There was a lot of crying in worship yesterday. Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church sits on the edge of Aurora, separated by the Cherry Creek reservoir. Many in our flock are Aurora residents, and one of our own, Petra Anderson, was in the theater and was hit in the face from a shotgun blast. Our Senior Pastor, Brad Strait, recounts the miracle of how she is alive and well when she should have been dead in two hours, despite the fact that the pellet from the shotgun came in through her nose, traveled through her brain, and stopped at the back of her skull.
The Andersons are near and dear to the Cherry Creek family and to my own heart. They’re a family of intelligent, thoughtful, and theologically reflective artists and musicians, and they have blessed our ministry of worship through their contributions of music, film, and the dramatic arts. Our pastoral team has been in the middle of the hospital and media frenzy, and we’re praying like mad, through tears. The Andersons need a lot of support, and their story is even more than just about Petra. Check out their blog and their indie-gogo site.
How do you worship in a time like this? How do you do Sunday when such a city-altering event took place on Friday? For us, it meant scrapping our worship service plans and building them from the ground up. It meant that Sunday had to be one, extended, corporate, “How long?” Sometimes our worship services have to model lament in seasons of joy to shape and prepare people. Yesterday, there was no modeling.
We organized a fairly simple service of “Lament and Hope.” Here are the orders of worship for our first service and our second service, which, apart from songs, were largely the same. We began with a series of Scripture readings, in between each was a corporate, sung “How long, O Lord” in a minor key that went like this:
(Here’s the simple lead sheet if you want to get the fuller musical picture.) We gave it lots of breathing room as we slowly and agonizingly read through six different Scriptural lamentations from Habakkuk 1, Psalm 35, and Psalm 13. We then went into an extended time of Prayers of the People in which we asked our worshipers to lift up prayer requests pertaining to the shooting. The Spirit was thick in the room–the requests of our people were mature, deep, and well-balanced. We prayed for the victims, their families, the police officers and emergency response personnel. We went even deeper, still:
- For the shooter himself, and for the families who will struggle a lifetime to forgive
- For the survivors in the room and for the first folks on the scene, who will live with a lifetime of horrific images and trauma
- For the parents in our flock, in Denver, and around the world who will help their kids process atrocious evils like this
- For the churches in Denver to rise up, minister well, and display Christ
Brad preached on Psalm 12 (which, providentially, was already part of our sermon series), and then we went into a time of response through offering, singing, and Scripture reading (Psalm 34:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:6-12).
Pastoring People Through Lamentation
Not everyone there was ready to lament or wanted to lament. Some were removed from the whole situation enough that it felt like a normal Sunday to them. Others were probably too numb to express much of anything. We encountered several folks, though, who hadn’t participated in Sunday morning worship for many years but who were looking for some kind of outlet. One guy, James, an Aurora resident, told me in a conversation that he came simply because “his heart was heavy.” So many were ready to cry out.
To neglect this and just do worship as usual would be an affront to humanity. We could not worship the same. Even more, yesterday became an opportunity to train people for heaven, to shape our desires to be more in line with the goals of the kingdom of God, to prepare people for death, and to give God-honoring vocabulary to suffering. It became an opportunity to proclaim the gospel of the cross–the place where lamentation and hope collide in marvelous mess. It became an opportunity to deal with the perennial problem of evil, not with logical and philosophical arguments (which have their place), but on the existential ground level of pain and praise.
There are times of God’s choosing when worship leaders need to be smacked out of their pastoral coma and realize that they have a duty to shepherd the flock through the services they plan and lead. Pastoral care happens at the one-on-one level, but it also happens through faithful worship pastors who make room for the corporate cry of suffering saints.
Please pray for Cherry Creek, for the Andersons, for Denver, and for all the sufferers across the globe who don’t get any media coverage. Please lift up a cry to God with us, as we lift up our desperate Maranatha.
Zac, I don't have appropriate words to console in the wake of this tragedy, but I do want to thank and affirm your position and contribution in worship during this devastating time for your congregation. Reading your words today made me proud all over again to call you friend, and blessed to be in the same family where a brother like you honors the Lord and His people in worship – even unto times of lament and sorrow over evil being done. Thank you for your prayers for everyone, especially the most difficult prayers for the shooter himself. We know Jesus still longs for that guy to turn from wickedness into the Light of righteousness. God bless you.
Thanks for an awesome post, Zac. Truly a challenge for those of us who did not acknowledge what happened in our service last Sunday.
"He stretched out his hands in suffering,
to release from suffering
those who place their trust in you,
and so won for you a holy people.
He freely gave himself over to death,
in order to destroy death,
and to shatter the chains of the evil one."
(from the Eucharistic Prayer of the Apostolic Tradtion)
May the Lord be very close to the Cherry Creek family, Zac. May you know Christ's presence as co-sufferer with his people. Thanks for posting the shape of this awesome service. Blessings. Reggie
You break my heart — because of your heart for others. I cry tears of compassion for people I don't know because they are your family and thus my family — brothers and sisters in Christ — and they hurt all over. Even in long-distance sorrow, my faith is strengthened because of your faith, and your faithfulness to write about it — and even remind us of our need to forgive. The Haakkuk scripture resonates for this service and also resonates with your heart because of the "unbudding fig" in Habakkuk 3:17, and because you went through a time of personal crises and still said, "Though he slay me, yet will I serve the Lord." I decided to make a rare post on this because some of your readers may not know the stuff of your life that the Lord has used to mold you into the man you are — full of compassion with the sense of responsibility, as a pastor and a person, to use all that the Lord has taught you through his Word and your own experience — for the good of others. May it ever be so, my dear son.