Why We Gather Pt 3: The Table

At Bloom, the culmination of our worship gathering is the moment when we come – broken, weary, and stained, as a family, to the Table.  We see our gatherings as an intentional journey into the deepest recess of Divine Holiness where together we encounter the Risen Jesus… we become partakers of the Mystery… and then are sent back out into the world as salt and light.  Everything moves towards the Table.  It is the coup de grace of what we do.

This past weekend we had the good privilege of having our brother Rusty Gates bring the word to us, reminding our community just what it is we do when we come to the Table and why it is important.  His teaching was beautiful, and I asked him to guest post a sketch of it here at the blog.  So much of the “why” of communion for us is contained here, and I think through his writing you’ll see why we think coming to the Table as often as possible is so important to us.  So enjoy, and feel free to interact with Rusty in the comment section below.

Andrew

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As members of the Body of Christ it is important that we understand why we do what it is that we do, and that it actually mean something to us. Two millennia ago, Jesus, the Son of God, instituted a meal that was to be done in remembrance of Him, what we call Communion. This meal was to be a sign, an encouragement, a gift given so that his disciples would persevere, looking always to His return.

In the midst of their trials and persecutions, it was their gathering and sharing of this meal that was to remind them of the bigger picture.

This meal is celebrated in the Church across the world today. But why? What does it mean?

2 Samuel 9 tells the story of David and Mephibosheth. I encourage you to read the whole passage, but basically, David, the new king of Israel searches out Mephibosheth in order to show him the kindness of God. Mephibosheth was the grandson of Saul the first king of Israel, and the son of Jonathan, David’s best friend. At the time when David seeks him out, Mephibosheth is lame in the feet, staying in a town far away.  David sends his servants, brings Mephibosheth to the palace, and there bestows upon him all of the riches of his grandfather, Saul, and ensures his provision and support for the rest of his life, the culmination of which is David’s declaration that Mephibosheth shall eat at his table all the rest of his days.

We have to consider the story from Mephibosheth’s perspective. He was grandson of the king, son of the prince, in line for the throne, but at the time of David’s ascension to the throne, he is alone away from the kingdom…

Things were not as they were supposed to be.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rather than dying alone, anguishing the loss of the throne, Mephibosheth is found, brought to the kingdom, provided for, and sat at the kings table. David shows him the kindness of God. And in turn, Mephibosheth falls at David’s feet, pays homage to him, and takes his place at the king’s table.

Mephibosheth was alone and he was shown kindness and love. He was exiled away from the kingdom and David brought him to the king’s table giving him the wealth of a king. He was broken and unclean and David accepted him, restoring him to royalty. And all of this was made known by a meal.

This is our story.

If we are honest, all of us can identify with Mephibosheth. We simply have to look around and we’ll see all of the things in our lives that are screaming, “Things are not as they’re supposed to be!”  We feel the pain of broken relationships and say, “This isn’t right.”  We feel the sorrow of missed opportunities and say, “This isn’t how it was supposed to be.”  We feel the regret of bad decisions and lament, “This isn’t how things were supposed to turn out.”  But like Mephibosheth, that isn’t the end of our story…

God in his great mercy and love sent his Son Jesus to bring the Kingdom of God to us.

When questioned with whether or not he was the one they were waiting for as the Messiah, Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Mt 11) In other words, Jesus tells John’s disciples, “The story isn’t over… things are changing.”

David sought after Mephibosheth and God sought after and is seeking after us. David sent servants to bring Mephibosheth back to his rightful place at the kings table. God sent his Son to do the same.

Jesus, on the last night with his disciples institutes a meal. Scripture reads,

“The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Co 11)

We are in the middle of the story. Theologians often refer to our situation saying, “Already, but not yet.” Through Christ, Scripture says, “We have been made more than conquerors through Him who loves us.”  It also says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Rom 8 )

But we know how our story is going to end. Christ came, marking a dawn of a new day, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of which will be marked with the making of all things new where as Scripture says, “God will wipe away from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

God has done a great work through His Son redeeming us, restoring us back to our place as royalty, marking it with a meal.

So in Communion we REMEMBER. We remember what God has done through Jesus and all of the greatness which that entails. We remember that, like Mephibosheth, we have been given a place at the King’s table. We who were lost and alone have been found and redeemed.

In Communion we PROCLAIM. We declare God’s goodness in what He had done and recognize that it is HE who brings us to the table. He sought us out, He brought us to himself.

In Communion, we WORSHIP. As Mephibosheth fell at David’s feet and paid homage, we come to our King and declare all that is true of Him, recognizing his goodness and grace and mercy. We worship him in gratitude for His provision. We worship him for his love.

