Opening worship…

We had an Aoradh meeting tonight to plan some activities. We talked about a ‘benches’ event (using benches as meditations stations, possibly in conjunction with Cowalfest,) a Labyrinth, and we also had a long conversation about plans to collaborate with some friends in a local church in the creation of a new regular worship service.

This is a new departure for us for several reasons- firstly it would amount to a regular ‘service’ (however loosely we understand what this might mean.)

However, it also opened up a lot of discussion about what is meaningful to us in worship. Some of us still just love to sing. Others lived in the shadow of long experiences of overly manipulative music dominated worship services, in which we felt like we were being told what to do, what to experience, what to feel.

So, the journey continues; to find ways towards authentic, open hearted, hopeful, respectful and creative worship.

For me too there is still the challenge of finding how to use authentic, open hearted, respectful and creative worship music. For some time I have laid music aside. I still feel that I need to encounter wider ways to worship.

Tonight Michaela handed around some cards with images on made my Sieger Koder- they were a present from our friend Maggy, and part of a collection called ‘The Folly of God‘. They are intended as aides to contemplation and worship- in a purely visual sense. This is all a little alien to me really. I am much more driven by words.

But this is the point- to be open to the new. To be ready to be challenged, shaped changed by things that we encounter, take into ourselves, then give back.

Michaela has asked us to live with the image we picked and we will meet on Easter Sunday to speak about our experience.

Here are a couple of Koder’s paintings;

Worship music remix 4- culture…

Worship music is the cultural carrier of faith.

Or perhaps worship music is the carrier of culture into faith.

If either of these statements are true then what we sing together in churches is formational, fundamental. Our songs shape our belief, our worldview and our action in subtle and profound ways. Perhaps it is another one of those times when the medium might become the message.

What comes first, the culture or the song? Instinctively we would have to say the culture, but the idea of culture is one that demands a little more examination. I am using the term not to describe the shared tenants/creeds of the Christian faith but rather to describe something of the shared context, deep assumptions and instinctive reactions that people tend to converge upon in our collectives.

Culture is so powerful a force on how we live and think about ourselves that it can come to be indistinguishable from creed. I think I need to demonstrate this with a couple of examples.

 

I have spent some time in America, doing some worship music with a Southern Baptist Convention. There was, shall we say, a degree of cultural friction, but it was on the whole a fantastic experience. What was obvious to me as an outsider to this culture was the degree to which expressions of faith became interwoven with a whole set of wider assumptions- political, economic, commercial. These assumptions became totally self perpetuating, as many people seemed to have virtually no contact with people outside this culture. They shopped at ‘Christian’ shops, employed ‘Christian’ tradesman, listened only to ‘Christian’ voices (and only ones from a particular part of the spectrum) and voted always for ‘Christian’ politicians. God, community and country were indistinguishable.

I particularly remember a store with a whole isle selling nothing but Aslans, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Next to another selling Bible cases decorated with the American flag.

Those who did not conform to a particular way of being were gently corrected, or would find themselves ‘outside’.

The best way of describing this culture I have heard is this one- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God exists as a kind of divine therapist, mediating the psychological and financial rewards of society upon those who can conform to a certain moral code. God is a personal saviour, who will guarantee self esteem and success. Those who lack these things need to repent, and get more God so that they get some kind of a chance in the next life if not in this one.

All this has real strengths but it is hard to fully reconcile it all with the story of Jesus. Jesus called us to go, not stay. He seemed intent on overturning tables erected by the religious folk. He gravitated towards the outsiders, the poor, the broken. He started no political parties, nor would be joined to any. And he certainly gave no guarantees for health and wealth.

If I sound critical of the American church, then this is only because these issues were so much more obvious to me as an outsider. We can make equally critical comments about our own religious institutions. Think back towards the days of Empire and the complicity of our own churches even with genocide.

But how is this perspective reflected in our songs of worship?

When you stand back and look at the canon of songs that we have inherited over the last thirty years written both sides of the Atlantic they have some common characteristics;

  • They focus primarily on individual encounters with a personal God. Often it is as if worship is the means by which God ministers to us in some kind of Holy Spirit therapy.
  • They assume that repentance is required to allow us to be acceptable to God, and therefore to receive his blessing. However, repentance is primarily concerned with individual morality- particularly sexuality or dishonesty. We hear next to nothing about injustice, consumerism, over consumption or the workings of international capitalism.
  • There is little call to collective action, apart from parallel individual actions in line with the point above. There is little idea that repentance can be collective, or that change requires sacrifice and joint action.
  • Then there is the theological assumptions of the unassailable centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. The only way to save the world is one soul at a time- and our interest is really only in saving them from hell in the next life.

