Tag Archives: Worship

Thinking about words in this season …

There are so many words that could be said, and are being said, about living in these difficult coronavirus times. We’re learning new words and phrases like  ‘covidiot’ and ‘zoomed out’,  we’ve understood the meanings of  ‘pandemic’ and ‘flattening the curve’, we’ve endured the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’. A number of conversations and experiences over the past month have got me thinking (out loud) today about the power and importance of language in all this.

Some of the words we use no longer seem relevant, perhaps revealing the cavalier and even meaningless ways in which we too often use them. Conversation starters like ‘how are you doing?’ and ‘what are you doing?’ sound jarring as we realise the answers are, respectively, everything and nothing. We need to find new words to connect with one another … and hopefully move beyond starting every online meeting with a literal ‘can you hear me?’ to words of genuine affirmation:

‘Yes, I hear you.’

Some of the words we share need to be more carefully parsed or compassionately toned. With different people and different places at different stages of response in my community, how do we avoid judgement and finger-wagging while sharing community wisdom and best practice? A friend shared her challenge in knowing how to tactfully respond to someone asking her family over for dinner. Is it simply, ‘No, we can’t do that anymore,’ or is there an opportunity to dig deeper and ask, ‘what is the heart of what we’re missing’ and ‘how can we do life together in new ways?’ Online, the disparity between where people in different countries are at amplifies the need to use our words with grace and care.

Some of the aspirational words we have been using about our communities are now being tested in the fire of new situations. Or as my pastoral colleague says, now is our opportunity to live out who we say we are. Our church has been deliberately using the word ‘gathering’ rather than ‘service’ for a few years, how does this helpfully shape our choices in how we move online?  What does it really mean to call our church ‘family’ in a time when we are advised to only have contact with those who live in our household? And on a global scale, how do we even begin to talk about the coming impact of this disease on poorer communities and recognise the privilege inherent in language like ‘social distancing’ or ‘lockdowns’?

In my own small ways, I’m finding that giving people space to use words in creative ways has seemed to resonate for many. Our gathering last Sunday included the creation of a word-cloud where we each contributed words that captured something of where we have seen God at work in the midst of this difficult season (picture at top). The resulting image has been widely shared and provides a picture not just of our shared language, but our shared experience of grace and hope in the midst of the darkness. A performance poet friend inspired me with the idea of #bookspinepoems, creating a poem out of the titles of books on your shelf. I enjoyed and found it strangely moving to create my own and have taken much delight in seeing those of my friends; gaining glimpses into how they are travelling at this time (or at least what their preferred reading genres are). As a verbal processor, and for all of us in wrapping our heads around things, I hope there are many more of these ideas to come.

And then there are the words we pray in this season.

We continue to proclaim the truths we believe even when they are difficult to see. Last Sunday, I had one of the most awkward and yet beautifully profound worship experiences of my life, with our worship leader on my computer screen, an older member of our congregation on the other end of my phone, and me in my living room, all singing out of sync, and yet affirming the same words of hope and truth about the Cornerstone in whom we find hope through the storm. I’m intrigued that Nigerian singer Sinach’s Waymaker went ‘viral’ among churches in the months leading up to this season, with its declaration of a promise-keeping God who never stops working, even when we don’t see or feel it.

The words of the Psalms continue to provide comfort and point the way. I taught a class last week on lament and I know this is a language we will embrace more and more in the coming weeks and months. The lament psalms give us permission to name our sadness, anger, doubt, confusion or fear; to wrestle honestly with God in an act of bold faith that declares nothing is out of bounds when speaking with him. Making these words our own declares our conviction that we have a God who hears our deepest and darkest groans, who is present with us in the darkness, and who enters into the darkness with us. As we prepare for Good Friday this week, the truth of a God who participates fully in our suffering may be more important for us than ever.

And of course, there are many times when words simply fail us. In numerous settings over the last few weeks I have found myself starting a prayer with and for others with a simple, honest, ‘I don’t know what to say God…’ as we sit in these unfamiliar and uncomfortable spaces and listen for his still small whisper. Praying for a friend in Africa waiting for the ‘tsunami’ that is coming left me grasping for words and babbling like a toddler.  I wonder if naming that I have no words is sometimes the most significant language I have to offer.

And for no one but myself, a simple practice these weeks has become to light a candle each night before I go to sleep, and simply sit in the presence of Jesus with the gift that is wordless prayer. There I am finding a peace that passes understanding, which I’m quite sure no words of mine will ever be able to adequately explain.

 

Today would be a good day to be (slowing down) in the Cinque Terre

A new year has started and I don’t know about you, but it hasn’t taken long for my diary to start to fill up and the pace of life to start to get hectic again. I hear so often (and try to stop myself from saying) the answer “busy” to the question “how are you?”