In Communion, we SURRENDER. We come to the Table broken and hurting, but surrender to the King’s view of us. David saw Mephibosheth as the grandson of the king, God see’s us as His children. While we may be tempted to focus on our brokenness and unworthiness, we surrender our own understanding of who we are to that of who God knows us to be: royal sons and daughters, co-heirs with Christ.

In Communion, we ANTICIPATE the return of Christ, remembering that the story isn’t over. We look forward to the day when Christ will return and death shall be no more. We look forward to the re-creation of all things. We look forward to life and light and glory in its fullness.

May we REMEMBER, PROCLAIM, WORSHIP, SURRENDER, and ANTICIPATE as often as we gather for this meal. May we trust the goodness of God marked by a meal. May we all grow in the knowledge of Christ that through him we may be lights to the world, glorifying His name until his glorious return.

Grace and Peace.

Rusty

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Why We Gather Pt 2: Why We Sing

Invariably in a church gathering, at some point, there will be congregational singing.  It might be four songs up top followed by a “closer” after the message.  It might be one or two up top followed by a message and then a chunkier bit of singing at the end.

However it happens, without a workable philosophy to guide and inform why we sing and what it is we’re doing when we gather to sing, invariably our worship will be led astray by powerful forces foreign to gospel concerns.  That is, unless we have some idea of what we’re doing, our worship is going to be driven along by entertainment-based concerns, and “putting together a worship service” will likely amount to scouring the Wow Worship Top 20 list for whatever 4-5 songs are really trending at the time.  I think we can do better.

With that in mind, here are four things I think the Scripture calls us to when we worship, that can help form and inform just how our worship gatherings come into being and the particular shape that they take:

1) We worship to “bear witness”.  Worship is the reflexive response of human beings who have seen and known and tasted the goodness of God over their lives in concrete ways, who then articulate their understanding of said “concrete ways” by attributing them – joyfully, explosively, publicly – to God.  When YHWH delivers his people from Egypt, they explode with “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously…”  We sing to bear witness… that all that is and all that we see… that every goodness we taste, every good gift we’re given, every breath we take, every time our heart beats… all of it is PURE GIFT.  It is grace… given by the hand of the One “from whom all blessings flow.”

James says that “every good and perfect gift comes from above”, which is why at Bloom we choose songs that “name” the goodness that come into our lives as gifts from God.  Society, and even our own hearts, constantly try to bracket God out of the warp and woof of daily life… and hence, despair has an easy entry into our souls.  “Where is God?” we say.  “Why isn’t he active and at work in my life?” we fret.  By worshipping well, we train our hearts to scream back in response to our despair – Did you breath today?  Did your heart beat?  Do you have sight in your eyes and sound in your ears?  Can your tongue speak and taste?  Are you surrounded by people who love you?  Have you had a meal in the last 24 hours?  A roof over your head?  KNOW WELL THAT ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE SO BECAUSE YOUR GOD HAS WILLED THEM OVER YOU.  That is to say, He is always as near to you as the last “goodness” you’ve tasted.

2) We worship to train ourselves in ways of seeing the world that are peculiar to our Christian identity.  That is, there’s a TEACHING FUNCTION to worship.  We take profound, rich, expansive, and carefully arranged and articulated words on our lips in song as a way of having our imaginations formed in ever more complex and nuanced ways for the world as it exists under the Reign of God in Christ so that we can walk more faithfully, carefully, and boldly.  In other words, WE SING SO THAT WE CAN SEE, AND IN SEEING WE ARE MADE CAPABLE OF FAITHFUL ACTION!  The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann put it thus:

When the New King rules, it is new song time…New song time is a way to sing a new social reality as the freedom songs stood behind every freedom act.  The energy (for this action) comes from the song that will sing Yahweh to his throne and Babylon to her grave. (Prophetic Imagination, 74)

COME ON!  Through our songs we envision a new world and find our souls bestowed with the kind of energy required for engagement with this new world BURSTING upon us through Yahweh’s victory.

The early Christians understood this, which is why their early songs had a robust and decidedly theological bent.  They sang songs like this:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)

…and it gave them energy for mission.  This is why at Bloom we reject theologically shallow and conceptually emaciated “worship” songs comprised primarily of trite and poorly thought through strings of cliches:

Jesus you’re the best,

You’re better than all the rest,

With my whole life I confess,

That you are God…

(Bridge)

You are God, you are God, you are God (17x)

Seriously?  We reject songs like this because in being imaginatively atrophied they promise to keep our imaginations perpetually infantile.  WE HAVE MORE AND BETTER THINGS TO SING ABOUT THAN THIS.  Creation, Fall, Redemption… Judgment, Salvation, Justification… The Spirit, the Bride, the Church… The BIG THEMES of Scripture and our place within those themes.

Pastor/worship leader – let me challenge you: YOU CAN DO BETTER.  And your people will appreciate it if your song selection is intentional and guided by the question of “How will this or that song form us and what will it form us for?”  Refuse and reject an infantile worship gathering.

