Imagining an Early Worship War

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"Worship Wars" have flared in many North America churches for fifteen years or so. Worship committees, council members, pastors and musicians have tangled about what fits in worship and what doesn't. Styles and content of songs, choices of instruments, to dance liturgically or not, to preach in monologue or dialogue, to use teaching devices such as overheads and slides or not--all have become heavy artillery in the wars.

With rare exceptions that have furthered a spirit of peace befitting people who belong to the Prince of Peace, many committee discussions have flared into public battles. Worshippers have divided into sides. Voices have been raised in anger more often probably than in worship to the Most High. All sides and most participants have dug entrenched positions, reinforcing them with declarations of their own right and righteousness.

Battlefields that are littered with spiritual casualties are not only worship services, but also meetings, after-church coffee times, internet chat lines, pastors' gab sessions and countless blogs and articles in magazines and journals Almost all claim to base their opinions and convictions on biblical revelation and how they interpret it. Pride usually ends up the only winner of these skirmishes and wars. Of course hardly anyone laughs, except in ridicule of the "other side's" view--even though the "other side" happens to be friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, members of God's family.

Maybe one untried tactic in these "worship wars" is to take oneself somewhat less seriously. Could that help bring peace, reminding ourselves that even the Bible writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, remained fully human? Maybe they were fully capable of disagreeing in their time and place about worship too.

So in a culture often dedicated to left brain activity, kick that side into neutral. Pull that plug, trip the breaker on that circuit. Engage your right brain for about 1250 more words as you read a recently discovered and freely translated verbatim of a meeting of the Central Jerusalem Wannabe Temple Worship Committee. Watch the members around their table from the distance of time and with the permission of humour as we eavesdrop in mid-agenda, taking ourselves less seriously, praying to treat each other more respectfully and worshipping God withal.

Jonadab: As usual, Sarah, you've done an excellent job of finding the resources for the Sabbath School program at the end of Passover. That was really a nice touch with matzo and lamb meat for everybody. Thanks a lot.

Sarah: Not to mention it. It's what I do.

Harim: I did want to quibble a bit about that inclusiveness. Don't you think that the children were maybe a bit to young to grasp the significance of that meal?

Sarah: I suppose there's all sorts of ways that could be misunderstood, but it's a little late to dig it up now. Our full committee discussed this thing nearly to death about four months ago and then decided to give it a try. We even made informative announcements in worship and on street corners, inviting everybody to take part. We encouraged parents to tell their children about the history and the meaning. We even asked King David to announce publicly that this was a full committee decision.

Jonadab: OK, Sarah. Don't get too steamed up about this again. We've been through this one before. And you, Harim, I know you voted against that lamb and matzo object lesson. That's your privilege. But you didn't record your vote, so you're fishing behind the net on this one. It's better for everybody if you stow it now. It's part of loyalty and community, you know. Speaking of the king, I think that's him knocking at the door. You'll remember we asked him to come to talk a bit about developing a new, official songbook.

Harim: Welcome, your Royal Highness.

David: Please, let's not stand on formalities. I gird my loins just like you do, Harim. Call me Dave, at most Prince, but none of this "Royal Highness" business, OK?

Jonadab: Well, yes, then, uh . . . Dave. We've been on this songbook development project for quite a while. We know you're deeply committed to this. I mean, we did sponsor a public song-writing contest to put together 150 songs. I know you're capable and eager, but, Dave, couldn't you give us a break? Look--you've submitted more than 70 songs so far. Give other poets and musicians a chance.

David: What can I say? It's what I do.

Sarah: And to some excess, I say, Dave.

Jonadab: Hold it again, Sarah. Please, a little more respect.

David: That's all right. People get passionate about these things. It's quite natural and fitting when we're talking about emotions and convictions.

Harim: Which is precisely what you write and sing about a lot, your Roy..., I mean, Dave--maybe to excess.

David: As I was saying, people get passionate--like you are this minute, Harim. Maybe you could explain a bit about what you mean.

Harim: You bring everything, absolutely EVERYTHING into your songs. They're so extreme, no balance, just your whole life, out there on your sleeve for everybody to see. Like this one: "Have mercy on me, O God . . . for I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me." Nothing wrong with that sort of expression in private. But look, these are songs for public worship. I'd be ashamed to put everything on display and I think you ought to exercise a little more judgment and prudence about subject matter.

