“Bummer” Worship Songs, Casinos + the Church Calendar

In case you didn’t know, casinos don’t have windows. Typically, it’s really difficult to see outside in any way from the casino floor, and it’s fairly well-known that this is because they want you to exist entirely inside the reality of the casino while you’re there. Everything, including the patterns on the carpet, is tailored to pull you into a place where anything is possible: where you could win $1,000,000 on nickel slots; that cute blonde really does like you (and really isn’t a prostitute); where you really are a high-rolling consultant from NYC (and not a debt-strapped state employee from Wisconsin). They spend a lot of money to create this illusion, and they are pretty good at it: while you are there, you can believe anything, and it feels real.

But guess what: eventually you have to leave the casino.

And it’s 2pm.

And rather than being up $20,000, you’re down $450 and you have to make rent.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I’ve been accused of leading “downer” worship sets. In fact, I was once officially reprimanded at a church for not putting enough “uplifting and joyful” songs into our weekly sets. What’s more, at my church we are in a season that has found us playing a lot of songs that dwell on pain and suffering (and yet choosing to still sing, no matter how tentatively). I’ve even made a concerted effort recently to pull us away from these songs, but it just seems like we are in a season of pain and struggle, and as musicians and pastors we simply need to speak to that. Lately, I think of it as “Gap Worship”, songs that stand in the gap between exhilarating hope and devastating despair, between joy and pain.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I was having coffee with a good friend last week who is watching a loved one struggle severely with an undiagnosed devastating physical illness. Doctors cannot seem to figure out what’s going on, and the situation seems to be deteriorating. They were telling me about the latest news, and they said, “I just can’t seem to connect with church right now…”

I replied, “I imagine you walk into most churches and you think, ‘because of what I’m going through right now, there is nothing here that connects with my life.’” 

He began to tear up and simply muttered, “Yeah.”

So many times our churches can begin to resemble casinos, both physically and emotionally. We truly want to pull people into a reality that says “Hey everyone remember: Love wins! Just give your life to Jesus and save your soul! Get on board with God’s mission!” To that end, we do a lot to pull people into the reality we are trying to create.

(In fact, most of our modern churches go to great lengths to blot out natural, ambient light—windows—so that we can better employ our systems to tell the story we want to tell that week.)

And yet, we know that reality is going to set in…

People are going to walk back out and experience the devastating reality of their lives: debt, illness, loss, loneliness, anger, isolation.

I am absolutely not advocating abandoning hope.

I am advocating timeless, non-contextual worship experiences that don’t connect with reality. 

Let’s face it: even Jesus knew it wasn’t Easter all the time. 

One of the great (and under-utilized) tools for planning worship that doesn’t look like and feel a casino is the church calendar. Used creatively, the liturgical calendar (broadly, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and “Common Time”) can help us address the pain and doubt (as well as joy, hope, and anticipation) of the individuals we live and do ministry with.

Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It is a great time to talk about the meaning of Jesus’ coming, and the “gap” between the our world, and the vision of the world that He comes to inaugurate.

Christmas is joy and celebration, celebrating “God-with-us.” In the midst of the depth of winter (death), life springs up. Even in the absence of hope, God is working.

Lent walks us through our mortality and our frailty as we think about Jesus’ journey towards the cross. It’s a time to mourn and to sacrifice and abstain from comfort in order to shake loose sin’s hold on areas of our lives.

Easter bursts forth with celebration and new life. It screams at the world, “Whatever you think you know about life, there is a deeper reality than you think.” At the moment of great sadness and even evil, the victory is truly won.

Pentecost addresses the life that the Holy Spirit brings, and also the creation of the church. It can be a time of community and connection.

I’m certainly not an expert in the church calendar; my church only observes a couple of these seasons. However, I’m fairly convinced that these seasons holistically address the human experience, and avoid “Casino” worship.

For the time being, I’ll keep my downer worship songs. I can see outside, and it’s not always 75° and sunny.

Reality is going to set in when they leave your sanctuary, and we don’t worship a God who asks us to stick our head in the sand. We don’t deny death; we defiantly claim that life—actually resurrection life—comes out of death.

*e

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What Kind of Deal Is This?

Last week a family in our faith community lost a baby. The baby had come too early, and was born with some chromosomal problems, and after one week, Campbell Joy crossed into eternity. The memorial service was one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever encountered: a small coffin over a grave, friends and family huddled in a cold pouring rain.  A Hollywood director couldn’t have thought up a more apt setting.

Today, some other friends got news that their baby (due in about 5 – 6 weeks) was too small, and may need to be “delivered” (the doctors said, “taken”, but I’m not comfortable with that language). Because the docs are going to wait a week, I have no idea how serious this could be, and my mind goes to the some less-than-optimistic places. I imagined myself having to walk through the loss of this child: what would I say, how could I be there for them in their pain? I thought of all the other ways that we experience loss in this life, and the roads I’ll have to walk through with my friends, regardless of where they are and when it happens.

To a great degree, I think that love actually is defined by our reaction to others’ pain. It certainly is revealed by it, brought into focus. Engagement with someone else’s pain = love. Retreat away from that pain, and you are retreating from love. I like to tell people, “As a pastor, you don’t get paid for the good days; you get paid for the bad ones.”

All of that lead me to the question, “Why do this community thing?”, which really isn’t the right question. The question is, “Why do this love thing?” If all love will — almost by definition — lead to pain, then why do it at all? I started listing out all of the ways we can experience pain in community:

  • Break ups
  • Death
  • Injury
  • Aging
  • Separation
  • Failure
  • Infidelity

All of these things will, nearly inevitably, accompany each relationship. And what can we place on the other side of the equation? What balances out this terrible list? “Life” and “Love”? What does that mean?

I think it means a lot, actually. I think that to the degree we weather the pain of relationships, our love and life expand, grow larger and more abundant. To the degree we retreat away from the pain, we shrink a little, atrophy away, grow dimmer. I believe we were designed as “lovers”, that is, to expand and grow into great engagers of humanity, and do you know why?

Because our Creator is the same way. God shows us the way love and pain works: As the very definition of love, God doesn’t shrink away from pain; he engages it, looks it full in the face, and as he does (or did) that, he shows that love overflows and extends in welcome embrace to the other. Ultimately that dialectical embrace of love and pain spilled over to the person of Jesus the Messiah, who simultaneously engaged our pain and revealed the abundant life we are called to.

Engaging pain is a tough deal, but the expansive, abundant life of love on the other side of the equation more than balances scale.