Tag Archives: worship

Marcos Witt: Prayer and worship heals our wounds

The other night in our spiritual direction group, I started us off with a classic worship song by Marcos Witt:

Tu fidelidad es grande
Tu fidelidad incomparable es
Nadie como tú, bendito Dios
Grande es tu fidelidad

Your faithfulness is great
Your faithfulness is incomparable.
No one is like you, blessed God.
Great is your faithfulness.

It is a simple truth on which to meditate and with which to worship. You might like to experience how he uses the song to lift up a crowd at one of his events.

I love how he builds the experience with just a few simple lines everyone can learn, remember, and then use by the time the arc of the song has been completed. I imagine the writer of Lamentations 3:23 would approve. Maybe the original was a song, as well! When we sing along, we are entering an eternal now which erases the divisions of time, culture and label.

Marcos Witt

I had never heard of Marcos Witt until last month when the New York Times offered a feature article about him [link]. I do not live in an Evangelical or Spanish-speaking world, so there might be all sorts of amazing things I am missing.

Lonnie Frisbee. 70’s music pioneer

Marcos Witt appears to be quite amazing. He has been on a year long swing through the U.S as part of his América Ora y Adora (America Prays and Adores) tour, which began in spring 2022. It looks like they are going to finish up on September 9 in Washington D.C., if you want to go. The tour is an attempt to undo the divisions in the church. But it also looks like a victory lap for Witt who has had a very successful ministry, beginning with introducing “Praise and Worship” music from the 1970’s to Spanish speakers everywhere.

Most Americans have never heard of him, but Witt estimates that over the past 40 years he has sold roughly 27 million copies of his albums worldwide. He has sold out arenas in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, San Salvador, Miami and Los Angeles. He has won six Latin Grammy Awards, including one last year for his 34th solo album, “Viviré” (“I Will Live”). In the early 2000’s He built one of the largest Spanish-speaking churches in U.S. as part of Lakewood Church in Houston (also famous because of  Joel Osteen).

He told the interviewer, “My music carries the breath of God. Through our songs, God is hugging on people.”

The hug of God

You could use the hug of God right now.

Doesn’t everyone need the hug of God? I will not enumerate every way the world seems to be an overwhelming mess right now. I will just offer one frightening piece of news from Senator Murphy of Connecticut, who has a bipartisan bill to address how algorithms are making kids desperately unhappy [link]. The kids really need a hug from the risen Lord and their present parents.

In just our little group the other night, worries and challenges piled up quickly. Our capacity to listen to God and one another seemed a bit weak for everything we faced. But by the end of our all-too-brief time, our confidence and trust were deepened, just like moving through Tu Fidelidad. Our hearts were enlivened and I think we felt more able to go out and do some hugging ourselves.

If you can’t find a church that makes sense to you, try to find a couple of people to hang on to, even to hug, in this wild time we are in. If you can’t quite get into relationship with Jesus followers, at least begin to renew you relationship with God. Senator Murphy notwithstanding, there are many apps that will help you stream “praise and worship” songs, like this one from Google Play. You might try that on for a new discipline. Recorded and remastered  music is a step removed, of course, from the real connections we crave. But I think the Holy Spirit can use your attention to bring you into the spiritual hug you need the most. We’ve all got to keep trying.

It is a trying time. We are challenged. But we can meet the challenge. We don’t know the future, but we do know that God will be faithful to us until the end of time and beyond. Let’s sink into that before all we can think and feel about is how we might be sinking otherwise.

Change is possible: And worship can loosen stuck memories

Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.

At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic.  They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.

According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.

What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]

If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!

We need mismatching experiences for deep change

It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”

What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman (sermon) — Saint John's

You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.

John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.

Our worship can be a transforming environment

I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!

Temple (anatomy) (PSF).svg
All too often true of our worship experience

Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network  centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]

 I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.

Worthy of every song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for You

The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.

“I am naming your traits.
I live for you.
That’s me.”

That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.

The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:

Open up my eyes in wonder
And show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me

This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing

“I open my eyes in wonder
and see who you are.
I am filled with your heart
and see the fields white for harvest.”

Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:

And I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation

So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,

“I am building my life on your love;
I feel its firm foundation.”

