The Truth about Worship

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There are some human experiences that evoke an automatic response.

  • A man might see a beautiful woman, or a woman a handsome man, and without any intellectual processing there is an appreciation and a response to the person’s attractiveness.
  •  You might hear a piece of music and instantaneously it grips you, enters into your soul, it may even lead to life-long love of a particular band or a genre of music.
  • Or you might be watching a football game and someone executes an ‘impossible’, shot, tackle pass, dribble, or save, and you immediately respond with a gasp, a cheer, or you raise your hands in joy.

In each of these instances we experience something that we respond to emotionally, our response communicates and expresses that we appreciate what we have encountered and that we take joy in it and we esteem it to be of great value.

You could argue that these instances are examples of a kind of worship.

Now the particular thing called religious worship is normally defined as

‘the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration (of a deity)’

However, whilst the our response to everyday worship-inducing experiences is very natural, religious worship can often seem a bit more problematic as a concept.

We are told in the Bible that God commands us to worship Him. Indeed, this was something Jesus Himself reiterated when he was tempted in the wilderness;

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

So God tells us to worship God. The problem is that this can sound a bit feeble to our ears.

I mean is God so insecure that He needs our affirmation?

Or does God have such a raging ego that he has this insatiable desire for the whole of humanity to be constantly telling Him how great He is? Doesn’t He already know?

As a way of resolving this seeming difficulty it is helpful to remember the three instances we have already considered.

In each instance we experience a reality – beauty, music, human skill – and our response to that reality is automatic, the only thing we can properly do in the face of such an experience is to appreciate it.

In a similar way, worship is the natural and normal response to God. Any time that we even glimpse a fraction of the realty of God there can be no other response that worship.

Worship is living in the truth about God.

This helps to explain why God commands us to worship Him, it is to live in the truth about Him, to know Him in the reality of His nature and His activity.

Perhaps this makes the opening question and response of the Westminster Shorter Catechism more understandable:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.[1]

It is a man or woman’s greatest achievement, their greatest development of their human potential, when they perceive, and live in response to, the truth about God.

Stated negatively, a life that does not centre around the worship of God is a life that is still blind to the truth of the nature of human existence. It is a life that stumbles in the darkness, ignorant of the glories that surround it.

That is the truth about worship.

 

[1] Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1646/7

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Don’t go to church to worship God

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I was listening to a short video clip by Graham Kendrick the well-known song-writer and worship leader. He said something that made me think. He said;

“Don’t come to church to worship … Come worshipping”[1]

This neat phrase nicely expresses a key aspect of the Christian faith; that worship is the primary calling and the most important activity for the Christian.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts the same truth in a slightly different way;

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Glorifying God, worshipping Him, therefore, cannot be other than the most important human activity on the face of the planet, or even in whatever remote corner of the universe, it cannot be otherwise

Approaching this same truth from a different direction, John Piper once wrote,

“Mission exists because worship doesn’t”[2]

The goal of all that the Church does is simply that men and women might worship God. For this to happen they need to pass through the succeeding phases of perceiving the truth about God and themselves, embracing this truth intellectually and experientially, correctly orienting themselves and their lives to it. The outcome of all this is, however, singular; for being rightly oriented to the Creator always means living a life of worship.

The Creator is above and beyond all that we can imagine. He is inexpressibly glorious. He is unimaginably powerful. He is shockingly gracious. He is loving and merciful beyond measure.

There is no other authentic response possible to this reality, other than living a life of joyful worship before Him.

This is exactly what we see being exhorted of the first Christian communities.

“Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:18b-20 NIVUK

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” Hebrews 12:28-29 NIVUK

Therefore it seems that Graham Kendrick is correct, our worship should not be an irregular, time-limited activity, perhaps an hour on a Sunday morning, but rather it should be our normal way of being in the world. It should be a whole day, an everyday experience. Giving thanks, enjoying our Father’s presence, welcoming His activity, glorifying His deeds. Praising His name.

Certainly regular corporate worship will be a part of this, but actually only a rather small part.

Worship is for life, not just for Sunday.

[1] “Why aren’t we singing? Some themed thoughts from Graham Kendrick” available online at; https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=U4M3EhkgVPs published 8th October 2014

[2] ‘Let the Nations be glad’ in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, eds R.D. Winter & S.C. Hawthorne, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981, p49

Exchanging Glory for Disgrace or How to Become a Pagan

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« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)

The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy –  how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.

The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.

Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.

Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.

This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”

If it works, do it.

