Tag Archives: worship

Idols in the Time of Pandemic

Last week as I was doing some sermon prep, I came across a new take on an old story and it got me thinking. What if our familiar sanctuary and the liturgy I love have become idols?

Let me back up a little. The story is the one about the Israelites fashioning an idol in the shape of a calf. You can find the whole story in Exodus 34, but here’s the short version. Moses was called up to the mountaintop to meet God; there he would receive the Ten Commandments. He was delayed in coming down and the people got impatient. So, they melted down their gold jewelry to make an image of a god.

I can still picture my childhood Sunday School leaflets that showed that idol in the shape of a calf resting down on its haunches. The point always was that the Israelites had made a false god that they were now worshiping.

In a Sermon Brainwave podcast, Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson suggests that the Israelites were not making an image of a false god; they were making a false image of the true God. Per Jacobson, the Hebrew is a bit different than what usually gets translated. The Hebrew reads, “This (the image of the calf) brought you out of Egypt.” Aaron then built an altar in front of the image, and proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.” The announcement of a festival to Yahweh only makes sense if the Israelites believed they were making an image of Yahweh, not one of the false gods of the Canaanites. So, again, not an image of a false god, but a false image of the true God.

Oh, how very human to recast the living, invisible God into something we can see, something familiar and understandable and tangible. How very human to recast the living God in our own image. The Israelites are a case study in how hard it is to follow an invisible God, especially when you’re in the wilderness.

It makes me think about how hard it is to be the church right now in the time of pandemic. We are in our own wilderness. The old ways of worship and gathering (the familiar life that we had back in Egypt) are gone at least for the time being. And the longer this pandemic goes on, the more impatient we get for the familiar.

And it makes me think about how tempting it is to replace the worship of an unseen God with the familiar things we long for. For instance, the sanctuary.

Our congregation’s sanctuary is stunning. The chancel furnishings were expertly crafted by a member of the congregation. We have a gorgeous tracker pipe organ that not only sounds fabulous, but is an imposing figure of beauty in our sanctuary. We have not one, but two Steinway grand pianos; both sound and look fabulous. Behind the altar is a plain white wall with an imposing backlit cross, and at both ends of that wall are floor to ceiling clear windows that provide a stunning view of Door County beauty. In the summer tourist season, we have 40-50 people singing in a choir and another 200 people in the sanctuary. When we sing, accompanied by both organ and piano, it is something to experience. I love it.

We can’t do that right now and how tempting it is to want to hurry back to that experience rather than to recognize that we can still worship without the room that has become so important to us. How tempting it is to turn that room into the very essence of our worship life. In effect, the room becoming the idol.

Here’s another one. I love the liturgy, the high church liturgy, the liturgy full of formal ritual. Shoot, I’d use incense every week if it were up to me. And I confess that I miss it. A lot. And I confess that in the past, there have been times when I have been way too stubborn and rigid about the celebration of that liturgy, making the liturgy itself and the degree of excellence of its celebration into the thing that was more important than the God the liturgy is supposed to help us to worship.

We’re doing drive-in church now, which is by far the most casual of worship experiences that I have ever planned and led. And I can say that it feels way more like worship than I ever expected it to. I think it has helped me to see that those trappings that I have too often turned into golden calves are just that – trappings. 125-plus people and 70-80 cars keep showing up, not just members of the congregation, not just tourists in for the weekend, but folks from the community who either have never been connected to our congregation, or who haven’t been for a very long time.

All of this has exposed my idols and has become a reminder to me of how easy it is to substitute relatively minor personal preferences or aesthetic sensibilities or the way we’ve always done it, for the true God. The symbols of our faith are important; and they are not all-important.

God promises to visit God’s people not only in the room we love, not only in the liturgy that I love, but wherever, whenever, and however two or three are gathered in Christ’s name. I hope I can remember that lesson even when we return to something that looks and feels a little more normal and familiar.

Easter Lament?

As I was trying to find some inspiration earlier this week for a Holy Week devotion, I ran across this quote from Angela Bauer-Levesque, a biblical scholar who writes for Feasting on the Word. “Exile is not just a matter of time and place. Exile. . .represents a sense of radical dislocation, separation from all that is familiar and beloved.”

Not “all,” of course. But enough that I can tap into the feeling; it’s what I’m experiencing. For instance, the loss of:

  • familiar work space and the people I enjoy working with
  • freedom to go where I want
  • making pastoral calls
  • going out to a restaurant
  • getting my hair cut at my favorite salon
  • meeting parishioners or community members for coffee
  • a quick trip to the grocery store or hardware store
  • shaking hands or receiving a hug
  • and most of all, not being able to go to church, not gathering as the weekly Christian assembly.

One of the cruel ironies is that in times of grief and loss, we crave, indeed, we need connection. That’s exactly what we’re being denied as we work together to slow the spread of this pandemic. In this exile, we are experiencing not only the uncertainties of the future, but losses upon losses in the present. And that is even without the rising tide of death that the experts warn us to expect.

I’m a church geek. I acutely miss the weekly gathering. I miss the greetings, the singing, the preaching when I can see the faces of those I’m preaching to, the gathering at the table.