Does this sound familiar? I am of course not saying that the views above are necessarily wrong, rather that they arise from culture. They are then reinforced and communicated within our songs.  Where then are the songs of protest, of prophetic vision, of renewed or alternative perspectives? The songs of the marginalised now welcomed home, the songs that disturb and challenge? The songs that confront power in the name of the weak? Where are the songs that remember the God who liberates captives not just in the abstract, who breaks actual chains? Where are the songs for the wayside pilgrim campfire, not those that require a graphic equaliser and power amplifier?

As ever, Brian McLaren has some interesting things to say on this issue. If not songs about personal relationships with Jesus, then what? He suggested some of the following in this article which is well worth reading in full;

  1. Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself
  2. Not just evangelism, but mission – participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement) is the key element needed as we move into the postmodern world.
  3.  Re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics.
  4. Songs that are simply about God … songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s wonder and mystery, not just for the great job God is doing at making me feel good.
  5. Songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. ( Amen Brian!)

By way of another example;

Who remembers the song ‘Heart of Worship’? I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you. If I remember rightly, this came about as a result of a song writer/worship leader coming to the realisation that the music had taken over, so they stopped singing for a while to reflect and rebalance.

Then wrote a song about it.

It is not just the irony of this that should raise an eyebrow, it is the fact that the only cultural response to such a challenge to worship culture is to do the same thing again with a bit more passion.

Perhaps it might be time to do something totally different.

One of the things about the most recent renewal movement to sweep through the church, which I will describe using the words ‘emerging/missional consciousness’ has been the LACK of songs, and the lack of singing.

I think this is partly reaction formation against the things mentioned above, but also because other forms of worship have been in the ascendancy. I have taken a similar journey with my own community, Aoradh. We became much more interested in ‘Alternative worship’, borrowing more from the art gallery than the auditorium. Worship became more about encounter within a shared space, with the emphasis being about openness and creativity.

All movement however need a corrective because the pendulum will swing too far and will overbalance the clock.

And all movements also need to communicate their hopes, dreams, ideas and worship. Within the emerging church this has tended to happen over the internet- blogs, podcasts, you tube clips, twitter feeds, even the old archaic websites.

But we still need to sing. We are not just individuals with access to chatrooms, we are also flesh and vocal chord.

Sing me a song of freedom and a song of hope, and I will sing it with you.

Worship music remix 2- what is so special about singing anyway?

Continuing a series begun here.

OK, people have sung to worship God since the earliest times of church. The Hebrew Bible gives a whole book over to songs of praise, otherwise known as Psalms. Does that mean that we should follow their example?

There are lots of other traditional forms of worship that we no longer practice as a norm (certainly in the non-conformist tradition that I come from anyway.) We are not much into sacrificing animals, or washing feet, or burning incense, or flagellation, or dancing (particularly the naked Dancing that King David was known for.)

Then there is are lots of others that are fashionable, but still relatively rare- pilgrimage, silent meditation.

So- why sing?

Some people would point to the passages in the Bible that would seem to instruct it- ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’. Clearly early followers of Jesus sang together-

1 Corinthians 14:26
Good Order in Worship ] What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

I have to say however that my times of direct literal application of words like this without any wider questioning are gone. There are lots of other passages that we do not apply in this way. The question of how much is social/cultural/historical, and how much is expected conduct for all subsequent followers is always a point of debate. In this instance- the practice seems to me to be less important than the purpose and the meaning of the practice.

However.

There are some things about singing that are special. I will divide these into three areas- physiological, communal and spiritual.

Physiological

There is plenty of evidence of the health benefits of singing.

  • Singing releases endorphins into your system and makes you feel energized and uplifted.  People who sing are healthier than people who don’t.
  • Singing gives the lungs a workout,
  • Singing tones abdominal and intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, and stimulates circulation.
  • Singing makes us breathe more deeply than many forms of strenuous exercise, so we take in more oxygen, improve aerobic capacity and experience a release of muscle tension as well.” — Professor Graham Welch, Director of Educational Research, University of Surrey, Roehampton, UK- from here.

Other claims made are that singing can increase your life span, can reduce depression, improve your posture. If half of this is true then perhaps every hospital should have its own choir. GP’s should prescribe barber shop.

We do not worship for our own benefit of course- and I suppose you could argue that worship music has already become too centred on ‘us’- our needs for a ‘high’, not to mention the egos of we worship leaders. However, we might argue that things that carry a simple wholesomeness about them always seem to draw us towards God.