The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.

If it feels good, do it.

Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.

The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.

Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.

One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?

Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.

We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).

Worship makes the world.

 

However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.

Spiritual realities don’t change.

The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.

 

The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential;  to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”

The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”

These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.

One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.

Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.

 

This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.

The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).

The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.

The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.

 

The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.

Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”

Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.

Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.

Notice that the same two elements are at work –

It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.

Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.

It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.

 

Health, Wealth and Happiness … Are Not Enough

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I’m studying Hosea at the moment.

A strange and wonderful book.

The people of God are portrayed as an unfaithful wife who goes whoring around. Her “lovers” are the pagan religions, with their gods of fertility, or wealth and economic success.

However her husband still loves her and he will do anything to get her back.

In order that she might return she needs to come to her senses, to see her “lovers” as merely exploitative abusers, in stark contrast with the deep loves her husband has for her.

In order to bring his estranged wife to her senses God must show her that these god, who promise wealth, are powerless – thus he needs to bring her to economic ruin.

In her ruin she will see the god for what they are, exploitative, powerless abusers, who have only succeeded in depriving her of the experience of the love of her rightful husband.

God calls on his people to,

Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unploughed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers righteousness on you. (Hosea 10:12, NIV)

The root problem is that the people of God have interpreted their calling too narrowly.

They have thought that economic flourishing was their only goal.

God shows them that their true calling goes far beyond mere economic wealth, it is to live in relationship with him. To love him, to know him, to demonstrate in their society the values he esteems – unselfishness, uprightness.

For the people of God health, wealth and happiness are not enough. They are trivial trifles in comparison with the great calling, the grand invitation, to live with God and in God and for God.

As the Westminster Catechism says,

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Nothing short of this can possibly be worthy of a human life.

The Precious Inessentials of Faith

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Raised as a thorough-going Protestant in the Evangelical tradition, my spiritualty was a stripped-down, lean ‘n’ hungry, bare-bones affair.

Evangelicals are ideologically Cistercian – clean lines, without ornament or ostentation.

We like simple, minimalist approaches to mission and worship.

We like to keep the main thing the main thing.

We are nervous of anything that might distract the attention from Christ in our theological thinking, or from the preaching of the word in our worship.

Our places of worship are generally clean, empty boxes. Like an ‘avant-garde’ production of Shakespeare – the stage set is suggested rather than constructed.

It has therefore been an interesting experience these last 13 years, to find myself living out my faith in a Catholic context.

A spirituality where the senses are not excluded from worship – but rather seen as a doorway into it.

Churches, far from being clean boxes, are packed full of art and architecture; visual cues designed to capture the imagination and turn ones thoughts towards God.

Interestingly, I have found that far from distracting me from my worship of Christ, they have actually enhanced it; they have inspired it, they have given it a deeper dimension.

At times when I have been spiritually ‘dry’ they have been a support – a kick-start to get me going on a cold winter’s day.

Which is not to say that I regard Evangelical concerns as being without foundation. Perhaps the safe-guards were once very necessary; perhaps for certain types of soul they still are.

But personally speaking, I would not want to go back to worshipping in that way – at least not all the time.

I came across an interesting quote from Betjeman, that explains well that those ‘inessential’ elements of Christian spirituality, those most suspiciously regarded by thorough-going Protestants, can yet be the very things that God uses to draw someone to Himself.

“I learned at Pusey House the Catholic faith.
Friends of those days, now patient parish priests,
By worldly standards you have not ‘got on’
Who knelt with me as Oxford’s sunlight streamed
On some colonial bishop’s broidered cope.

Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,
Some start upon that arduous love affair
In clouds of doubt and argument; and some
(My closest friends) seem not to want His love –
And why this is I wish to God I knew.

As at the Dragon School, so still for me
The steps to truth were made by sculptured stone,
Stained glass and vestements, holy water stoups,
Incense and crossing of myself – the things
That hearty middle-stumpers most despise
As ‘all the inessentials of the Faith’.”

John Betjeman ‘Summoned by Bells, p95

Why was God not ashamed ?

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 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
(Hebrews 11:16 NIV)

I was sent a tape of a man called Eugene Smith preaching on the above text recently.

He asked the very simple question

“Why wasn’t God ashamed to be their God?”

Which is actually a very good question.

This verse comes at the end of a list of people who are held up as heroes and heroines of faith. And yet if you examine their lives, you quickly find that they did some rather dubious, even colourful, things!

In fact, if we had been their friends, there would probably have been some times when we would have been uncomfortable to own up to that fact in public!

