Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why Young Believers Become “Young Leavers”

Why do so many children of Christian families not return to their evangelical churches once they’re “out of the nest?” Estimates run as high as 75 to 80 percent for the number of young believers who fail to maintain their Christian connections after leaving their parents’ home.

Analysts have suggested several reasons for this exodus. According to Frank Turek, in his TV-DVD series "I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist", the principal cause is that the evangelical church isn’t presenting a substantive apologetic for the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. When young people encounter atheist influence on the college campus, in the media or elsewhere, they’re ill-equipped to counter the intellectual arguments against the biblical worldview, and hence the validity of Christian faith.

A 2010 survey by George Barna identified several trends that factor in the failure of churches to retain younger believers. These interconnected trends all appear to stem from cultural relativism, or what Barna labels “the postmodern insistence on tolerance.” Christians, increasingly biblically illiterate, lack the confidence to confront opposing views for fear of being labeled “judgmental.” They are reluctant to engage in faith-oriented conversations because of greater religious plurality in our culture, due largely to immigration. At the same time, atheists have become more aggressive in championing a godless worldview, especially in the academic environment to which younger Christians are becoming exposed. Current economic uncertainty leads to a focus on survival in the present, as opposed to spiritual possibilities and eternal values; according to Barna, believers tend to compartmentalize their lives to the point that their faith fails to become “a central means of optimizing our life experience.” Media have downplayed the Christian contribution to Western culture while highlighting the shortcomings of Christian churches and leaders; as a result, the relevance of a Christian commitment to issues of contemporary life has become clouded.

Countering the trend of “young leavers,” a few churches have successfully involved a large percentage of younger people. Observers sometimes claim that their success is due to their relevant presentation of a kind of life that Christ offers. Younger people, they say, are not interested in intellectual arguments for the validity of Christianity; they want to try it out and see how living it affects their lives. For example, in one “seeker” church we attended for several months we never heard much about becoming a “Christian”; the preferred term was “Christ-follower.” This approach ties in with another of Barna’s findings, that most people who become Christians today do so in response to some life-crisis; the witness that impresses them most is how other believers are able to integrate their faith into their lives for the healing of emotions, relationships, and dysfunctional behavior patterns.

Without dismissing the effectiveness of ministries that focus on “what Jesus has to offer you,” I wonder if such an approach will have a lasting impact on the tendency of younger Christians to leave the church behind when they “strike out on their own” — a life choice, by the way, that increasing numbers of young people seem to be delaying, preferring to remain in their parents’ homes even after graduating from college or entering the work force. One reason I am doubtful about the “what-Christ-offers-you-if-you-follow-Him” approach is that it’s open to serious distortion of what Jesus came to do in the first place. Transposing the narrative of His ministry directly into twenty-first century American culture, without the necessary exercise in historical recontextualization, is unfaithful to the Scriptural record and to God’s original purpose in the incarnation of His Son.

Why people followed — or didn't follow — Jesus during His “earthly” ministry has to be a matter of historical analysis of first-century Palestinian Jewish culture, with its continuing “exile” mentality due to Roman hegemony. Jesus' focus on the present kingdom of God — visible in his own person and the new community of his disciples — threatened the Pharisaic focus on the Law as a Jewish badge of superiority that, if fulfilled, would bring on the appearance of Messiah and lead to political liberation. Jesus saw the futility of that expectation and warned his contemporaries to repent of it (Luke 13:1-9). The leadership of the community did not repent, resulting in the events of AD 70 just as Jesus warned them.

The discussion of “what Jesus has to offer” today, if it relates to the phenomena of His Palestinian ministry, requires a homiletical exercise in recontextualization because our situation is not that of the first-century Jewish community. How does what Jesus came to do for His people in that era relate to what He comes to us for now, in His ongoing parousia or appearance? In the New Testament, Paul and John have already begun this process of recontextualizing the work of Christ into another cultural setting — not exclusively so, because both were writing to pre-AD 70 Jews, but the focus is beginning to shift.

