Facebook thoughts over the past two weeks on “Thinking more deeply about Christmas”
I am not so sure that our tamed version of the Christmas story is truly able to save to the uttermost, to deliver men and women from the deep despair, selfishness, suffering, and sordid wounds that scar our souls and minds. As my daughter reminded me tonight after the Christmas Eve service, we cannot avoid the fact that the Christmas story begins and ends in a death sentence--at every turn someone wants Jesus dead. But we have so tamed the story and have made it more palatable to fit on a Hallmark card or as background Muzak in our stores. There is lament blended with the angelic choir declaring peace and joy; and, it is through this lament (found in Mary’s song and in Rachel’s cry) that only this joy and peace may come. The wretchedness of humanity and the deep wounds of our neighbors are not cured by our tame, commercialized Christmas story. Think more deeply about Christmas.
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“I am sitting in church with my family and I am thinking that few if any of these people here know what it’s like to wake up afraid, in fear of their lives. They will wake up to food and presents and family, safe in their houses. It won’t be on their minds to think of everyone who doesn’t have the security, the privilege that so many of us ignorantly have. There are kids around the world that go to bed fearful for their lives and wake up so thankful they made it through the night; yet so incredibly frightened because they will spend the rest of the day afraid. What a privilege it is to not wake up afraid” (by my daughter, A. Hawley Anderson). And, may I add: think for deeply about Christmas.
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When the cliche is used, “Wise men still seek Him,” I wonder if they also include “where” do they find Him? The pageantry of American Evangelical Christianity tells us He is found amid the sparkle, high energy, glitter of showmanship and architectural theater. The wise men sought Him in the king’s palace. They were wrong. “Where” they found Him (in Matthew’s Gospel and based on God’s Word, I might add) was amid the poor, small, little town of Bethlehem, for which the prophets told us, didn’t amount to much (couldn’t in its day raise enough soldiers to protect itself). Wise people might still seek Him, but if and when they do, they are only wise when they seek Him in places that are insignificant--and following the Matthew 2 story--and where there is (the potential of) death and destruction to follow, for Herod ordered the slaughter of all the male two-year-olds and under (I assume in Bethlehem) in order to prohibit any potential insurrection to his power. Where are you seeking Jesus, the Messiah, born King? It matters where you seek Him, for where you find Him matters--and it puts everything at risk, for the power, elite, and affluent will seek to stop this humble king from disturbing their reign. Think more deeply about Christmas.
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“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him’” (Matthew 2:7-8).
Don’t be fooled by power’s kindness and rhetoric about our faith. Those with power, whether thrones, government, or business, don’t take challengers to their power lightly. They feign worship to disguise their real intent: control any possible insurrection of their power. Power is never a friend to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think more deeply about Christmas.
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Just saw a rather good tag line in a meme: ‘Is there room for me in your Christmas?’
There are so many people (do I really need to list them for you) that are wondering just that about our churches. Think more deeply about Christmas this year.
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Do your last minute, end of year, seasonal, Christmas donations to the poor make a happy moment for the poor, then leave them in the same condition before the donation? Sure it makes you feel good. You get a tax deduction. But the poor stay poor. Consider more systemic, strategic sacrifices, giving, and decisions that have long term potential to alleviate the conditions of poverty. Think more deeply about Christmas.
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At this season, of which we say we celebrate the all sacrificing Lord of Heaven and Earth relocating from the glories of heaven to be “nailed” to this poor planet, finding His first moments of incarnation in a dirty barn out back of an Inn, I wonder if we even think of following this king, who became poor so we could be made rich in grace? I see in the media and, as well, here on FB the pageantry celebrating the glitter of the commercial-version of Christmas, nothing--nothing--like the first advent. I am reminded at this time that so much of the church’s wealth, resources, and talents are so poorly distributed, being hoarded by the few. Explain to me how this displays the first advent in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 and the real meaning of Christmas? Think more deeply about Christmas.
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Think more deeply about Christmas . . . words from Miroslav Volf, “Poor is the church which relies on the power of the state.”
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“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
The first moment of incarnation for the Son of God, the King of all creation, was to have no place, to belong a family who had no place, and to find a bed among barn animals in a musty barn out back of an inn. Why is it that modern followers of this King continue to want and seek to be incarnated in safe, affluent, well-membered, rich-in-resources places? Church, think more deeply about Christmas this year.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
“When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.
