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Jamming with Jenson: Thoughts on Worship from an Under-Appreciated Theologian

At least in my worship circles, I don’t hear a lot of people talking about Robert Jenson, senior Lutheran theologian with a particular talent for writing which is both concise and evocative. But too many of my friends keep bringing him up to me, and I could no longer avoid setting his work aside for other books in my queue. And so I have come across a marvelous chapter on worship in a forgotten yet prescient book of his from 1967, A Religion Against Itself. What follows is a sort of “jam”—an improvisational call and response—to give you a taste of what I found most remarkable about his insights in his chapter, “Worship: Liturgy Demythologized.”

First, Jenson talks about worship as a narration of the gospel, and how we as worshipers “play-act” (a term he uses several times in the chapter) in that narrative. I love this line:


For this narrative is made with the claim that nothing less than the destiny of the hearers is being narrated. The one who hears this story hears his own last judgment. To tell this story to someone is, therefore, to commit an act of violence upon him, it is to do something decisive to him. It is to utter “performatively,” to use words in such a way as not merely to describe a reality, but to create it (p. 48).

Whew. There’s a lot in there. I hear parallels with another favorite worship theologian of mine, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, who considers worship as God’s “protest” against the world. But Jenson puts a finer point on it. In worship, the Word of God not only protests the world, it protests me. And, even more, it commits an act of violence upon me. If I am to be “made alive” in Christ, I must first die (Rom 6). Worship helps me relive, re-experience, that judgment. That is, if and only if the worship service I lead makes room for that confessional moment where I name myself a sinner (or, more truthfully, accept God’s naming me thus). I think, though, Jenson is also pointing out that when worship allows us to hear the story of our “own last judgment,” we are looking at the cross, where the past “It is finished” becomes a backward echo of the future verdict we will received when we stand at the threshold of the pearly gates. And it is a declaration to be received in the present. This is the cosmic, time-bending power of worship. But it’s predicated on the forcefulness and clarity of the gospel proclaimed in our service’s words, structure, elements, and preaching. How does our worship stack up?

Thus Christian worship is a gathering around a story in which what is told about also occurs as an enactment in the lives of the tellers and hearers (p. 48).

And this is indeed the most difficult thing for us as worshipers and worship leaders.  It’s so much easier to let the story of worship just be “told,” somewhere “out there.” It’s much easier as human beings to let the gospel be proclaimed at arm’s length as some kind of story or narrative we listen to, or appreciate. This, in fact, is so much of what worship often is for you, for me, and for our congregants. It is a removed and distant storytime. It’s much more difficult for us to engage the story in such a way that it isn’t just told, but it acts upon us. This is why I spend so much time in my book on emotions. I do believe that emotional investment in a worship service—for us worship leaders, and for worshipers—is a key ingredient to worship moving from being a distant story “out there” to a Word working on me “in here.” I’ve heard Tim Keller say something to the effect of, “Worship begins when truth about God spill over from head to heart.” I think this is a cousin of what I (with Jenson) am getting at. Our people need to jump into the experience of worship in such a way that they feel the Word of God acting upon us. This is what I think my charismatic friends understand and appropriate so well in worship—they come for God to act on them. What is often lacking in this scenario, though, is what the historic church gives us: a service-structure that allows us to enact the gospel-narrative in such a way that we are enable to receive what the Word (yes, through the Spirit) is there to do—to kill and to make alive.

Insofar as the supernatural Jesus is no longer experienced as a present entity in worship, the two poles of Christian worship—the past events narrated by the gospel and the occurring history of the worshipers—tend to disconnect. When this happens, the act of worship is replaced by other acts, even though many of the words and gestures which formerly belonged to the act of worship continue to be reiterated. This happens slightly differently in Protestant and Catholic traditions (p. 50).

Jenson goes on to describe that Protestant worship tends to “disintegrate to moralism,” and Roman worship tends to disintegrate into superstition. But both are equally troublesome, equidistant (though perhaps in opposite directions) from the ideal of the experience of Christ working on us presently and in the moment of worship. Jenson’s point is that, either way, worship becomes a shell and not the true thing. Worship doesn’t become the event where the living God, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, works on me. Instead it becomes something more distant, more removed, more tame. Death and resurrection is a harrowing experience. I’ll settle for some good advice, moral encouragement—a spiritual pat on the back. The latter is much easier. But it isn’t the real work of the Word in worship.




