Defining Worship (Part 5): Returning to “biblical” worship

This is kind of an incomplete post because it only describes a question. I don’t have the answers yet from the parties involved.

Throughout the years, Christian leaders have tried to reform what they see as digressions in the practice of worship. These are honest Jesus-loving, God-fearing, bible-reading people. So they say, OK, enough of this! We are going to throw all our preconceived ideas about worship out the window and figure out what God, Jehovah, the self-existent one really wants.

It’s interesting to see what happens then. I have two examples of this very thing happening locally with two local congregations: Living Faith Fellowship, a non-denominational charismatic church led by Karl Barden and Christ Church, an Evangelical Free turned Reformed congregation let by Doug Wilson. The similarities in the congregations are amazingly parrallel. Both were started about the same year in the early 70s just a few miles from each other. Both grew to a congregation of several hundred before the pastor introduced their worship reforms. This happened mid 80s to early 90s.

Both pastors were uncomfortable with traditional evangelical worship. What did it look like? A mix of older hymns and some new (typically Maranatha) style praise choruses. Both of them decided to retreat into the scriptures and figure out what they really SHOULD be doing. Both focussed a lot on the psalms.

Both were in such similar circumstances and set out to do the same thing…and came to remarkably different conclusions!

Barden decided that we need to DO all the things the psalms talk about when they describe the worship of God. We need to dance and twirl in worship, we need to have lots of musical instruments, cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpets and all that. We need to have banners and streamers and all these other things that are described in bible.

Wilson decided that we need to sing the psalms. All of them. Verbatim. The ones of praise, the ones of lament, and the ones of imprecation (asking God to smite your enemies). Sometimes set to composed music, sometimes chanted.

And both set out to do just that, confident that they were ensuring their worship of the Lord was going to be very biblical indeed. I would really like to interview Barden (now retired and living near Seattle?) and Wilson about this point and get their reaction about this trying so hard to be biblical and coming up with such different conclusions.

I respect both of these men and what they came up with. It’s an angle I would like to explore more as I continue to define worship.

Recharging alone and together

Doug Wilson is a local pastor, author of many books, and regular blogger. I’ve been reading Doug for a couple years now (and have even visited his church a few times). He represents a particular flavor of “reformed” Christian theology, along with some of his peers, such as Peter Leithart. It’s not so much Doug that I’m attached to. I’m really much more weary now of following any particular personality. I’m attracted to what he stands for and teaches about God and how to live the Christian life. There are a host of things that I agree with and I’ll highlight them in a later post.

I’ve hesitated several years in putting this list together. It’s changed over time. The reformed view is different than what I’m used to in many ways. I wanted to make sure I understood what was going on before I opened my big mouth. These guys are really smart. Am I just stupid if they say something I don’t agree with? I wanted to make sure. A lot of things I thought might be problems have turned out not to be. I think I finally have a pretty good idea. I’ll run through this in maybe 3 posts. This is all to try and solidify in my mind what I believe.

1. Focus on the corporate (church) relationship to Jesus VS. the individual personal relationship to God.

Here, his position is briefly explained:

I am fond of telling people that Christianity is not a relationship, it is a religion. Of course, after having made the point, I hasten to add that it is a covenantal religion with a covenantal relationship at the heart of it. God promises that we will be His people, and He will be our God. But this is not what the religion of revivalism demands. Revivalism demands that there be what is called “a personal relationship.” And of course, we must be careful here. Each believer is a person, created in the image of God, and God has poured out His Spirit into the hearts of believers, causing them to cry out, Abba, Father. In a profound sense, this is a personal relationship. But this is not what revivalism means by “personal relationship.”

In revivalism, this personal relationship is isolated and individualistic. In the orthodox Christian faith, our personal relationship is covenantal and connected. God never establishes Himself as an individual’s Father without simultaneously giving that person countless brothers and sisters. This is another way of saying that there is no salvation outside the Church. Note the difference it makes in the nature of devotion – one emphasizes a personal “quiet time” while the other emphasizes corporate worship.

