The "Worship Experience"

Driving home from a meeting one night recently I heard an advertisement on one of our local Christian music stations that used a phrase I had heard many times, but that had never stuck out to me. The ad was placed by a mega-church in our area looking for musicians and worship leaders to help create a “worship experience” at this church. For some reason I began wondering what was meant by the term “worship experience?” Is it only an alternative to the more traditional “worship service?” I expect that is the case, but are the users of such a term unwittingly, or intentionally, changing the nature and objective of corporate worship? Such usage certainly seems to reflect the growing, and to me disturbing, trend toward experientially grounded faith in the contemporary church.

 

So is it right to use the term at all? Well, I suppose that it depends on whose experience we’re talking about. The only person whose worship experience we should be concerned with is that of God, who should be, but all too often isn’t really, the object of our worship. I fear that what most mean by “worship experience” is their own pleasure in it: whether their favorite song was sung, the musicians were skilled, the prayers were eloquent, thing started and ended on time, and the sermon was entertaining and/or made them feel good about themselves. Nothing at all to do with whether God was glorified or pleased with the service of worship.

 

As I read and study more and more of the Scripture, I am struck by the Bible’s emphasis on God’s perspective on things. The study we’re doing on Isaiah at Orange Hill points to this again and again. Whatever we may want to think about the reason we gather and what we do when we do, God’s idea about this seems to be that we are there to give praise and honor to him, not satisfy some want of our own. In fact, the real shame, and I mean that in the sense of how we should feel when doing wrong, is that our main want should be what God wants rather than all these other things.

 

Next time I wonder why the Sunday worship was unsatisfying, I need to remember to ask myself why I was there and who I was trying to satisfy with the songs or prayers or anything else that was done that day. Most importantly I need to ask myself if my heart was pleasing to God. Did I want what he wants…to worship him? That’s the “Worship Experience” we need to be concerned with…God’s and God’s alone.

Thoughts About Work

Work. Something we all do. We spend the majority of our lives engaged in it, yet we think so little about why we are doing it and how we should be doing it. In the essay “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers raises both of these questions for us.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my work. Is this what I want to do for the remaining twenty or so years before retirement? Should I follow a different path? Why am I doing what I am doing? The usual things one asks when things are not going so well at the office. Reading this essay was a timely reality check for me.

Sayers has several main points, first, that we were made to work. God made us in his image, and he is a creative being, working to create us and the universe in which we exist. As beings made in that image, to work is a part of our nature.

Second, we need to do our best, to do the thing we do well in order to be true to our nature. God made what he made for his own sake and for his own benefit. In a similar way, our work needs to be soul-satisfying to us, no matter what it is. Obviously there are limitations on this. For example an excellent thief would not be true to the nature God gave him. Doing what is evil well is not good or moral.

This also means that our primary motivation should not be income, a hard concept in our culture. We should choose our career or job based on our passions and the skills God has given us. This is his plan for being fulfilled in our work.

The implications of this are huge, and provide some important clarifications to how we talk about work. What this all points to is finding your calling, and yes I mean that in the Scriptural sense. Calling is a term equally well applied to pastors, tradesmen, and professionals.

Unhappy with your work? The question to be asking is not about salary or hours or responsibility. The question is really “What’s my calling?”

Thoughts on Sin from Dorothy Sayers

Once again, as I read “Letters to a Diminished Church,” I am struck by the dullness of most of the work of contemporary writers. Yes, it is somewhat about style; Sayers has a wonderful way with words. But it is really the thoughtfulness behind the style that is so engaging.

In the essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she first laments the modern reduction of the term “immorality” to being equated with lust, referring only to sexual sin. (And today, the teeth are being pulled from that category as well.) What follows is a wonderful exposition of the nature of the other six traditional “deadly sins” and how they build on one another. Beginning with wrath, moving through gluttony, covetousness, envy, sloth, culminating finally in the “head and origin of all sin,” pride, Sayers pulls no punches.

