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Is Your Worship a Joy

Is Your Worship a Joy

As I’ve been setting up a series of posts on thinking about God, I’ve discussed a little bit what our theology can do, and what it cannot. For example, in a video yesterday, I talked about how our theological knowledge cannot save us.

Yet at the same time it can mess us up. I was told that Stanley Hauerwas started a class on liturgy by saying: “Lousy liturgy makes lousy Christians.” I’m not sure he was right on it, and of course that’s second hand, but I do think our liturgy may well say something about how we think about God.

I was reading one of my own articles from several years ago, titled Dance Floor Worship. Here’s a line:

Our problem, I believe, is that we want to make sacred things, while God wants us to make things sacred.

I’d like to suggest reading my entire essay. It’s from a number of years ago, and I hope my thinking has grown, but I think I was pointing to a few things that can be important for us.

I’m going to embed my advertising video for S. J. Hill’s book. The reason I’m doing so is that I think I have illustrated here some of the problems in what we think about God and how that will impact our actions and our worship.

If you believe God is about to hammer you because you’re not so wonderful, then you may well either be afraid to be in God’s presence. If, on the other hand, you are aware of God’s grace and God’s gifts, you may be aware that even though you are a minute speck in this universe, the God of the universe cares about you.

How can you join the chorus? When you believe that the God whose power is displayed throughout the universe is also one who cares about you.

Seasons of the Church Year

Seasons of the Church Year

I grew up in a Christian group that did not follow the Christian liturgical calendar. There were many arguments presented for this, including the pagan backgrounds of some holidays. I’m not going to discuss that issue except to say that I care very little about the background of the day. What I care about is what we do with it now! I’m more concerned with the commercialism we’ve brought into Christmas since it became a Christian holiday than I am with any pagan backgrounds.

Another argument, however, was that we should be celebrating these things year round. We should always be celebrating the birth of Christ. We should always be celebrating the atonement and the resurrection.

That argument sounds pious and good at first glance, but it doesn’t match my experience. I do not detract from my celebration of all of God’s works year round by having a special commemoration at one time (or period) during the Christian year. Rather, I enhance that awareness by giving special time to meditation on one or another topic.

Since I became a member of a United Methodist congregation nearly 18 years ago, these seasons have become very important to me. So there will be special things I do during Lent (no, I’m not going to announce these on my blog), and there will be special things I do for Easter.

There is an additional reason I appreciate these seasons. I know I’m remembering these critical events in the history of my faith along with millions of other Christians at the same time. There’s a connection there, and I like to feel it.

So I have become very much attached to the seasons of the church year. This won’t prevent my enjoying a Christmas song during the summer, nor will it keep me from mentioning the cross in the fall. But it will bring these events back to my mind in a special way according to the church seasons.

Quote of the Day – On Leviticus

Quote of the Day – On Leviticus

… Byu inculcating worship patterns that emphasize mind over body, word over deed, and rational thought over “merely” reflexive sacramental systems, all legacies of the Protestant Reformation, religious communities learn to be at home in the cognitive, typically abstract world of theological ideas.  Ritual invites something different:  the active participation in “embodied” theological reflection.  Both the knowing and the learning of theology come from performing the ritual act itself. …  (Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), page 5)

I have only read the introduction and the commentary on the first chapter thus far, but I am extremely impressed by this commentary.  While I would agree that protestants tend to downplay ritual and emphasize belief as mental assent, I would note that the other commentary on Leviticus that’s on my plate right now, David W. Baker in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary), also points out the value of learning through ritual.

I think, however, that our tendency is to look for concrete doctrine in the rituals, and thus to miss the way in which God chose to communicate those particular doctrines.  We may also learn from Leviticus both that there is a spiritual value in ritual, and also something about how that works, and how we can gain from it in our worship today.

Liturgy is, I think, sadly neglected, and for most of my time teaching and writing, I’ve contributed to that neglect.  I started to see things differently after reading Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series.  As I study Leviticus and the rest of the Pentateuch further, I am convinced even further that this should change.

