Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Worship: Express Yourself

We have been following a map, though I haven't mentioned it yet, while exploring the subject of worship. Our journey has brought us through Pause, Repent, Arise, Inhale, Sing, and ends with this article concerning Express. In discovering how we might be those worshippers that God seeks, hopefully, we've learned how to P-R-A-I-S-E (at least anagrammatically) in the process.
Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.         Psalm 149:1-4 (NIV)
Upon finding ourselves in the presence of God, accepted, there builds within us something that wants to be let out. It's a feeling that wells up, but which isn't really what it is until it gets out. If it is squelched, hindered, or hidden, it doesn't get to be what it really is. For it to be before God what it is meant to be, what it should be, it needs to be expressed (maybe Charles Wright was on to something back in 1970).

The text above gives us a little direction in letting that something out--in expressing ourselves in worship. Suffice it to say, worship is more than a mere mental exercise; our bodies and our voices must be engaged as well. All we are as people should be brought to bear upon expressing worship. If we take these pointers to heart, and embrace their practice, we'll be well on our way to truly praising the Lord.

Picking up on a point from the last article, something new is called for when we worship. The inference in the word "new" is something spontaneous, something that hasn't been established before. Biblical worship will express something new, something spontaneous. If all that we do in our attempt to worship is the tried and true, we may look nice or sound great, but will not actually cross the threshold of worship (so much for liturgy and precisely planned worship orders!).

Being aware of our acceptance in the presence of God is not something that can be carried without emotion. Relief and gratitude are the seeds of gladness and joy. Worship is not an austere endeavor stiffened in structure, but is a fountain of joy, splashing, gushing, getting everything it touches wet and messy. Worship should express the joy and gladness of being at one with God and will of necessity be emotionally expressive.

And there is more to musically accompanied praise than just singing. We, ourselves, can be instruments, as well as playing instruments or having instruments played. We dance, play timbrils and harps (strings), and sing. As long as I am a pastor, any flock I shepherd will be a place that welcomes expressions of musical participation from the congregation: the folk will be welcome to break out in dance, be encouraged to clap and shake a tambourine, or even let out a shout. The only underlying principle is that is must be toward God, other than that, folk should express themselves in worship.

Though such a thing may seem disorderly to some folk's way of thinking, this is not fleshly or worldly, nor out of place--it's scriptural. It may be noisy and emotional, and even a bit messy, but it is exactly what God is looking for. History cannot tell us how to worship, only the scriptures and the Holy Spirit can. If our practice gives mere lip service to what the scripture says and the Spirit stirs, then our practice isn't worth the effort it takes, even if we've done it that way for thousands of years.

There is, in fact, a "why" to all these going-ons. It is because we are accepted favorably in God's presence--we are approved, even delighted in by God. After all, we are not the ones setting the example here, God is! There is joy in the presence of angels (meaning God, not the angels, is filled with joy over repentant sinners).

If God is filled with joy, singing over the redeemed, how can they not reflect back that same sentiment toward him? God is get-off-your-seat-and-dance-happy over bringing us forgiven into his presence, why would we be any less? Things rub off on us in the presence of God. Expressive praise of the sort we've been talking about is one of those things.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Worship: Sing in the Presence of God

The series so far: Pause, Repent, Arise, Inhale and with this article, Sing.
Praise the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord; praise him, you servants of the Lord, you who minister in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant.     Psalm 135:1-3  (NIV)
Self-consciousness can be the enemy of true worship. It is stirred naturally in the repentance phase as a consequence of the light of God, but it is not a condition the worshipper can stay in and proceed with worship. Our gaze must rise to look upon God thereafter. Worship is, after all, a God-conscious thing.

Some folk feel very self-consciousness in public, and if so, singing in a congregational setting (particularly if it is small) can be a non-starter. However, part of being a true worshipper, the kind that God seeks, is getting beyond ourselves, our nervousness and self-consciousness, to focus ourselves on God and sing. Even the self-conscious, self-admittedly bad singer, even the non-singer, will end up being a singer if they come into the presence of God to worship. When all is said and done, the likelihood is that the experience, if followed to it's ultimate conclusion, will have been found to have been exhilarating.

And there really is no way out of this, it is a biblical mandate. Within the Bible's book of songs (Psalms), there are 70 references (at least) either calling on believers to sing or referring to it as an appropriate response to God. There are several in the New Testament too, as well as the recording of incidences in which key figures sang before God. Jesus and the disciples sang hymns; Paul and Silas sang praise to God; angels sing around the throne of God; and people that have been welcomed into God's presence sing.

