Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

How we meet Jesus - or don't

I worshipped yesterday in a Catholic cathedral in Europe. The only part of the worship I understood were the Latin phrases imploring our Lord to have mercy on us. But I must say that in spite of the language barrier, it was an incredible, powerful, worship experience. I’ve been in the these cathedrals before many times during the week, but was visiting my friends who live in Salzburg this past Saturday, and then needed to take the train to where I’m teaching this week beginning Sunday night.

After breakfast Sunday morning my friends asked me if I wanted to go to the central section of Salzburg and just walk around for a little while before catching the train. Because I love this city, and because it’s rumored by locals to be the warmest autumn in 300 years and was a clear, sunny morning, I eagerly agreed. We wandered through the town square, which is presently an advent market, opened a week early and made our way to the church building and stood in the back for a few moments during worship. The building was full in every way – full of people (mostly elderly) – full of incredible sounds, as one heard the vocal cries for Christ’s mercy, sung in Latin (and the only parts I understood) – full of smells as incense and smoke filled the air, caressing the senses – and full of visuals, from the images of our Lord, to the light filtering through the stained glass, to people standing, kneeling, praying. We didn't stay long - but it was a powerful experience, awakening my heart to Christ in ways somehow lost in the previous 24 hours of airports, planes, and trains.

I asked my friend why there are so few young people and he had no answers. My own thoughts are that though the experience was powerful and deeply engaging for my own heart, the power came because I already have a context into which I can place everything that’s happening, along with a deep desire to worship Jesus and meet him there. Perhaps when those things are already present, these kind of places can be incredibly powerful, even with the language barrier.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and planned restoration of all things is either not known, or understood, or believed, or compelling enough of a story to invite real relationship and response. When Jesus as a reality and His kingdom as a hope is missing from one’s heart, worship would be, at best, an aesthetic experience, at worst a boring scam.

We evangelicals work hard to overcome some of these problems by making Jesus and his teachings incredibly relevant, digestible, and practical. But often in the process we’ve stolen any sense of mystery or transcendence or even beauty from the worship experience. Such robbery is shameful at many levels. What’s needed isn’t a dumbing down of worship, but an interpretation of the experiences and symbols for the uninitiated, coupled with sound teaching of the grand stories of the Bible and what they can mean for us today.

What do you think? Has the pendulum swung too far from mystery and beauty because of our addiction for practicality and relevance? What’s the best way to strike the balance? What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? I’m hoping you’ll respond – we need some dialogue on this blog!


At 26/11/06 23:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently heard a Christian MD mention the tragedy of the transformation from the impressive cathedrals of the past, in which the vertical nature of the design displays the grandiose nature of God, to that of the horizontal "social hour" setup of today which places the focus on our horizontal relationships rather than our vertical relationship.

In western culture, we hate to be forced to deal with things that we cannot completely understand. That is one reason why we struggle so much with controversial realities such as bad things happening to good people. The truth is that we really don't know much at all, although we think things like science and medicine explain everything. All that to say that once our focus gets off of the huge, unexplainable, inconceivable nature of God, and shifts onto our own tiny selves, we're in trouble. God really desires to use us...not because we're anything special, but because He's in the business of doing extraordinary things through very ordinary people who simply let Him reign in their lives. In short, we should, and must, get the focus off of ourselves, and onto God in our worship.

At 27/11/06 00:01, Anonymous Bob Thompsonville said...

It seems to me this is a much bigger topic than first meets the eye. A few sound bite comments, therefore seem trite in approaching this subject.

Alas!, I will do so anyway.

Please forgive.

Here in America, we are enslaved by our consumer mindset. Rational explanations of God be damned!

We want to feel at ease.

Guilt free.

Entertain us enough so that all we talk about is how good that place makes us feel.

And the institutional church seems only too happy to play along.

"Mysterous God". Utter those words to an evangelical and you will most likely be viewed as a heretic.

So, what do you think?

Maybe we are getting our just rewards for wanting a life lived - as the advertisers spend billions of dollars each year to convince us to live- MY WAY.

At 27/11/06 00:41, Anonymous steven perez said...

