Unlike Betjeman on the A30, which episode ended in a wholly preventable road traffic accident, I was cycling peacefully up the A5 (old version, still called Watling Street in these parts) from Bletchley to Bradwell this evening, in the presence of the sort of sunset that bodes well for tomorrow. These photos don’t begin to do it justice, but the skies reminded me of something fundamental in my worldview that somehow has been resurrected over the last few years and which deals with our experience of worship, both within and beyond the church. It started about five years ago when I read a difficult book by Walter Bruggemann on the psalms (not my choice to read – it was lent me by somebody I liked and respected, so you do what you have to do). What it conveyed dramatically to me was that God is. He is self existent and all we try and do in worship adds nothing to him, though he honours and accepts it and puts it to use. Over time, the psalmists began to understand the way that a life of praise and sincerity of worship – a religious cult, as Bruggeman put it – began to help them know and understand different facets of this amazing but pretty much unknowable God. God was revealed through praise as warrior, father, king, prophet, defender – lots of things. And slowly the idea took root in the Israelites’ minds that God was theirs and they were his – not exclusively, but reliably. This came with a sense of calling and purpose, which over time was mangled into an exclusivity whose existence Jesus in part came to destroy. Ephesians 2 is all about that.
This is complex, and is mirrored, I have found to my surprise, in the history of Shi’a Iran, where over time the ulema (scholars with specialist understanding) gave rise to a body of men who thought that their version of radical Islam was the voice of God for their nation. Just stating it like that shows the pitfalls of such a project, but Khomenei and his ilk genuinely thought that they, through their concept of Islamic government (velayat-e faqih), had the will of God for the nation, and that the pursuit of power to that end was a holy thing, justifying all possible means (and most of those means were anything but gentle).
So, whilst we are unlikely to do the damage that the ayatollahs did to their people, we are actually in danger of forgetting that God, whilst he is for us, and whilst we belong to him, does not belong to us alone. There is brotherhood and friendship within our relationship of course, but my worries about worship are firstly that we forget that we are a respectful people worshipping, not just individuals; and secondly, that we forget completely that God has no “need” of us, that we are created for him and by him for obedience.
So what this all boiled down to on the A5 was a struggle with the modern concept of worship as being a place where the Holy Spirit moved and spoke, as though worship had the sole purpose of releasing the power of the Spirit into a meeting so there could be prophecies and healings. I have no problem with this happening – indeed it must happen if the church is to be the church – but is this worship? Is it God-ward, or have we confused it with something us-ward? Eugene Peterson’s expression for worship is “being present to the presence”. I have worshipped before God with my will trained and my heart focused but my emotions in turmoil and my body tired. Was that worship? If I came away having given to God the honour I could, but having gained little from the experience, is that also worship? A cursory reading of Job suggests it is.
This has implications for leadership of worship as well. My view of leading worship, over many years, has been that of the “gate for the sheep” so they “can come in and go out and find pasture”. We are not there to induce the Holy Spirit to turn up, as if we could. We are there solely to make provision and offer a way in for the people of God collectively to be present to the presence of their welcoming and holy God. This will govern the kind of songs and hymns we use, and will guide us as worship leaders into a reasoned balance of songs that insists that we sing more about our Father and our Saviour than we sing about ourselves and our experiences and motivations.
Lastly, for congregations, remembering our “respectful people” status will make us more intentional and purposeful about worship, and make us more likely to be open to transformation through the action of God in response to our worship.