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“O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.”
– Psalm 137:8,9

The author of this poetic verse didn’t hold anything back. There are many imprecations in Scripture. The ancient Israelites held a sense of entitlement when they prayed. The Abrahamic covenant’s, “I will curse those who curse you” was always in view in “us-them” relationships. Combine this “God is my big brother” mentality with the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) as the backbone for Hebrew law and you get a background which makes this desire for baby-bashing of the people who had sacked Jerusalem completely authentic emotion. The fact that it was included in the Hebrew canon supports this picture. Most scholars agree that the book of Psalms was used in the second temple cult (worship). Which I suppose means that the people we encouraged to sing these words… as worship. I wonder if this authentic expression of emotion was authentic worship from God’s viewpoint?

But that’s old testament. Read the last few chapters of Judges and you will find yourself shaking your head in wonder that “In those days Israel had no king”:

” 1 Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim
2 said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”
Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!”
3 When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.”
4 So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah’s house.
5 Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some idols and installed one of his sons as his priest.
6 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
– Judges 17:1-6

People of the Old Covenant often made a complete mess in trying to discern God’s will. I wonder if we aren’t arrogant in assuming in our post-modern mentality that we are immune to misrepresenting God’s will ourselves.

We want to be authentic in our worship, but how will we protect ourselves from just doing (and singing) as we see fit? There is a strong drive in emerging worship trends towards ‘recovering authentic emotion’ (this is a desire that I hold dear myself). Earlier this year, I heard Brian Doerkson speak on this subject. He said that worship leaders “need to make room for people’s pain in worship”. Many people equate authentic emotion with authentic worship, but authentic worship is more than honest. Authentic worship fears God. Authentic worship doesn’t laugh when it’s asked “Isn’t this ‘strange fire’?” (Leviticus 10:1).

No matter how real and honest it feels.

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I love so many of the newer worship songs that speak of the missional Church. They connect our lives in the meetings to our lives in the streets. They connect the love of God to the love of our neighbour. They inspire me.

Consider these lyrics from three contemporary songs:
“Heal my heart and make it clean/ open up my eyes to the things unseen/ show me how to love like you/ have loved me/ Break my heart for what breaks yours/ Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause/ as I walk from earth into eternity”.

“Many are asking, ‘who can show us something real?’/ longing for hope within the pain of what they feel/ so I will go down on my knees and pray/ shine your light on us that all may see you goodness/ shine your light on us that all may see your glory”.

“So let justice flow/ like and endless stream/ flowing from your heart/ to the poor and weak/ let the things I do/ and the words I speak/ reveal the awesome love/ that You have shown to me”

Fantastic! My heart get excited all over again when I read these lyrics. They point to the emergence of a relevant Church. A Church that wants to make a difference on earth and not simply “fly away, oh glory”. But… is that really why I like them?

A few years ago, many worship songs were pushing the ideal of “revival”. In the light of exciting developments in Toronto and Brownsville (among other places), worship leaders in Charismatic congregations around the world became obsessed. Even in my own ministry, the subtle shift from worship meetings as times when we brought offerings of praise to God to times when we waited for God to “zap” us was discernable. The worship lost the cross as it’s centre, and the Spirit left the proverbial building. It was a while before we even realised what had happened to us, and how much we had cheated ourselves and God out of.

Why did we love revival-oriented worship so much? Why does my heart respond so much to this newer mission-oriented worship? I’m not sure, but perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the true foundation of worship – Jesus’ blood. When we approach the cross, we are approaching our own powerlessness and God’s awesome, terrible glory. We cannot approach the cross as devotees to a cause, or spiritual people waiting patiently for a fresh move of God. We have to approach God like the man whom Jesus identified as “the one who will leave justified”, who comes before God weak with fear and trembling and hungry for mercy. As much as we love the cross and the blood, we hate to be reminded of how we got there in the first place.

And yet the cross is what we need. What we will always need.

