“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
I Corinthians 13:12
When I was in graduate school, I traveled to northern Wisconsin and met the great American theatre director Paul Sills. Sills was the founding director of Chicago’s improvisational theatre, The Second City. Even though Sills is unknown outside the profession, he has directed and taught so many who have become luminaries. He also developed the theatrical form known as “story theatre.”
I was writing my thesis about Paul’s career, and I had come to revere him so much that I was terrified to meet him. In fact, a few people I interviewed told me that Paul would never talk to me, or if he did, he might respond petulantly. I pulled my car up next to the barn where Paul for decades led classes on improvisational acting. I got out. I looked toward the house, and there he was, the icon, standing in the doorway. I stumbled up to him and stood there, speechless.
I figured he would at least throw a chair at me.
He reached out a gracious hand and said, “I’m Paul.” Then he pulled me up the steps into his kitchen where he said, “I’ll make you a sandwich.” He saved my life. We ultimately had a lovely conversation, sans petulance. At one point, he said, “I’m applying for a teaching job. Give me your response to the way I’ve done my resume. I haven’t done one of these before.”
He was the cliché artistic personality—an alien in a capitalist society. This became clearer to me a year later when I finished my first year of teaching at Geneva College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Karen and I traveled back to Chicago to visit family and see some plays. I discovered that Paul had returned to the city, and a play of his was running in the little theatre off the alley behind The Second City. Here was my chance to see the great man’s work. We made reservations, and when we arrived at the box office, there, selling the tickets, was Paul himself. I re-introduced myself. He asked me what I was doing now. I told him I’d just finished my first year of teaching college theatre. I felt ashamed in the face of his significance. But when I looked at him, he had a shy grin on his face, and he said, “I wish I had a job like that.”
Soon after I saw Paul in that little box office, the final draft of my thesis was accepted, and I sent a copy of it to the special theatre collection in the Harold Washington Library downtown Chicago. That was that. Paul and I took separate paths. I noted from afar that Paul finally got a job teaching. Mike Nichols, an old friend of Paul’s, joined with him and one other teacher to found an actor’s conservatory in New York.
Paul’s work and words have continued to influence my life. It was at the farm that he said, almost offhandedly, “Stories contain the truth and wisdom of the ages.” That’s a truth I almost missed. I grew up in a church that taught me that the Bible contained the truth and wisdom of the ages. As a child, I understood that to mean that truth was to be found in the form of argument, proof-text and bumpersticker. It took a liberal arts education to convince me that all truth was God’s truth, wherever it may be found. It was years after that, even years after I met Paul Sills, when I came to understand that all beauty is God’s beauty, and truth is present in artistic form. It was right in front of my face all along in the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the parables of Jesus.
I believe that one of the reasons I missed the power of story was that my worshipping tradition included reverence for Jesus through song, offering, prayer, text, and rationale. Story was for children’s Sunday School or for private devotions. Story did not earn a hearing in the most formative place of the church—its public worship.
You will see as you read this book that I have not changed my mind about Jesus, but I have changed my mind about story.
This is a book for those who wish to think about the place of story in worship. It’s a book about worship and story, and it’s also a book of stories. (In other words, I am trying to put my money where my mouth is. I aim to do what I say.)
You may read the chapters in any order. Each will tell its own tale. And, as the wonderful contemporary memoirist Dennis Covington says, our lives themselves are stories. The stories of this book will add up—becoming one way of telling the story of one life’s worship journey thus far.
Sometimes, I’ll focus on worship by itself, but usually I’ll be busy noticing the edge where worship touches story and storytelling. I am speaking of story in at least the following specific ways: Bible story, history, parable, personal story, and story as structure. This is about stories within worship as well as the story form of the whole worship service.
I am attempting to encourage those who worship and those who lead other worshippers to ask this simple question: what should we do about story?
Before we get on with the stories, I’d like to say something in an attempt to tone down the potential arrogance and polarizing inherent in this journey we’re about to take together. To do that, I’d like to invite you sideways to a book about writing. In “Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg says,
Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a good writer. One neat truth about writing cannot answer it all.
It seems to me that what Goldberg says here about writing is also immediately true of worship. This worshipful path is not straight. There is no logical way to become a good worshipper. Worship is as messy as living. Worship is, as A.W. Tozer says, the reason we are alive—our purpose on this earth—but there is no one neat truth to answer how to do worship or how to lead others into doing worship.