“People will stagger from sea to sea
And from the north even to the east;
They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
But they will not find it.
“In that day the beautiful virgins
And the young men will faint from thirst (Amos 8:11-13).
I hadn’t made the connection, yet I have preached on this text before. In Amos 8 we are told there will be a famine, not of bread and of water, but a famine of the word (8:11). Then, Amos tells us as a result the next generation (which for us is the millennial generation, 16-30 yr olds) will faint from thirst (v. 13). Earlier in Amos 8 we learn that worship is related to the issues of justice and the economically vulnerable effected by poverty.
Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land . . . “Then I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into lamentation 8:4, 10).
We learn in verses 4-10 that worship will be destroyed because the worshippers neglected the poor and focuses on greed (vv. 4-10). Earlier Amos basically preached the same message:
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).
It should not surprise the church today that one thing that turns the millennial generation off to Christianity and the church is its disregard for the poor and while it enjoys the accumulation of wealth. This is partially Amos’ point. In the end, our next generation, our “beautiful virgins” and “young men,” the millennial generation, our 16 to 30 year olds, for the lack of God’s word, will faint (die).
How does the contemporary affluent (dare I say suburban) evangelical church repent? For us, we have a famine of the Word because our pulpits declare, not God’s Word (a partial gospel, a selected version of the Bible’s message), but human words that are self-help and/or words to make us evangelical Christians feel entertained and comfortable in democracy, in our affluent culture.
What am I contemplating this day as I turn 54? The successful obedience of faith of my children, that they’d learn that truly loving others is not just saying so, but doing so, and I don’t mean loving those in our comfort-zones, but those in need of what it means to “love thy neighbor as yourself,” that they learn as so many suburban evangelicals need to learn, that the Kingdom of God is all about space and time, which includes urban space and the countless times non-suburban families in this country go without (and for a whole host of social reasons, some their responsibility and some ours)…I am contemplating that we need to connect better and more compassionately with our needier neighbors and better understand it’s not a public vs. private frame of thinking, but I biblically demanding one—period…on this day at 54, I still picture that African mother carrying her water container for miles just to find water for her family—each day—how can she even think about Christ or worship on a Sunday morning?…I am wondering when we’ll stop playing church, playing at church, and truly be that other, radically different community in the midst of our dying communities; I am wondering when I’ll stop playing at church…wondering if there is a small band of unusual Christians willing to try something different in the richest County in America with one of the poorest cities in America; willing to try something different to put the needs of the world and of this community before us, to listen to God better, to respect His Word more effectively, just to try to do something different (and yes—I have an idea, been turned down already, but maybe some Christians are thinking the same thing, but I do have an idea)…contemplating what in the world I’ll be doing for the remainder of these 23 or so years God might give me on the planet…for the Glory of It All, He came to rescue us all…
At the start, when nothing worked out for me and my mother, He was there…We will never be the same, we are not the same, And After all our hands have wrought, He forgives…He came here, For the rescue of us all, that we may live, for the glory of it all..We were lost, but finding him there…for redemption from the fall that we may live for the glory of it all…After night, comes the light, dawn is here it’s a new day, everything will change, things will never be the same…for the glory of it all…for what inspires this on this my birthday morning...click here for the glory of it all.
It’s not that I don’t have anything new to say about or on Christmas, I just like what I have said in the past—so I am calling up another posting from the past. It’ a short thread on Luke 2 and what we like to call the Christmas story (post 1 and post 2). But even if you don’t want to read my musings, the actual text of the story from Luke is great all by itself:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds (Luke 2:8-18).
