When Worship Doesn’t Work (for me)

Recently I watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark. Part of Gabby’s remarkable recovery from a gunshot wound has been music. In fact, when Gabby was unable to speak a particular word, music was introduced and the word quickly sprung to her lips.

Music has the potential to lift our minds and spirits in ways that are simply beyond speech.

This power of music reminds me of frequent images from contemporary worship settings where people seem carried away by the mood and their responses frequently entail hand-raising, eye-closed swaying to a familiar tune laced with short, repeating phrases.

Using music as a means to catapult us from the narrow focus of our existence into the expansive realm of divine mystery seems to me a good and responsible use of this creative gift. I wish, though, that the lyrics usually accompanying such songs were worthy of their repetition; worthy of the mind’s contemplation.

Instead, this is what I often hear and even though I am a self-acknowledged worship snob I’m pretty sure there is absolutely no chance that I’m overstating the reality:

Jesus’ most important act was dying and because of that we want to elevate the cross, almost to a place of worship. Jesus died for me and I’m really glad because that means I don’t have to die for him. I still love Jesus, though. In fact, Jesus means so much to me that I will wave my hands really high and sing long songs to try and help me believe how much Jesus means to me. And, it really is all about me. Well, all about how much Jesus means to me; right now, anyway. And, I love Jesus because he died for me. It isn’t really about what it means to love what Jesus loved. Unless, of course, you mean me.

There are multiple themes within the worship song genre that trouble me, obviously. The self-centered focus is one, to be sure, but there is another that is equally problematic, but less overtly so. This is the cross-centered narrative, the idea that Jesus’ most important act was contained by dying.

To put the cross at the core of Christian faith is to make an act of violence central. As a woman, this is especially troublesome given the overwhelming reality that women are recipients of violence in much higher numbers than men. The corresponding idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was the only acceptable penalty that could be paid to compensate for sin is equally problematic. God’s grace and love is seen most clearly in an act of death?

Contrary to such lyrics, I would propose we should sing of Jesus’ life, of the example he set for embracing the lost and the lonely. We should celebrate our call to follow Jesus by welcoming the stranger, loving the outcast, feeding the hungry.

When our lyrics catapult us not into a narrow focus on our lives, but into relationship with others, then the words will be worthy of repeating as one of my friends suggested, seven times. Until then, maybe we could settle for instrumental means for lifting our spirits. And, some Bono for good measure!