Brave New Worship World

Without an organist or a choir director, we find ourselves in a position that some might consider unenviable.  The question that I want to consider in the next few weeks and months, is  less the specific question “Who shall we have at the helm of our music program?”  And instead the more general one, “What do we want our music program to accomplish so that the person or persons we hire might be able to lead us where we think we should be going?”    I hope that our unique position can be viewed by all of us as an opportunity to take the time we need to be reflective and patient as we consider these important questions.  In other words, if all we need is a musician or two, this is not so difficult and we could be moving to hire shortly.

Above all, the question I pose to us requires some serious thinking about what worship is. I think that while most of you recognize that that is my training, and my job, you also recognize that it is your community and your life.  We do not subscribe to the kind of church that says, “Take it or leave it.”  Because our theological sense is much more emergent, much more dialogical, or disputational (see my sermon for March 22) our worship patterns are not set in stone even while they are rooted in a rich tradition.  I like what Jazz musician and worship leader, Bradley Sowash, thinks worship is.  He borrows from the only instance of worship in the Gospels of which Jesus seems to approve and thinks worthy of repeating.

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” –Matthew 26:6-13

About this passage, Mr. Sowash writes,

This woman’s singular act of adoration demonstrates that effective worship integrates creativity, extravagance, understanding, originality, and spontaneity in a manner that is both personal and participatory as well as community enhancing. [1]

In the remainder of his article Sowash expands on the seven points in the sentence quoted above.  His is not an attempt to make worship memorable, or funny, or entertaining.  Instead, he understands worship to be the expression of the power of God for us.  The reason that I have recommended this article is that his idea of God is neither pop-cultural nor fadish which so much ‘new worship’ implies,  nor does he view God as otiose as so much traditional worship implies.  God cannot be the substance of our passing fancies, just as God cannot be some heavenly being content to watch the world like a plaything, from on high. The one we would worship we do because God is the one categorically worth worshiping.  And this means worth interacting with around matters of life and death, creativity and destruction, hope and despair, love and hate. Worship must be as creative and important as these great things warrant.

John Coltrane, the late, great jazz saxophonist once said about his musical expression that he did not so much compose as search.  He investigated to see what else might be in the offing, what else might evolve, or emerge.    Worship is not just another entertainment venue or place to hear a sermon, but a place to let religion find its own tune with us, personally and communally, after a hard week of improvising.   Music which is attuned to this creativity and a worship team that is creatively in conversation with each other about the world and about religion’s new story in it, can move us to the kind of flourishing in right relation that I continue to put forth as our church’s  motto.

We have, in the past few weeks, had different congregational experiences with music, from a capella congregational singing, to beautiful clarinet music accompanied by a CD (thanks Joni McCraw) to our choir singing Be Thou our Guide.  What do you think?  What kind of musical experiences reveal the sacred for you?  Are there artistic genres you think we should explore in the coming weeks, months, years?  Let us not look back on this time and wish we could have talked more, but share with each other in love and patience.

1. Where Two or More Are Gathered: Exploring Alternate Worship Strategies by Bradley Sowash

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