The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.

I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.

Don’t just worship Jesus, follow Him.

At the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ we were led, part of the time, by a talented team of young people fronted by Bishop Aner’s family. I think they are great. But I finally stopped singing with them. I just could not sing another rendition of the same skewed song.

While it was a bit painful to come to this realization, I think I am pretty much over songs based on what I would call a triumphalistic mentality. Christian worship needs to be larger than the nation-focused worship of many psalms, and it needs to be smaller than the power-based assumptions of the American empire. The King of kings is a suffering servant. Worship includes following him, not just worshiping him.

Worship the king

Their music was all about being granted the favors of a king. The songs kept repeating these requests for power and strength, so the leaders helped me see a tendency I had  noticed elsewhere. I decided to do some research. So I entered “worship the king” in Google. The first entry was about a worship team. They had published a video. They had a cool backdrop, a drum screen, a word screen in the back, a lead singer in skinny pants, and even a white-haired woman doing the Pentecostal “jump” in the crowd. Corey Voss was trying to sell his new generic song on iTunes. It was the kind of music used at the conference. And yes, we were encouraged to jump there, too.

I think Voss’s song is nice. He could be alluding to Matthew 21:1-17 where Jesus presents himself as king. He could be thinking of Jesus as the kind of king he appears to be in that passage (and is revealed on the cross), and might not be fast-forwarding to the kind of king he will appear as when he comes a second time. There is a difference.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship now is creating a season of salvation in world history during which people can still switch sides. There is still time for everyone to accept the amnesty  King Jesus offers and renounce allegiance to self, or country, or prosperity or whatever else usurps him. If you don’t follow that king of grace, your view Jesus from an empire viewpoint and your worship might focus on getting power, defeating enemies, staying safe, and staying out of trouble with an overlord.

I love to worship and can generously use all sorts of music. But I have a terrible feeling about a lot of songs Christians are using these days. Jesus has been transmuted back into the Psalms rather than the Psalms looking ahead to Him. All this king and kingdom worship makes Jesus an all-powerful emperor, in the image of Constantine (d. 337) or the latest strongman, rather than the suffering servant riding into town in a very humble, human way. You recall that his goal was not to be king of the world, even though people wanted him to be. Jesus is still washing feet through his people.

The Post-Constantine shift

I fear that we are still committed to the shift Christianity took very early on.

A book I am reading (and recommending) talks about an inappropriate and unbiblical shift in the way Christians see Jesus. Here is a small summary quote:

The Christendom era has bequeathed a form of Christianity that has marginalized, spiritualized, domesticated and [diminished] Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is watered down, privatized, and explained away. Jesus is worshiped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior. In many churches (especially those emerging from the Reformation), Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. And in many Christian traditions, ethical guidelines derived from the Old Testament or pagan philosophy trump Jesus’ call to discipleship. – The Naked Anabaptist, p. 55

I think I can can see the post-Constantine shift hanging on in the worship of millennials like Corey Voss. Maybe we can see the shift represented in the fact that four out of five Evangelicals say they will vote for Donald Trump, despite Hillary Clinton’s much more developed and demonstrated faith. That is not an endorsement of Hillary, since I can find a lot to doubt about her, but Christians voting for the godless Trump is an interesting phenomenon. I think they must want Jesus the ruler rather than Jesus the servant. I think they may want to worship Jesus, not follow him. Perhaps they have come to like God, but they cannot tolerate the suffering, morally demanding, take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me Jesus. It seems to me that their cross is a sign of triumph, empty of Jesus and empty of themselves, a sign of victory over sin, but also over opponents, a cross jauntily held over their shoulder as a weapon like the imperial Jesus on the right above.

The life and teaching of Jesus is central to our faith. Circle of Hope has twenty years of experience in following Jesus as well as worshiping Him. Right now Daily Prayer :: WIND is exploring Jesus in the New Testament. I recommend it as a means to stay conscious in this mind-and-heart-numbing context in which we live.

Six reasons to be part of the Sunday Meeting

A lot of our church is not in the meetings on Sundays. It is good that there is more to us than what is happening in the meeting. But…what’s with that? I am not sure what. You may be able to tell me.