Let's be honest, it is not like singing should be that difficult for us. We sing at birthdays, we sing in the shower, we sing driving the car, we sing at ballgames, even drunks sing! But whereas we are never to be drunk, we are most certainly to sing!
"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."    Ephesians 5:18-20  (NIV)
Singing is just something the saved do--singing is part of being in the breath (Spirit) of God.

Now, there are two basic biblical varieties of singing in worship (with one variety having two further subcategories).  We sing with the mind and we sing with the Spirit (i.e. in tongues). Singing with the mind is further subdivided into songs that are already known, that is previously composed, and spontaneous songs (new) which are improvised. Every song sung in the Spirit (tongues) is a new song.

So, the worship of God is going to be a singing affair. Some of the songs sung will be planned, some will be spontaneous. Singing isn't the only aspect of worship, but there is no avoiding singing as part of worship. Singing in worship is not about us, it's about God--a vehicle through which God-consciousness can be expressed in the worshipping believer.

We'll be singing in the presence of God throughout eternity. The good news is that we can enter into that heavenly occupation now!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Worship: Take a Deep Breath

We have been looking into the subject of worship. The series so far: Pause, Repent, Arise, and with this post--Inhale.
“Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.” For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.     Isaiah 57:14-15  (NIV)
We instinctively hold our breath when something astonishing happens. Something which catches us by surprise, or hits us with shock tends to take our breath away. I remember the trips to the dump to get rid of the garbage while I was staying with my grandparents in northern Maine when I was a teenager. Even before we could tell otherwise, a sudden increase in flies was sufficient to tell us we were getting close. Then came the smell--youch, literally!

I would go into hibernation mode, breathing as little as possible, because the smell was so strong it was a shock to the system. You know what I did when we were finally clear of the dump? Whooosh, the biggest inhalation of fresh air I could take. That made it feel like all was well on planet earth once again. When we've gone from misery to joy it's time to inhale!

There is a refreshing for the soul that comes to one who's continued beyond the sin revealing light of God's presence. There is a breath that our soul can breathe and that is the breath of God. It is a spirit thing. Whether in Hebrew or Greek, the word translated "spirit", as in the text above (vs. 15), is the same as the word for breath. The text above tells us that a soul that is contrite is enlivened (revived) in breath (spirit) because of God's nearness. It is, in fact, God's nearness that causes the quickening.

I used to do a lot of spelunking when I was young. I don't like closed-in places so the challenge of meeting my fears gave the activity a certain allure. After you've spent a couple of hours mucking around in the dark, crawling on your knees and belly, doing contortions and squeezing through holes and cracks, you start getting a little anxious. When the decision is made to leave, you move with purpose!

Climbing out doesn't take near as long as slithering in. When you finally clear the entrance and can stand once more and see sky above you, let me tell you, you take it in with gusto. You suck all the air in around you for several cubic meters. All is good, you're truly alive, and your massive inhalation is your effort to get as much of that invigorating moment and experience in you as you possibly can.

When we come into God's presence, having paused, repented, and arisen, it's time to inhale for all we're worth! Breathe in the breath (Spirit) of God and take in the wonder and the presence of God deep into your soul. We find relief, release and the joy of our souls in the presence of the God who welcomes and accepts us. And as we breathe in, we realize,"now, this is life!"

It is astonishing to find ourselves in the presence of God, cleansed and accepted. Oh the grace that brings us welcomed into the king's chamber! In that place, God revives our soul's breath. He quickens our spirit. We know the joy of being alive with God, and that joy begins to spring up in a fountain of thankfulness and wonder.

So, in that place before God, having arisen, open your heart and soul and inhale. Take a deep breath. Breathe freely the breath of life that God so freely gives to revive your soul, and let the joy of the Lord rise up within you and spill out.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Worship: Arise in the Presence of God

Our series so far: Pause, Repent and now, Arise.
In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God... 
Then there came a voice from above the vault over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. 
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking. He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.    Ezekiel 1:1, 25-2:2  (NIV)
Worship, we've established, is about dropping everything to acknowledge the presence of God. However, as we become aware of the presence of God, we also become aware our unworthiness to be in his presence. Ezekiel's experience of God's presence is instructive: when he saw the glory of the Lord, he fell facedown. I think it's the natural experience of the sinner, the knowingly unholy, to the holiness and wonder of God.

