“Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however ‘Christian,’ but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”
~ N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, 6.
Sometimes during a church service I become aware of what we are doing–the raw details of it, I mean. Usually this is during the singing time, when, depending on where I am, 50 or 100 or 120 men, women, and children stand and sing songs together, we stand reading words from a screen or from a book and sing. What a strange thing! What are we doing? Sometimes the songs are beautiful, sometimes the words seem meaningless, but always we sing. How strange!
This thought and feeling came over me again yesterday morning. I again became aware of how odd and unprecedented it and even not normal it seemed. People from 5 to 90 facing forward, singing songs.
And then it dawned on me. It’s not just the standing reading theological and worshipful words on a screen, it’s the whole package. We are singing together: people of all ages, genders, and races, singing together about and to a God they have gathered together to worship. People of different incomes, walks of life, opinions, histories, all gathered together to sing, to listen, to learn, to worship, to pray. This is remarkable, when you stop to think about it.
I realized that it’s not just the words we sing, but the act of singing together itself that is powerful and symbolic–no, even an enacting of the Kingdom of God.
(My December 2008 Bob Ross post has consistently been the most active and most visited post since then. Bizarre. It’s the Dark Side of the Moon of my posts.)
I nearly skipped community chapel today, but I noticed that it was to be an Eastern Orthodox service of thanksgiving. It was led by a man studying for the EO deaconate and his wife (who I think teaches in the college). It was completely unfamiliar and fascinating. It was a “stripped down” version of a normal EO service. There were no bells or “smells”, and it was significantly shorter than a normal EO service. The point was simply to give us a glimpse into EO worship.
It is a very “liturgical” style of worship, done in a quasi-antiphonal unaccompanied chant. It was really quite beautiful and fitting to what I just read in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:
Because it is wholly bound to the Word, the singing of the congregation…is essentially singing in unison… The Purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humanness and warmth of this way of this singing is the essence of all congregational singing (59-60).
I don’t entirely agree with Bonhoeffer’s suggestion (and Dixie certainly won’t like his disdain for harmony), I can certainly agree that all the other stuff of congregational singing–the instruments and, yes, the harmony–can sometimes become a distraction. There is a certain purity and focus to the chant style of singing which really became apparent during this afternoon’s EO service.
But what struck me most of all is that 90 per cent or more of the words in the service were passages from the Bible. It was quite a bit for an evangelical like myself to take in. This says something about evangelical churches, who often pride themselves in being “Bible-believing” Christians, doesn’t it? We may call ourselves such things, but there is often a severe lack of scripture heard in a given evangelical service, certainly in comparison to the EO service.
EO worship is certainly a different world from evangelical worship, but it is not entirely other, as I might have suspected before having any experience with the mysterious EO church.
From Brad Boydston, two things we could do:
1. Change the “I” to “we” in 90% of the music and spoken language. The individual’s worship must grow out of the collective sense of worship. It hardly ever seems to work the other way.
2. Sing and talk a lot more about God and a lot less about our experience of God. While we don’t want to totally disconnect from the experiential realm but we need to shift the focus. We’re locked in a loop where many of us think and function as though worship were about us — our needs, our experiences, our perceptions…