For those willing to take the time to read my former posts, here’s the links: Luke 2: un-taming the Christmas story and Luke 2: Part two, exchanging the wonder and worship for commercialism
For as far back in my Christian life as I can remember, now 32 years, Daniel 7:13-14 has been my favorite passage in the Bible. In 1978, when I became a Christian I was living in Idaho, serving in the Air Force at the Mountain Home Air Force Base. I am not sure how it became important to me, but I remember that Daniel 7, and in particular these verses, seemed of utmost importance to both my Christian life and how God’s plan and purpose for creation was to work out. To my surprise later in both college and seminary, I discovered that these verses and this portion of Scripture (Dan 7) was a paradigm—a significant OT passage—for much of what God’s activity in Christ meant. So my initial understanding of the meaning and purpose of this passage was dead on. In fact, my seminary adviser had just finished writing a book on Daniel’s use in the NT and that tome referred much to Daniel 7. (See G. Beale’s The Use of Daniel in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and in the Revelation of St. John.)
While living in Mountain Home, the sagebrush plains stretched out in panoramic views as far as the eye could see. Very flat. The clouds could be seen rolling in from miles away, and because nothing obstructed their view, from a distance, the towering tops of thunderstorm clouds could be seen bulging out and up in awesome display. I recall, one evening as a set of these thunderclouds came marching up over the horizon; the colors of green and darkness and lightening flashes could be observed in and around the towering structures. I remember standing on the edge of the Base, near where I worked, seeing this sight of immense power and actually quoting out loud Daniel 7:13-14:
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
I remember thinking, maybe, this is it. This is the end.
Although not the end, I was ready, and the experience of watching those massive clouds and reflecting on Daniel’s words, seared the importance of these words into my heart and mind. I have spent the last 32 or so years unpacking these verses—and unpacking that experience on the desert of Mountain Home. The power of the Gospel, the purpose of Jesus’ mission, the implication of worship, and the significance of the Christian experience are all wrapped up in these two verses from Daniel 7.
Maybe the reason we have so many denominations and worship styles, especially in America, is because we refused as individual churches to fulfill these verses, and God settles for splintered diversity so he can fulfill the promise “that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might service Him.” I remember tears would fill my eyes a Bible College and Seminary and through the host of mission conference when I heard of or saw photos of people from all around the world, people from so many difference tribes, tongues, and ethnic groups, singing and worshiping Christ Jesus. I still get that way. To think of the expanse of the church in Africa and Asian, along with South America is as awesome as those massive thunderhead clouds in Mountain Home Idaho, so many years ago now. To the ends of the earth! ‘Till every tongue sings and every tribe and ethnic group bows before the Son of Man!
The tension between being a citizen of this great county, the US of A, and being citizens of God’s kingdom is real. Or, it should be. In fact, I think there should be many sleepless nights and burden filled days for American Christians. I do love being an American. I enjoy the benefits that our form of government and the way our economic system works, and I appreciate the responsibilities that come with the role of citizen. I served in the Air Force, a volunteer, and I even served on the local Town Committee for the Republican Party (now, don’t go pigeon holing me—make sure you read a lot of this blog before making me a stereo-type conservative). And like Daniel and his three friends, I hope I contribute to my country’s welfare. But also like these four young men, I hope I know where to draw the line between what is acceptable in the emperor’s kingdom (i.e., the state) and what is pleasing as a member of God’s Kingdom. For any Christian, this is a tough task. Or, if should be—for too many, there is no tension at all.
Sometimes making this distinction and living it out can lead to a lion’s den and a fiery furnace (as in Daniel’s story). I hope when it is my turn, I live up to my convictions. In July, Americans get all patriotic—even Christians. Around the 4th many churches include such patriotism as a part of its worship, including the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Star Spangled Banner, O Beautiful, and God Bless the USA, and in many churches, replacing the Apostle’s Creed with the Pledge of Allegiance. The Red, White, and Blue becomes the center of many American churches during this month. I have a problem with this—you should too! The worship service is to be characterized in such a way to reflect God’s throne and our allegiance to His Kingdom. Sermons—which ought to be a reflection of God’s Word, not American religiosity or civil religion—ought to be the place we learn about this tension and how to deal with it. In some countries and some places in history such kingdom-centered worship led to a lion’s den and a fiery furnace. The New Testament itself, especially books like Galatians and Revelation directly argue against aligning our church-life and Christian experience with the State, or a race, or an ethnic group. The worship of a Christian Church should not promote patriotism at any time, even if it’s only for the 4th of July; but, should celebrate that the church—no matter what country its adherents belong or living in—is a reflection of the eternal worship found in the consummation and in the nature of the Gospel itself. When we portray the Gospel as aligned in any way with a State or culture, we should listen seriously to what Paul said in Galatians 1:8-9:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
Better yet, we should make sure that our worship reflects God’s Kingdom rule as Daniel portrayed it in Daniel 7:13-14:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
I only pray, despite whatever harm or result of my allegiance to God’s Kingdom comes my way, I can say as the three who faced the fire,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
We owe it to the martyrs of old and even those facing the same throughout the world today, who didn’t and doesn’t allow their faith to be a reflection of their civic duties and discovered as a result that their worship was welcomed by the face of lions and the flames of fire. We owe it to the truth of the Gospel. Sometimes, even when it seems unpatriotic, as Christians and citizens of the kingdom of God, we need to know where that line is. I need to know where that line is…daily.
