This piece was written for and appeared on Feb. 16, 2021 on The Perennial Gen:
Dr. Rachel Coleman
One of the greatest gifts of teaching Bible courses to adult students from a wide range of backgrounds is the rich diversity of perspectives they bring to the text and the brilliantly keen insights that can jump off the page or screen as they engage with me, each other, and the course material. Most of my students are either undergraduate Bible majors or seminary students, so, despite their diverse contexts, they usually have a shared starting point in terms of their relationship with Scripture. However, occasionally I have the privilege of spending a few weeks with students in the helping professions as they take—often reluctantly—a Bible elective. Recently I made one of those pedagogical journeys with a group of twenty (mostly nurses and social workers), and it quickly became an intensely pastoral trek alongside people to whom life has handed staggering amounts of raw pain and loss. Several in the group were childhood church-goers who had drifted away from faith but were exploring a return, albeit with a fragile hesitancy. Others had intentionally turned away from both faith and the church, angry at a God they weren’t even sure existed—and if he did, they didn’t think they liked him very much.
One of this latter group was a young woman who had been wounded, deeply and needlessly, by an insensitive shepherd with some really bad theology, during a time when she was navigating a dark valley of grief. We’ll call her Jo. She impressed me from day one on two fronts, demonstrating both a fearless honesty about her journey away from faith and also a willingness to engage fully and thoroughly with the sacred texts of the Christianity that she had rejected. As we launched into the course, scriptural perspectives on suffering and disability, I knew that this was probably going to be the most challenging teaching assignment I’d had in a while. I also suspected that there were going to be some significant “aha!” moments along the way, not just for students but for me as well, as I had the chance to read the familiar texts through Jo’s eyes. I was not disappointed on either count!
Near the end of the course, the students spent a week in the Gospels. Any sustained and serious contemplation of Jesus—his life, deeds, words, death, and resurrection—has the potential to be powerfully transformative for the reader, and this was no exception. The discussion posts and papers revealed that these nurses—so overwhelmed right now by the suffering of others in combination with their own brokenness and pain—had been profoundly impacted by the portrait of Jesus’ own suffering in the Gospels. Jo, in particular, was captivated by the fact that Jesus continued to bear the scars of his suffering even after his resurrection—her latent hostility was, at least temporarily, disarmed by that truth. In my follow-up question to her initial discussion post that week, I sent her to John 20:24–39, the post-resurrection encounter between Thomas and Jesus. “What stands out to you in that story?”
Jo’s answer to that simple question was so profound it took my breath away. She wrote, “I noticed that Thomas wasn’t interested in seeing Jesus do another miracle. He just wanted to see his wounds.” Oh, my! She might not have approached the biblical text with eyes of faith, but she certainly had “eyes to see” in that moment.
“He just wanted to see his wounds.” What if that is exactly the heart-cry of the brokenness around us? The pain-wracked human beings who share our commutes and our workplaces and our communities and our homes—they just want to see his wounds! What might change in their lives if they caught a glimpse of those marks of amazing love? What if, at the key juncture of her life when Jo was suffocating in her grief and loss, that pastor had offered her a glimpse of the wounds of Jesus? How might the trajectory of her journey away from faith been halted and reversed?
The scars that Jesus has chosen to bear throughout eternity on his resurrected body—they are signs that point to the depth and breadth of his love for us, demonstrations of the fullness of his identification with our human condition, marks of the price he paid to rescue us from our broken sinfulness and our crushing wounds (Isa. 53). As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is a High Priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (4:15, NLT). Because of that, we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God”—no matter our starting point, no matter our accumulation of pain and anger, no matter how pitifully small our faith—and there “we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (4:16).
For now, Jesus stands just on the other side of the veil between the seen and the unseen, between our present pain and our future hope, the victorious Lion who is also who is also the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:5–14). How will we offer glimpses of this glorious paradox to those who are longing just to see his wounds?
