Words, words, words, let’s sing it one more time…

The first time we sang the words, I thought about them.  I analyzed them, and thought about them.

The second time, I heard the music of those words put together.  The sounds of the syallable, the rhythm of the way the accents fell.

The third time that we sang that same line, I heard the way the words played with the guitar, with the drum beat, with the singer’s voice, with the voices around me, with my own voice, more eager than particularly good at singing.

And then,  I meant them.  I sang them up to the maker of everything.  I know all this stuff about what faith is really about.  I know that it is not about rules, I know it is not about guilt, shame and obligation.  Yet I so rarely connect God on an emotional level, except to tell him about how upset, angry, or cheated I feel.

And then, the words, repeated as they were, they started to lose their meaning.

Except that they also gained meaning, too.  Because this thing happens, when you sing, or even say, the same words over and over again.  On the one hand, they lose their meaning.  When my attention is not drawn to it, I have this idea that there is some connection between the sounds “huh” and “ah” and “tuh” and the thing I put atop my head.  But it’s arbitrary, those specific sounds, and the idea that they mean a “hat.”

TopHatGreen

It’s one thing to consider this truth about a single, insignificant word.  But to realize that the connection between every single word and what that word “means”; that gives me some sort of soul-vertigo.  And to realize that written words add a whole other layer or arbitrary-ness; the idea that a cross-shaped letter might mean the “t” sound, and so I can read, and write…  it’s a miracle we can communicate at all.

I think most of us forget this.  I usually think in words, and so I cut out the middle-part.  I forget that the words are just constructs.  I suspect, some times, I am limited by this…  repeating a word, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over…  or a bunch of words, a phrase… It connects me to the raw thoughts, something more primal than the words.  For me, this is part of the power of those great times in worshipping through music, where, to an outsider, it just seems like a pointlessly extended bridge, but for me, there is this immediacy, this connection to God…

It’s like we are connected to God, in this really fundamental place.  It is a place more basic than even words.  And so when we can get past the words, operate in that more fundamental place, something magical happens.

Ironically, as I write this, there a bunch of different words that are coming to mind.  I want to fill this page with words connected to this.  Words wondering about the neurology of all this.  Words exploring the meaning or the WORlD…  Words exploring the meaning of the fact that Jesus is described as the word…

But I am working on cultivating silence and quiet, now.  I am working on listening.  Sometimes, it is so good to listen to nothing; other times it is so good to listen to silence.  But also, it is good to listen to people.  And people have so much that they should be saying.  I can learn so much from the people around me.  I wish we were not so afraid to share the truths that weigh on our hearts.

So dear reader, my blog stats tell me that you are out there.  There are some folks who are reading my babblings.  🙂  Leave me some wisdom, leave me some truths.  Comment below with the things that are on your mind.  Perhaps it is some observations of worship.  Perhaps it is about the nature of language, words, and thought.  Maybe it’s just a good recipe for chocolate cake.  Share something, will you?

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The King and I.

The divine essence
Image by Guðskraftur via Flickr

There are times in my life that God’s presence just seems to hover beneath the surface of everything.  I have this idea that I might scratch the surface away of things, and what is beneath will just illuminate the universe.

Occasionally, I am crystal clear of God’s communication with me.  It is both auditory and not-auditory, both words and not-words, both English and thought, sent directly into my brain.

And then… then there are times like now.

I’m going through this season in my life where God’s presence is so much more difficult for me to detect.  I am not really depressed.  I’m not experiencing doubt.  It’s just that, right now, God is silent.

And so I’ve been contemplating this, and praying about it, and studying the topic.  There this thing I want to say about God’s silence.  But in order to say it, I have to say some things about silence (and talking) in general.

It’s an interesting almost-paradox.  Silence is necessary for speech to happen.  If we define speech as 2-way communication, then in any conversation, at least one person has to be silent.  If both people are talking then nobody is listening.  If nobody is listening, then it’s just so much noise, not really talking at all.

The act of being silent for the other person to talk is a show of respect.  It is an agnowlodgement of their relevance to our lives.   It implies that we value the other, and that we want to learn from them.

In fact, we can probably guage at least two things from the silences that go on in a conversation. By the ammount of time I am willing to be silent, we can go a long way toward measuring how much respect I have for another person.  To be more specefic: if I am in the presence of someone I have a great deal of respect for, then I am willing to be very quiet for a very long time.   If they are someone who I kind-of respect, I am willing to be quiet for as long as they are speaking.  If I do not much respect them, I am likely to expect that roughly half the “air time” in our conversation belongs to me.  I am likely to get annoyed if someone I don’t respect much talks for quite some time with out letting me get a word in edge wise.  On the other hand, if I kind-of respect someone, I am likely to want to soak up the words they have to offer me.