PS In a few following posts I’d like to reflect on that line a little…
The concert was slightly out of my preference range. Three bands, one of them a headlining alternative metal, (oops) I mean alternative Christian metal rock band, Disciple. Yes, I know, but still it seems we have to justify for some that there is a category for Christian anything rock and roll, let alone for alternative Christian metal or Christian heavy metal. For many the two words and concepts just don’t go together—Christian and alternative metal or rock’n roll.
My family was actually there to support the family who managed the evening event and whose son was playing the drums in the opening band. Like I said, this was not a preference in the style of music, but support for a family committed to reaching out to young people who will never set inside a church building, let alone a “Christian” concert of churchy-music.
There was even a mosh pit. Now that even crossed my own cultural barrier. For those who don’t know, “Moshing” or as some refer to it “slamming,” refers to when audience members at concert or live performance “aggressively push or slam into each other.” I watched them—the kids, some ranging up into the early 20’s, actually did this and enjoyed the experience.
Now, what was truly amazing to me was the presence of a few, perhaps a half a dozen, “older folks.” Now I am not here to judge age, but they were definitely not the moshers, or groupees, and well beyond the possible 30-somethings obviously enjoying the concert. Most that I am identifying here had grey hair—and yes even I have a little grey, so let’s go with an older-than-fifty-group beyond myself. When I saw the first senior citizen (you know, anyone now old enough to enroll in ARRP, which I am a member!) came through the ticket line, I stood there amazed. No way they were in the right place. But there they were. Now, that began the worship and ministry for me. None walked out, so they knew they were in the right place at the right time and on purpose. I was impressed—Christians far removed from both the style of music and the youth culture that enjoys it, but there they were, supporting a small, but loud expression of outreach to a rather narrow, but growing part of our cultural make-up. I believe I saw Jesus walk in too, to a place where hearts sought him to reach out to younger people, fringed by society and the Christian community, where alternative rockers gave solid testimonies of their faith in Christ, and where a Disciple opened His word and shared how even those with alterative music preferences and who enjoy moshing can have hope and find forgiveness.
Check out DID Entertainment’s
I was planning a comment about worship. But something had gotten in the way. I was with my wife at the Fairfield Stopn’Shop, picking up milk and cheese and bread. The town bag lady, wheelchair bound with plastic bags filled with her cans and other useful collected items hanging all around, had knocked over an end-cap of cookies. She was trying to pick them up. She couldn’t reach them on the floor. Perhaps working where I do at a Community Action Agency (a human service agency) that helps low-income families made it second nature to respond and help her. But I must confess, it wasn’t. I still had to think twice. What bothered me in this nice super-market on the edge of Suburbia was that she was being ignored, avoided by people who could plainly see she needed help. I was more angered by that—so I forgot my discomfort, my own tendency to avoid such unbecoming, unkempt, unpredictable, undesirable people and picked up the packages of cookies for her.
She was grateful. Even asked blessings on me and told my wife to give me a kiss for her. And she smelled. Man, did she smell. I patted her on the shoulder and told her it wasn’t a problem to help and that I was sure my wife would give me a kiss later. She rolled off. Lisa and I went to look for some cheese. My wife commented, “People can be so mean.” I didn’t disagree, but I replied, “I don’t think it’s meanness. I think people are uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do with people like the bag lady. I’d even say they are scared. Unfortunate people like this are unpredictable, messy, smelly…I bet you anything, that was the first time she had been touched in a long time.”
