The spirituality of authentically blended worship: part four...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes in my the last of four reflections on the role of popular music in blened worship. It has been fun - and helpful - for me to share the music and the ideas.  After Sunday, we'll be away for a time taking vacation rest in Canada.  Then we'll be back at it for Sunday, September 18th with our new staff!  So, if you are in town THIS Sunday, August 28th please stop by at 10:30 am.

This morning I want to share with you a way – or style – or even discipline – for discerning God’s presence in your life that is so very different from our traditional mode of “doing theology” that some are frightened by it, others dismiss and ridicule it as a trivial waste of time while still others say it feeds their souls like nothing else can.

• Over the past few weeks, of course, I have been offering you a taste of what this spiritual smorgasbord has to offer our morally and ethically malnourished culture.

• Like the ancient Hebrew poet said in Psalm 34: we have been invited to taste and see – interesting choice of words, yes? – taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Blessed is the one who trusts him. Blessed are those who live in awe of our God, dear people of faith, for there is no want or hunger for those who are awe-struck and worshipful.

This is the approach I have been trying to share with you throughout the summer – a taste and see style – that is more poetry and experience and encounter than didactic teaching. But “to everything there is a season,” sang another Biblical poet: “A right time for birth and another for death, a right time to plant and another to reap… a right time to destroy and another to construct… to cry and to laugh, lament and to cheer, to embrace and be a part.”

So let me be more explicit with you now so that you might be able to distinguish why this new style of discerning the Lord is valuable – maybe even life-changing for you personally – and how it restores balance and awe to our religious tradition. The theologian, Paul Tillich, put it like this: when it comes to discovering and following the Lord in our lives there are two styles of faithful living. Both are born of truth and both are holy but they comprehend and respond to the Lord in very different ways.

Tillich labels one style moral faith – a way of living that sees God entering creation through human acts of love and justice – and we hail from this tradition. Moral faith “measures the world by standards of God’s perfect justice and love” and is profoundly aware of the gap between the Lord’s purity and human sin. “Moral faith gravitates toward law-generating, activist and utopian expressions of piety.” (Kelton Cobb, p. 109)
The other he calls ontological faith – from two Greek words meaning the study of what is real – for it is a more sacramental approach to discerning the presence of the Lord. Here “ultimate reality is expected to be encountered through concrete things, persons and events – water, bread, wine, marriage and community… it is a way of meeting the holy in things that are beautiful or awe-inspiring.” (Kelton Cobb, Theology and Popular Culture, pp. 109/220)

• Do you grasp the difference? Does this say anything to you?

• In Tillich’s terminology moral faith responds to God’s terrifying nature – the abyss – the incompressible otherness of the Lord who created heaven and earth.

• While ontological faith celebrates a God who comes down – it is the sacred within the secular – the holy within the human. And all that is “plain, finite and real… can serve as receptacles for the transcendent beauty of the divine” in ways that are deeply reassuring.

Our nation – as well as our region of the country and faith tradition – is rooted in a moral faith. It is not coincidental, for example, that as the Puritans sailed away from their old world, John Winthrop taught them that they had entered a new moral covenant with God. Specifically, he told them that they must embody “the counsel of the prophet Micah… who has called us to do justice, love mercy and walk with God in humility.” He told them:

We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body… And should we live up to the obligations of this sacred covenant, then the Lord would be pleased and allow us to shine like a city upon a hill.

That was in 1620 – and what does OUR church mission statement for the 21st century say? It is printed at the top of your worship bulletin and says: In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. We clearly come from the moral faith side of the family, yes? And to my mind that means that in addition to all the blessings of this tradition, we also have some blind spots and failures that can keep us from discovering God’s reassuring and grace-filled presence in ordinary life.

Specifically, I think this is true when it comes to recognizing and claiming God’s gracious presence in whatever is good, true and beautiful. You see, with hearts and minds trained to see what is broken first – to emphasize sin, injustice and our separation from God – we don’t often know what to do when we come upon holy ground in our ordinary lives. This is where the story of Moses and the burning bush might be helpful.

• Moses comes upon holy ground in the wilderness as he is doing his everyday job. Now remember that the reason that Moses is up in the mountains in the first place is because he has murdered an Egyptian soldier and is on the lam.

• He isn’t on spiritual retreat, he isn’t preparing to accept the Nobel Peace prize for moral rectitude and he isn’t thinking about social justice. He is tending his father-in-laws sheep and hiding from the law.

Now we don’t know for how long the bush was burning; but eventually Moses notices the presence of an angel of the Lord taking shape and form as a burning bush – he sees something very ordinary that suddenly becomes extraordinary by God’s grace – and it not only grabs his attention but awakens him to awe and beauty. And in this awakened state, Moses hears the Lord say: “Take off your shoes, man, for this is holy ground.” So what do you think it means for Moses to recognize holy ground and take off his sandals?

• First, it is an act of humility, yes? You take off what is soiled and physically honor what is holy. When we were in Turkey and visited various mosques, everyone had to take off their shoes before entering holy ground. It was a sign of humble reverence in the presence of the sacred.

• But taking off your shoes has another meaning, too: it is something people in various cultures do when they return to their homes, right? Any idea what that might mean in this story?

