Some Thoughts After Restarting Worship

Yesterday was sweet and bitter. It was a tremendous blessing to have people back in the room again. I wanted to share some thoughts I had after yesterday.

Congregational singing is faith giving. One of our core principles is that the one voice of the congregation is the focus of our music. It’s our way of saying, the music team isn’t the focus. Their job is to assist the people of God in singing praises to their Savior and God.

But there is an extra benefit from this that is baked into the design by the Lord — our faith is strengthened when we sing together. When the music team stopped playing yesterday during the main service, and we just heard each other’s voices, I wept with joy.

But, there is a loss here too. There are many voices that we aren’t hearing because of their vulnerability to the Corona Virus. I miss looking out and seeing their hands raised in praise, or tears on their faces from the comfort the gospel brings.

We need to be together. It was tremendous to get to see faces again. The word for the church that the writers of the New Testament use mean “called out ones.” It’s a word that is loaded with theological meaning to a first-century Jew. The “called out ones” were the ones who were gathered around Mount Sinai after being called out of Egypt. The church is the official gathering of God’s called-out ones.

In God’s design of redemption, we are meant to be in an embodied community of other called out people. We need each other.

All of the pundits are saying that this is the time when the church will pivot to a fully online presence. Thankfully, Silicon Valley doesn’t write the script for what a flourishing person is. We are embodied souls — and we need to be in embodied communities.

But not everyone was there yesterday. Shepherd’s love their sheep. They love seeing their sheep. They love talking to their sheep. And they miss their sheep when they are not there.

So there was still a sense of loss yesterday. The plague of the Corona Virus has taken away our ability to all be together.

Worse — it has taken away the ability of our most vulnerable people to meet with us. These are the very people who we need the most in our midst. These are also the people that need to be back in worship, but shouldn’t be there. That is an odd tension.

Nimble is necessary. I said this yesterday during corporate prayer — 200-year-old churches aren’t known for being nimble. But we have been forced to adjust…adjust…adjust. I think one of the things that the Holy Spirit is doing is forcing us to demote our preferences and make decisions based on God’s mission in the world rather than on what so-and-so might prefer.

I welcome this change. But it is an exhausting change. We will probably run our current set-up for 4 weeks before we make any more major changes. There will be some slight modifications along the way, but no major changes for at least a month (unless the circumstances force us to change again).

The Lord’s Supper is received by faith. I was debriefing yesterday with one of our elders, and we both said that the Lord’s Supper felt sterile. Then we laughed because it is sterile! That’s the intention. We are trying to protect from the Corona Virus.

As we talked about how to fix it, he wisely said, “If we are receiving Christ by faith through these signs, then it really doesn’t matter. All of the benefits are still the same.” I thank God for wise elders like this!

Our felt experience is not as important as the objective reality. We are still receiving Jesus and the benefits of his work on our behalf when we peel back the bread and wine (that is a line I never thought I’d write).

Our faces are important. I long for the day when we can all be back together in the sanctuary without masks. Besides just being annoying and uncomfortable, it is difficult to have conversations with a masked person. You can’t see their mouths smile, grimace, turn downward in sorrow, etc. It’s just not the same because a level of intimacy is removed. I miss seeing everyone’s whole faces.

But even masked faces were an encouragement for me. I know that some of our people believe the masks are an unnecessary overreaction. But they still had their masks on out of love for others. When we do what we think is unnecessary out of deferential love and deferential obedience, we are taking up our cross and following Jesus. A cruciform community of called-out people is truly counter-cultural.

Our Liturgy Shapes Our Desires

We are not primarily thinking beings, we are primarily desiring people. In a previous post, we said that we become what we worship either for ruin or restoration (Psalm 135:15-18).

If we become what we worship, then how do our hearts get reshaped to worship the Lord Jesus? How do we reshape our desires?

In his provocative book, You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith suggests that our habits shape our desires.

Parents have lived this out, though they might not have noticed it. When you change the diapers of your children, or go through the daily routine of making meals, your affections for your children grow. Our bodies follow our hearts, that is true. Jesus says that out of the heart, the mouth speaks.

But it is also true that our bodily habits begin to shape our affections. Our desires are shaped by our liturgies.

What we mean by liturgy is “pattern.” I have a morning liturgy — check email (I’ll admit, it’s not the best way to start the day), drink coffee, and then read my bible. That is my morning pattern.