Here’s where my mind wandered as Lisa and I finished our shopping: Leviticus 19:9-10 says:
“Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.”
What does it mean to the Christian community to worship (see I got to that subject) in a place where there are those that are “needy” and who are “strangers”? How do we not reap to the “very corners of your fields,” leaving nothing for the needy and economically vulnerable? In other words, how does the Christian community, my church, your church, obey this command? Or, do we safely say, it is the Old Testament and we are under no obligation? We’re excused. We’re safe. In worship every Sunday I think about these things. How can I go before God and not think about it?
Vulnerable. That’s how God seems to like us to be. What I mean is simply that God appears to enjoy when we are weak, for this allows Him to shine through and become the manifest presence and Doer (primary Actor) in what we are doing as humans. This is no more important in our worship that at any other time.
I still have a hard time clapping—applauding—in a worship service as if it’s a theater where actors are performing. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I want those performing during worship to know my appreciation. But it seems that we judge the worship by how much yelling, “praise the Lords,” and the amount of clapping occurs. This is where I find it purely a human event, rather than something that occurs in “Spirit and truth.”
On Sunday morning we had a guest preacher and some of his congregation to help us to worship and to hear the ministry of the Word. The minister was from a Brazilian Church planting ministry and only spoke Portuguese. Two things about their ministry heightened my worship and really caused me to worship the Most High. And, trust me, its nothing you (well most of you) would be expecting, nor anything that would trigger your “worship” sense.
First, a young man (who latter we saw was also the minister’s translator) sang a solo (in English) and led us in worship. The first thing that happened that moved me toward worship—yes, of course the song itself, but it—was when the young man’s mic failed (oh, the trust in technology we have) and he had to, without any hesitation switch mics to keep the song going. It was that moment—I know strange. That moment where the singer was so vulnerable because “it wasn’t working” and had to make a change, do something unexpected, recovery from a trust in technology—whatever or however one wants to put it—where God presented Himself. I saw Him. I don’t know about anyone else. But I did and it was a most worshipful moment. I even told the young man so afterward—it wasn’t just the song, but the failing of his mic and his recovery in switching to another mic…that was worship.
Second, also with this young man, but now it was the interaction between the Portuguese preacher and the translator. For some reason, over the years I have been drawn to God through times when speakers, preachers, and testimonies are in a foreign language to my own and a translator is needed. That interaction back and forth creates an overwhelming sense of worship for the Most High. Perhaps because it’s a parable of how God has to translate His love and action into our humanness. Perhaps because I love the idea and action of missions. But mostly because it creates vulnerability among those trying to minister. The message was good—the Word preached. But it was seeing each of these men struggle through the language—the moments of hesitation, words being lost in translation, the waiting of his men for the other to finish—all adds up to a rather lengthy moment of worship.
It is those vulnerable moments in our human presentations that make for the most worshipful times for me. I love mistakes, forgetting lines in a song, stumbling over thoughts. Don’t get me wrong—practice is a good thing, every preacher should practice his or her art (and that’s what it is). But our trusts in technology and in our abilities mask God’s presence. Vulnerability in our attempt to lead others in worship actually helps God to be worshiped and not the worship leader or preacher.
“This kind of development is what David Lyon calls ‘Disneyfication,’ what ‘diminishes human life through trivializing it, or making involvement within it appear less than fully serious.’ It is a fearful idolatry and the immediate judgment that is being visited upon us is that our culture has become shallow, cheap, and vulgar. And far from challenging this emptiness and futility, evangelical churches have too often been its exemplars, as I shall argue in a later chapter, pitching their ‘product’ to ‘consumers’ and emptying themselves of every vestige of spiritual gravitas as if striving for a serious faith were a failing of great magnitude and one to be avoided at all costs” [David F. Wells in Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, p 47]
When my daughter turned into a teenager, I happened to be watching “politics” in action and I couldn’t help but hope that she will be a better teenager and less sophomoric than the Senators I am watching on TV showboating to their voter-base and baser instincts…and it makes me think of our culture, which is very much like a teenager…anyway… Reading David Wells book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, isn’t quite like a breath of fresh air. It is more lot a ton of bricks falling. He hits the nail right on the head—Church as exemplar of our culture. Being creative and seeking how to “sell our product” to the unchurched consumer are not the same things. I have often thought the community at large and the unchurched don’t take us as very serious, because we aren’t—we do not show them serious, we show them entertainment, happy theme park, Disney-faith. I remember reading Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and learning that Sesame Street didn’t work as well as they had originally thought—that is, the show didn’t actually help prepare kids for school. The big problem: school, once they were there, didn’t look or sound or feel like the Sesame Street TV show. I have often wondered: Life doesn’t look like or feel like or sound like church-life or worship, and maybe that’s why our faith doesn’t penetrate into society. People don’t live at Disneyland: they might work or play there, but they don’t live there. It is for escape, forgetting, for fun, a pause in life, not for developing life. No wonder we have it so awfully wrong within our church-life and worship habits.
