Worship in the minor key

What does ‘no more’ mean, really?

I ask because of some lines from a song. It’s a contemporary worship song written by British songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman. You can find the song, ‘Endless Halleujah’, squirrelled away at the end of his album ‘10,000 Reasons’.

I like the album. From someone who’s not always the greatest fan of worship music, that’s high praise. The emphasis of the collection of songs is upbeat, looking forward. It does so with confidence and faith but also a little realism. That’s especially located in the song ‘Never Once’, a song which musically and lyrically must (at least sub-consciously) take some inspiration from English football culture. The singer finds him/herself looking back how far they’ve come, looking at the scars and struggles, conscious of God’s presence along the way.

So it’s in that context I’m intrigued, bought up a little short and slightly confused by that last song on the album. It looks forward to eternity, to a time where there’s no more sin or sorrow and ‘forgotten is the minor key‘.

I understand, and of course concur, with what I think he’s getting at. The new creation, eternity in God’s presence, is hard to describe – but we can say with certainty that it will be an experience of the old order of things passing away.

So on one level I’m signed up to the direction of the song. On another I’m troubled. It’s the presence of that line. I’m no musician, but I love music. I’m not going to get technical (because I can’t); but I do know that major keys only work because minor keys also exist. Can you imagine a whole symphony, album, show in only the major key, with not a single reference or allusion to the minor key, or without its existence for contrast? No. It would be, surely, absurd or exhausting. To look at it another way, fireworks need a clear, dark night sky to shine. One only works because of the existence of the other.

I know this song is dealing in metaphor, but do we really want an eternity where the minor key is forgotten? I’m not sure. When I say ‘not sure’, I mean it in the sense of ‘not sure’; not disagree. Just not sure. I understand that eternity is an experience without sin or negativity or sickness. But are those things forgotten, or are they rather put in their right place? Won’t the songs we sing then be all the more meaningful because of what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t a risen, crowned Jesus still bear nail marks? That implies suffering isn’t forgotten; it’s better than that. It’s transcended and transfigured; we might say (as I have elsewhere) that God seems to be in the business of harmonising on evil as opposed to eradicating it.

I appreciate, though, that God has an inconsistent memory. He never forgets His people; but then He only has to glance from us to the One whose shadow we stand in, and all of a sudden our failure is forgotten, we stand clean in the light and we bear glory not disgrace. Try fitting omniscience alongside that and take a step back as your brain implodes. Never trust anyone who says they’re an expert in theology. How can a finite one possibly be an expert in a discipline that deals with the infinite?

Where are we, then? I can’t escape the idea that the scars will still be there, somehow. We’ll be physically alive, but perfectly so. We’ll be renamed, but very much ourselves. What will that sound like? It will be glorious, yes. It will be celebratory, of course. I can’t help but think, though, that there will be journeys from minor to major and back again. There will be flirtations with dissonance, resolved into previously unheard harmonies.

Try putting that to music.

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 15: Journey’s End, or the benefits of a Holy Lie.

This post is the last in our series on the Psalms of Ascents The original sermon was preached on Sunday October 297h at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. It is not an exact record of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. It focuses on the fifteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 134 It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Journey’s end. The ascent is completed, the destination arrived at.  It ends, as everything does, with worship.

How dull and disappointing. How run of the mill for those of us who regularly spend or have spent time in church services or the like. Really? That’s the end result? I was expecting more of a pay-off than that.

If the destination of everything is an everlasting church service then we really do have a problem. It won’t feel much like the rest we feel like we’ve been promised. I barely feel like worshipping at 8 a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning, let alone doing so for ever as the summation of everything we’ve been working, journeying towards.

Still, though, in terms of what we do now as followers of Jesus, it all exists because somewhere, somehow worship doesn’t. Mission and evangelism, calling those who don’t follow Jesus to do so? Working on those rough-edged parts of ourselves which don’t reflect God as well as they could? Prayer? Engaging in social justice issues? All of that and more exist now because worship – life as it should be lived, fully oriented around God – is not being expressed fully in us or the people and communities around us.