Biblical scholars have wondered that given Moses’ history maybe God was giving him a home: “This is a man who has never really been at home anywhere. Raised by his Hebrew mother, he was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter (2:9-10) and given an Egyptian name (see the discussion on Exodus 1:8-2:10).”
Although he tries to intervene to help his kinfolk, the Hebrews (2:11-13), he ends up murdering an Egyptian and being rejected by his own (2:14). He flees Egypt and the mess he had created there, only to be identified as an Egyptian by the women he meets at the well in Midian (2:19). From the adopted son of royalty, Moses is now shepherding flocks (a less than prestigious job!), working for his father-in-law. (Amy Merrill Willis,, Aug. 28, 2011) But here at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the "alien," has at last found a true "home” but not with humans but with God, the God of his ancestors, "the God of Abraham...of Isaac...of Jacob" (Dennis Olson,, Aug 31, 2008)

One of the blessings an ontological or sacramental faith can offer us in our moralist tradition is how to be awakened to the wonder and presence of the Lord in the midst of the ordinary. And I find music to be one of the ways this happens best. It isn’t the only way, of course, but it sure works for me and it seems to work in a unique way for the people who make music with me, too. So let me ask you – as band mates and friends committed to making beautiful music in this place – what do you find surprising about making music in this ensemble? (Give folks time to share their observations…)

Here is an example from the music of Sarah McLachlan. I would like you to listen to both the lyrics as well as the harmonies in this song. Sometimes we moralists JUST pay attention to the words – like the preacher who picks a hymn because she likes the text but the tune is unsingable – that’s part of the problem. So pay attention – be awakened – to how both fit together here.

Engaging music like this is one way to learn how to listen with our whole selves: it is a style of discerning God’s presence in awe and beauty that brings balance and a sense of peace to our constant striving for justice and peace and all the rest we in the moralist tradition know all too well. In fact, without this ability to rest a while in God’s beauty and awe, we can burn out and become part of the problem rather than a part of the healing.

And that takes me to the second story for today where the wisdom of Jesus shows us one who is constantly moving back and forth between a moral and an ontological faith.  In Jesus I see a way of practicing a spiritual rhythm of living that celebrates both resting and acting in the Lord: he challenges and soothes, he engages the world publically and then retreats into solitude for a time, too. Jesus is the Word made Flesh – the essence of God in a human body – who not only exposes the sacred in the ordinary but also asks us to put compassion into action.

Today’s text shows us Jesus meeting in quiet with his apprentices. He has just been out in public challenging the leaders of his day about their spiritual and ethical lethargy – he has been living into a moral faith – but now he retreats into a reflective mode. Listen carefully again to his words to those who love him dearest: 

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

First the burning bush, now the Cross: I know I’ve told you this before but let me say it out loud again. One of the truths about the Cross – not the only truth, but a very important one – is that the Cross has two beams, right? One connects us with God – it is the vertical beam – representing our connection with the Lord. The other, however, connects us to the community – the horizontal beam – and it speaks to us of encountering and serving God as a part of the body.

Now here’s the thing: some of us are totally down with the vertical connection – we’re grounded and rooted and energized in our communion with the Lord – and it is a beautiful thing to behold. But we aren’t so hot at the whole community/body of Christ reality.

I know… I’ve seen it: we get impatient or abrupt or even rude and evasive with one another sometimes. And there are some of us who don’t even consider the horizontal component of the cross: for us it is ALL about me and my needs and how is the church or God going to take care of what I need.

To be fair, there are also those who very much embrace the call to community: we celebrate the body of Christ and really know how to offer generosity and joy to others. We just don’t know how to find that for ourselves – we often feel cut off from God’s grace and forgiveness and hope – right?

Once again, here is where the spiritual discipline of music has brought me a measure of peace and insight into the way of Christ and his Cross – and I’m thinking particularly about the art form known as improvisation. When you improvise you practice denying yourself for a time – losing yourself for the sake of the greater whole – and then when it feels right giving it your shot of creativity and beauty. And this seems to hold true whether you’re talking about musicians or actors, comedy or theatre, poetry slams or mixed media performance art.

Pastor Donna Schaper recently wrote that: “The secret to improvisation is to go only as far as you have to and not a step or second more. Your goal is to make everyone else look good while carefully listening to what the first chord told the second chord to say… so good improvisation chooses who it will listen to—and takes the next step.” Did you catch that? 

• There is playfulness necessary for dealing with the pain. There is a rhythm for being engaged in the way of the Cross that requires letting go and joining in, losing ourselves and being found as a part of God’s loving improvisation in the song of life.

• So let me ask my band mates about this: what have you gained as people of faith by playing together in this ensemble? What insights into the rhythm of faith have you discerned?

Here’s what that feels like to me:

Two stories this morning – the burning bush and the call to follow as well as the stories of some of our musicians – and they all speak to me of the jazz of meeting Jesus in community: There is a groove or rhythm to our faith that needs both the moral and the ontological components for real health and integrity. There is a call to improvise playfully with the Lord throughout the ups and downs of faithful living.

And to do it all in such a way that the beauty of the Lord not only inspires and comforts us, but also empowers us to be present with the wounded who are crying out for compassion and justice. Jesus insists that all of this comes together in the Cross – and that, dear people of God – has to be the good news for today.


BanksyBoy said…
Excellent stuff... intrigued by your thoughts on improvisation as recently heard thoughts about how Christians want to see miracles.

It chimes well with your 'moral' versus 'ontological' conclusions in that to get a miracle 'wow' factor Christians long for an Intervention rather than some Improvisation of, let's say, physical laws. So put another way, God's approach to miracles is more about improvisation than intervention. I found that fascinating!

Best, PB
RJ said…
Thanks, brother. So glad this connected.

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