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This week’s guest post is from my friend and co-pastor, Mike Gehrling. God called us to start working together to plant The Upper Room together nearly five years ago. Those five years have been filled with a great gift of  friendship, which I’ve written about here. Throughout those five years God has also used Mike to teach me a lot about worship, so it’s fitting that his guest post here is about worship.

About the author: Mike loves Jesus. He also enjoys being a pastor and a campus minister. In his spare time he can be found going for a run, reading a good book, and appearing anonymously in Chris’s blogposts. One of his goals for 2013 is to write more blogposts than he did in 2012, which should be easy since he only wrote 9 last year. Keep him accountable at www.mikegehrling.wordpress.com.

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Have you ever worshipped in a church significantly different from your own? Maybe, on a mission trip, you’ve worshipped in a language other than English, and struggled to know what you were singing, praying and hearing. Maybe you’re a Protestant whose worshipped in a Catholic or Orthodox church, and have been taken aback when attention is given to Mary or to a saint. Maybe you come from a liturgical tradition and visited a contemporary or charismatic church, not knowing what to do what to do with your hands when you don’t have a bulletin and hymnal to hold, and when everyone around you is lifting their hands in the air. Experiences like these can be jarring and difficult, but they also provide opportunities to grow.

I’ve had the privilege of worshipping in a lot of different contexts, and have come to love worship that is outside of my own comfort zone. From worshiping in an African-American Baptist church for a semester in college, to learning worship songs while in a van on a mission trip in Southeast Asia, to visiting an Orthodox Church when I’m taking vacation time from Upper Room, I’ve learned a lot from the breadth of worship expressions that the body of Christ has to offer.

I started writing this blogpost with the intention of reflecting on what these experiences taught me about worship. However, I quickly realized that these experiences also taught me much about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about myself from worshipping cross-culturally:

I Benefit From Being Spiritually Flexible

If you exercise regularly, you know that the more you stretch, the more flexible your body is. More flexibility means less discomfort, and less likelihood of injury. In a similar way, I’ve found that taking time to worship in other traditions, and learn from them, has stretched my spirit to the point that I’m now able to experience Christ’s presence in church contexts that are very different from what I had been used to. Five years ago, hearing someone speaking in tongues would have stretched me to the point of a spiritual muscle tear. Truly experiencing Christ while worshipping in another language would have been more than my spiritually flexibility could handle. Now, though, I’ve reached the point that I can experience God in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and be content in either.

I Sometimes Use Humor as a Form of Judgment

I’ve rarely had negative experiences in worship. But there have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself laughing about elements of a worship service that were new for me. I remember as a teenager chuckling at the funny hat that the bishop was wearing in a Catholic service. I took great delight imitating the charismatic preacher at the first charismatic African-American church I visited. On the surface at least, I didn’t feel anything negative, but my tendency toward laughter blocked me from appreciating the deeper significance and beauty of what was happening. These experiences showed me that humor is my way of responding to culture-shock, and it was keeping me from learning.

Instead of Worshipping God, I Often Worship Idols of Mastery and Control

I’ve learned to sing praises to God in many languages. Swahili, Congolese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Arabic and Hindi all come to mind immediately. But there’s one language that I always struggle with: Spanish. Many Latino worship songs move at such a tempo that the syllables go by faster than I can handle. That my tongue seems to be completely opposed to making that “rolling r” sound doesn’t help much, either. It used to be that my soul would check out during times of worship in which the leader had us singing in Spanish. It was too hard. I couldn’t do it well, or at all, and therefore I couldn’t really worship. My perspective changed, though, when I realized that it wasn’t the Spanish that was keeping me from worshipping; it was my attitude. In order to enter into a spirit of worship, I was demanding an ability to master the worship. While anyone can master particular forms of worship, or particular songs or prayer styles, no one can fully master what it means to worship the Triune God. The fact that I was demanding the capacity to master the worship style in order to worship meant that I had made an idol out of my own abilities, and that I was more often worshipping myself than God. The muscles in my tongue are still not good at speaking or singing in Spanish, but I’m thankful that my spiritual muscles can receive Latino worship as a reminder that entering into worship sometimes is hard work, and that I still have much to learn.

Praise the Lord that the Body of Christ has many members! May God grant all of us a heart that is open to experiencing him even in uncomfortable places.

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Worship should take us on a journey into the Light of the Kingdom of God. This movement towards heaven is the driving force behind Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s new book Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the surface level, the book is a clear and readable explanation of Orthodox beliefs and worship. But at the heart of the book lies an invitation to be transfigured in the Light of Christ through worship.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is an insider’s look at Orthodox liturgy. As an outsider, I found Papavassiliou’s descriptions of the liturgy clarified both my understanding of and questions about Orthodox worship. While I’ve read a good amount about Orthodoxy, I still feel dizzy when I have the cross-cultural experience of an Orthodox worship service.  When I’ve worshiped at Orthodox churches or at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary here in Pittsburgh, I’ve known that I should simply ask more questions, but I haven’t known where to begin. This book asks and answers many of those questions. Papavassiliou also has a gift for succinctly communicating Orthodox theology in ways that any Christian can understand, often using sidebars in the book for deeper explanations of certain topics. For example, the sidebar on page 22 is the most concise and clear explanation of the veneration of icons I’ve read.

Papavassilou also explains the nuances of what happens behind the iconostasis in ways that would enrich even an insider’s understanding of Orthodoxy.  For example, chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining the use of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Hebrew and Protestant numbering) in the Divine Liturgy.  This psalm of repentance is recited before the consecration of Eucharist because, “It is repentance that opens the gates of heaven to us” (p. 65). But there’s more than meets the eye going on here: Anyone familiar with the psalm may have noticed that there seems to be a change in tone between verse 17 and verse 18.  Before this change we read “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (NASB). Then verse 19 speaks of God delighting in “righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering” and “young bulls” being offered on God’s altar. The first portion of this psalm is recited during the Divine Liturgy when the not-yet-consecrated communion elements are processed throughout the church. Then there is actually a pause between verses 17 and 18 during which the priest places the bread and wine upon the altar. Then he completes the psalm demonstrating symbolically that Christ is the one righteous sacrifice Who replaces all earthly sacrifices with the offering of Himself. As the book demonstrates, this sort of poetic beauty permeates Orthodox worship, with deeper nuances always awaiting discovery.

Such beauty is a reflection of the Light of the Kingdom, the Light into which worshipers enter through the liturgy. With the liturgy’s “very goal and purpose being participation in the divine Mysteries” (pp. 82-83), all of the elements of the service are explained as preparation for entry into the presence of Christ. The hymn which follows reception of communion says, “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity. For the Trinity has saved us!” (p. 169). The reception of Christ in the Eucharist transfigures Christians that we may bear His Light to the world. And this means that there is a missional component to even the other-worldly worship of Orthodoxy. As Papavassiliou writes, “We leave the world that we may return to it renewed and illumined, fit to bring light to those in darkness” (p. 18). Amen. In the Lord’s light may we see light, and may others see Christ’s light in us.

(Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing this book with me.)