Archive for September 2013

HOLY STAIRS

September 30, 2013

Scala Santa Sacred Stairs I just returned from a week in Italy making preparations for a 2014 music mission trip.  This journey was my first time in that country, and thus first time to visit sights profoundly notable to Christian faith and historic worship.  Evangelicals often question the veracity of many relics, and stories that go with them, reflecting an anti-Roman Catholicism sentiment that has waxed and waned over many decades.

As I gazed upon some of the relics I found little room for wondering, “Are those the actual chains that held Peter, or Paul?” or “Does that cutaway stone actually contain bones of the Apostle?”  Rather, there was a sufficient sense of awe in being in proximity to where biblical events had taken place.  Chains hanging, incased in a box made with glass and wood, provided the imagination with sufficient fodder to not only contemplate the stories and be reminded of their value to the larger salvation story, but also to stir my spirit to worship the Author, and to be grateful for the application of its truth in my own life journey.  Whether we understand it or not, there is something important for us to grasp in the interaction between things of the material world and spirituality.  Gazing upon a stone that could have been under an apostle’s feet will never transport his ancient spirit into mine.  It may, however, cause me to remember that this same Lord who called him to follow in faith has called me as well.

Perhaps most notable for me was a sidestep into a museum containing the Scala Sancta (Scala Santa in Italian), or Holy Stairs.  The steps were supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem in the 4th Century, as ordered by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.  The marble steps were covered in wood.  The steps at one time reportedly led to the palace of Pontius Pilate, and thus were climbed by Jesus at the occasion of His trial before Pilate.  In their current setting one is only allowed to climb the stairs on their knees.  During the 28-step climb a prayer is to be prayed on each successive step.  Popes have declared that such activity results in plenary indulgences.  At the top the Sancta Santorum (Holy of Holies) is a private chapel used by popes for many decades.  On the day we were ushered into the vestibule of the building by our host missionary there were probably fifteen to twenty persons making their way up the steps, whispering prayers as they slowly made their way one step at a time.  While I understood the missionary’s intent to give us a shocking view of a works salvation supposedly in progress before our eyes, I personally found, instead, an inquisitive reflection on the faith expressions of those who were self-diminished and making their way to the top of the stairwell.  Uncomfortable with the notion of rudely gawking at the climbers, I noted a statue to the right of the steps that replicated the betrayal kiss of Judas on the cheek of Jesus.  Even as I looked on the statue I heard the prayer whispers of those who were climbing and praying.  The sights and sounds of that experience left me with more than a little wonderment regarding the tensions of spirit and truth worship, symbolism, and blatant superstition.

Follow-up reading has revealed that Martin Luther himself was reported to have climbed these steps sometime around 1511, but stopped after he had climbed halfway.  According to one account he paused, stood and questioned, “Who knows whether it is so?” and walked back down the stairs.  Further legend has it that this experience played a part in Luther sensing that the Holy Spirit was prompting him in this manner that salvation is by faith alone, and not works.  Again, whether this story is legend or fact takes little away from the inherent tension.  I am prone to contemplate the question of when an act is faith expression and when it is works.  As with many outward signs or acts that could well be described as worship, the truth remains that “man looks on the outward appearance and God looks upon the heart.”  Our grasp to be able to tell from outward appearances mostly leaves us wanting, since we cannot see.  What we can surmise over time is whether or not one is becoming more like Jesus, the One we say we worship.  Seems only reasonable that spending time with Him, bowing at the feet of His teaching and instruction, communing with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would all serve to change us to be more like Him.

At the risk of being identified as one of the Catholic faithful (as if anyone in Italy knows Paul Clark), I found myself more than once kneeling in a church building marked as containing some piece of biblical history.  Not infrequent were moments of simply bowing head and heart at the feet of a statue that either reflected a biblical character, or simply represented artistic value.  I had previously seen pictures of Michelangelo’s Moses, but standing in front of the work itself brought a different kind of reflection.   I was astounded by the art, but even more by the One who created and gifted the artist and inspired the sculpting itself.  My spiritual sensibilities were certainly aroused in these settings.

As Christian worshipers seeking to be in unity with fellow believers, while adhering to biblical truth and understanding, we can only postulate what is even in our own heart, much less presume to know what is in the heart of others.  We trust God’s Word, which instructs us that the human heart is wicked, and “deceitful above all things.” (Jeremiah 17:9)  Placing trust and faith in Christ alone brings both amazing freedom, and intense strain.  Everything in our self-made culture pleads for us to try harder, climb higher, do more, and make our own way.  We evangelicals may not be rubbing statues or kissing rings, but we undoubtedly engage in programmatic busy-ness to a fault, far too often leaving our God-given opportunities for relationship and faith sharing aside.  Worship in spirit and truth surely demands that we take pause to hear, touch, smell, taste, and see that He is good. While many things may point us toward Him, and remind us of Him, He reminds us that He alone is the way, the truth, the life.