Gluttony makes us drive for more and more of everything regardless of need. This leads us the want what others have that we do not, covetousness. When we can’t get it we turn to envy simply because we see that someone else might be happier or have more than we do. When we see that having more doesn’t satisfy, we abandon hope, belief, knowledge, etc. and fall into the torpor of sloth. Finally we decide that we must be master of our own destiny and judge of our own actions, making ourselves god of our little universes, taking up the original and master sin, pride.

This piece is well worth a thoughtful, brutally honest read. Sayers asks some hard questions about how these sins are applicable to Christians and the Church. We do well to ask them of ourselves in these times.

Creed or Chaos?

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of
Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the
fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma
does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose
that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist
that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is
hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple
and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex
doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal
to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a
little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this
Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the
Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

-Dorothy Sayers in “Creed or Chaos?”

Thus begins essay number four in “Letters to a Diminished Church.” This essay was the title piece of a collection of essays Sayers published under the same title in the late 1940s. Yes, that’s right, sixty years ago. (By the way, you may have noticed I skipped over the third essay in he book. Its title is “Creative Mind,” and while it was interesting in its own right, I have yet to figure out exactly what the editor thought it had to do with arguing the relevance of Christian doctrine.)

When I read this over my dinner at the office tonight, I about choked on my chicken finger, and I had to stop work for a bit to write this. And this is only the beginning. Sayers goes on to elaborate on the nature of the ninety-nine percent with a razor sharp perceptiveness and prophetic relevance to us that will take your breath away. She describes three classes of people: frank and open heathens, whose ideas about Christianity are a jumble of “rags and tags of Bible anecdotes and clotted mythological nonsense;” ignorant Christians, whose idea of Jesus is based on a mild, gentle sentimentality combined with “vaguely humanistic ethics” that she associates with the Arian heresy; and, finally, more-or-less instructed churchgoers, who know what the Bible says about some things, but whose battle readiness on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic is comparable to “a boy with a peashooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns.”

This is unbelievably good, relevant, challenging stuff for us to soak in. Besides Sayers wonderful skill with words, her laser focus on perhaps the most crucial issue for the church of our day make her work must reading for all of us. We have two choices–two ways–creed or chaos. There are no other options.

An Anthem for Today’s Church Culture

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright

 

I don’t care what they may say, I don’t care what they may do

I don’t care what they may say, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

Jesus is just alright

 

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright

 

I don’t care what they may know, I don’t care where they may go

I don’t care what they may know, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

 

Jesus, he’s my friend; Jesus, he’s my friend

He took me by the hand; led me far from this land

Jesus, he’s my friend

 

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright

 

I don’t care what they may say, I don’t care what they may do

I don’t care what they may say, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah

 

My wife and I went with a group of friends to see the Doobie Brothers in concert last night. Wow! So many of the reunion concerts you go to just show how the artists skills have declined over the years, but these guys were amazing. I guess after playing together thirty years you get to know each other’s moves pretty well. Three of the guys in the band were early members in the 1970s and are still on top of their game.

 

Of course the song “Jesus Is Just Alright” was one of their early hits, and when they started it up it occurred to me that these lyrics, taken literally, are the perfect anthem for most of today’s evangelical culture.

 

More and more today, those who identify themselves as “Christians” are taking the view that Jesus, my friend, my buddy, who I hang with sometimes when it’s convenient, or talk to when I need something, is OK with me. That is, so long as he doesn’t do or say anything inconvenient about his Lordship, or doesn’t interfere in my life too much.

 

My reading of the Bible leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is a lot more than “just alright.” Jesus is all right, if you’ll forgive the word play. Jesus is and never intended to be “just” anything, but he will be just in the end, to the great dismay of many who think that they will be alright when that day comes.

 

My friend? Yes, but not primarily. Jesus is my friend and brother in God’s family, but more importantly and first he is Lord, Savior, and God. In these roles, he demands things from us by right. Things like obedience, reverence, and worship; not just a call now and then to check in.

 

I DO care what they may say, because wrong thinking about who Jesus is on the part of the church is one of the big reasons people don’t see the difference between Christianity and every other world religion. They see it as just another menu choice, another brand of eternity insurance just in case God is really out there. We have to see the real, biblical Jesus and act accordingly so that the world around us will see that Jesus is far more than just alright.

