Dusting off the soul

Worship cleans up the mess we've made all week

Dec 4, 2017 by

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“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Often attributed to Pablo Picasso, this quote belongs to a 19th-century German writer, Berthold Auerbach, who cited music as the cleansing agent. Whatever the source, it describes how art “activates the spiritual dimension of our lives,” said Laurel Koerner, a professor and director of theater at Tabor College, during a symposium on worship and the arts at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., on Nov. 18.

Is worship a work of art? At its best, it surely rises to that level. But even on an average, imperfect Sunday, worship has the power to wash the dust off our souls.

Today the dirt of everyday life builds up thick and heavy. The weekly layer of grime requires extra scrubbing. We’re painfully aware of swimming in a stream fouled by misogyny, racial suspicion and political idolatry. False gods invite us to bow down: guns and nuclear weapons that promise protection from crime and enemy threats; political parties that demand total loyalty while excusing all sins of their own; media figures who recite a daily liturgy of anger, resentment and suspicion. We may have not gone to church, but over the past six days we’ve probably worshiped something or somebody.

Is it possible for the seventh day to reclaim its supremacy? Can worship clean up the mess we’ve made all week? At the Bethel symposium, presenters discussed how worship can accomplish what great art does — surprise us, open our minds, lift our hearts toward God, scrape the mud off our souls.

With actor and playwright Ted Swartz, participants focused on worship as drama. Swartz talked about “chasing goosebumps” — the “aha” moments that move us, emotionally or intellectually.

To raise those good chills, worship leaders have to unleash creativity. The element of surprise is crucial. In the church it can be difficult to break out of a routine and do something new, but that may be what it takes to get people’s attention. Drama in worship makes an impact when it does the unexpected. It might even make people laugh. Laughter comes from surprise, and it’s fun — something the church doesn’t value enough, Swartz said. His own theatrical work models the power of humor to make us think — and to ask the right questions when there are no easy answers.

If worship’s surprises should sometimes be fun, they also should be discomfiting. Worship ought to challenge our assumptions rather than confirm what’s easy and familiar. You can’t grow without being upset every now and then, Swartz said. If your drama tells people what they already know, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

To create drama in worship, Swartz said, we have to find “the white fire between the black fire”: the story hidden in the space between the written words of Scripture. That’s where the story expands to include us. It’s where we discover the mystery and the creativity of a God who will clean up our souls as we worship.

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