Sunday, June 20, 2010

At Play in the House of the Lord

Last Sunday, June 13, I delivered the commencement sermon at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. As someone who has long admired the late Dr. Webber's work in the area of liturgy, I felt privileged to give this address and truly honored when the school awarded me an honorary doctorate.

The readings for the commencement Eucharist were
  • 2 Sam. 6:12-22
  • Psalm 104:24-35
  • 1 Cor. 14:6-15
  • Luke 5:33-39

Here is the full text of the sermon.

At Play in the House of the Lord

I grew up in a congregation where worship was so Word-centered that it often tried to usher beauty out the door in the name of truth. It might have succeeded had it not been for my father, who loved choral music and believed that God was a god of beauty and should be worshiped with our whole beings.

Our church didn’t have an organ until my father bought a Hammond B-3. It wasn’t exactly an organ, but it pretended to be one. And we didn’t have a choir until my father became the patron of a children’s choir.

There was a no-nonsense woman in our congregation who just didn’t see the point of wasting time on music in public worship. Why, if we did away with the organ prelude and other music, the pastor could extend his already stretched 40 minutes of reasoning by proof text to almost an hour.

* * *

Memories like these get me wondering. Does our public worship have multiple goals which must be kept in proper balance (as when Sister Anita and my father clashed over the time devoted to music and to teaching)? Or is it better to think of our public worship as purpose-less? As producing many good effects, but inherently free from a driving sense of utility?

That memory also sets me to thinking about the relationship of the rational, reasoned, and ordered elements of worship to the intuitive, aesthetic, nonrational elements.

Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that while it is a good thing to pray with the spirit and sing with the spirit, it is even better to pray with the understanding and sing with the understanding.

If Paul had been writing to my home church, he might done the opposite. He might have said that while it is important to be able to trace a chain of proof texts to establish a doctrine, it was also edifying to cut loose in the spirit.

On Pentecost Sunday, my choir sang John Rutter’s wonderful anthem based on 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I Will Sing with the Spirit.” Rutter’s opening melody creates a sense of freedom and ambiguity. It is a musical metaphor for Paul’s words, “I will sing with the Spirit.”

But when Rutter sets Paul’s next clause, “And I will sing with the understanding also,” he uses compositional techniques that create a sense of certainty and structure. He gives his hearers the closest thing in music to deductive reasoning—musical logic that serves as a metaphor for “I will sing with the understanding also.”

I mention this metaphorical music to call attention to the complementarity of “spirit” and “understanding” in worship. Rutter’s composition highlights the paradoxical nature of worshiping, singing, praising, and praying in both spirit and understanding. Without both both dimensions, worship becomes, in Hamlet’s words, “weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable.”

I’m a great fan of the best traditional hymns because that kind of hymnody lifts both the spirit and the understanding. It gives us metaphorical language—in both text and tune—that we can borrow to give expression to both spirit and understanding.

Think of the bold declaration of God’s steadfast, protecting love we sang this evening in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The imagery of the text is reinforced by the fanfare like repetition of the tonic (the home-base note), and then moves stepwise up and down to create a musical picture of a rampart built on a secure foundation.

Or think of a more tender hymn, like Isaac Watts’s brilliant paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” usually married to the American hymn tune “Resignation.” The pentatonic tune bespeaks simple trust. It evokes both the vulnerability of the sheep and the tenderness of the shepherd. Its wandering contour suggests both a flowing stream and wandering sheep. The simplicity of trust suggested by the tune is crowned by Isaac Watts’s final line: “No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home,” thus creating a metaphorical resting place where final word and final tone may dwell together.

Even that beautiful line falls short of expressing the full truth of David’s Psalm, but it gets us closer. If we were to sing only with “the understanding,” we could never reach that full truth.

Take a line from “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”: “What language shall I borrow / to thank thee dearest friend, / for this thy dying sorrow, / thy pity without end?”

Because God’s saving acts on our behalf and his creative acts toward the entire cosmos and his eternal love are unfathomable, so great as to be beyond any language, we are driven to borrow the least inadequate language from creative souls who have reflected on this love and compassion before us. And yet, we know that the best of borrowed language will not do. And thus we must “sing with the spirit.”

* * *

We’ve talked about singing with the spirit and singing with the understanding also. We’ve talked about beauty and truth. Let me introduce another pair of terms: performance and play.

These came to me as I was recently watching some old Leonard Bernstein lectures on DVD. The great conductor talked about Igor Stravinsky “playing with notes,” and playing “the game of notes,” and then “juggling with notes.”