Testing Ourselves

“In ordinary times we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is. If, now and again, this remote and academic problem is so unmannerly as to thrust its way into our minds, there are plenty of things we can do to drive the intruder away. We can get the car out or go to a party or to the cinema or read a detective story or have a row with a district council or write a letter to the papers about the habits of the nightjar or Shakespeare’s use of nautical metaphor. Thus we build up a defense mechanism against self-questioning because, to tell the truth, we are very much afraid of ourselves.”

– Dorothy Sayers in “What We Do Believe?

This is the opening paragraph in the second essay in “Letters to a Diminished Church.” In this essay Sayers goes phrase by phrase through one of the ancient creeds, expanding a bit on the meaning each phrase contains.

Before beginning the phrase by phrase discussion, she describes those moments when we are forced to come face to face with what we really believe, those moments of crisis where all the fluff is burned away and the real questions of life are forced to the front. Since this essay was written during World War II, the circumstance she uses is sitting in a cellar with a gas mask waiting for the bomb to drop. She says this about faith. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire. It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.”

Her point here is that what we really believe is proven by the way we act when the crisis comes. What is it that we do without having to think? This is the kind of test that Paul had in mind when he told us, through the Corinthians (II Cor. 13:5), to check and see if we are really in the faith. Sadly, we have far too many people populating our churches today that are practical deists or atheists.

I pray that, painful though it may be, God will purify his church, and begin with me.

The More things Change…

“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – dull dogma as pepole call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.”

– Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”

A few weeks ago I ran across a book while browsing the bookstore whose title and author intrigued me. The title is “Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine” and the author is Dorothy Sayers. The book is a collection of short essays Sayers wrote on doctrine and its relevance that has been compiled recently, and I think couldn’t be more timely. The quote above is the first paragraph of the first essay, which was originally written in the 1930s.

Dorothy Sayers is perhaps best known for her mystery writing. Her most most famous character is Lord Peter Wimsey.

While the book itself is somewhat poorly edited (a number of obvious typographical and transcription errors), the razor sharp insights of the author make it worth a read. I plan to post some thoughts on each essay over the next several days/weeks as I finish reading them. Here’s more from the first essay.

After a discussion of who Jesus was and how his life, ministry, death and resurrection fit in the big picture, she says this:

“If this is dull, the what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused hiim of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting houshold pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.”

How prophetic these words were for what we see going on today. It only goes to prove that
the more we think we have changed for the better, the more we find that we never really change. Something about a fallen world and a fallen nature perhaps?

Dancing on the Edges of the Cultural Abyss

One of the big news items of the past few days has been the debate in the US Senate over the proposed Constitutional amendment defining marriage. There has been a lot of noise about how the senators took the chicken way out by killing the issue before they would have to declare themselves in a specific vote. There has been an equal amount of noise labeling those in favor of defining marriage “traditionally” as being between one man and one woman as bigots, homophobes, etc. Shrill voices on both sides. Angry name-calling and lots of angst have been stirred up by this issue.

Just to be clear, I believe that one man and one woman is the absolutely right formula for marriage as defined by our Creator. But I see all the energy exerted to decry views on both sides as dancing around the edges of the real abyss. This issue, along with many others that the current evangelical culture seems willing to go to its death over, is peripheral to the real core issue. What we are facing is a clash of worldviews, and it’s even more basic than the debate over the truth or falsehood of Christianity that is raging, most recently as a result of the DaVinci Code book and movie. The first issue is whether God exists or not; the real fundamental argument is between the theistic and the non-theistic worldview, and this is the essential abyss that separates the sides on all these questions.

What all this boils down to is whether there is any source of absolute right and wrong. It is the root of the epistemological question post-modernism raises: is there truth and is it knowable. Until we address this fundamental issue, all we are doing on the issues of gay rights (including the definition of marriage), abortion, faith in the public square, etc. is shouting at each other across the barricades. There can be no real, meaningful debate, because we aren’t even agreed on the terms we use. Truth, right, and wrong mean different things to the two sides, so even though we think we’re having meaningful discussions, they are meaningless, as if one person is speaking English and the other an obscure tribal dialect from the deep Amazon jungle.