I think the evangelical movement has nailed the importance of scripture and the impact it has in ones life, but somewhere the spirit of the scripture has been lost. The concept of the Holy Spirit seems to have taken a back seat to the applicable learnings that one can take from scripture and it is in this process where God loses his mystery. God's word become more like a lesson plan than a conduit through which He can carry out His will in our lives.

A similar happening is prevelant in our worship atmospheres. There seems to a movement away from a worship environment that promotes the coming of the Holy Spirit and instead preps church goers for the knowledge they are about to receive. It almost seems as though worship is an intro into the knowledge that one will gain from the pastor. Worship has lost its ability to function as an expeirence and instead has become part of the package... music announcements, sermon, closing song.

I grew up Catholic which in many ways pushed me away from faith, but now I can look at the Catholic church with much adoration. The worship expeirence really evokes the senses and calls for an active involvement of the mind, body, and soul. From the smells of the burning incense, to the droplets of holy water, one can really take themselves into the heart of Jesus and physically stimulate a spiritual encounter with the Living God. You posted early about the seeker sensitive culture we live in and how now more than ever people are willing to give Christianity a chance. I think meaningful worship is essential into reaching out to this community.

I believe a worship expeirence can have just as much if not more impact in a service than any speaker, teacher, or preacher can ever have and here is why: it is a time for the Holy Spirit to personally interact with every individual in an intimate manner that words from a teacher can not express.

May we be more about letting people expeirence the living God who is among us now and less about trying to convince them. May we move outside of our comfort zones and our preconcieved notions of what worship is and allow the Holy Spirit to move in our churches.

The Spirit of God is in every knook and cranny of this world from the trees, to the streets, to the office buildings, and homes and I don't know a single Christian or follower of Christ who would disagree with that. So why are we keeping Him from our worship expeirence. May the Spirit of God infiltrate every being of our lives, our communities, and especially our churches.

At 27/11/06 14:36, Blogger The Goos Family said...

I think the evangelical church in US needs to engage and wrestle with the mystery of God and give lots more room for the mystery in it's desire to be relevant and practical with the truth. Both needs to be present in faith, mystery married with praticality.One without the other does a disservice in the richness and fullness of God and our faith.

At 27/11/06 14:45, Anonymous Geoff Dargan said...

Just a quick thought... perhaps part of the solution is getting back to the basics: Scripture, Sacraments, Service to others. (those are the three that popped into my head)

Rather than attempting to mold the worship experience of the community into a form that seems relevant or practical, why not rely more on what we've already been given? Or could it be that we really don't believe that what we have is enough?

I've also been longing for a greater realization of the mystery of God, and I think getting "back to basics" might be a good way to begin. Do we really know who Christ was/is? Have we analyzed Him so much that we no longer find ourselves awestruck? Do we follow doctrinal statements like an instruction manual? How we answer these questions directly affects our worship. I think too often we try to create faith via the worship experience, but I think we should reverse that order: worship springs from genuine faith.

It pains me to realize that I still cling to a cold, brittle, mechanical faith, instead of the vibrant, transforming faith that God desires to give me... but often the fear of the unknown causes me to run. But the Gospel tells us that God wants to make Himself known, and has! That needs to be recaptured again and again, I think.


At 28/11/06 20:39, Blogger Jim Underhill said...

Where to begin. I was raised a catholic in the times before and after the Vatican changed worship. Before, it was a language I knew not (latin), smells that were interesting (incense) and forms that I heard had meaning, but just didn't lock me in as a young fella. I was experiencing w/o it having a great impact. The change to using ones' own language in the service, bringing the service itself down to the people and singing folk-style worship, was okay, but still no connection.

By 14, I had run away from this church thing to embrace many other forms of 'spirituality' of the mid-60's and beyond. A decade later, the inevitable crash and burn. A cry for help was heard and in 1976, along came Jesus! And the Lord having a great sense of humor, then placed my wife and I among charismatic catholics and episcopalians for about a decade. I then grew to love the worship I had run from as a teen. I began to see the wonder and beauty of such worship, the truth of scripture and the pleasure of a relation with our Lord.

