Saturday, March 28, 2009


The question this morning, at a workshop for worship leaders, was, how do you worship when as a lector or other worship leader you have to pay attention to the details of the service--being on the right page, speaking into the microphone, anticipating what comes next.

The workshop speaker who answered this question elaborated on the problem, and as both a pastor and a musician, he could cite lots of distractions for worship leaders. But I did not think his answer addressed the central question. I raised my hand to add my own two cents, which was something about how being detached from the worship experience in order to take care of logistics is the gift you bring to the assembly. You give up some part of your own immersion in worship for the sake of others.

Maybe that's so obvious that the world didn't need to hear me say it. But maybe not.

Most of us are hungry for direct experiences of God. We want to be moved in worship. The reading of scripture we hope will call up visions of Jesus speaking or the prophets. Music should touch our hearts or inspire our spirits. Preaching should find us, wherever we are in our lives. And we should worship God as we should love God--with our whole heart, our mind and our strength. These actions of ours, we believe, make it possible for our souls to be fed.

And yet, I thought, an actor onstage, caught up in the emotions of the play, must still remain conscious of his effect on the audience, must still find the place to stand where his face will be in the light, must remember to say his lines loudly and slowly enough to be understood. A musician brings all of her technique and training to bear on the notes she sings or plays. Music itself, for all its appeal to the emotions, is a highly structured, complicated art with rules that must be followed carefully or broken with purpose. The art of poetry (poetry in the Aristotelian sense of making something that is a representation) transforms the raw material of life into something more ordered and thus more meaningful. We in worship seek to transform the raw material of our own actions into something that praises, honors and testifies to the non-material presence of God among us.

It takes some detachment to do this, at least in Lutheran liturgical, non-spontaneous worship. The processional cross, the candles, the bible, the ministers come down the aisle at a measured pace that is the same on the Sundays of Lent as on Easter morning. Music may make our heart skip or weep, but both toe-tapping and heart-rending melodies must hold to an established tempo. Preaching requires study and preparation, and careful calculation not just about what there is to say but about how to say it so that it can be heard, understood, carried home.

Our language tries to say what God is, directly and also with image and metaphor, yet we know it falls short, know that religious language can create barriers to understanding God, even as it tries to make God known. We are always, even in the most profound moments, more than a few steps detached from God. Our worship, even as we plan, practice and seek to perfect it, will always fall short. We watch ourselves. We monitor our absorption in the process, and then our thoughts wander off

How lucky for us, then, that God's presence in our worship doesn't depend on us.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Beauty inside, outside, and all around

My daughter just finished two weekends of performances as one of the townspeople in her high school's production of Beauty and the Beast. The show was a rousing success onstage and played to big audiences.

It was also a rousing success for Eliza. She is a teenager with Down syndrome. This is her fourth high school musical, so she is a veteran of the rehearsal room, the make-up table, the dressing room, and the stage. She and the other special-needs kids in the show had peer buddies, who helped them participate in the show so much more than the teaching assistants assigned to supervise them in the winter musical last year.

Eliza's peer buddy, Audrey, is an animated young woman onstage, and she kept Eliza focused and made her look great, even when she was right in the middle of the action. Eliza did so much more than she has ever done in a show before, and she truly belonged to the Beauty and the Beast community. Which is as it should be for a show whose message is something about it being okay to be different and about finding beauty and tenderness in unexpected places.

I know there is beauty in my daughter. In Beauty and the Beast, lots and lots of other people got to see it too. Brava!