Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit During the Worship Service

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Practicing

It’s tempting, once we’ve planned, and confirmed or adjusted that plan in practice, to think that we are done listening to the Spirit – that everything is prepared, and now we can simply follow the plan. If the Spirit has been guiding us in our planning, then surely we can just trust that plan completely. No more adjustments necessary.

But our planning and practice are not only listening moments in themselves, they are also the preparation that frees up brain-space so that we can listen in the very act of leading – and adjust accordingly. Because rarely is the Spirit done at this point. He’s still moving, still refining, still longing to speak to us and through us.

And here that argument about spontaneity comes back. Because there is an element of dependence that we need to cultivate – despite good and thoughtful planning. A willingness to move with the fluidity of the Spirit. A willingness to abandon some of our preparation, no matter how prayerfully and carefully it was done, and to move in step with a Spirit that is always doing something new.

Now, I will say this: never have I felt that the Spirit has asked me to completely abandon the preparation we made together. Often, however (although not every week), there are small adjustments that are necessary in a given moment.

Recently, for example, having planned and practiced the service with my ears open – in the very act of playing “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus” the last line of the second verse jumped out at me: “how for them he intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne.” I continued with the rest of the hymn, and moved on to “The Same Love” in which we sang of Jesus calling us to the cross – in which we learned of the strength of his love to get us to that uncomfortable place. And that one line kept tugging at me. So, somewhat clumsily (and with no warning to the person putting words on the screen), we moved back to that one line about Jesus’ intercession for us. And ending with that one line, somehow became beautifully enabling. The love that is calling us to the cross, is the not only the same love that set the captives free, but the same love that is interceding, is praying for us, even as our hearts are stirred to answer that call. It was something I missed in my planning. Something I missed in my practice. But I’m so thankful that my planning and practice enabled me to be awake at that precise moment when the Spirit needed to gently push my preparations aside and do something new.

I’m not sure if anyone other than myself was moved by that moment. But I suspect that at least one person was. I have often found that those moments when things have necessarily needed to change at the last moment, there is something going on under the surface. Your other ear, of course (as we will learn in the next few posts) should be open your congregation – but they might not tell you everything. Sometimes the deepest struggles are those unspoken. So, no matter how carefully you plan and no matter how wide open your ears in both directions as you do so, sometimes something needs to happen at the last minute: to comfort, to reassure, to challenge, to empower, to simply transmit God’s love more clearly.

Sometimes I have brought back a song we sang earlier, rather than singing the closing song we had planned. Or I have skipped a planned repeat and moved on – or I have added a repeat in a different tone. Or there is the simple (and, for me, the most clearly heard) command to “pray now.”

Those weeks that I am most attuned to the Spirit as I lead are inevitably the weeks I have prepared well and thoroughly, and the weeks I hear the most from those worshipping with me.

Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

I began my series on Listening in Two Directions a couple of weeks ago, with a post about the importance of preparation, and how preparation enables attentiveness during delivery. This week I want to begin talking about the sound toward which our right ear should swivel. If we think about leading worship as serving our two-fold “audience,” God being one part of that audience, what does it look like to serve the Spirit, to listen to the Spirit, through the whole process of worship leading – and what are we missing when we fail to be attentive in this way? Before we dive into the three parts of worship leading – planning, practice, and delivery – I want to offer two caveats and give a general picture of why it is important to listen to the Spirit in every stage of our preparation and delivery.

First caveat: there are no hard and fast rules regarding how the Spirit speaks. In fact, as with all conversations, we each interact with the Spirit differently. So please don’t take the examples I lay out in my next few posts as the one way in which to hear God’s voice while planning and implementing a worship service. The corpus of Scripture shows us, intentionally, a variety of individuals and groups who hear from God in a variety of ways. We should never foist the ways and means of our own relationship with God on someone else.