Thirty years later, with all that I still don't know, I am comfortable in saying that this is not an either/or proposition. It's not any one of these things (mystery, spirit-led worship, sound doctrine, a healing commnity,etc.)to the exclusion of the other elements. It's meant to be a whole that matures the church, that brings down demonic strongholds, that heals the broken world around us and more.

All to suggest that we christians should quit trying to push each other away and, in turn, find the missing pieces in our own life that will make us whole.

At 29/11/06 23:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard, it seems to me your experience of worship was what your soul was ready for. Change of scenery and away from the familiar service at home...which to most, I'm sad to think is more a social activity/time (which of course, we need fellowship) but scamming on potential girlfriends is the focus more than honoring God with all attention focused entirely on Him...You, however, were ready for worship. Inhaling & exhaling. You left the valley, ascent to a mountain top (Austria is certainly one of God's favorite landscapes). When we getaway to the mountains & outdoors to clear our heads, search inward seeking quietness & we ever stop and think "why am I here? Why didn't I just run to my local church?"

You were set up for reverence by the augustly architecture, shear vastness of vertical space captured by vaulted ceilings...the scale of everything scewed by the shear size...few churches, esp. new constuction, have such lofty reverence. Vaguely mysterious and capturing & filtering sunlight, biblical truths of timeless legendary proportion have been hand crafted in colored glass...few churches see the practicality in this expense. Artforms are lost. Craftsmen are forgotten. Multipurpose structures for the sake of "reaching out" precede honest sanctuaries forfeiting the sake of reaching in.

I imagine there was no "call to worship" or a "let's take a moment (aka 30 seconds) to contemplate God's goodness" or no fumbling, well intentioned musicians searching for the right key to lead song time... Worship began by you showing up.

Isn't that what you teach us?

I appreciate that you hear what you're saying and that you take to heart the words you convey to us... and that you are sometimes so moved by what the Spirit is saying through you and teaching you that it's impossible for you to conceil. This is the beauty of worship.

Solid iconic cathedrals won't lead to worship-but they do lead to reverence. Formality in ceremonious acts religious & ritualistically repeated as a tool for drawing one's spirit to a quietness and calmness may have it's place, although people muttle these "acts" as their saving grace, neglecting the relationship union with Christ. So many good things in fundamental religion have been plagued by poor daily examples displayed by the "religious". Pride & arrogance have calloused people against belonging to Faith. People are entangled with terminology and look on with eyes of scrutiny. How can we worship with all this surrounding us?

Can God be explained while maintaining His mysteriousness? People want to KNOW Christ, who He was, what He is, and what we are to Him. Is this a time to be ambiguous? Certainly not!!! The northwest is far too concerned with being politically correct than it is with speaking Truth. God doesn't need our help to be mysterious. He just is. He does, I believe, yearn for quality relationships, followers/servants of integrity...not blind feel-good (or feeling bad) cermonious do-gooders pompous, arrogant & private about their Faith swept up in trendy currants of showmanship.

Some will argue worship varies from person to person. Perhaps. The definition, however, should not be swayed, diluted or varied. Reverence. Honor. Quietness. Blindness to our surroundings. Enveloped in awe. Overwhelmed by Grace. Astounded by His Forgiveness. Bewildered by His Love. Listening.

At 30/11/06 19:25, Blogger Candice said...


The other day my friends and I were discussing rational, academic, and almost philosophical thought (practicality and relevance) and mystery. To what extent can mystery be mystery? Who am I to say? I have to honestly admit that I have more questions than answers right now around this. I do know that there's no point in being a Christian if our faith is based only on what we can explain.

I am currently training in the health profession field where everything is quite rationally explained away. There are alot of unknowns, but there doesn't seem to be much place for mystery, or contentment with leaving it as mystery.

Possibly as a result, I have found that my faith at university doesn't look much like faith at all. Everything is reduced to argument, rational thought, and self-actualization and there's not much belief in the power of Christ. My belief, I mean. I'm not sure when the last time was that I actually spoke or acted as a result of leaning on the Spirit. The Spirit... definitely key in this whole discussion!

