or choir; and shares many qualities with classical music. From the first verse to the last, the meter’s pace runs uninterrupted. A contemporary worship song also has an unwritten form: simple, easy-to-pick-up melodies in a mid-vocal range; repetition of a chorus between verses; familiar chord progressions, and often a key change on the bridge. Contemporary praise choruses share some musical similarities to rock and roll, and often are led by a guitar or piano with vibrato style singing. Both forms have strengths and weaknesses. One is not better than the other, one aims at the head and the other at the heart. One takes the form of a theological treatise, the other a simple prayer to God.

Common and accessible music

When I was a child I wanted to be a piano player, but was told it was for sissies. As a poor kid growing up, I knew that music lessons were beyond my means, not to mention the cost and maintenance of a piano itself. A piano is one of the most complex of all musical instruments, with thousands of moving parts that need to be tuned just so, but even the piano pales in comparison to an organ. The reason we use organs in worship in the church is because at some point in church history Roman emperors had them in their private chapels, and the church slowly began to adopt them. The church coveted the luxurious worship music played for the emperor. At times, I hear people lament the amplification of a guitar, and comments like “is that really necessary?” We should not be surprised if younger people think the same things about pianos and pipe organs, once reserved exclusively to the realm of concert halls and imperial sanctuaries. As I sat with some young people and marveled at our beautiful organ, we all knew that learning to play an instrument such as this one remained something for an elite few. I wondered at how many and varied instruments could be bought for the price of something such as this

This also makes me wonder though, why a guitar or drums raises concerns about individual performance that a piano does not? Or why if someone leads worship in a crooning, bluesy style people talk about individual performance, but not after singing songs from the hymnal that are way too high for me to sing, while accompanied by accomplished musicians who have been classically trained? Worship music should be accessible. While I would grant that there is plenty of inaccessible music both in the hymnal and on the radio, what qualifies as individual performance seems very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, and in my book, just another way to harp on an unappreciated musical style. I went to school in the 1980’s, when the budget woes of a major recession virtually eradicated musical education from being something all public school kids experience. Unless you were in band or choir, most kids today have not had any instruction in musical theory or an opportunity to learn how to read music. Four part harmonies or singing in certain keys are impossible for people like myself, and if the song is too high for the voices of most men we will forever be self conscious as we stumble along.

Another thing young people might never tell you is that one singer and an accompanist is not a very inclusive model for leading worship; it sends the message to young people that “we don’t need you or your gifts, just stay in the pew. We will leave this up to the professionals.” Whereas older people might see a big “rock band as flashy and bearing the connotations of performance, younger people see the same thing at work in the single song leader model, where one “elite” person can be the only leader.

Content and Familiarity

I often hear people say the hymns have “a firm theological foundation,” but then notice that when the time comes to sing them we only sing half the verses! Such irony! Mostly I think it is the familiarity that is important… familiarity is more important than people would like to admit, but familiarity to whom? Most of the music that has touched my heart and been a part of my experience with God was written in the last twenty years. For some people it was the music of the 90’s they grew up with in church and not the 1900’s. Many of the people who grew up with contemporary worship music are even becoming grandparents now. Some of the college students at Penn who come here may never have used a hymnal in worship. It just is not something that has any familiarity to them. Familiarity, however, is a wonderful thing that helps bring about the cohesion of a community. It is necessary to have a shared identity.

I will readily admit that at times the theology of some modern songs on the radio bothers me a great deal. I don’t like the “Jesus is my boyfriend” style songs at all. We must look at the content of what we sing, not just the popularity level. But to be fair, the hymnal is full of bad theology too. The Old Rugged Cross sounds an awful lot to the younger ear like someone is worshipping a piece of wood. It may be popular in the church, but to the uninitiated, they are not really sure why. Yet I sing it, not for myself, but for those who continue to encounter God in a powerful way through it. And since it is valued by those I value, I continue to experience it and continue to try and see what they value in it. Every now and then, I even sing one of those sappy Jesus love songs too…

True musical worship should rise above generational preferences, and somewhere across the generations, there must be an understanding that worship is more than singing. It is more than musical styles. We must choose a relationship with one another over our likes and dislikes and what we find familiar in church music. We need to be hospitable to the outsider. At the same time, any group should try to be itself, not trying to be someone they are not. We are an intergenerational church at College Avenue Friends. We have a rich diversity of experiences glorifying God in song, whether those songs that help us encounter God are old or new. We must make room for each other, and sing each others songs for one another; but more importantly, we must make room for God and strive for meaningful experiences in worshipping God together. We cannot come to worship refusing to participate, refusing to experience God together. Sing with all your heart, even if your joyful noise falls a little flat now and then like mine

Agape,

James


What is Worship?

morpheusThis summer I have really been reflecting on the essence of true worship, and feel God tugging my heart toward writing for a while about what it means to truly worship God in a way that is acceptable in God’s sight. For my worship class last semester I interviewed Jared Ross, the Choir Director and Music Professor of Barclay College, and asked him some profound questions about what it means to worship God. I will eventually bring some of his insights into this small series on worship, but for now here is a primer from my own heart to nudge us in a direction of reevaluating what worship truly means.