In my opinion it is Jesus’ resurrection — not the features of his ministry, though resurrection is implicit therein, revealed in both his teaching and his “wonders” or acts of healing — that is the motivation to “follow” him today. And it is more than just “following,” because the New Testament proclaims the possibility of our entry (e.g. through baptism, Romans 6:3-11) into His resurrection life. The post-Enlightenment, Newtonian worldview rules out the idea of resurrection. That is why a worldview change (repentance, change of thinking) is needed so that the Newtonian four-dimensional, materialistic shackles of our thinking can be overcome. Focusing on how following Jesus can help us deal with life-issues may not have a lasting impact, because people who respond to such a self-centered appeal can easily fall away to the next “spiritual” fad that comes along. The manifest presence of the living Christ does not appeal to self-centeredness; instead, it confronts people with a reality that must be dealt with. But, until our worldview changes, that reality seems more like fantasy. Hence the importance of challenging today’s faulty relativistic worldview with a believable counter-argument.

One approach to this is to explore cosmology, with its evidence that the universe couldn’t be here without a Creator — exactly the Bible's “argument,” of course, in Genesis 1, Romans 1, Hebrews 1 and elsewhere. The so-called “science” that sidesteps the question of how anything came to be in the first place (and hence comes up with evolution as a hypothesis) is the basis for contemporary relativism, and is what needs to be exposed as a truncated, false worldview. Einstein led the way to this breakthrough with his recognition that everything in the universe is, essentially, energy, not "hard" stuff. The universe is the result of a willed “Let there be light!” that had to come from outside the space-time continuum. Realizing this makes it possible to accept the presence, or parousia, of the risen Christ who “upholds the universe with his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). But without such a paradigm shift, people who “accept Jesus"” (that’s putting it backwards, really, because it puts us in the driver’s seat) because of his teaching, or because of “what he has to offer” to us in a setting recontextualized from ancient Judaism, might easily fall prey to the next trend in a relativistic world.

There is much to add to this discussion. How does the resurrection life of Christ become a “manifest presence,” once we accept the cosmological basis for its believability? We can suggest one area of exploration, that of the fine arts. The trans-physical life of Christ partakes of that quality for which Rudolf Otto coined the term numinous (The Idea of the Holy, 1923; original German title Das Heilige). The numinous is that reality which is experienced through an encounter with that which cannot be comprehended within the limits of the four-dimensional world. It is experienced intuitively, not rationally, though the experience is quite “real” — and the Bible is full of such encounters. The fine arts, which make their appeal to the imagination and intuition as well as the intellect, can be a primary vehicle for the experience of the numinous. Music is one of the most intuitive of the arts — no one can explain, scientifically, why music has the effects it has on us. This explains why music itself has become a virtual religion for many young people, preoccupied with iPod downloads, rock concerts and other features of today’s youth culture. Can well-crafted Christian music with theologically rich texts, along with the intellectual challenge to the culture of relativism, become features of church life that contribute to the retention of young believers within the fold of Christ’s body?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Elements of Style

The plot of 1950s movie classic Singin’ in the Rain centers on the 1920s introduction of talking motion pictures. In one scene the characters are discussing the first sound movie, in which the actors talk. The would-be heroine of a new film pipes up: “Of course they talk. Don’t everybody?” But her remark underscores that her way of talking — her tone of voice and word choice — are unsuitable for a “talkies” role.

Much the same could be said of writing: “Of course they write. Doesn’t everybody?” Yes, everyone writes something, somehow, if only a grocery list scribbled on a Post-it. But just because someone writes doesn’t mean his writing can be published and appreciated as good writing.

That’s where the matter of style, or one’s way of writing, comes into question. And here, a valuable resource is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, originally published in 1919 and revised several decades later by Strunk’s former Cornell student, author E. B. White. (We have the fourth edition, ©2000 Allyn & Bacon).

In this pocket-sized volume Strunk and White discuss rules of English usage, elementary principles of composition, some matters of form, commonly misused expressions and words, and an approach to style itself. Here are a few gleanings.

On the use of a dash (—) the authors state, “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” Two examples they give are: His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all—was to get back in again, and The rear axle began to make a noise—a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp. In our opinion, writers often ignore the dash where it can be effective, so the Strunk/White reminder is a useful one, with the caution that the dash can be overused.

Another reminder is that “a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.” Violating this rule can yield laughable results, such as Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.

Included in the authors’ list of some 120 misused words are currently and literally. The first is redundant, as in We are currently reviewing your application. Whatever is being done currently is being done now, so if the sentence is in the present tense the word is unnecessary. The word literally is often misused to express exaggeration, as in literally dead with fatigue. If a person is tired, he obviously isn’t dead; he might feel he’s almost dead, but he isn’t literally so.

