By Brian McLaren
(This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (Jan/Feb 2003) and is now part of the new eBook Worshiping Through Grief. It is available at Amazon.com here. And as a PDF at the Worship Leader Store (at 25% off) here)
How do you lead worship through danger, anxiety and grief? Brian McLaren’s reflections based on his congregations encounter with danger are hope-filled and timeless.
I have lived most of my life in Maryland, the place where the “one-shot sniper” and his accomplice were caught. I expected to feel relieved after the arrest, and I do, a little, but not as fully as I thought. I guess the feeling of danger comes on strong, all at once, but it takes time for the feelings of safety to gently settle in. The church I serve is in Montgomery County, now famous because seven of the sniper’s 13 victims were shot here, including the first and the last.
Cedar Ridge Community Church, like all the churches in our area, gathered to worship three times during the sniper’s 22-day killing spree, and the experience of worshiping in a dangerous time was different, as you’d expect. Five words come to mind as I look back over these three weeks; anxiety, repentance, hope, connection and humanity. One hopes that experiences like this will be rare, but in case they aren’t, in case we’re all entering an extended dangerous time, perhaps it’s worthwhile sharing my reflections.
How would you preach during a time like this? Would you address the situation, or continue with your planned series? If you did address the situation, what would you say? Would you talk about promises of God’s protection, or about the opposite—our vulnerability to death and our need to be prepared? Or maybe about violence, evil, hatred? What kind of music would you choose? Songs about confidence, trust in God, having no fear? What about songs that express fear (if we have any in our repertoire)?
If the killing spree had gone on longer, our worship and arts pastor and I would have planned a whole service devoted to helping our people process the experience. Thanks be to God, it’s over. During our three weeks living in sniper anxiety, in our public prayers, we addressed the situation in prayers and acknowledged it in passing in the sermons.
If we had needed to plan that special service, I would have focused on anxiety. I would have talked about how Scripture both tells us we need not fear (Psalm 27: 1,3; 46:2, 49:5), and yet contains honest accounts of people who are afraid, who express it openly, and give us a window into their soul’s struggle with anxiety (Psalm 55).
Through this experience, I’ve realized how powerful anxiety is, and even though many of us, when there aren’t snipers present, don’t feel intense anxiety regularly, many of us do—with an ex-spouse who may at any time take our children, or a relative who is near death, or a mentally ill loved one who may cycle out of normalcy at any time, or a rebellious teenager who may do who knows what next, or a son or daughter in danger in the military or in a foreign mission field. Our shared sniper experience reminds me that anxiety is the background music for worship for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.
The effect of this anxiety on us at Cedar Ridge was to subdue the normal vibrance of our worship. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right to rejoice with normal exuberance when some of our neighbors were grieving and when we all shared an unpredictable but real danger.
It struck me that some of us in leadership may develop a kind of addiction to being “upbeat,” and that we may not know how to acknowledge with the wise writer of Ecclesiastes that there is a time and season for everything, which means there are times to sing loud and clap and celebrate, and times to sing softly in more reflective, less jubilant tones. And perhaps times to not sing at all.
Over these weeks, the shock and grief of September 11, 2001 have come back to mind quite often, along with the special concern over anthrax that we in the Washington, D.C. area experienced in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It’s been a hard couple of years (much less hard, of course, than many of our brothers and sisters elsewhere experience year after year).
Then, as now, I know that some of us felt a desire for revenge rising inside us. Too many times, we preachers and worship leaders can capitalize on that desire for revenge, baptize it, perhaps especially true when the perpetrators are of another religion.
If our response breeds arrogance and superiority (as if there haven’t been plenty of “Christian kooks” who have done terrible atrocities, including Hitler, who called himself a Christian and frequently spoke of God), if our response deepens our prejudice and constricts our love and respect for others, we’re in greater danger from sin within our own souls than we are from bullets in parking lots or gas stations.
