Worship Paradox

Start with this: I categorically deny that worship is doing whatever you do all day long. I’m not saying that it can’t be, or that it shouldn’t be, but I am saying that Martha-ing is not the same thing as Mary-ing. There is one thing needful, and it isn’t summed up or subsumed in our other daily activities.

Worship is worth-ship. It is the mental and emotional act of ascribing the proper weight to that item which is of supreme value. Any physical act is essentially symbolic, specifically because worship is primarily a mental and emotional act. It is only because physical acts of worship are symbolic that someone can make a ham sandwich as an act of worship.

But we must keep in mind that the symbolism is still the drive train of everyday worship. The further removed from the mental and emotional evaluation of the one for whom all service is due, the less like an act of worship it really is. You can totally run a cash register as an act of worship. But singing is still a better kind of worship, because the physical is more closely tied with the mental and emotional act that makes up true worship. If you must run a cash register, why not rather run the register and sing?

I say this because leading worship is a strange task. And it is not the task of equipping people to wash dishes with a better attitude. By all means, wash with a better attitude, and may your washing be qualified by worship. But worship is more like prayer and less like labor, so leading worship is more like leading people into better prayer.  You prepare, musically, emotionally, administratively – Individually – so that the congregation may worship immediately. You work at worship so that the congregation may worship more effectively without the same  labor.

Judy Renfrow doesn’t sing in the choir. She isn’t on the worship team. She doesn’t play, and not to put too fine a point on it, she can barely sing. Well, music isn’t everything, despite its blessed usefulness in getting our hearts where they need to be. But let’s be honest: she’s not all that great at privat prayer and personal devotions. She loves Jesus, but the fires of her devotion are a little dusty ember. She needs corporate worship to pull her through the next week. When she joins in a congregation that worships well, her heart is lifted, the veil is torn, and she remembers what it is to be human,

A little dusty ember does a better job of burning on a bed of hot coals. It’s the worship leader’s job to make the job of burning brightly as convenient as possible, not by engaging in displays of impossible pyrotechnics, musical and emotional displays of what their worship could be if only the congregation could collectively quit their day job, but by providing songs that engage the heart and mind to the proper glorification of God with as much ease as possible.

It’s a bit like the pattern of excellence in practice my mother taught me when I was a kid: You work hard in private so that you can perform easily in public. Only the worship leader works hard by himself and in a small group so that the congregation as a whole can perform easily in public.  And it has lasting ramifications:  The  worship that is easy in the congregation leads to better and more frequent worship in the prayer closet, and every congregant who worships well in the closet becomes a little worship leader, with the world as her congregation.

Leading worship well is not as easy as it looks, but oh! what work is there that is more like prayer and less like labor?!  How can you practice leading worship, except by worshiping?  And how can you study to worship well without pursuing clarity on what true worship consists of?

Top 10 Books

I don’t know who asked me to jump on this top 10 books list, but I’ve finally gotten round to it.  Here goes:

  • Emma, by Jane Austin.  It’s a long story, but this is how I decided I was looking for love in all the wrong places.  I had a long discussion with the girl who became my wife, shortly after reading this book
  • The Way the World Works, by June Wannasiki.  I don’t know that this is the best economics book.  Wannasiki is kind of like Algernon – he doesn’t necessarily write accurately, but he writes with wonderful expression.   Anyway, this book opened my eyes to the sort of political shenanigans that are being done in the name of bad economics.
  • Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark DeverI had been looking for what exactly was going wrong in the sort of churches I was going to.  Even in the prosperous, well-populated churches, there was something rotten about their state.  9Marks pointed me in the right direction. Incidentally, I gave my copy to somebody, so if you’d like to help me replenish my library…
  • Humility: True Greatness, by CJ Mahaney.  It was a toss-up between this and The Cross-Centered Life.  Either way, what I really appreciate about Mahaney’s little books is their practicality: “XYZ is true.  Here are some habits you can build into your life so it will have an practical effect.”  Want to be humble?  Start by thanking God that you get tired at night.
  • The Bruised Reed, by Richard Sibbes.  Just… Wow.  I used to want to be Dennis Jernigan when I grew up.  Now I want to be Richard Sibbes.  So incredibly helpful to see how exactly the Spirit of God works in actual broken hearts.  As a happy side effect: the sweetest, most reassuring teaching of God’s selection in salvation you have ever heard.
  • Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis.  This is a cheat.  It stands in for “The Complete Works of,” which I understand is against the rules.  I might have been CS Lewis, if my middle class lawyer dad had just sent me to a private tutor for my entire high school, where I studied classics in Latin and Greek for 12 hours a day.  Surprised by Joy is less biography and more a spiritual memoir in the style of Augustin’s Confession.  The picture he give of his conversion still sticks with me:  a lobster in a corset on a bus, I think.  Strangely, he falls on the side of free will in salvation, while describing a perfectly Calvinist conversion.
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  I wrote a paper on Gustave Flaubert my junior year in college. It kind of revolutionized my view on the world.  I got an A-.  My hard drive crashed, and now I have only the vaguest recollection of what my conclusions were.  Flaubert was set to be a fantasy author.  He had this blockbuster story he wrote about Saint Anthony in the tombs.  It was a colossal flop.  His friends urged him to quit writing about “Chimeras,” that is fantastical ideas, and to focus on realism.  So he wrote a story about a girl who wanted to have a truly great romance and ruined her life chasing it while ignoring the perfectly good romance right in her lap.  I was totally unable to relate to this concept.
  • Institutes of Christianity, by John Calvin.  This is kind of a cheat, since I never actually finished the book.  But he really knew how to pack ‘em in there. The one that comes up the most is his explanation of faith – not just confidence, but confidence in a person’s word in the face of very good reasons to doubt. We’ll skip past how much Calvin talks about the Spirit, and how I totally avoided him the first time I heard of him, because I knew he had nothing to say to me due to his ignorance of the Holy Spirit.
  • Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.  More specifically, The Franklin’s Tale, which taught me about the complex overlay of loyalties that we would now call “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.”  As a bonus, reading journal articles on The Franklin’s Tale taught me that Feminism is bunk, specifically because it can’t see those loyalties as anything other than systematic oppression
  • On the Cessation of the Charismata, by John Ruthven.  Specifically, the footnotes to the first chapter, which gave me references to a whirlwind tour of early church thought on spiritual gifts, and the supernatural.  I used it as the bibliographical launching point for a church history paper, and it inspired me for the thesis for my PhD, which I will probably never get to write.
(Yes, Tolkien is lovely, but he didn’t change my life.  I’m very fond of Luther, but I haven’t actually read any books by him. Paradise lost did nothing for me, other than give me some perspective when reading Middlemarch. Inferno was extremely interesting, but Purgatorio was distressingly Catholic.  Robinson Crusoe was a waste of time.)
There’s a strange lack of fiction titles in this list.  I went through a major theological shift about 15 years ago, so my top 10 list changed accordingly.  The books above are the ones that got me going in my current direction.  It just so happened that when I was grasping, very few of the branches that held were fiction.