17 August 2008

Stuggling to Worship

I was attending the Methodist church this past Sunday and chose to go to the “traditional” service because I like the new pastor that teaches there and at least I get to hear some old hymns. All started out well with one of my favorites, “Praise To The Lord, The Almighty.”

But then we got to a point in the service where the music director typically makes a medley of hymns together that we sing. Today he decided to focus on heaven as the theme since the pastor's message was on the Scripture text, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The song line up was a trinity of perhaps my least liked popular evangelical hymns:

"I'll Fly Away"
"When the Roll is Called Up Yonder"
"When We All Get To Heaven"

I struggle so much when songs like this are sung. And I don't think I'm alone. As I scanned the congregation, I noticed a fairly consistent pattern. The older folks (those 60 and above, which included the music director) seemed to love it. They had smiles on the their faces and sang with some gusto, nodding or lightly bouncing to the music. Anyone under 50, and especially those 40 and under seemed at best subdued and at worst bored. The melodies and time signature just have that bouncy, happy-clappy hoedown feeling to them that sounds dated in all the wrong ways. In fact, the whole middle of the service, from a musical perspective, just not doing it for me. In addition to the above medley, the choir did the Southern Gospel classic, “Midnight Cry” (a popular song about the rapture coming any moment) which just made it worse.

But beyond the music itself, I struggle with the lyrics and subject matter. I struggle for a couple of opposing reasons. For example, a couple of verses from “I'll Fly Away”:

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I'll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I'll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I'll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I'll fly away

Is it unreasonable to feel that a mindset like “just a few more weary days and then...” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet” when referring to this life is a tad pessimistic? And I guess for me, when I'm in church on Sunday morning, I want to worship God. It's great to hear messages that encourage or convict me and help me grow, but my real purpose for being there is me offering myself, my worship to God. In a sense it's great to look forward to eternity with Him, but it doesn't feel like a worship song to me. Compare the lyrics of that medley to the opening hymn we did today:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,
The King of creation
O my soul, praise Him , for He is thy health and salvation
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near
Praise Him in glad adoration

Praise to the Lord,
Who o'er all things so wondrously reigneth
Shelters thee under His wings , yea, so gently sustaineth
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e'er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him
Let the 'amen' sound from His people again
Gladly for'ere we adore Him

To me, that's a song of worship...talking about God, what He's done, His attributes and majesty. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” just doesn't compare to that. And that doesn't even touch the explicit Left Behind style rapture theology of it and “Midnight Cry.” I just found myself straining to connect with the songs at all. Perhaps some of it is the age thing mentioned above. The closer you get to the end of life on earth, the more aches and pains and troubles you've accumulated or seen, the more you long to just get out of here. But when you're young and have a lot of life ahead of you, you look forward to living it. You want to see your kids grow up, get married and have kids of their own. You want to do exciting and meaningful things for God down here. You're not just waiting for the rapture or to “fly away.” It's great to look forward to heaven one day, but sometimes people seem like they are “so heavenly minded, they're no earthly good.”

Now, for that opposing reason. Setting aside the feeling that none of the hymns in that medley above really seem “worshipful” to me and taking them just as songs with a message...is there something wrong that I don't feel more moved by them? At all? Shouldn't I view myself as a “stranger and alien” here? I mean, I do want to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus. I do look forward to a time where I'm not fighting this constant internal war with myself over sin and I get at least some answers for all the evil and pain and misery that does exist down here (though being an American mitigates how much of that touches me directly). As I was singing these songs and trying to connect, trying to understand what the older folks were getting out of them, I felt guilty that it simply wasn't happening. No matter how hard I tried to resist the “I hate these songs” urge within me and absorb the message, it didn't work. They seemed escapist, defeatist, trite and unmeaningful. Yet I felt like as a good Christian, I shouldn't feel that way.

Anyone else feel this way at church sometimes? Struggling mightily to squeeze whatever you can out of the service or the music or the preaching, largely failing, and all the while feeling guilty that you're not “more spiritual and can see God moving in it? What do you do about it? As I continue to struggle with the desire to be in a more traditional, liturgical worship environment, but having to consider all of the needs of my family and settling for something different for the time being, this is the hardest thing I deal with. And I don't want to feel this way every Sunday. I just want to worship God and connect with Him.


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Dymphna said...

I like I'll Fly Away but I've always considered it to be a funeral song. And in 1941, when it was first recorded life was pretty much shackles on one's feet if you were a poor boy struggling in the fields all day.