Now, here is the problem I have with this: It serves to explicitly deemphasize personal prayer and devotion. In the larger discourse he points out problems that can arise from personal quiet time. OK fine. But if there is anything I have learned in my journey following Jesus, it is that personal “quiet time” is actually very very important. How do I know? Because the amount I sin is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend alone talking to Jesus. It is NOT directly related to the amount of time I spend at church, in corporate worship services, in ministry or service, or fellowshipping with believers. Those things can help, but the prayer and personal devotion to Jesus is by far the most substantial element in my walk with the Lord. It is the thing that gives me the most peace (and I’ll say it again) the thing that stops me from sinning. Hard heart? Bad attitude? Lustful thoughts? Jealously? Take them to Jesus. He is the great redeemer and intercessor and HE alone can renew our minds and change our hearts.

I don’t say any of this to diminish our relationship with our brothers and sisters in the church. I have a new found respect for the Christian community since studying the reformed way. I think both are critical. I’ve heard taught in my charismatic background that spending personal time with Jesus every day is what recharges us to live righteously each day. Doug teaches that it is our participation in corporate worship every Sunday that recharges us to live righteously the next 6 days of the week. I disagree. I think we (sinful man) is quick to take this as a license to be LAZY. I think that personal time of devotion and prayer is not to be minimized. If you look at the Saints and heroes of the faith, all of them, not just the contemplative ones, would agree with this. I think if questioned about it, Doug would say that he isn’t trying to minimizing personal devotion, just redefining it’s place in our lives. It’s a reaction to “every man is an island”. Sorry, I have to move it to a more prominent place when I describe the church.

So what is the source of this? I’m putting my own personal experience against a (particular way of interpreting) scripture. Oh, that’s a quick way to get into trouble! True, but I don’t think Psalm 119 should have been any shorter than it is. Our personal connection to Jesus is vital.

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Defining Worship (Part 4): When the scripture is vague

I sat down in Ball and Cross Books the other day to look through their supply of Christian reference books. I probably could have done better at a library, but none of the libraries I know have really good coffee only 20 yards away. In this case, it’s via Bucer’s Coffeehouse Pub.

Anyway, first I picked up Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, to see what they had to say about worship.

Answer: Nothing!

Really. It wasn’t in there. It’s a very thick book with lots of bible words, but apparently he didn’t want to tackle this one. Hmmm.

William Wison in his Old Testament Word Studies comments:

…of the hebrew word, to fall down in worship, yet the meaning does not seem to be confined to the act of prostration, but to imply all profound adoration. (emphasis mine)

Right, it SEEMS to just about everyone to mean more than prostration, but you won’t find that in the text.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church has it hashed out a bit more.
From section 2135:

“You shall worship the Lord your God” (Mt 4:10). Adoring God, praying to him, offering him the worship that belongs to him, fulfilling the promises are vows made to him are acts of the virtue of religion which fall under obedience to the first commandment.

So it’s the inside act/feeling of adoration, along with prayer in general, give him honor (not defined here), fulfilling vows (interesting), and a catch-all of “acts of the virtue of religion”, which I think would include giving to the poor, and even raising Godly children. This definition fits nicely with my “worship is a pretty big box” idea that I discussed in the first post. I like this definition a lot. It starts inside and works it’s way outside. All of it is worship, but maybe the first things on the list more so than the latter things.

Next I went to Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. He briefly goes through the same word study I went through myself last week, coming to the same conclusions about how the word means to bow down. He does include this interesting note:

The worship of God is nowhere defined in Scripture. A consideration of the above verbs shows that it is not confined to praise; broadly it may be regarded as the direct acknowledgment to God, of His nature, attributes, ways and claims, whether by the outgoing of the heart in praise and thanksgiving or by deed done in such acknowledgment. (emphasis mine)

Well no kidding it’s not defined! 66 books of religious law, history, and spiritual instruction and nowhere is a clear explanation of what worship to the one true God looks like. I think this is something some people don’t want to admit. When they read the bible, they see it describing the kind of worship they happen to already participate in. Our temptation is to fashion our interpretation of scripture into support for our own traditions. If we do that, all we have to do is mess with the words a bit and we’re doing it “right”! We don’t have to actually change what were are doing or rethink our actions. How convenient.