Second caveat: my underlying assumption in this series is that the Holy Spirit always points beyond Himself. My husband calls the Spirit the shy member of the Trinity – because the Spirit always points to Christ. So, to phrase a complex concept simplistically, we know that we have heard from the Spirit when we are pointed toward Jesus. And we serve the Spirit best by doing the same – by pointing beyond ourselves to Christ.

To some extent, then, the reasons we listen to the Spirit as we lead worship are obvious and hardly need to be stated. Of course we need to pay attention to God – the whole point of worship is to pay attention to God. In fact, everyone should be listening for the voice of the Spirit, not just worship leaders. Worship leaders (and pastors, for that matter) are not super-hero Christians who take people and bring them to God. God always reaches toward us – every one of us – first. Every single one of us needs to be attentive to this reaching. To learn to hear the Spirit’s voice, to see the Spirit pointing toward Jesus as we enter in to gathered worship, and as we worship during the week through our work, in our homes, and through our relationships.

As worship leaders, however, we do have a sacred task to perform. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are invited into the process of God’s constant calling; God’s constant drawing of his people toward himself. If we don’t actively listen for the Spirit’s direction and respond in service to the Spirit we will miss this invitation. Worse, we may become an obstacle to others hearing and responding to that invitation.

The tendency of worship leaders is to drift toward one of our two audiences: God or the congregation. If we fail to listen for the Spirit, we will forget who we worship and our gathered worship will no longer be spiritually formative. If we fail to be attentive to the Spirit then we are leading nowhere and to no one – we will simply follow our own preferences and thoughts and hope that the Spirit will use them. And he very well may use them – but how much deeper, how much richer would the worship of the Church be if worship leaders actively listened for the Spirit’s voice, and joyfully accepted the Spirit’s invitation to join God’s work in his congregation?

A Season of Thanksgiving

This Sunday, September 22nd, our little church entered a “season of thanksgiving.” Every Sunday from now until Advent, several members of our congregation will stand up, before our congregational prayer time, and name some of the things they are thankful for at this point in their lives. Nothing fancy. Just simple thanks. This is my introduction to that season.

Thanks and HopeMy parents moved recently. This, of course, means that all the boxes that I have stored, out of sight and out of mind, in my parents’ attic for x number of years have come to light – and have come home to roost in my garage. As we sifted through some of their contents, I came across a small disco ball with a tiny pair of Japanese shoes attached to it.

When I lived in BC – 3 years before I moved back to BC to attend Regent College—I went through a deep period of depression. There were a number of circumstances involved, but chief among them: I had just returned from a two and a half month trip to Ethiopia. I returned on an incredible high – sure that God was going to move in my life, sure that big things were going to happen. And they did. Our house burnt down, my childhood home. I had to resign from my job in a very messy set of circumstances – without a safety net. I was unemployed for more than six months, living in my friend’s parents’ home, with no idea how to move forward in any aspect of my life.

It was winter changing to spring at that point. In the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, this means grey, grey, grey, grey, grey. The weather was no help at all.

I can’t remember how I ended up with my little disco ball. Did someone give it to me? Did I see someone else with one, and track one down for myself? I don’t remember. But I hung it from the rear-view mirror of my little Subaru. Not, I think, with any real purpose; I may have thought it made my car look cool.

And then – one day – the sun broke through the screen of grey. And my car was filled with all these little dancing points of light. And I was so thankful. So thankful just to see the sun. Thankful every moment the sun shone. That little bit of thanks, those little points of light, kept me going through a very dark time.

Then I went to Japan for a year. Again, when I came home I was convinced I would participate in big things. Momentous things. I didn’t. I ended up living back at home with my own parents. With minimal employment. In the middle of a long, cold Albertan winter. Again unsure of how to move forward.

I hung up my little disco ball again – this time adding to it a little cell-phone charm I had purchased somewhere in Japan. A little pair of shoes: a little pair of Geta – Japanese flip-flops (although they are usually made of wood, and so are neither flippy nor floppy) – summer shoes. They reminded me that all I had to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other; they reminded me – spring will come, darkness will end, winter cannot last forever.