Style is harder to pin down, because differing writing styles can all be grammatically correct. The Strunk/White volume discusses style partly in terms of what we might call the “flair” of a writer. Thomas Paine’s These are the times that try men’s souls could have been written Times like these try men’s souls. Or one could exclaim How trying it is to live in these times! Other options are These are trying times for men’s souls or Soulwise, these are trying times. But none of these alternatives have the enduring, ringing quality of Paine’s words; their style is unremarkable, or even trite.

The above are just a few samples from the riches contained in The Elements of Style. We believe all writers (and doesn't everybody write?) will gain from a survey of this modest volume.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Developing Theology from a Biblical World View

I am pressing toward a way of “doing theology” that grows out of the Scriptural witness itself, so that the Word establishes the framework through which we understand what the issues really are and how they can be talked about. I believe we shouldn’t let either culturally dominant world views (rationalistic scientific modernity, postmodern relativism and subjectivity, or whatever) or historic theological traditions (Reformed, dispensational, Wesleyan, Thomistic, etc.) determine the terms of the debate. We need to ask ourselves something like, “What did Jesus and the biblical writers have in mind, when speaking of God and his purposes, within their religious-political environment, and in terms of their literary context?” Then we need to ask, “Where do we fit into that picture?” The question is not, “How do we interpret Scripture,” but rather, “How does Scripture interpret us?” It’s our life and world that need clarification, not the Word of God.

In Christian teaching and preaching, I think there is always the tendency to “go beyond” what the Bible says (1 Corinthians 4:6) in the fear that people will not get the whole truth from the reading and study of Scripture itself. But should we think of Scripture as pointing to a “truth” external to itself — in which case there is a criterion of truth higher than Scripture — or should we follow the lead of Jesus who prayed, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17)? That is, the Word of God not only answers our questions, it also defines which questions are askable and answerable, and establishes the world view and perceptive grid in which those questions may be discussed. The problem with doctrinal systems and denominational statements of faith — the subjects of much theological debate — is that they step out of this biblical world view and superimpose on Scripture a scheme for resolving questions that the Bible often does not raise. When we do that, we have moved beyond Scripture to something like Irenaeus' “rule of faith,” the Roman Catholic magisterium, or Confessionalism of any type. (In my opinion, Sola Scriptura trumps any other “Solas” — and how can there be more than one “only”?)

N. T. Wright, in his 814-page The Resurrection of the Son of God, concludes that Jesus’ resurrection had revolutionary implications for the first-century era within both the Jewish and pagan worlds. In working through this question Wright lays the groundwork, I believe, for an approach to theological issues that emerges from a biblically based world view. If the resurrection of Jesus was revolutionary in the period of Christian origins, would it not have an equally revolutionary impact on our church life, and on the church’s witness to people in our culture, if we were bold enough to make it the centerpiece of our theology and proclamation? It certainly was the centerpiece for Paul, who declared to the Athenians that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). It wasn’t because all doctrinal issues had been reconciled that the early Christians prevailed over a hostile world, but because in the beginning they had seen the risen Jesus and through the Spirit were continually led by him. It was only when the Presence of the living Christ had become obscured by other concerns that doctrine about Christ, rather than life in Christ, became the burning issue for the church. We need to get back to being a Presence-driven church.

One of those obscuring concerns, I suggest, is the contemporary debate about “justification.” Let us remind ourselves that, biblically, justification is not a “thing” that exists somewhere in the abstract, but describes a relationship of “rightness” between persons. If God gave a Law, or commandment, that Paul considers “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12), then one would expect Paul to assume that how people relate to God must have something to do with honoring the Way he has outlined in Scripture. Typically, Protestantism has held that “faith” alone, as opposed to “works,” is what rights the broken relationship between God and his errant people. But this is usually taken in too simplistic a way: “Faith” is understood as belief or trust, and “works” are understood as attempts to win God’s favor through keeping the Mosaic teaching. Neither of these, it seems to me, quite describes what the New Testament means by these terms.

Faith is more like “faithfulness,” i.e. commitment, or a relationship of covenant loyalty, of the type epitomized in Thomas’ confession “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) which is in the tradition of the worshiper’s confession of homage and loyalty in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 63:1 and elsewhere). And works may go deeper than simply actions, as they relate to “works of the Law.” There is a Dead Sea Scrolls text called MMT, or “The Works of the Law,” and some have made a case that the document was well known in Judaism of the first century and that it is this document, with its comprehensive provisions regarding Jewish religious practices, to which Paul was referring. The scribes, whom we meet frequently in the Gospels, were the keepers of an unwritten, esoteric tradition that went well beyond the written form of the Torah, and which made them the most revered functionaries within the Jewish community. Jesus certainly inveighed against “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” so as to lay burdens upon the people they were unable to bear, and Paul refers to “human precepts and doctrines” (Colossians 2:22) about forbidden things. But neither Jesus nor Paul meant the Torah when speaking this way, only the improper use to which it had been put in certain Jewish circles of the time and to its surrounding encrustation of restrictive traditions of which the scribes and Pharisees were the self-appointed custodians.

