(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

You Are Needed

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 24, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Forgiven,” “Not Alone.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

Astronomers tell us that the stars we see at night are only the tiniest fraction of all the stars out there. Someone with the best eyesight on the clearest night with no moon will see around 4,000 stars—but there are billions upon billions of stars in the universe. In fact, some of those “stars” up there are not even stars at all, but whole galaxies: billions more stars, so far away that even through a telescope they look like a single, tiny point of light.

It can be awe-inspiring, but it can also make us feel pretty small, pretty insignificant. That’s the feeling behind these familiar words from Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

God our Creator, your creation is so vast, you must be even more vast! Why should we think that you care about us, mere ashes and dust? Why should we think there is any meaning to this life, any purpose for our existence?

Have you ever felt this way? Small, insignificant, hardly worth anyone’s attention, let alone God’s?

Maybe you are on the cusp of adulthood, making the transition to full independence. You are at a crossroads, wondering what you should do with your life. The world can seem so big, and you so small, and the answers you received in your childhood are starting to seem pretty simplistic.

Or maybe you are closer to the end of your life than the beginning. You think of all the things you used to do, that you can’t do any more. You used to be so useful, but now maybe you feel useless, unnecessary.

Or maybe you are somewhere in between, but faced with illness or death, a job loss, a relationship rupture, a big move. You feel de-stabilized, like the ground is shifting beneath your feet.

It’s at times like these that we tend to ask the “purpose” questions of life: “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What is my purpose?”

If any of this is how you feel, God has some good news for you: “You are needed.”

You are needed. God has created you for a purpose, a purpose that is tied into God’s larger purposes for the world. And that purpose doesn’t change, regardless of your past or your present or whatever stage of life you’re at. That purpose doesn’t change, regardless of who you are or aren’t, or what you know or don’t know, or what you can or cannot do. You are needed.

Listen again to the way Psalm 8 continues:

You have made them [human beings] a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet.

Think of this: you are a ruler over the works of God’s hands! This is how God looks at you. God sees everything about you: strengths and weaknesses, temperament and emotions, inner thoughts and outward actions, past and present. But through all this—both the good and the bad—God sees you as a queen or a king, charged with ruling in God’s earthly creation.

Okay, that might sound strange! Maybe some of you have read C. S. Lewis’s stories of Narnia, and you think of the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” being “kings and queens in Narnia.” It sounds like fantasy, not reality.

But C. S. Lewis had it exactly right. You see, Psalm 8 is simply reflecting Genesis 1 and the profound truth there that human beings are created “in the image of God.” This is what that means: we are each of us, all of us, you and me and every person, created by God to be God’s representatives on earth, extending God’s kingdom throughout the whole earth, sharing God’s love and God’s light and God’s life with the world.

You are needed. You are needed by God to extend God’s kingdom of love and light and life throughout the world, wherever you are, just the way you are. You are needed.

Maybe this seems easier for some than for others. Some of us have money or education, strength or skill—obvious resources that can be used to fulfill this God-given purpose.

But whether we have these resources or not, we all have something we bring to this life—time, energy, encouraging words, compassionate deeds, a listening ear, our simple presence—things that can be used to further God’s life-giving, kingdom purposes for the world.

Maybe when we think about God’s kingdom we think about big things: justice in our society, peace in the wider world. That’s true: God’s kingdom is about those things.

But those things don’t happen instantly, all fully-grown. Remember, Jesus said that God’s kingdom starts small, like a mustard seed. It started small, with Jesus, a crucified peasant in the backwater of a long-gone empire. And it continues to start small, tiny pulses of love and light and life that magnify into waves of justice and peace.

Each moment we choose to share love instead of being indifferent to the needs of others, God’s kingdom is bursting forth. Each moment we choose to shine a light instead of complaining about the darkness, God’s reign is being revealed. Each moment we choose to sustain and enhance life instead of simply giving up and giving in to death and destruction, God’s rule is being extended.

You are needed. God has created you for a purpose, a purpose that is tied into God’s larger purposes for the world. And that purpose doesn’t change, regardless of who you are or aren’t, or what you know or don’t know, or what you can or cannot do. You are needed by God to share God’s kingdom of love and light and life throughout the world, wherever you are, just the way you are. You are needed.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

What is “Sin”?

The following is an excerpt from my sermon this past Sunday, part of our “Praying the Psalms” series. The sermon was focused on Psalm 51 and praying in confession of sin. There’s much more to be said on “sin” than can be said in a thousand words, but this excerpt gives a rough start.

My first introduction to the notion of “sin” was probably much like yours. We learn the Ten Commandments, and it’s easy: the “Thou shalt nots” are sin; and doing the opposite of the “Thou shalts,” that is also sin. Adultery? Sin. Not respecting my Mom and Dad? Sin. Lying? Sin. Stealing? Sin. Murder? Sin.