I was talking to Rachel the other day and we realized how many people never meet with us on Sunday nights — at the wonder-filled meeting when the church makes itself visible to the world (and to the unseen world, as well). A lot DO come, of course. I took a video last night and managed to upload 15 seconds of it to youtube — this was before everyone got there!

The nice meeting last night notwithstanding, there are a lot of people in the church who have NEVER been to a Sunday meeting yet. For instance, we have teens meeting in the afternoons and they never come to the meeting (this happens in NJ, too!), We have a cell based at UArts and most of the students have never been to a Sunday meeting. Rachel’s cell is full of people who are devoted to their AA meetings but not to our Sunday meetings. Play groups, game night, Circle Thrift friends – the list goes on of vital places that don’t connect with Sunday night much, or at all. With about 40-50 more people we think we’d be ready to multiply the congregation – and I just located more than fifty in these various other meetings! What do you make of that? If people are not part of the weekly meeting are they a part of the church yet? We have an expansive group that never gets into the group! What’s with that?

There are more Pew-identified unaffiliated people than ever. Maybe that’s what’s up.

It is possible that we just haven’t reminded ourselves lately why we have a Sunday meeting at all. After all, the church has met on Sunday for a couple of thousand years — it’s a habit, and a lot of people stopped thinking about why about a 1000 years ago. The meeting can and does go on without any particular need to have an explanation because it is just what Christians do. Some weeks I am finished with the meeting and I say to myself, “What was that about?” No one told me, no one apparently needed to even care why it happened. It seemed like people thought the meeting had a right to be served rather than the meeting having an obligation to serve the purposes of the people who showed up.

So why do it at all? Why imply that these 50 otherwise-connected people ought to show up? I’ll give you six reasons and you can give the rest. I say this old, wonderful Sunday meeting we perpetuate is irreplaceable for a number of reasons:

1) It is a coming out. LGBTQ friends use the phrase “coming out of the closet” for becoming who they are. The idea is important on a variety of levels. At one level it means admitting who one is to oneself. It is also about choosing who to tell about who you are. Most commonly, I think people think it is about making a political statement by being public about one’s identity. Christians don’t have the history of stigma and oppression as gay people do (at least in the United States), but there is a distinct similarity on all three of the levels mentioned when one comes to a Sunday meeting where Christians are being Christians and doing what Christians are and do. It is on the first day of the week because Jesus came out of the tomb as the risen Lord on that day — we’ve been identifying with Him ever since. If you don’t come to the meeting, you are likely to become a closeted Christian.

2) It makes us a citizen. Paul says our citizenship is in heaven. When a Christian takes on that allegiance in the world, it makes a difference. In the United States, this unique citizenship is often in question, since the state has often sponsored and coopted Christianity, so many people think a US citizen and citizen of heaven are the same thing. But the visible body of Christ, meeting boldly in public is a statement of differentiation and often defiance.  If you are not a visible ally, to whom do you belong?

Notice I have not said anything about getting some great thing by coming to the meeting, yet. There are great things that happen every week and great people there who will love you. But I don’t think the meeting will ever be a good enough “product” to justify getting off our butts every week and going to it. In a way, it is redundant, and you can consume similar things elsewhere.  But there are certain things that we just can’t be and do unless we have that public meeting

3) It makes us effectively public. People prefer to think that they can have everything privately, these days. Maybe Amazon’s business model is built on that premise. They can deliver what you want to you door; you never even have to go outside!  — the ultimate in privacy.

  • Being a Christian is public. We claim Jesus before people and Jesus claims us before the Father.
  • The meeting is a main way we are an “us” as God’s people is an “us.” People can come and see it.
  • It  is a main way we accept the liability for being one of God’s people with these other people.

I love the risk and the trust of that!

4) It makes us an incarnation. We need to be incarnate and to actively incarnate our life in the Spirit or our faith is subject to being all in our heads and it won’t last. People need to be able to see us and touch us, experience us, or Jesus in us is hard to find. Likewise, we need to see each other and become part of a people, or we are too autonomous to receive the juice that comes with being together.

