The Waterworks

It was years ago – the church youth group had gone to an outing at some state park or another, I forget which one. Our teacher had us circle around a small pipe next to a hand-operated pump. We tried to keep our distance, the smell of rotten eggs was very strong.
“People used to come here from miles around just for this water … sulfur water. It was believed to be healthier than normal water. It was said to make crops grow better, food taste better, clothes be cleaner, and kids to grow up stronger. It wasn’t uncommon to see people bringing jugs that they would fill up and take home back with them.” The teacher began explaining.
And as our luck would have it, one of the campers from the nearby campgrounds happened to walk up and start pumping water into an empty milk jug. The fresh smell of sulfur burned in our nostrils. When the camper had gone, the teacher continued.
“Anyway, this pump wasn’t always here. It was installed to make it easier for people to access the water, to get it to them quicker. At first, it worked really well, but eventually, they realized that they had damaged it. As you saw just now, the water barely trickles out.”
In his conversation with the woman at the the well (John 4), Jesus told her about living water. It might be better to center the conversation on running water – as that’s close to what was meant. Wells and cisterns usually housed still water. One couldn’t always be certain how good the water was to use. (I saw a documentary where children in India were showing off their well, they explained that the fish in the bottom of it were serving an important purpose – if ever the fish died, they would all know that the water was polluted and it was unsafe for them to drink of it.) Running water, like water from rivers, was a powerful symbol of water that brings life. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Revelation 22 tells us that from God’s throne will flow the river of the water of life.
If water is a metaphor for Christianity, then we have to consider what people can do to/with water. Ancient Romans were known for building their aqueducts – which directed and moved water. Cisterns stored water. Wells could be dug to find water. In the same way, Christians can build structures to direct and move Christianity, places to store it, places to find it. But we have to take care that we don’t damage it in the process – like the sulfur well, the best of intentions doesn’t prevent us from destroying the thing we’re trying to preserve. We are pretty far removed from what was – the original Christianity in it’s original form. We can’t return to what was – but that doesn’t mean that what is should be what will be from now on – like water, all things are subject to change.

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Couldn’t Care Less

So many times, people tell me how amazing and wonderful worship is. Oftentimes, I wonder if they’d be as enthusiastic about the worship in my church. The sanctuary was built a few years ago, it’s a fairly standard and simple design, like most churches I’ve attended, there are two rows of pews arranged in two vertical rectangles that are longer than they are wide. The rows themselves are on a diagonal. The walls are a clean white with the occasional large window, there is light-colored stained wood for the pews (with pink or purple cushions that match the carpet, I forget which), for the pulpit, for the rail along the stairs, for the altar. That’s a pretty thorough description of the location. The atmosphere is generally one of family, friends, and neighbors catching up with each other. They certainly do talk to each other.

When it comes time for the music to start, things change. Like on Sunday; while the lyrics for the hymn were being displayed on the screen, I couldn’t help but notice that there was quite a few disinterested parties in the building. Perhaps it was the conversations in the midst of the music or playing with their hair, it seemed like people were finding other things to do than to sing along with the worship music.Singing ceases to be the priority.

I think that’s something that people aren’t always anxious to talk about. How no matter what you do and no matter what you don’t do, there will always be disinterested parties. I think that for a lot of young people in this area, going to church is expected of them and so they show up, but they don’t have to like it. The disinterested parties just check out and don’t bother to sing at all. Sometimes I’m one of them – I just do a better job of hiding it by lip-syncing. I can only imagine how churches in regions with better internet might have a number of youth texting each other, oblivious to what’s going on, be it music or preaching. Is that the case? I don’t know. As to the older ones who are disinterested, it can be for a variety of reasons: the stale routine has gotten old, they passionately dislike the music, they have a lot on their minds, anything really.

They’re not the only ones though. Every time the choir is tasked with a contemporary song, they don’t do it justice. It’s not that they don’t sing the sheet music flawlessly, they do, but they sing contemporary music in a different way than they sing hymns. It’s the difference between having to sing a song you can’t stand and getting to sing a song you absolutely love.

Next Sunday, take a look around. Whatever worship ‘does’ for you, it doesn’t do for the disinterested. And there’s no guarantee that changing worship so that it ‘does’ something for others won’t turn you into a disinterested party in the process. It’s like worship these days is a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other, but never really able to stay in that sweet spot. For those of you whose worship “works” and “does” for you, it’s probably difficult to imagine what it is to be in a church with uninteresting worship that doesn’t work and doesn’t do anything for you. It’s a lot like having to watch that movie you can’t stand because somebody you love adores it. It’s a lot like having to read that book you despise because somebody you love admires it. It’s a lot like having to do that dance you hate because somebody you love enjoys it.