Two Years, Two “Words”
Well, it’s been a year! We are poised to turn the calendar to 2021, and I suspect that many of us will rip that December 2020 page off the books with unusual ferocity. The maelstrom of the past twelve months will be wadded up and perhaps stomped on, before being tossed—probably into the trash, rather than the recycle bin, because we are not interested in reusing and repurposing this one! However, if we stand at the turning of the year with our hands willingly offered into the loving grip of the One who wastes nothing, we can look ahead with trembling confidence to something greater than a merely recycled 2020—we can anticipate a restoration of “the years that the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). And what a breathtaking possibility, when we remember that this great promise of restoration anticipated the extravagant outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2).
In the past couple weeks, I have participated in intentional spiritual examen, a reflective inventory of the past year and attentive listening to the Spirit in preparation for the coming twelve months. A starting point for the “backward look” was consideration of my 2020 “word.” As 2019 was ending and 2020 about to begin, before any of us knew what was on the world’s horizon, the phrase the Spirit was pressing upon me was “dangerous surrender” (borrowed from the title of Kay Warren’s book). Just a few months into 2020, that sounded like a rather grandiose and perhaps unrealistic word for a season of restriction that seemed to be narrowing my horizons on every side, keeping me firmly hedged into a small, safe, no-boat-rocking space. But in this season of enforced immobility (when even my daily prayer walks have been curtailed by persistent ankle pain), surrender was indeed the persistent invitation from the Spirit. What made it “dangerous”? It was dangerous to autonomy—it’s costly to hand over control instead of tightly clinging to it. It was dangerous to expectations—it’s risky to let go of my designs for life and ministry, to allow them to be shaped by the will of Another. It was dangerous to stubborn, even arrogant certainties—it’s scary to exchange those secure little boxes for a humility that is willing to listen more than talk, to be corrected and confronted when necessary, to imagine possibilities of grace far more expansive than I had previously considered. So most of the danger loomed on the landscape of my inner being—but that didn’t make it any less daunting to face. And it was that inner work of surrender that laid the groundwork for the times when “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God” meant making public choices that were unpopular and perhaps risky.
Strangely enough, it is this journey of surrender that has been the necessary motor to propel me towards my 2021 “word.” The more my clenched fists, once clinging so tightly to certainties and securities, have opened and released, the more I have been able to extend empty, upturned hands toward the Lover of my soul. His returning grasp has been like a warm embrace that steadies and welcomes and infuses with courage. My “all to Jesus I surrender” has been met, over and over again, with a whispered affirmation, “Beloved.” That is my 2021 word, and I anticipate with joyful expectancy the exploration of that identity—not just as a cognitive truth to be recognized but as experiential reality to be received, delighted in, savored, and shared.
If you had a 2020 “word,” I’d love to hear your reflections upon how that shaped your experience of the year. And if the Lord has laid on your heart a “word” for 2021, it would be fun to hear that as well!
I seldom find myself too far out of reach of a book. There are books in my car, sometimes in my purse, on my nightstand, beside my “reading chair,” near the dining room table, and lining the walls of my office and the spare room and anywhere else we can fit a bookshelf. These books cover a range of genres and styles—fiction for the evenings when my “thinker” is exhausted (mostly classic detective stories and contemporary mysteries with make-me-laugh characters); theology, ethics, biblical interpretation (ancient, modern, and global, with a current interest in the book of Revelation), biography, and history, for when “the little grey cells” are all working relatively harmoniously and well.
One thing I’ve recently become attentive to in this varied literature is the way in which writers use parentheses. Parentheses are enclosing punctuation marks, visible separators, that set off a thought from the main sentence or paragraph. I notice that what is inside those orthographic marks can serve a variety of purposes for the writer. Sometimes the parenthetical expression offers an authorial commentary or qualifying perspective; other times it provides more detail to particularize a general statement (like my parentheses in the previous paragraph). In the biblical narratives, especially the Gospels, parenthetical remarks, whether punctuated as such or not in a particular translation, often provide the narrator’s comment to the reader or a bit of hermeneutical guidance (think of the Evangelist’s “let the reader understand,” Mark 13:14). In the case of my students’ papers, most of which are in the sadly inelegant APA style, a parenthesis is usually at the end of the sentence and contains (if it’s done correctly) proper bibliographic information for a source that has been cited. And sometimes, as my doctoral supervisor like to point out, parentheses contain extraneous information that ought to have been relegated to a footnote!
