Coming Together In Worship

Last week I received a letter from my friend Tom. Because of where he is, there are a lot of ups and downs in the times we share with each other. I was delighted when I opened the letter and, after a few brief opening comments, he wrote, “How would you feel about our having a midrash? We haven’t done so in a while …”

I was even more encouraged when he continued, “I’d like to discuss Liturgical Music …” This letter came at the end of the week concluding with the Parashat B’Shalach, the Torah Portion containing the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the beginning of the miraculous sustenance of manna, and the battle with Amalek. And of course immediately following the crossing of the sea is the Song of Moses. Tom writes,

Torah was never meant to be merely read. Almost from the very beginning it was chanted, sung. Jews have always used music as part of their worship. When the Egyptian army was destroyed at the Reed Sea, Miriam “took a timbrel in her hand” to accompany the song of exultation the Israelites sang. “And all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances.”

The Psalms invoke musical instruments at many points, but most notably for me it is in Psalm 150 which is recited as part of the morning blessing or the Birkat ha-Shakhar. “Praise G-d with lyre and harp … with drum and dance … with organ and flute … with clanging cymbals … with resounding trumpets.” Can you imagine what a powerful and moving sound that must have been? And David, one of the greatest of the Israelite kings, is depicted as a musician of skill who utilized his gifts to sing the praises of Adonai.”

I find myself sitting here humming the tune to Mi Kamocha – Exodus 15:11.

Mi Kamocha ba-elim Adonai
Mi Kamocha nedar ba-kodesh
Nora tehillot oseh fe-le
Oseh fe-le

My voice may not sound too joyful (I wasn’t blessed with the ability to sing very well) but the joy of the love that I have for El Khai [the Living G-d] I know he can hear beyond the missed and strained notes as the new day brings new hope it allows us to sing a new song to G-d, through new eyes to see clearly and new determination to fight the evil inclination of the will of man and to seek the will of Adonai Elohim Tz’va’ot!

I, too, feel overwhelmed with praise reading this week’s portion. There are at least three, maybe four, songs that come to my mind as I read the Song of Moses in Exodus 15.

Ashirah l’Adonai kiy-ga-oh ga-ah
I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously
The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea

Mi-kamocha ba-elim Adonai
Who is like you among the gods, Lord

Adonai yimloch l’olam va-ed
The Lord shall reign forever and ever

Tom goes on to write about purpose and intent in the songs and music we use in our worship. His letter arrived the day before I was to be joined by a couple of other musicians in leading a larger group of worshippers at a local Sabbath gathering, both in Liturgy and in a time of worship and praise. I’d like to share with you a little of what went into preparation for that time in hopes of encouraging you to find order and purpose in your worship.

I don’t want to in any way discourage the free and informal expression of worship that we enjoy in small groups and home fellowships. Those can be intimate times of sharing and encouraging each other as we read together, pray, and sing praises to our Father. When the size of a group increases, the need for more structure also increases. Our God is not the author of confusion, and a well-thought plan both reduces distractions and helps usher us into the holy presence of our King.

So here is a summary of part of our Sabbath gathering as we offered worship and praise to our Heavenly Father before receiving something from Him through our teacher.

Worship in Liturgy

After a few announcements and a time of sharing testimonies of praise, prayer requests and corporate prayer, we began a Liturgy – a communal order of worship. Most of the recitations used in our liturgy come from a Siddur. I say “most” because we begin and end with something a little non-traditional. In fact, we start our liturgy with a Sabbath Prayer adapted from “Fiddler On The Roof.”

May Yahweh protect and defend us
May He always shield us from pain
May we come to be
In Israel a shining name

May we be like Ruth and like David
May we be deserving of praise
Strengthen us oh Yah
And keep us in Messiah’s ways

May Yah bless us and grant us long lives
(May Yahweh fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you)

May Yah make us good husbands and wives
(May the Lord Yeshua always care for you)

May Yahweh protect and defend us
May Yahweh preserve us from pain
Favor us oh Yah, with happiness and peace
Oh hear our Sabbath prayer

Most of the rest of the Liturgy is the similar to what I have described in my post A Simple Messianic Sabbath Liturgy. We use a limited amount of Hebrew in our liturgy, and as I lead it I try to make those words recognizable so they become familiar. It is a beautiful language, but we are there to focus our hearts on worshiping God and not to rattle off syllables in a language we don’t know.

While there is much in the siddur we don’t recite, as a traditional liturgy could go on for a long time, we always include the foundational blessings that express the Hebraic roots of our faith:

Shema – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One…
V’ahavta – And you shall love the Lord your God…
The Blessing of the Messiah

After the liturgy, we conclude by asking a couple from the congregation to pray over the children gathered under the chupah – a large tallit held up by half a dozen men. Before arriving under the chupah, the young boys and girls have followed a Torah scroll while someone carried it all around the room with everyone singing:

Ki mi-Tzion tetzeh Torah
Udvar Yahwey mi-Yerushalayim
From Zion will go forth the Torah
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem

I struggle trying to sing that one, as the tune and cadence is very different from the “Ki mi-Tzion” chant in traditional liturgy. But that is the splendor of this recitation of liturgy as a group – it ends up a beautiful expression of corporate worship even when some of us individually don’t get it quite right.

