Archive for August 2013

TALE OF TWO SINGERS REFLECTS WORSHIP

August 27, 2013

 

Miley 2

The image is offensive and at once so very sad, if nothing else just from a young girl’s total Sarah Horn and Kristin Chinowethdisrespect for her own body.  As a dad and grandfather it makes me cry.  But there is another video at which I recently wept as well.  Be sure and see link at bottom if you have not seen the happenings with Sarah Horn, Kristen Chinoweth.

Two very different stories about two very different people with two unmistakably different emphases.  One story has been plastered across the television screen over and again ever since MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs), and the other was a Huffington Post piece that has gone viral through social media outlets, the blogosphere, and word-of-mouth revelations at water coolers and coffee stands everywhere.  One story would be very hard to escape as every news broadcast as well as the obvious emphasis of all the music and entertainment news outlets have repeatedly saturated the airwaves with the video of the gyrating, tongue-lashing Miley Cyrus clad in plastic nude colored undergarments.  The other story is likely to be encountered much more intentionally, either through Facebook friends’ postings, blog reports like this one that, though not directly attempting to report the events, nevertheless reference the episodes to call attention to related emphases or implications.  I have seen numbers of blogs about parenting, values, teaching, cultural mores, and more, all fostered by the Cyrus VMA appearance.  Of course, there is also the usual tired firestorm of vitriol spewed with thinly veiled hatred toward Cyrus, her parents, MTV, media and culture in general.  The other story seeped out three to five days after the first reports of the incident where California Baptist University Voice Teacher, Sarah Horn ended up onstage to sing a duet with star of stage and screen, Kristin Chenoweth.  This has local interest for us in the Music City as Sarah is a former Belmont University student.

In case you are not familiar with the Sarah Horn story, in brief Sarah was attending a Kristen Chinoweth concert at the Hollywood Bowl.  Chinoweth strolled through the audience asking if anyone knew For Good, a song from the Broadway smash musical hit, Wicked, in which Chinoweth was the original character, Glinda.  Sarah Horn has loved musicals since childhood, and as a voice teacher and community theater director was excited to raise her hand, and end up on stage.  You simply must see the spine-tingling results to get the full effect.  Gather your kids and sign ‘em up for music lessons right away (and be sure they sing in the church children’s choir!).   Sarah’s backdrop story is reflective of a Christian home, prayerful and careful lifestyle enriched as she discovered her God-given gifts and passions aligned beautifully.  As she said in one interview, “this is who I was created to be.”  She actually says that when she was 11-years-old her father prayed that someday she would sing onstage with Kristin.

There could not be a more striking contrast in the backdrop of these two storylines.  The implications are so vastly different, though moral contrasts are blatant, it is hard to determine just which angle should be emphasized.  It is important to me, as well, not to drift off into a moralistic rant.  There is plenty of that available and way too much of it from religious people is unkind, certainly un-Christlike.  Instead I desire to contemplate implications for Christian worship.  Please consider with me that while both of these young women grew up learning to perform, one apparently became engulfed in the Disney Worldview, a la When You Wish Upon a Star, your dreams will come true.”  Trevin Wax does an excellent job of unveiling the root of this view and its deadend destiny in his blog, “Being True to Yourself Is Living a Lie.”  Read it here:  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2013/08/26/being-true-to-yourself-is-living-a-lie/

While the “do what you feel” is by far the most prevalent life philosophy in our culture, it leads nowhere.  I have heard numerous commentators on networks popular among Christian conservatives go on and on about the way Miley use to be.  That is, when living her 11-year-old dream which looked more wholesome and cute, we were with you.  Now, her 20-year-old sexpot antics are deplorable to our sensibilities, and we want to throw her away.

Evidence is strong that Sarah Horn’s pursuits, rooted in Christian faith, pointed toward and, indeed, recognized revelation from a very different worldview.  A lifestyle of Christian worship points away from me, and toward someone else, someone greater, someone to whom I owe eternal gratitude.  What’s more, that Someone calls me to serve others around me first, and to help them know this source of “living water” that quenches the thirst of the soul.