Thanks and HopeThese two things – the disco ball, my little pair of flip-flops – were the only two things that came out of those boxes immediately. Much to Andrew’s annoyance I hung them in our new car immediately, realizing that I need that message again: thankfulness, hope.

I wondered if others might need the same message: simple thankfulness, quiet hope. So we will spend some weeks together, in Bon Accord Community Church, simply telling each other the little things – and sometimes the big things – that make us thankful. Maybe there is some small item, some reminder that can hang in your room, sit on your bedside table, or hang from your rear-view mirror to prompt you to thankfulness, and to keep you putting one foot in front of the other.

We want to be a church, we are a church, that is honest with each other – that lets the cracks show – a church in which the answer to “how are you?” does not always have to be “fine.” Because sometimes you’re not. Sometimes I’m not. But sometimes the darkness that we face, and even the little annoyances we deal with on a daily basis, can become so overwhelming that we see nothing else. We lose sight of the good. We can’t see any more that the sun is shining. But it is! And taking the time to notice that little good might push the darkness back a bit and help us to refocus.

It may be that some of the things others are thankful for are things that you lack. Things you want – maybe desperately. I know that will certainly be the case for me. That’s ok. Because we all, every single one of us, have something, somethings to be thankful for. And if we can be a church that both cries with those who mourn and laughs with those who rejoice – then we will always be a place of welcome. And you might find, maybe you will find, that by taking a moment to celebrate what someone else has, and you don’t have, some of that darkness lessens in you as well. Because it’s out there. There is hope. And even if the sun is not shining over you right now. It’s there. And it’s as bright as ever.

So…
…………………………………………………………………………..
I am thankful for sunshine.
I am thankful for my body:

it will never be on the cover of Vogue, but it works—in a basic kind of way—well enough for me to function and to get things done. I can walk, and run, and jump, and almost reach the highest shelf in my kitchen. I’m kind of happy about that.

I am thankful for my friends and family:

Too many people to mention. None of them are perfect. But they are all a joy – at least some of the time.

I am thankful that I am greeted with joy, exuberance, and great hairy wagginess every time I come home:

Finn (our dog) is pretty great too. ;) Andrew and I have walked through some pretty dark moments together, but somehow we still find the time and energy to be silly with each other. And we still find the time and energy to get out and walk with our dog. I’m so grateful.

Finally, I am deeply thankful for this church:

for the warm, generous, and occasionally raucous crowd we have found ourselves in. And that they have graciously allowed us to lead – even experiment. I am humbled and so very grateful for the opportunity to be here in Bon Accord.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

How about you?

Silencing Worship (Q&A)

Q: Corrie Gustafson asked me to reflect on silence as worship, silence in worship, and why we aren’t so good at it.

I started taking Suzuki piano lessons when I was four years old: a method that emphasises the importance of listening as a means of learning and expression. Within the first few years of my training, as I blundered through a piece as quick as my chubby fingers would go, my teacher stopped me. “Listen to the silence,” she said. You have to listen to the space between the notes – pay attention to the rests – before you can hear where the notes need to go. This is one of the skills that separate a good musician from a great one – the ability to play the silence as well as the tones. To actually heed the rests – considering them not simply as empty space, but as giving shape to the music.

It’s hard to listen to silence in a world that surrounds us with noise. Every store, coffee shop, restaurant we enter will inevitably have music blaring. Many of us turn off our home stereo or TV before leaving the house and switch on the radio in the car. We walk from place to place with ear buds in our ears and iPods in our pockets. I have a theory as to why our culture is obsessed by constant noise: I think that we equate silence with stillness, and we equate stillness with death – of which our culture is pathologically afraid. In order to push death back, we surround ourselves with noise and keep moving.