Leviticus 9:1-24: Eternity in Liturgy

Leviticus 9:1-24: Eternity in Liturgy

I have had very little time to post on Leviticus over the last few weeks because of my business, in which I’ve been working on three books simultaneously. But Leviticus has not been very far from my mind.

The more I read Leviticus, the more I like it. I’ve read through it with a variety of commentaries, generally reading it in Hebrew along with whatever commentary I’m currently working through. Each time I get more. In the case of the commentary I’m using presently, the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the particular focus is on the connection to Christian themes.

While one can argue that there isn’t any forward looking sense in Leviticus, I think it is close to impossible to argue that Christians did not look back to Leviticus and use its themes as the learned how to speak of the experience of Jesus and what his life, death, and resurrection meant to them. I’m going with that theme in looking at the book with specifically Christian eyes.

I’m rambling a bit, but stay with me. One of the neglected aspects of Christianity today is, I believe, a neglect of liturgy. Now I don’t have some sort of detailed checklist as to how liturgy should be conducted. What I do believe is that liturgy should bring us into the presence of God, i.e. bring us into the presence of eternity in some way. Most of our worship services do not function in this way at all.

At about the same time I read this chapter and this particular commentary on it I heard a sermon titled “The Eighth Day” in which the speaker suggested that we are to be living in the 8th day, somehow in the kingdom even though it’s not here yet. There’s a bit of a theme based on that in the appearances of Jesus in the book of Luke. I believe that we are to be living in eternity, and both our liturgy and our teaching needs to reflect that.

The liturgy in this passage reflects that full sense of history as we go from inauguration to glory and then to celebration of the glory in one pass.

The worship here involves everyone. It is emotional. It is educational. It is enthusiastic. It is also rewarded.

David W. Baker, author of this section of the commentary notes (p. 66):

… the people could not keep silent before a God who responded to their worship, so they joined their voices to those of the priests (9:24). God can and should be approached at times in stillness (Ps 46:10), but exuberance can also be appropriate. Everyone, young and old, male and female, was represented by the priests and leaders in the rituals; they each witnessed God’s response, and each responded appropriately in worship.

Just so!

Worship: Few Words, Boy Friends, and Girl Friends

Worship: Few Words, Boy Friends, and Girl Friends

David Ker is complaining about modern worship songs (since the 90s), and Peter Kirk has partially taken him to task about it, wondering about the air down in Mozambique and whether it causes David to rant. (Personally I suspect it’s looking at too many hippos, but in non-essentials charity, I say!) David continues with a more in-depth piece, Droning, desymbolization and Christian mantra. I think the latter is especially well worth reading, though all three will help set the stage.

Now I’m going to try to “let my words be few,” but I’ve already written quite a number of words, so that may not be easy. [Note after completing this–I failed.] Since I have an eclectic readership, let me note here that this is written to Christians. It’s internal shop talk and will probably be simply boring or weird to others.

I’m personally in sympathy with David on this from the point of view of music quality and what makes me worship. Over the years, however, I’ve tried to learn to be less critical. If I find it difficult to handle a song, I look around the congregation and inevitably I see plenty of other people who are quite deeply drawn into the crowd. If I focus on that community, I often find myself drawn in as well–to the worship, not really the music.

After hearing from friends overseas who must drive a couple of hours to fellowship, and have no options, I have felt very convicted about my complaints regarding local worship services. If I don’t like the worship one place, I can easily move to another. Many Christians can’t. Thus read the following advice with reference to American Christians, and to others only where truly applicable.

To worshipers, if you can’t stand the worship music, get over it. Worship is a communal activity, and it’s likely that if a particular style of music is repeatedly presented at your church, somebody is being attracted to it.

I recall one church where my wife and I could barely stand some of the music. It always seemed out of harmony with the worship service itself. But then we noticed that there was almost half of a section of the sanctuary filled with kids, many of whom attended that church without their parents, and those kids were completely involved in the very music that was driving us nuts. We chose to get over it.

If you can’t get over it, and I admit that this is quite possible, find another congregation. I can think of a few churches I’ve visited where I believe my best efforts to follow my own advice would fail. In that case, you need to find a place where you can become a part of the community.