Thus, to play the Torah off against grace vis-a-vis the issues of “salvation” and “justification” may, indeed, be a false understanding of the uses of the Torah (in its extended forms) in first-century Judaism. It was not, as is commonly thought, a vehicle for earning salvation, or God’s acceptance. The Pharisees already believed they had God’s favor. In their hands the Law, extended by their traditions, was rather a means of purifying the Jewish community in preparation for the coming of the Messiah who would lead them in throwing off the Roman yoke. The Pharisees’ stress on the Law was not salvific but revolutionary. But Jesus threatened their agenda, because he saw the futility of this misuse of the literary deposit from God’s covenant. Israel had been called to be a “light to the nations,” but under Gentile oppression certain Jewish parties had altered the goal to liberation from the nations. Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom called for his people to repent of this false agenda and return to their roots, their Abrahamic calling — to which, of course, Paul also returns in his emphasis on the faith of Abraham. Jesus warned that unless his people repented they were destined to be slain by Roman soldiers or crushed under falling buildings (Luke 13:1-5). These things, indeed, occurred in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70 — an event that I believe John expects to see as the vindication of the martyrs under Jewish persecution (Revelation 6:10).

These are but a few examples suggesting that before we can meaningfully discuss issues like justification, Jesus’ humanity and divinity, or other important theological matters we may need to step back and take another look at what is actually occurring in Scripture. Insofar as it is possible after a gap of two millennia, we need to try to get into the mind and perspective of Jesus and the biblical writers and try to appreciate what they were saying, as set against the political and religious trends and themes swirling about in their cultural environment. In so doing we will come to see what a brilliant thinker and incisive theologian Jesus is, speaking even from the human standpoint. To me, that is a deeply “incarnational” approach, recognizing that God chose that moment “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4) to send forth his Son. In like manner we come to have the same appreciation for the intellectual, as will as the inspirational, gifting of Paul, the four Evangelists and other New Testament writers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Using Alliteration in Poetry

Alliteration has long served as a structural scheme in English poetry, together with rhythm, meter or rhyme. Alliteration is the use of consecutive (though not necessarily adjacent) words beginning with the same sound, as in the phrase “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” The alliterative sound may also occur on an accented syllable, rather than at the beginning of the word.

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is known for its consistent use of alliteration, a feature that aided its transmission by word of mouth before it was written. Here is the beginning of the poem in the original, with a translation by Francis B. Gummere in the Harvard Classics:

Oft Scyld Scêfing sceaðena preátum,
monegum maegðum meodo-setla ofteáh.
Egsode eorl, syððan ærest wearð
feá-sceaft funden : he päs frðfre gebâd,
weðx under wolcnum, weorð-myndum ðâh . . .

Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve . . .

Here are a few later excerpts from English poetry as examples of alliteration:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

    — Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank . . .

    — Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), “Binsey Poplars”

It can be an enjoyable exercise to try alliteration in composing poetry; I have used it several times. In Heart of the Highriders, the novel I wrote jointly with my daughter Charity Silkebakken, the Councilor Lincaemon the Elder utters a funeral lament for the fallen ruler Fauntflooy:

Bewail our Fauntflooy, noble and strong,
who ruled the realm with right
and was first to fight the fiercest,
in brutal battle bold!
Bewail our Fauntflooy, and weep,
for he furnished you with finery,
wrapped you in riches,
favored you with food and fatness,
shielded you in safe shelter,
left your life with no lack!

My poem “Peculiar People,” which my wife, Shirley Anne, kindly included in her chapbook The Promise, uses alliteration throughout. Here is the first stanza:

Pilgrims we are, passing through this plane
of dismal dreariness, our destination
not this trial-torn, terrestrial turf
where falsehood flaunts its frightful face,
but bound for blessedness and beauty,
land of life and luminous love
where Christ the crucified, our King, controls.

