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.

Rant 3: No I don’t Want to Take the “I” out of Worship

A common complaint about recent worship music is that there is far too much focus on the first person (on the individual), and not enough focus on God, or on the community in which we worship. Strangely, the “proof” offered to support the perception of this as a “problem” is generally the number of worship songs that use the first person singuar in their lyrics. I actually think this complaint is, more often than not, both misdirected and misinformed.

Do I think we need songs that focus on who God is and what he’s done. Of course I do. That’s why we have so many of them.

Do I think we need more worship songs that use the first person plural to describe our communal relationship with Christ, as his gathered body? Absolutely. Please go write some right now.

Do I think that the majority of “contemporary worship songs” are self-centered because they use the first person singular? Nope. I think that’s a load of “something.” And here’s why:

I was taught, rightly I think, that I could have a personal relationship with Christ. As far as I know, the only way to express a personal relationship with Christ in worship is to use the first and second person singular in concert. So what makes us assume that singing in this way is selfish?  That’s reason one.

When we sing “I” as a congregation, the “I” gets twisted into a “we” anyways. It’s simple semantics. A group of individuals singing in unison is just that: a group. Singing “I” in unison, in the context of a worship service, is actually an amazing statement of unity that does not subsume the individual, but honours diversity. That’s reason two.

Guess what? The vast majority of Psalms use the first person singular. Should we throw them out, do you think? This is not a contemporary phenomenon. There is no era of Christian (or Hebrew!) music that did not use the first person singular. That’s reason three.

Now, I understand that we live in an individualistic society, and that therefore the church (especially in North America and Europe) must fight against the tendency to promote an individualistic faith. We are not to stand alone. We are to live, and move, and breathe within the community of faith that is, unified, the body of Christ. But I don’t think changing all the “I’s” to “we’s” is how we fight individualism (after all, as I already said, a group of “I’s” necessarily form a “we”).

With our use of pronouns in worship, as in so many aspects of the Christian faith, we walk a fine line. We do not want to be individualistic and lose the strength of community (as we fill in for each other’s weaknesses and compound each other’s strengths). We also, however, do not want to lose our individual strengths in a giant melting-pot body in which a hand can do as well as a toe when one is trying to balance on a high wire. To live that way would simply not be functional. Neither do we want to be a faith of mindless drones that act, move, dress, and speak in exactly the same way. To live that way would be to utterly fail to reach a diverse world.

In conclusion… please stop asking me if I don’t think there are far too many worship songs these days that speak of “I” rather than of “we.” I don’t think that. Not in the slightest.

Paschaltide: The Days of Pentecost (Chapter 27 of Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year)

by Andrea Tisher

So much of life is lived as one event after another. We anticipate and over-expect and then pick apart all the ways the event did (or mostly didn’t?) live up to our expectations. And then we choose the next event and do it all over again.

But the calendar isn’t so much about events. It’s about seasons. Which is tricky because we’ve made many of the seasons of the calendar into events as well. Christmas. Easter. Just one day (or one hour) events. But, if we’re willing to lean into the calendar in new ways, we’ll discover that there are whole seasons that we’ve been missing out on. Eastertide – or Paschaltide, as Chittister calls it – is just such a season that is so much more than the usual “Hooplah of Easter” followed by a “lull” of some kind. In our church this year, we tried to be intentional in a couple of ways. First, on the cover of the worship folder, we called each Sunday by its proper name. (ie. 2nd Sunday of Eastertide, 4th Sunday of Eastertide) and then we also tried to have at least part of the music reflect that we were worshipping the RISEN King. Then, on this past Sunday, we celebrated Ascension (which, technically is on the Thursday previous, but I don’t think we’re ready for a whole service devoted to the Ascension)  and called it Ascension Sunday and next week we’ll celebrate Pentecost to finish the season.

I love what Chittister says about the season of Eastertide: “the period of unmitigated joy, of total immersion in the implications of what it means to be a Christian, to live a Christian life.” (171) and “We come to know during these great fifty days not only who Jesus is but who we are meant to be, as a result.” (175)

How did you spend the season? Or did you know it was a season?

