Reflections on the Invitation of Advent – Week One

Advent has traditionally been a time of joyous anticipation for me.  It really is my kind of celebration, you know you are getting a present, and you know what it is, and when you get to open it!  I am not patient, and consequently I have never really engaged in the suspense of Advent. The waiting, the invitation to walk each day without anticipating the fulfillment has not been how I passed these precious weeks.

Like me, most of us, are so caught up in the preparations and celebrations of the season, that the faithful persistent call to wait, to trust, to reflect, is drowned out.  We want to rush on to the big day, we long for the awaited Saviour to make his appearance, to save us from our sin, to rescue us from the darkness that engulfs us. Consequently we rush headlong to that day with little pause in our spirits to prepare us.

One of the rediscovered joys of the liturgical calendar for me is the rhythm of a calendar that draws us into seasons of hope and repentance and joy.  A liturgical Advent is symbolised by violet (or blue), the colour indicative of fast days, but this is not a traditional fast, this fast is one of hope, of peace, of trust.  During Advent, we are asked to walk in the waiting, to enter into the Inter-testamental longing of the Israelites for their Messiah and seek him for ourselves.

What a contrast this is to the hustle and bustle of the world.  Where in all the noise and shopping and feasting is there room for reflection, for silence?

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 3.41.24 PMThis year our little community is mediating through Enuma Okoro’s Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent. We are journeying to Bethlehem in the company of Zechariah and Elizabeth, sitting with them in their waiting, their faithfulness and doubt.

How are you waiting?

A Feast for the Soul

Men and women, bearers of the Imago Dei, have five main senses. Senses which are heightened in times of joy and pain, compensate for each other in loss, and allow us to experience the depths and heights of human existence.

A view of a majestic mountain, tranquil beach or dazzling skyline can take our breath away in wonder. A scent wafting on the breeze can transport us to other times and places, bring vivid memories to life and draw our deepest feelings to the surface. The touch of a loved one’s hand can instantly comfort and encourage.  Music has the power to describe and elicit the most powerful of emotions. When we feast at a table spread with earth’s bounty, drinking fine wines in the company of other lovers of God, we experience a depth of community unmatched outside heaven.

A rich life, a life lived vividly, is one that engages our senses as well as our minds, a life that fills our soul with glimpses of the Glory of God and prompts us to wonder and worship.

So why, then, do we confine our practice of our spirituality to a single sense? Why do we neglect the fullness of experience in the one place where we should engage the whole of our bodies, where we should be filling the temple with the praise of our maker?

Last weekend, I had the privilege of making new friends, friends who, for our first meeting, invited me to join them at their little Anglican church for Sunday Eucharist.  As we sang, and listened and reflected, I looked around. I looked at a corrugated steel warehouse transformed into a place set apart for the meditation on the love of God. The vestments, chalices, reverential sounds of liturgy and the taste of the wine and wafer all drew me in to the contemplation of my Saviour.

The beauty and richness of an icon, the lovely rhythm of a chanted psalm or the waft of incense can engage our souls in a way that merely listening to a sermon and singing along to a chorus cannot.

I find myself wondering if, in our desire for clarity in understanding God, in our struggle for our minds to be made new, we haven’t backed ourselves into a sterile corner, a place where words are our primary medium and the remaining senses are seen as redundant?

What if we didn’t see the practice of our faith as something only for our minds to engage with? What if we engaged all our senses in worship? What if we embraced our historical roots, roots in which the Church was the fountain of artistic expression, where the greatest artists and composers found not only inspiration but audience for their works?

Sometimes, simplicity isn’t enough. My souls longs for richness.  In re-embracing a liturgical and sacramental tradition, I am rediscovering the joy of communal worship as a feast for the soul.

A Symphony of Worship.

Is there a “right” way to “do church”?  What are the non-negotiable elements of Christo-centric worship? There are thousands upon thousands of pages of erudition directed at these questions and I shall not try to duplicate them here.  Instead I want to challenge the assumption that there can even be “right” way.  I want to draw our conversation away from theory and ask ourselves if we should even be placing ourselves in that seat of judgment?

We have all heard accusations leveled at churches that express themselves differently than us;

“They are entrenched in cultural practices that are not reproducible.”

“Liturgical services are bound in traditions that oppress and stifle worship…”

“The X church is just an institution propping up a dead religion that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.”

“Worship by rote isn’t authentic, it is lifeless and cold…”

“They are too loud, too relevant, not solemn enough …”

“They are idolatrous, with all that gold and tapestry and incense…”

Most of us, if we are honest, have said things like this. I know I have.

It grieved the Holy Spirit when I besmirched His beloved Bride with words full of spite in the name of “objectivity”, when I participated in the evisceration of His Church to further an ideology or preference. It grieves me to recall my words, words flowing from a judgmental heart and critical spirit.

Because, Beloved, we are created One in Him. He has made us holy. He has declared us righteous, not by our own acts of observance but by His beautiful Sacrifice, and when we lose sight of that, when we decry our differences as divisions, we lose a part of ourselves.

I have belonged to, grown in and loved many different expressions of this wondrous Bride of Christ. I have been blessed by the richness this has afforded me in my walk with the Lord.  The ability to worship him in many streams has kept me alive in some of the deepest valleys of life. But, in my reflecting over these past years, I have found myself distressed by one commonality across all streams; that we, the body of Christ, seem to be unable to love the way we do things without denigrating other preferences. We default to the position that the way we express our adoration to our King, is the way, the best, the most Godly, the most theologically correct.

 “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.  If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Galatians 5: 14-15

The problem this presents, for a unified, beloved Bride of Christ, is that, rather than celebrating the beautiful symphony that God is creating and perfecting in us, we insist that the section in which we sit is the most important.  Insisting that only woodwind is worshipful, and that the oboe is obsolete, the trumpet is too traditional, the triangle is superfluous at best, downright ridiculous at worst, may reflect our passion in our pursuit but, ultimately, it causes us to lose sight of our greater purpose.  Our problem is one of perspective, for we cannot hear the fullness of the sound to which we are contributing. We are perfecting our part and will not experience the full symphony until we are around the throne of Heaven, and yet, each instrument, under the direction of a master conductor, contributes to the full expression of the sound the Composer has intended from the very beginning.

Perhaps we should not take another’s endorsement of a particular style or stream so personally?  What if it isn’t about us? What if, instead, we ask our King for His vision, for His desire for our communities? Would we then be more willing to experience the breadth of the body without feeling threatened?

You see, I adore loud congregational worship, hundreds of people singing their loudest and most ardent praises to God fills my soul with fire and joy. Yet, paradoxically, I choose to worship in a liturgical setting. I choose to still my soul to the rhythm of sacred words, to recite aloud the goodness of God, to pray in the communion and bring my sin to the cross before I approach the banqueting table. Life is loud, clamoring for attention and my soul cries out for stillness, for space to listen to the still small voice of God. I need the rhythm and stillness that a liturgy provides.  I need to be reminded to come to the table with a heart refreshed by repentance.  I need very little encouragement to jump and shout and sing!

In this season, he is leading me into still waters, rooted in a liturgy that runs deep and nourishes my soul.  Where is he leading you and how can we play our parts together as fellow members of the beautiful symphony which only Jesus could conduct?