Communal

Everywhere, in all cultures, through all time, when people come together, we sing.

In these times when individualism tends to dominate our western culture, very few things still collectivise our activities. There are very few semi-ritual activities that bring us together. Communal singing is one of the few things that achieves this- whether on the football terraces, or our national anthems, or in churches.

When we come together like this, interesting things happen. We humans are above all things, social creatures. Our sense of wellbeing is very dependent on our connection with people around us. The stronger- more harmonious- that these are, then the better we tend to feel.

Perhaps the most developed example of this is the choir. Choirs come together to rehearse, with an overarching mission- the performance. Fairly ordinary voices are combined with other fairly ordinary voices, and the sound that is made collectively can be extraordianry- even sublime. And along the way, we learn together, laugh together, form relationships with people from other walks of life. There is much of the ways of the Kingdom of God in this I think.

And then there is the high of performing together. Like this, for example.

Spiritual

If our culture skews us towards individuality, then perhaps our means of worship have taken a similar course? Our spirituality is ‘personal’ and ‘private’, and newer forms of worship may have underlined this too- for example, ‘alternative worship’ spaces (which I love) which owe more to art installations may tend to make individuals of all of us even within a communal space.

Singing is one of the few spiritual practices that can be totally shared. When done together it requires us to align ourselves entirely with our fellow singers- to find the same rhythm and chordal structure, to feel the ebb and flow of the emotional content of what sing and to depend on others to fill out the polyphonic diversity.

There is more however- many of us who have sung in groups would describe transcendent experiences whilst singing. These things are extremely difficult to define- but perhaps the shared intensity, allied to deep breathing and exposure to rich lovely sounds will always open us wide to deeper experiences.

Of course, you might experience similar things from exposure to all sorts of art/beauty- from a rock concerts, to films, or beauty in nature. But singing is slightly different- in its democratic accessibility.

It is also a means of making worship deliberate and directional. It combines something abstract- music, with something concrete- words.

In many ways, these words are the carries of our faith- the ones that we remember more vividly and use to encapsulate beliefs. Some of these words rest on our souls- we never forget them. They come to us in moments of significance almost unbidden- either in times of adversity or ecstasy. Somehow their allegiance to music makes them spiritually more three dimensional.

 

So perhaps the arguments for singing remain strong?

The issues of what and how remain however…

 

Worship music remix 1- introduction…

This is the first of a series of post on worship music. My current working titles for he others include ‘Authenticity/Creativity’, ‘Transcendence’ , ‘Songs of community’ and ‘What is so special about singing anyway?’- hopefully these will emerge over the next few weeks. But in the meantime, here is a bit about my own journey, in which I have to acknowledge some rather negative aspects to my experience…

I have written before about my own previous encounters with worship music- the practice of which has been extremely important to me.

I started out singing in a church choir. I had a high pure voice as a boy, and sang solos in church. I learned to play piano, and church organ- earning some pocket money playing at weddings and funerals.

Later we discovered simple choruses- and during the late 70’s and early 80’s I started playing guitar. We played simple songs such as ‘We have come into this house’ and ‘Freely’, and were indebted to the songs of the ‘Fisherfolk’, whose music became the soundtrack to the Charismatic revival that swept through the Church of England. I still feel a strange nostalgia for the simplicity and ‘wholesomeness’ I remember from this time- and the music was a huge part of this.

I then spent 15 years as part of a large independent church in the north of England- in which my major contribution was musical. I eventually became the leader of the music team. We made a journey through all the waves of new church music that emerged- at first it was all sourced via new songbooks- which would come out every now and then- but later the machine that poured out songs  (mostly from America) used many different portals- books, CD’s and increasingly, the internet. Vineyard soft rock worship was something we constantly imitated- although the shiny happy Hillsongs worship always left me a bit cold.

Following a move to Scotland, I continued to lead worship- now in a small Baptist church. Through connections there, I also became slightly itinerant- leading worship in the USA, Europe and for some different events in Scotland.

Then I stopped.

I found it increasingly difficult to sustain any kind of passion for this kind of worship. It had become so formulaic and anchored within a narrow world view- based on  set of core assumptions that were all-dominant even if rarely spoken. I was increasingly finding myself at odds with these assumptions, which were grounded in a particular American Evangelicalism.

Then there was the place of this kind of worship at the centre of all of our services. At first, worship music was all about FREEDOM- it was the means by which we escaped ritualistic liturgy and ‘made room for the Spirit.’ Except the longer we did this, the more liturgical and rigid we became. The formula went something like this-

Open service with a time of ‘praise’- 

Upbeat high energy praise songs. However, there were (and presumably still are) far fewer exuberant praise songs than quieter ones, so we tended to do the same 10-15 or so over and over, after which typically the kids will leave for Sunday School, and we hear notices.