I’m not saying these new songs are “bad”. On the contrary, they are simple expressions of what God is already doing in the Church today. But let’s not make the same mistake twice. Let’s not make an idol of this new move of God. Let’s keep our focus where it belongs – on the grace of God revealed in the blood-stained cross.

The “Worship Wars”. What a wierd phrase… wierd, but very real. Consider what Peter W. Marty writes regarding this struggle between the old and the new:

“When Mark Twain finally mastered the intricacies of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi and had catalogued in his mind every trifling feature of the great river, he confessed to a deep deprivation: “I have lost something which can never be restored to me in my life. All the grace, and beauty—the poetry—has now gone out of the majestic river!” The river, of course, had not changed. But familiarity with the language of the river had killed a certain spirit of wonder. The routines of navigational life had tamed the water’s treachery. The poetry was gone. Two decades of worship wars are beginning to do to the splendor of church worship what Twain’s piloting routines did to his view of the river… Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that two adjectives, contemporary and traditional, would so thoroughly captivate the imagination of the church. It would have seemed strange that these simple words could govern the views of those who plot the church’s worship. But aptivate and govern they do.”

As a worship leader, how should I approach this argument?

I am an evangelical. Evangelicals are often ignorant and love simplistic answers. When I ask the question, “What principal should guide the way we prepare for and lead worship?”, evangelicals will almost always reply with a triumphant, “well, the Bible, of course!” Lovely answer… and completely useless in practical terms. With worship practices (as with most important things) there is no “Biblical Way”. The Bible is not a rule book, or an instruction manual for life. The Message is a record of God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus, and yet, even though the Good News of the Grace of God in Jesus Christ hides behind every part of Scripture, if you don’t know the Christ, you will find Him nowhere in the books. This is our Mysterious God’s way… the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Search google scholar regarding “Biblical Worship” and you will find journal entry after journal entry and thesis after thesis of contradictory views of what “Biblical Worship” is. These arguments have been going on since the days of the Anti-Nicene Fathers!

So the Bible cannot be used to prescribe worship practices. Now what? Consider these approaches:

Catholics (and to a lesser extent, independant Charismatics) follow an Ecclesiastic approach. Simply put, “The Church” (here read “the top power structures of the congregation / denomination”) decides what is allowed and what is not. A brief glance at Church history will quickly show why trusting a few, fallible, powerful men to decide what is right is an invitation to tragedy. Call me a rebel, but I cannot accept this approach.

The “regulatory principal” championed by the descendants of the Puritan Church is straightforward: “Anything that the Bible does not command is forbidden”. Drums, guitars, rhythm circles, and certainly lasers and smoke is considered to be “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Great if you’re into a literalistic approach to Scripture. My approach to the Bible precludes this approach (and my artistic heart rejoices! You can only handle so much Choral singing!)<

Most Independents (as well as most “Emergents”) have a pragmatic approach. If it works, do it! If it facilitates a natural, enthusiastic, relevant, worship experience then it must be right! Charismatics often say “look at the fruit”. God is “visiting” these meetings, so it must be ok! The Council of Jerusalem may have been decided by this sort of approach. The Council were convinced that the inclusion of the Gentiles must be ok, not because of Biblical prophecy regarding God’s heart for the nations (of which there were plenty!), but because the Gentiles had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This approach looks like freedom, but many argue that it leads ultimately to idolatry! When the focus shifts to making it “easy” and “relevant” for the people, we learn to seek the worship “experience” – seeing worship as something we walk into and enjoy instead of something we give to God. For this reason, I can’t accept this approach.

Some say that the “Worship Wars” are not something to worry about. Ultimately, the Church will fight it out at the extremes and ultimately settle on a happy compromise. Conflict between extremes such as “only Psalmody” and “free prophetic song” don’t need to be sorted out. We can simply adopt both. Thus we have services with Hymns, Solo artists, and worship bands all popping up. Everyone gets what they want and nobody is happy! No thanks.

