Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Intro to Acts of Worship

For years I have been troubled by the contemporary American Christian view of what "praise" is and what "worship" is.  This is grossly oversimplifying the problem, but I trust you will understand: "Praise" is when the music is fast and "worship" is when the music is slow.  The first is hand-clappy; the second is hand-raisey.  "Praise" makes you feel excited and glad to be a Christian, whereas "worship" fills you with gooey emotions as you imagine yourself being in the very presence of God.  I meekly submit the possibility that we are being manipulated by musicians in our quest to find and do true worship.

(Full disclosure: I spent more than a decade of my younger years as a piano player and worship leader for several charismatic/pentecostal congregations, trying like crazy to produce exactly the same effects as those which I have just described.  So my discomfort may very well be tied to my intimacy with the issue.  What honest cigarette-smoker wants to be around someone who has just quit?  The evangelistic fervor of the new non-smoker is a disagreeable pain in the backside for those who have no thought of cessation.  Maybe it's the same with me; I grant the possibility.)

But what happens when you don't like the style of music played at your church?  Someone very dear to me dislikes modern worship choruses and loves the old hymns.  That person has said to me, "I just can't worship with that music."  My children (at least when they were young) loved modern worship music and despised hymns, thinking any hymn-singing crowd to be the hallmark of dead religion.  I find myself falling in the middle; I like some of the new songs, but hate the lazy song-writing most of the new lyrics exhibit.  Some of them seem like random slap-togethers of religious-sounding phrases.  And some of the old hymns bore me, and some of them are a little questionable theologically too.  I find myself feeling a lot more "worshipful" when there's a song being played that I like, and the drummer executes a particularly clever and innovative fill (the drummer at our church is very talented).  I instantly realize that my emotions are being manipulated by the music … but I didn't recognize that when I was younger.

As far as "being in the very presence of God" is concerned, though … whenever were you not in the presence of God?  It is a staple of the Christian faith to believe that God is omnipresent; He is everywhere.  Though He may choose not let you sense His presence, there is no place where He is not.  "In Him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28 NKJV).  Where do we live?  In Him.  If our very existence is in Him, where can we be that  He is not?  Our problem is our perception; our problem is that we don't recognize Him.

Romans 12:1 says this: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (NKJV).  Normally I dislike using multiple translations in order to cherry-pick the one that best supports the point I'm trying to make, but the fact is that the "reasonable service" mentioned in this verse does bear looking at in other versions.  The ASV presents it as "spiritual service"; the CEB as "appropriate priestly service"; the ESV as "spiritual worship."  The Amplified, which is useful for wringing every possible nuance out of the scriptures, presents Romans 12:1 as this: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, and beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God, to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship."

Here we get to the heart of the matter: Our "spiritual worship" of God has little to do with our feelings.  It has much to do with our actions.  There may be emotions that are stirred by the recognition of what God has done for us—indeed, one would be astonished if there were not—but the act of worship is a living, obedient, sacrificial thing that we do, not that we feel.  I stumble a bit at my own characterization that it is a living thing that we do, for in a sense it is also a dying thing that we do.   It involves a death to selfish pleasures in order that someone else may live, in clear-eyed recognition of who God is, and what He has done for us.  It involves a death to our reputations and our fortunes and our comforts in order that someone else may live, in clear-eyed recognition of who God is, and what He has done for us.  And it is in this dying that we find ourselves more completely alive at a different level.

In the coming posts, I will offer three or four examples of what I call Acts of Worship.  Please feel free to debate or offer suggestions or examples of your own.