I often talk about “playing music” or “playing my instrument,” without using play in the sense Bernstein used it, associating play with game with juggle.

Performance and play. I perform at the organ. I perform a prelude or toccata or fugue. But I play the music and play the instrument. The word play carries light overtones of ebullience and enjoyment, of getting lost in the moment and the music. Perform, on the other hand, carries notions of thorough preparation, disciplined practice and informed interpretation, well delivered to an audience. Perform is a high-anxiety word, while play evokes joy.

I have told my church choir many times that when they sing an anthem, they should not think of it as a performance. In public worship, our choir’s aim is not to perform. Our aim is to give voice to the people’s praise or petition or lament in a more technically challenging way than they would be able to do as a congregation.

In worship, we who lead—preacher, priest, lector, acolyte, Eucharistic minister, usher, organist, percussionist, choir singer, crucifer, or thurifer—all of us both perform and play. We follow certain forms but we fulfill those forms with varying degrees of freedom.

Performance demands disciplines and structures. We need to consult with each other and with our worship traditions in order to perform the elements of our worship in a theologically and logically coherent way. We must plan the choreography so that we don’t stumble over each other. We work out our gestures and our postures so that we act meaningfully together. We think through our liturgical acts so that we don’t leave something out or inject something alien.

That is what David risked when he danced—minimally clothed—before the ark of the Lord—that he injected something alien into the occasion, something that distracted the worshipers from the object of their worship. But then, 2 Samuel tells us Michal was more concerned for the dignity of her husband than for the worship of the Lord. She was concerned about performance and not open to the play dimension of worship.

Some people think liturgical worship is all form and no freedom. But we who are here know that the elements of freedom and play are strongest when the routines of form and performance are well thought out and practiced.

In my music, diligent practice with attention to technique and interpretation prepare me for performance, and they open the door to play. When one note follows the next naturally because a piece is well rehearsed, I can respond to moments of inspiration. That is when I play.

In worship, well-worn and well-rehearsed structures open up freedom. The freedom to interact with a congregation, to stop preaching a sermon and start preaching to people. To stop reading prayers and to start praying. To stop singing hymns and to make the hymns our own.

* * *

Let me apply several key elements of to worship:

First, play involves repetition. But repetition is not just sameness. It requires variation, as when children play “I spy.” “I spy with my little eye…” that’s the thing repeated. But what comes next: “I spy with my little eye, something that begins with ‘C’,” or “I spy with my little eye something yellow,” that’s repetition with variation.

We do this in worship. We read the prayers of the people with the same words and the same categories of concern every week, but we leave the spaces in which people voice to the particularities of their lives. We like to sing familiar songs, and but we like it best when familiar songs are treated with just enough variation to stimulate delight.

Second, play involves creation and invention. Children are enormously creative in their play. There’s no reason that when children play 19th-century cowboys and Indians can’t mix with 20th-century space aliens and knights from the middle ages. We pour a lot of creative energy into the liturgy. Let me illustrate with one of my favorite instances of creativity that has emerged at my parish. During the “dry bones” reading from Ezekiel at the Easter Vigil, a cellist accompanies the reading, pulling from her instrument the creaks and groans that evoke Israel’s dry bones, and then humming, buzzing sounds swell as the bones and sinews come together.

Third, play involves pretending. Children play house, acting “as if” they are trying to meet the challenges of marriage and parenthood. This pretending is practice for the future. But they also borrow identities from television or books or fairytales. As a child I frequently took on the character of Zorro, thanks to my mother, who sewed me a black cape. When we worship, we act “as if” by dressing up as the kind of people who we truly believe ourselves to be in Christ. We act “as if” the preacher speaks for God because we truly believe that the Word he is exegeting and applying is indeed more than just his word. In the Stations of the Cross we act “as if” we are walking with Jesus to Calvary. During Communion we act “as if” we are sitting down to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as we practice for the kingdom of God. We act “as if” because we know these things to be true.

Play, then, is my code for the creative, inventive, delightfully repetitive and variable approaches we take to the structures of worship. Performance is the disciplined, informed, practiced activity that builds the foundation and framework for play.

Play is not purposeful. It is valuable in its own right. Think of Psalm 104:26, which says that out in the ocean God made “that Leviathan … for the sport of it.” The text could mean that God made Leviathan to play in the waters. Or it could mean God made Leviathan to play with. The Message blends the two ideas: “Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.” There is no ulterior motive to God’s creation of Leviathan. He does it out of a sense of play—perhaps even whimsy.