Alliteration seems especially appropriate when you’re trying for a rhetorical impact, but it has other uses such as creating a sound effect or bringing out humor. If you’re stumped sometime by difficulties with meter or rhyme, try alliteration as a device to help your poem “hang together.”

First published in WestWard Quarterly, Spring 2010 Issue.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Posture in Worship

Recently a friend of my wife’s raised the issue of the correct posture for prayer. Brought up in a church where it was customary to kneel for prayer, she now finds herself attending one in which the congregation stands for prayer, but she feels uncomfortable doing so. Her pastor, himself, became aware of the issue and outlined several different prayer postures that he found in Scripture, depending on the mood or purpose of the prayer. Obviously, consideration of the proper Biblical posture for prayer is linked to that for all aspects of corporate worship, which in one way is simply “public prayer.”

Why is the question of posture in worship important? Isn’t it our inward motivation and direction toward God that is more important? Well, yes and no. Biblical worship always has a visible, as well as invisible, component. The words translated “worship” in English versions of both the Old and New Testaments are words of movement or posture. The Hebrew hishtachavah signifies bowing down or falling prostrate, and the Greek proskuneo means, literally, to fall to the knees. In the ancient world these were the proper gestures for expressing homage to a sovereign ruler or superior, signifying one’s loyalty and submission. These gestures are especially important within the framework of the Biblical covenant, which is a relationship between a King and the people that is faithful to Him as their Authority and Source. Biblical worship is the expression of this relationship of fidelity and dependence.

Perhaps, in our contemporary culture, it is difficult to understand the need for gesture as an expression of honor and loyalty. Within the military, of course, the salute preserves this concern for an outward sign of respect, but many such gestures have disappeared from common life. At one time a gentleman removed his hat, or stood up if seated, when a lady entered his presence. A man always removed his hat within a building, unless it signified some official role (the headgear of a policeman, for example, or that of a bishop during a liturgy). Today, however, it is common to see men eating in restaurants wearing baseball-style caps. In our “casual age” we have largely lost the sense of what is appropriate gesture and posture (or clothing, for that matter) in various venues, including that of Christian worship.

The Old Testament describes various postures and movements associated with Israelite worship — not only bowing down, but also processions, dance, lifting the hands, and standing (not, however, sitting, which was a posture of honor accorded to teachers, see Matthew 5:1). The earliest Christians met in private homes, often at night and under some threat of persecution if their gathering came to the attention of local authorities. Under such conditions the full range of postures characteristic of Israelite festive worship was not available to them. We know that New Testament worshipers sang, prayed, prophesied, taught from the Scriptures, and partook of the Supper of the Lord. Given the scarcity of furniture for sitting in ancient times — even meals were typically eaten in a reclining position — it is likely that the congregation stood throughout the time of the gathering. (This was the custom in the chairless Medieval cathedrals and is still the practice today in the Eastern churches.) Depending on the number of people present, there was probably not room for more spacious postures within the confines of the home where the assembly gathered.

Nevertheless, Paul refers to the unbeliever visiting the Christian assembly who, moved by the word of prophecy, “falls on his face” to worship God (1 Corinthians 14:25). And this is the gesture Paul envisions for worship when the authority of Christ becomes universally recognized; he looks forward to the time when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). The same posture of prostration is in view in the worship described in the Revelation to John, in which “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10). In addition, Roman catacomb illustrations of early Christians praying show them in the “orant” position, lifting their hands just as Paul suggests in 1 Timothy 2:8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

Prostration and the lifting of hands are both gestures of “confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Romans 10:9), which I suggest is the heart of New Testament worship. They are consistent with the act of “giving thanks,” which Biblically does not mean to express gratitude but to affirm one’s loyalty to God alone. The Hebrew word todah, translated “give thanks,” is derived from the word for “hand” (yad) and refers to lifting the hand in the oath of loyalty (a gesture preserved today in the “swearing in” of public officials). We see this close connection in what Paul says of the apostate Jews in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.” The Christian Holy Communion or Eucharist — a word derived from the Greek term eucharisteo, “give thanks” — therefore contains this element of pledging one’s faithfulness to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It comes down to this: Christian worship is not a spectator sport but an active expression of covenantal faithfulness to the Lord. Prostration, bending the knee, lifting the hand, “giving thanks” or partaking of the Lord’s Supper are all actions that symbolize this theological truth. I do not say that they are the only acts capable of expressing faithfulness to God. But I am suggesting that Christian gatherings that fail to make a place for some visible and significant expression of faithfulness through movement, posture, and gesture are missing the point of New Testament worship. Such “meetings” have lapsed into an audience-entertainer format in which the only expression of commitment is inside one’s head, where no one else can call you to account for it. Of course, true worship — as Jesus insisted — is worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). However, it is a mistake to think of the “spiritual” as the “invisible.” In fact, in Scripture whenever someone is described as being “filled with the Spirit” we know it because of the actions we see them perform.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Judas Iscariot (A Dramatic Monologue)

