the messy glory of the lord

Every church worships a little differently. The more experience I have in church, the less I care for formality. After six years with my tiny congregation that, long before I arrived described themselves as “informal but competent,” I just can’t stomach much of the “production” aspects of worship. If your worship tends toward the formal and performative, maybe read these reflections with a grain of salt. Or, if you’re deep in the Advent worship planning maelstrom and not in a place to hear much critique at all, maybe skip today’s post. This is meant as confession, not criticism.

Nearly a decade ago, I worked in a church whose worship was very formal (formal, that is, for our low-church Brethren tradition) and very planned. It was *good* worship, with regular rhythms and good preaching and meaningful rituals, and I learned a TON about planning and facilitating God’s people gathering for worship in that place.

One Sunday, I was away, working at another job. I was helping to train summer ministry interns, and we were visiting a local congregation as part of the orientation week. During the service, there was a piece of special music planned – a guitar and vocalist accompanied by a beloved drummer who lives with some developmental disabilities. The drummer was poised and ready to begin, but the guitarist had lost the tune and the key. The entire congregation shifted in their pews. The drummer smiled – but was clearly annoyed at his co-musician. We all waited a few minutes as the guitarist picked through chords. I started to get anxious, even though I was not in charge of anything in the room, just a guest in the service. No one else around me was anxious, though. A woman in the pew in front of me pulled out her cell phone (WHAT!? in WORSHIP!?) and opened YouTube to find a version of the song that was to be played. She stood up, where she was, and said, “here it is,” hit play and held her phone aloft. The first few chords of the song filled the sanctuary, the guitarist nodded, the cell phone woman sat down, the service proceeded without another hiccup.

What’s notable about that experience is less what happened, although that congregation’s non-anxious worship attitude and the pastor’s complete confidence that everything would work out one way or another *are* impressive. What I remember about those moments in worship was my own startled reaction: that I would be so anxious on behalf of other people, that what I had just experienced was very unlikely to happen in the formality of the congregation where I worked, that I loved this casual, relational, confident, inclusive tone in the sanctuary. I realized, in those few moments, that I was chafing under the formality of my current worship life.

At the House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Colorado, worship is very traditional and liturgical but also, somehow, informal. The chairs are in a round, and people volunteer for worship leadership duties as they enter the sanctuary. The church declares that they are “anti-excellence and pro-participation.” When I heard their former pastor use this phrase to describe how their worship operates, I immediately took it to heart. YES! Anti-excellence and pro-participation is what I want to be a part of, what I want to facilitate, where I want to be.

At Peace Covenant, try as I might, we are sort of constitutionally incapable of being planned and formal and performative in our worship. For one thing, we’re too small. Everyone sees and hears everything that happens – there is no covering up gaffes or mis-steps in the service. And the pastor is not a Master of Ceremonies – if I miss an element as we’re moving through the service, usually someone just pipes up right then and there to ask, “Oh, Dana, were we going to take the offering today or not?” I have tried several times over the years to tap people as worship leaders or candle lighters early in the week and my efforts – without fail – crumble. Every time, we revert back to the practice of calling on someone to read the scripture or light the candles when it comes time to read the scripture or light the candles.

The pandemic has pushed us even farther into this informality, and I want to tell you that it is a straight up gift and grace. Our pianist is losing her sight, so we don’t sing accompanied hymns any more. That’s actually kind of okay, because we are not the most gifted singers even if some of us bellow out lyrics heartily to cover up that lack. Instead, we have brilliant recorder music played and audio edited by our beloved Gene, whose age and distance keep him from showing up in person but who has faithfully recorded a new hymn every week for the last 20 months and emailed it to me.

(Gene’s “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” – he records both parts himself, then edits them together)

Instead of spending her week trying to read tiny notes on scores or accompany a pack of fairly bad singers, our pianist Karen now reads scripture for the week, prays on it, and lets the Spirit lead her to one of the hundreds of hymns in her memory repertoire. She plays them with a tenor and spirit that is surely unmatched.

(Karen’s “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” from yesterday’s service)

We also started using songs from YouTube, which has meant that our music in worship has ranged from 1960s rock to bluegrass to gospel. The world is our musical oyster, and we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’ll be able to reach the high notes or follow the key change. A few weeks ago, my browser’s ad-blocker stopped working and as our (slow, somber) hymn about healing ended, the YouTube algorithm launched into a commercial for PERIOD UNDIES before I could launch myself across the room toward the PAUSE button. The whole congregation laughed.

I tried to invite Advent candle liturgists and lighters, praying over my people and selecting unlikely pairings: retiree and college student! Someone on Zoom and someone in the room! No nuclear family pairings (I almost wrote an entire post about how much I loathe the nuclear family Advent candle lighting tradition because of how it marginalizes single people, childless people, folks whose families are far away or non-existent or simply don’t attend Sunday morning worship with them and how it is explicitly against the scriptural witness that folks who follow Jesus are called to leave their families and create new, kingdom ways of being community with one another…but I mostly spared you that rant, for now.). But my people are unused to being asked to do Sunday morning things before Sunday morning, and it just didn’t work. Instead, we’ve had some Zoom readers and some family readers and, yesterday, when I asked a married couple to do it together, they declined. One of them had already lit a different candle, and the other invited a college student to read along with her.

I don’t know, y’all. My seminary worship professor impressed upon us that “the Holy Spirit never neglects good planning.” And I appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a well-planned, scripturally-guided, thematic worship led by people who know how to lead worship. But actually, at this point in my life and work, I think the Holy Spirit mostly laughs at our planning – all of it. I’ve tried too much and too often to get ahead of Her, and it just never works. She will do what She will do, and I’m content, now, to show up for my part of this holy, grace-filled work and then allow myself to be stunned into awe when She shows up and blasts our faces off with the messy glory of the Lord (which never did seem to take to our human rules and formalities, anyway).

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