It seems to me there’s simply no place for either revenge or superiority for followers of Jesus. It is simply not permitted for us to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. But we must resist the desire for revenge in times like this.
What do we do instead? Jesus tells us to look in the mirror, to focus on the planks in our own eyes when we’re tempted to obsess on the faults of others. And so this becomes a time for all of us to think about the ways we engage in sniping in less dramatic ways: aggressive words, subtle gossip, nursed grudges, cherished prejudices. Instead of reaching for the narcotic revenge, we reach for the pure water of repentance. We realize that the evil in two men that has stolen security from us all over these last weeks is also in each of us, and we rededicate ourselves to walk in the light of the Lord.
When we feel grief over the evil that runs through and among us, it is important not to give way to cynicism or despair. God has not abandoned God’s creation, nor has God abandoned humanity. In the midst of our worst times, God gives us rich promises of better days to come. It was in times of anxiety that Jesus came preaching a new regime, a new kingdom. It was in times of national decay and defeat that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote prophetic poetry full of hope beyond judgment, with dreams of a day when swords and spears would be fashioned into plowshares and garden tools, when people would never study war any more.
I feel a need to reassert that hope. In fact, in the aftermath of our siege of anxiety, I finished a song that attempts to celebrate that hope. It will be an artifact of these days for me:
We have this dream God has planted in our hearts
Like a seed that is watered with our tears and hope and prayer…
That all of the guns and the tanks and the bombs and
The land mines and the bayonets and the bullets, bombs and knives
Will be melted down and gone from our lives.
From the guns and from the tanks we’ll make swing sets and park benches.
From the bullets we’ll make trumpets.
In the bombshells, we’ll plant gardens.
So open your heart and don’t let it harden…
Clenching fists will stop their fighting. Hugs and handshakes reuniting.
Shouts and violence will be silenced.
Smile and hear the children’s laughter.
God’s kingdom is coming and this we seek after.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD…
Come, let us not train for war anymore
Let us walk in the light of the LORD.
It strikes me as we worship in a dangerous time that we need more songs like the old protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” songs that express hope in the Lord.
But even in our hope we need to be careful. I may be in the minority on this, but I don’t believe that being a Christian is supposed to make us less connected to our non-Christian neighbors. I think the reverse should be true. I don’t find it attractive or spiritually “right” to gather with God’s people and celebrate that we have hope while others don’t.
Nor do I believe it is theologically correct or pastorally wise to try to reassure people that we have some special exemption card from danger because we believe in Jesus. (If anything, I think the reverse is true, that we have special vulnerability to suffering because we follow a man who chose to suffer rather than inflict suffering.)
Instead, as we worship during dangerous times, we need increased compassion for our neighbors. After one of our services, a member of our congregation who is a teacher at the school where the young boy was shot came up to me and told me what the mother of that boy is going through. Stories like this have to bond us with our community in dangerous times, something that I know must please God in the midst of so much sadness and horror.
It’s not a time to glibly “look on the bright side” when so many have died and so many are grieving, but it’s worth noting that this trial has brought us all together in a new way here, perhaps the way New Yorkers felt after 9-11. This sense of connectedness is a good thing, especially for Christians who sometimes become so preoccupied with their church home and their home in heaven that they forget about their home on a certain street in a certain neighborhood in a certain town or city, which is the place God has placed them to serve and love right now.
Perhaps the deepest word that comes to mind as I reflect on worshiping in this dangerous time is humanity; humanity and frailty, vulnerability and limitation. This story has gripped our nation and even the world because it touches our common humanity: our common desire for safety, our common love for our children and our common desire to protect them, our shared vulnerability as humans with fragile neuro-biochemical brains to insanity, our common dilemma of loving freedom but wanting enough control to protect our safety so we can enjoy our freedom (which can come under threat from too much control).
This intensified sense of our humanity will stay with me for a long time, even though the crisis is over. It adds richness to some familiar words, which I’ll paraphrase slightly: “for God so loved all humanity, that he gave his one and only Son…”