But it’s not just our culture… Hands up if there’s music playing when you enter your church; hands up if once the band starts they transition musically or with words from song to song; hands up if you hear more words during the sermon; hands up if the music then plays you out into a crowded hall or entry way…

Even in gathered worship we sometimes forget what the music is doing, because we can’t hear the silence between the notes. Our music can become noise if we don’t pay attention to the rests in the score. Corrie asked about silence as worship – and I love that phrasing. What we’ve done by taking silence out of our worship is remove preparation. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps 37:7). Remove stillness as an active response to God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Remove the awe from our approach to God. “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2:20). Silence can prepare your congregation for worship. Silence can give them time to ingest the word of God. Silence can provide times of confession. Silence can be a way of letting go. Silence can be a means of rest.

BUT…

Silence without attentiveness is worse than noise. We cannot just throw silence into our worship services and expect that our congregation will follow (remember we’re all fighting against our culture here). We cannot simply observe silence without – as in music – carefully attending to its length, and its intention. So here are a few things to remember as you add intentional silence to your gathered worship.

  • Consider the length of silence very carefully. You might have to build up your congregation’s tolerance. Most congregations can handle about 30 seconds comfortably. Definitely push beyond this, but don’t push too far too fast. There are times when a silence as long as 5 or 10 minutes may be appropriate, but this must be carefully instructed, and will probably be seldom.
  • Always let your congregation know it’s coming. Whether it’s in an order of service, or on a screen, or a verbal instruction – the congregation must be warned. Otherwise, all you will accomplish is several minutes of uncomfortable rustling while everyone wonders who dropped the ball on the next service element.
  • Always let your congregation know the intent of the silence. If you want them to prepare themselves for the worship service – tell them that on paper, on a screen, or verbally. If you want them to simply rest – let them know. If you want them to spend time in confession, or praise, or digestion of God’s word – give them a heads up.

Despite my lengthy instructions, it’s not difficult to incorporate silence into a gathered worship service. It just takes some intentionality. It takes viewing silence as a valid means of worship. It takes a counter-cultural push against cultural fear. It takes attentiveness to the space between notes – so that carefully crafted silence can bring to life the music that surrounds it.

Worship: Hit Single or Concept Album

I came across an article yesterday that I thought was noteworthy: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/29251-why-worship-should-be-risky

In this article Michael Gungor discusses the nature of the music industry, stating that the majority of pop albums are “collections of eight to 15 of the best snippets of musical ideas the artist or label can come up with” as they search for their next big hit. The songs have little or no connection to each other. The exception to this, is the concept album. The album that circles on big idea, or intentionally takes the listener on a journey through each sucessive song.

He then, mentioning his own most recent album, makes the leap to worship:

It would be naive to think our liturgy has not been affected by today’s culture of pop music singles. Our church services can become disconnected from a consistent story. Planning the worship service often becomes about finding the best four or five worship singles that will keep people engaged, and then a sermon is given that is separate from anything done in the service up to that point. It’s all about the hits.

I often find myself describing a worship service as a journey: We begin with people scattered all over the map, depending on what their weeks have held. We gather them together and slowly bring them into the Big Story, guiding them to a unified point at which they are all prepared to hear the small part of the Big Story that will be delivered that morning. Finally, we give them the opportunity to respond to that small part of the story, bless them, and send them out into the Big Story.

I think Michael Gungor is on to something here. Too often in worship we simply pick our “top singles” – or we circle around an idea without actually going anywhere. Maybe it’s time we explored the concept album. What do you think?

At very least, I’m going to check out Ghosts Upon the Earth.

Rant 2: The So-called “Worship Wars”

While teaching a class at Trinity Western University, I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture in which I explored the arguments of Barth and his contemporaries, and the “God is dead” theologians of their day – challenging my class to consider how the church should engage with its surrounding culture, and whether their own churches are ignoring the surrounding culture, transforming their faith to meet the culture, or translating their faith so that the culture will be able to understand it. When I asked for questions, one student raised a tenuous hand: “So… there are a bunch of old people in my church who only want to sing hymns. What should I do?”

