Monday, October 02, 2006

Some Thoughts on Worship

Some thoughts have been rattling around in my brain for a while now, and I want to process and record them here.

First, allow me to define my terms. The term worship in this post, refers specifically to corporate worship in song by a body of believers, whether in a church service or elsewhere. I am well aware that worship as a whole encompasses so much more than this narrow definition, but for ease of discussion, that is how I am defining it here, as it is this element of worship that is the topic of my thoughts. It's my post; please don't fight me on how I am choosing to narrow my definitions.

That said, I'll move on.

I won't go into all the reasons that we attend the church we do, but I will say, it is our church home and we are happy there--mostly. The teaching is great; the people are friendly and accepting...but the worship leaves something to be desired. The church has a rotating schedule of volunteer "worship leaders," with widely varying styles and even more widely varying levels of musical ability. Again, I won't go into all the details, but suffice it to say that it has been difficult for Andy and I, coming from a long line of churches with a strong commitment to quality music being led by capable people who truly understand what it means to lead a group in actual worship.

Now some of you might want to go off here on a discussion of post-modern, emergent and all sorts of other very up-to-date terms meant to define particular styles, but here in rural Montana, we do not have this luxury. All I can hope for is true worship, offering our praise to God in song (again, my narrow definition for the purpose of this post), whatever form or style it might take.

This dissatisfaction has led to a fair amount of inner struggle for Andy and I, trying to be content, but fighting boredom, frustration and disappointmnent nearly every Sunday morning, at least during the singing portion of the service. Do we even have the right to blame our own lack of personal worship on someone else's lack of leadership, out-dated style or lackluster musical talent? Would it ever be right to leave a church because of this, when every church has its own set of downfalls and we could easily point out our own personal imperfections as well? It has been a real battle.

It was sometime last winter or spring that I was first given the image (call it even a vision, if your theology allows it) of me personally standing before the throne of God, clothed in a robe of spotless white, holding my head high in confident but humble gratitude as I lift up my eyes and smile at my King. I can feel the warmth of His glow on my face and feel as if my body is somehow flooded with His light. It is the purest, deepest form of affection I have ever experienced. I cannot ever see higher than the bottom of the outrageously enormous legs of the ornate gold chair/throne, as the rest is obscured in an indescribable combination of hazy fog/smoke covering brilliantly glowing light, but I am very well aware that it is enough--I don't wish to be able to see any more than that. I know that He can see me, though, and I am awed at the privilege of standing, unashamed, in His presence.

I am honored that I have even been given this experience, to see myself, for brief moments at a time, honestly standing before the throne of God, surrounded by His majesty and grace toward me. It is very real to me and I don't care if you now think I am a little kooky.

At the time that I first had this little glimpse of my own spiritual reality, it was unrelated to worshipping God in song, but the image has stuck with me and now readily pops into my mind whenever I am praying or singing or otherwise connecting with God on a genuine level. When I am alone, I can easily envision myself as the soloist I would never be in this earthly life.

When I am singing with a body of believers, I close my eyes and I can see that I am only one of hundreds of members of a choir, all identically dressed in white, all standing before the throne of God and lifting praises to Him. Sometimes we are perfectly still and serene, like a classical choral group; sometimes we are lively and animated, like a Black gospel choir, swaying in perfect unison, sometimes clapping, sometimes lifting our hands, our faces contorted with barely contained joy. And although I am unwilling to take my eyes off the hazy glow of light that I know obscures my King, I know that if I were to look around the choir, I would see that the faces belong to the members of my rural church's family, their faces likewise glowing with the King's radiance.

But still I struggle at church on Sunday mornings. There are times that I feel I am stuck in the 'B' choir or even worse, a group of misfits singing poorly--off-key, straining to reach a pitch that has been set far too high, struggling to keep up with the leader's uneven and inconsistent timing, routinely singing words that have lost their meaning, droning on verse after painful verse, slowly and with much difficulty and little passion.

I have actually come to bitter tears during church a few times and close to it inumerable times, at the thought that I am stuck in a choir that is not able or willing to perform in a way fit for the King. Sometimes I am ashamed at the choir for not trying harder. Sometimes I am ashamed at myself for not giving my worship with abandon, regardless of the scene around me. Sometimes I get frustrated and bored and stop singing altogether. Sometimes I catch myself, in the throne room of the King, not singing, not paying attention at all, throwing my little inward tantrum, and I am ashamed. Sometimes I can't even see the throne room, and I know I am not connected at all.

Occasionally, there is an exception to my frustration. As Charlie Peacock writes in one of my favorite songs, "Dear Exception, please come soon..." I will go to a Young Life leadership function or a camp or some other event where there is quality corporate worship. This past August, I had the opportunity to attend church with my dear friend, Alison, when I was visiting her family in Michigan. It is hard to explain what I felt that Sunday, but it was akin to an experience I had when I was a child, maybe ten or eleven years old, on a summer vacation to Montana.

I can remember that my family was visiting my grandparents and I think perhaps we were in Glacier National Park. We were somewhere high up in the mountains, well above the timber line. It must have been July, because the snow was melted off this high peak, well over 10,000 feet, and the alpine meadow was dotted with wildflowers. We pulled over the car because the adults wanted to pick a bouquet of flowers.