Here’s the thing about parentheses. If we lift them off the page and read the printed text without them, most of the time we’ll still have a pretty good idea of what the author is trying to say. Try it with the previous two paragraphs! But a well-crafted parenthetical word can be the very thing that flips the switch and illuminates the surrounding words, allowing us to make better sense of what comes before and after.
I think what has sparked this interest in parentheses is that on more than one occasion in recent days I have heard 2020 described as a parenthesis in the middle of “real life.” The sub-text of this analogy is usually disparaging—as in, 2020 is an excruciatingly long and painfully unnecessary accumulation of information, which we desperately wish to edit down to an easily ignored footnote. We want to grab the first clause of our experiential sentence (i.e., our pre-COVID “normal”) and join it seamlessly to the next clause (a return to that same “normal”), without the distraction, discomfort, and dis-ease contained in the 2020 parentheses. But what if our 2020 experiences—individual and collective—are not extraneous but incredibly valuable for making sense out of both our past and our future? What if how we live “inside the parentheses”—right here, right now—will determine the relationship between the first clause and the next? If we treat this time in the parenthesis as a giant pause button that stokes greater and greater impatience, then the likelihood is that our first clause (old “normal”) and our second clause (new “normal”) will simply be separated by a comma, in a relationship of apposition—each clause basically saying the same thing. But what if we choose to dwell purposefully inside this parentheses, attentive to its interpretive power in relationship to our past and its transformational potential in regards to our future? I wonder, in that case, if we might discover down the road that our first clause and our second clause can stand in glorious contrast to one another? Think of the grand Pauline oppositions: “You were once. . ., but now you are. . . .” (e.g., Eph. 2:1–4, 11–13; Col. 1:21–22).
For those of us in the church, we have just entered Advent. Our season of intentional waiting and examen overlaps in 2020 with the imposed “parentheses” of 2020. My prayer is that we will not live in either of these seasons (Advent, pandemic) like a child opening the daily Advent calendar with a singular goal in mind—let’s get to Christmas!—but with purposeful attentiveness to the voice of the Spirit as we wait. Advent does end at Christmas, and our COVID-created parentheses will also come to an end at some future point that we cannot yet see, and we will celebrate both of those glorious endings with joy and thanksgiving. But may the kind of living and reflecting we do “inside the parentheses” prepare us for participation in God’s “new thing” on the other side of the parenthesis.
Three Christians and a Jew went to breakfast. . . No, it’s not the opening line of a bad joke. It is the description of a rich friendship that began in the swimming pool at the local Senior Citizens Center, with conversations about spiritual things, and that has endured over decades, among four people who cover the gamut of political, ideological, and religious perspectives. These twice-a-month breakfasts are times of spirited dialogue—and maybe the occasional desire to throw the scrambled eggs at another member of the quartet who’s just being stubbornly set in his or her ways! When breakfast is over, the four go home, probably with the same set of convictions they brought to the table—but they go home still friends. What has kept these four together, linked in amicable give-and-take, mutual respect, and deep concern for each other’s well-being, despite their differences? In large part, it is because they relate to each other as persons, not as categories. They are simply George, Jane, John, and Dave (names changed to protect their privacy). They don’t see each other as labels (red/blue, right/left, liberal/conservative, Christian/Jew), but as human beings made in the image of God. They are genuinely interested in each other, willing to listen to each other and to laugh together and at themselves.
