The last few weeks in worship, we have sung People, Look East. This is a hymn that I have sung for years, but this was the first time I understood what the phrase “crowning of the year” means. I have always had a picture of a sparkly tiara in the dark hair of Ms. New Year in my mind.
Suddenly, as though a switch had been flipped, I realized that babies’ heads “crown” at some point in the birthing process. It is the symbolic moment when a baby settles into a more out than in status. The emergence of the baby is imminent when the head has crowned. Finally “seeing” the birth metaphor in that line, seemed to illuminate the entire rest of the hymn. It lit up and came alive in a way it never has before.Hymns can do some amazing things that other kinds of music often don’t. They have layered meanings, and difficult metaphors. They speak, like the Psalms, poetically. One of the complaints I hear is that hymns use “outdated, archaic” language. They use big, jawbreaking words which regular people do not understand. They are set to slow, boring music. Yet, even a difficult hymn to sing, like People, Look East, yields treasures of meaning and understanding for years, when a great praise chorus like Great Is the Lord, simply does not, and though a song like Bless the Broken Road yields immediate emotional content that no setting of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God can convey, the ideas born from the Martin Luther text will shape us throughout a lifetime.
To borrow from People, Look East, hymns plant seeds in us, the way that Scripture plants seeds in us. They take time, soil, light, water, nourishment, and often work to grow into the roots, stalks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of faith.
As you plan worship music, program music, and music for children’s ministries, I would like to challenge you to think not just about what music is immediately accessible, but also to include some music which is a step or two beyond where we are now. Faith and worship are lifelong practices, and we have many opportunities to plant seeds along the way, whose blossoms won’t appear for years.
These past few weeks, there was another murder spree. In fact, there was more than one. Another random selection of young people took up weapons and decided to destroy the lives of other people. Next Sunday, many Christian churches celebrate the third Sunday of Advent which liturgically includes lighting the “Joy” candle in an Advent wreath.
That is a difficult paradox to resolve, and it is this kind of sudden eruption of the world into the lives of people that makes collaborative and team approaches to worship planning so important. When the worship we express is not responsive to events such as mass shootings, public bombings, and the unrepentant slaying of black men and women for wearing their American skin, it becomes irrelevant.
We may not like the fact that we have to compete with club sports, Target’s marketing budget or last night’s midnight finish of the playoff game to fill our pews on Sunday mornings, but that does not give us the excuse to stop trying to craft the best worship possible every single week. Especially in times like these, times when the human experience seems particularly difficult to comprehend or bear.
The human experience is the worship experience. The work of Sunday morning is a work of meaning-making. A team of people who have spent weeks in dialogue preparing for this Sunday of Joy only to wake up Friday to a world in Sorrow, won’t have to wonder whether or not to change the slides, the songs, the prayers or the sermon. They will only have to figure out who first to call. They will be able to get together and continue the dialogue for how a service pointed toward Joy can more deeply engage with a community in grief.
Too often, pastors sit alone in their offices on Saturday, bleeding over a sermon or prayer that arises from the newspaper, with no mechanism in place to work with the musicians, the liturgists, the ushers, the sound engineers, the video crew, or the drama team to shift, change or alter the planned worship.
Too often, the music leader feels duty-bound to the letter and text of the cantata, and doesn’t give herself permission to revise the readings or alter the order of the songs.
Too often, music groups have not spent enough rehearsal time together to be able, without notice, to play a different song set or present a different anthem.
Too often, the children’s sermon has been a slot of storybook or Bible song, and there is no time to find something age appropriate that can help children and parents in conversation and response to sudden tragedy.
It is at these times, these times when a faithful response is especially important, that our lack of preparation shows. It is at these times that the clockwork, fill the slot worship production mentality bears its fruit.
We show up and follow our lines, incapable of improvising on the black and white themes of the bulletin We say the printed prayers from the book of worship and sing the songs set before us, not because they mean something, but because that is what we have been taught to do.
We watch the short video clip from “Christmas Vacation,” presented with no shift in context or aim, and at the end of the morning, our people leave, unprepared for the week ahead, their questions, griefs, anxieties and fears unanswered by the Gospel; and the best we leaders can hope for is that worship may have provided an hour’s escape from the morning news.
‘Tis the season, but we should not jump too soon and too quickly to the joyous occasion of Christ’s birth. Still, today, God grows in the waters, and in the darkness. God is still a seed germinating, hidden beneath Mary’s heart. God is still, today, but a scrap of hope which has yet to breathe on its own.
God is a hope and even on Christmas, will be born weak and dependent on human nurturance to survive. I wonder if we jump too soon to expectation of salvation and forget our own roles as the midwives, mothers, cooks, babysitters, daycare providers, teachers, and foster parents of Messiah. Hope, peace, joy, light and love may well be born on Christmas Day, but it takes a life (several lives, in fact) for them to develop, grow, flourish and thrive.
As you look around this Advent and Christmas season, I invite you to notice those who have nurtured hope. I invite you to encourage those who have given food and drink to peace. I invite you to celebrate those who sing, dance and foster playful joy. If the Christ knew to love, it is because the baby Jesus was born, not only to a manger, but to a community of love; and still today, it is people of radical humility and love, communities of outstanding peace and embodied joy who emanate the light of Christ into a world which sometimes seems barren of possibility.
You and I are in this thing together, together with Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit to carry, bear, birth and nourish that better world to which we aspire.
-Inspired by the contagious witness of Katie Meyler and the More Than Me Foundation
Adoration of the Magi: image used with permission: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen. (NRSV )
In this season of festivity and gift-giving, of parties, purchases, and family celebration, may we be mindful of peace. May we look for connections between economic distress and injustice; between poverty and war; between need and slavery; between famine and greed; and between oppression and fear. May we look for ways, not only to lift others from a moment of hunger, but to end the conditions which make starvation possible. May we look for ways, not only to lift spirits for a season, but to free spirits from the chains which weigh them down. May we look for ways, not only to celebrate the good news of Christ’s birth, but to share that good news with all whom we meet-a Gospel of peace, freedom, compassion, generosity, goodwill, justice, and joy.