So why is God is not ashamed to be their God ?

Well, the answer is in the first half of the verse.

They had each been given a vision from God:

  • A vision and a calling to live in relationship with God.
  • A vision and a calling to be significant people in the plans and purposes of God.
  • A vision and a calling to prioritise the life to come over the life here and now.

They responded to that vision and that calling. They lived out their whole lives in that spirit and with that priority.

Some of them died, their vision still unfulfilled.

Oftentimes God’s plans are bigger than our lifetimes.

Can you devote yourself to a vision that is bigger than your lifetime?

That is the key question for any disciple of Jesus Christ.

It is this courageous decision to give themselves to this divine vision, even when they realised they would not see its completion, that is the reason why God is not ashamed to be called their God.

They weren’t always perfect. They failed – often.

They also misunderstood things – perhaps even most of the time.

But they embraced whole-heartedly that which God had revealed to them of His plans and His purposes and His desire for making their lives a part of those plans.

They made the conscious and continual choice to prioritise this over everything else.

They longed for a better country.

They lived their lives by its values.

They invested their time and resources in its coming.

They refused to be distracted by the glitter of ‘The Now’ from the glory of the ‘To Come’.

It is important to remember that the book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were struggling.

They were Christians of Jewish origin and had suffered persecution and exclusion from their Jewish communities because of their Christian faith.

They had lost family and friends, they had been excluded from the richness and the history of the Jewish religious life.

And what had they received in return?

Actually, their experience of life as Christians wasn’t that great.

They were forced to meet in each other’s homes with a cobbled together, rather common worship experience.

The Christian community was mostly comprised of people who were drawn from the lower classes. Very few great rabbis or eminent Jewish scholars had embraced the Christian faith.

The communities’ key leaders were mostly unschooled fishermen. In fact most of the theology of the Christian church had to be supplied by Saint Paul.

To these struggling, demoralised, persecuted people the book of Hebrews comes. The book reminds them that,

What we see is hardly ever a true expression of the spiritual reality.

The challenge of the Christian faith is to live in the light of what we don’t see.

To be like the heroes of chapter 11 – to prioritise in our hearts and lives the glorious inheritance that is ours and will be ours in Christ – a better country, a heavenly one.

In Hebrews chapter 6 verse 12 the heroic equation is succinctly, even mathematically expressed

Faith + Perseverance = Inheritance

Do you worship like an ass or an angel ?

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Brennan Manning quotes a celtic tradition which recounts how a monk watching his cat snatch a salmon from the river, cried out

“The power of the Lord is in the paw of the cat!”. (Abba’s Child, p104)

Which is a nice summation of the very real truth that there is a real sense in which all that God has created gives glory to him simply in being what it is,

in demonstrating the qualities and capabilities with which God has endowed them.

“There is a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them” (C.S. Lewis, On Church Music).

Which, has the somewhat counter-intuitive consequence, that even our wicked actions, in so far as they demonstrate qualities that God has given us, are glorifying to God!

He may not like the idea, but every time Dr Richard Dawkins uses his fine mind in order to try to disprove the existence of God, he is in fact, glorifying God! He is demonstrating the wonderful capacity for intelligent thought and rational argument that God has given to humans.

Loving God is a choice, glorifying God in inescapable.

Of course, this glorying is not the kind of worship that God wants from humans.

What God wants from humans is worship by intention.

It is in the combination of our abilities and our intent, that true worship happens.

For inanimate objects this is certainly an impossibility.

Whilst mountains give glory to God in showing their beauty and majesty, they cannot add intent to this.

Whether animals can do so is a very interesting question.

Jonathan Balcombe’s recent books “Second Nature” and “Pleasurable Kingdom” have done much to show how recent scientific advances are at least opening up the possibility of moral, ethical and perhaps even spiritual choices, amongst certain species of animals. (A possibility to which C.S. Lewis hinted some 50 years ago!)

However, what we do know for certain is that humans DO possess this capacity.

Which opens up to us the awesome possibility of worshipping God like the angels.

Of melding our artistic gifts with a heartfelt desire to glorify God.

Lewis reminds us that the difficulty of achieving this in reality should not be underestimated.

First of all there is the long, hard slog of honing our artistic skills. Second, there is the challenge of preserving a purity of intent in the face of all the hassles of creation and practice. Finally, even in the performance there are temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition.

But when we do succeed, Lewis posits,

“I think performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.” (C.S. Lewis, On Church Music)