Contrast this with an interview I heard this morning. The interviewee consistently labeled the interviewer (“well, you’re this color, I’m that color”), interrupted and talked over the questions, and made sweeping assumptions about the other person’s character and views. On one side of this non-dialogue was an assessment of the other as a category, rather than a person, and, because he represented a category non grata, that assessment resulted in a seething hostility, which in turn gave permission for the rude dismissal of the the interviewer as persona non grata. And although the interviewer was doing an admirable job of maintaining at least a semblance of neutrality as he attempted to give listeners the chance to understand the interviewee’s ideas and ideals, the persistent vitriol took a toll, and by the end of the “interview,” his own biases and depersonalizing categorizations were also peeking through. If time had not run out, I suspect this would have become a full-on label-throwing match. (And no, you probably have never heard of this particular interviewee, no matter what assumptions you may have made as you read this paragraph!)
Let’s be honest now—if we take a hard look at the conversations and interactions we have with friends who don’t think or believe or vote like us (if we still have friends like that!), which example do they resemble? The rich interchange of ideas among passionately diverse friends, who see each other first and foremost as human beings bearing the imago Dei? Or the vituperative launching of words like weapons against a non-person who is simply the face of a despised category? Has our vision become so narrow that we can only spot the categorization affixed like a damning label on our the other person’s forehead, effectively hedging out a big-picture glimpse of his humanity, of her identity as beloved child of God?
Labels are helpful things—in the laundry room or the supermarket. It’s important to know what kind of fibers are in that new sweater before I wash it, and it’s important to know the sodium content of a new cereal before I offer it to my blood-pressure-challenged husband. But those labels tell me nothing about how that sweater will fit, or about how that cereal will taste. I have to explore and experience that for myself. And in the context of human relationships, labeling prevents the exploration and experience of rich dialogue and friendship with people who aren’t mirror images of ourselves. Labeling becomes an easy way out of the challenging conversations, the ones that will force me to think more clearly and accurately about my own convictions and consider with humility and compassion the convictions of others.
Labeling was a significant factor in the controversies recorded in the Gospels. What was the number one complaint against Jesus? He ate with “those people”—tax collectors and sinners. For the religious leaders of the day, these folks were nameless, faceless representatives of a despised category and therefore unworthy of a second glance; for Jesus, they were persons bearing the image of his Father, men and women with whom he was delighted to eat, talk and laugh, with whom he shared extravagant gifts of forgiveness and compassion and, yes, challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I am longing to sit around a table like that! I think the four friends’ breakfast gatherings come pretty close. The question, then, is: what am I going to do about it? What steps can I take in that direction, to leave the labels behind and to look intentionally and gratefully at the beautifully diverse and compelling image of God in the faces of those who are so different from me? Let me know what your next steps are, and I’ll keep you posted on mine!
There are seasons in life when multiple threads from seemingly unconnected sources weave together to form a multi-hued, richly textured tapestry that wraps around a single recurring theme. Over the course of the past six months, that much-pondered theme in my life has been the nature of worship. The interwoven threads have come from sources as diverse as the pandemic and its disruption of traditional worship practices, the Lenten season with its call to lament and repentance, teaching a course on the Psalms, returning to the discipline of fasting, joining with a global community in sustained prayer for renewal and awakening, dipping into the writings of the 17th-century mystics, getting acquainted with the music of artists who are not represented in the small repertoire of songs that cycle on Christian radio, and, of course, watching and listening as Christian communities respond to delays in “getting back to normal” in corporate worship practices.
All those diverse threads have woven together to create a tapestry of worship whose hues are deeper and richer than what has characterized my four decades of “doing church.” Three verbs are the thickest strands in the new fabric of worship that is emerging from the loom of this season—abide, yearn, and listen. More than actions, they are postures taken in the presence of the Holy One. More than the songs and prayers and liturgies of weekly worship services, they are the daily orientation that prepares me to enter properly into those acts with my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially participation in the Lord’s Table. And the necessary incubator of abiding, yearning, and listening is SILENCE. The frenzied flow of my words and thoughts—even my words directed to God—must give way to an expectant, holy silence that allows the great Communicator to speak through his Word and his Spirit.