There are contrasts in these two trajectories that are almost too obvious to point out.  One is chasing after what makes me feel good, and attempts to draw all attention to me, the other is invested in helping others.  How often have we heard of Hollywood stars who have spent life chasing after self-gratification, self-grandizement, and self-fulfillment ending up in miserable whirlwinds of self-destruction.  It becomes difficult to recall the scores who have followed this path including sports legends, and stars of Hollywood and Broadway.  Somehow, we are still shocked by it, as we were when Glee star, Cory Monteith was found dead of an apparent lethal cocktail of heroin and alcohol.  The words of Jesus come to mind, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)

For a number of years now evangelical churches in particular have been planning and building environments that reflect the Broadway and Hollywood stage.  As James K.A. Smith has reminded us in both Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom, we import more than just the atmosphere with these imitations.  We also import the expectations and ethos surrounding them.  No wonder our people talk so much about what they “like or do not like” in our worship, rather than engaging in life-submission as our spiritual act of worship.  I am convinced the extreme ageism, performancism, and general unrest in our worship environments are sadly attributable to leadership that is sadly more adept at chasing the culture than redeeming it.  As a sad byproduct of this environment, it is deeply disturbing to observe the pressure that so-called Worship Leaders feel to match the showbiz techniques of the concert stage.  Those completely untrained in such skills often demonstrate the deficit when trying to mimic it nonetheless.  Many if not most who have mastered the stage-savvy style have done so on their own, or with little or no matching theological undergirding to place any of what is happening in proper spiritual perspective.  No wonder Francis Chan challenges us in Forgotten God as to whether the modern church even senses a need for the Holy Spirit, given that they can do what they do without Him.  He goes on to ask more personally, “When we are quite comfortable, why do we need a comforter?”

I pray our worship will more fully disclose God’s story, and assist worshipers in finding their joy through finding their place in His story, His Kingdom, fueled by His Spirit.  I pray that by God’s supernatural power we will escape Satan’s sure traps whereby we become all about feeling good on stage, obsessing with how we feel period, and seek to provide more entertainment than facilitation of holy worship.  For in our midst sits children and teenagers whose worldview is being set regularly by the Disney channel and sports models, and later by rockstars and crotch-grabbing 20-year-olds.  Like us, they need a Savior to deliver us from ourselves, to point us to our created purpose of worship and reconciliation.  Our glorious opportunity is not to impress them with our cool, it is to help them see and know Jesus as we regularly lift Him up, retell His story, and humbly seek to know our place in it whereby we serve Him and neighbor.

Surprised by Joy

August 20, 2013

Young Ethnic Woman is Very Surpised  C.S. Lewis wrote:

This joy brought me into the region of awe, for I thus understood that in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective.  Far more objective than bodies, for it is not, like them, clothed in our senses; the naked Other, imageless (although our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired.

–       Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Harcourt Brace 1955)

Lewis’s offering here is one attempt at describing his conversion to Christianity.  One can almost read between the lines to see where even Lewis almost runs out of words that would pinpoint what is taking place within his own spirit as he encounters God.  Can you relate?  Have you been in that “region of awe” and found yourself essentially speechless?  I love the notion of his words, “in deepest solitude there is a road right out of self.”  Sounds so C.S. Lewis, doesn’t it.  In that verbiage he strikes a chord of common experience for me.  One of the ways I know I have encountered God in worship is that I have moved outward from self.  Freedom reigns when the tyranny of self is overwhelmed by the awe of Holy Other.  While Lewis’s effort here is rooted in his conversation, I believe there is application to ongoing spiritual encounters with the Triune God including worship – a most natural response to awareness of His presence.

As difficult as it can be to describe spiritual encounter, I am convinced that music and the arts often work to help the engagement on both sides, revelation and response.  The arts may well prompt our spirits as to the very Presence of God.  This is not to imply that the Holy Spirit is somehow riding on the notes of music, or awakened by sunlight shining through the hue of stained glass, or captured in some other visual display.  Rather, something of the mystery in sights and sounds may alert us to a presence that, as encountered, somehow ushers in surprising joy.  Such a numinous encounter can likewise be aided by arts on the response side, especially music.  A clear biblical response to experiencing joy, such as indicated in Lewis’s spiritual encounter, is music-making, especially singing (James 5:13).

A primary question we often ask in programming proclamation music for worship is, “How will this music work to attract people’s attention?”  Perhaps we should ask, “Does this music reflect anything of God’s character?”  The latter question seems to me to indicate a confidence in God’s own attraction in and of Himself.  It seems unavoidable that worship engages imagination.  Of course, I do not mean “imagination,” such as imaginary friends, or made up stories.  Rather, I mean imagination such that we worshipers’ spirits are stirred and we assign images to the imageless.  Rather than trying so hard to guess what those images might be like in the imaginative minds of worshipers, what if we voiced biblical narrative (God’s story), and then left sufficient space and time for worshipers to discover and respond to the Spirit’s revelation.  Doesn’t so doing reflect our own trust rooted in the Sovereign God to reveal Himself, and show less of a misplaced faith rooted in our attempts at reading people’s minds in the name of being up on our culture?  Such musings and resultant efforts may be well-intentioned, but I am afraid end up drawing more attention to us and our presumptions about the people and culture than they do lifting up the risen and reigning Christ.  Let our worship be characterized by biblical revelation in all aspects – preaching, singing, physical environment, spirit of hospitality, preference of one another above ourselves.