Which is why we keep returning to worship. It’s the one thing we’re called to which we’ll keep on doing; one day we’ll do that, somehow, with total fulfilment and conviction. For now we keep doing it – even if we don’t want to.

This short but explosive little Psalm, number 134, concludes the journey with this invitation, command, reminder to worship. In the immediate context it was a rejoinder first to the temple priests who had, you might say, drawn the short straw. They were meant to be in temple, worshipping and praying, all day and all night. The latter was the tough part. I used to work night shifts, and they were a bind and a problem. You might start off with a burst of enthusiasm and energy, but by 4 a.m. even the most eager are flagging. Lethargy takes over and expended energy starts extracting a toll; you no longer feel like working. It was the same for these temple worshippers. You’re running out of energy? You don’t feel like doing it? Get on with it. Do it anyway. Do the actions of worship (in this instance, the hand-raising of verse 2) and the desire, the feelings will follow. Or they may not. They may follow in a few moments, days, weeks, months – or it may actually be eternity until we feel like worshipping. But despite the toll of the journey, the cost and the energy extracted, He’s still worth worshipping. Feelings be damned; I’m going to worship Him anyway.

We are on dangerous territory here. We’ve all been in meetings or services where we’ve been told we must be joyful when we can’t be; that we must raise our hands or kneel or clap or sing when we can’t. We must pay attention to our emotions and give ourselves space to have them, to process them and work through them. We must do that, though, in the context, the remembrance that where we are is not the final truth. That my grief, depression, tiredness, worries are not the whole picture. That there’s still a God to be honoured and a bigger reality to turn our eyes towards.

What happens when the priests of the night-watch did this, when they raised their hands at a time they could barely raise their eyelids? God moves (v3) – from the place He lives, He acts. He blesses – He does well by the people. What does that look like? Infuriatingly, tantalizingly, we don’t know. We don’t know what He does, or indeed when He does it. But He does it.

We don’t have priests who worship for us now; we are all priests in that sense. My worship invites you to yours. Your worship invites me to mine. Even when we don’t feel like singing, kneeling, hand-raising, praying. Sometimes, just by taking that extra step we can’t take gives other the courage to do so. Our worship carries others until we can worship from our own energy.

All of which implies that I stay on the road even if it means standing still for a while. Working the night shift I may long for the safety of the office sofa – if I do that, however much I think I need to, I will doze, for seconds or minutes or hours. Then I am vulnerable; to things not done, to attack, to missing out on conversation and encouragement. If I am in a spiritual night shift it may be tempting to check out, to go it alone, to allow doubts to sweep me of down another road. If I stay in the context of worship around me, stay with the others on the night shift who have more energy than me at present, then there’s always the chance that their worship will carry me until mine can be as reflective of me as theirs is of them.

So I lie. I say to God that He is good even when I struggle to see Him as so. I say that there is joy even if there seems to be none. I say there is healing even when I’m sick. Because for some that’s true now. And for all in Him, it will be. One day. Then we really will worship.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

 A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

 A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 14: Community, Costly and Sufficient (Psalm 133)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 16th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the third of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 122. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I am not a morning person. Despite this, my alarm continues to sound every Sunday morning at 5:30. The combination of these two facts is a kind of perfect storm of unfortunate physiology and job requirements. It means that I’m not always at my best when I am in the church getting ready for the 8 a.m. service. The people there are very patient with me – one of them, Rosemary, has a gift for cheering me up and cheering me on. If you know me, you know just what a profound gift that is. Nevertheless, when the alarm does go off at 5:30, I rarely feel excited about the prospects ahead of me – my body and my mind won’t let that happen. For a while. Some days, not at all.

We’ve come to the third psalm in our journey through the Psalms of Ascents. The first was about repentance, changing the direction we’re travelling in; the second is about trusting God and looking for help; this third is about someone who’s excited to go to church. People like me – and, dare I say, you – need a psalm like this.

