Monday, October 10, 2016

Prayer, Worship, and Repetition (The Presence-Driven Church)

The Rift Valley, Kenya
This past Sunday morning at Redeemer, during one of our worship songs, God struck fire. His presence was palpable. I was playing guitar on the worship team. I made eye contact with our worship leader, and told him, "Do it again." We restarted on verse one. A young man came to the altar. I called other men to come and pray with him. It was beautiful. It was kairos, rather than chronos clock-time. 

It was repetitive.

When praying, I am repetitive. Especially when it comes to thanking and praising God. Or when saying "I love you" to God. I say such things over and over and over again.

In prayer I worship God. Worship is part of a prayer life. Hebraic worship was repetitive, as was (and is) Hebraic praying today.

Don't blame worship-loving Azuza Street charismatics for inventing repetitive, physical, emotional worship. Look at Revelation 4 and behold the "beyond-7-11 worship" of the four living creatures and the copycat 24 elders.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: 

“‘Holy, holy, holy 
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.” 
9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 

11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, 
to receive glory and honor and power, 
for you created all things, 
and by your will they were created 
and have their being.” 

These amazing "four living creatures" are doing nothing but worshiping God, 24-7. We are told they are singing the same words over and over and over and over...  non-stop. Holy....   holy.....  holy....  for how long? Does anyone want to accuse these holy creatures of mindless, repetitive worship? 

Then there are the "24 elders." They respond, over and over and over and over and... over again and again, 24-7, by falling down before God and singing the words we read in v. 11. Here we see verse 11, 24-7. 24-7-11 worship. These elders are the fallingest people in the entire Bible. Anyone want to accuse them of being over-emotional as they are laying there with their faces pressed to the ground in love with the God of all heaven and earth? (At times, in solitary prayer, I lay face down on the ground.)

All this makes sense in Hebrew culture which is: 

  1. tribal (therefore repetition is not only not a threat but desired and expected)
  2. physically expressive; and
  3. emotional (therefore unafraid of expressing emotion)
  4. event-oriented, rather than time oriented
The idea that this worship is "unthinking" comes from the influence of the likes of Plato and Descartes, and the resultant philosophical-Western bifurcation of "feeling" vs. "thinking," of "Kirk" vs. "Spock."

At Redeemer, during worship, we feel God often leads us to repeat lines, verses, even sometimes words of a worship song we are singing. This happens at the discernment of the worship leader, or myself. 

Many of us love this. But I think some people, not necessarily ours, despise it. Some even mock it, using the saying "This is just '7-11' worship: 7 verses each repeated 11 times." 

OK. But tribal worship is repetitive. 

I've worshiped in several contexts in India. At one service the people repeated two lines for at least 20 minutes. I thought it was beautiful, and haunting to me in a good way. It stayed with me. And it stayed with these worshipers, too. Meditation, and meditative prayer, is ponderingly repetitive. To repeat, in prayer and in worship, is to have God's great truths descend from the mind into the heart.  

I've worshiped in different contexts in Kenya. At the pastor's conference I was speaking at there was a lot of very beautiful, harmonic, repetitive tribal worship. I recorded some on my phone. I was deeply moved by this.

African American worship retains this repetitive tribalness. (See, e.g., Peter Paris's The Spirituality of African Peoples for how African American worship and "church" owes much to its African tribal roots.) Certain lines are sung over and over and over... and over... Such worship is radically mindful, not mindless. Actually, repetition shapes the physical brain and, hence, the mind (with the brain being the "hardware" and the mind being the "software").

Hebraic culture was tribal. Therefore, Hebraic worship was repetitive. It was circular worship, not linear worship (4 verses, a chorus, then we're out of here "on time"). I've worshiped in several Asian contexts, and experienced a lot of repetitive singing of biblical themes and verses. I can see it and hear it right now. Repetition has staying power. Repetitive worship is meditative worship. Repetitive worship is the antithesis of McWorship.

Time is experienced differently in tribal contexts than it is in Western contexts. Western chronology fixates on the clock; tribal kairos-ology stays with the event. Tribal worship is event-oriented; Western worship is time- (chronos) oriented. 

The tribal-worship idea is that God is going to show up and do something. So we refer to Sunday mornings at Redeemer as God-events. Really, who wants anything less than this? And, BTW, God is not on our click-clock-time. God is not twitching and jerking and foot-tapping to "get out of church on time." God never tires of hearing the same things of his glory, over and over again and again.

Consider, e.g., Psalm 1. It sings:

1 Blessed is the one 

who does not walk in step with the wicked 
or stand in the way that sinners take 
or sit in the company of mockers, 
2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, 
and who meditates on his law day and night. 
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, 
which yields its fruit in season 
and whose leaf does not wither— 
whatever they do prospers. 
4 Not so the wicked! 
They are like chaff 
that the wind blows away. 
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 
6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, 
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. 

Remember that these words, in Hebrew, were sung by the worshiping congregation. But singing through them once takes only a minute. Did they sing this song just once in their worship? Taking only a minute to do it? If there were any Westernized clock-watching addicts among them they would be pleased at singing just once through this short psalm. But there weren't any digitized "worshipers" there, and the song went on and on and on...  

Linear, Westernized clock-time worship is shallow and ineffective compared to Hebraic tribal-repetitive worship. A one-time-through-a-hymn approach skims the surface compared to repetitive-meditative worship's staying power. Repetitive worship digs deep roots into the neuroplastic physical brain and one's spiritual heart. This is worship as spiritually exercising, doing "worship reps" that build, over time, spiritual muscles. The spiritual antidote for our shallow, surfacy tweet-world of today is: lots and lots and lots of worship reps in God's spiritual gymnasium, where we exercise unto godliness.

Repetitive worship is "better is one day in your courts" worship. Non-repetitive worship, Western-style, promotes a "thousands of days elsewhere" attitude. Real worship dwells, and longs to do so; it abides and doesn't want to let go. The real worshiper isn't anxiously tapping his foot because he's got other things to do. The one who prayerfully "dwells" in Christ perseveres, from the heart, in non-tweeting repeat-praying.

The Cartesian Spock (right) could not understand the
emotion of the Hebraic Kirk (left).
I'm now writing my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church.

My book of prayer is: Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.