Until we in the evangelical Christian culture wake up to this and make the attempt to get at the real issue of whether and who God is in our culture we will continue to shout meaningless threats across the barricades, dancing on the edges, rather than begin the long, hard work of breaking them down and using the pieces to build a bridge across the abyss.

"Mommy, what happened to Aslan?"

Since we were both off work this past week, my wife and I finally went to see the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the other day. Since it has been out for a few weeks, the theater was not packed, but a high percentage of the audience was families with children ranging in age from4 or5 to preteen. Sitting immediately around us were two families with kids in this age range. As kids will do when watching something they don’t fully understand, the younger ones were asking questions about the action as the movie went on.

It occurred to me as we were leaving the theater that there were questions this movie raised that a parent would find pretty difficult to answer for themselves without an understanding of Christ and the cross. I’m thinking in particular of the scene in which Aslan goes to the Stone Table willingly in place of Edmund. He is ridiculed, his mane is shaved, he is beaten, bound, and dragged to the altar. The White Witch gleefully delivers the deathblow and declares victory. As she and her evil minions go off to what they believe will be the final defeat of the army of Aslan, the scene quiets and Lucy and Susan come to altar to say goodbye to their fallen hero.

It’s at this point where one could imagine a child asking the question I have used as the title of this post. How does a parent explain laying down one’s life for another from the perspective of today’s culture? Then, what does a parent do with what happens after as Aslan is raised to life again in subsequent scenes?

For many children, the standard “It’s just a story, sweetie” answer may be satisfactory, but if tales like this do anything for us, they raise questions of deeper meaning. I hope this question will nag at parents who do not accept or understand, or even know about what Christ did for us on the cross, something that C. S. Lewis surely had in mind as he penned this story fifty-plus years ago.

And for us Christians, what a wonderful opportunity to help our children understand the story of Jesus and the cross. While it is an imperfect analogy, as all analogies ultimately are, when one of our kids asks about what Aslan did and what happened to him, we can use this as an opportunity to tell them how it compares with what Jesus did for each of us.

Of course, the other parallel in the story is plain to those of us who have believed in and accepted the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. We can all say, without hesitation, “I am Edmund.”

A Slip on the Stairs

A lot has happened in the two months since my last post here. A few days after my last post in October, we had a freak accident in our house that resulted in the loss of one of our precious Shelties. Our older one, Picture Perfect Spenser, had a bad fall going down our basement stairs early one morning for his first trip outside. Nothing unusual about this particular morning…just a simple tumble down the stairs. No immediately apparent serious injuries, but by the afternoon when my wife got home he was partially paralyzed.

After tests, back surgery, continued deterioration over the weekend and lots of tears and questions why, we made the decision to let him go. A faithful companion for seven years, a loving and deeply loved part of our family, taken by a simple slip on the stairs.

I tried many times in the past eight weeks to write about it, but the nearness of the loss and then intervening busy-ness kept me from it. So here I am tonight, about seven years to the day from when we brought him home reminiscing about the lessons I learned from his life. Phillip Keller is a much better writer that I am, and much of what he wrote in “Lessons from a Sheepdog” applies to what we learned from Spenser.

Beyond the lessons about what love is like and what our relationship with God is like, as Keller describes in his book, I’m thinking about the fragility of life. As I walk downstairs tonight after I finish writing, I could fall and be gone from this life in the blink of an eye. This is one of the consequences of a fallen world. Most of my time is spent dealing with preserving what could be gone in that instant. Yet I am reminded of Jesus’ words about birds and flowers and grass and me. I am called to seek first his Kingdom, to keep my eyes on what God values, to press on to his higher calling. To remember that, like our Spenser depended on us for everything he had, for his very life, I am dependent on a God who is vastly more generous that I will ever dream of being…who has lavished his grace on me. Hallelujah!