There’s a flow to this series of psalms, but we shouldn’t necessarily see them as directly chronological. Where Psalm 122 might sit is, for instance, not entirely clear: it could be when the writer has arrived in Jerusalem and is gazing around in awestruck wonder. It could be anticipating the excitement of arrival; it could be reminiscing about it. It doesn’t matter. What this is about is worship, and how worship changes the way we see things.

Verse one establishes the sense of joy at going to worship immediately – the writer has been invited to join God’s people going up to God’s house to worship God. Verse two is that putting your suitcases in the hall after a long, long way feeling: “Ahhh! We’re here. At last. It’s good to be here. The bad airline food and wearing the same clothes for 24 hours were worth it. Let’s have something to eat together”.  The journey is over.

Verse 3 to 5 move further. If verse 2 was the sense of relief and joy at finally arriving, these are the words of someone looking around and taking it all in. To get to that, we need to get to grips with verse 3:

Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.

This is about more than the cramped hustle and bustle of an ancient middle-Eastern city … though it does contain that. This is about seeing that everything is at should be; at unity with itself, in the right place. Like my friend who just packed all he needed for  six-week motorbike journey into the limited confines of what his bike can carry, in Jerusalem everything is carefully arranged, where it should be. There’s the place where the people of God come to worship God. There’s the line of thrones from where God’s judgements are decided. This is all in the line of the house of David – look! Look at what you see around you. Here is the story of our people!

This is the place where God’s people come to do the things which God has told them to do – and all around are the signs and symbols of the people’s stories. It’s all about things as they should be – judgement (verse 5) in the Bible isn’t just how we think of judgement (deciding what’s wrong and right) … though it does contain that. It’s putting into action those things which God’s law was established to achieve … mercy, the poor cared for, the vulnerable protected, right triumphing over wrong. Biblical judgement is life ordered the way God wants it.

And what are God’s people to do here? They are to worship Him. Worship. Another of those tricky religious words. We think of it, if we do at all, as about the songs and hymns we sing, the music we use, and maybe some of the set prayers (liturgy) we say in church buildings. Worship does contains that … but much more also. Worship is giving somebody the worth they are due – so when kind words are said about a person at birthday, funeral or wedding we might legitimately and appropriately be said to be engaging in an act of worship. Worshipping God is about giving Him the worth He is due – with songs, music, prayers, actions, deeds, thoughts, our jobs, our relationships, our words … our everything. Worship is giving God His worth … and a God who put hills in place is worth a lot.

That’s what God’s people have come to do in Jerusalem – come to God’s house (the temple) to give God the worth He is due (verse 4).

The result of this? The writer prays. He does. He prays (verses 6 -9). He prays that Jerusalem will be at peace. Not just the absence of conflict … though peace contains that. Peace is … life as it should be. The poor provided for. The vulnerable protected. Terrorism ended. Walls of division torn down.

Jerusalem needs peace, doesn’t it? Jerusalem has a special significance in Jewish and Christian history. It needs peace. Like all cities, populated by people like me, it needs to be at peace in the fullest sense of that word. Shalom.

But did you notice? Prayer in the Bible is not just about words uttered … though it contains that. It’s actions carried out. It’s intentionality. It’s activity. It’s work. And the psalm writer is praying that Jerusalem will experience … life as it should be. Isn’t that odd? Because that’s what the writer said he saw when he arrived in Jerusalem when he arrived (verses 3-5).

What’s going on is the writer is experiencing the strange way worship changes what we see and what we do. Fixing our eyes on God and singing, praying, living, acting as He calls us to changes us. It re-centers, re-shapes, re-works us.

Why? Because of all the things we do, worship is the one thing that will survive into the eternal new creation. See one prophetic picture of how this will be if you don’t believe me:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

‘Hallelujah!

For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

Let us rejoice and be glad

and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:6-8)

Worship goes on and on. Lest we think that’s boring – the proverbial harps on clouds  – consider that worship is about everything. So maybe, in saying worship survives, the Bible is telling us much that’s good will survive. Without the worm in the apple, the snake in the grass, the curse over work and relationships. Anything but dull. Life as it should be.