We each bring to College Avenue Friends a palette of our own experiences. For some of us, it was sturdy old hymns or perhaps “hellfire and brimstone” sermons that shaped and formed our early experiences with corporate worship. For others might have been more contemporary praise and worship songs and a laid back “come as you are” inclusivity. Some of us have had more rural or urban cultural experiences shape our opinions about worship. Some have grown up in Roman Catholic or Dutch Reformed churches, some in silent meetings. It is just a human default to look at worship through the lens of tradition, that tradition of course being our own experiences. At times, as our changing world puts a new twist on a “tried and true” worship methodology, it is easy to reject the unfamiliar and have a hard time joining in the fun of worship. We are easily seduced by a mentality that “it’s always been” a certain way, forgetting that what is old to us was once new, and that many of the things we do in a worship service now are actually less than a hundred years old. If you don’t believe me just think about this, Amazing Grace was once a “contemporary song.”

My understanding of worship has always been mysterious, it has always been about preparing myself to be transformed and shaped by God. While God does not come at the beck and call of incantation, somehow, we are tuned and retuned into God’s call through the act of corporate worship. In my experience (contrary to the thoughts of many), the only requirement for true worship is a willing heart; the songs, scriptures, and many prayers can help, but these different elements are not actually worship. They are activities that help us to prepare our hearts to receive God willingly, but they are not in and of themselves worship. For me, worship, simply put, is “a called people reawakening to their calling.” As we gather together, we become aware of God’s presence, aware that we are God’s people. As we remember God’s covenant relationship with us and renew our part of it, we are once again collectively drawn into an encounter with God.

It is no secret—for anyone who has ever been at church longer than five minutes—that the various outward things that are a part of a worship service can sometimes be as distracting as they can be helpful. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about worship in the same way a director creating a television program does, that if everything isn’t done just so or attain a certain level of excellence that we should go around doing a bunch of arm twisting to “fix” the problems. I am just as guilty about losing focus on God in the anxiety of a bad morning as anyone else. Perhaps it is the Quaker in me, or it is just part and parcel with serving as a religious leader, but the devil really is in the details at times. Trivial things can rob us of our joyful worship experiences, but one question we might ask before pointing our fingers at others is, When did we give others that much power over us?

The stripped down Quaker understanding of worship has really become something I have grown to appreciate. Music, sermons, repetitious prayers, snippets of Scripture being read with lifeless passion, can all grate on me at times, not to mention technical difficulties. I have grown especially sensitive to it now that I am the one facilitating arrangements, or the one preaching.  My growing awareness that various worship actions can in fact, get in the way of my own experience of worship, is an old Quaker idea that has slowly and surely resonated within me. The biggest threat to true worship, in my opinion, is not the style of music or anything like that, it is not the drums or the pipe organ. The biggest threat to true worship is when we get wrapped up more in “performance” than in presenting ourselves before God as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). When we get wrapped up in performance, we are no longer making worship about God. Whether it is fear based or pride based thinking that leads us astray, in the end we are actually making it about ourselves.

Traditional Quaker worship may grate on some at times, but settling down into the silence and seeking God’s face there—free of the chains of performance—is often the most freeing time of worship for me. As the Psalmist advises, there is a kind of worship whereby we can “be still and know that [God] is God. Quaker worship is an attempt to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” in the manner Jesus pointed to in His conversation with the Samaritan woman: free from a fixed location or a complex liturgical dance. Worship does not require a temple or a ritual, it requires only a people willing to be gathered together with God. I am struck by the romance of this idealistic simplicity, whereby God can be encountered in all places and times, in every present moment. Worship then is “paying attention to God;” it is a worship centered more on listening in stillness than on the distractions that can often go along with cramming a bunch of activities into a corporate worship experience.

For me, this Quaker stillness is the purest kind of worship, something like what Schleiermacher conceived of as a feeling of “utter dependence” as we seek an experiential knowledge of God. Within worship, we collectively reacquaint ourselves with our need for God. In wordless silence, it does not matter what I  have sung or prayed, only that my will is submitted to God in the present moment. Thomas Kelly writes:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return… The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration and of self-oblation, where we are kept in perfect peace, if our minds be stayed on Him who has found us in the inner springs of our life.”

At times in worship, it is the noise of the Sunday morning “worship workshop” itself that can drown out this internal experience of “adoration, joy, thanksgiving, self surrender and listening.” Our minds struggle to “be stayed” on God, and to be quite honest, even worship actions themselves can hinder as much as help me encounter God. Yet in the silence, this “inner sanctuary” can rise back to the surface, through the distractions of being a parent or being a tired grad student, even through the distractions of evaluating performance. And out of the silence, someone might speak a word from God I can simply receive. Worship should always make room for this, the pastor should not be the only authoritative voice or final word.

I do not subscribe to some sort of Cartesian Dualism about worship: I recognize we are not disembodied spirit beings for whom encountering God has no connection to what we do with our bodies. Yet some of the “work of the people” (liturgy) is internal work, it is preparing our hearts to receive from God. Songs and sermons can help us in this preparation, but they can also distract us in ways silence cannot. What I appreciate about the focus of Quaker worship is that it attempts to move from inward to outward, and not the other way around.