While the adults gathered wildflowers, my little brother and I had the brilliant idea that we would have a foot race to the top of the peak, which was only a few hundred yards above us yet. I'd never heard of altitude sickness, but about halfway up, I began to have trouble breathing. I was overcome with nausea and abdominal cramping, not sure which end of me was going to erupt, but confident something was going to happen any second. I struggled to even put one foot in front of the other, weak as I'd suddenly become, as I slowly stumbled lethargically back down the hillside. Even my voice was weak as I mumbled to my mom that I was sick. She told me later that I was as white as a sheet--perhaps tinged with green. Grandpa always knew what to do and this time was no exception. He piled us all back in the car, rolled down the windows all the way and started to drive. As the wind came pouring into the back seat, I was again filled with the oxygen I so desperately needed. I felt the color come back to my face and my cramping abated. I felt as if I were coming back to life again, that I'd been starving for oxygen and I finally was getting my fill.

This is how I felt, sitting in Alison's church. I could finally breathe deeply again. Color was returning to my pallid face. I was in the 'A' choir and we were performing for the King.

Since then, I have had the same experience, the same feeling of finally being able to breathe, three times. Once was at a special evening concert at our church, performed by a traveling singing group who invited the audience to sing with them on a few numbers. The second time was at the Young Life student leadership retreat last weekend, when we had some special guests leading worship in the Corvallis building. The third time was yesterday morning at church. A worship team not usually on the rotational schedule led us. They led us in worship, not just singing. The difference is palatable. At one point, my friend Jami was teaching us a new song that she learned during a recent stay back east. She was at the piano, and another good friend, Jen, sat down on the bench beside her, their two voices lifted together as they sang through the song all the way before having us join them. On the second verse, Jen broke into the most beautiful harmony.

I don't know what it is about harmony, sweet and strong and clear. I love it more than melody, but the beautiful irony is that it can't be done alone. Harmony to me goes way beyond pretty music. It is so symbolic, so deep, so utterly spiritual, and it makes my heart soar to hear it done well. Jen picks up harmony parts naturally--they just come to her. Harmony parts don't come naturally to me and I don't read music, so I have to hear them done a few times or have someone to sing with, but it is worth the effort to me; I love to sing harmony. Listening to Jami and Jen harmonizing together in pure worship, I just wanted to drink it in, to breathe it, to absorb it somehow in through the pores of my skin. I wanted to make it last forever.

But as I have walked out of each of those beautiful exceptions, I have been filled with another feeling--almost despair at the thought that I would soon have to return to the choir I was used to. Sometimes I wonder if it is almost better not to experience such wonderful worship times, as it may only serve to make me more dissatisfied with the norm.

The problem is that I have no musical ability of my own, so I cannot really be a part of the solution to the music situation at church. I have ideas and opinions, but I don't feel any right to express them. I don't have much influence here yet, and I have nothing to offer to help.

I've spoken with Karla, another friend at church, who is feeling the same way--wanting change, but having nothing to offer. We have agreed to pray, but couldn't even come up with exactly what we should pray. I guess God knows. I suppose praying is the best thing we could do anyway.

I guess I don't really have a point to all of this yet. I'm still processing. I just wanted to put my thoughts down where I could see them.


Mister Ed T said...

I can appreciate your frustrations. My home church was like that when I was a kid. And me? as you know I can't carry a tune in a bucket. But I like singing (if you can call it that) to the LORD. My best times have been out on the tractor away from everyone's ears except the Lord's. Back at church. Heres some thots from my experience. God listens to our hearts so we need to listen to one another's hearts more than their talent. Yes I know poor leading throws everyone off, but we need to get past that and thoinbk of how God sees, hears, and accepts that worship.
In heaven worship will be perfect. In the mean time encourage where you can and worship as you can. Are you kooky? Yes, but that has nothing to do with the wonderful experience of being in God's persence, you had. I almost envy you.
Go bless you my sister in the Lord.

Cindee said...

I hear you. Isn't it amazing how draining it is when the corporate worship just doesn't seem to 'fit' and how marvelous it is when it DOES?

Cindee @ As For Me

Eagle-eye Di said...

The different times I have felt frustrated with the singing time and leadership of it has occured when I have been in a small country church with small attendance.I have had my times where I have felt like not singing along but also realize if everyone felt like that and followed through with no singing it would be pretty sad.Chuck can't sing worth a hill of beans but he belts it out anyway because he loves to sing.Singing your heart out for the Lord is where its at.One day at Grisboom,Grand Rapids Bible and Music when Chuck and I were attending there they had a special time for different ones to come up and sing to everyone and low and behold Chuck had put his and my name in the pot.When I realized what he had done I was mortified but also said a quick prayer and when we were called we went forward to sing.The song was Count Your Many Blessings.We sang to our best ability and went and sat back down.Everyone clapped for us as we went and sat back down.I do remember trying to slip out rather quickly afterwards.It would be wonderful if every church had beautiful music specials and fantastic led singing but that is not always the case.Do you let it frustrate you into leaving to go elsewhere?Sometimes yes and sometimes no depending on the person or couple.If its a very loving and caring church family and they have good devotion messages then you really need to leave it in the Lord's hands and do alot of praying about it.Love ya Sherry.

Ruth C said...

Sherry, thanks for being so very transparent.

Sherry C said...

Thanks for your comments, all. My biggest concern, I think, is how to infuse my church as a whole, including the leadership (both musical and otherwise) with a renewed passion for true worship. Honestly, the style is secondary. Even the level of musical ability is secondary to the passion. I want to see my church engaged in worship on Sunday mornings, not just a half-hearted sing-along.