It’s February. Even though our winter has been incredibly nice by any standard you may suggest (except skiing), all of us are ready to move on to spring. And that is why Groundhog’s Day is such a big deal. We all want Punxsutawney Phil to come out of his burrow, fail to see his shadow and announce that spring will be early this year. That is, unless you live in Canada. If you live in Canada, you don’t care what some Pennsylvanian rat in a hat thinks. You’ll get your weather prognostication from Wiarton Willy, thank you very much! But that’s also true about many other locations because there are at least NINE groundhogs in the weather-predicting business. We already know of Phil in Pennsylvania and Willie in Ontario, but there is also Staten Island Chuck, Dunkirk Dave (New York) Jimmy the Groundhog (Wisconsin), General Beauregard Lee (Georgia), Buckeye Chuck (Ohio), Sir Walter Wally (North Carolina) and Chattanooga Chuck. But why trust a groundhog when there are all sorts of weather-predicting animals? Maybe you would prefer an aardvark? In New Orleans, we have Leia the aardvark. On Groundhog’s Day, Leia is offered two termite mounds. One is labeled spring, the other winter. When Leia pokes her nose into one of these mounds, we know what the future holds. If you don’t like aardvarks, you could go with an armadillo (Austin’s own Bee Cave Bob). There’s also a beaver in Oregon, a lobster in Maine, a hedgehog in Oregon, a burrowing owl in Florida, a white squirrel in North Carolina and a duck in Connecticut. I should also mention Henrietta the chicken in New York. On February 2, Henrietta participates in a ceremony where she struts around for a couple of hours. If she lays an egg during this party, it means she will soon be a spring chicken. But for some reason, the groundhog has cornered the market on animal prognosticators, but that might come at a price. Milltown Mel was the star New Jersey groundhog at predicting the timing of spring, but a couple of years ago, right before the big day, Mel died unexpectedly. I suspect foul play. At first, I was sure Punxsutawney Phil was the culprit, but now I accuse Mel’s handler. After all, if you had to take care of a groundhog for a living, wouldn’t you want to exterminate the rat? I would!  

Sometimes old traditions are fun. If you want to know if the groundhog saw its shadow or not, I am happy for you. Other times these old traditions feel irrelevant and out of touch with today’s reality. We are looking at Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Life Together.  For me the first 57 pages have been crisp, pertinent and powerful, but today’s section feels old and out-of-date. Bonhoeffer is focused on family devotions, but I’m not sure if gathering the family around the dining room table for morning devotions (with Old and New Testament readings, a meditation, prayer and the singing of a hymn or two) is feasible today. Now, it could have been my busyness (likely), my laziness (very likely), or my sin (very, very, very likely), but I never was able to orchestrate any prolonged period of family devotions in our home. And I could definitely not pull it off twice a day like Bonhoeffer suggests (morning and evening).  Now, I feel guilty admitting that to you, but it is the truth. However, if we extrapolate what Bonhoeffer says about family devotions and use it as a guide for our Sunday-morning worship, there are many things here that we need to consider. Let’s talk about three of them. 

First, singing is a critical aspect of worship and community. There are lots of problems with singing in church. Lots of people aren’t singers. Lots of people are self-conscious, and so they don’t enjoy singing in public. And lots of people don’t enjoy singing songs that don’t resonate with them (church songs, for instance). On the other hand, lots of people can’t get emotionally worked up about singing at church; and so, if they are singing, they are not really-engaged with the song. It is also true that some people appear to be trying too hard to convince themselves of something while they sing (unfortunately, for them, it seems like it rarely works). We can go on, but you get the point: singing in church is often a problem, but it is required and so we (grudgingly) go through the motions. And you can see this most Sunday mornings. Just look around. It is not true about everyone, but it is true about many. And yet, despite public opinion, we still continue to sing hymns and songs in church. Why? It can’t be for the impact. If impact was the goal, we would hire professionals and make each Sunday a performance.  Who hasn’t been moved at a concert? And for those who love to sing, they can hum along with the professionals (as long as they are not too loud and disruptive). So, again, I ask the question: Why do we sing?  It can’t be because the psalms command it (they do, but that is beside the point—see Psalm 9:11; 30:4; 32:11; 33:3 just to name a few). Bonhoeffer’s answer strikes at the heart of our worship. He writes:

‘Speak to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Eph. 5:19).
Our song on earth is speech. It is the sung Word.
Why do Christians sing when they are together?
The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together
it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time,
in other words, because here they can unite in the Word.
All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn.
The fact that we do not speak it, but sing it,
only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express
what we want to say;
that the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words.
Yet we do not hum a melody; we sing words of praise to God,
words of thanksgiving, confession, and prayer.
Thus, the music is completely the servant of the Word.
It elucidates the Word in its mystery.”