It’s probably because of this journey into an abiding, yearning, listening silence that I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a phrase heard repeatedly these days, as folks clamor for a return to “normal” in corporate worship. It’s a bit of “Christian-ese” that has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard to me: “I need to get my worship on.” There’s a lot that could be said about that expression (another post for another day!), but in this season it grates and rubs forcefully with its revelation of a fundamentally self-focused understanding of worship. “My worship” suggests that worship is my possession, existing for my benefit; “get it on” implies that I can take it on and off like a piece of clothing. And it is a phrase almost always said in conjunction with a single activity, singing—and, of course, singing whatever style of music is my favorite.
But oh, dear friends, worship is most decidedly not about me—or even about us! It is about God. And what if our clamor for the old sights and sounds and forms of worship might hinder us from discovering, in the silence and the mystery, what God really desires when we gather together? Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 offers a sharp caution: “Watch your step when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good. Don’t shoot off your mouth, or speak before you think. Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear. God’s in charge, not you—the less you speak, the better” (MSG). Walter Brueggemann, with his usual incisive and insightful reflections, notes that the writer of Ecclesiastes understands “the awesome transcendence of God, before whom reverence and awe constitute proper conduct. He chides ‘fools’ who run off at the mouth and who imagine, even in worship, that they are the center of attention. ‘Many cases’ and ‘many words,’ that is, much self-expression, leads to the trivialization of worship. Better to listen, to pay attention, to be instructed, because no one is beyond more instruction. Those who in worship have made up their minds too completely may miss out on the gifts yet to be given in the mystery of God.”
What might happen in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, if we came together eager to embrace the mystery of the One who cannot be explained? What if we cultivated, on our own and in our togetherness, a silence of holy expectation, in which any human words spoken or sung were simply responses to the whispers of the Spirit? What if?? I wonder. . .
 See these musings from way back in April: https://writepraylove660813036.wordpress.com/2020/04/14/worship-cancelled/
 Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 202.
As I write these words, I can look to my left and see a snarky little wall hanging that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar” (my kids say the silent part isn’t quite true). What can I say? Grammar matters! So, let’s have a little trip down Grammar Lane, stopping to visit Nouns and Adjectives, along the way to something that matters much more deeply and urgently than grammar.
Let me illustrate. If I turn my gaze from that wall hanging to contemplate the other walls in my office, I see a large collection of books. There is a lot of variety in that library, both visible and invisible, and that’s where the adjectives come in. Adjectives are words that describe or specify or limit, so I could tell you about the different visible characteristics of the books: big or small, thick or thin, blue or green or red, paperback or hardback. Adjectives also provide descriptions of the internal characteristics and content of individual books: English or Spanish or German, theological or linguistic, academic or popular. But there is a single noun operative in this collection: BOOK. The essential identity of each volume in my library is its “book-ness.”
The noun matters. And it matters that followers of Jesus determine clearly and definitively what their noun is, the category of their essential identity—is it Christian, or is it something else? Are we going to be Christians first and foremost, with all other descriptors falling into the adjectival role? Those secondary categories can be national (American, Ecuadorian, Korean Christians), racial (black, white, brown Christians), or political and ideological (progressive, liberal, evangelical, or conservative Christians, Republican or Democratic Christians). No matter which of these adjectives attempts to usurp the place of the noun, will we make the conscious choice to keep them in their place? Will our identity “in Christ” (to use the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrase) remain the noun, the primary and fundamental essence of who we are? Or will we allow one of those secondary loyalties to become the nominative expression of our essential identity, so that we are merely “Christian _________”? That is a tragically impoverished and distorted understanding of who Christ died for us to be, no matter how you fill in the blank.
The noun matters. And each noun comes with an accompanying narrative, a story about how the world works, about what the human dilemma is and the nature of the solution, about how that solution comes about and who is able to benefit from it. The story of whichever noun defines us inevitably shapes our values and the way we think and act and choose and categorize and make sense of the challenges, opportunities, and possibilities of life. For those of us in the United States, two of those competing narratives have been on blatant display in the past couple weeks—and make no mistake, neither of them looks like the biblical story or embodies the values of the kingdom of God. The narrative of the God who relentlessly and sacrificially pursues the restoration of broken relationship with humanity, who grieves over his people’s sin, who sends his own Son to conquer the deathly effects of that sin, whose faithful promise is “behold, I am making all things new”—this story stands apart from all other meaning-making stories, with a power that critiques and corrects them and offers to reshapes them in redemptive ways.