I know people won’t understand,
but I thought I was doing the right thing.
I believed in Him, like all the others,
and He must have known that,
or He would never have called me to be one of His disciples.
I remember how it was in the beginning.
We had such high hopes
that God was about to do something great.
And we did see great things —
I was one of those He sent out,
and we found that even the demons were subject to us —
yes, even to me!
We came back to Him with such a glowing report.
But, as time went on, things started to go sour.
He began to talk about suffering and death
instead of the victory we were looking for.
I was tempted to drop out, as some others did,
but I stuck with Him.
After all, I had a responsible position in the organization
as chief financial officer of the movement.
Some of the guys, like John, claimed I was misusing the funds.
But if you’re going to administer a program of aid to the poor
you need a professional to manage it.
Surely I was entitled to a small consulting fee,
plus reimbursement for expenses.
Yes, I stayed with Him right up to the end.
But it drove me crazy to see Him
not doing one thing to oppose the Romans.
I thought He ought to act boldly,
to call in those legions of angels
who could put God’s enemies in their place.
And, except for that one incident in the Temple,
He didn’t do anything about the corruption in the hierarchy.
He just hemmed and hawed, and kept talking
about giving His life as a ransom — for whom?
for the many? For all those Gentiles?
What about us Jews — don’t we deserve a break, at last?
I had to do something to get Him moving.
I figured that when the Temple guard came after Him
He would have to act like the King he was supposed to be.
But it didn’t work out that way.
It wasn’t the money, believe me;
they can take back their thirty pieces of silver
and do what they like with them —
buy more real estate, I suppose.
As for me, now that He’s in Roman custody
and slated for execution any time now
there’s nothing more I can do for Him.
I know I’ll be misunderstood for what I did,
and right now I don’t even understand myself.
I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I’m going to do,
but I have an idea it won’t be good . . .

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Is Worship?

We’re used to calling the church’s main Sunday gathering a worship service. But what do we mean by worship? Is it worship to listen to a preacher? Is it worship to sit and listen to others singing or performing on instruments? Is it even worship when we sing songs about our faith, or our devotion to God?

All of these things may have a place in our weekly gathering, but they don’t really define worship in a Biblical sense. Some have tried to define the word worship by breaking it up into its component parts — worth-ship, that is, ascribing worth to God. That’s fine, for as God’s people we should be doing that. Just one problem: the Bible wasn’t written in English, so using the English dictionary definition or etymology doesn’t really help to get at biblical insights.

Worship, in the Bible, has a particular meaning. The two words translated as worship in the English Bible are the Hebrew hishtachavah and the Greek proskuneo. Both words mean to bow down or to fall prostrate. They refer to the act of homage and loyalty one pays to a King or other high authority. One is worshiping when he is bowing down to acknowledge the superiority and power of Another.

There may be times when it’s appropriate to bow down in our worship, and bowing is practiced in some churches. But the main point is the concept behind bowing down, which is to exalt the Lord and enthrone Him as our Sovereign. If our Sunday gathering doesn’t exalt the Lord, then it isn’t really worship.

So when we sing, we should be singing about Him and His greatness, and not about us and our faith or devotion. In fact, we should be singing to Him, telling Him of our love and our praise. A worshiping congregation is one that talks to God and sings to God, and not just to each other.

Worship isn’t a performance we watch, but a meeting with our God who has rescued us through His Son. The risen Christ is present, the Lord God and the Lamb are dwelling in the temple of their holy people. We enter into his presence not to be entertained but to bow down — literally or figuratively — before Him.

Therefore, when we leave the church on Sunday, our response is not, “The choir did a great job” or “The worship leader blew it today” or “I enjoyed the sermon” or “I didn’t like the music they picked.” The only relevant question is, “Did I meet God today, and did I express to Him my love and adoration and loyalty?”

Worship. Think about it.

First published in ReUnion, newsletter of Union Congregational Church, North Aurora, Illinois, October 2004.