But what do you do when something really is vague in the bible? Since so many things in the Bible are so clearly addressed again and again, (such as sexual purity, money, and mercy), I think it really stands out that worship isn’t defined for us. I think God must have done that for a reason. Maybe he wants us to fill in the blanks with our own creativity and imagination. If he really wanted it a certain way, I think he would have communicated that to us. So maybe there is nothing wrong with your traditions and the way you’re doing it. Or maybe there is. I think there is value in examining the bible and asking, “Do we worship this way because somebody 500 years ago someone was trying to obey the bible and did it that way? Or are we worshipping this way because the youth pastor saw it on MTV last week?”

Some tradition that started out as a very good thing can be distorted over the years. Some things that may be new could be completely legitimate. Some things that may seem new might not actually be so new. (There is nothing new under the sun.) So scripture is vague about worship. Alright, so read what is there the best you can. Don’t neglect to examen history. Hundreds of generations of Christians before you can’t all be wrong. Examen your heart. Put the goal of honoring God in the forefront and make the best informed decision you can.

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to worship AND continue to “be informed”. Until the next segment…

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Thomas A’Kempis with salt

I’ve been working through The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis. Parts of it are really wonderful. Whole sections of it read like they came straight from the Psalms in a style not unlike e.e cummings psalm rewrites that sound better than the originals. Some of it sounds like it’s straight from Proverbs. Good stuff. He also has some very harsh words to say to those obsessed with religious academia and high theological arguments. Those are some of the best parts! I’ll be posting a sampling of that soon.

BUT, (and “That’s a pretty big but(t)” says the little fish in Finding Nemo), A’Kempis also gets on my nerves. The book is chock-full of stuff like this:

Whoso, therefore, withdraweth himself from his acquaintance and friends, God will draw near unto him with his holy angels. It is better for a man to live privately, and to take care of himself, than to neglect his soul, though he could work wonders in the world. It is commendable in a religious person seldom to go abroad, to be unwilling to see or be seen.

Let not thy peace depend on the tongues of men; for whether they speak well or ill, thou are not therefore another man. Where are true peace and true glory? Are they not in [Christ]? And he that desireth not to please men, nor feareth to displease them, shall enjoy much peace. For inordinate love and vain fear ariseth all disquiet of heart and distraction of mind.

It is better often, and safer, that a man should not have many consolations in this life, especially such as are according to the flesh…When a man hath perfect contrition, then is the whole world grievous and bitter unto him.

Stop the tape! That’s easy for you to say. Let’s tear ourself away from the world and meditate on the Lord, rejoicing in quite communion with him. That’s all great, but I think this all needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Why? How dare I question the wisdom of this highly-spiritual church father?

  • He was never married, never had to learn to communicate with a wife.
  • He never had to raise any children.
  • He never had to take care of toddlers. (Yes, this deserves it’s own bullet point.)
  • Living in the monastery, he never had money so he never wrestled with managing finances.
  • He had lots of work to do, but never a job with a boss, staff meetings, finite sick leave, and a house full of dependents hanging on every penny bought home. Just 50+ years of chores.

I think the little bio on the back of the book puts it plainly:

Thomas A’Kempis (c. 1380-1471), a Dutch priest, quietly lived to more than ninety in exercises of devotion, writing and copying, reading, preaching, and exhorting others.

Hey man, whatever floats your boat. Sounds nice actually, but it’s not what God has called me too. Therefore, I won’t get upset about these kinds of idealistic exhortations any more. I won’t feel like a failure! Right…

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Only the unshakable remains

The following is kind of a “steam of consciousness” post…

Back to C.S. Lewis’s journey through heaven and hell (The Great Divorce). Here, some light is shed on his theory of hell:

“Then those people are right who say that Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said he sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind-ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind-is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains.”