But if the other person is silent, and I am still silent?  Then I must respect that person an awful lot.  If the other person says nothing and I continue to expectantly wait, then it would be safe to assume I afford the person a great deal of respect.

(Yes, I know that sometimes we just blabber on to fill awkward silences.  But we don’t generally want to do this, it’s a bit unintentional.  And yes, I know that we’re supposed to afford great respect to everyone.  If you’ve mastered that talent, I’d love to hear your tips for it, because it’s something I’m still working on.)

The point I’m trying to make might be illuminated by considering a lunch in a mannor in the 1600s.  If I am a noble, and the other people eating are all of my station, they are probably all talking at about the same time.  If I am presiding over a feast for the peasants, then it might be expected that no one eats or speaks before I do.  But if I am in the presence of a king, and he has not yet spoken as we eat, I will wait, too.  If we make it all the way through the appetizers, into the entrees, even into the desert, if the king has not spoken to me, I would be expected to eat in silence.

And so sitting in the silence and waiting to be spoken to is an act of worship.  I am in the presence of my king, the only king I recognize.  It is an honor to be given this oppurtunity, to eat in silence with Him.

I know that it is important to recognize that Christ called us friends.  I hold this truth in a tension, though.  Because He is also the King of Kings.  He is sovereign.  And his apparent silence is an oppurtunity for me to recognize this.

There are other growth oppurtunities in this silence.  But they are the more obvious ones.  When God is silent, we are called to listen closer and deeper.  When God is silent, we are challenged to mantain our practice and disciplines of continuing to live the way we are expected to.  But I don’t have much new to say about these things.  The idea that God’s silence is an oppurtunity for worship by honoring that silence, this is a new thing for me, so I’m going to continue to contemplate it, until He speaks.

In defense of Church Services

St Martin's Church, Lowthorpe, East Riding of ...
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I like church services.

There.  I said it.

That’s not a very fashionable sentiment.  There’s a lot of good reasons for that.  And a lot of not good reasons for it, too.  But I don’t much care.  I like church services.

I’m not saying that I personally like all churches services.  And even at my amazing home church, some weeks are better than others.  Last Sunday was the first service I’d been able to attend in a few weeks.  And I felt so refreshed after.

There’s a way in which worship is the only action that can really capture how good and how huge God is.  It’s so freeing to recognize that I’m not the center of the universe, it’s so awesome to try and place God at the center of the universe, as fallen and pathetic as my attempts at this might be.

Reflecting on how good all this was, it got me a little indignant.

People have so thoroughly rebelled against the idea that singing is the only form of worship, that they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  It feels a bit like if you worship in any way other than by serving, giving and sacrificing then you’re somehow not spiritual.

The “Old” Testament is full of people celebrating God’s goodness through song.  Jesus’ followers sang hymns.  These people did more than just sing.  It’s appropriate to criticize somebody who sings for an hour on Sunday and then acts like a jerk for the rest of the week.  But the problem isn’t the singing.  The problem is that they act like a jerk.

And I get it that the church isn’t a building, or a program, or a service.  But this doesn’t mean that the church should engage in church services as one of the things it does together.

It’s valuable to recognize that things take different shapes at different periods in history.  But it’d be such a loss if we left behind the oppurtunity to gather in groups and sing out to our creator.

Some Thoughts from the Sermon Part 3: The idolatry of Expectations

This is the third posting that’s a portion of the sermon I’ve got the honor of delivering to Fellowship Church in about a week.    If you live in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll stop in.  If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider viewing the service online.  (Fellowshipholden.com)

Rather than posting the whole text of what I’m planning to say in one big entry, I’ve decided to carve it up this time around.  If you read it, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.  Perhaps there’s a different way of looking at these issues, or some more thoughts you have on the topic.

I don’t know what kind of expectations that you have… But maybe some of these sound familiar. They certainly are familiar ones to me.