[A repeat posting I feel needs to be reread—again and again]
A while back I read a rather intricate essay on getting to church on time—no wait, I mean it was on preparation for Sunday worship begins on Saturday. It was church mail. And believe it or not, the same ideas were repeated at church the very next Sunday as well. Almost like pastor-talking-points. Nonetheless, it stirred my thinking. First, although I agree that the church corporate, for the most part and throughout church history, has met on Sunday for worship, there is actually no biblical demand or command to do so. In fact, Paul in Romans scolds those who lift one day above another. (Friends, this is the New Testament era, not the Old—a rather important redemptive concept we keep forgetting.) Second, corporate worship, like the Old Testament day of rest (which is Saturday by the way), is cumulative, a climax, an ending, a final celebration marking the passing of time. I had always thought that preparation for the Sunday gathering of God’s people and corporate worship actually started on Monday. And this leads to my third thought: It is not about what I do or don’t do on Saturday, it is about who I am and who I belong to—all week. This last idea is what keeps the experience of corporate worship out of the realm of law and under grace. These are hardly definitive or exhaustive thoughts, but I am always amazed how much we constantly put ourselves “under law” in our Christian life rather than “under the Spirit” and grace. I am all for preparing for corporate worship together, but I’d like to see (hear) the discussion from a Biblical, rather than, pragmatic perspective. Again, this idea of preparing for Sunday on Saturday reminds me that our Christian and worship experience is built on my experience and participation in the American way of life, and not a reflection of the redemptive potential (my Pastor’s term) of who we are in Christ; built on the modern (and postmodern) American social and cultural values we have become accustomed to rather than expression of a biblical worldview we are being discipled in.
A while back, I was reading a rather intricate essay on getting to church on time—no wait, I mean it was an essay on preparing for Sunday worship which begins on Saturday. It was church mail, and strangely enough, not too far from receiving that Christian junk mail, ironically the same theme was echoed at church one Sunday morning. It stirred my thinking. First, although I agree that the church corporate, for the most part and throughout church history, has met on Sunday for worship, there is actually no biblical demand or command to do so. In fact, Paul in Romans scolds those who raise one day above another. (Friends, this is the New Testament era, not the old—although the Old is still a word to heed for today, it is a new redemptive era, especially as regards to “law.”) Second, corporate worship, like the Old Testament day of rest (which is Saturday by the way), is cumulative, a climax, an ending, a final celebration marking the passing of time and the acknowledging of the God who created the heavens and earth in the first six days. I had always thought that preparation for the Sunday gathering of God’s people and corporate worship actually started on Monday. And this leads to my third thought, it is not about what I do or don’t do on Saturday, it is about who I am and who I belong to—all week. This last idea is what keeps the experience of corporate worship out of the realm of law and under grace. These are hardly definitive or exhaustive thoughts, but I am always amazed how much we are under law in our own church contexts rather than under the Spirit, grace, and freedom. I am all for preparing for corporate worship together, but I’d like to see (hear) the discussion from a Biblical, rather than, pragmatic perspective, or pastor-preference one. Again, this idea of preparing for Sunday on Saturday reminds me that our Christian and worship experience are built, too much so, on my experience and participation in the American way of life, and not a reflection of the redemptive potential (a term actually coined by my pastor) of who we are in Christ. Too much of our Christian experience is built on the surrounding modern (and postmodern) American social and cultural values; we have become accustomed to living out our Christian and church-life in this context, rather than as an expression of a biblical worldview we are to be discipled in.