Worship in Singing

After the liturgy, our time of singing praise and worship began. I was blessed to play along with another very talented guitarist (about all I do is rhythm for the upbeat songs and finger-picking on the slower ones) and a young man playing beautiful melodies on a recorder. Together we sought to create an ambience that welcomed the Spirit of God much the same way the shepherd David did so many years ago. At the side of the room, others worshipped in dance praising our Father and King.

Many of the blessings we recite begin with Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam – “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe.” It seemed appropriate, then, to begin this time of worship and praise by singing to our King. Since reading The Jewish Gospels a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking on the titles of divinity used by the prophet Daniel: Ancient of Days and Son of Man.

I kept looking
Until thrones were set up,
And the Ancient of Days took His seat;
His vesture was like white snow
And the hair of His head like pure wool.
His throne was ablaze with flames,
Its wheels were a burning fire …
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:9,13-14)

We began our time of praise with the song “Ancient of Days” (Jamie Harvill, Gary Sadler).

Blessing and honor, glory and power
Be unto the Ancient of Days
From every nation, all of creation
Bow before the Ancient of Days
Every tongue in heaven and earth shall declare Your Glory
Every knee will bow at your throne in worship
You will be exalted O God, and your kingdom shall not pass away
O Ancient of Days

And we followed that by singing Psalm 136 (tune by Batya Segal):

Hodu l’Adonai Ki Tov
Ki l’olam chasdo
Hodu l’elohei ha-elohim
Ki l’olam chasdo
Hodu l’adonei ha-adonim
Ki l’olam chasdo

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good
For His lovingkindness is everlasting
Give thanks to the God of Gods
For His lovingkindness is everlasting
Give thanks to the Lord of Lords
For His lovingkindness is everlasting

Continuing the theme of chesed (love, mercy, lovingkindness and a whole lot more), we sang “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” by Martin Smith of the band Deliriou5? (yep, that’s how they spell it). The title actually comes right out of Scripture, more commonly rendered “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever” (Psalm 89:1). One reason I love singing this song is that the cadence of the repetitive phrase in the chorus, “I could sing of your love forever,” matches perfectly with Psalm 89:1 in Hebrew, and we can sing it chasdey Yahweh olam ashiyra.

Next we picked up the pace a little with a couple of songs lifting up Yeshua from Steve McConnell’s album, “Yeshua.” The first one, “Honor and Glory and Blessing” taken from Revelation 5:11-13, is very similar to “Ancient of Days,” for many passages in Revelation parallel those in Daniel.

Power and riches, wisdom and might
Honor and glory and blessing
To the Lamb that was slain

The second song written by Steve McConnell is taken from Psalm 34:3, Gad’lu l’Adonai Iti.

Gad’lu l’Adonai Iti
(Magnify the Lord with me)
Un’rom’ma sh’mo yachdav
(Let us exalt His name together)
Yeshua, Yeshua, Yeshua!

Check out my post on Steve McConnell’s music here.

To finish out our worship time and in preparation for teaching and discussion, we sang a beautiful version of “Sanctuary” (Randy Scruggs and John W Thompson). I learned this one from Central Synagogue in New York, where the cantor added these two passages in Hebrew to the same tune before the familiar chorus.

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham
(Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them, Exodus 25:8)
Va’anachnu n’vareich Yah mei-atah v’ad olam
(We will bless Yah from this time forth and forever, Psalm 115:18)

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.

Our teaching and the discussion to follow would center around mishpacha, a Hebrew word meaning “family.” So our final two songs were “Hinei Ma Tov,” a traditional chorus taken from Psalm 133, and “Bind Us Together (Bob Gillman), a gospel song from the 1970s. Following a lively dance to “Hinei Ma Tov,” we joined hands in unity around the room to sing the final song before the one bringing the teaching led us in prayer.

Hinei ma tov u’manaim shevet achim gam yachad
Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity

Bind us together, Lord, bind us together
With cords that cannot be broken
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together
Lord, bind us together with love

Like the liturgy, the worship and praise in song was planned and intentional. It wasn’t perfect; we stumbled in a few places. I sang words out of order, and at times something different from what was displayed on the projection screen. Sometimes I strummed the wrong chord or got lost in my printed song sheets. But as a corporate body, we were not random or haphazard. We blessed our Creator and King together in unity, and after giving in worship we were prepared to receive in the teaching.

In his letter, Tom writes of his desire to sincerely “take to heart the injunction, ‘Sing to G-d a new song.'” In praying for the very group I would be leading that weekend, he wanted “the congregation to not be reduced to a mere audience but to pour their hearts out to El Khai, The Living G-d, in the voice of praise and worship and to make the joyful noise described in Psalm 150.” I believe our Father answered his prayer.

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