If I Only Entertained Them

The spiritual practices of Lent have ended, Holy Week now seems far away, and the joy of Easter has moved into that season of the year when new life in nature is exploding all around us. But I’m still fixated on Easter, and the magnificent music of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah lingers in my heart.

I had the opportunity to sing in the Messiah several times as a teenager, not to mention the dozens of times we’ve sung the Hallelujah Chorus in Easter services over the years. This Easter I worshipped at Old South Church in Boston, where each worshipper was given a white strip of cloth. Whenever the words “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah” were said or sung during the service, we were all asked to wave our white cloth in the air.

It was glorious, and the entire service was permeated with one hallelujah after another.

Huge streamers, waving cloths, a bagpiper, choir, organ, brass, call and response during the sermon, a time just for children, offering our gifts, blessing the marathon runners and each other. It was one huge God moment!

It also reminded me that we often use the word “liturgy” to talk about what we do in worship. Liturgy is how we order worship. Many churches have design teams that spend countless hours crafting multi-sensory and participatory worship meant to touch our hearts and invite us to be transformed.

Do you know what the word liturgy actually means? “Liturgy” comes from the Greek word, leitourgia, which we often translate as the “work of the people.” However, leitourgia literally means “an act of public service.” So the liturgy of worship is not entertainment. It is not something that worship leaders “do” on behalf of the congregation. Nor is liturgy designed simply to make us feel good. The liturgy of worship is meant to inspire us to be public servants. After all, in worship we are not the audience and God, the choir, band, preacher, or organist the actors. Rather, congregation members are the actors and God is the audience.

Could it be, then, that the future of our world begins right here, in our places of worship, where we do liturgy, which is actually public service? Could our future be activated when the gathered faith communities in Iowa, the United States, and every country in the world praise and glorify God so that creativity leads to renewal, which leads to justice, which leads to peace? For we are not here to be entertained by the preaching, drama, music, and prayers. We are here so that hearts touched and transformed through worship will share the good news in such a way that others will experience wholeness and be prompted to act justly in their own lives.

Easter worship at Old South Church culminated with the Hallelujah Chorus, and everyone was invited to sing along. Whenever I sing the Hallelujah Chorus, I remember with wonder and humility the story of how this magnificent choral piece was composed.

George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685, within a month of another great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Handel’s father wanted him to become a lawyer, so when he realized that all Handel cared about was music, he prohibited George playing or being anywhere near music. George’s aunt gave him a clavichord as a child, but they had to keep it in the attic so his father could not find it. I can just imagine the young Handel rushing upstairs as soon as his father left for work so he could pursue his God-given talent for music.

As the story goes, when Handel was nine years old, he begged to accompany his father to Weissenfels and even ran after the carriage until his father had no choice but to bring him along. In one version of the story, the young George climbed into the organ loft to play the organ and was so magnificent that the organist asked him to play a postlude after the Sunday service. In another version, George made friends with the court musicians, who let him play the organ. In any case, the Duke was so impressed that he strongly encouraged Handel’s father to let him study music. Handel’s teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, was a church musician who taught Handel composition and how to play the organ, harpsichord, violin, and oboe. By the time he was ten years old, Handel was writing choral and instrumental music.

In 1712 Handel moved to London, where he composed popular operas and eventually became the musical director of the Royal Academy of Music. Years later, however, the 56-year old Handel felt like a failure. His works had not achieved the fame of some of his contemporaries and those immediately before him. Handel was in poor health and seemed to owe money to everybody in London.

One day in the summer of 1741, Handel was walking the streets of London, extremely discouraged, wondering where his next meal would come from, and feeling that his life had been wasted. When he came to the door of his apartment, Handel found a package waiting for him. It contained an invitation to accept the commission to write an oratorio for a collection of Scripture verses.

Handel locked himself in a room with a sheaf of paper and dared to write at the top of the page, “Messiah: An Oratorio” by George Frideric Handel. Then he began to compose. For the next twenty-six days, Handel never left his house and seemed to give no thought to food or rest. What he produced was 259 pages of music.

The first public performance of the Messiah was at Easter 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. What Handel had written was a bass singing, “And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he shall be like a refiner’s fire.” He had a tenor sing, “Comfort! Comfort ye my people! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her iniquity is pardoned.”

He had an alto sing, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.” He had a soprano sing, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.” And he had the chorus sing, “Hallelujah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, And he shall reign forever and ever.” At the end of the manuscript, Handel wrote three letters, SDG, Soli deo Gloria, “To God Alone the Glory.”

