I've been thinking about last night's worship gathering of Emmaus Way all day...
Last night, we focused our dialogue on the challenging narrative of Numbers 13-14 (Here's the Reader's Digest version: Israel spies out the land of Canaan, the people revolt in fear due to the desriptions of the size and armament of the inhabitants of the land they are to take, God declares that no one over the age of 20 will ever inherit this land since the people will wander for 40 years in the desert).
In our dialogue, we reframed our understanding of the wilderness as more than mere punishment (granted the passage has more than its fair share of "rotting-corpses-in-the-desert" imagery!), And granted, this text is as troubling as any in the Bible in some ways. (After our gathering, several of us commented on the irony of God's blessing of the whole world in a text that asks a people to go and take the sword to another.)
Horrific images of punishment and divine mandates notwithstanding, my reading of this text centers on the people of Israel's lack of preparation to receive God's blessing of a land. The Wilderness become a place and state of preparation. The Wilderness also becomes a place restored imagination.
Over the past month, we have discussed at length one reality of life in an empire, namely that our ability to imagine and experience God's healing and redemptive work is impaired or even lost. The Israelites had so lost their vision of the future, that they preferred death in the wildnerness or a return to slavery in Egypt over receiving God's great blessing of a land so filled with fruitfulness and resources (apparently the spies found a cluster of grapes so large that it took two to carry it!).
Of course, this is our reality as well. We become so entwined in individualism, nationalism, consumerism, competition, and so much more that we can't imagine greater realities - healing, justice, contentment, community, and blessing of God's grace in our world. This is where worship becomes so essential. Formal worship and our life posture as a community who acknowledges God's grace and healing are antidotes to the numbing effect of empire.
Last night we talked about two barriers to this redemptive imagination...FEAR ( the fear that no healing or salvation occurs) or CONTENTMENT (the belief that our imperial lives are the pinnacle of human existance).
Over dinner, we commented how often our worship lives reinforce these barriers. In some settings, worship is journey down an avenue of horrors that feed the fears the paralyze our imagination and destroy our hope.
I can just hear the preachers of my childhood harping on the litany of plagues and corpses strewn through the desert as evidence of an angry God- the fate of all who refuse who come to church, tithe, or life moral lives. The tune of "I wish we'd all been ready" is starting to fill my mind.
But more likely for most of us, we find worship environments that feed our contentment. Many of by accident of birth into upper middle class homes which offered a myriad of opportunities see our lives as the essence of being blessed by God. We've found it - the redemptive vision. No wilderness for us. So much of our worship affirms or even baptizes this flawed vision. Our songs and forms exist to comfort us and affirm our lives. Entertainment, enjoyment, and cathartic experience all become unspoken goals.
This, of course, is not even remotely a prophetic point. So many have said the same and better.
Wade and I have spoken of this many times. As a gifted performer who spent two decades touring (as "The Basics" with his wife Kelly) and as a producer, he is so aware of the formulas to comfort and entertain. Commenting last night, he expressed thanks for not being "a hired jukebox" who cranks out seven song sets to affirm our contentment or "set the stage" for something truly important(!).
I thought the music last night - lyrics and tone — were such a powerful catalyst to move us from our fears and contentment. The range included pop, a cherished U2 anthem from the 80's, and folk. Each song was well chosen to challenge our contentment, give voice to our fears (so that they don't rule us), give freedom to pursue joy, and the confront some the great mysteries of God's intersection in our lives. As a friend said last night, "why doesn't a God who the power to shape the constellations intervene more in the evils of this world?"
Our course our gathered worship is far more than just music (a horrific reduction in many communities). Last night we heard a wonderful story of mission and redemption from our friends at One World Market. Laura Wendell, the Executive Director, came to thank us for our partnership in helping them sell goods from all over the world at fair prices.
When we gather weekly over the communion table, we engage the great mystery of God's presence in our lives, community, and world. We are faced with reality that we so often resist, that God sustains rather than our own gifts and ingenuities. The Eucharist simultaneously assuages our fear (being reminded of God's provision) and confronts our contentment (by describing a reality of sacrifice that is so often absent from contented lives). The Eucharist is a act of acceptance and rebellion wrapped in the common act of eating and drinking.
Our challenge is to form communities to function like the duality of the Eucharist and the wilderness in the Old Testament narrative. We need communities that guide us to avoid the paralysis and hopeless of fear while also relentlessly confronting our contentment and entitlement.