And all we, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord,                who is the Spirit.  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

BY FAITH AND NOT BY SIGHT

September 16, 2013

Andy Joanna Cafe Du Monde  This past week I had the special privilege of spending a few days at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  As requested, I led music in chapel worship and lectured to various class groupings as well as local worship music leaders primarily addressing worship renewal and congregational singing.  The time with seminarians, faculty, staff, and local music leaders was a feast of fellowship, spiritual nurture, and intellectual stimulation.  Seminary education for those training for worship and music leadership has changed immensely since my days at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Administration and faculty have made great strides toward adapting to present day context while maintaining scholastic, biblical, historic integrity.  Even the medium of delivery continues to stretch to meet the needs of our postmodern culture.  Many of those on campus for this week’s lecture series were distance learners.  I am indebted to Dr. Greg Woodward, Dr. Ed Steele, and Dr. Michael Sharp for their invitation and warm hospitality during my time in New Orleans.

On Friday night a few students joined together for a journey through the famous French Quarter to sample the always delicious beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde.  I had already been to dinner with Greg Woodward and two of his sons.  As he was trying to work out details of the trip to the Quarter he included the special arrangements that might be needed to accommodate one of the classmates, Andrew West along with his wife and two children.  Andy and wife, Joanna are both sight impaired.  The mile-long journey from parking spot through crowded streets over crevice-laidened sidewalks became something of a faith walk.  I was honored to escort Joanna through the busy streets.  Her blind walking cane served her well for much of the journey, though I found my fatherly instincts constantly kicking in to try and warrant off what I thought were potential collisions with trash bins, sidewalk tables, and inattentive pedestrians.  As our pace picked up Joanna finally just grasped my hand and we continued to chat as we walked with our entourage past jazz clubs, street corner musical groups, a fire blower, and other typical New Orleans ambiance.  Oh, did I mention that Andy and Joanna each had one of their two children strapped to their bodies in a carry sling?  As a spoiled fully sighted person, I admit I was absolutely amazed at their resilience and determination to be a part of the shared fellowship experience.  When meandering through the marketplace of artisans they paused and felt the texture of some of the trinkets and creations the rest of us gazed upon with our functioning eyes.  Their comments, interaction and explanations to their sighted children were an inspirational demonstration of patience.

Post-lecture discussions with Andy revealed a mind serious about liturgical enquiry, truth discovery, and Kingdom servanthood.  After the first session he told me he was looking forward to reading my book.  His use of words threw me off at first, and then I realized, of course, that he could download the book on Kindle which can read aloud the pages.  His talk of beauty and having “seen” certain things, again gave me pause to grasp why he would use such terminology of observation.  The journey to the French themed café, however, opened my own eyes to the beautiful truth right before me.  These two beautiful persons, created in the image of God, saw quite well in their own right.  Their faithful quest to know and do the will of their Creator was a wonderful lesson for me in our time together and beyond.  Even as we addressed in our worship classes, worship reorients us to right thinking about the world and ourselves in it.  As we consider God’s deliverance in days past through remembrance (anamnesis), and project the hope and assurance of recreation and new life in eternity ahead (prolepsis) thanks to His triumphal victory, we worship in light of our trust in Him.  Our spiritual act of worship is rooted in who He is, Father, Son, and Spirit.  We walk by faith and not by sight.  We worship by faith and not by sight.  When we stand together to sing our song of praise; when we stretch our thoughts to embrace the Triune God we cannot see, but boldly proclaim to be with us; when we release our imagination to be fueled by truth of scripture; when we reach beyond our preferred stylistic expression to prefer others above ourselves, we walk by faith and not by sight. And others will declare about us “God is really among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:25)

Thank you, Andy and Joanna for your example of faith and trust.  Thank you, NOBTS Worship & Music faculty, staff, and students for loving fellowship that welcomed me in, and that points toward a promising future for our churches.  Together we root our worship in a journey where we walk by faith and not by sight.

 

DEFERENCE OVER PREFERENCE

September 9, 2013

Justin Wainscott preaching  Pastor Justin Wainscott of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee is a serious student of Christian worship, a fine pastoral leader for the historic Jackson congregation, and a close personal friend.  Justin is an example among, and for young evangelical pastors.  I know him to be a hymn writer, a liturgist, a deep theological thinker, whose approach in ministry strikes a harmonious balance between historical sensitivity and appreciation for contextual application.

At a congregational gathering and teaching time last weekend Pastor Justin prayed these words in his prayer that began the evening, asking that the Spirit would speak into the worship life of this faith community.  “Lord, may we practice deference above preference as we worship You together.”  That may not be word for word, but the phrase, “deference over preference” stuck with me like glue.  In multiple private conversations regarding worship issues I had heard Justin make this statement previously.  We had been talking about the need for that spirit to take hold in worshiping congregations.  In this setting where he called upon the Lord to grant this spirit among the people that he pastors I found it to be profoundly appropriate.  In prayer form I was reminded that such a spirit would only be possible through a movement of the Holy Spirit among His people.  Lord, may it be so.