At the first London performance of the Messiah in 1743, King George II stood up as soon as the Hallelujah Chorus began, thus beginning a 274-year tradition. When the performance was over, someone asked Handel, “How does it feel to finally be a success?” He replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”

Handel wrote, hoping that he would do more than entertain. He wrote, hoping that through his music the word of God might somehow be heard more clearly and be brought into our lives more soundly. He wrote, hoping that at our greatest point of desperation we might turn and hear the Savior’s voice calling our name. Handel wrote, hoping that we might move beyond worship to justice and peace. He wrote, hoping that through his music you and I might become better people.

Every Sunday God challenges you and me to leave worship, not having been entertained but having become better people—people who will go out into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, become public servants, and change the world.

In a religious culture where entertainment is often seen as the only way to get people in the door of the church; in a time when bigger is perceived to be better, and when liturgy is touted as the job of professionals, how might we regain liturgy as public service, the work of the people? How might worship become the shared ministry of clergy and laity, where the goal is not perfection but transformation, where children become our teachers, where an invitation to discipleship is a normal part of worship, and where stories of witness and outreach into the community are regularly shared and celebrated?

How can we live, serve, and pray, hoping they and we will be better?

Life, Death, and Resurrection in Boston

I don’t know exactly why, but I keep going back! I am running in my tenth Boston Marathon today. My first Boston Marathon was in 1999, and I fell in love with this granddaddy of all marathons. This wasn’t my first 26.2 mile race, however. Boston is a race for which you have to qualify. That’s one reason it is so special. For amateur athletes like myself, qualifying for Boston is never a given. It takes determination, persistence, and a little craziness. That’s why my oldest grandson first began calling me Crazy Grandma.

I never took up running as a child because there was no such thing as girls track or girls cross country. Yes, I am old. However, I did play just about every other sport in which girls were allowed to compete, including field hockey, basketball, softball, and volleyball. I began running at Yale Divinity School as a way to keep in shape when I no longer had the opportunity to play team sports.

After a few years, I decided to challenge myself. My first running competition was a 10 kilometer (6.2 miles) race in May, 1980. I was an organist and choir director in a United Methodist church at the time, and the race started at 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. It just happened to be Communion Sunday. When the 11:00 a.m. service ran quite looooong, I realized that if I stayed to the end, I would miss the start of the race. I whispered to a choir member who was also an organist and asked if she would play the last hymn and a postlude. I slipped out at 12:30 p.m., drove as fast as I could to the start (in another town) and was in place just seconds before the race began. Thanks be to God, I wasn’t fired from my job. Prevenient grace at its best!

Why am I still running, 37 years after my first race? I often call running “wasting time with Jesus.” When Gary and I were raising our young children, I couldn’t run unless Gary was home to watch the kids or they were at childcare. Running gave me time to clear my mind, ponder the problems of the world, savor the beauty of God’s good earth, and waste time with Jesus. Some of my best ideas have come to me while running. Even today, when I am pounding the roads or trails, no one can find me, although I now carry a cell phone.

In the local fitness center where I do some of my training, the overhead monitors display rotating slogans for a program called Alpha training. The slogans remind me why seeking to keep my body in shape is more than a physical discipline. It’s also a mental and spiritual discipline that enhances my personal and professional life.

  • Having the endurance to keep going means I can stay ahead of problems.

Cultivating endurance means never giving up and always finding a way to move forward in a positive manner.

  • As my balance improves, so, too, do my opportunities.

Balancing work and play is one of the greatest challenges of our busy lives today. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

  • More speed will help me get to the top faster.

The pace of life today is so much faster than when I started running long ago. The wisdom I have gained over the years is three-fold: 1) Getting to the “top” (or coming in first) is not always the goal. 2) When speed implies sacrificing quality, I need to slow down. 3) Building speed in order to accomplish more happens when we follow a careful plan that includes appropriate rest.

  • With more power, I can crank up the energy in the afternoon.

My life of faith becomes deeply ingrained when I tap into a power outside of myself, which is the power and energy of the Holy Spirit.

  • Having the flexibility to bend but not break is a benefit in all areas of my life.

Consider these profound words from the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, “Flexibility is a great virtue. When we cling to our own positions and are not willing to let our hearts be moved back and forth a little by the ideas or actions of others, we may easily be broken. Being like wild reeds does not mean being wishy-washy. It means moving a little with the winds of the time while remaining solidly anchored in the ground. A humorless, intense, opinionated rigidity about current issues might cause these issues to break our spirits and make us bitter people. Let’s be flexible while being deeply rooted.”

  • As I build more strength, I also build a stronger sense of community.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second (commandment) is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Mark 12:30-31

  • Increasing my agility will help me sidestep the office cookie plate.

One of the words we use today to describe vital churches is nimble. Congregations (or conferences, for that matter) that focus on their strategic priorities are able to switch directions and make quick adjustments, avoid the pitfalls of becoming distracted from their core values, and are always on the lookout for new ways to achieve their mission and vision.   