Jochebed: Harim, I couldn't disagree with you more. The king--Dave here--is modelling honesty and repentance. He's not boasting. Far from being excessive, there's depth of spirit. The only way to experience and communicate the forgiveness he craves here is to go into some detail..

Harim: I don't like it. I feel gritty just reading the first part, to say nothing of what happens when I heard you sing it.

David: Like what, for example?

Harim: When you sang that for us the first time, I got a lump in my throat so big I couldn't even protest then, even though I thought I should.

Sarah: You're protesting now, just fine. So! You DO have feelings; I'd never guess.

Jonadab: Sarah, that's twice! Please cool your jets today, OK! Harim has a point, Dave. Sometimes it does seem like your emotions control you--and not you your emotions--and I don't mean only in most of the songs you submitted to our little contest.

Harim: Take, for example, the time you were bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. Sure, that was an exciting time, but let's have some decorum, please. I mean, prancing about in your Stanfields? You call that reverent?

Jochebed: Brother, your wife Michal really had something to say about that one, by the way.

David: Well, now, some things ARE private. Give that one a rest, OK. And no, I don't really call that reverent, Harim--if you mean solemn and self-contained. But I do call it worship. And evidently God has not complained about that one yet.

Jochebed: Sorry about that--I mean it. It won't happen again. But I'd like to return to your songs, since this songbook is our main point. I don't usually mind the emotion; it fits often for this mystery of how God works in us. But some of your songs are really not up to snuff.

Take that shortest ditty you submitted--#117. Presumptuous, grandiose, it is: "Praise the Lord, all you nations, extol him all you peoples." Isn't that a bit much for such a short thing? Not much thought put into that--just feeling with little motivation. Fluff, really.

Sarah: Jochebed's saying something we've all thought, Jonadab. Not only is this particular song short and shallow, what about #136? That song that goes on and on endlessly, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His mercy endures forever." Mercy, mercy, mercy. Without getting personal, Dave, that's just a lot of repetition, monotonous. I don't know how many of your songs are going to make the cut.

David: Well, Sarah, you slipped up on the author of #136. I didn't even have a hand in that song. I just ran across it and passed it on--heartily. That's because it involves the whole community in this nation, all the people who come together to worship. They're not there as spectators. They can take part actively. And it looks to me like that repeating refrain "His mercy endures forever" is supposed to remind the people precisely of God's endless, repeating love. No, not monotonous, not mindless--but reaching into individuals' hearts and a community's soul.

Look, I don't want to get bogged down in the details of every song. What about their overall scheme and presentation? I DO intend to express as much soul-aching or soul-healing emotion as possible. The Lord has healed and continues to heal my own damaged life. Though I don't think anyone should ever think of copying me, it's fitting to say, sing and play in as many ways as possible some of the things the Creator and God of all does. Not everyone has to like it. But God made us in so many different ways. Everybody has to express that--in song, poetry, with instruments. . . .

Jonadab: Dave, you're starting to ramble. It's important to stick to our subject or we'll be here until the Feast of Tabernacles. But so long as you bring it up, we should probably look at that last song someone entered in the songbook contest--that one about praising God with trumpets, harp, lyre, tambourines, dancing, strings, flutes, cymbals. I don't know about that.

For you, though, Dave, I think it'd be a good idea to stay away from the harp. Once I heard someone took so poorly to your playing that he almost killed you. But what I really want to know about this psalm is, what's next? Drums in worship?

Sarah, you've had your hand up for a while. Go ahead . . .

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Very well written! I think you have done a great job of allowing us to identify with one-or maybe even two of the Central Jerusalem Wannabe Temple Worship Committee members. Pride and passion can quickly turn into oil and water during some meetings.

A key point here is that we are indeed humans-humans that can get so fired up over things we- as an individuals- find important. And when those ideas get in our heads, well, they are perfect! So why can't everybody 'chill' and respect Davids songs for what they are? Because someone always has a better way of thinking...such an inane cycle, but sadly it's the cycle that robs us our ability to enter--and remain--humble throughout the meeting.

Thank you for gently nudging us with humor on this one, I know I certainly appreciate it!

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