Blending cultures and styles of worship...

One of the on-going challenges of my professional life has to do with finding balance when it comes to blended worship: I fundamentally believe that the vision of God's realm that Jesus both talks about and organizes is one where the old and young, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight and all the rest come together as equals around the banquet table of God's love. That seems to be how Jesus organized his band of women and men in lst century Palestine, it is clearly how Paul and others in the New Testament advance the cause and it is even one of the last images of scripture in the book of Revelation where all the tribes of creation - every race and culture - are gathered around the font of God's loving grace.

... but it is sure hard to pull off in the flesh! For over 27 years I have been struggling with how to encourage and help congregations both expand their vision of who is welcome at the table and how that demands embracing all kinds of people, music, expressions of worship and life experiences. Today, for example, we had a bold and powerful liturgy about real life - not the lives we would like or the ones we pretend are real - but a liturgy of real life. And it included Taize and World music alongside the sounds of contemporary life: Annie Lennox and the Beatles, the Eels and mellow Celtic tunes. The goal was to retell the story of Christ's life, death and resurrection in words and music that are part of contemporary real life America in the 21st century.

And I was delighted that my band of dedicated singers and players pulled it off beautifully: they served God with integrity and sweet, sweet soul music. What was interesting was the reaction from this formerly staid bunch of New England Puritans. Of the 75+ people in worship today, clearly the overwhelming majority LOVED the encounter. It was worship of head AND heart. It helped people struggling with addictions, fear, disease, broken hearts and doubts bring their experiences into worship and know that God aches for their wounds. It was beautiful. The tears and laughter were healing. And, thankfully, the 60+ people who made a point to speak with me after worship expressed exactly these points. What's more, 8 women and men of a variety of ages and walks of life - from 30 - 80 - said, "Thank you... thank you for widening the worship experience here so that my life has a place."

There were two other important reactions, too. Clearly a small but often vocal minority was really uncomfortable with the heart emphasis - and let's be honest - they don't like rock guitar in church (or probably any other place for that matter!) Two people made a point to send me clear and helpful e-mails about why this type of worship doesn't work for them; what is encouraging to me is that they both shared their concerns, and, said that they valued being pushed into new experiences. In a word they told me, we don't like this but we are a part of the community of faith and want to find ways of making space for even expressions that we don't like or understand. (Some, of course, will be unable to be so open and will simply resent or misunderstand. And the sad part of this is that they will miss that the old ways are not being thrown away - just balanced out with a few new ways - but it always feels like too much to those who are threatened by inclusivity.)

The other group were the clearly marginal folks who spoke with me after worship - the folks from the edges of society either by life-style, theology, life experience or doubt - and they were so tender that this experience had occurred that they had tears in their eyes. I am reminded of my friend who began one of the early HIV/AIDS ministries back in Tucson before anyone really knew what the disease was: she welcomed the hookers and addicts, she prayed with those in hospice and when nobody else in town would bury these dear souls, she anointed their bodies and held funeral worship for the least of these my sisters and brothers. (Interestingly, she openly wept when the UCC began the "Still Speaking" campaign a few years ago and we were training members to welcome those from outside our tradition. Through her tears she said, "I am sooooo grateful we are doing this now... I just wish we would have been able to do it 10 years ago. So many lives would have been saved!") Her experience was renewed today in worship...

And yet... (why is there always this and yet!?!) while I know in my heart and believe in my head and trust that this radically inclusive vision of the open table where we are all together - Rock and Rollers along side those singing Bach fugues as well as praise music - is the way to go... it still is tough to make it flesh! Resistance, fear and judgment gnaw at me. Ok, I'll stop whining now because things are starting to take off here and I know that this is when the challenges become tough... still that negative minority still gets to me sometimes. What about you?


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