Everyone has a story for why they endure such strenuous training in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Some run in order to battle addiction. Some run to remember and honor a loved one who has died. Some run to celebrate conquering cancer or some other disease. And some run to witness to their faith. In every single race, I see people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I’ve always thought it would be nice to include verse 14 as well, especially when runners “hit the wall” around mile 20 and simply want to lie down in the road and take a nap. “In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”

Simply put, the marathon is a metaphor for the Christian life. I love running the day after Easter because marathoners experience life, death, and resurrection, all in one race! I’ll be running smoothly for a while, then all of a sudden, I’ll feel a twinge in my hamstring and wonder if I’ll make it to the end. Then I’ll feel woozy and realize that I’m not drinking enough. After that, I get to the hills and wonder if I have enough energy to make it up without walking. Finally, it’s simply one mile and then one grueling step after another of pain, mental anguish, and prayer, “Jesus, run with me. I am losing my life in order to find a greater one. Help me persevere to the end. I can’t do this on my own.”

And then a miracle happens. Someone hands me a cup of Gatorade. A spectator shouts, “Go, Granny, go!” A child offers me an orange and a smile. Another runner sees that I am flagging and stays with me for a while. 500,000 people line the road from Hopkinton to Boston because the marathon is always held on Patriots Day, a Massachusetts holiday. The cheering is non-stop and deafening, and it gets us across the finish line. Why? Because no one ever runs alone.

After a certain point, runners don’t get better with age. I reached that point fourteen years ago. But that just means I get to waste more time with Jesus on the course! So don’t wait for me. I’ll see you at the finish line. There I’ll find my youngest daughter, who is running in her first Boston Marathon and will be way ahead of me. My husband, Gary will be there, too, both of them cheering on the thousands of runners of all shapes and sizes as they experience life, death, and resurrection in Boston. And, in case you were wondering, the resurrected Jesus will be at the finish as well, offering each brave soul a high five, the words, “Good job!” and a bagel.

What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?

 

Passion

Here you come, making your grand entrance into Jerusalem
Sitting on a donkey
Weeping over the Holy City
Emptying yourself
Letting the crowds hail you
Holy Week … Passion Week
Passion: from the Latin pati, meaning “to suffer or endure”
If you knew all that was to come, would you have turned around?

Santisimo de Cristo – Cathedral of Burgos, Spain

Active early in the week
Chasing moneychangers out of the temple
Cursing a fig tree
Honoring a widow’s generosity
Foretelling the destruction of the temple
Playing verbal cat and mouse with the chief priests
Radical love and righteous anger
Two sides of the same coin
My kingdom is not of this world
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God
A passion for justice nailing your coffin.

At night, retreating to the safety of Bethany
Staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Accepted and loved as you are
Allowing a woman to anoint your head with oil
Let her alone; why do you trouble her?
She has done what she could
Anointed my body beforehand for burial
Passive: being the object of action rather than causing action.

A last supper with your disciples
Sitting next to the one who would betray you
How could you keep your composure?
A fight breaking out: who is the greatest?
Have I not taught you anything?
Bread and wine: offering your own body and blood for the sake of the world.

Jesus in Gethsemane – The Basilica of Agony (Church of All Nations), Jerusalem

Great drops of sweat pouring out of you
If it is possible, let this cup pass from me
Everyone sleeping
Would I have done the same?
Friend, do what you are here to do
The hour is at hand
No turning back
Passive – derived from “passion”: suffering without resistance.

Three years of action, now only passion
Tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God
You have said so
They spit, strike, slap
No response
Peter sitting outside, the only one
Certainly you are also one of them
I do not know the man
The cock crows for me, too
Jesus’ last night on this earth spent in prison.

Are you the king of the Jews?
You say so
Don’t you hear how many accusations are made against you?
Passive
Who should I release for you?
Barabbas!
What should I do with this Jesus?
Let him be crucified!
Pilate actively washing his hands
Jesus passively putting himself into God’s hands.

Crucifixion
Passion
Submission
Let it be to me according to your word
Women beating their breasts and wailing
The disciples: where are they?
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews
He saved others; he cannot save himself
Remember me when you come into your kingdom
Forgiving a thief on the cross
One last action
Today you will be with me in Paradise.

Charred cross from WW2 – Coventry Cathedral, England

Passion: It is finished
Action: The curtain of the temple torn in two
Earth shaking, rocks splitting, tombs opening
The centurion and those watching over Jesus
Truly this man was God’s son
The first converts
Resurrection before resurrection.

Lord Jesus, I give myself to you
Passive, waiting
I want to begin a new life now
I give to you all of my fears and failures
I release them into your hands.

Fill all of me with all of you
Resurrection power
Offering all that I am and hope to become
A pure expression of your love
All you want is love for you
For my neighbor
And my world
Passion.