We saw Isaiah decrying "woe is me" in the last article in this series, in this post we see Ezekiel falling facedown. It seems to me, we know we are not worthy of God's presence, when God's presence overshadows us. If worship were merely about getting into God's presence, the experience would be over almost as soon as it started. God would show up, we would be undone, the experience would be over.

But as remorseful and repentant as we may be inspired to be in God's presence, in that experience another inspiration germinates shortly thereafter. The Psalmist said, "If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?" Like Isaiah having the coal put to his lips, Ezekiel's experience was also that there was life in God's presence after repentance. God said to Ezekiel, "Stand up!"

Our place before God is not that of the beaten down, the forlorn, or the undone. If that were the case, fellowship, relationship and worship would cease. Imagine a little toddler meeting Grandpa for the first time. Grandpa is strange, and scary, and the little toddler, rather than responding to Grandpa's beckons, hides, cringing behind Mamma's skirt. If things ended there, where would the tea parties, or the riding on shoulders, or playing at the playground with Grandpa be?

God is not interested in merely putting the fear of God in us. He wants us to stand up, so we can look at each other. So he can share stuff with us. So we can relate.

And there is help in the effort. We're told in Ezekiel's case that, "the Spirit came into me and stood me up." I must admit, that as a Pentecostal, I love that part of the story. As we go further into the process of worship, the Spirit blows into our time in God's presence and stands us up so God can share with us.

I'll never apologize, as a Pentecostal shepherd, for making sure my congregation has the time to pursue a course of action in their meetings that at least has the potential of being worshipful. The flock needs an opportunity to pause, to get real in God's presence and face their need to change, to be lifted by the grace of God into his lap, as it were. They have not come together to listen to good music or to complain about music that isn't liked. They're not there to go through the motions of worship, almost liturgically, as if somehow the sequence of actions taken was sufficient just because they were taken.

When we come together to worship we do so to acknowledge the presence God, to let that presence be our undoing, and to let that presence stand us up thereafter to interact with God. When we worship, we may fall down, but God will call us to arise before him.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Worship: The Repentance Threshold

In the noted passage below, the prophet Isaiah finds himself in the very presence of God. His experience is an analog for what we've been discussing starting with the last post concerning worship, so let's look into it...
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”     Isaiah 6:1-7  (NIV)
I said in my last article that we must stop everything we're doing and know that God is in order to worship. When we let this faith perspective predominate our thoughts and action, let it consume every other concern, we find ourselves becoming very aware of God's presence. As we recognize and acknowledge God's presence by faith, our awareness of him clarifies and the light and glory of God shines upon the heart and mind of the worshipper. The worshipper, in effect, "sees" God in a fashion analogous to Isaiah's.

In the light of God's presence, the worshipper "sees" God, but that light also shines revealingly on the worshipper. He or she becomes aware of God, but consequently also becomes aware of his or her own shortcomings, flaws, and sinfulness. The light of God reveals God, but also brings into stark contrast the darkness and shadows of the human soul. In that circumstance, Isaiah's cry was, "Woe is me!"

There is nothing that so reveals the heart as the mouth. Jesus said that every empty word that spills out of it was bound to be judged. In God's presence, the reality of this, I think, struck Isaiah where he stood and became his undoing. How could a man of unclean lips hope to survive in the presence of God, the "holy, holy, holy"?

Our response is much the same as we come into the presence of God in worship. We're not only God aware, but in the glaring light of his glory we are self-aware as well. Our every failing and fault is illumined and we're struck by how much we're truly at odds with God, unlike him and unworthy of him. Our hearts melt at the contrast. All that one can do in the face of such a crushing revelation is to decry one's unworthiness with remorse.

In God's presence, we see the absolute wonder of God but we also see by that light all that's ungodly about ourselves. Godly excitement turns into godly sorrow. It would be depressing if that was all the further it went. In the light of God Isaiah was undone, but not done, and neither are we though we may fall crumpled in his presence.

Our sorrow, our regret and remorse do not carry the day. Just as the angel told Isaiah, "Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for," so do we have a token of assurance of redemption and reconciliation. Despite all that we are and all we are not, we're touched by the grace of God and remain in the light of God's presence just as Isaiah did. The awareness of sinfulness was not the cue to drop the staff and woosh away the sinner like a bad act in a vaudeville show.

There is in God's presence a grace that can deal with what ails us. A grace that can take the stains upon us and wash them away, and allow us to stay, welcomed and accepted in the very presence of God. The awareness of weakness, of failure, of sinfulness is never comfortable, particularly in the glaring light of God's goodness, but it is therapeutic. Instead of being swept under the carpet to fester, our sinfulness and weakness is brought out in the light, recanted, and then swept away.

