Sunday 28 February 2010

Worship: missing in expression.

The problem always seems to be this inability to build, as if there is something blocking the worship team from fully releasing from the depths of their souls the worship, the music, the song that is dying to be born from their hearts. There is an invisible ceiling in the midst of worship - and I am referring to the 'slow worship songs' - that prevents us, intangibly, from pushing higher, pressing deeper. If I may put it so: there is no abandonment in worship.

What do I mean by abandonment? I don't mean that each and everyone goes their own way, doing their own thing, playing up their own strengths and showing off - that is chaos, even if it's only musical chaos. What I mean is the ability to be the best and giving the best in worship. There's always this feeling, this atmosphere of holding back, of waiting, of... I'm not sure if you can call it shyness, but something akin to it, in the midst of worship. It's as if we dare not go further, we dare not expose our hearts and souls and emotions to God - or maybe to the people around us?

Because of that, there is no life in our worship. Praise isn't so similarly affected. People (sort of) expect praise songs to be exuberant, loud, joyful. And it is so... but only in a very marginal sort of way. It's as if (and I seem to be using this term a lot) people, even the worship team - or is that especially? - seem to believe that there is this rote form, this style to the worship session. It becomes just that - a form or procedure. It's time to sing. Raise your hands. Sit down now. Stand up now. I'll enjoy the songs (or not). Or maybe I'll criticise the worship leader (or not). And everything seems to hinge on the worship leader.

"Oh, he chose lousy songs." Or "he chose songs I didn't know. I couldn't worship." So what? Maybe you weren't so comfortable with the words or the melody. Maybe you didn't know the song at all. Even so, your heart can still worship even if your lips stumble over the words. It doesn't mean that you then pull back. (On the other hand, not knowing the song is not a good excuse for the worship team. How can you lead people in worship when you yourself do not know what you're singing?)

And because there is no life, no abandonment and no passion, worship is pushed aside as unimportant. It's just the prelude to the Word. Or is it because it is considered unimportant that no one bothers to inject the life of God into it? Yes, there is an emphasis on the word during the service - which is good, and which is right, I am not denying that - but this does not and should not negate the importance of corporate worship in song. (As an aside, considering that generally the word 'worship' is associated with singing, why then is the church service called a "Worship Celebration" when the worship is barely alive, and hardly celebratory?)

Yes, the recently popular catchphrase is that "worship is a lifestyle". It's not just about the songs we sing. It's more than the conventional "singing part of church service". Yet in saying that, we then place no importance at all in the power of corporate worship to change and transform. People may claim that it's only an 'emotional' thing. True - most of it may affect our emotional being more than our mental will or physical being - and yet we ARE emotional beings. Our decisions are coloured by our emotions, and when our emotions are in line with our mental or spiritual will, it is much, much easier to obey and follow God. It doesn't rest on emotions alone, but it is still a very important factor in our total well-being and decision-making.

Another point on emotions - we always talk of the Christian faith as a relationship with God. What is a relationship if there are no emotions involved? How would you express love and devotion, hopes and dreams and fears? Aren't these part of emotions? Isn't part of love really an emotional feeling as well? Worship - whether corporate or private - in song is a way to express this. You know how we criticise those people on Malaysian Idol / American Idol who are so wooden / expressionless in their singing? Someone may have a perfectly good voice, but just because they do not seem to 'express' the song or 'feel' the song, we say that their performance lacks power, lacks presence... there is just something missing, no matter how nice it sounds. This is the same in the worship team. No, it's not a performance, and yet it cannot be dead. It cannot! Worship is an expression. It needs to express. It cannot be hidden or smothered, or made pretty. If it is, it's not worship. It's not praise. It's just... performance, and probably a very bad one at that.

But coming back to the power of corporate worship - if this isn't important, if there is nothing to this, why indeed did Paul urge the Ephesians in Eph 5:19 to "(speak) to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord"? Why are there 150 Psalms (songs) recorded in the middle of the Bible? Remember - Paul and Silas were singing in the prison when God sent an earthquake to shake the foundations of the prison and release them. What did Joshua have the priests do at the walls of Jericho? They were blowing the trumpets before the Lord.

But, if we rank mission over worship or worship over mission, we end up sabotaging both; worship and mission are equally and intrinsically linked. If worship is merely the thing that makes us feel good, feel “full” so we can go and do the important, active stuff, we lose. On the other hand, if mission is the thing that’s flippantly tacked onto our faith, we lose. Either way, our definitions of worship and mission are sickly and insufficient. We are missing the engaging, challenging, and courageous call of the Church to enact both.
(Your Worship Isn't Enough; Trevor & Bonnie McMaken; Relevant Magazine)

There's more to this whole worship thing that we haven't even touched base with. We don't even know what's there to be discovered. Our definition of worship is definitely lacking. And most times, we don't even realise that. We don't feel the ceiling that's over our heads, we don't understand the importance of it, and we don't even see that there is something wanting.