I think I have a much better insight into what it must have felt like for the exiles from Judah after the Temple was destroyed and they were carted off to Babylon. They, too, wondered how to worship when the core location of their worship was no longer available. The words of Psalm 137 have become viscerally real.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land?

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How shall we sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen today” in an empty sanctuary, or even while taping the service at home? In a faith and a tradition where the gathered assembly is so important, where bodies washed with baptismal water stands as the entry rite, where bodies gather around the altar to receive Christ’s body in a morsel of real bread, how do we capture the joy of the resurrection when none of it is the way we want it to be? We preachers are trying to figure out how best to preach the joy of resurrection in these strange times with a strange way of worship, worship in a foreign land.

I get it that the building and the assembly is not required for our worship. We’ve been proving that for the last few weeks. Yet the truth that this is not how we wish it would be needs to be acknowledged. Honesty and pastoral care – both – push us to figure out how to lament on Easter Sunday even as we celebrate the joy of resurrection.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann repeatedly insists on the necessity of lament. He writes that full one third of the psalms are psalms of lament or complaint, yet they are largely absent from our lectionary. In lament we acknowledge the reality of our situation and then move from there to action. Brueeggmann warns us about depriving the church of language to express the depth of disappointment, despair, and anger. It leads either to guilt – there’s something wrong, and it’s my fault – or denial – pretending there’s nothing wrong when there’s actually something deeply wrong. Action without lament brings false hope; in this case, celebration without lament brings false joy.

So, in the worship I lead this Easter – taped on Holy Saturday, which itself feels so weird – there will be an element of lament. I’m not sure yet how. For sure it will be in my preaching; maybe in the prayers of intercession; maybe an acknowledgement of the longing we experience to share the Eucharistic meal, though we are not; maybe even a song that departs from the exuberance of Easter hymns. While I’m not sure what it will be, it will be there.

If Bauer-Levesque is right, that exile is a sense of dislocation and the loss of things that are familiar and beloved, then this feels like exile. I suppose as Christians, we are always in exile, aliens in a strange land; this year that theological concept feels not like a concept, but real life. I’ll preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, for sure. And maybe, knowing and acknowledging our dislocation and loss, it will be more meaningful this year than ever.

 

I Love Worship. . .and I’m Not Right

jim at worship
During a recent lunch with a colleague, the conversation turned to a decision they had made at their church to change to a different system of readings for their Sunday morning services. We’re not doing that at the church that I serve. And we had a really rich and stimulating conversation about the matter. It was a reminder to me of the marvelous diversity of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. What an astonishing collection of congregations, individuals, and pastors.

A plethora of Pentecost postings on Facebook last week was another reminder of the rich spectrum of worship practices, pieties, and sensibilities. There are regional differences, ethnic differences, local differences, even differences based on where the pastor went to seminary and the places he or she has been since seminary. I can’t imagine that you could find even two congregations among the almost ten thousand congregations where everything is done precisely the same on any given Sunday morning.

That doesn’t mean to say I don’t have opinions about how things should be done. I do. And I think I have pretty good reasons for most of what we do and why we have made the decisions we have where I serve. I’m even willing to articulate the reasons for those decisions and enter in to conversation around them. Still, it would be arrogant and presumptuous of me to try to prescribe our way as the right way, with the assumption that other ways are the wrong way. Since the beginning of Christianity, worship has been a long process of evolution and it continues to evolve.  It would be better for all of us if we could leave behind the notions of right and wrong about worship practice.

The wonderful diversity of practice also doesn’t mean that everyone gets to do whatever he or she wants, including me. Worship is always about God and who God is and what God has done and how God comes to us in the Gospel of the risen crucified one in whom we have life. Whatever our practices, it should be clear that they point to, and indeed communicate the one gospel, and that our practices become locations for the presence of the risen crucified one and for the faith that comes to birth through him.

That very Gospel becomes also a reforming force for worship, so says Gordon Lathrop in Four Gospels on Sunday.* The very presence of the gospels, and through the gospels the presence of Christ in the assembly, constantly calls us back from worship that is rooted in ourselves, our perceived needs and desires, our drive for control, our knack for falling into the kind of lifeless behavior that aims at nothing more than perpetuating institutions.

In the end, I guess I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything except a couple of very basic suppositions: that there isn’t a right and wrong way to worship, even for those of us anchored to a tradition. And that whatever we do, at the center is the life-giving gospel of the risen crucified One. Really, I think I’m writing this for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s. I need to be reminded constantly in my work as pastor and leader of worship that it’s not about me or my congregation or what we like or don’t like; it’s not about numbers or statistics or coddling the insider or wooing the outsider. It’s about the God who has come near to us in Jesus Christ, who loves us with a love that will not end, and who forms us and shapes us by the presence of the Word in our assembly so that God can send us out, empowered by the Spirit, to enact God’s intentions for the world.

*I’d highly recommend this book for the clergy types out there. While Lathrop is a noted liturgical theologian, it’s clear in this book that he began as a New Testament scholar. His sharp interpretive skills are on keen display in this work, especially as he nuances the different thematic schemas of each of the four gospels and the implications for worship.