Agape,

James

 


Is Quakerism “Worship for Introverts?”

presence_in_the_midst_medIs Quakerism worship for introverts? A non-Quaker teacher I have at Fox was telling me that his daughter, also from another tradition, now attends a Quaker meeting of worship. He told me she loves it because she sees Quaker worship as worship designed for introverts. As an extroverted person, I am not as in tune with these themes she is sensing in her experience with Quaker worship. I suppose the intentional and prayerful choice of music, and the style it is presented in at her meeting may be a factor. Surely, the process of centering in open worship can lend itself to an introspection many introverts would appreciate in a Christian worship world that often tries to cram the worship time full of activity. Mainstream Christian culture seems to embrace a sense of urgency in the worship experience. Mainline denominations can seem to “enforce” a scripted liturgy that “must be finished” and surely the stripped down way in which Quakers—even programmed ones—worship might seem like a breath of fresh air to introverts who love to reflect and refocus on God’s Presence. However, to be fair, we all have our liturgies. No matter how “low church” you fancy yourself, if you try and change worship too much, people will make quite clear where the lines of liturgy are drawn. For all our talk of form and symbol, we Quakers still cling to our particular recipe of worship whether programmed, unprogrammed or “semi-programmed.”

To me this introversion theory sounds perfectly reasonable, yet is that all there is to it? Is the contemplative style of Quaker Christianity simply like our northwest coffee shop culture, where we gather socially to ignore one another in “community?” Do we just fancy a “safe environment” where we can see people, but not really have to deal with the pain of real relationship? I am of course not trying to say that introverts ignore one another per se, yet the coffee shop experience we embrace in this part of the world has a certain isolation/community balance that is all very hands off and consumeristic. The culture here is one of anonymity and privacy. We like the predictable shallowness of programmed responses like “how are you doing?”…”fine.” Silence surely does not have to be, but can easily become a barrier, a nice social buffer.

As an extrovert, I love the times of fellowship before and after our gathering. And frankly, I love the open worship time as well, and not just when a message of vocal ministry is brought. I love the silence and experiencing God there. It is a rich time for me, one I long for throughout the week when I am apart from my worshiping community. On the surface, I can see the introvert appeal, yet there is a great deal more going on in open worship than sheer navel gazing and intuitive creativity of expression. I do not see open worship as either an introverted or extroverted thing, but often those who share vocal ministry are more extroverted by nature. Does their willingness to talk free them more to bring God’s utterances, or do they just feel less comfortable with long periods of silence? Or, am I simply and shallowly making too much out of these modern pop-psychological distinctions?

At times, I wonder if I would get more out of open worship if I were more introverted. Do people of this orientation have a deeper connection with God because of this bent? Surely, some of the greatest spiritual masters through time have been introverts, people like Merton or Kelly. Another one of my professors, who is a big proponent of the MBTI personality typology, told me that one of the greatest weaknesses of introverted people is that they often aren’t very good listeners. This seems counter-intuitive because of their quiet nature. People assume that extroverts are terrible listeners because they do so much talking, but they actually make good listeners because they do not need to think as much about what they will say before they begin to say it. However, introverts do not listen as well because, while the other person is talking they are usually still formulating what they will say next when the opportunity arrives instead of actually listening, because they need time to reflect and have everything worked out in advance before they begin to speak.  I am sure we all do this to some extent, yet what does this mean in silence to an introvert, as they seek contact with God’s Presence. Over time have introverted Quakers remade worship in their own image, or is there something in the silence that transcends the ways in which people are energized or depleted in community?

While looking back on history, one can often simply project their own personality types or spiritual gifting into what they see, but what has been the role of extroverted people in our movement? James Naylor, William Penn, and John Woolman were most certainly extroverted in my reading of history. Yet I could be wrong. Was Fox the deep introverted mystic who experienced God in solitude, or was he the extroverted firebrand who stormed steeple houses and preached over the priest’s sermons there? Both I guess. How we see him and what we emphasize may be simply what we want to see in the end. We do need each other though. We all bring different strengths and gifting into the family of God. We are—introverted or extroverted— simply two sides of the same human face of God. Yet the question remains, is the Society of Friends just church for introverts? Do the different denominations really tend to attract certain personalities to themselves, with perhaps Pentecostalism being at the other end of the introverted/extroverted extreme? Or is it a crudely contrived generalization to think that Quakers might be more introverted than other groups just because we have historically frowned on things like dancing?

As an extroverted mystic, I have never thought much about these things, or what the experience of my opposite might be like. I am glad this girl has found a comfortable place to worship, a place she can be herself and grow in community. Yet I am now wondering what the effects of a possible “segregation by preference” might be robbing us of. Are we embracing “the testimony of equality” in its true fullness in our worship style, making room for the “other” to be comfortable as they grow in who God has created them to be? Or have we, like so many groups before us, simply grown exclusive, with a chorus of like-minded voices pushing us toward an extreme of preference?


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