3) We worship to encounter the Mysterious Divine Presence in our midst.  If an error on one extreme is thinking that worship is ALL ABOUT the “existential encounter” (making the evisceration of theological content okay), then an error on the other extreme is making worship a PURELY CEREBRAL EVENT.  I think that is beyond misguided.  It is blasphemous.  Jesus says in John 4 that our worship is to be “in Spirit and in Truth”, which I think means that there is an INERADICABLE EXISTENTIAL ELEMENT to our worship.  We worship to encounter and be encountered by the God who aches – ACHES – to be present to us to save and help and deliver and redeem and restore and encourage and… well, you get the point.

This is why our worship gatherings at Bloom “trend” the way that they do.  We generally begin with songs that give thanks and acknowledge the goodness of God over our lives… we move into songs that declare the “big themes” of Scripture… and all the while… we see ourselves as moving ever nearer into the deepest recesses of divine holiness and love, where we encounter and are encountered by God… that is, we journey towards the Table in our gatherings, where we not only “believe” that we are but also “practice” interacting with the Risen Christ, for He is truly among us whenever “two or three gather” in His name.

This is also why we are okay with letting a worship service “breath” a bit.  Because you can’t “microwave” encounter.  We need spaces of quietness and reflection.  Places to pause and rest and stop anxiously wiggling about before the Mystery in front of us.  Pastor/worship leader – particularly if your church has multiple services and operates on a more or less rigid timetable, let me encourage you: FIGHT FOR ENCOUNTER.  If the restrictions placed on you only permit you to have 18 minutes of singing, then put on your big boy or big girl pants and FIGURE IT OUT.  How will you create space for your people’s eyes to be opened to the Glorious Divine Being – the Risen Christ – who walks among them?  Refuse to settle for “3 fasties and a slowy”.  Be more imaginative than that.  Remember, for God’s sake, that GOD IS WHY WE GATHER.  Not just to talk about Him, but to know and experience him together, so that anything less than “fight for encounter” is simply an insult.  He is the Vineyard Owner (Mk 12).  So don’t, in your haste to “get things done”, throw his Son out.

4) We worship as “anticipation.”  It’s a remarkable thing.  For all of the talk among the “new evangelicals” about recapturing the Grand Narrative of Scripture, the Biblical Story in all of its fullness, as an “arch” that runs from Creation to New Creation, we tend to miss the fact that the thing that LIGHTS UP the New Heavens and the New Earth in Revelation, what ANIMATES it and gives it BRIGHTNESS, is purely and simply doxology.  In the same way that when the people of God in Exodus REFLEXIVELY exploded with doxology when they were delivered from Egypt, so it will be that when the Redeemed – and ALL CREATION with them – are finally and fully delivered from Sin and Death INTO the New Heavens and the New Earth, they will reflexively explode with doxology, and their song will never end…  When we gather for worship, we anticipate that.

This is why, pastor/worship leader, you ought to refuse narcissistic, me-centered worship tunes.  Because THE HORIZON OF OUR WORSHIP IS NOTHING LESS THAN GOD, HIS GLORY, AND HIS FINAL, ESCHATOLOGICAL VICTORY.  Your folks need to learn how to find their place within that horizon, and the songs you choose will play a big part in whether or not they are able to be so trained.

Well, there you have it.  I think we can do better in worship.  Your thoughts?

Shalom…

Why We Gather: The Logic of Liturgy

At Bloom, we take “how” we gather pretty seriously.  From the song selection to the readings of Scripture to the little “call and response” items to the Lord’s Table to the closing benediction… all of it is on purpose.

For those new to the Bloom universe, all of this may seem somewhat curious and unusual, and probably unexpected.  (We’re a newer/younger church… don’t such churches usually work pretty hard to “up” the entertainment value of their services in order to draw more people in?  I’m sure people wonder that.)  Though there’s nothing rigid and rote to our gatherings, they certainly are more “liturgical” than your average evangelical church gathering.  But why?  Why the ritual?  Why does it matter?

In Exodus 12, on the verge of making their dramatic exit from Egypt, the Lord gives Moses specific instructions on how it’s all gonna “go down.”  Do this and this, like this, in exactly this way, making sure to do this, this, and that, so that this, that and the other thing won’t happen to you.  And then he adds, “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance,” (v 14) and proceeds to given even more explicit instructions on how in future generations this festival should be celebrated.

Wait… we’re supposed to KEEP DOING this amazingly complex thing?  AFTER we’ve left Egypt?  AFTER we arrive in the Land?  AFTER we’re all settled and secure?  Why can’t we just move on to bigger and better things?