Why should we sing? Because singing connects us with the Word of God in unexpected and different ways, ways that move God’s truth from the head to the heart. But there is also a problem here. When all of our songs sound alike or speak of the same joyous experience, the message becomes dull and repetitive. Let me say it this way: The Word of God has to be bigger than simple upbeat praise songs. If we are really going to speak the Word of God to ourselves, then we need to make sure our songs reflect the whole of Scripture and speak of sin and confession; guilt and forgiveness; struggles and thanksgiving. Our songs need to speak the whole Word to the whole of our being. That’s the benefit of the great hymns. They cover a wider swath of human experience than most praise songs (although many praise songs also do a great job). That’s also the benefit of singing the Psalms. Bonhoeffer concludes:

“It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together.
It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing,
and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.
Thus, all singing that is right, serves to widen our spiritual horizon,
makes us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth
and helps us willingly and gladly join our singing,
be it feeble or good, to the song of the Church.”

Here’s the bottom line: We need to learn to sing the whole Word of God. There’s a great line in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, where she makes this confession about the power of music in her church.  She wrote: 

“Then the singing enveloped me.
It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart.
There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.”

Second, praying together is a critical aspect of our worship and community. Praying together is hard work. We stumble over what to say and how to say it and what other people are thinking of us as we say it. And therefore, some think that we shouldn’t do it. For instance, we can pray together successfully if we pray a written prayer that has been composed by an expert theologian so that our prayer is deeply profound and rich (a potential downside here is that these written prayers can become all rote and then will not reflect our hearts). We can also pray together and if we agree to bypass theology and simply pray for our needs (the potential downside here is that our prayers become selfish and self-centered and we begin to envision God like a giant vending machine). A third option is also available. We can pray together by praying, not for ourselves, but for each other (the downside here is that we might start to think that God doesn’t care about our needs). Let’s face it, prayer is hard. It is hard to do and hard to understand. Bonhoeffer understood that prayer must be balanced. He wrote:

Should we really not pray for ourselves?
Is the desire for common prayer with our own lips and in our own words a forbidden thing?
No matter what objections there may be, the fact simply remains
that where Christians want to live together under the Word of God
they should pray together to God in their own words.
They have common petitions, common thanks, common intercessions to bring to God,
and they should do so joyfully and confidently.”

Bonhoeffer invites free prayer (not only written prayers), but believes that such prayer must always be balanced by these three commitments: Our prayers must be aligned with the Word of God, always for the glory of Christ and always remembering the needs of others before making our own requests known. In my opinion, the best way to learn how to pray well is to be mentored by great written prayers.  

Third, the Lord’s Supper is a critical aspect of our worship and community. You are probably thinking what I thought as I saw the heading, “The Lord’s Supper is critical for worship, yes; but for community?”  Bonhoeffer writes these stunning words:

“The table fellowship of Christians implies obligation.
It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread.
Thus, we are firmly bound to one another, not only in the Spirit,
but in our whole physical being.
The one bread that is given to our fellowship links us together in a firm covenant.
Now, none [will have to] go hungry as long as another has bread,
and he who breaks this fellowship of the physical life
also breaks fellowship of the Spirit.
Isaiah 58:6-7 says, ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’
And Jesus says in Matthew 25:37:
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you something to drink?’
Not until one person desires to keep his own bread for himself does hunger ensue.”

Here’s the bottom line: Singing, public prayer and the Lord’s Supper are all necessary for a healthy community. And while the church has been practicing these three disciplines since its inception, they are still as relevant, poignant and powerful as ever. They are critical components of a strong worshiping community. And yet, we struggle with all three of these disciplines. Which one of them is most challenging for you? Maybe in this post, you have seen an unhealthy shadow on your worship experience. Will you make the change and spring into a new higher level of worship or will it remain winter in your soul for the foreseeable future? The decision is up to you.