My heart yearns in daily anguish over the widespread incursion of other narratives into the life of the church, the tragic elevation of secondary loyalties into the nominative role in believers’ identities. I confess that faith has struggled mightily to overcome despair in the face of these realities. During a recent prayer walk, which felt like a journey of lament and brokenness, the Holy Spirit whispered to me very clearly: “Just keep telling the story. Keep telling THE story.” Honoring that call will mean, for me, limiting the input of the other stories into my life, so that I can hear more clearly and love more deeply and live more consistently aligned with THE story. Christian is my noun; all the other identity-defining possibilities are merely adjectives, some of which may need to be shed along the way so that I can hear and tell, over and over again, “the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”
 For a closer look at this point, I encourage you to check out: https://andcampaign.org/where-we-stand
(This is dedicated to the gifted musicians who have jump-started the beautiful #TakeTwoKnees movement. God used your courage and integrity to make the first cracks in my own paralysis. Thank you.)
“The Gentle Healer came into our town today,” repeating on a loop. No! Spirit recoils, mind reels. Sentimentality and soft melodies rasp, fingernails on slate. A different Healer strides into our town today. Nail-scarred hands—brown hands—outstretched, to heal and hammer and break and mend.
Authoritative footsteps, firm tread. He stops before our paralysis, reaches down, pulls us to our feet. Paralysis just won’t do! Sharp command—pick up your mats of fear and confusion and helplessness and ignorance. Choice. Roll them up, toss them aside—in the dumpster, no retrieval—and walk! March!
Holy spit in the dirt of our unholy mess. Holy mud, smeared across blind eyes. “Go and wash!” Choice. Only those who know they are blind get sent, get healed, get commissioned to speak truth to blind power.
Divine fingers probe our deaf ears. Unhearing, numbed by cacophonous lies, deadened by insidious complacency. He pulls out twisted wads of ugliness that plugged our ears, holds them out to us. They lie dully alongside the cicatrices on his palms. He asks if we want them back. Choice.
He commands our mute lips to speak—to wail, lament, roar. Choice. Refuse to speak at his command, with his voice? Our endless words will continue to be unintelligible noise, meaningless hum.
In his presence we finally acknowledge that our “little bleeding problem” is a gushing sin hemorrhage. Denied for too long in silence, it consumes with voracious, insatiable force. We reach out tentative, trembling hands to touch the hem of his garment. His stern gaze whips around, challenging our timidity. “What took you so long?” Challenge, then commission. “Go in peace.” Choice. Be shalom, be the blessed peacemakers, rightly called children of God.
He strides into the places where Legion has run rampant. Corroded minds, shrill deceit, shackled spirits. Cemetery dwellers. He restores us to our right mind and sends us out to proclaim mercy. Choice. Right-minded, to love mercy—mercy received and mercy given. Right-minded, to do justice—in the places where justice has been absent or scarce or twisted beyond recognition. Right-minded, to walk humbly with our God. Humility, justice, mercy—the Healer has been here.
Blazing eyes, sternly compassionate mien. He turns full circle in the city square, no corner left unpenetrated by piercing gaze. Every pretense of righteousness stripped bare. Choice. Scramble to re-clothe in dirty rags of silken privilege? Acknowledge shameful nakedness and welcome pristine linen from his hand?
The Healer has come to us. No coddling. No gentle sentimentality. Pentecost blaze, refiner’s fire. Extirpating scalpel, radical intervention. Choice.