The Lineup at this Year's National Worship Leader Conferences

So I'm pretty thrilled to see this year's lineup at the NWLC regional conferences happening this year in Virginia (coming up fast!) and Kansas City. For instance, Lester Ruth, who (along with Swee Hong Lim) just published a NECESSARY brief history of contemporary worship will be speaking. Lester is a scholar with a pastor's heart and a churchman's spirit. I trust and believe in this guy. And, though I don't know her personally, I would especially want to hear what Cheryl Wilson-Bridges has to say. Her books look worth a read!

I've come to admire and respect the worship leadership and thoughtfulness behind the songwriting of many of the music leaders that will be there--Paul Baloche, Evan Wickham, and Jesse Reeves.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that the theme is on "Leading in Prayer," zeroing in on what it means for worship leaders to think of themselves as prayer leaders. I have a few thoughts on that subject, myself, and I'm therefore thrilled to see a conference pick it up as its guiding light.

I don't think you'll be disappointed if you choose to go solo or take your team out to bask in the singing and teaching that these conferences will offer this year. Go register!


Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 2)

We're in a series of posts during Lent on the topic of lamentation in worship.

2) Lamentation is the prayer language of suffering.

Scripture recognizes seasons of human experience: "For everything there is a season; a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance..." (Ecc 3:1-4, ESV). When we read the Psalms, we gain the sense that they provide prayers for these various "times." They offer a complete array of emotional prayer languages.

How does one pray joy? Through praise. (Psalm 100)

How does one pray prosperity? Through thanksgiving. (Psalm 30)

How does one pray personal need? Through supplication. (Psalm 86)

How does one pray for the needs of others? Through intercession. (Psalm 5:11-12)

How does one pray their guilt? Through confession. (Psalm 51)

Praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, confession—these are all languages of prayer for various circumstances. They are the various pigments of prayer to be painted on the wildly colorful canvas of life. 

So how does the Christian pray her suffering? She prays it through lamentation. Lamentation is how suffering expresses itself Christianly. To be sure, there are other ways that suffering could be prayed to God. One could accuse God. The Bible has something to say about that, though (James 1:13). One could aim despair "at" God. The Bible also seems to address that (Rom 9:10-11). One could hurl up curses to the heavens. Though this very suggestion by Job's wife didn't appear to get much approval (Job 2:9). We might consider these types of prayers "non-native" prayer languages for the Christian, bastardized dialects borne in the areas outside the borders of Zion, in the compromised regions where other tongues have commingled with the original language.

So it appears that though there are many ways to return our suffering to our sovereign God in prayer, the Christian way is through lament. It is the purer language of suffering, whose wording, grammar, and syntax best fit creature crying to Creator. Interestingly, just because we differentiate this language from that of accusation, despair, and curse, it doesn't seem to diminish the mother tongue's colorful nature. There's plenty of shouting. Every time we read "Arise, O God!" in the Psalms, we should hear it as a scream (e.g. Psalm 3, Psalm 10). Much to the chagrin of therapists that discourage hyperbolic language in relational conflict, exaggeration seems to be allowed: "Why do you cast us off forever?" (Psalm 74:1). There's even a bit of provocative taunting thrown in there: "Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!" (Psalm 44:23). And there's certainly a lot of moaning and groaning (e.g. Psalm 31:10).  

Lamentation as a language, therefore, doesn't sound proper or refined. It's probably less like smooth French; more like gritty Arabic—lots of gutterals, lots of spit. It is clear, true, raw, and beautiful in its own messy kind of way. 

Like any language, unless you grow up with it from birth, it takes practice and study. And it just might be, too, that lamentation requires a "cultural immersion"—moving into territories where that language is the dominant language. 

Lent just might be that annual opportunity for such an immersion.


Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 1)

Jumping off from last week's post, we're allowing the context of Lent to provide an opportunity to offer seven thoughts on lamentation. The first is this:

1) Lament trains our spiritual muscles for the day of testing.

Part of the concern about incorporating lamentation into corporate worship and one's private devotional life is that we're not always "there." We're not always in a place where lamentation feels natural or right. Lamentation is for those who are suffering, oppressed, and downtrodden, and perhaps that's not our experience right now. Briefly noting that this is a very privileged thing to think or say (there are many whose lives are nothing but movement from one sorrow to the next), we still recognize that this is true on the ground, in many of our experiences serving and worshiping in our local churches. "If we engage in lamentation in corporate worship, or if I engage in it now devotionally, it will feel forced and will stick out like a sore thumb." We can call this "untimely lamentation"—lamentation that doesn't fit with where we're at.

We need to recognize that sometimes, for us, lamentation in a given moment will be untimely...more like going to the gym and less like running the actual marathon. Leading thinkers in the spiritual disciplines tell us that those disciplines work like this—they train our "spiritual muscles" for the day of testing much like training at a gym prepares us to actually get on the field and beat the opponent. Lamentation, even when we don't feel like it or think we need it, offers our souls that kind of training.

The reality is that if we live long enough, we will all experience suffering in one form or another. Suffering is the great moment of testing, the arena where all the training (or lack thereof) reveals itself. If lamentation has been a part of your worship and prayer training regimen, chances are that it will offer its spiritually muscular response in that moment: "How long, O Lord?" Lamentation is one of the significant muscle groups of our spiritual anatomy. The Psalms spill an extreme amount of ink over the sufferer's cry. Lamentation is significant because suffering is simply unavoidable for every last human being, and the scriptures point out that there is a Christian way to suffer. That way is lamentation. 

So again, if we learn to join in lament, to pray those prayers with other sufferers who perhaps are feeling it more acutely than we are, we learn to put those kinds of words on our tongues: "How long, God?" "Why, God?" "Where are you, God?" "When will you act, God?" And if they're on our tongues on a regular basis, they are more likely to be on our tongues when we need them most.

If you're looking for some gym time, try on Psalm 13 by praying it repeatedly and aloud, or singing this great setting from City Hymns.


The Big Idea of Lent: Jesus Did What I Couldn't Do

The call to fasting and repentance is as ancient as the prophets. Just read Joel 2. There's nothing like a good fast to, like a defibrillator, shock the unbeating heart of our spirit out of its complacency. However, of monumental, make-or-break importance is to recognize that the season of Lent is far more about Jesus and far less about us.

If we fast, we fast to remember the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, to, in a tangible way, "be found in him." And it is precisely Paul's point in Philippians that being "found in him" means that we recognize that we are found not in ourselves, "not having a righteousness of my own" (Phil 3:9). This is the opposite of fasting to test or flex our spiritual muscles. Now don't get me wrong. Testing our spiritual muscles is a wonderful thing to do; it is part of the Christian's life, in response to the gospel, that we would engage in spiritual disciplines like this. But this is not the "big idea" of the Lenten fast. The big idea of Lent is to embrace this truth: Jesus did what I couldn't do.

Recall that Matthew records Jesus' 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) in order to parallel Israel's 40-year temptation (Num 32:13). What happened with Israel? They grumbled. They made and worshiped idols. They did not rely, by faith alone, on the Word of God. In short, they failed. Matthew sets up Jesus as the new and true Israel...the kind of Israel that Israel could never be. Jesus, succeeding in the wilderness, proclaims to us, "I came to do for you what you could never do for yourselves." The Lenten fast is here to remind us that Jesus came "to fulfill all righteousness" where we crashed and burned (Matt 3:15).

What is the victorious Christian life? Lent answers: Jesus.

All this puts our fast into context—the context of the gospel. If you find yourself tempted this Lent, as we all are, to pat yourself on the back for the good and faithful work you're doing: repent. Change your mind about yourself. You aren't doing as well as you think. You need a righteousness "not of your own;" you need to be "found in him."