A story to finish…

I had a friend visit another church on May 6th where they made a royal fuss about how you simply would not want to miss Mother’s Day at their church. There were promises of gifts and celebration and all kinds of special things. She immediately wondered, if this is what they do for Mother’s Day, I wonder what they’ll do for Pentecost? The answer? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Their calendar based more on what the Hallmark store has in their special section… There was a time when this would have seemed quite normal to me. But not now. And I don’t want to go back. Bring on the seasons!

I Hate Fasting: Chapter 17 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

I hate fasting. I hate not being able to eat what I want when I want it. I especially hate not being able to eat chocolate when it is desperately needed. My decision to follow the liturgical year has led me to fast from sweets for 40 days. I’m disturbed by how difficult this is – not only because it’s a constant excercise of willpower – but also because of sheer thoughtlessness. The other day I finished off a handful of yogurt-covered cranberries that someone offered me without even thinking about it.

So why should we fast during Lent (whether it is from sugar, from social media, or from some other habit or excess in our lives)? What is it about this season that requires us to give up something?

Chittister states that “Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now” (p. 110). And what shows commitment better than being willing and able to give up something for it, even something as minor as a sugar habit? Fasting, says Chittister, “exposes to seekers the distance between self-control and the compulsion to self-satisfaction” thus “Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations” (p. 112).

“To live beyond our lowest aspirations.” I think I’ve just found my new life-motto. And it’s not an easy one, either. I’ve always joked that it’s best to aim low. Set low expectations and you will nearly always exceed them. But an aspiration is, by its very definition, already something beyond us. To live beyond our lowest aspirations first teaches us to reach high – and then to reach higher. Chittister states:

Having conquered our impulses for the immediate, having tamed our desires for the physical, perhaps we will be able to bring ourselves to rise above the greed that consumes us. Maybe we will be able to control the anger that is a veil between us and the face of God. Perhaps we will have reason now to forswear the pride that is a barrier to growth. Possibly we will learn to foreswear the lust that denies us the freeing grace of simplicity. Maybe we will even find the energy to fight the sloth that deters us from making spiritual progress, the gluttony that ties us to our bellies, and the envy that makes it impossible for us to be joyful givers of the gifts we have been given. (p. 113)

I am humbled. I don’t think I have ever aspired to this – not in my wildest dreams. This is definitely above my lowest aspirations, because my aspirations are just that: low. My aspirations tend to be based on acquiring blessing rather than being a blessing to others. My aspirations tend to be directed at fame and glory rather than humility and growth. And it’s important that this change, and soon. Because, as Chittister states in this chapter, until Christ comes again – we’re it. The church, the community of Christ, WE are the presence of Christ on earth. This is why the fast of Lent is so important – why it is important to live beyond our lowest aspirations – because the life of the world depends on it.

So I hope, as I undertake the small aspiration of refusing sugar for 40 days, that this small withholding will begin to stir a larger change. That I will be inspired to live beyond this lowest aspiration of mine.

Have you given up something for Lent this year? How is it going? What are you withholding from yourself, and how is/will that withholding spur you to live beyond your own lowest aspirations?

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.

Ch. 18: Ash Wednesday and the Voices of Lent

by Andrea Tisher

Today we enter into the season of Lent (and so skip ahead to chapter 18). Ash Wednesday stands as a gateway into the season that calls us to follow Jesus, and to follow Jesus with all His other followers. It calls us back to what is important, refocuses our attention on a God that demonstrates His glory though suffering, and refutes the lie that we are alone.

Ash Wednesday is a day for “accepting what we have allowed ourselves to become and beginning to be all the rest of what we are meant to be.” (118)

And how does Ash Wednesday accomplish this? By speaking a very strange set of words over us.

“Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”

What a bizarre thing to say to someone. But how freeing. You don’t have to have it all together. (You are dust.) But you do have this life to spend well, so why are we spending so much time and energy on _____? (And to dust you shall return.)

The first time that I was privileged to be part of a service where we practiced the Imposition of Ashes (was I an Impositor?) it was absolutely striking and unforgettable to say these words to each of the congregants as they came to the front. It was hard to say. I kept thinking, “I’m really saying, ‘You’re going to die’ … how is that helpful?” But as the experience continued I started to see the gift it was. Each one of these people were following Jesus in their own imperfect ways, constantly aware that they should “do it better” and here I was saying,

“It’s okay. You’re going to die. You’re not perfect. You don’t have numerous lifetimes to perfect this, you just have your one precious life. So if you’re expecting too much of yourself, let’s be a little more realistic. And if you’re not expecting anything, remember that you have a life to spend… and so let’s choose wisely.”