We have liturgies around seasons — Christmas has its liturgies, summer is for vacations, back to school shopping is a liturgy, etc. These are established patterns of living.

And if you reflect just a little, you will find that these liturgies shape your affections … your desires. There is always a little excitement and hope that comes with the liturgy of putting out your Christmas decorations. It’s strange, isn’t it, that the emotion of hope would arise from the act of pulling boxes of Christmas decorations out of the attic?

Every worship service has a liturgy. No matter what church you go to, there is an established pattern. It may be as simple as a welcome, three songs, sermon, and then a closing song. But it’s the same liturgy every week.

Our liturgy (pattern) has a few more elements than that — it is a little more robust. But we are following an ancient pattern of covenant renewal — we are rehearsing the gospel each week.

And our rehearsal of redemption — the pattern of renewal — is a conversation between God and us.

  1. God calls us into his presence.
  2. We respond with confession and repentance.
  3. He responds to our sin with an assurance of pardon in Christ.
  4. We hear God speak to us through his Word.
  5. We fellowship with Christ at his table.
  6. He sends us out with his blessing.

Interspersed throughout all of this is song (we will examine singing in a separate post).

We become what we worship either for ruin or redemption. God is descending to be with his people, and he is shaping us with his Word.

We Become What We Worship

We all worship. In our previous post, we said that we are most fully human when we are engaged in worship. Worship is “to give something its worth” — or to put our trust, hopes, and security onto something because it is worthy of those things.

Worship is like breathing. We do it without thinking about it, and we are doing it all the time. Worship is part of the autonomic system of our souls.

That’s who we are and it’s what we do. From the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we put our heads to the pillow, we are worshiping.

The reason for this is because we are made in the image of God. This is an amazing description of the status of every human being. “Images” is royal language. In the ancient near east, kings would create images of themselves and place them all over their kingdom — little statues that reminded the people whose kingdom they belonged to.

But God didn’t create inanimate rocks to bear his image, he created living people. And what made us alive is that he breathed into us the breath of life (Genesis 2:7).

We were made to live by the life of the Creator and under his rule. There is a built-in dependency. Our dependency on the life of another is not a design flaw, it is a feature.

As a result, we become what we worship.

Greg Beale in his excellent book puts it this way, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.”

The Psalmist says it this way in Psalm 115:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:4–8, ESV, emphasis added)

“Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them”. If our object of worship is deaf, dumb, and blind, then all they can do is ruin us.

Because who or what you are breathing in will either ruin or restore you. An addict breathes in his addiction of choice – pornography, drugs, or even buying things. We do this to feed the deep needs of our souls.

We don’t usually think about worship. We have developed an automatic reaction that functions like this: I feel a need —> I turn to my object of worship.

The progress looks like this: I am bored (which is happening a lot during the pandemic), so I’ll go to my favorite shopping website. I feel insecure —> maybe a drink will make me bolder in social settings. I’m scared, so I’ll expect my spouse to solve my problems. I just landed a big deal at work, so I’ll reward myself with an evening of fantasies.

These are all acts of worship. We are giving ourselves to something for hope, deliverance, and security.

If you don’t believe me, try this: notice what you turn to when you have a need, and then try to keep from it. You will feel as if you are losing life.

And the point that the Psalmist is making is that we become what we worship — and the object of our worship will either further ruin us, or it will lovingly redeem us.

Now, notice what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

If our idols enslave us because they are deaf, dumb, and blind. Then, Jesus redeems us — he straightens out our bent heart — because he is full of glory in and of himself. He doesn’t receive his glory from another, he doesn’t receive his power from another. He is the Living One who is alive for ever more. And therefore, can transform us as we simply look at him in our neediness.

D.A. Carson digs into this dynamic in a 20-year-old book that still seems rather appropriate for today.

“What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object: God himself is delightfully wonderful, and we learn to delight in him…there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God whims. Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God…What we must strive for is growing knowledge of God and delight in him – not delight in worship per se, but delight in God.” (DA Carson, Worship By the Book, pg. 30-32).

In a future post, we are going to drill down into what tools God has given us to straighten out our bent hearts.

Christians and Conspiracy Theories

“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.” (Proverbs 18:8, ESV)

I have been thinking about why Christians are so drawn to conspiracy theories. I find myself running into brothers and sisters in Christ who 1) are committed to Jesus, 2) love and know his word, 3) are generally sound, and 4) who believe completely unverified conspiracies.

