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Love Language for progressive church worship

 

“God is love…”  1 John 4:8

These three words sum up progressive Christian theology.

They represent a turning point in the evolution of human understanding of Ultimate Reality.  The Bible starts with Superman-In-The-Sky and ends with agape – unconditional love – as the identity of the Divine.

Love is the generative and creative force of the cosmos, so it is omnipresent.  But it makes room for unpredictable possibilities, so it is not omniscient.  Love is the essence of existence and of consciousness: it is powerfully attractive, but it is not omnipotent.  Love is personal, so we use personal terms to express it.  But we don’t ask love to solve our problems for us.  Prayer is not about asking God to intervene on our behalf.  Rather, it is our cultivation of cosmic consciousness, a discipline of paying compassionate attention to ourselves and others.  It is the practice of de-centering our small-“s” selves and recognizing unconditional love – which is the Christ – as the core of our being.  In prayer, we let divine love guide us into action to meet the needs of ourselves and others.

Christian worship is full immersion in this holy compassion.  If this is the core of our theology – if we’ve truly left the old paradigm of supernatural theism behind – then the words we use in worship will reflect it.

But a lot of our progressive congregations have a great deal of catching-up to do.  Old habits die hard.  In worship, many churches are still “praying for” stuff instead of just “praying into” the mystical presence of divine love.  In music, most of our churches are still singing the top ten hits of 1750 with old-school supernaturalism baked into the lyrics.  The invocations, litanies, choral anthems, and benedictions often don’t reflect the theology expressed in the sermons.

But we can maintain precious traditions while bringing the content of worship up to date with a language of love.

When I lead prayer in worship, I use phrases like these:  “Let us draw near to God in prayer….  In prayer, let us be one with the love who is God…   Let us lift up our prayerful intentions for healing and wholeness for ourselves and others… Dear One, love divine, we turn to you in prayer… Such are our yearnings, such are our needs and hopes. May you guide our hearts and minds, hands and feet, to put your compassion into action in our lives and in our world…  So be it — amen.”

Progressive Christians get it that the stories in the Bible that look mythological are indeed myths.  They are powerful, transformative, life-changing stories that may not be historically factual, but are made sacred by the intentions of the people who created and recorded and remembered them.  The Bible is our treasure-trove of poetry and stories that we use to express our spirituality.  So we hold it and read it with reverence. But we don’t read it as the once-and-for all, final, inerrant Word of God.  We bring our own ever-changing experience, our own light, to the reading of scripture, and in turn the scripture becomes a medium for expressing and enlightening our journeys.  That’s why I introduce Bible readings in worship this way:  “Let us prepare our souls to receive the sacred myth of scripture.” And I close the reading with these words: “Through this scripture may the light shine that our souls need for today.”

For years, I’ve been writing new lyrics for old hymns.  The tunes still matter to many folks in progressive churches.  So my lyrics keep the sound and feel and some of the words of the hymns.  My alternative lyrics are poetic, evocative expressions of progressive Christian theology.  Jesus is portrayed as our pioneer of compassion – a radical, mystical rabbi, not a supernatural deity.  The word “God” is interchangeable with “love”.  Old-fashioned Christian triumphalism is absent and, in its place, religious pluralism is implied.

The same is true for the invocations, benedictions, and litanies I have created.  They fit traditional forms of Protestant worship, incorporating a language of divine love.

Gender neutrality is woven into my worship words – but I strive to avoid the stilted linguistic work-arounds that characterized early attempts at removing sexist terminology from liberal Christian church life.

My worship words, and those of many colleagues in this quest, have found their way into churches around the world, and this keeps me in the game of producing more.  Have a look at ProgressiveChristianity.org and WorshipWords.org to access them.  But I yearn for much more radical change in the manner of our worship than my work might suggest.  My words are, in many cases, “new wine in old wineskins”.  This works up to a point, but let’s face it: the old wineskins of worship are breaking.

Our “orders of worship” need radical make-overs: more contemporary music, richer visual experiences, more creative and tasteful use of media technology, more participation by congregants, more focus on the eucharist and less focus on preaching, fewer litanies, more contemplative prayer, and less “insider” language that bewilders newcomers.  We need new tunes with words that ring true for our time.  Traditional Protestant choir music is out of touch with the sensibilities of many if not most parishioners.  It certainly has been out of synch with my own musical preferences ever since I entered the ministry.  In my days as a pastor, I noticed that relatively few members of the choir cared about the meaning of the words they sang.  They were there for the music, not for the religion.  (Notice the number of choir members who don’t show up for worship when they’re not performing!)  It is very hard for churches to change their music programs.  Often, choir directors have more power in churches than pastors.  If choirs resist needed change, churches should consider having them do stand-alone performances just prior to worship services, so people will have more choice about whether or not to serve as the audience.

We don’t need to abandon tradition: we need to radically rediscover, re-interpret, and up-cyle it.  We ought to lift up precious Christian spiritual practices that have been long neglected, and let go of worship forms that are worn out.  Early Christians danced around the communion table.  They chanted prayers with soaring plainsong as preludes to silent contemplative union with divine love.  Progressive Protestants are too often locked into worship forms that are merely hundreds of years old.  It is time to go all the way back in Christian history, lift up the best from the deep well of our two-thousand-year-old tradition, and deploy it with contemporary interpretation.

One congregation I admire greatly is St Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco.  Its goal in worship is to bring fourth-century Christianity up to the twenty-first.  They write their own hauntingly beautiful troparions – meditative hymns in a minor key.  It is an early Christian musical form to which they have attached contemporary lyrics.  Their choir has no loft: its members, each in uniquely spectacular robes and caps, sit among the members of the congregation in order to bring everyone along in song.  The interior ceiling of the church has a cupola decorated with images of saints with halos, in the traditional style of eastern Christianity – but upon closer inspection one realizes that they include Martin Luther King, John Coltrane, Dorothy Day, and other contemporary figures.  Under that cupola is the altar, around which the congregants do a simple jig before the eucharist.

On another end of the creative worship spectrum is a church called Thad’s in Culver City, CA, nicknamed after the least notable of Jesus’ disciples.  The worship service reflects this attitude of understatement.  The order of worship is stripped-down and accessible to newbies.  The church’s band plays its own original music with intriguing lyrics that tangentially touch on topics of faith, inviting contemplation: the songs would play well on secular radio.  The sermon – more of a reflection – is delivered from a barstool.  The look and feel of the worship are reminiscent of a contemporary megachurch, but with strikingly different content.  It’s a community in which “evangelicals” can feel welcome.

If God is love, and practicing it is what we’re about, then we’ll be serious about making our churches approachable for people who know little about the faith, or are in recovery from its toxic forms.  So let’s get serious about re-writing our worship with a language of love!

 

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of six published books on progressive Christianity, with a new one coming out soon:  TENDERLY CALLING: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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