Time of ‘worship’

We then have more singing- quieter songs now which worship leaders try to theme slightly, with a nod towards the coming sermon. In my experience, we often talked about worship being about a much broader thing than just music, but in practice other artistic forms of collective worship had little part in our services. The odd bit of drama, or music/power points. Possibly a bit of dance. The job of the worship leader here is to generate some intensity and expectancy as we prepared to hear the preaching of Gods word- mainly by singing songs.

The sermon

Teaching within this tradition is of paramount importance. We talk of being ‘fed’ by this teaching, and skillful preachers were the top of the tree in terms of status. The very best preaching has this goal of creating a climax- you could call it a spiritual/emotional crisis- during which the congregation is expected to ‘make a response’. This might mean coming forward for prayer for healing and deliverance. The public nature of these crises is valued as some kind of statement before man and God, but I have long wondered whether it might also serve the purpose of measurable ‘success’ of the peaching.

And while all this happens, the music has a vital role again- ecstatic, emotional love songs to Jesus. Matching/creating/heightening the emotion of the event. A benign manipulation of our emotions in the name of Jesus.

The sending out

The last part of the service was about commissioning the congregation to go out into the world, changed by their encounter with God in the service. Songs tend to be more martial, triumphalist and perhaps more hymn-like.

All of this can be energising and vibrant- it can also be very ego-centric for those of us on the stage.

That is not to say that all this has no value- but I think we greatly exaggerated it. People were challenged and even changed in these services, but most were not- they were just caught up in the weekly merry go round. I once heard these services described as like a weekly wedding with the same couple getting married each time. And me, the wedding singer.

About 5 years ago I decided that I could do it this no more. The ‘crisis point’ of services seemed to me increasingly to be manufactured and divorced from the reality of the lives of the people present. At worst it became a religious show- a pep-me-up for the dwindling faithful. The particular context I was part of did not make this easier as there was also a surface dishonesty about levels of conflict and political in fighting.

There were other reasons why I walked away- firstly, theological ones. I found myself adventuring into new ideas, questioning and rediscovering aspects of my faith- and the Evangelical assumptions of many of the songs I had previously used became very difficult to sing. They tended to be strange quasi-erotic love songs to Jesus, or triumphalist war songs for the army of God. They use the Bible as source material- but only parts of the Bible that come pre-packaged by Evangelical assumptions.

And they tend to be American, arising from the cult of the super worship leader- a strange cool guy (mostly male) who has an expensive guitar. His music only finds wider release if he is marketable, and hopefully photogenic. Then the music goes into a highly profitable (but not necessarily prophetable) machine, which spews out visuals, CD’s and sheet music for the whole band. All worship leaders have their favourite super worship leader. We aspire to be like them, and to make music that is a second rate version of their music.

Secondly, I was discovering other forms of worship that I could connect to in a different way- both older forms of worship (from a contemplative tradition) and also new forms of ‘alternative worship’, which had more in common with performance art that with praise and worship as I had used to understand it.

I am a few years down the line now though- and have been involved in many a prayer room, curated worship space or wilderness meditation event. These experiences are very precious to me, in my on going attempts to reach towards God, and to offer my worship.

But I still love to sing. Gatherings with friends still often involve getting out some of the range of instruments our family have accumulated. And within my community (Aoradh) we still sing when we gather from time to time. What I have however, are a set of open questions that I am still working through-

  • Where are the songs of lament, of thanksgiving, of hope, of brokenness, of joy, of doubt, that fit this new context?
  • What songs are counter cultural- challenging the idolatry of the consumer driven unsustainable way of life our churches are embedded within?
  • This new context- what songs might collectively release us towards a different kind of mission? Encourage us to seek after justice, truth, beauty- and when we find it, to sustain it?
  • If these songs are the cultural carriers of our theology- then what of our faith do we want to celebrate? How do we move towards songs that are more open, less reductionistic, more comfortable with mystery and less concerned with the promulgation of fake certainty?
  • Where are the songs of community- not of individuality- all of that personalised spirituality from the God of success?
  • Are there different kinds of songs needed for small community contexts?
  • Why do we need to sing the songs of the machine- how can we encourage local expressions emerging out of community?
  • What of the old is still usable? From the 1560s or the 1960s?
  • I long for poetry- deep and honest lyrics. I am sick of the same old sacred rhymes- grace/face, love/above, sing/bring. We can do so much better.
  • I long for music that carries emotion, not just a steady tune. Where are the solo instruments, and the complex rhythms and harmonies? I am so tired of soft rock.
  • Is all this just because I am looking for something new, something trendy? Am I overreacting?
So, the journey continues- think I will go and get my guitar…

Aoradh worship gathering…

 

 

(An old photo of one of our gatherings.)