Perhaps in such an atmosphere we might once again be “brought into the region of awe.”  I cannot help but think of the old hymn:

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings

            It is the Lord Who rises with healing in His wings

                        -words by William Cowper in Olney Hymns

WORSHIP IS WORK

August 13, 2013

Worker in love  For sometime I have utilized David K Peterson’s definition of worship as a starting point for worship discussions.  He states that “worship of the living God is an engagement with Him on the terms He proposes and in a way that only He can provide.” (Engaging with God: a Biblical Theology of Worship)

Engagement implies activity on both sides of the equation.  God acts and humans act.  God has done a finished work in Christ, and is presently active in the world.  Thanks be to God, one of His means of activity is in and through His people, reconciling the world to Himself.  We have a part in His Kingdom’s work.  What a privilege and deep spiritual blessing to engage with our Creator that we may be equipped to enact His desires in our lives and the world.  But this means we have work to do.

Although it makes some of my Baptist brothers and sisters flinch, the word “liturgy” refers to worship, and is often noted to be “the work of the people” in the worship of God.  While a distinction is sometimes made between “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” worship, these usually just refer to the level of prescription given to the ritual of worship when the people are gathered for public worship services.  Either way, as resistant as some may be to a formal prescribed liturgy, there is a much more alarming trend afoot in many evangelical churches in our day that disrupts the spirit of worship as an engagement with the divine.  That trend is simply, non-participation.

Resistance to participatory worship may be seen by grotesque patterns of non-attendance, such as is the case when churches claim thousands of church members, yet would not expect more than half of the members to appear for regular weekly worship at any given time.  Even so-called “high attendance” days are scheduled to try and market their own worship service to those whose names are already included on the roles of the congregation, many of which would have a conniption fit should leaders hint at some disciplinary action for inactive status.  A further resistance to participatory worship that is just as disturbing may be seen by non-participative patterns in the acts of worship called for in weekly worship, such as singing, active listening, participatory prayer, and/or missional service.  Let’s consider a little more closely this second indicator of non-participation and steps toward healthier practices.

In a remote control – DVD recorder world the average church-goer may not come to worship with the understanding that this is work.  Combine a passive attendance attitude and pattern with endless efforts by pastors and worship leaders to put on a better show and you have a formula for worship that seldom finds spirit or truth, much less the spiritual meld of both.  I am convinced that leaders who (often unknowingly) work hard at entertaining would-be worshipers are, in fact, leading attenders astray.  Often in the name of attraction, or presumed relevancy, enactments are employed that have the effect of continuously placing the would-be participants in the spectator role.  The consumer culture already has them quite conditioned to be in observation-only mode.  When worship bands, worship music leaders, pastors, and others take on the role of performer, they are quite willing to default to their learned behavior of evaluating how well they are personally inspired, interested, or otherwise pleased.  This is a far cry from “the work of the people,” in which praise, prayer, yielding, discovering, and other responses lead to Jesus-following lives that are sent to live out daily worship of service, reconciling the world to the Triune God, Who is active in that world.

Engaging the imagination is to be about helping worshipers embrace the Kingdom, not about the perpetual motion in our video loop backgrounds, or the entertainment value in personal stories that sound more like standup comedy than gospel.  Let us consider how worship rehearses the God Story, reminding us of His activity in the world past, present, and future, and our place in it.  Let’s help engage worshipers in practices like preferring one another above themselves, serving one another, praying for the world, praising with grateful hearts, remembering their own baptism, and the new life it promised to usher in, a new life in which they committed themselves to walk given the help and direction of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s not be afraid of offering leadership that calls for response, and seeks to know reasons behind lack thereof.  In so doing we may salvage a fallen brother or sister from self-dismissal.  By working harder to build up our faith community’s singing voice than we do at practicing our band to make it sound great, we may well rescue the perishing and care for the dying as they are drawn to a unified voice of praise that is coming from a unified worshiping people seeking to love the Lord their God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.  Humbly yielding ourselves in corporate worship is one way we can love our neighbor as ourselves.  But be ready, it is work.

COULD NEW HYMN WARS HELP US THINK?