There is a third option I hesitate to mention, and that is to try to improve the worship experience of your own church. The problem with this approach is that, barring debates over the color of the carpet, debates over styles of worship can be the most divisive, and frequently lose the goal of the best worship for the community in efforts by individuals to have everything done in their personally favorite style. So if you try this option, do it prayerfully and make sure that you’re trying for the best for everybody and not just for yourself.

Having said this to members of the congregation, I would like to emphasize a paragraph from David’s second post:

But, worship leaders also have a key role in this. On the stage, it’s easy to get swept away in the beauty of the music and the enjoyment of the moment and not realize that a hundred people in the congregation have their hands in their pockets and are bored out of their minds. Open your eyes, worship leaders! Be aware of the temperature of the congregation. You are supposed to be leading others in worship not zoning out in the front.

I send a separate message to leaders and congregants. Leaders, if you see your congregation bored, uninvolved, uninterested, or simply not worshiping, then you have some work to do. It’s fine for someone like me to tell people (especially myself!) to get over themselves and worship. But that’s not an excuse for some of the careless crap that goes on in worship.

People treat a stumbling presentation of the liturgy as a joke, something nice and folksy about the church. Communion is done so frequently that many pastors don’t take time to connect it to the message and the rest of the liturgy. One gets the feeling of “oh yes, we’ve gotta hand out some bread and wine” from such presentations. Worship leaders don’t pay attention to scripture or theme.

Rather than being folksy and fun, such things make the congregation treat worship as something unimportant and casual. If the minister can’t even find one sentence to insert in the communion liturgy at the appropriate points (marked conveniently with asterisks in the United Methodist hymnal), or the worship leader can’t be bothered to communicate with the minister and provide musical settings with a sense of connection, then the worshipers are justified in concluding that somebody doesn’t really care.

But finally, what is this business about boy friends and girl friends? Yes, I finally got to that point. It has to do with “I am so in love with you.” (No, not YOU, someone else!) I believe that in scripture one of the strongest metaphors for the way in which God seeks people and for the bond between myself and God is sexual passion. I don’t mean sanitized, hand-holding, going on a date level passion. I mean the kind of passion that makes one unable to wait to get to the bedroom before the clothes are coming off. I imagine that image offends some. Enjoy being offended.

Then read Ezekiel 16, for example, and see God’s passion for us represented as the passionate desire of a lover, while unfaithfulness is represented as the passion for someone other than our true spouse. There are many other texts. The problem with “lover” music, in my view, is not so much that we trivialize our love for God by expressing it in the form of cheap love lyrics; rather, it’s that our love for God is often so much more shallow than those cheap lyrics.

Hmmm. I intend none of this as judgmental about any particular person. There are many of you, such as both David and Peter, whose service for God indicates that they speak from a depth of passion that most stay-at-home American Christians cannot hope to match. If you’re in that situation, please don’t be offended at my suggestions here.

But if you’re just checking off the boxes of your supposed weekly activities, then give it some consideration. Is your relationship with God a casual date or a life-long covenant?

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

  • In a recent comment on my video Why I Hate the KJV, I received a comment that began thus: “You were saved by the KJV. . . .”
  • A young man visited my home and discussed with me for more than an hour. At the end, he said he was concerned for my salvation because of various details in the way I understand salvation by grace through faith.
  • A student asked me just what set of beliefs he needed to convey to someone and convince them to believe before he could be sure they had been saved.
  • A church member quits attending worship because he can’t stand the drums, the organ, the people raising their hands, the people not raising their hands, the way the pastor prays, ad nauseum.

All of these points do have something in common, I believe. There’s the theory of salvation by grace through faith (God does it), the theory of salvation by works (get working and earn it), and the wonderfully western theory of salvation by intellectual assent to correct theology. I would suggest, however, that this intellectual assent version falls afoul of Paul’s note “not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9, emphasis mine). I think that could justifiably be paraphrased “not of intellectual assent (or prowess) lest any man should boast.”