In her book on writing, Goldberg explains that she is attempting to help writers access “the essential, awake speech of their minds.” The worship leader in me is reminded of the phrase “full, conscious, and active participation,” which is the goal for worshipers described in Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilum” (1963).
Goldberg’s suggestion for the process of authentic writing is to, “Write down the bones.” A writer who is writing down the bones is putting the inner life down on the page. The inside is turned outward, and that which is written down shows the basic truth of this person.
I suggest that our goal as worshippers is to “worship out the bones;” to bring the inner life out in our worship, all the way to the “spirit and truth” of which Jesus spoke. You may think I’m saying that true worship is from the very bones, as in “worship out [of] the bones.” That would be really passionate worship. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m trying for a more mystical image. I’m picturing a vulnerable worship, in which the worshiper becomes willing to acknowledge reality, as God knows it to be. The honest to goodness truth comes out. It is a kind of worship in which the inner, God-seen life is turned outside. The skeletons come out of the closet.
It’s a sort of gruesome image. Think of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones being imbued with spirit, and you’ll have permission to let your mind wander into such territory. Think of Psalm 103, “He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.”
I’m striving toward an image which no longer accepts worship all dressed up in “Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.” This is worship that is as hospitable and honest as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
How does that work? We tell our stories. “Hi my name is Jeff, and I’m a sinner. Here’s what happened…”
Goldberg says she wants to be writing down the bones because, “I want someone to know me. We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves; we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.”
I want someone to know me. I want God to know me. I want you to know me. I want to worship out the bones.
“Bones-out” worship is:
I don’t know how to get to those if we’re not telling our stories. But this book is no prescription. There is no one way to write. There is no one way to love. There is no one way to worship. Am I being relativist? I hope not. I do believe that we can say there are ways that you cannot worship God. You cannot worship God with human sacrifice. You cannot worship God with an act of injustice. You cannot worship God by worshipping God’s creation. The list goes on. True worship is true love of God and therefore has as many variations as there are lovers.
I’d like to hear your love story.
What do the bones look like in your own worship? Your answer might include
your affection for God,
sadness for your sins,
gratefulness for God at work,
helplessness without God,
grief for where God is not yet,
submission to God’s assignments,
giddy celebration over God.
All of these (and more) make up the skeletal structure of our relationship with God. Can we reveal each of these “bones” every time we worship? No. Perhaps, however, we can strive for such revelations over a life of worship.
If we are not willing to worship out the bones, may we still call it worship? Can we at least have a conversation about that? Can we at least tell each other some stories? Can at least one song move over to make room?
Many of us in the church have been away from hearing and telling stories so long that we are confused about getting started. Perhaps believing that it should be difficult, we confess that we don’t have the slightest idea how to start.
In my experience, getting started is actually pretty simple. You start by saying, “I’d love to hear what your life has been like.” With trust and sensitivity as our protectors, these personal stories can soon find their way into the fabric of our public life together.
Until I was five, my parents took us eight kids to a Baptist church. There was an article in the paper which included a picture of the Barker family taking up an entire pew. But that church apparently wasn’t separatist enough, so my parents helped start a non-denominational, fundamentalist Bible church, which nurtured and nagged me until college. Somewhere in there, I learned to study the Bible and I made some private and public professions of faith and I was baptized. I went away to a Free Methodist college. My first year at college, I was a youth leader at a Presbyterian church. About this time, my sister was telling me of her experiences in the charismatic Jesus movement of southern California. Then my college art professor took us into a Catholic cathedral in St. Louis where I saw centuries-old mosaics and walked the stations of the cross for the first time. It devastated me. I didn’t have a box for Christ’s church anymore.
It was on a Sunday night during those college years that I heard Donald Bastian preach a sermon about what heaven may be like. This was long before I became rooted in Reformed theology and long before Dr. Bastian became a Bishop of the Free Methodist Church in Canada. I was just a college student afraid that he was losing his faith, and Reverend Bastian was just the pastor of the college church. On the Sunday night in question, he said that he believes when we are in heaven, we will know everyone as we are known. In other words, our personalities will be hanging out for everyone to see. Pastor Bastian said he didn’t know how it would happen, but he believed it would be true. There would no longer be the need for secrets, and finally, we could be known. I was terrified of the idea, but I also knew that he was describing what I wanted.
I’ve come to believe that Dr. Bastian was right, and that, as with the journey of sanctification, we should not wait for heaven. We should start now.
© 2006 Jeff Barker