We are just back from our monthly worship gathering with Aoradh. We had planned to use a larger space this week, as people had expressed a desire to sing. That old fashioned, uncool kind of worship from the 80’s and 90’s- you may remember… (More on this later.)

In the end we used Andy and Angela’s big lounge, and we had power points reflections, music, communion, sharing and lots of other simple but lovely things- oh and we sang too. All the elements of our worship were collected in the moment- prepared by different people, but it all fitted together remarkably well.

Then, as is our way, we ate. Lots.

To meet with such lovely people and worship is such a blessing. There are times to look up, to look in and to look out. Today we mostly looked up, but because we did this together it was all the more special.

To finish, we pinched a blessing that Jonny mentioned that Grace had used recently- a lovely one by John O’Donahue. We cut it up, and circulated it, asking people to read the one they had chosen, and to take it away as their own words. I ended up picking up two- the ones highlighted below.

May the blessings released through your hands
cause windows to open in darkened minds

May the suffering your calling brings
be but winter before the spring

May the companionship of your doubt
Restore what your beliefs leave out

May the secret hungers of your heart
harvest from emptiness its secret fruit

May your solitude be a voyage
into the wilderness and wonder of God

May your words have the prophetic edge
to enable the heart to hear itself

May the silence where your calling dwells
foster your freedom in all you do and feel

May you find words full of divine warmth
to clothe others in the language of dawn

May your potentiality be released
to explore new horizons of what’s possible

May your becoming bring gentle surprises
as you remember you’ve not arrived

Back from Greenbelt…

So, we are back.

After a thousand miles of driving, and hours of motorway, our Aoradh roadtrip down to Greenbelt 2010 is all over.

And it was good!

A few personal highlights-

Our worship collaboration between Safespace and Sanctus 1. We spent all day on Saturday co-hosting a worship space in which we invited people to consider their community. This involved ‘stations’, and also liturgical ‘led’ worship events through the day. We did a think with spilt wine, and blood serum pots that was very powerful, and it fitted in really well with the lovely work done by the other groups.

Meeting people, and having conversations.

London Community Gospel Choir!

The large scale worship service on Sunday. They can be hit and miss affairs, but this year was lovely.

Of course, we missed as much as we saw- you always do. I was very sad to miss the Tautoko gathering at the Cathedral this year- we did not get down in time. And there were so many speakers that I wanted to hear, but missed. Need to download some talks…

Some more photos-

Making visual prayers…

We spent some time sticking pictures at housegroup last night.

We had gathered loads of clippings from newspapers and magazines, and used them to construct a great big prayer of thankfulness.

And there was much laughter, and much friendship.

Which was a kind of prayer too…

Michaela read this poem by Robert Siegel-

A Song of Praises

for the gray nudge of dawn at the window

for the chill that hangs around the bed and slips its cold tongue under the covers

for the cat who walks over my face purring murderously

for the warmth of the hip next to mine and sweet lethargy

for the cranking up the hill of the will until it turns me out of bed

for the robe’s warm caress along arm and shank

for the welcome of hot water, the dissolving of the nights stiff mask in the soft washcloth

for the light along the white porcelain sink

for the toothbrush’s savoury invasion of the tomb of the mouth and the resurrection of the breath

for the warm lather and the scrape of the razor and the skin smooth and pink that emerges

for the steam of the shower, the apprehensive shiver and then

its warm enfolding of the shoulders

its falling on the head like grace

its anointing of the whole body

and the soap’s smooth absolution

for the rough nap of the towel and its message to each skin cell

for the hairbrush’s pulling and pulling, waking the root of each hair

for the reassuring snap of elastic

for the hug of the belt that pulls all together

for the smell of coffee rising up the stairs announcing paradise

for the glass of golden juice in which light is condensed and the grapefruit’s sweet flesh

for the incense of butter on toast

for the eggs, like twin peaks over which the sun rises

and the jam for which the strawberries of summer have saved themselves

for the light whose long shaft lifts the kitchen into the realms of day

for Mozart elegantly measuring out the gazebos of heaven on the radio

and her face, for whom the kettle sings, and the coffee percs

and all the yellow birds in the wallpaper spread their wings

Ahhh.

I think I like this bloke’s poems.

(Although to be honest, I am not usually that grateful in the morning.)