Public worship is similar. We do not worship to achieve a set of goals. We do it simply because God is who God is and we are who we are. God is creator and savior. We are creatures and saved ones. And so we worship, so we praise.

The closest we come to praise in daily life is complimenting people—but unfortunately many compliments aim at some ulterior goal. These are not praise, but flattery.

If we have an ulterior purpose for praise, we turn public worship into something else.

Sister Anita, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, thought church was all about learning. She wanted to strip away anything that “robbed” the preacher of time. While teaching should take place in worship, teaching is not the goal of worship. Teaching is to enable us to know the God we praise. It is not to build up our fund of spiritual knowledge. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up.”

Some try to turn public worship into an evangelistic service. I want people to get saved in the context of worship, but we do not worship in order to produce a harvest of decisions. If we proclaim the mighty acts of God in our praise, that should prick consciences and lead people to lay their all on the altar. But we proclaim the acts of God because it is his drama and we are players in it.

Some try to use public worship to coerce God into doing our will. This is essentially pagan magic. You see this across the spectrum, from some traditionalist forms of Catholicism to prosperity preaching on the fringe of Pentecostalism. But worship is about what God has already done. And we rest in gratitude for his care.

The Hebrew word for rest is shabbat. The Bible doesn’t command public worship on the Sabbath. The commandment is about imitating God by abstaining from work. But the synagogue service evolved as a Sabbath institution, and Christians inherited this connection.

If Sabbath is about abstaining from goal-oriented labor, that underscores what I’ve said about worship. Instead of telling people that going to church will bring them benefits, we should describe it as an oasis in time, a space where we can rest precisely because we’re not trying to “accomplish something.” We can simply dwell in the relationship with God, experienced through the community’s reading of his Word and celebration of his sacred meal.

When people asked Jesus why his disciples went on eating and drinking while the followers of John the Baptizer and the Pharisees fasted often, Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” He then predicted they would fast once the bridegroom was gone. But, later the risen Christ promised he would be with us always. The bridegroom is with us. So let us play in the house of the Lord.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking for a Hammond organ and wondering if you still have the one your father bought...are you still using it?

Chris Monroe said...

Thank you, David, for bringing such an excellent word to our IWS community. The faculty and students are still talking about it and being impacted by it.

dr. darrell a. harris said...

Many thanks Dr. Neff, for this timely and engaging ministry of the word. Your presence among us is an honor and a joy for all at IWS.

When Jesus insisted they "Let the little children come to me," it would seem we would have understood forever that play is allowed and encouraged in the kingdom. Thanks for this lively reminder!

Anonymous said...

David, many congratulations on the honorary doctorate from IWS! Robert Webber left such a legacy for the evangelical church in his re-examination of worship. He would applaud your invitation of the element of play in worship - and perhaps also dance a bit! Thank you for all you contribute!
Andrew D Leonie - Texas

Martha+ said...

Hi David,

I enjoyed your riff on the importance of play & the "uselessness" of worship, right up there with the "uselessness" of beauty and love, humility, mercy and all sorts of other crazy Jesus sorts of hallmarks.

and yep, I love the pet dragon line.


jhandy said...

I'm grateful for your balance. Sometimes we worship balance too much, but I wholeheartedly affirm word + spirit, structure + play, especially having seen each side without the other, as you have.

I read your column Past Imperfect in May CT (Ardor and Order) and while most evangelicals I grew up with and went to Wheaton College with have the same experience you describe (worship influenced by charismatic renewal, but renewal fizzled), I've recently discovered a subculture of charismatic renewal in the church that makes my experience very different from what you describe in your column.

You may already be familiar with it already, but I'm intrigued b/c it grows in part out of the setting of the Kansas City Prophets. In January 1991, Michael Maudlin wrote a CT article following up on the KC Prophets suggesting that we take the approach of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39).

Perhaps, given Maudlin's response, it is time for a 20-year follow-up to find out what has come of this movement. I think you will find its influence both broad and deep, from Toronto's Airport Christian Fellowship to Redding, California's Bethel Church, to the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, to Heidi and Rolland Baker's Iris Ministries in Mozambique, to our local Chicago HUB and Judson professor Darren Wilson's two recent films on miracles and love. While charismatic movements have their own issues (just as word-centered faith does), I think you will find in these places (and spreading quickly outward from them) a powerful transdenominational movement with a different response to the question about what happened to the charismatic renewal.

David Neff said...


Thanks. I've passed along your suggestion for a follow-up piece on the KC Prophets to the rest of the CT staff.