One great Lenten worship practice I commend is lamentation, because lamentation is the cry of one who can't find righteousness on their own. And I do mean "righteousness" here in the full-orbed sense of the Bible. The biblical language of "righteousness" certainly speaks to my personal holiness, my pursuit of just actions. And as we've said, we need to remember that we don't have a righteousness of our own. But "righteousness" in Scripture also has to do with justice in the national and global sense.

Lamentation is therefore a double-cry: Things are not right with me, and things are not right with the world. The former is lamentation in the form of personal confession. The latter is lamentation in the form of global confession. Only the victorious ChristianJesus himself—can solve these kinds of problems. Throughout Lent, therefore, I'll be offering a series of seven posts on lamentation, on what it means and how to engage it. And hopefully, even in our lament, as we groan with the Spirit (Rom 8:22-27), may it be yet another way we can find ourselves in Christ this season.


On Worship's Boundaries

Just yesterday, Reformed Worship put up a post of mine on worship's boundaries. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I've been thinking a lot about the pastors, thinkers, and theologians who ministered in the wake of Luther's posting of the 95 theses.

One real "aha" moment of my reading of Luther for doctoral work came in the idea that Luther's articulation of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful) isn't merely a statement about the human condition, but a statement about eschatology. In other words, it's a statement about the cosmic reality in which we find ourselves. We find ourselves in an overlapping of ages, a "simul" of worlds--the Old World, which is passing away; and the New World, which is breaking in by the power of the Spirit through Christ.

A lot of our errors in worship--a lot of our over extended emphases--can be categorized as attempting to break through the boundaries set by either reverting back into purely "Old World" thinking (forgetting that Christ has come and inaugurated a Kingdom) or pressing too victoriously into "New World" realities (forgetting that the Old World, while passing away, is still here).

Luther's lesser known work, Only the Decalogue is Eternal, is mind-blowing. He is so vivid, so clear, in how he articulates the human experience of this overlapping of worlds.

So...go checkout my post, "Luther and the Eschatological Boundaries of Worship," over at Reformed Worship. Happy Advent.


A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.


The Heart of the Book of Common Prayer According to Cranmer

I recently read this article, a review of Alan Jacobs' The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, from over a year ago. The article is written by a person I would consider to be the world's foremost Thomas Cranmer scholar, Ashley Null. Null has earned the right of being called "foremost" both because he studied under Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose landmark biography of Cranmer set the new gold standard, but also because he is doing something no one else has ever done, painstakingly working through and preparing for publishing Cranmer's extensive collection of notebooks called his "great commonplaces." Null has been living in Cranmer's head and heart for quite a while now.

So despite some quibbles and corrections to the review insisted upon by Jacobs, Null's points are worth reading for anyone serious about understanding the original intent of the Book of Common Prayer. I say "serious" because the over four hundred years of Prayer Book study, revision, and historiography has littered the landscape with a lot of erroneous speculation about the theological center (or perceived lack thereof) of the Prayer Book. Cranmer's supposed intent has been coopted to defend practices and doctrine that Cranmer would not have desired. It's one thing to believe that the Anglican tradition should be wide enough to house all the permutations of doctrinal and doxological expression in today's worldwide communion. It's quite another to summon Cranmer for approval. We need more historical clarity.

I would be so bold as to say that Null is in the midst of proving that Cranmer was a convicted Reformational Protestant, not a confused churchman waffling somewhere between Rome and Wittenberg. Even more, Cranmer intended the Prayer Book to be a Protestant and "evangelical" (in the Reformational, not modern, sense of the term) worship document.

Null's article does a good job getting to the heart of the matter, but I commend a search of and appropriation of his extensive writings, including his dissertation turned publication, Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.

I leave you with a few of the choice quotes from the article that summarize just what Cranmer was all about with the Book of Common Prayer:

"Cranmer’s prayer books were primarily a missionary means to convert the hearts of English people."

"For Cranmer only divine gracious love—constantly communicated by the Spirit in the regular repetition of Scripture’s promises through Word and Sacrament—could inspire grateful human love, drawing believers toward God, their fellow human beings, and the lifelong pursuit of godliness."

"In short, the heart of Cranmer’s liturgies is moving human affections to serve God and neighbor by the power of the gospel."