And so Ash Wednesday sends out the call to pay particular attention during Lent. Particular attention to the way we’re spending our lives. Particular attention to the Word of God. Particular attention to the journey of Jesus toward the cross. Particular attention to our souls and to being human. Chittister writes:

Ash Wednesday issues a challenge “to become fully alive, fully human rather than simply, grossly, abysmally, self-centeredly human.” (119)

And then Lent gives us the chance to remember who we are – who we are meant to be – and where we have come from. Lent’s reputation about being sad and sorrowful is only half true. It is also all about newness and a call to fully human living. As we walk into the season, may we embrace this call with our whole hearts.

What is Lent looking like for you this year? Are you preparing yourself or others for baptism? Are you fasting or instensifying a discipline? If you’re looking for ideas, I thought this was a fabulous list.

And as strange as it sounds, I hope someone blesses you today by reminding you that you’re going to die…

Joy Is Not the Opposite of Pain

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of pain is? If you type the question in to the wonderful world of Google, you will read a variety of answers including: pleasure, getting high, bliss, good health, wellbeing, and joy. I’m not going to harp on most of these definitions, but I do want to query the idea that opposite of pain is joy – not because it is likely driven by the Rob Base song “Joy and Pain” (sunshine and rain), but because I think this idea sets up two different concepts as opposites: lament and praise.

While lament seems to be a difficult concept for the modern church, it was a common Hebrew expression of faith. We see this in the proliferation of lament psalms used in Hebrew worship.  Most modern psalters and hymnbooks, however, use only pieces of these psalms. The tendency is to neglect the honest portrayal of pain, confusion, and struggle in favour of what is all too often called the “praise resolution.”

Psalms of lament generally have four parts (they can be broken down further, but these are the basic components): an address, in which the author names the person he is speaking to; the complaint, in which the author honestly, and often vividly, describes his painful circumstance; a request, in which the author asks for specific assistance from the person whom he is addressing; and an expression of trust, in which the author states his confidence in the one he addresses. What we so often do is skip over the more difficult bits, chop off the “expression of trust,” and use that as a song of praise.

This approach, however, does not really result in praise. The psalmist reaches that “expression of trust” through his circumstances – whether or not they are changed. When we divorce praise from the real contexts in which we live, we foster a weak, circumstance-based, superstitious religion in which our praise is dependent on whether or not things are going well. That is a façade – not a faith.

Allow me to use a personal example. I am currently, as mentioned in a previous post, struggling with the possibility of infertility. Viewing lament and praise as opposites would lead me to believe that because I am currently in a state of lament, I am therefore unable to praise. Viewing praise as part of lament, however, allows me to lay my soul bare before God (i.e. yell at him for a while), and also to rest in my confidence in his goodness and power. If I didn’t believe that praise is a part of lament, I would fall in one of two directions: I would sink into despair; or I would feel unable to express the depth of my anguish, and end up wearing a mask. Instead, my lament draws me into the presence of God (because that is who I am addressing); it allows me to express the full extent of my suffering; it prompts me to ask God to change my circumstance, knowing that he is able to do so; and it allows me to push past my circumstance and into praise as I focus instead on the character of God, and his presence in my life. My heart breaks at the thought of not being able to bear a child – but no matter what happens, I know that God is good. I know he will help me to work out my calling toward motherhood in one way or another. That is the basis of my praise: not whether or not he does what I want him to do. And I could not honestly reach that place of praise, unless it was an integral part of the lament my heart is currently singing.

So no, praise and lament are not opposites. And neither are joy and pain. No, the opposite of pain is comfort. We are not called, as Christians, to live a comfortable life. Not in this world – not if we are called to participate in the transformation and redemption that Christ began and finished and will finish. We are not called to a life of comfort, a life free from pain, but we are called to a life of joy. We are called to a life of deep painful joy in which we see the truth of God’s character alongside the suffering of the world.