I am a keen watcher of church signs, bracing myself for the eye-roll-worthy, “cheesy” Christianese or the cringe-producing, sledgehammer-style preachy slogans. It’s always interesting to try and discern something about the community (or at least the sign-keeper) behind each sign. Every now and then I’ll run across a clever pun or even something that sounds like Jesus could have said it (oh rare and glorious moment!), but most of the time it seems like they should have stopped with the church name and service times. Which brings me to today’s observation! In this COVID-19 era, with public gatherings on hold for the foreseeable future, I’ve seen a bevy of church signs in our area with the message “Worship Cancelled” or “No Worship.” Wait! What?
It seems to me that there’s a huge difference between “Worship Services Cancelled” and “Worship Cancelled”—and it’s not just that there weren’t enough letters or space available on the sign for the word service. The former phrase simply points to the lamentable reality that, in our current battle against a deadly pandemic, corporate, face-to-face worship gatherings are not happening. That latter phrase, however, ranks right up there with the ever-popular “get my worship on” in its capacity to irritate and trouble me, because of the way the two expressions reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of worship itself. Worship is not our gathering in a particular space; it is what we do when we gather. Worship is not singing particular songs or having a particular “experience” while doing so; singing is part of what we do as we worship, along with prayers of confession and intercession, active listening and response to the proclaimed word, and generous giving of our time, talents, and treasures. And while I think there probably ought to be a whole lot more “experience” of the Spirit’s active presence in the midst of our worship, the fact that I might come out of corporate worship without an emotional high or without having once raised my hands does not mean I didn’t “get my worship on.” (Please, please, please, let’s wipe that phrase out of our lexicon!)
Worship, after all, is not ultimately about us or our experience or our location or the instruments and means available to us. Worship is our response to God, who is, as Marva Dawn puts it, both the Subject and the Object of our worship: “God is the Subject of our worship, for he is the one who makes it possible for us to enter into his presence; God is the one who gives us himself in the Word, the water, the supper. . . . God is, of course, also the Object of our worship, so we do properly ask, ‘for whom is worship?’ too. We respond to the Trinity’s wooing, give thanks for the Creator’s grace, praise Christ’s name, ask for the Spirit’s empowerment. Unless we see God first as Subject, however, we cannot really answer with true adoration.”
Worship is, as Dawn also points out, the act of the community of believers, and we are being forced to find new ways to engage together as a worshiping community despite our physical distance from one another. For those of us whose Sunday sermons and prayers are broadcast live, I think it’s important for us to gather in synchronous unity as much as possible, scattered across many households but united at the same moments in time, just as we would be in the sanctuary. Watching the service alone at a later time, as if it were any other video floating around on Facebook, is better than nothing, but lacks the element of corporate engagement. Because of licensing issues, many churches can’t include music on their live broadcasts, but the pastor and worship leader can work together to provide links to songs that fit the theme of the morning; liturgical responses (call to worship, opening prayer) can be provided for families to use before the broadcast begins, to prepare their hearts for being active listeners and willing responders to the Word; after the message, the pastor can invite members to prepare their offerings together, whether by clicking an online giving link or writing a check or setting aside cash in an offering envelope. Practicing this kind of intentional community now may just be preparing us for a more intentional kind of worship “on the other side” of the current crisis. Perhaps we will come through this will a more robust understanding of what worship—and the worshiping community—is.
This bizarre and unwelcome season of separation may also be offering us the opportunity to become a different kind of people, in a posture and a condition more conducive to true worship. As we were finishing up our Lenten journey through the Book of Psalms, Psalm 81 poked and prodded at me about this. The psalm opens with someone (probably the choir director, mentioned in the superscription) calling the people to “Sing!” Three times he calls them to sing, accompanied by a variety of instruments and festival horns (vs. 1–3). It’s a picture of noisy, exuberant corporate worship; the tambourine suggests dancing and, since that was likely an instrument played by women, the full engagement of the full community. But when God takes his turn as the speaker in the psalm the imperative is no longer “sing,” but “listen!” Four times in verses 8–13 the verb “listen” appears. Failure to listen to Yahweh has gotten Israel into its current predicament, the result of following “their own stubborn desires, living according to their own ideas” (v. 12). But God longs for them to listen, and promises that if they only will lay aside their little divided loyalties and idolatries, he will subdue their enemies and feed them with abundant, delicious, satisfying “sweet honey from the rock” (v. 16). Perhaps this season of enforced corporate silence is our chance to sharpen our listening to the Spirit. It is a chance to name and reject our little loyalties and the false gods in which we have trusted, so that we can offer the Lord undivided hearts and unhindered praise. If we can do this, I suspect we will come back to corporate worship a changed people, and that our times together will be more purposeful, more joyous, and more transformative then anything we have experienced previously.