But no, there’s a substantial group of Christians who hold implicitly, if not explicitly, that without getting certain parts of their theology right, people cannot be saved. No thieves hanging on crosses need apply! One wonders just how many facts about atonement the thief on the cross grasped in the moment that he said “Lord, remember me”? Did he even know what “Lord” meant in that context?

Now I’m told that I put too much weight on the story of the thief on the cross, but I think it’s a tremendously important counter-example. That thief hangs there athwart the path of all those who want to make salvation difficult by requiring amounts of time, training, works, or even understanding. There’s nothing there but a cry for help and grace extended.

People frequently paint pictures of God from the theological prose of the Bible that contradict the God who appears in the stories. Personally I think this is reversed. As the thief on the cross hangs athwart the path of those who require intellectual understanding, so do Deborah (Judges 4 & 5) and Junia (Romans 16:7) stand in the way of those who want to claim that God can’t use women as leaders. At a minimum, those two examples should make one look carefully at each individual woman one meets in ministry and ask, “Is she one for whom God has made an exception?” Of course I think there are better theological reasons for rejecting gender exclusion in ministry, but that’s another post.

But what does all of this have to do with the last example I gave, a liturgical one, and with the title of the post which refers to idolatry? Quoth Paul again, “Much, in every way!” I use the basic definition for idolatry I got from reading Tillich: “Treating as ultimate anything that is not ultimate.”

  • The commenter on my YouTube video has made the KJV the ultimate thing, replacing God and Jesus as the agent of salvation, and replacing it with a book, a translation made by human hands.
  • The young man who questioned my salvation based on his theological propositions has made those theological propositions into his god. They are the idol of God before which he worships. I would note here, however, that in my view grace is sufficient for gossips and murderers, and yes, even idolaters!
  • The student who asked about what must be believed was a very sincere person who was nonetheless distressed by the idea that he might not present the right pieces of the puzzle and thus not reach someone. He was being tempted by idolatry.
  • The church member who quits over liturgy, well . . . see below.

I suspect that liturgy is the part of theology which tempts us most to idolatry. Many people ignore the atonement debates and simply believe that Jesus died for them. The idolatry is more frequently one of church leaders than church members. But everyone knows whether you raise your hands or don’t. Everyone knows what kind of music they like. Everyone knows whether they like a fixed order or a more spontaneous service.

Preferences aren’t the problem. In fact, it’s not a problem to seek to understand and believe correct theology. That is, until what you say about God and how you worship becomes more important than God. Worship is about experiencing and worshiping God in community with one’s fellow believers, the body of Christ. When you let your personal preferences keep you from corporate worship, at least some elements of that are lost. In fact, I would suggest that if you are in no sense giving up something to others in worship, you may not be fully experiencing corporate worship.

And when you let those individual preferences keep you from worship, then that becomes idolatry as well. Something that is not ultimate–the form of the worship service–has become ultimate for you instead of God.

Should pastors, church leaders, and liturgists not strive for a good worship service? Absolutely they should do their best in this area. I am not advocating sloppiness either in theology or in liturgy. I am advocating the correct priority. When a pastor presents the Eucharist carelessly and thoughtlessly, for example, it may make it harder for people to experience the presence of Christ in their midst. I very much enjoy the Eucharist. There have been times, however, when I have had to work to experience the presence of Christ because it was so clear that the pastor was not experiencing it, and didn’t care.

On another occasion I recall a minister who I thought might ascend from before the altar at any moment because he was so thoroughly engaged in the liturgy he presented. The simple fact that his worship was so completely directed at God, and so engaged his entire being, made it easy for the worshipers to join him.

It is not good liturgy and good theology that I’m challenging here. Good liturgy and good theology help bring one to God. But no liturgy or theological proposition that stands between God and the person can be truly good.

A tree is a good thing, but when one bows down and worships it, it becomes an idol. It is the same in our theology. A good doctrine, a good worship service, or a good deed, placed above the one in whose service they should stand, has become an idol.

Friends, keep yourselves from idols. Amen! — 1 John 5:21