Some worship leaders avoid a phantom of the opera god |

Some worship leaders avoid a phantom of the opera god

Hiding scars under a mask covering about a quarter of his face, the Phantom of the Opera lurks mostly out of sight. He hides in spooky passageways and dim corridors. He moves like a bat in the dark by skimming along a secret waterway beneath the Paris Opera. For years the Phantom has trained the orphan soloist Christine. Few see the Phantom hiding in the dark. His light shines through the pure voice of his tutored “Angel of Music.” Christine sings, and Opera House audiences hear the Phantom’s voice, although none recognize it.When visiting worship services in a myriad of churches, I am convinced that many preachers avoid God who reminds me of the Phantom. Congregations don’t get to see or experience much of God’s presence. They are like Parisian operagoers in the 1870’s who never met the Phantom. That’s because so much passing as worship is an amalgam of newsy briefs about what’s already posted in the bulletin. Some preachers employ humor to get laughs, so parishioners feel loose and laid back. Time is wasted on prayers that a lectern leader invites worshippers to recite in unison. Often the worship leader either races the prayer or drops his voice at every comma so that the sanctuary seems like a morgue. Praise bands play loudly. Lyrics to tunes sung are flashed on giant screens, as worshippers sway and clap and stand for an interminable length of time. Next to holding a Bible in hand, I pray for earplugs to deaden the sound’s concussion.Amid this flurry of gospel hip hop evoked in God’s name, I often wonder where He is found. Is he relegated to subterranean chambers that most worshippers do not know exist? I meet a lot of good-hearted people in worship who tell me they miss something. Or someone. Do we meet God? Or, is God like the Phantom of the Opera, wanting to share His gifts, but denied an opportunity to get on stage and sing the wonders of His love for us?The Phantom connected with Christine because both adored music. Music often reflects what C.S. Lewis called “patches of light.” The Bible teaches that when the Holy One appears, we profoundly experience His presence. Sensing the holy remains elusive for many worshippers. They can’t find what’s holy in worship because it’s either not there, or they don’t have the foggiest notion where to look.Hair on our arms stands up when we encounter the Holy One. We reflect more deeply. We want preachers to allow for silent worshipful moments stretching into minutes. The Magi encountered the Holy. Our popular image is blurred when we assume these mysterious visitors gathered at Christ’s manger, next to excited shepherds and pensive Mary. Matthew writes in his gospel that the Magi, days after Christ’s birth, followed a mysterious star to a house where the Holy Family stayed. “Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11).Artists portraying the Madonna and Child often encircle baby Jesus’ head with a halo. They do not depict Jesus escaping life’s darkness. Like the Phantom, Jesus stayed away from klieg lights flooding stages where everyone adored him. Darkness tunneled in his life, with a bleak path leading to the Cross.A halo above infant Jesus in these exquisite Madonna and Child paintings suggests that Israel’s Holy One has come among us. That’s why the Magi approached Jesus on bent knees. When the Holy God greets us, we bow down and worship.The closest word that renders what the Bible means by holy is “awe.” That’s largely what’s missing in worship featuring peppy sermons, Master of Ceremony preachers and earth-shaking music that makes most auditoriums shutter. Much that passes for worship, laments Eugene Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is “designed by a people without roots in an age without purpose for a people without God. Worshippers are left swimming in a religious Platte River, which Mark Twain described as a mile wide and an inch deep.Our national leaders have distorted the meaning of awe. When our military, rather than defending the homeland, unilaterally attacked Iraq, they unleashed a bombardment over Baghdad describes it. Our leaders should have more accurately called their reign of terror “Shock and More Shock.”Awe usually thrives amid silence. It sneaks up on us. Awe is not like a puzzle that can be solved but is bathed in mystery that sometimes we experience. When too many hubbubs go on in church and synagogue, with worshippers mimicking fans doing the wave for their favorite team, awe disappears. The Holy One woos us with awe not easily described. We feel our way, but can’t see what lies ahead, anymore than the Magi knew whether they would arrive home by departing a strange way. Lucy Shaw, a Christian poet and storywriter, exclaims that when holiness sneaks up on us, “we feel as if we are walking in a mysterious fog.”Religious traditions use sound and smell and sight to excite our awareness of what’s holy. Jews wait to hear shofar, a ram’s horn, blown to encounter awe. Some Christians see priests and rectors wearing colorful vestments. Robes and paraments sporting brilliant colors bring us to our Holy God. He acts like an artist whose colorful painter’s palette is reflected in vestments clergy wear.Christians sing psalms or treasured carols. Worshippers shiver, not in fear, but in awe. Some churches waft incense through sanctuaries as priests swing metal vessels spreading odors soothing to the soul. Then God vacates underground labyrinths. He is encountered. He is not masked nor made captive. The Holy Phantom appears as Christ is born among us and grows in our awareness. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado

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