So, my friends, worship is most definitely NOT cancelled! Let us worship with intentionality, creativity, and fierce commitment to community during this season. Let us embrace the enforced silences and separations, do the hard work of self-examination, repentance, and confession, and prepare ourselves for a new, vigorous, Spirit-guided, robustly participatory worship when we gather once again.
Yesterday it finally happened. . . I saw the first forsythia in bloom. That’s the crucial, long-awaited moment every year, the definitive pivot point between winter and spring. The daffodils and crocus come earlier, of course, and they gladden my heart, but it’s that first forsythia sighting that says, “No matter that there is frost on the ground or that the forecast is for days of unrelieved grey, the hope of spring will not disappoint.” There’s just something about the gloriously concentrated sunshine of those petals, alongside the soft green of the early leaves, that releases a well-spring of joyful anticipation in me.
My definitive (and sometimes defiant) response to the appearance of the forsythia is to liberate my feet. Yes, foot freedom—an act of hope! As soon as I got home yesterday, I gleefully bundled up the contents of my sock drawer into a packing cube and dumped it into a winter storage bin. I’ve always disliked wearing socks (as a child and teenager, shoes and socks came off even before the coat most days when I got home from school), and one of the things I loved most about living in the tropics was year-round foot freedom. Dump the socks, pack away the boots, contemplate a new color of toenail polish—all ways to joyfully celebrate the not-yet-experienced banishment of winter to fading memory by the one-two punch of spring and summer.
Because I’ve been on a multi-layered journey in the Book of Psalms during Lent, it occurred to me that the banishment of my socks to a storage bin in the basement before spring has fully arrived is an act of faith that provides a pale analogy for the robust and radical faith move that is the turning point of so many psalms. Especially in the psalms of lament, there is a crucial moment when the poet turns his eyes from contemplation of the undeniably bleak “winter” of his current circumstances (enemies, adversities, illness, the threat of death, the sense of abandonment) and makes the choice to exercise “holy memory.” There is a deliberate halt, in order to turn his gaze backward to the memory of God’s past acts of rescue and deliverance. Psalm 77:11 is a great example of this choice: “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old” (NRSV). Over and over again, this intentional exercise of sacred memory—an exercise performed in the midst of as-yet-unresolved suffering and hardship—reshapes the psalmist’s view of his present and renews his faith in the future. The memory shapes the prayer, as in the words of another great Hebrew poet: “God, I’ve heard what our ancestors say about you, and I’m stopped in my tracks, down on my knees. Do among us what you did among them! Work among us as you worked among them. And as you bring judgment, as you surely must, remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2, MSG).
There is a certain cost to this kind of praying—because, in the short term, it can increase the pain. Remembering God’s mighty acts on behalf of his people can serve to highlight the seeming absence of those acts in the present. But the memory of last spring’s eventual triumph over winter gives me the courage to pack away the socks, even though my mom would say it’s still “sock weather,” and the hope to believe the forsythia is but a small glimpse of beauty to come. In the same way, the memory of past deliverance by an unchanging Savior gives us the courage to choose hope in the midst of our painful present crisis. We are fast approaching the celebration of the greatest act of deliverance the universe has ever seen—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Perhaps there’s never been a better season than the one we’re all fumbling our way through right now, for the deliberate exercise of sacred memory. May the glorious victory of the empty tomb and the wild empowerment of Pentecost fill us with holy awareness of God’s presence with us in the mess and holy expectancy for his deliverance from the mess.
I don’t know what your equivalent of “sock banishment” is, but I hope you will carry it out with bold and courageous faith today!