Today, the songs were well chosen. There was flow, there was easy transition, there was a sense that we were moving in a direction, that maybe this would be more than the usual set of songs, that maybe we would really touch God. And then when it could have gone on, when we could have pushed, when we could have built, when it could have peaked, we fell flat again. We hit that invisible ceiling and we plateaued, and we hardly even realised it.

You know what I realised I've been missing? The loud roar of prayer, of singing in tongues, the exuberance of God's people singing and praying at the top of their lungs right in the midst of worship; that wall of praise and the wail of the shofa in Metro Tabernacle. It took some getting used to, but you take it away with you and everything else seems so mousy.

Tuesday 16 February 2010


I don't have to hear it, if I don't want to
I can drown this out, pull the curtains down on you
It's a heavy world, it's too much for me to care
If I close my eyes, it's not there
[Headphones | Jars of Clay]

Things have a way of building up, sometimes. A culmination of things ignored, things hoped for, things forgotten, things built up coming to naught. There is always the dream, always out of reach, like a phantom slipping through tired, buttery fingers. Where do you draw the line and say this is it, "I can'ts take it no more" and fight for what you truly desire?

I've said things before that I sincerely believed in. The problem is, now I'm not so sure. Back in October 2009, after the iBridge camp, I said with all sincerity,

Say as much as I wish, there is a locality to my dreams. Yes, I want to build a drama team. But I want to build it here, in Penang. Yes, I want to be a part of a larger vision in the GCF. But I want that to be here, in Penang. I don’t want to always be wishing to be elsewhere.
I guess in the end, a substantial part of my dream is for my dreams to be present here.

At times I don’t believe in it. It hurts when people say, so why don’t you move there? Why don’t you go to such and such a place to study/work? I do want to. But if I go, who will build here?
And if this is my sacrifice for now, so be it.

And I believed it, but there was always that war inside, the voice that said why not go and the voice that protested, but you should stay. And now the internal voice asks again, 'yes, your dream may be to build here, but does that dream say it is to build now?' What's to say that I should not go now and come back later? And yet if you had said that to me four years ago, I would have said no; I need to be back there, back in Penang.

Yesterday, we had a GCF Chinese New Year meet up and during the ice-breaker, we shared where we were from and where we were currently located. I realised that a lot of Penangites are extremely proud of of their island (i.e. I was born in Penang, raised in Penang, living / working in Penang) and I realise that I don't really share that. I don't know why. And it comes to this thought: am I only here (and saying that I need to be here) because I was not ready to leave? Forgive the mixed tenses; the division between past and present is still fuzzy.

I wasted another year, waiting for the words
For things to be more clear
[Forgive me | Jars of Clay]

Maybe it boils down to timing. I have been here because despite my desires, I was not ready to leave. And maybe now I wish to leave, because I am ready. Does that make sense; inasmuch as anything in this life makes sense?

There's been an increasing sense of wasting the years, as if there should be more that can and should be done; as if I am waiting for something to materialise that just won't. Things that I said I should be doing always seems to fall flat again and again. I don't know if it's because I am in the wrong place, or the wrong time, or I'm doing the wrong thing - I could be missing the point totally. The thing is that I don't know.

Nothing is clear enough, but I doubt that it will ever be. And if I keep on waiting for it to be defined, I may be stuck here forever.

Does it have to start with a broken heart
Broken dreams and bleeding parts
We were young and world was clear
But young ambition disappears
I swore it would never come to this
The average, the obvious
[Burn Out Bright | Switchfoot]

I don't know where this next year will take me; whether I will stay or I will leave. Right now, I've given up knowing. Spiritual spins can be put on it both ways - either the Devil is distracting me or God is revealing His plans - so I'll not bother with those. I think I'm becoming increasingly disillusioned with know-it-all statements that "God Has Spoken" and taking events / conversations / happenings as "Signs From God." It's all in the interpretation anyway.

But right now, there are two options open.

One, a highway to dreams, if I take it, though I have no comfort in knowing if the dreams will be fulfilled. Yet it's these castles that capture me, the visions of a life I can build in kayell: A (hopefully) lightweight job. Time to write. Performing arts. Dance classes. Friends. Recreating a life of my own.

Two, to press on here again and again, with no comfort that any of the things I want to do will ever come to pass.

Would you blame me for wanting to leave?

If we've only got one try
If we've only got one life
If time was never on our side
Then before I die
I want to burn out bright
[Burn Out Bright | Switchfoot]