A conspiracy is when two or more people plan and set in motion an activity that overtakes, usurps, or overthrows someone’s rightful place as ruler, king, or emperor. Worship, in the biblical context, is not about us. Just listen to Ps 96, an inspired song, explaining the content of worship.
Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless His name; proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; bring an offering and come into His courts.
Worship the LORD in holy attire; tremble before Him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.”
I am not saying, don’t have announcements about the church picnic, or times of prayer for those in the congregation. But I am saying…musing really…that worship is practicing and affirming the authority, rulership, and Lordship of God over and above everything else. If we get it wrong in worship, we get it wrong everywhere else. If worship is used to grow a church, build a budget, or show off the abilities of a preacher, then it is a conspiracy to overthrow God’s rightful place. This is one reason I believe God doesn’t care about the size of a congregation, nor the ability of the preacher to communicate (well, sorta), nor the talent of those who sing in front of the congregation. The whole worship experience should put the spiritual reality of God’s rightful place as King and His purposes back into our weekly, mundane lives. Anything less is both not worship and a conspiracy to replace Him with us.
Worship should have aim, namely to magnify God Most High. The aim can have a wide range of descriptions, but they should all boil down to one, that is to magnify, lift up, glorify the Creator God of the Universe, the Ancient of Days. When worship becomes anything else, it becomes less, and in fact is not worship at all. What got me thinking about this was my reading of the David and Absalom story in Second Samuel. King David had grown old and his son, Absalom, had developed a grudge against his father and was seeking to usurp the throne. Absalom had already begun “acting” like a somebody, making his movements and activities grand (15:1-6) to give the impression of importance. He began to always travel with an entourage of chariots, horses, and runners to give the public impression that his every movement was a royal procession. At one point the narrator writes:
Now it came about at the end of forty years that Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron” (2 Sam 15:7).
Absalom was using worship as a cover for political activities and a personally agenda, namely one that would seek to unseat the true king, his father David. In fact the writer tells us this activity was a conspiracy.
While Absalom was offering sacrifices…[a]nd so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing (v 12).
When our worship is anything other than affirming God’s Lordship over His people and affirming his rights over creation, it is a conspiracy to usurp the true King.
I am suspicious and concerned by comments that diminish corporate worship, and especially when such comments make the local church out to be like a business or some entity trading commodities. My goodness, everything about the church militates against it being a business. Now granted a group of business-like people can change a church into a business, but it then ceases to be God’s body, the church. On this subject, I was impressed by some turn of phrases by David McCarthy, author of a new book called The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class.
“The center point of our relationship with God is corporate worship.” No other event describes best the true, biblical picture of both the church’s nature and its mission. McCarthy continues:
The church is the body of Christ. Go to a church as it prays and look around. You will see it, the subversive friendship of God’s hospitality. You will see Pharisees congratulating themselves for their own righteousness. You will see tax collectors and those who cheat on their income taxes. You will see sinners. You will see many saints, but you will see adulterers, thieves, liars, petty embezzlers, and colossal hypocrites. You will see elderly folks and kids who misbehave. You will see the kind of people whom God has befriended. This is no photo-op with the president. It is not lunch with the CEO. The church is not the kind of gathering that bodes well for running an efficient corporation or effective government. It is not the kind of gathering that many think is most valuable for church growth or for proper political or social mission of the church in the world. However, it is precisely the kind of gathering that represents God’s people.
As McCarthy concludes, “What are these people qualified to do except worship?” Exactly!
They can gather, confess their sins, ask God’s mercy and be changed by God’s friendship. They can hear the word of the Bible and God’s story told. They can share the gift of God’s presence. They can break bread and drink from the cup of the crucifixion. They can be bound to each other…
The church, a local church might do business, might act as a business at times, and even be called upon to make good business (or bad) decisions. But the church ain’t no business. This is God’s way in this world. The corporate gathering of God’s people, Sunday after Sunday, corporately living throughout a geographic region or local, expressed in and through local congregations all around the globe, from the sun’s rising in the east to its setting in the west—this is God’s sign, his miniature, his diorama of his world-wide mission and plan of grace.
© Chip M. Anderson (August 2004)
Words’nTone, Habits of the Mind