Every single time I am surprised by the last one. I am usually surprised that this person would believe it.

But, let’s be honest. There is something appealing about being on the inside. Jesus doesn’t usually call the elite and powerful (1 Corinthians 1:26). He calls the outsiders, the simple, and the weak.

People on the outside want to be on the inside.

C.S. Lewis described it as the “inner ring”:

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire to be part of the inner ring is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and…Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care… (C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” The Weight of Glory).

This is one of the reasons that gossip is so “delicious.” Gossip makes us feel powerful because it makes us feel like we have access to information that others don’t have.

Conspiracy theories make us feel like we have inside information. This world runs on information and ideas, and for most of us, we are on the outside looking in.

Conspiracies are “delicious” like gossip because they make us feel powerful by giving us the illusion that we are on the inside of the true inner ring.

God’s people need to be aware of this temptation so that we are slow to believe the conspiracies. And, even slower to post them on our social media feeds.

The gospel tells us that we are on the inside already — we are sons of God because we belong to the Son of God. Everything that is true about Jesus is now true about us, in part, but not yet in full. You don’t get more “inner ring” than that!

Worship? Why?

Someone suggested that we write on worship. Right now, that is like watching cooking shows while participating in a fast.

But, hopefully we will increase our already hungry appetite to return to corporate worship soon.

We are most fully human when engaged in worship. In fact, as we will eventually see, worship is a natural to us as breathing. We all do it … all the time. It’s part of the autonomic system of the human heart.

Worship is the end of redemption. When God called Moses to be the deliverer of his enslaved people, he gave him a sign. But it was a strange sign. It was a sign that he would have to wait on. “Trust me,” God says, “in the future, you will return to Mount Sinai, and my people will be worshiping me. Then you will know that I have sent you, and I am the redeemer.” (Exodus 3:12)

Worship as the end of redemption is the ultimate act at the end of history. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” (Revelation 22:3, ESV)

What is “worship?” When we say “worship,” we usually mean “that thing we do on Sunday mornings.” Or, maybe, “that thing we do when we are emotionally moved when listening to a song on the radio” (actually, this is close to the meaning of the word).

Worship is to give something or someone their proper worth (that is actually the etymology of the word “worship” is from the Old English). But etymology doesn’t always give us proper understanding. Sometimes we use words differently from how they were originally used.

So, let’s turn to the New Testament. The word that we usually translate as “worship” is “proskyneō.” In John 4, Jesus says that God should be worshiped (“proskyneō”) in Spirit and in truth.

But the word “proskyneō” is also used in other ways. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a parable about a man having to pay an unbearable debt. The man gives the master his proper devotion by imploring (“proskyneō”) him. Likewise, in Matthew 20, the mother of James and John honors Jesus while asking him for a favor. She kneels before him (“proskyneō”) to give him his honor. In both of these instances, they give the person their worthy by kneeling before that person.

So, worship is to give someone their worth. And therefore, worship is not primarily about what you get from it, but whom you give it to.

Or, to say it another way, we do not come to worship primarily to “get” from worship, but to “give” to God.

“There is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself. Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God … The way you forget about yourself is by focusing of God — not by singing about doing it, but by doing it.” (Carson, Worship by the Book, pg. 30-31)

There is a subjective experience of worship, but the subjective experience must become secondary to the object of our worship.

Thus, the subtle shift that can happen in our hearts is that what we are experiencing in worship becomes more important than who we are experiencing. “As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.” (Carson, 31)

This principle of worship is essentially important: God alone deserves the glory. But let’s be honest, that takes a massive shift of our hearts. We are naturally bent to put ourselves at the center of the story and our needs as the central focus of that story.

We need to be unbent. Or rather, made straight.

What (or rather, whom) we worship will either bend us more, or will straighten us so that we are more fully human.

In our next post, we will focus on how to refocus worship. But, here’s the teaser: we become what we worship either for redemption or for ruin.

Outrage Is Not a Virtue

Outrage is not a virtue, but it is too often in my own heart. Outrage that others don’t agree with my positions, outrage that others don’t value what I value, and outrage that people aren’t doing what I think they should do. You may not always see it, but it is often there under the surface of my heart.