And to address the worship aspect, my Bible study group related what worship (perhaps the experience of worship?) truly looks like to us, and this is what we came up with (sorry if the thoughts are a little randomly placed): Depends on His unchanging nature; Beyond our feelings; Free; Appreciating; Extravagant; Quiet; Honest; Jubilation; Giving up of yourself; Anticipatory; Simple; Passionate; Calm/restful/peace; Awareness of who He is and basking in that; Hopeful; Involves humilty; it's an expression of Obedience. It's also being honest with and in who He is and who I am. We also determined, as in Romans 12:1 that worshipping in spirit and in truth is not just being in a place like church and worshipping. It's having compassion for people, acting justly, being obedient, following Jesus, being honest before Him with our lives, and abiding in Him. I know the list could go on forever because we all have so many experiences of Him.

But He is who He is, and that never changes. This fact is a mystery, it's practical, it's relevant, and it invokes worship.

At 9/12/06 22:07, Anonymous Laurie said...

First a picky note: Isn't "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison" Greek, not Latin? :)

A different idea now: Ben and I have been interested in having some Lectio Divina services at church, using talented, expressive readers and absorbing the Word in large doses. These would be very easy to organize since the only thing to decide would be which version of the Bible to use. This would be a very different approach for us than the usual (but very valuable!) sermons.

At 10/12/06 08:11, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

good point Laurie,though a bit technical. The phrase to which you refer is indeed Greek - but is set in the context of the larger mass, which is entirely in Latin.

I like your Lectio Divina proposal - Friday nights perhaps? Let's talk

At 10/12/06 12:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting how much we tend to focus on how "moving" or how "powerful" a service felt to us. It seems to me that in this age where there are thousands and thousands of Christian denominations to choose from, some people select a church based on what the music sounds like, how entertaining the pastor is, or what type of emotional response is evoked. This has caused many evangelical churches to move farther and farther away from traditional services, and instead put on servics complete with coffee bars, multimedia presentations, and talented music leaders trying to emulate the sounds of the latest secular music. We are missing a sense of reverence that Christ deserves. We need to put more effort and attention into pursuing the Truth which is timeless and eternal, instead of coming up with "new" and exciting ways to worhip.

At 10/12/06 19:01, Anonymous George Ahrend said...

Your question: "Has the pendulum swung too far from mystery and beauty because of our addiction for practicality and relevance?" If I understand what you mean, it appears to be a false dichotomy. When you describe the mystery and beauty of the Catholic worship service, you refer to sounds (cries for mercy), smells (incense), sights (art and architecture), and physical acts of worship (kneeling and standing). We have bodies that are meant to be used in worship. While I don't know what your church is like and cannot opine whether the pendulum has swung too far in one direction or the other, many churches tend to ignore our bodies. Listening to Bible preaching, as important as it is, is a mental activity. Prayer as it is practiced (still important) also tends to be a mental activity. There is little standing or kneeling or participation by the congregation. Singing is often the only participatory part of the service, when people stand and use their own voices. But we are more than minds and voices, and in that sense, it is both practical and relevant to include sounds, smells, sights and physical acts of worship.

Importantly, you recognize that there has to be an order to this kind of worship. Otherwise, it would be "at best, an aesthetic experience, at worst a boring scam." As you also recognize, any kind of order requires "an interpretation of the experiences and symbols for the uninitiated." This is a good segue to your other question: "What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth?"

There are two senses of worship that need to be distinguished. The first is typified by David leaping and dancing before the Ark (2 Sam. 6:16), among many other biblical examples. It is individual, informal, heartfelt, and often but not always spontaneous worship of God. Because of its nature, the order will vary.

The second sense of worship is typified by the worship of the Temple, in which the Apostles themselves participated (e.g., Acts 2:46, 3:1). It is communal, formal, not spontaneous, but still aspires to be heartfelt. The order will not typically vary. The order is derived from the Temple, the teaching of the Apostles, and through them, what we know about the eternal worship of God in Heaven.

The first kind of worship is found in many churches. The second sense of worship is not generally found outside of liturgical traditions, where sometimes the first kind of worship is lacking. Yet, Christians need both kinds of worship. I find it helpful to think of worship in terms of the biblical images of Christ as our brother and our king. If his brotherhood suggests a degree of familiarity and informality, his kingship suggests a degree of reverence and formality. If we always worship like he's our brother, we tend to forget that he is also our king. There are things we do with our brother that we don’t do in the presence of the king.