5) It makes our love bigger than a preference or a choice. There are pilates meetings to attend, NA meetings, book clubs, classes, political meetings, service groups and, primarily, our demanding workplace. A lot is going on. We can get with people like us and do what people like us do. My family, in itself, is the size of a small village. There is plenty there to keep me busy for a long time. I don’t need a lot more people in my life…UNLESS there is God making me bigger than what I already am or what I prefer. The Sunday meeting is a living example of and a laboratory for being more than what I already am and loving more than I need to love. If you only love those who love you, what makes you a Christian? Obviously not all our loving is happening in the Sunday meeting, far from it, but it is square one for starting down the road to being bigger.

6) Without worship you shrink. Here is a key issue. Worshiping, praying, discerning the truth in what is taught is an acquired skill that one can lose.  A log burning alone soon loses heat. You can come to the meeting, of course, and not worship there, too. But we are more likely to go with Jesus if we do the kind of things that mean we are going with Jesus. I still love to hear Richard Burton talking about it.

The institution of the church has been so bad, so irrelevant, so into its own authority, so led by the “B” team that it deserves much of its inattention, in my opinion. Even though I lead the church, I don’t always think the Sunday meeting, in its particulars, makes that much sense. Sometimes the people who put on the weekly meeting can’t remember why they do it, they just do it. They may not think they have any new believers around, so it just becomes habit, not strategy. Is that the issue? What do you think?

Right now, we are changing in many ways. The Sunday meeting is developing along with the rest of us. No matter what it becomes, I will have six good reasons, at least, to be there with you. Maybe some day the meeting will get us all into trouble together, it will have become so odd to have one. That’s OK with me, too.


Worship is PDA in the first degree

So did we learn anything last night? (or whenever you were worshiping in public with the body of Christ)?

Worship is our PDA

Rembrandt — Adoration of the Wisemen

One of the things that is sticking with me about why we have public meetings that include worship is the Greek word proskuneo. In the Greek New Testament a version of that word is used sixty times. It was used by the ancient Greeks to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing their feet, the hem of their garment, the ground, etc.; the Persians did this in the presence of their deified king, and the Greeks before a divinity or something holy. By the time of the New Testament proskuneo denotes a kneeling or prostration to do homage to a person or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication. The wise men did it before the baby Jesus.

To a great degree proskuneo is something that is done on the “inside”—in our spirit—defined by Jesus in John 4:23-24: “…the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Jesus unleashes a new relationship with God. Everyone can be true worshipers from our hearts. It is about love. Worshiping in our spirit is prostrating and bowing down our inner person before the Lord. It’s asking nothing of Him, but losing ourselves in adoration, reverence and homage.

God’s PDA

That inner movement is crucial, and Jesus calls us to have that private, personal sense of reverence for God, to experience that adoration and union. I think we can get one-sided about that, however. Individualistic, Eurocentric thinkers love that element of our spirituality. It pretty much fits our DIY sense of the world. But they often miss something very important: what God is doing when we worship. They often just get us to think about what we ought to be doing — we need to “get right with God.” For instance, the interpreters of John 4 often fail to note that Jesus is having this conversation about worship in spirit and truth in public. He doesn’t ask the woman for obeisance; he asks her for a drink, for connection. She not only makes the connection herself, she ends up connecting her whole village with their Lord.

While I think it would do every one of us a world of good to stop reading this right now and get down on our knees and touch our foreheads to the floor in a deep sense of being in the presence of our holy God, there might be more to proskuneo than that. (Really, before you go on, do it. Have you ever done that? Try prostration for a minute. Your heart lives in a body). One of the Lord’s teachings that is rarely applied to worship should be applied. It is this amazing paragraph from the parable of the prodigal son:

I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:18-21).

The son had it in his mind that he would stop being a rebel; he would end the sin addiction. It came to his mind that he could go home and kiss the hem of his father’s garment in humility. Though he was unworthy, he could appeal to his father’s mercy and perhaps be treated as well as one of his slaves. To his surprise — and this is the endlessly-wonderful surprise of the Lord’s story and of the Lord’s work — the Father was looking for his child to come home and ran down the road to meet him. Right when the child was going to fall at his feet, the father lifted him up and embraced him, he kissed him. It was in that embrace that the son cried out his great fear, despair and hope “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child.”