So passage brings up so many thoughts and connections: The idea that hell is not so much a place of fire and physical torture, as it is a place of being alone. Very very alone forever. I am frequently tempted to retreat back into my own mind, to pull away from other people and from God. This is more than just a personality trait of introverts. It is the enemy coercing me to disengage from relationships. To take a little step into hell.

The mentally insane are classified into different groups depending on how much interaction with other human beings they are able to handle. Everything from those are are a little eccentric and need to live by themselves all the way to the dangerously violent. I think being crazy must be a little bit like hell too.

What piece of scripture is he referring to at the end?

Hebrews 22-29 (NIV):

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

I see the whole creation as the Lord’s great project. The fallen earth and fallen man is being redeemed through death and resurrection. Our hearts and minds shaken, sanctified, our trust in fleeting things laid waste. All throughout history, from Abraham to David, the apostles and the church of today, he is always reforming us. Cutting off branches and grafting new ones in. It is a great work, spanning many lives of men, but just the beginning of his purpose for His creation. What remains will be solid. A solid new earth, solid people.

The thing that reminds me of this verse is the song Shake the Heavens by Kim Hill:

Not to a mountain
Not to a temple
Made of wood and stoneNot to the angels
To the saints assembled
To God on His righteous throne

Not just a trembling of my flesh
But in all consuming fire I rest

You will shake the heavens
As You shake the earth
When the fires fall by Your grace I’ll stand
I’ll join with the angels
As the elders fall
We all cry holy, we all cry holy
We all cry holy, we all cry holy

Not to a system
Not just religion
Empty words and rules

But to true salvation
Holy mediation
The sprinkled blood
Of the one who rules

Not just a trembling of my flesh
But in all consuming fire I rest

You will shake the heavens
As You shake the earth
When the fires fall by Your grace I’ll stand
I’ll join with the angels
As the elders fall
We all cry holy, we all cry holy
We all cry holy, we all cry holy

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Jane Austen, good for meeting girls

From Blue Like Jazz (p.140)

Here’s a tip I’ve never used: I understand you can learn a great deal about girldom by reading Pride and Prejudice, and I won a copy, but I have never read it. I tried. It was given to me by a girl with a little note inside that read: What is in this book is the heart of a woman. I am sure the heart of a woman is pure and lovely, but the first chapter of said heart is hopelessly boring. Nobody dies at all. I keep the book on my shelf because girls come into my room, sit on my couch, and eye the books on the adjacent shelf. You have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, the exclaim in a gentle sigh and smile. Yes, I say. Yes, I do.

Interestingly enough, I bring this up because my wife hates Jane Austen. She finds the lifestyle of the typical characters to be quite dull. I myself have yet to read any of her works, though I saw the recent Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley in it. My guess is that it’s difficult to relate to noble culture, my wife and I both growing up blue-collar. My friend Mark on the other hand, is quite a fan of Austen and actually met his wife through that mutual appreciation! What a striking contrast to our author in this case.

The Music of Heaven

In C.S. Lewis’s afterlife fantasy The Great Divorce, he comes across people in heaven singing and describes them this way:

If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old.

What music could be so powerful that only looking at the score, not even hearing it played, could alone reverse the decaying effects of the fall of Adam? Beethoven’s 9th? Lightyears away, but nonetheless hinting at it I believe. I have heard Christians speak this way of the scriptures – of the power of the physical written scripture on the page, of hugging their bibles close, of the joy felt by a prisoner who discovers a single page of the “The Gospel According to St. John.”

The law that Moses bought down from Mount Sinai was etched in stone by God himself. What fear and trembling must the sight of those tablets stirred in the people of Israel? Behold the law, announcing our certain death. Many years later, the gospel completes the law and announces our redeemer. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus Christ. He is the one the angels sing of. We join them now, and even more so in the endless days to come!

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