There is this expection that the way things have been is the way things always must be.
There is this expectation that everybody– even Jesus– will let us down in the end.
Or we expect that a religion, not relationship is the important thing: it’s about legalism, observing all the right rules in the right order.
Sometimes we expect that we’re not worth being loved by him.
Sometimes, we expect Jesus to act in a certain way, to heal us in a certain time. To lift our burdens in a certain manner.
There is this thing in my life that is a challenge. I have worked on it and prayed about and sought out Godly counsel… I have borne through it, and wished over it, and tried to make changes.
And it just isn’t getting any better.
And sometimes, I struggle with Jesus about it. Sometimes I mad at God.
When I search my heart, though, when I stop, and really listen, when I pray and really seek out Jesus, I know what I am doing.
I am worshipping my expecations.
I expect that my pain has this easy-to-read expiration date. I expect that things will bget easier in this life. I expect that God will work on my schedule.
My expectations are on the throne, not Jesus. I can console myself, at least, with the realization that I’m in pretty good company. People who walked with Jesus in the flesh did the same thing.

Some thoughts from the sermon, Part I: Mantaining the Vision

In about a week, I’ll be sharing the message at Fellowship Church.  If you live in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll stop in.  If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider viewing the service online.  (Fellowshipholden.com)

Rather than posting the whole text of what I’m planning to say in one big entry, I’ve decided to carve it up this time around.  If you read it, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.  Perhaps there’s a different way of looking at these issues, or some more thoughts you have on the topic.

Jesus’ followers do something that lots of us do. They get so wrapped up in their success that they forget what got them succesful in the first place.

Jesus amassed his followers by healing the sick. Jesus amassed his followers by loving everybody. But what starts to happen at this point is that his disciples seem to forget that. They seem to think they’ve grown past that. Jesus is approached by kids and the disciples try to divert them away. Then a blind man comes to Jesus for healing, and the disciples try to stop him. Then, this:

A good sort of summary of where they were at and how things are going is here:

Mark 10, 35-45

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

 36″What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
 37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
 38″You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
 39″We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
 41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I’d submit that the problem was one of expectations. The disciples expected, in the early days that eventually they’d build enough of a following to not have to do the same boring things anymore. They wanted glamour. They wanted fame. They wanted to be Jesus’ entourage.

They expected that they could use healings, and even loving, as a way to establish power and prestige. They expected that they’d put there time in, and now they could move on to the important things. We see them here, as they begin to jockey for position and try to figure out whose the number one guy, who Jesus’ bff is. They are worse than a couple of preteens, they’re like an episode of survivor, forming their secret little alliances.

Most of the disciples, they’d been with Jesus for years by this point. They were involved in relationship with him. But they’d been in the world for even longer. And they had their expectations based on the way things in the world are:

They “new” that you put the grunt work in, and eventually you got to sit back while others did the grunt work. They “new” that if you positioned yourself carefully, you got the choice spot.

But Jesus had always told them the opposite of those things: he’d told them that the first shall be last, that we should long to be the servant, not the served. He told them that if you establish yourself by doing the hard work of loving and healing, once you’re established, you should keep loving, and keep healing. You don’t need to look very hard for it. Almost every time he speaks, Jesus recognizes that he is confounding our expectations. He tells us “The world says this, but the truth is that” Or “The saying goes this way, but the reality is that way.” Or “The tendency is to do one thing, but I want you to do the other.”

He speaks to the disciples expectations and he defies them.

And they were like you. And me. They had a choice.

What would be their own Lord? What would they worship? Would it be Jesus? Or would it be their expectations based on the way things had always been?

Because the throne inside our hearts is a narrow throne. And Jesus, he is a big king. There is not room for both our expectations about the world and Jesus. It’s one or the other.

How happy should we be?

In a comment here, David asked:

“i’ve spent some time thinking about the topic of happiness.. how happy should we be as Christians?”

I’ve been mulling that over.  I was hoping somebody else would come in and offer up some thoughts.  Because I think this is far from a complete answer.  But for whatever they are worth, here goes.

There is a brand of happiness which is shallow but pervasive.  It’s the sort-of happiness that we don’t have to work at.  It’s the result of outward experiences going our way, of getting what we want.  I would feel happy if I won a million dollars (or a thousand, or a hundred, or heck, even ten)

I think Christians have done a lot of damage by acting like God wants them to experience this form of happiness.  They have acted like they feel this form of happiness.  They have sought after it to the point of making it an idol.

I think that this easy brand of happiness can be a crutch to our spiritual development.  Scripture seems clear that sometimes God will challenge us with circumstances that are unfair and not happiness-producing.   Our faith is in the idea that Jesus was undeservedly crucified.  I don’t know of a more thorough argument against the claim that God wants our outside circumstances to be easy.