Many teachers encourage us to recover our sense of proskuneo and kiss the dirt. That is a good thing. But I think we should make sure not to miss the message of Jesus as he shows us God’s part of the worship relationship. God also “kisses the dirt,” so to speak, when he kisses us prodigals! Worship is a drama of reconnection. Our public meetings are, among many things, a public support group for people who need to learn how to be in love with God in public, to claim their identity as God’s child, no matter where they came from. Among the many things we are learning about worship, I am focused on the kiss. When we worship, it is a lot like kissing God. When we have our Sunday meetings, it is PDA in the first degree.

The lack of difference between private and public

My recent work on my dissertation has taken me into unexpected territories. Last week it was a conundrum about what is private and what is public. The psychotherapists I am studying are, in some ways, at the cross roads of many of the confusing recent advances in communication technology. They wonder if they can keep the boundaries they are used to keeping. I think we are all wondering whether the cherished privileges of privacy that United States laws started codifying in the 1970’s make sense any more.

Some therapists I have met report that their clients (more than one!) have asked whether their sessions can be filmed as part of the reality TV show they are on! They have to decide whether to have a Facebook page and let their clients spy on them. They have to navigate how to work with confidentiality when divorce lawyers want evidence from their sessions. It is a new world.

People want more privacy at the same time that the society is allowing for less of it. We can hardly walk out of our homes without being documented by some unknown camera! As I personally found out this year, newspapers no longer research the truth of what they print; any letter to the editor will be printed as factual and added to the Google’s eternal repository of items that mention my name. What is private and what is public? Does anything need to stay private any more until it qualifies to be public?

Public worship confronts private spirituality

As Jesus-followers, we have some interesting things to consider when we think about the public vs. private divide. When the PM Team Leaders were discussing Sunday meeting plans last Saturday we got off on an important tangent about “spirituality” versus “religion.” For many people these days, personal spirituality doesn’t have a lot to do with religion. “Religious” people still attend “rituals” of the institution that used to have the corner on the spirituality market: the church. But these days people feel more righteous having a private set of beliefs that don’t include public expression. During the meeting, I noted that the government has successfully sold people the “freedom” from every institution but itself, including church, family and tribe — but that’s another discussion.

When people worship, they are in a conundrum of sorts. Many feel that only their private experience is valid. The public add-on we perform kind of seems superfluous. They feel like they should attend the meeting out of some honor to their spiritual ancestors, but it feels kind of awkward and they avoid telling people they do it. I think they feel like they are kind of out-of-date when they worship, an uncool throwback, like a hippy or a Civil War re-enactor who is a little too into their hobby.

Maybe we should give up on singularity

extremely not private

Like so many contributions of the modern era that are coming to their logical extreme these days,  the arbitrary dichotomy between private and public is another one of those things we need to deal with for some reason, like whether we are labeled black or white, gay or straight, single or married or some other this or that which probably wouldn’t make much difference it we weren’t labeled by the nation, legalized and crammed into a niche market.

We might be better off if we let go of the technology of singularity altogether. A thought made the rounds of Facebook last week that talked about how much longer it takes restaurant patrons to eat dinner because they spend so much time alone on their phones together not paying attention to who they are with or to their waiter! When we come to worship we struggle to find a way to be together when we are so condemned to being alone. We know a little bit about private worship and our own sense of spirituality, but it doesn’t always seem to fit in to what we are doing together. We spend more time comparing and contrasting our private sense with our public experience than we do having the public experience!

Public and private is really a both/and

I think I have more practical things to say about this. But I just wanted to offer one generality today. How about giving up the strict sense of private vs. public as an either/or and return to what most people in world history have already done and see it as a both/and?  Circle of Hope has a proverb that reflects this sense of both/and: Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” Other modern dichotomies do not make much sense to us either, like private (which is where “sacred” usually lives) and public (which is dominated by the “secular”). We are one person in relationship with the one true God. We are in that same relationship whether we are at home or at work, on the beach or on the bus. We don’t change our ways because of our context because our context is the Kingdom of God. So whether worship is private or public is not a big deal. The worship may be different in character, which is nice, but the relationship with God and his people is the same. The public is part of the private and the private is part of the public. I am with you, in Christ, when I am alone, too.