Mary Conway describes an approach which she calls “maintaining dynamic tension”. In this approach, instead of deciding between the arguments (such as worship music as art vs. worship music as facilitating function; singing about a transcendent God vs. singing to an immanent God; writing that appeals to the rational mind vs. writing that appeals to the emotions; worship as joyful celebration vs. worship as vulnerable lament; worship as participation vs. worship as performance; worship as cultural vs. worship as counter-cultural; worship service as seeker-friendly evangelism vs. worship as believer’s communion, among others), we need to maintain “compromise in the positive sense: to keep these tensions
in dynamic, constructive balance.” She admits that this is easier said than done, and I am not sure that I could even define this approach correctly, let alone put it into practice!

In the words of Bono: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

In the end, the only thing that is certain is that our approach to God should be childlike. No matter what I settle on (if I ever settle on any approach) I will have to do so with a good deal of humility and sheepish grinning. I like Thomas Long’s description of worship (“Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship” 2001):

“Even when Christian worship is at its best, it is much like that Mother’s Day breakfast. It is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen overcooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration”

That’ll do for now.

I lead worship this morning and it was wonderful.

There are times when the thirst I feel for being in the glory of His presence pours out of me like the longing of a lovesick teenager… those times are good. Then there are times when I come almost too casually, and find myself caught up in the whilrwind – unexpectedly overwhelmed by Him… those times are also good. But the best times are those in which the longing of my heart meets the passion of His. I LOVE those times.

A.W. Tozer wrote,

“To have found God and to persue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.”

I love that phrase: “The Children of the Burning Heart”. It’s the kind of thing that could only come out of a closet mystic like Tozer. I feel a certain connection to the mystic writers.

Madam Guyon was such a mystic. She was very influential in the French courts during the 17th century. Unfortunately, her sometimes controversial opinions got her into trouble with the Church and she spent a good deal of her life in dungeons. She wrote about personal holiness and personal knowledge of God through constant prayer. My favourite quote from her is,

“Nothing is so easily obtained as the possession and enjoyment of God, for ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’ and he is more desirous to give Himself into us than we can be to recieve Him. All consists in the manner of seeking Him; and to seek aright, is easier and more natural than breathing. Though you think yourself ever so stupid, dull and incapable of sublime attainments, yet by prayer you may live in God Himself with less difficulty and interruption than you live in the vital air.”

My favourite of all mystics is Brother Lawrence. Here is a man whose influence on the Christian faith has been colossal, and yet, he was not a theologian, or a ruler, or a pastor, or even a worship leader. All he did was learn how to live in the very presence of God at all times, and say how. He worked all his life as a simple cook in a monastery, happily carrying on an inward conversation with God. What I love most about him is that he doesn’t come accross as this super-spiritual eunuch man. He admits that learning to be what Tozer calls a Child of the Burning Heart takes time and effort and tears:

“I must tell you that for the first ten years I suffered much: the apprehension that I was not devoted to God, as I wished to be, [and] my past sins always present in my mind… were the matter and source of my sufferings. During this time, I fell often, and rose again presently…Just when I could think of nothing but to end these days of troubles, I found myself changed all at once; and my soul… felt a profound inward peace, as if she were in her centre and place of rest.”

Ten years of wrestling constantly and seeking wholeheartedly with what felt like nothing to show for it, and then, all of a sudden – changed and at peace in His constant presence.  

I find myself more and more drawn towards this personal, non-religious faith. The urge is constantly there to rebel against the little traditions and rituals that make up my public Christianity. Against what Tozer calls “the age of religious complexity”, and yet, if there is anything to be learnt from Brother Lawrence, and Madam Guyon, and A.W. Tozer, it is this: the form of the expression of your faith is not what matters – the only thing that really counts is the substance: the intimate communion with Christ. You don’t have to be a monk living in a cave to do this. You don’t have to be a pastor either. You can be a simple cook, or a simple teacher, or anything…

As long as you simply long for Him with the burning heart of a child.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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