But, outrage is not a virtue. Rather, it is a more subtle form of the deeds of the flesh, particularly these “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” (Galatians 5:20)

Outrage is usually found growing in the fertile ground of self-righteousness. It is an attempt to build my identity and worth on what I believe, what my “gut just knows”, how much I’ve read, my expertise, etc. — this list goes on, and on.

But, love and outrage are seldom found together. And, if you have to give up one or the other, give up outrage. Because, whatever is causing you to rage is not nearly as important as the person you are outraged against.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, ESV)

This has become so vivid to me as I have studied the prophets over the years. God’s anger against Israel for forsaking his ways is really slow. It takes him hundreds of year before he sends them into exile, and then he only sends them away for 70 years (which he seems to cut short).

Now, Israel had completely forsaken the covenant. They were worshiping the gods of the nations. They were trusting in the nations for safety rather than the Lord. They had given themselves over to sexual immorality.

But, the Lord loved his people. Surely, the apostle Paul had this love in mind when he wrote these familiar words in 1 Corinthians 13.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7, ESV)

It is hard to reconcile outrage with patient and kind, and “does not insist on its own way,” or “is not irritable or resentful.”

God, in his love for his people, joyfully overlooks a lot of our sins. And, God in his anger is slow to wrath.

This is why the Spirit of Love produces these fruits in his people’s lives — “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23, ESV)

There is no law against these things because these things are who God is. And, God is making us more like himself.

Let’s take outrage off like a bad outfit that we once thought was so cool, but now we look in the mirror of God’s patient love and see that it’s like a leisure suit from the seventies.

So, let me give us some practical steps to putting off outrage.

  1. Hold your ideas, your gut reactions, and your opinions as loosely as possible. That is not to say, “Don’t have opinions about what God has said,” but practice epistemic humlity. If you are around someone who is highly trained in their field, you will find that they are quick to tell you how much they don’t know. That is epistemic humiliy. There is a direct relation to how much you know and how much you realize that you don’t know. In other words, the less you actually know, they more sure you become.
  2. If social media is a fueling source of your outrage, get off of it. I am no longer on Twitter for this reason. I think this is cutting out your eye if it causes you to sin. This is true for news media too. And, if you don’t think these things are effecting your outrage, get off of them for a few days and see what happens to your emotions.
  3. Slow your roll. Don’t form your reaction based on your intuition or initial reaction. Do this because “love is patient” — so just slow down. Slow down and ask if you have all the information. Then ask, “Do I know what to do with all of this information?”
  4. Demote what matters. It’s not that things don’t matter. If God addresses it in his word, then it matters. Many things are deductions from his word, and those matter too. But, not everything matters equally. That is, we should save our strongest opinions for what the Bible is most clear about. In other words, we should demote things — we shouldn’t feel as strongly about everything!
  5. Instead of choosing to believe the worst possible motive, we need to assume the best possible motive. We do not have windows into each others motives. If we are honest, we don’t always understand our own motives. Since “love hopes all things” we should chose to believe the best about others, and the worst about our own motives. That is a grand gospel reversal!

Hope During Corona – Day 6

Day 6 of our reading come from Tim Keller’s book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.

“no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career—something will inevitably ruin it. No amount of money, power, and planning can prevent bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles from entering your life. Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Life is tragic.”

You can download today’s reading here, and find the book on Westminster Book’s website.

Also, Ligonier has made all of their videos free during the next couple of months. This is a great resource for redeeming the time that is in front of us. There is an abundance of great teaching here that will anchor your soul in Christ.

Hope During Corona – Day 5

Day 5 of our readings brings one of my favorite authors, Ed Welch — A Small Book for the Anxious Heart.

“Think manna. For forty years in the Sinai wilderness the Lord gave his people manna one day at a time. If they tried to save some for the next day, it grew moldy. The only time they could keep it overnight was in preparation for the Sabbath, when they were to rest from work. The Lord was teaching his people to depend on him one day at a time. Each morning they had to trust him again that the bread from heaven would fall from the sky.”

You can find the daily reading here.

Hope During Corona – Day 4

Our reading for today comes from a new book of published prayers — Piercing Heaven.

We over value authenticity and spontaneity, and rob ourselves of depth and stability. If you haven’t had the joy of leaning on the prayers of others, you are in for a treasure of joy and peace. I often find myself not knowing how to pray or what to pray, often the published prayers of others ground me and teach me.

You can get the whole book at Westminster Bookstore, who is also offering free shipping using the coupon code (READSLOW).