Gospel Celebration?

Greeted by signs to validate parking and security rope at the entrance of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, I can’t help but wonder about sacred space. As I wonder up the stairs to the balcony of this theatre, I notice the murals on the walls. A black man baptizing a white child in a river is the first to strike my eye. Next t it, a white preacher preaches to a large auditorium. Walking through the doors, I realize that we are in an auditorium. This is truly a theatre. And again, I wonder about sacred space?

We were pushed (or guided?) to the far right of upper balcony to allow worship participants to fill in the space closer to the door. No matter how much I urge people to the front rows of the chapel to create that same space, I’m hurt by this weird sense of welcoming. I feel like I should be looking at my ticket for the right seat.

But, it seems that I should have a ticket. I would need one to be on the inside of this gathering. I would need a ticket to know that I’m in the right place. With the purchase of this ticket, I would know what I was getting into. I would be prepared for this kind of experience. My wanderings about sacred space are only compounded by a forced notion of praise. I had a wonderful morning, the kind of morning that makes me sing in celebration of the vocation that has chosen me. But, as I enter this space, I wonder about what would happen if I was having a bad day. What if I wasn’t ready to praise? What if I needed to lament? There was no space for this in the midst of the singing.

But then, I saw why. As the pastor introduced a couple that had lost their daughter last week to a brutal murder, there was only praise. There was only hope that this woman was with God. There was no space for these parents – or the deceased woman’s children – to feel any other human emotion. Grief was skipped over. Sadness was obliterated in joyous singing.

“How can I keep from singing?” This was a hymn that I heard played during the Introit at worship this morning. It is a song of joy and praise, unlike the songs that I heard belted from the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Perhaps music has the power to transcend words, but I don’t believe this to be true. As the choir sang, I felt explosions. I felt the bombs of spiritual warfare explode in my face. And I knew that I could keep from signing. I felt numb. As this music overwhelmed my mortal frame, I felt nothing but weakness. I wanted to curl up into a fetal position. I wanted to retreat.

But, as I looked around me, I saw the rest of the congregation singing along. I saw these worshippers lifting their hands to reach toward a God that is ever separate from their experience. I saw this congregation participate in the charade. And I couldn’t help but wonder, why? When I want to retreat from this place of intense spiritual violation, why are these people relishing in the experience? Or am I missing something? Do I lack the ability to be wrapped into the presence of the Holy Spirit in this place?

Or was the Holy Spirit even there? Was this anything more than a theatrical spectacular? The pastor referred to the congregation as an “audience.” He requested that the musician “play some music to divert attention from the noise on the steps” as the choir descended from the stage. The lights raised and lowered to focus our attention on certain aspects of the service. The pastor waited impatiently filling time with empty words “before we go to black,” while the choir returned to their seats. Like a spotlight directing our attention, the entire worship experience was oriented around providing us the proper guidance as to what we should be paying attention to in this space.

If music is what carries this congregation, then why can’t they keep from signing? What lifts their voices to be able to sign these terrible songs filled with brutal images of blood and empty images of Heaven? Does this music offer a saving experience or does it manipulate the congregation? Interspersed with film clips about saving stories about Born-Again Christians, these songs sing of a certain kind of faith. These explosive songs of Christian soldiers sing of a faith that is without any area of grey. These violent songs manipulate the emotional state of the congregation to create a particular response. Is this worship? Or is this theatre? Or is this just plain spiritual violation?

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