Last Saturday we had a great example of how private faith lives in public and public faith feeds the private. At our love feast we had people revealing personal, private stories about their relationships with God that led them to their communal, public baptism or their public entry into their out-of-the-closet commitment to the body of Christ formed as Circle of Hope. In an age when people long for community so much, in which they are so alone, one would think everyone would be piling in to the togetherness of covenant love. But as we heard, there were many obstacles in the way of our friends’ commitment. Like my therapist friends, we will probably face more challenges that make us wonder what is private and what is public and whether the distinctions matter. Maybe a reality show will be asking to commodify our covenant relationships when they are done with all the other stuff they broadcast (Extreme Religious Makeover?). More likely, there is going to be some habit of the heart that needs to change so we can stay out of merely private and appreciate the public, too, like when we are having dinner together, maybe.

Get Out There in the Face of Fear

When our second Network goal for 2013 appeared, some people immediately asked some anxious questions and some got downright upset! But all it said was that “people need to see Jesus where they live” and “we need to be good storytellers,” so we are going to “generate opportunities for our worship to be more public.” We already have public worship every week in our buildings and lots of people have found us there, but we are going to make it even more public by taking it to where people live in some way.

buskersWhat could be the big deal? People did not have a big problem with the idea (the discerning process came up with it, after all), but they were less aware of what it might mean until they saw suggestions for how it would be implemented, like “improv” and “busking” and a “touring PM team.” They suddenly had visions of intrusive preachers with portable microphones, and of people thinking that we are cheesy Christians imposing our cheesy songs on an unsuspecting public. The whole idea seemed too out there, too embarrassing, too prone to getting a bad review on Yelp. Seriously.

How did Jesus get out there?

We caused an interesting debate. I sympathize with some people who can’t imagine Jesus with his guitar out on a Capernaum sidewalk (the fact that there were no sidewalks is another matter, have some imagination!). And he did tell us not to pray on street corners. But what about this from Matthew 8?

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever.  He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“He took up our infirmities
and bore our diseases.”

The question I ask of this scripture is this: was Jesus trying to be private and people found him in spite of all his efforts? Was he just doing a private act of kindness for his best friend into whose house he felt comfortable enough to enter and find his mother laying around?  That might be a shy Christian’s dream: healing as personal, private, intimate, secret, and in the family. They might say, “Jesus was just being good and people found out about it; they took the initiative, so He didn’t look proud. He didn’t look like he was trying to make a big deal about being the Son of God and doing miracles, or looking like he thought people should be impressed with him and pay attention to who he was and what he was doing. He wasn’t making trouble for someone by doing miracles in their backyard without a permit, or causing some uproar with the police.”

Or did Jesus walk into Peter’s house unannounced, even, or walk in because someone in the crowd told him the woman had a fever, just busting in to her private space. Did he touch her, fully knowing that it would be all over Capernaum and on up the hill to Nazareth in a couple of minutes? Shouldn’t he at least have had a feeling that by evening all sorts of people would be showing up to be healed? And didn’t he have some sort of consciousness that he was meant to be known for bearing people’s diseases? Did he ever do anything that he didn’t think was going to make a difference and didn’t he always think he was born to make a difference?

There are reasons to be scared

I think we are just a little scared to get “out there” in ways that put us next to uncontrollable people and bring us in contact with the authorities and powers that run our streets.  And there is reason to be scared. To be honest about the example of Jesus, it won’t be long after Matthew 8 that he will be in trouble with all sorts of authorities and powers. So there is something out there to inspire fear, if we are so inclined.

But it is a little strange that some of us can’t get our heads around the example of Jesus going to where people are! Some of us are out selling energy products, we meet people giving us free vodka in bars, we get free tastes in the Reading Terminal and we experience all sorts of people finding every way possible to get on our screens. Yet Jesus is supposed to wait until he is somehow discovered lest we seem too aggressive.

We say that Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” But it is true that the secularists have not repented of isolating the sacred and legislating against anything but what they deem tolerant. So it is hard to present oneself as a Jesus follower and not expect opposition, perhaps vocal and even legal! I think the younger one is the scarier it has become: “I won’t be able to have a job. They’ll find a picture of me busking. I’ll get tagged as an extremist. They’ll label me a hater.”