The answer of course is that Yahweh intended his people, long after they had left Egypt, to remember who and Whose they are… to remember where they came from, why they were delivered, who delivered them, and what they were delivered for.  For Israel to maintain its freedom, faithfulness, and identity as the Exodus people, it would need to constantly, through symbol, song, story, and ritual, rehearse and re-cultivate itself into the remembrance of Yahweh’s mighty deeds.  To stay faithful in the future, it would need to remember the past.

In precisely the same way, the early Christians, when they gathered, through symbol, song, story and ritual, rehearsed and re-cultivated themselves into the Story of how God had brought salvation history to a climax in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  To gather together – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – enacting the Story again with Bread and Wine, taking the words on their lips, “And on the night that he was betrayed…” they would remember who and Whose they were.  Apart from these rituals and remembrances, faithfulness would be tough to come by.

Worship, as we see it, is the soil out of which a robust life of faith and devotion springs.  And when the soil is leached of its essential nutrients, living faithfully into our identity as Jesus’ people will be a tall order.

Years ago I visited a church that was becoming increasingly popular in the city where I was working.  Our staff went to see firsthand the phenomenon.  When we arrived, the lobby was filled with a mob of people, many of whom were standing around the flatscreen TVs in the lobby watching a band play a cover of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”.  When I wandered over, I realized that the band was the worship band, playing this cover before the “experience” (they didn’t call it a worship gathering) began at 6:00.  When the doors opened for said “experience”, amid smoke and intelligent lighting, the band seamlessly transitioned into some Wow Worship Top 20 hit, and played for approximately 18 minutes before a really cool looking guy got up and did announcements.  The message for the day was delivered by a man preaching on a screen from another state, and his message was about how to manage your money.  When the 30 minute message was over, naturally, there was an alter call, to which a handful of folks responded.  After a few more announcements, we were dismissed.

I understand the reasons why churches put on services like this – they want to make their church gathering accessible to the average non-churchgoer so that people will be encouraged to bring their friends – but honestly, I felt sad when I left.  That’s leached soil.  It’s a B-grade Coldplay concert with a Tony Robbins talk and some vaguely Christian elements mashed together with an alter call.  And it does not provide the essential nutrients for a deep and robust life of faithfulness.  People will starve.

We think worship can and should be better, and that we can and must DO better than that when we gather.  And so we seek to “enrich” the soil of our worship gatherings with nutrients that will provide the material out of which an explosive life of love and faithfulness can grow.  We seek to create gatherings in which, through story, song, and ritual, the folks who come hear the gospel proclaimed over them, the kingdom announced to them, again and again and again, so that they can remember who and Whose they are… they are the beloved, the called, the chosen, the forgiven, the redeemed, the once-for-all-purchased… they are sons and daughters of the living God, grafted into the family of God, promised a redeemed existence in the new heavens and the new earth… they are the new-exodus people, a kingdom of priests, salt, light, yeast, ambassadors, bringers of the glad tidings of peace and salvation to the wider, watching world… the tasters of the Living Bread and the ones through whom that Living Bread will be presented to the world.

This is why, in our staff and leadership meetings, when we talk about what we’re doing in the Bloom universe, we don’t ask questions like, “How can we make our gatherings cooler?”  “Cool” is not a theological category, and a “cool” gathering will likely form us in all the wrong ways.  We don’t need cool.  We need an ushering into the deepest recesses of holiness.  We need be brought back again and again to the Living Word and the Cross, and to the Table where again we can renew our identity as the gladly obedient people of God.  And so we fashion gatherings rich in remembrance… rich in the kind of good, deep, spiritual “work” (liturgy literally means “the work of the people) that can help us become all that God intends us to be.

And in reality, there’s a good chance that all of this will be deeply appealing to the unbelieving-but-very-much-interested world.  About a month ago, after finishing up the training for our new house church leaders, one of them asked, “So… all this stuff that you do in house church is very liturgical… do you ever worry that when folks outside of faith come to these gatherings, they’re going to be scared off?”  Almost before I could answer, one of the other couples, who have been with us now for over year, responded:

Before we moved here, the church we attended back home was very “seeker sensitive.”  Cool music, “relevant” messages, etc.  And all of it in an attempt to appeal to your average pagan.  So we occasionally brought our non-Christian friends, but we were always a bit embarrassed.  Since moving here and coming to Bloom, we’ve brought tons of our friends from school, and have not for one second felt embarrassed or awkward.  Something about how “Christian” this gathering is, how “other” it is, and how comfortable it is with that seems to put the people we bring at ease.

Bam.  Paydirt.  Right there.

We’re not embarrassed about how “Christian” our gatherings are (as if we should be ashamed of it).  Instead, we wear it on our sleeves, trusting that if folks feel drawn to Christianity and they wind up in our gathering, they’ll have the opportunity to suck down a hearty draught of what it means to be part of the family shaped by the reality of And on the night that He was betrayed…

Amen.