This is my new article over at WorshipKitchen (Vertical Music), on why we lead worship. If your heart is flagging, and needing a reason to keep going, I hope this helps you to step up to the kindling once more.
WARMED AT THIS FIRE: Where Worship Meets The World
“…And the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World….” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Many years ago I sat on a chair in our dark living room, early one frosty winter morning, silent and wrestling with the value of my primary vocation as a leader of corporate worship. Most worship leaders that I know and respect have had this experience at one time, or multiple times, across the journey. However, as most of us know, the shared experience we have does not lighten the weight of the questions that come pouring into these weaker moments.
When Flames Die Low
Week in and week out I was working with volunteer musicians and technical people to create worship spaces in which people of faith could sing to God, hear from God and mutually encounter God in a way that was current, holistic and vibrant.
I lived from Sunday to Sunday, with pastoral care work in between. The settings I worked in largely demanded more contemporary musical forms (i.e. light rock) as our main staple of worship expression, and while I was capable of leading with skill in my designated role, all around me was losing its transcendent taste. The fire of the Holy Spirit, who I’ve come to know as God, and by his other Names of Inspiration and Passion, seemed to be dying low in my soul.
I was also getting tired of explaining this primary portion of my vocation to my neighbors, peers and extended family. “You do what, again?” they would ask me. “I’m a pastor,” I would say, “mainly a worship pastor.” I would try to explain the role of the worship leader, usually in terms of the “creative artist leading a faith community in contemporary expressions of worship and liturgy” (not bad, eh?), but their quizzical looks would usually remain the same. “Yes,” they would kindly say, “but what is your job?”
The Breath Of A Good Decision
Tired, and lost in the mundane quality of my weekly expenditure of energies, I could not see the end from the beginning. “Why,” I asked myself, “is what I do important? Where is the flame that burned in me so brightly, that clarified my calling to this? Why should I continue to do this when I could turn the direction of some of my other passions for art, graphic design, anthropology, public speaking or writing?”
Within the church, the voices remained the same, as always. The gathered Christians in our faith community certainly affirmed the importance of my continued presence and labors to create threshold spaces of worship for them each week. People of all stripes and sizes brought vital words of thanks and encouragement to me through the years, often at key times, for working so diligently to help them to find their language of communion through songs. No one else seemed to see how bereft my role was in the community.
That day, I made one of the best choices, I can now say, that I have ever made. I spoke to my own soul, in the midst of its coolness and bewilderment: “I know this must be important. My style may change, and the forms may vary, but leading people into worship has got to be a very important thing that I do. I will lead people in living acts of worship, and allow that call to become a part of my greatest dreams.”
A breath, from God and my own soul, had caressed the embers. It seems the secret Fire was once again stoked within me.
The Fireworks Have Left The Building
In the days following that decision, I began to see another picture, service after service. After these believing men and women would gather on a Sunday morning, worshipping in song together, receiving the eucharist and hearing the scriptures read and reflected upon, they would leave the building.
In our community, some would walk out our church door into jobs as social workers, journalists, computer technologists, factory workers, business people, professors, construction workers, artists, mothers, fathers, architects and more. Some were mentally handicapped, financially challenged or morally embattled. Yet each of them seemed to have some form of fire burning in their souls after our meeting, some form of revitalized hope, love and faith. Even the elusive quality of joy would often flicker in their eyes and crackle in their voices.
The Holy Spirit, as Tolkien once said to a friend, is the “secret fire” that burns “at the heart of the world.” In gathering the people of God to sing the songs of hope, perspective and faith, I was a kindler of the flame within them, a fellow bearer of the secret fire that calls out the flames in another. As I considered how the flame of worship began to then influence the world around us in the way of Jesus, a new vision of Fire work – and the place of worship in the heart of God – began to open up before me.
God meets a soul, kindles the flame of hope and restoration within them, and places that soul within community.
Community gathers around that soul, and feeds the flame of the Spirit of God now flickering in the soul with the fuels of love, hope and faith.
Love, hope and faith are shared and nurtured within the community by acts of living worship, invitations in song and symbol, that draw us to the warmth of the Spirit’s fire.
Acts of worship enflame the soul with words, symbols and epiphanies that etch the redemptive Story deep within the soul.
The Spirit and Story, kindled deep within the soul with the regularity and rhythm of worship gatherings, begins to aid and move the soul to act in ways in society that are just, creative, relationally whole and spiritually transforming.
These actions are the new creation actions of an age that is and is yet to come: caring for the poor, the challenging of dehumanizing structures of power, the elevating of the good in culture and society, the defining of the purpose of human community, the offering of wholeness in the face of tremendous personal or corporate devastation, the stewarding of this good world divinely gifted to the human family, the storytelling of a day that is to come that is manifest now in the present, the righting of the world in all of its corners in partnership with the Lord Jesus and his followers.
Warmed At The Fire Of Worship
Warming souls in private homes or the public marketplace, worship expression now became for me a frequent kindling of the Spirit’s fire within myself and others, and the sharing of creative liturgies (of which a song is one example) that amplify God’s life within individual souls and communities.
In other words, the worship of a community heats the soul that ever cools in the challenges of daily life. In turn, the flaming soul penetrates the world in which we live, tongues of fire licking out from heaven’s hearth and heating the souls of image bearers gone cold – through us as we follow Jesus.
Warmed at the fire of worship, the secret fire of the Holy Spirit meets the world – through true worshippers who move creatively, hopefully, justly, mercifully, powerfully and worshipfully – in the world of any age.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! Sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.” Isaiah 9:2 (The Message)