Romans 12 is a rich revelation of God’s intention for our worship.  From the Apostle Paul’s opening plea that indicates the core act of spiritual worship, which is to offer our bodies (whole selves) as living sacrifices, to the many verses dealing with how we treat one another, the chapter instructs in actions so needed in today’s context.  I highly recommend music ministry leaders and pastors to find moments to preach, teach, and devote upon this passage.  Genuine application in our gathered worship of the activities instructed in this chapter of scripture could be transforming.  I think it appropriate to join Pastor Wainscott in praying the prayer for deference over preference as a direct means of combating obsessive stylistic issues that so often dominate the attention of today’s church goers.  My experience has been that even when these stylistic considerations seem to have been “settled” they often lurk just under the surface, ready to erupt yet again at any opportune moment.

Imagine if worshipers consistently practiced just this one verse of Romans 12:

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (vs. 10)

Many times changes made in church worship practices are done with thoughts of attracting those outside the congregation.  In areas of the country where churches abound, in some cases with one on nearly every street corner, sadly these kinds of changes are often made with thoughts of building “our kingdom” more than “the Kingdom.”  A competitive spirit can set in and congregations and their leaders may begin to strategize to win or just survive.  Little else could be so counterproductive to the Kingdom, capital “K.”  Imagine with me what it might look like if evangelical congregations engaged in consistent activity of trying to “outdo one another in showing honor.”  Within a congregation comprised of persons of various ages, there would be high concern to be certain that worship practices served the need of others.  Within the congregation, age groups would strive to serve others; teens serving senior saints, seniors serving children, boomers busters, millenials
gen Xers,” and so forth.  All would be exercising a concern for those outside the immediate congregation.  We would not only be practicing benevolence to the poor, but we would be seeking to show them honor.  Imagine a prevalent spirit within your faith community where worshipers do not think of themselves individually or collectively more highly than they ought, but instead think with sober judgement, each according to the faith that God has assigned. (vs. 3)

In such a setting I see a truly attractional church!  Not because of the “cool factor,” or the capital “T” Traditional factor, but because of the Jesus factor.  This kind of a congregation, where worshipers exercise deference over preference, is one that I sure want to be a part of, and best of all, one that displays Christlikeness, recalling that Jesus came to serve, not to be served.  (Matthew 20:28)

INSPIRED OR ENTERTAINED OR?

September 3, 2013

man and decisions  One of the blessings I receive from spending time with worship leadership teams is being challenged to think more deeply about those obstacles that get in the way of Biblical worship.  Sometimes an even bigger challenge comes from just trying to find words to articulate spiritual concepts and meaning associated with worship.  My general rule is, when in doubt trust the Word.  Since the nature of Christian worship is spiritual to begin with, it just makes sense to trust the Book in which we find the very revelation of the God we claim to worship.

Of all the misconceptions about worship in our day, one of the most prominent seems to be the misconception that worship is ultimately about our inspiration. New Orleans Seminary professor and friend, Ed Steele, addresses this issue in his new book, Worship Heartcries.  He notes the confusion between entertainment and inspiration, but goes on to note that with inspiration “It may or may not be spiritual in nature; as in the inspiration received watching the Olympics and the fruit of hard discipline and practice.”  Ed’s discussion further demonstrates to me the trap of our own thinking related to inspiration when comparing it to entertainment.  Indeed, it seems to me that either one may lead to the other.  An entertaining song, sermon, or even prayer may inspire us.  Likewise, an inspiring message, song, or other action in the worship setting may well be entertaining, and thus hold our attention.  The discussion in these matters can go round and round.  Although inspiration may sound more holy than entertainment, the end of each still tends to center in the “I” who is entertained or inspired.  I would concur with Ed Steele that while there is confusion in these matters, it is wiser to err on the side of caution, and maintain that “worship finds its center in and on God Himself, His nature and character and what He has done.[1]

A good test for worship is to ask, “Where is the controlling point?”  That is to say, “Is God subject and object in this action?”  “Is the Lord revealed and/or responded to in this act of worship?”  To consider such questions certainly takes a measure of faith.  This is indeed appropriate to worship, as we are reminded from scripture that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb 11:6)  Precisely because worship is spiritual in nature, it is difficult to identify or assess.  Impossible, perhaps, apart from the biblical truth offered to guide us.  Scripture also reminds us “The heart is deceitful above all things.” (Jer 17:9)  While we might disagree on the interpretation of scripture, we are still on more firm ground, even if we are disagreeing over exact meaning of words from the Bible, than if we are lost in meaningless arguments over whether something inspires or entertains, when the point of either inspiration or entertainment rests in what is meaningful to me/us, rather than what is pleasing to God.  He is Lord, not my amusement or need for inspirational motivation.  Often the cry of our heart may be as that of the father of the boy with an unclean spirit in scripture, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Anyone who has truly worshiped the Triune God knows that encounters with the Almighty often result in a re-centering of our motivations and attitudes.  As such, we are frequently inspired, sometimes sensing deep emotional response whether visibly demonstrated or not.  Our faith in God who is Provider, Savior, Comforter, our All in All, is the very root of our side of the worship equation.  What a blessing to know the subject and object of that faith is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not my own inspiration or entertainment.

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine

             Leaning on the Everlasting Arms 

 


[1] Ed Steele Worship Heartcries: Personal Preparation for Corporate Worship, p.111

 

 

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