Worshipping Christ the King focuses the question of practicality and relevance; specifically, practical and relevant to whom? The focus of worship should not be on those doing the worshipping, but rather on the one who is worshipped. From the Exodus to the Church, God has always revealed to his people the manner and means to worship him. (E.g., Luke 22:19 "Do this in remembrance of me.") This must be so because we are finite and sinful and therefore incapable of knowing what is best for us. Furthermore, because we are sinful, we are more likely to choose what is not best for us. The taint of sin applies to our worship preferences just as much as anything else.

Rightly ordered worship is one of the gifts of God by which we are sanctified from the effects of sin. There is nothing more practical or relevant.

I pray for God's blessings for you, your blog, and your church, and thank you for the invitation to dialogue.

At 10/12/06 21:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an opportunity to see such beautiful country! A couple of thoughts about the question you pose. You mention in your letter the evangelical trend to make the teachings more practical, digestible and relevant. Later in your letter you ask if the addiction to relevance and practicality has somehow led away from the beauty and the mystery. In this question you leave out "digestibility"- unintentionally I'm sure, but I think that this is an important point. I think it is every pastor's noble duty to make the Word more relevant and practical in our lives. However, I'm not sure if making the Gospel more digestible is a good direction to head, that is, if by digestible you mean making the Gospel an easier pill to swallow.

I'm so thankful to our Lord for bringing you to Mass that day, not only for the grace you were clobbered with, but for the rich flood of thought you have provoked in me with your question these past couple days! One thought that keeps coming back over and over again is the great mystery of the Incarnation (tis the season)and of the importance of liturgy.
When God became man, the spiritual and the material became one- the Divine and natural mixed in the most amazing and beautiful way. Of course, God has always used nature and the things that we can see to "accomodate" us, or to talk to us in our own language, so to speak. Whether as a cloud or as fire, God uses nature to elevate us to the spiritual-- Christ, of course, being the prime example.
It also seems that God gives to His people instructions on how to worship Him. For example, He is very specific on how he wants the Israelites to worship Him, how to celebrate the passover liturgy, and so on.

As a Catholic, I love how the Mass includes all 5 senses. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of how the senses are the soul's window into reality. When I walk into the church I immediately see the color of the season- purple for lent or advent signifying penitance and preparation, white for Christmas and Easter, or green for ordinary time, a time for spiritual growth and renewal, etc. I am also struck immediately by sound---the quiet. The serene. The sound of fervent prayer. Then, of course, music, and the Word (which permeates every single moment of the Mass). I smell the incense reminding me that our prayers are rising to our Father. Then of course, we move- begin with the sign of the cross, reminding ourselves of our baptism into the family of God, God AS family in the Trinity, and the cross, which enables me to be part of His family. We stand for opening prayers, Kyrie, followed by the Gloria to Him who has mercy on us, and so on. Kneel before Him Who saves us. Then, we taste the goodness of the Lord, as he commands. We were lierally MADE to worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with our BODY, MIND, and SPIRIT. We were made for liturgy. I think often times worship services become very heady. When this happens, too often people lose sight of the fact that God didn't just give us His only begotten Son to show us who He is- but to show us who WE are. We were made for litugical worship. He instructs us to use material things to keep his faithfulness REAL in our lives, e.g. water, bread, etc. I'm sorry to go on and on ---

I guess a short answer would have been that we need to return to the sacraments and to good liturgical worship. Also, we need to let Mystery be Mystery-- we don't need explanations for everything. We need to just stand in awe sometimes. Maybe just clearer definitions of what the Mysteries are. As far as evangelization, we should do all that we can, but ultimately faith is a gift from God. I think watering down the Gospel in hopes of bringing young people to the the Lord is a bad idea. People will come to the Lord because of the internal desire for Truth that he deposits in each one of us at conception. We should everything humanly possible to spread the Good News ECCEPT modify it. So let the Truth be the Truth and people will seek it out.

There is an old Latin axiom: How you worship determines what you believe. I think there is great truth in that statement. Your question is a HUGE one in this day and age. May God bless you for your loving service. I wish you all the best in your ministry.


Post a Comment

<< Home