Worship reshapes us. Doing worship together, in one building, with people we know, has power. It is a good, God-ordered discipline. It is also the stuff of sacrificing everything, though:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

Worship changes everything, because it is everything; and in being so it gives us a glimpse of how life can be, is and one day will be  – completely. Our job as God’s people is with every song, prayer, act of service and advocacy for and with the poor; every seeking of justice, every prayer for healing, every protest at corruption, every thing … with all of that to pull that final, eternal reality of life before God in the new creation as it should be a little more into the present reality of people who know God and who don’t, thereby inviting them to join in with a life of worship.

Worship changes everything.

I may still hobble, have arthritis, be prone to depression and be a little moody. But everything changes.

Shall we set our alarms?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 16th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

(Not so) happy-clappies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who express their Christian worship with the musical accompaniment of a young male guitar-player, drums and a female backing singer (all the people being beautiful) are covering up their darker emotions and experiences with forced happiness and manufactured positive emotions.

Like many universally acknowledged truths there is, well, much truth in it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in large happy-clappy meetings and found myself engaged in conversation afterwards with people who felt like they were the odd one out in the room; that there a sense of exclusion from the exultation for people like them.

If only all the odd ones out could meet each other…

Anyway. The other side of universally acknowledged truths is that they are often generalisations which don’t bear the weight of the meaning read into them. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve been paid to work in and for churches for 11 years. Much of that time has been in and around the Charismatic movement so often characterised as happy-clappy. In that time I’ve also been one who has struggled with depression, as well as living with a long-term chronic illness with no sign of cure that affects my quality of life (ankylosing spondylitis, thanks for asking) and a learning disability (dysgraphia, which you probably haven’t heard of). Those things mean many things. For now what’s in my mind is that I am acutely aware of my own brokenness and fragility. People who mock Christianity say that it’s a crutch for the weak. To misquote a West Wing character, what you use as a badge of shame, I’ll take as a badge of honour. I need a crutch. It’s the ones who don’t realise they need crutch whom I pity.

Now many would say to that to live with that sense of brokenness, incompleteness, as I do is incompatible with being a charismatic Christian. Sometimes that’s felt true. I’ve sat in meetings, church services and conferences in which you’d swear no one had ever had a bad day, let alone a sense of weakness now that they’d signed on the eternal dotted line. I’ve heard charismatic Christian speakers say some stupid, ignorant, insensitive things. Many times I’ve said and hoped and prayed that the songwriters of the movement would write about a broader range of emotions and experiences.

And they have. As some of them have grown older, they have grown wiser. Songs have started to take on subtler shades. Emotions of different types are starting to find a place in worship: “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me”; “scars and struggles on the way…”; “..the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering..”.

So, then. Whilst I’ve yet to have an experience in corporate sung worship as emotionally rich as a Radiohead album or gig, for me it makes emotional (as well as theological) sense to live with the label of ‘charismatic’ Christian, even if I don’t buy the whole package of subculture and marketing. For me – and recognising that some will not find this – at least in this way my good and bad days have emotional expression in worship. At least I find there that my emotions are allowed in the door of the worship experience.

I lead one church community, and on Sunday evenings attend another. The latter would wear the label of charismatic Christan. My experience of it, where I’ve preached a few times, is of an increasing emotional depth and maturity. People talk from the front and in conversation about dark times and difficult days, of mental illness and suicide. Recently one young man stood in front of that congregation, talking of his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he had learned in this community, this charismatic Christian group, that it’s OK for him to have very bad days, to be barely able to see Jesus in the distance. Among the many things I pray for the community I lead is that we will become a place where that kind of thing can be said.

At the worst this expression of Christianity, like anything led by people, can be hard and painful and make you feel crushed into a mould. At the best it gives you a space to make emotional sense of your brokenness before God and with people. The Bible refers to this as the experience of having ‘this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s a way of saying we’re prone to being broken, chipped and cracked vessels of something we are not worthy of carrying, but find ourselves carrying anyway. It means that what may sometimes be, or seen to be, an emotionally toxic brand of forced happiness is in fact what Christians call joy. That, as the hymn writer says, though things may get very, very dark, it is still well with my soul.