Last month I had the joy to worship lead at various churches, prayer groups and house movements in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. I am still trying to sort through all that happened in this month of incredible moments. But to summarize, it was a beautiful, if sobering time.
Beautiful because I got to see so many Christians gathered together, joined with hearts as one in the worship. I saw worship unify people who had been previously estranged. I was graced to hear the story of how God brought them together.
Beautiful because we got to meet new communities, make new friends and enjoy the (wet!!!) landscape of new countries.
Also very beautiful because we returned to Sicily, marking ten years of our involvement with Emmanuel Church, Ragusa, the place where I buried my heart and regularly return to temporarily collect it.
Sobering because I see the extremes of the Christian church becoming even more profound in the European context, and causing division.
Sobering because I came to terms with the reality of a lack of a Belgian evangelical church, and the genuine lack of churches in many key cities in Europe. Coming from Sydney in which we have sixty-eight churches in one suburb (Cronulla), it’s pretty incredible to think that there is one or maybe two options for some of these Christians. Like the church, or leave it, in this case. And when your pastor falls morally, or if you have a dispute, you leave it.
I feel very privileged to have had a month’s worth of experiences. Most artists tour by selling tickets for large events, and do one night in each city. They travel by day, and sing by night. But we get to meet and talk with Christians when we’re on the road. I haven’t had the possibility of conducting any other type of tour. My husband and I travel from venue to venue, eating meals with Christians and sharing their lives. Not out of choice, but out of necessity. We are not on a tour bus, we are in a car with our hosts. We are not in a motel, we are at houses. And we witness struggles and joys with children, and neighbours. We gain a brief and intense view into these people’s lives.
In Holland, I was asked to run a workshop on worship leading. It was a lovely, hospitable church in an area described as culturally “traditional”. Unfortunately, we had traveled back from Belgium the night before, getting in at about 3am. I had chosen to spend some time with a beautiful girl who needed to talk. But I’m not usually up that late. And so, I found myself batting fatigue, and trying to give this church my best. Because I believed they deserved it. But all my will-power and prayer did not stop the feeling that my body was defying gravity.
The Netherlands is the only place in which people have ever actually yelled at me from the crowd. After I shared a little of my story and sang Jesus what a Beautiful Name, a loud voice from the crowd yelled “Thank you for writing your songs!” I looked over and saw a woman waving at me. I had to smile – I had no idea how to otherwise respond. “My honor” I replied into the microphone.
After we did a small amount of music, I taught two one-hour sessions, and we paused for questions. Some hands raised.
“What do you do when the youth in your city say “f*** that Christianity?”” a girl asked me, genuinely concerned. I wasn’t sure if she was aware she was swearing.
But it was a genuine question. We talked together about why youth would say this, or local barriers to understanding the Christian message. Workshop participants cited recent sexual abuse cases and scandals that had wracked their city. Respected leaders had misused their privilege, and the traumatic effect upon non-Christians was clear. Varied musicians also cited a lack of Dutch language and culture in their churches, or at least an irrelevance to it. I spoke from some of my own examples as best as I could, and I was deeply moved at the resonance and understanding that I felt come back from these passionate Christians.
We ended the sessions with a short prayer, and committed our thoughts and questions (and future solutions) to God. After a break, our host announced it was time to eat dinner and worship together to seal what God had done in the workshops.
While church members filed out into the foyer, Tim and I prepared ourselves in the hall to lead the musical worship session. Although we battle many things while on the road, this trip was one of the hardest we have done from the perspective of health. Tim’s finger had blistered and gotten infected, and he could only play guitar for reduced periods. (We didn’t know this, but God had organized for us to sing with a doctor the next day who could provide us with a script for antibiotics). At this juncture, we were confused about Tim’s increasing pain levels, and were having to work around this as a serious obstacle.
During dinner the leaders introduced us to various Dutch delicacies, and we discussed all manner of things, drawing comparisons between our experience in Holland, Sydney and in Los Angeles. But all of the organizational things weigh upon me in the moments before the people gather in worship. I wonder whether my gifting is enough, and what they will think. I often chide myself for thinking this. While all is buzzing around me, I have to silently still my heart and lift it to God and ask that the music would honor Him anyway.
We began the worship “concert” by encouraging the people to participate. Lyrics were projected on a screen behind us, and many of the people knew the words. They sang loudly. As we began the first song, accompanied by their clapping, I realized that two women in the front row were holding hands. Throughout the concert, it became clear that they were a romantic couple.
It was difficult to explain the collision of all my thoughts in this moment. As we led people through the songs, I wondered whether the leaders were aware that this couple were there. I wondered about their stance on gay marriage. I thought about the fact that my church had appeared in the media that week for their comments on gay Christians. I thought about their official statement on homosexuality, and wondered what my pastors would encourage me to do, or to think in this moment.
I thought about World Vision, and their decision to hire gay couples in same sex marriages. Then, I thought about the evangelical response to World Vision hiring gay employees causing the organization to reverse its decision.
I thought about the argument I had been having with a friend as to whether a church’s stance on homosexuality issue should be debated in the public sphere. I wondered how he would judge me if he saw me leading worship and these singing Christians in the front row.
But then, I realized that in this moment, it just didn’t matter. It’s not that I thought that we could revise the biblical text to fit contemporary cultural standards. It’s not that I was slipping into compromise. It’s that I honestly believe that to worship is a human right. Our invitation to come into congregational worship is not based on our worthiness, or none of us would be welcome. It is based in the precious blood of Jesus shed upon the cross. And this precedes any sin or identity or sexual preference or cultural norms.
I closed my eyes, and simply did what I had encouraged the worship participants to do, to lift up Jesus Christ as greater than any other, and to ascribe Him worship.
Today I indirectly brought some of these questions to a well-respected evangelical leader. His response was priceless. He called it a “vocational” issue, and quietly suggested that I do not have to have all the answers to the world’s problems. Admitting that is actually quite hard. But I think there’s a whole generation asking us when this stops being a big deal. And another demanding that it must continue to be a big deal. I don’t have any answers to the divide at all. I just have an instinct to protect the space in which we worship from becoming wrought with political issues.
I would love to hear your (respectful) thoughts on this.
But I’m going to leave this post with a passage that shows the grandeur, majesty and big-ness of God. Something I hope I never lose a grip of, even while evangelical Christians wrestle each other over this issue. You’ll find me lost in the mystery.
Revelation 5: 7 – 14
He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.’
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!’
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honour and glory and power,
for ever and ever!’
The four living creatures said, ‘Amen’, and the elders fell down and worshipped.