There is, however, this whole other thing.  It’s like intense satisfaction pepper extensively with joy.  It’s this feeling of worship-surrender.  It comes from recognizing that there are more important things than creating more comfortable life circumstances for me.

I wonder if the guy who wrote “Blessed Be” was thinking about this difference.  In the chorus, it seems like he’s saying “I’ll praise when you have the shallow kind of happiness” and “I’ll praise you when I have that deeper kind of happiness.”  Maybe I’m reading into it a bit… Does anybody have the lyrics to that song?  I can’t remember them word-for-word.

So maybe I’ve got five bucks.  I’m headed to get an iced coffee.  On the way, I see something God calls me to use that money on.

If I get the iced coffee I’ll experience the first kind of happiness.  If I spend it on what God wants me to spend it on I’ll experience that second kind of happiness.  It’s funny how addictive the first brand of happiness is.  And yet the second is so much more fuffilling.  Almost every time I engage in it (which isn’t nearly often enough) I think “Wow, I should do this more often.” And yet without fail, I go back to my buy-the-iced-coffee-for-myself ways.

(A great read which touches on this subject: The Geography of Bliss.  It’s a secular book that started with a list of the most happy and least happy places in the world.  The author travels to these in a quest to get at what makes the people happy.  Along the way he shares some pretty interesting research about the nature of happiness itself.  Some of the conclusions that jump out at me that he shared:

People who report going to church also report being happier.

People who give away a gift report being happier than keeping a gift to themselves.

We appear hard-wired to give in a more primitive portion of our brain than anybody would have expected.

This distinction between the two different forms of happiness is a product of my own brain.  Therefore none of the above mentioned research discriminates between them.)

A letter that only appears to be adressed to C.S. Lewis

Dear Mr. Lewis:

I have to tell you that I’m challenged, fascinated, and perhaps even a bit convicted by a passage in your book “Letters to Malcolm.”  I’ll recopy the passage here so you don’t have to dig up your original copies.  (Actually, I guess Malcolm has your original copies.)  This is what you wrote on pages 3-4

“It looks as if they (clergy) believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of service.  And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of the innovations.  The majority, I believe, never are.  Those who remain– many give up churchgoing altogether– merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound?  I think not.  They have a good reason for their conservatism.  Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value.  And they don’t go to church to be entertained.  They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it.  Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we recieve a sacrament, or supplicate, or adore.  And it enables us to do these thing best– if you like it “works” best– when, through long familairit, we don’t have to think about it.  As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance.  A good shoes is a shoe you don’t notice.  Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.  The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”

Mr. Lewis, I’m afraid maybe I’m being defensive here, but I wonder if I can object, debate, and question a few of your points here.  If they weren’t so persuasive I wouldn’t be so captivated by them, so I hope you can see this as a sort-of flattery. 

As you may or may not know, in the year 2008, there a huge array of options for woshippers.  Lightened services, brightened services, shortened services, lengthened services, traditional ones, post modern ones, etc.  I totally hear what you’re saying about the idea that these should be a lense and not the picture, that these should not be our focus.  And your observation that this is about worship and not entertainment is huge.

But here’s the thing, Mr. Lewis.  Some of these services and practices speak to my every day life experiences.  Putting on a suit to go to church would just be like a kid playing dress up.  It’d be fake and false.  I could pretend, Mr. Lewis, that I’m moved by organ music.  But the thing is, I’m not. 

I think it’s a fair enough point to worry about trivializing worship and turning the whole thing into a dog and pony show.  But I have to tell you, I’d notice a service a lot more, not a lot less, if it didn’t speak to my life experience.  I’m considering what you’re saying around the idea that change just draws attention to the service and away from God.

But I’m wondering something, Mr. Lewis.  I mean this as an open question, not a rhetorical one.  I’m a pretty new Christian who attends a church that’s not afraid to shake up its order of service, so maybe my image on this is all wrong.  But the thing I’m wondering about is this:

Doesn’t doing the same thing, in the same order, in the same way, for years and years, doesn’t this lead to going about worship on autopilot?  Is the risk of empty ritual any smaller than the risk of focusing on the service rather than the object of our devotion?

Mr. Lewis, if you’re not in a condition to answer, I wonder if maybe somebody else might chime in with their own thoughts.

Sincerely,

Jeff, a wanna-be inkling.

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