It always seems to come down to that. One group of people wants to sing one type of song in church, while another group would rather sing a different type. Every workshop I’ve given, every class I’ve taught, every lecture I’ve delivered – someone has asked me that same question.

So here’s my response: I’m sick to death of the question.

Because it’s the wrong question.

Oh I understand why people ask it: music causes a deep, personal, emotional, and spiritual response – and music we are more familiar with adds a weight of memories to this response. Think of a song that accompanied a significant spiritual shift in your life – now imagine never being given the opportunity to sing that song again. It hurts, right?

And absolutely every church with any amount diversity at all has this problem – with varying degrees of conflict. (In fact, the problem is so pervasive, that I’ll probably have to deal with it in another blog post or two at a later date).

If this many churches deal with conflict in music choice, why is it the wrong question to ask? Because it’s a symptom question, not a disease question. It’s like asking the doctor to deal with my headaches while completely ignoring the brain tumor that’s causing them. The doctor might be able to make my headaches go away, but unless the tumor is dealt with not only will the headaches keep returning, I’m in danger of far worse.

The worship wars are not worship wars at all – they are music wars. And we can smooth over musical tastes all we want (trying to please everyone, or carving the church up into homogenous groups) – but we will still have a problem if we have no understanding of (or interest in understanding) what worship is and how to employ it in the church.

Yes, I know we still have to deal with the fact that different members of our congregations are familiar with (and love) a completely different era of songs – but please, let’s start asking questions that get at the deeper problems we have allowed to develop. If we do that, some of the symptoms may just disappear along with the disease.

Belated Anticipation

My Christmas tree is still up. I’m ashamed to admit this, considering the liturgical season of Christmas finished a week ago. It is, however, but a symptom of a larger problem: how to live in the present liturgical season while reflecting on the previous season and planning for the coming one. It’s an issue that every worship leader faces, in one way or another.

So Christmas is over, Epiphany flew by, we’re now in Ordinary Time, and preparing for Lent. This cycle, I’m discovering, can be exhausting – even for the most experienced of us. I’m discovering that celebrating the Christian calendar (especially in a church that does not have historical liturgies on which to draw) requires incredible organization and foresight, not to mention ninja multi-tasking skills. And that’s when the rest of life doesn’t impinge itself on your planning and reflection process.

So – not only is my Christmas tree still up, but my church plans for Ordinary Time are unfinished, I haven’t reflected on Epiphany, and I haven’t even begun my personal plan of reading through the gospels starting last week. I’m tired. And lately this constant pressure to follow the Liturgical schedule feels heavy. I feel as if I’m on a treadmill with no emergency cord.

Yet, even as I feel stress gathering in my shoulders, and panic breathing down my neck, I’m aware that something beautiful is happening. The edges of each season are blurring, and the connections between them are becoming clearer.

Christmas, divine celebration of Christ’s birth, is essential to our understanding of the revelation of God (the Epiphany). God reveals himself to us in many ways, but the key way in which we know who God is, and how he behaves, is found in his Son, and the way he lived as one of us. And as I begin my plans for Lent, I discover that the key way in which God is revealed through Christ is in his death and resurrection – that God would become a servant (Christmas); choose to heal the sick, free the captive, and serve the poor (Ordinary Time); and submit to death (Lent) is a profound revelation indeed (Epiphany).

These are connections that were made by theologians long ago – and I have known them for years – but the belated anticipation of each season that I’m experiencing this year (as I reflect, and live, and plan for each season) is making them come to life. If I can live, somehow, with my feet planted in the present season, and my arms stretched between the previous and the coming seasons, if I can facilitate this stretched-out-way-of-life for my congregation, I think we will come to know Christ better. I think we will learn to know ourselves better.

So no, I’m not keeping up. I’m running back and forth like a maniac. But maybe that’s a good thing.