Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer Fun at General Synod. Seriously.

The summer began this year with about three weeks of what I thought was great fun at the RCA's meeting of General Synod in Holland, June 5-10.

"Fun" isn't a word that many would use to characterize these large meetings where the denomination does its business. (Those of you who have been to such meetings can leave your favorite adjectival descriptors in the comments.) But by God's grace, I wasn't reading sub-committee reports and analyzing debate on contentious topics -- I was preparing for, and then leading, daily worship every day. Hooray!

The opening and closing services, held in the gothic Dimnent Chapel at Hope College, were rather substantial affairs: a congregation full of elders, ministers, and guests; a whole phalanx of pastors to read and lead, to preach and pray and preside at the table; a group of outstanding dancers to physicalize scripture or key liturigcal moments; an organist and choir, brass and string quartets, my old pals Bob Keeley on guitar and Rachel Klompmaker on piano, and my super-friend partner in all this, Greg Scheer ("Worship-twin powers activate! Shape of... an ice-harp! Form of... a gorilla!")

A number of my WTS worship students were there, and noticed that the services reflected an emphasis we'd discussed in class: to worship as voluminously as possibe -- to shape our celebrations so that they were diverse in expressive styles, engaging people on many levels, speaking as fully as possible (in words and more) of the extravagant covenant love of our faithful God. They also noticed that we were intentionally faithful to the RCA's liturgy. While I might offer some suggestions for improving it, it is ecumenical and reformed, rich and beautiful, and therefore - not surprisingly - impossible to do voluminously in anything less than 90 minutes: and on those days in early June, 90 really hot and humid minutes.

Yet the services were deeply satisfying, praise God, and my deepest fear -- moments of logistical terror ("The service starts in one minute -- Oh no! Where's the bread and the wine?") -- were minimal. Those we had were ably managed by an old friend and former student Tim TenClay who stepped in like the Christ-like servant-hearted pastor he is, and took those burdens from my shoulders.

Because these 'festival' services were such hefty and hearty affairs, and because during the day the delegates spent hours and hours and hours talking about God-stuff, it seemed good to Greg and to me to plan the every-day morning and evening prayer services to be just as deeply participative, but a bit less wordy, a bit more stripped-down liturgically and musically.

It helped that we met in a beautiful worship space: a slice of the DeVos center (a large sports venue where the delegates did their work each day) that had been curtained off and shaped for our purposes. The morning services followed a simple daily prayer pattern rather than the more typical word-and-sacrament-without-the-sacrament service ordo. My favorite new worship-wonk friend, Rosanne Barton-DeVries, helped us to worship with our whole bodies and not just our heads, Bob Keeley again helped out on guitar and djembe, and my newest best keyboard-playing friend, Jeremy Simpson, helped to lead the music, with selections largely taken from Sing! A New Creation, a copy of which every delegate took home.

The evening prayers were even more stripped down: one well-chosen song, with each sung verse prompting spoken and silent prayers for ourselves and the world. So, for example, one evening I used a JT-infused guitar riff to accompany our singing of the classic gospel song, "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" -- grounding our petitions in God's providential care. For example, when we sang about the "little bitty baby," we then prayed for our families. When we sang about the "wind and the rain," we spent some time praising God for care of creation, etc.

But the key to what we did that evening was this: instead of singing about God, we tweaked the lyrics so that we sang the song addressed to God: "You've got the whole world in your hands." Changing just that one pronoun alters the way one experiences the song, shifting it from testimony to prayer, and prayer that even while earnest or even desperate, has an undertone of confidence in God's power and love. (Bonus result: excising the overt and exclusively masculine language for God.) Interested worship wonks can learn more about this prayer/song on the related post over at WorshipHelps.

All told, preparing and leading worship this past month was delightful and exhausting and invigorating -- and because it was all resting in God's hands, it was fun.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Instructive Comparison...

Go West -- A discotheque semi-hit by the Village People (and another semi-hit when covered by the Pet Shop Boys in 1993).

Give Thanks -- a worship mega-hit by Henry Smith. Covered a gujillion times by every praise band on the planet.

Timing? BOTH songs were written in 1978, and released in 1979.

Coincidence? You be the judge.

(Of course, it's not like this particular chord pattern is unique.)

Disclaimer: Listen at your own risk. The authors of this blog are not responsible for the onset of worship-impairment syndrome brought on by viewing these clips.

Monday, June 16, 2008

That Sermon Needs a Bigger But

So yesterday we're all at the dinner table, talking about the morning's church service. The conversation turned to the sermon, titled "Unjust suffering," and offered by our fabulous pastor, Jack Roeda (happy 25 years, Jack!). The text was 1 Peter 2:13-25, a passage addressed to slaves about appropriate submission. Next week he's tackling the next pericope: submission of wives and women. Gee, good luck with that one, Jack.

We all agreed that Jack did a great job explaining what the passage says and proposing how it might apply to our lives. Yet we also agreed -- especially given the history of a troubling text like this one and others like it -- that sometimes it's important to articulate what the passage doesn't say. It means this, BUT not that. Deb was the one who encapsulated our thoughts so memorably: "I guess the sermon needed a bigger but." I'm going to be using that one in my preaching classes this year, I'm pretty sure.

And it's not a bad way of talking about those occasions in sermons or political speeches or, heck, English 101 papers when the possible objections are so near the surface that they need to be addressed. Deb says that from now on, instead of telling her students "You should add a section in which you refute possible objections," she's going to write, "This paper needs a bigger but."