August 7, 2013

keith-kristyn-getty-eliza-joy  The recent flap over the Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee’s decision to omit what is arguably the most popular modern hymn of recent years, In Christ Alone, continues to rage on.  The blogosphere, in which I also strive to have a small voice, has been aflame with essays and responding comments by bloggers and readers.  The tension stems from the lyric line, “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”  Hymn-writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to grant permission to change that lyric to “Til on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified,” as had been done without the authors’ permission in a previous hymnal publication.  That publisher is currently “taking steps to make the correction in all distributed copies of the song, including the Celebrating Grace Hymnal,” according to The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper.  The Celebrating Grace Hymnal comes from a group of Baptists and/or former Baptists with its own story.  For my initial reply as a fellow Baptist see:  http://paulclarkjr.com/2010/03/10/celebrating-grace/

The controversy has drawn attention from plenty of my fellow Baptists, including theologians of note, such as Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, publishing leaders such as Lifeway’s Thom Rainer, and denominational leaders including Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head, Russell Moore.  There are others, but this should suffice to get the point, which is that it matters.   Words matter.  As a theological lightweight by comparison, there is nothing I could or would add to this specific debate by parsing words, or speculating on theological intentions of Presbyterians, Baptists, or any other denominationally identified position for that matter.  Rather, I would utilize this moment to join Lifeway’s Mike Harland in first applauding the very discussion of sung lyrics that this controversy has evoked.  I would perhaps go a step further to call for an opportunistic pause in the proliferation of worship material as a genre.  I wonder if we do not need something of a selah (pause and listen).  Perhaps we should catch our breath to provide the mental, emotional, and spiritual space we need to more carefully evaluate whether our worship language and intention honestly serves to reveal God’s story (the Gospel), or if it too often relishes in our own experience.  While I realize this call for pause strays from the current debate over one of the most theologically rich, Gospel-conveying songs from the pen of some of the most theologically careful writers of our day, nevertheless, I wonder if we evangelicals have not become such worship music gluttons, demanding more music done the way we want, that we have completely lost any sense of balance.  Perhaps we should expand this discussion to include

In this quote from Russell Moore look, if you would, past the specific argument, but rather to the ethos reflected in the manner of worship singing he references:

As an evangelical, I would argue that it’s necessary to sing about the wrath of God because we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences. There’s a reason why evangelical congregations reach a kind of crescendo when they sing out that line in the Gettys’ song. It’s not because, per the caricature, we see ourselves as a “moral majority” affirming our righteousness over and against the “sinners” on the other side of the culture war.

Instead, it’s just the reverse. When Christians sing about the wrath of God, we are singing about ourselves. Our consciences point us to the truth that, left to ourselves, we are undone. We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else. And God would be just to turn us over to the path we would want to go—a path that leads to death. It is only because Jesus lived a life for us, and underwent the curse we deserve, that we stand before God. The grace of God we sing about is amazing precisely because God is just, and won’t, like a renegade judge, simply overlook evil. (Washington Post, July 30, 2013)

Note that he says, “we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences.”  The mention of “a kind of crescendo,” I believe indicates a head and heart connection, which is what the Apostle Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 14.  In Moore’s words I sense a kind of singing that reveals humility.  As he states, “We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else.”  Oh that our worship singing would move us toward and reflect a servant spirit, humbled by the truth that though we deserve God’s wrath, we have received mercy and grace that is amazing.  Indeed, our prideful spirit has sometimes resulted in a moralistic attitude.  Is such an attitude not really just another dirty sin, one of those included in the song’s phrase, “for every sin on Him was laid?”  In fact, when we are convinced that we are pretty darn good it can be difficult to think of others as better than ourselves. (Romans 12; Philippians 3)

As we continue this debate that helps us think more carefully about a word or phrase in this carefully crafted hymn, let us not stop there, but rather press on to once again consider every phrase of every song, and while we are at it, let’s engage again in meaningful conversation as to the appropriateness of our accompanying instrumentation, the benefit or detriment of our acoustical environments, and perhaps most importantly, the overall spiritual health implied by the active participation, or lack thereof, in worship singing by our congregations.  As for me and my house, and for whatever small measure of influence I might have, I will seek to champion singing that prioritizes the congregation and their collective voice, that holds to theological integrity and liturgical function keeping mindful of its doctrinal emphasis within the context of its singing, that seeks to engage worshipers in a larger voice of praise that includes not only those in the room at a given time, but stretches from shore to shore, and from eternity to eternity.  Recognizing our fallen nature and God’s grace provision, I will attempt to always recognize that singing, as all of our worship, “in spirit and truth” is possible for us “In Christ Alone.”


Rob Moll, Author

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