Nevertheless, I am still glad for the courage that prompted our goal. I don’t think the goal came from nowhere. I think it is intimately connected to the heart of Jesus. Who busted into Peter’s disease-filled house with healing and then poured his goodness on everyone else who thought he just might be their Savior. Taking worship to more public places is such a sweet way to confront the powers with epiphany and help seekers find us. I suspect we have even more “out there” ways up our sleeves.

Lessons in Spiritual Depth from Paul: Wait, worship, listen

I have received a lot of mentoring from the Apostle Paul — from my first real reading of the New Testament as a teenager, I felt a deep kinship with him. My thought was then, and still is, that, “If Paul can do it, so can I.” He is so obviously a real guy, with all his gifts and limitations in action. He has a personality that shows through. And God uses him.

Oldest image of Paul, 4th C., From Catacomb of St. Thekla in Rome

I look at the accounts of Paul in Acts and what he writes in his letters like a story about an action hero. He is such a persuasive teacher and a courageous missionary! He is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the quieter, interior qualities that are basic to making him so influential.

I have learned a lot from Paul about how to deepen my relationship with God by learning to wait, listening in prayer, and moving with the promptings of the Spirit.  I felt like doing this little study to prove that he really was that kind of spiritual guy. It seems that, for most people who read his letters, Paul is all about principles, morality and preaching. He is primarily a great  example of an evangelist and church planter. But what about the quiet side? Is he ever silent? How does he get his direction? There are some hints about his personal relationship with God in the New Testament record. I want to list some main ones to encourage us all to move with the “regular guy” Paul as we attempt our own expression of our faith in this era of the world.


Paul was cooling it in his home town after he escaped Jerusalem. It is important to learn how to wait.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. Acts 11:25-6

After his conversion Paul spent “many days” with the disciples in Damascus. The “scales” coming off his eyes also had to do with unlearning his passionate Jewish activism, and no doubt had to do with a major interior change. It took time. In Galatians he gives a more complete timeline:

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:15-18

The timelines in the Bible are hard to put in order, since that is not the interest of the writers. But this at least implies that Paul spent a significant time in the desert after his conversion. He apparently had a sojourn like Jesus, being confronted and purged by God’s Spirit in preparation for his major role in building the kingdom.

Paul had significant times of waiting throughout his ministry and he used them. Many of them were the times he was in prison. He spent two years awaiting trial, at one point.

As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Acts 24:25-27

Martin Luther King did well with his imprisonment, too. We may face that ourselves, one day. Until then, we wait in all sorts of other ways – imprisoned in our jobs, or on the Schuylkill. It is good preparation time, if we use it to be with God.


Paul got direction by receiving it from the body as they received it from the Holy Spirit during times of worship and prayer.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3

If we have worried about our spiritual development at all, so many of us have spent our days interpreting spiritual material and applying the logic we concoct. As a result we often have little idea of what the writers of the Bible were doing to receive the material we are interpreting! They obviously spent a lot of intense time in prayer getting direction for what they were going to do. From the way Paul writes his letters, it might sound like Christians should all be articulate theorists. But he is obviously a lot more than that. His applications are resting on the foundation of his experience of Christ in his body.


Paul developed the ability, as have so many after him, to listen to the Spirit of God in any number of ways. Somehow the Spirit prevents him from doing one thing and directs him to do another.

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10

The boiled-down “science for the masses” we have all learned has made us very suspicious about spiritual promptings and visions. (And Paul tells us to test them well, himself). Combined with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement, so often portrayed in living color on TV, we end up tempted not to listen to the Spirit at all. So our own directability is pretty much nil. Meanwhile Paul is remembering his experiences of revelation as foundational to all he does and says:

I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5

He had a great experience of hearing from God fourteen years before he was writing, but he was still talking about it. He had regular experiences of being directed that his companions wrote about. I think that teaches me to stop and listen.

God still needs deep people. We have a lot of reasons why we are not developing into deep people. And we really have a lot of reasons why we are not going to follow the spiritual promptings we do receive. But one excuse we should never use is that such depth is beyond us. The wild movement of God’s Spirit is for regular people, like the Apostle Paul.