I know – I’ve been told, if you can’t stand the church go somewhere else. That only works then there is somewhere else to go. Virtual worship, watching sermons and worship sets over the internet is just somehow not the same. It certainly wouldn’t be for our traditional church – just imagine it!

“Welcome brothers and sisters, and everyone else watching us over the internet! First, let’s take a moment to meet’n’greet one another, be sure to make everyone feel welcome. Then we’ll sing hymn 724, verses 1 and 4.”

The person at home has no one to meet and greet, no one to ask about their health or family, and no one to ask them how their day has been. When it comes time to sing, the echo of a lone voice from four nearby walls serves as a reminder of what isn’t there – dozens of other voices that fill up the air, altogether rising and falling in unison. The feel of worship just isn’t there when it doesn’t feel like worship or even remotely resemble it. That’s why it doesn’t work – traditional or contemporary – over the television, over the computer, over the radio.

All it really does is turn the watcher / listener into a spectator who can see and/or hear what others are doing, but cannot interact with the others that are doing whatever they’re doing. Like my church, it broadcasts it’s services over the radio – somebody at home can listen in, but they cannot become part of the broadcast itself, singing for everyone to hear, meeting and greeting one another. Worshiping at home very much becomes like being the person who worships outside of the church doors, but can bring himself or herself to join everyone else – knowing that ‘where two or three are gathered, I am there” it’s basically a church service of one.

I just can’t think of any good solutions – what works for you is what works for you, and what works for another might not be something that works for you. I think when it comes down to it, you just can’t make somebody else interested in something that interests you because they aren’t you. The problem with church worship service is that they’re pretty unchanging. It’s all about doing things they way they’ve always been done, in the order they’ve always been done, and not deviating from that as much as humanly possible. But if you aren’t going to be able to make changes happen, then you shouldn’t be surprised when one by one, disinterested parties begin to disappear. If there’s nothing for them in the church service, there’s nothing for them to stick around for and no reason for them to show up at all.

And it’s not enough to do an occasional contemporary song if it sounds like you’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else – but at least the shoe would be on the other foot for a little while and it would give you a context as to how others feel. It just makes me wonder if there was the same tug-of-war worship experience decades ago and centuries ago, as people became polarized over the subject. I know that when I read about the Great Awakening, part of the conflict was that the New Lights were getting into more emotional worship and had stepped away from the more stoic worship favored by the Old Lights. Even Martin Luther felt that music should be emotionally moving. And yet for all these swings toward allowing emotion, tradition swings back to the other extreme …

“You can’t rely on you what you feel!” “If you don’t feel God, does that mean that God has forsaken you?” “God wants you to worship him whether you feel like it or not!” “How can you be sure that Satan isn’t the one playing on your emotions right now and not God?” “What you’re really worshiping is emotions, not God.” … I’ve heard it all, and then some.

It’s worthwhile to not that some people believe that feeling any hint of emotion during worship cheapens it, so the disinterested attendees are actually offering true worship in that they are not emotional, not sentimental, and not swept up by the music (or at least, they would be if they were singing along with the rest) – at least, according to some. Whereas those who participate and are emotional, sentimental, and caught up by the music are actually worshiping their own feelings. Fortunately, the idea that “emotion cheapens the experience” didn’t really catch on. Because to anybody else, having a conversation with somebody else or playing with one’s hair when you’re supposed to be singing really wouldn’t be worshiping, it would be boredom.

Another consideration is that in this region, churches in the same denomination are just like the one down the street from it. Our church is actually two, the same people sing the same songs, one at ten at location a, the other at eleven at location b. If one person felt that the o’clock church was the right denomination but wasn’t their cup of tea, they could go to the o’clock that’s pretty much exactly like it. Why is it that churches in the same denomination do not offer a variety of services particularly when they’re in the same area?

But when you say that your worship is great and excellent, is that an empirical fact or a statement of emotion? If every ounce of joy, every drop of delight, every gram of happiness and all other emotions were zapped out of existence for the duration of worship music – what do you get? Songs with no resonance or bounce, just words sung to a tune as correctly and as unemotionally as possible. That just doesn’t sound like worship to me. I just can’t help but wonder – if some of the regulars are disinterested now, then what will worship become in the years to come? It probably won’t be much different, just as empty with just as many people not interested in what’s going on. The former solution – separate and form different services for different people works only as long as the congregation can support it (both put up with it and finance it.) But to do that, they would have to be interested in it in the first place.

 

It’s No Joke

One of the things I’ve been looking for is a really good camera. It has to be just right or it won’t get very much use. I’ve probably seen dozens of them – reviews, zoom tests, ratings … and most of the time I worry about whether or not they’ll work out. One day, I came across a promotion for a brand new camera – one that was designed for left-handers. It sounded too good to be true! And then I looked at the date the promotion was published … April 1st, a few years ago.