Michelangelo original sinOther commands are then added from elsewhere in the Bible (and sometimes from outside of it!), and these are then viewed through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount—or at least one common interpretation of it. So Jesus says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28)—and this is taken to mean not simply that our outward actions have roots in our inner desires, which I think is Jesus’ point, but that the desires themselves are sin. Or Jesus says that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt 5:22)—and as a kid I was filled with guilt over every bit of inner anger with my older brother, even if it never saw the light of day in my actions, because that inner flash of anger is itself seen as sin.

So we start with the Big Ten and other commands, then we internalize them and privatize them with the Sermon on the Mount. But that isn’t all. In many Christian circles, this understanding of “sin” is then mixed in with a particular view of the world: that the world is an inherently evil place that is going to be destroyed in God’s judgment, and what really matters is the eternal spiritual realm that finds its perfection in “heaven,” being in a spiritual state for eternity with God. This idea is thoroughly unbiblical, and even heretical—it’s a modern, slimline version of Gnosticism, one of the earliest Christian heresies. But it is a pervasive and tenacious view of the world among Christians.

Here’s what often happens when all this is mixed together: it leads to an idea that this life is just a kind of preparation for the next, even a kind of test. If you pass the test—if you believe the right things and avoid these sins and ask God to forgive you when you do them—then you will make it into the “heaven” that is the real point of our existence.

“Sin,” in this view, is just part of the test: it’s a sort of abstract list of “thou shalt nots” that God has come up with to test our loyalty to him. The way we’ve interpreted Genesis doesn’t help in all this. Rather than seeing God’s command to Adam and Eve as symbolic of the moral struggle we all face, from ancient Israel to today, we see it as a pretty arbitrary command—eating fruit from a particular tree—created simply as a test of Adam and Eve’s loyalty.

The end result of all this is some peculiar notions of “sin.” Sin is a list of “don’ts.” Sin is inward and private. Sin is about religion or personal morality, only applying in certain areas of life.

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sin. At bottom the language of “sin” is simply this: it’s a way of talking about the things we think, say, or do that cause harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and therefore cause harm to the God who created everyone and all things.

There are many biblical texts I could point to that reflect this perspective of “sin as harm,” but let me choose just one: Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm (evil, wrong, kakos) to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

According to Paul, here following Jesus, the commands of the Law of Moses as summarized in the Ten Commandments are further summed up in loving others just as we want to be loved. This is what true “righteousness” is: loving others. The opposite of this, according to Paul, is “harming” others, and this is therefore “unrighteousness,” or sin. “Sin,” then, is really about “harm”—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.

This view of “sin as harm” fits well within the larger story of God in Scripture. God created all things, including us as humans within this world, as “very good” (Gen 1:31). God created us and all living things to flourish in a full and abundant life, to grow in health and wholeness and beauty and goodness and truth, to extend God’s loving and faithful rule throughout all creation in peace and justice and joyful delight. Sin, then, is a distortion of God’s good intentions, which are always for flourishing life. Sin brings a comprehensive, deep death to ourselves and others and the rest of creation, the opposite of real life. Sin is “causing harm”: hindering or stopping or even reversing the flourishing life God our Creator wants for us, for others, and for the whole earth.

When we understand sin along these lines, it keeps us grounded in the real world, not disconnected in some special “religious” world. God isn’t concerned about us keeping a list of rules. God wants us to love others as God loves us, nurturing the flourishing life of others around us.

When we understand sin this way, it helps us keep our inner life in proper perspective. As James puts it, “When one’s desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Our inner desires are not sin. What we do with them can, if harmful, be sin: the settled dispositions and behavioral patterns we develop out of these desires, what we say because of them, what we do to satisfy them. Our inner desires are not sin. But our inner desires are the place where our attitudes, our words, and our actions take root—either for good or for harm.

When we understand sin as “harm” in this way, it opens our eyes to wider, more pervasive, sins. God is not only concerned with our private lustful or angry thoughts and how those might take root and spread into our personal relationships. God is also concerned with the way our personal sins become systemic, social evils: the way our insatiable greed and our thirst for power fuels economic oppression that keeps people in poverty; the way our lust and our dehumanizing of others fuels sexual addiction and abuse that chains people in fear and silence; the way our willful ignorance and self-indulgence fuels environmental devastation that ruins ecosystems and kills off entire species.

And when we understand sin like this, as causing harm, it is not excessively negative. Yes, what I’ve just described is terrible: sin is still sin, and there is real evil in the world. But we are not burdening our children and ourselves with a label like “totally depraved.” We are not implying that some people are beyond the scope of redemption. We are starting with a positive story—God creating all things as “very good,” for a flourishing of life in love—and that story controls the way we think even about sin and evil in the world, in others, and in ourselves.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.