When we pause to recognize God's presence, and by faith become absorbed in the reality of his existence, we will find not only the thrill of seeing God but the agony of seeing ourselves by his light. Our wonder turns into discomfort. That is no reason to avoid his presence, though that might seem easier or more preferable to the flesh. As wonder turns to discomfort, so discomfort turns into joy when we allow our transparence in his presence to be touched by his fire.

It is my conviction that we cannot grow apart from this experience, certainly not to the depths God would have us to. The experience of God's presence in worship changes us like the experience of God's presence changed Isaiah, so long as we are willing to step across the repentance threshold. So pause to recognize God, embrace the painful conviction that may well ensue, acknowledge the ruin of your waywardness, and God will cleanse you and leave you standing before him afterward, ready to be spoken to.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Worship: The Sabbath Principle

With this article we begin a series on the topic of worship. By the end of the series, the reader should not only understand what true worship is, but will also know how to enter into it, so that we all might be those worshippers which God seeks--those who worship in spirit and truth.
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Psalm 46:10-11 (NIV)
How is it that the faithful are to worship? As we explore various aspects of that question over the next several posts, we will discover that the Bible has a rich and detailed answer for us. In this post, we will concentrate on what we can learn from the text above. Namely, that at its foundation, worship is about a pause, which I'll call the Sabbath principle.

Ensconced throughout the Bible is the principle of Sabbath. It is a principle which concerns rest, that is a cessation from work and effort. At its heart it is a recognition principle: an opportunity to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Part of God's framework for successful, righteous living is the principle of stopping and realizing the wonder of God the Creator and Sovereign Lord.

The practice of Sabbath has been associated with the act of worship through thousands of years of biblical history. Given what I just said above, I think the connection is a valid one. At its most basic, worship is about pausing to recognize God with us. Throughout the New Testament church age, the Sabbath principle has been applied to our existence as believers, even though we no longer are obligated to a certain kind of cessation on a certain day. We may no longer operate under the Law of Sabbath, but we still practice the principle of Sabbath, and it's a principle of worship.

In the biblical text quoted above, a connection between rest and worship, or exaltation, is made, which, I think, clarifies the principle in question for the faithful. The verses just prior to those cited draw a distinction between the solace of God and the turmoil of the world. In the midst of the turmoil that is life, pause is necessary for those who take refuge in God to worship: they must be be still and know God. If there is no pause, the likelihood is that there will be no worship. 

As we live, the exigencies, the pleasures, and even the disappointments of life put anything not germane to them on the back burner. Anything else is, in effect, all but ignored. God will be one of the casualties of our squeaky wheel existence without some concerted, disciplined effort to pay attention to that which doesn't squeak. The text above gets to the heart of the matter--we need to be still and find solace in God's existence.

The phrase "be still" is actually a translation of a single word which literally means "cease," "drop what you're doing." It is a command to stop our planning and conjecturing, stop our efforts of heart and mind and hand, stop the machinations, ruminations, and fascinations. Just stop it!

But not stop just for stopping sake. That may qualify as a legalistic principle, but it would be a mistake to think it was the Sabbath principle. Everyone may need a day off, but that, too, fails to live up to the Sabbath principle. We must stop, but we stop with a purpose, not so much to smell the roses as to recognize the rose's maker.

At its core, this is a faith perspective. Faith starts with the assumption of God's existence and his ability and willingness to bless us. Since worship starts with the acknowledgment of God's existence, worship starts with faith. Without such faith, one cannot worship. So, we must stop everything we're doing and know that God is.

When we let that faith perspective predominate our thoughts and actions, let it consume every other concern, then we're ready to begin worshipping. Until then, the best that could be accomplished would be nothing but going through the motions. Worship hasn't begun until we've stopped. What that might say about what you do in church in the name of worship is something that should be thought long and hard about!

But thoughts of corporate worship aside, this, at its heart, is a personal thing. It's not knowing that "he" is God (second person), but knowing that "I" am God (first person). Worship is a personal interaction with God. It begins with a cessation of effort in which the mind and heart are enveloped in the acknowledgement of God's presence in a personally relational context.

If we don't stop ourselves, and pause to look at God in a personal way we don't worship. If we don't stop and pause to look at God personally, we are not the worshippers God seeks.

To worship is to pause and see God personally.