So today, I’m thinking back to a place I was just over a year ago where life felt much slower, and I was just basking in the beauty of village life and of the magnificent creation. Five fishing villages along the Italian Riveria, carefully built on terraces all the way down the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I’d love to get back there again today.

What did I love about the Cinque Terre?

It was the week before Christmas, and so some travel experts had actually advised not to bother visiting as much would be closed for the winter. I’m so glad I ignored their advice!

Yes, many of the boats were pulled in for the winter, and some of the restaurants were closed.

But the tourists were fewer …

… and the locals were just enjoying their everyday lives.

And the beauty remained.

So.

Many.

Stunning.

Views.

I think perhaps this is one of the most picturesque places in the world.

Certainly it boasts some of the most scenically located train stations.

Walking between the villages there are moments when you feel like you are at the end of the world.

And life just seems to be going at a more relaxed pace.

What did I learn from the Cinque Terre?

I think the main lesson from these villages for me was just about slowing down. Even the sunset felt like it lasted for hours.

And the combination of slowing down and appreciating the beauty of the creation around me leads me to worship.

I’m not the only one … it was a delight to stumble upon some of the places of worship scattered throughout these villages …

… and to join with all those who have come before in pausing in this place to acknowledge my Creator and King.

This is perhaps most obviously seen at Christmas time at Manarola, where a man named Mario Andreoli has for over 30 years been sharing the story of the incarnation in lights on the hillside, forming the world’s largest nativity scene.

It is another moment to just stop, slow down, be still, and say wow! My iPhone photos really don’t do it justice,* but they remind me and inspire me to seek to find moments to slow down and to worship in my own, too-often-too-busy, life.

 

 

 

 

 

*For a much more impressive view of the Manarola nativity … check out this one by Christian Leone from villeinitalia.com

Today would be a good day to be at La Sagrada Família

If you haven’t visited Barcelona’s Sagrada Família, you might have difficulty believing all of these photos are of the exact same building. I’ve been back from my latest holiday just on a month, and the place I have spent more time trying to describe to people than any other would have to be this remarkable church. I’d love to have a few more hours to spend there today.

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With an ambitious design by Antoni Gaudí, construction on this spectacular church began in 1882. Current estimates are that it will be completed by 2026, although that still seems to be a massive task. Barcelona is a beautiful city for many other reasons, but I think it would be worth visiting just for this one building alone.

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What did I love about Sagrada Família?

On the outside, the church tells biblical stories. The Nativity façade, the only side Gaudí saw completed in his lifetime, uses lifelike figures to present all aspects of the story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah – the familiar and the unfamiliar, the triumphant and the tragic.

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The details are incredible.

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On the other side, the Passion façade follows Gaudí’s plans but with the style of a completely different sculptor.

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The story of the betrayal, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus the Saviour unfolds through figures with square-cut faces and yet amazing depths of emotion.

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The third façade, supposedly the “largest and the most striking” has not even been begun yet, but will tell the story of the risen and triumphant Jesus the King.

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The building is fascinating and complex and intricate on the outside.

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There are extra, unexpected details and symbols everywhere you can see.

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And then you walk inside …

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The interior took my breath away.

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The light.

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The colours.

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The sense of space. This is a place for prayer and reflection, to marvel at the God of creation in all His magnitude.

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A place to slow down, to wonder, to worship.

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What did I learn from Sagrada Família?

I teach a subject called “Understanding the Biblical Narrative” and in my PhD I looked at ideas of orality and embodiment in understanding the Bible. For me, this church brings some of that to life. The biblical story can be seen, felt, even interacted with, in a completely different way to reading words on a page.

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The world has changed an awful lot since 1882, and I wonder if the architects and funders of this project had known how accessible the Bible would become whether they would have embarked on this project. But I’m so glad they did.

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“Reading” the story in this way takes time, and oral storytelling to go along with it, and imagination, and engagement. Despite the overwhelming accessibility of the printed and digital text, things we can so often lose.

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The contrast between the outside and inside of the church, for me, took me to a whole other place. It is one thing to know the stories, to ponder their meaning, to enter into their emotions.

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It is yet another to be brought to a place of stillness, silence, speechlessness.

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This is not a church of my tradition, and in some ways it is more a tourist attraction than a house of prayer. And yet … sitting in the pews, taking time to tune out the voices bustling around (listening to this podcast helped me focus), for me this became a place of prayer and worship.

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To be sure, I have experienced the same wonder and worship in nature, in community, alone in my room.  I don’t need a place like this to spend time with God, but it sure is a genuine delight to be provided with one every now and then.