Being a left-handed person, finding tools and equipment that work for me and not against me isn’t always easy. I had to have gone through over a dozen can-openers until I found the perfect one. Good scissors are worth their weight in gold. To me, it shouldn’t be a joke that an expensive piece of equipment was made just for left-handed people. Could you imagine it the other way round? If the whole world was designed for left-handed people and as a right-handed person, you were “backwards.” When you go to write on a desk, the arm-rest is on the other side. When you go to take a picture, your stronger hand is just holding the empty side of the camera and your weaker hand has to be the one to steady the shot, operate the controls, and hit the button at the right time. Oh sure, you could operate it upside down, but that’s just as awkward. One day, you come across and right-handed camera … only to discover that it’s a joke and doesn’t work.

Some things just shouldn’t be a joke or made fun of. Like certain rights or beliefs. Can you imagine what it would have been to live in a segregated world and the April Fools Day Prank someone opted to play on you was to convince you that segregation was over? That you could sit at the front counter and anywhere on the bus? Only to be made a fool of and made fun of for believing that segregation ought not be the norm? That’s what I was thinking when I read one of the blogs mentioning that on April 1st many complementarian pastors had voted to permit women to teach and preach. But it was just a joke. After a laugh, nothing really changes for anyone.

One of the pranks I saw made a subversive point – something that we laugh at today is really no laughing matter, many men, women, and children are without basic access to necessities, food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, access to medicine, and so they die too young – far too many of them live shorter lives because they don’t have what we have. We often take what we have for granted.

I still don’t know why somebody thought it would be a good joke to announce a left-handed camera. There is a world of left-handed photographers out there who would probably appreciate a camera designed to work for them and not against them. It’s not as if a market for the product doesn’t exist – it does. But the joke is on us that somebody would think about us. I wonder if that’s how many people feel when people make a joke of what they believe to be true.

Opportunities

The last time I was presented with an opportunity to teach, it didn’t work out quite as well as I would have hoped. I remember that there was a sort of Hyacinth Bucket – a woman who knew exactly what her vision was and how exactly I ought to realize it. It was more of a ‘warm body’ that was needed to push the play button and read out the questions from the book and less of a “I need you to use your knowledge and skills to teach the class” sort of thing.

Today the pastor mentioned that he had heard that I was being considered to teach, that is, if I get involved in Sunday School a little bit more. That’s nice, really, but I’m not sure I really want to teach. Especially if it’s yet another ‘warm body’ sort of thing. So I’ve had a few brilliant insights (apparently, I wouldn’t know,) here and there, but is that enough to make me a teacher? I’ve had all kinds of teachers and I just don’t think I’m like any of them. All I’ve really done is examine various teachings through this blog – which no one in my church even knows about. If they could look through it, they’d probably realize that what I do know is enough to make me dangerous. And yet, I don’t know nearly enough to do a proper job of teaching.

If I had my way, I’d begin the class with some contemporary music to break up the silence. I’d probably have it playing on low as people walked in. I know I’m not a people person – but I have to figure that everyone else is, so they’ll talk. And talk. And talk some more about the earth-shattering excitement that has happened in the past six days. Then I’d take a Bible and question everything in it and about it. I might refer to books such as “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” to point out that our tendency to approach the Bible from a plain, literal reading is fraught with peril. I’d look at what the original languages have to say and how what was said makes a world of difference in meaning. But this is a Methodist church, they have things like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and other ideas that I have heard of, but don’t really know what they mean. I still feel a little too Southern Baptist to do them very much good. I don’t know what I could teach them that they don’t already know.

I think that first experience also took a lot out of me in terms of wanting to teach – being told that I had an opportunity to teach was an exciting thing … but it didn’t work out. Then being told that I had an opportunity to teach – it was like … “I’ve been there before, but I was disappointed. I don’t want to go through that song and dance again.” For one, it sounded as if I’d have to get more involved in Sunday School first. I already felt a little out of my element the last time I was in a class because almost everyone who will be in it will be nearly twice my age. Not to mention that they outnumber people who are near my age ten to one. Also, there’s the problem of the church itself – it’s been getting harder to attend and I’m not sure I want to commit myself to a church that I don’t really completely like. The only part of the church that I can stand is the preaching and even then some days it’s just easier to not go.

Which is sort of why I thought the teaching thing was odd – perhaps they had read that millennials tend to disappear from churches that don’t offer a place for them and decided to open the door to me to teach just so I’d have something to stick around for? I wish they’d make it an easy decision and just add a contemporary service – then there would certainly be a reason to stick around. As it is, I just don’t know. Teaching is a big deal and it just may be a bit more than I can chew.