Friday, August 27, 2010

Enjoying God - Thoughts on Sunday Worship

TITLE: Enjoying God - Thoughts on Sunday Worship
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 27 Aug 2010

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

MAIN POINT: Too often we come to God with ‘Egypt’ (idols) in our hearts; Worship with God IN our hearts, to understand that true worship is in Spirit and in Truth. How can we enjoy God while idols still linger in our hearts? Answer: We can’t.

When was the last time you enjoyed God? Is it during your first year of professing faith in Christ? Your baptism? Is it during a time when you were led by a professional worship leader and band from organizations like Hillsongs from Australia? Was it during moments of ecstatic tongues speaking? When was the last time you can truly tell another person, that you have worshiped God that day?

Frankly, these moments for me are few. Each week, I feel that I can go through the motions of doing church more than the actual experience itself. I still go to worship together with a body of believers, but to really feel up and high, there are not many that I can boast about. Sometimes, what is preventing me from going forward is due to expectations inside me that I refuse to let go. Part of the disabling attitude is that stubborn old habits that I have yet to break.

It has been said about the Israelites’ behaviour after their amazing escape from the clutches of the Egyptians: It takes 40 days to get Israel out of Egypt, but 40 years to get ‘Egypt’ out of Israel. After crying out for deliverance for many years, the LORD hears and delivers them from the torturous era under the harsh Egyptians. Unfortunately, Israel continues to complain, to groan and even to accuse Moses for bringing them to greater hardship. Worse of all, the Israelites have the nerve to even ask to be brought back into Egypt!
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD'S hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

How can stubbornness to old habits enable anybody to worship God? Definitely not! It reminds me of the popular quip about human behaviour:
“Old habits die hard.”

1) Old Habits Die Hard
We are natural creatures that gravitate toward comfort more than hardship. After all, who ever wish to suffer more? Israel suffers a lot during their time under Egypt. During the time of Joseph, Israel receives lots of privilege, thanks to the great favour the Pharaoh at that time bestows upon Joseph and his people. Over time, when the leadership changes hands, relationships turn from sweet to sour; from acceptance to suspicion; from love to hatred. In Exodus 1:9, instead of building upon the relationship, the new Pharaoh takes upon himself toward racial and ethnic discrimination. Afraid of the rising numbers of the Jewish people, he oppresses them with hardship and inhumane rules.

They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:14)
Even our desire to worship God each day, in particular each Sunday is not spared from this habitual stance. Here are some old habits. We use our previous experience as a ‘template’ to judge our existing level of worship. We depend on the ‘professionalism’ of the people doing the sound system, the worship leading, the announcements, the music, the sermon and the overall flow of the program to tell us how worshipful the experience is going to be.

Unfortunately, when we do that, we unwittingly allow the program and the process to determine our level of worship. Worship must be in Spirit and in Truth; not in program merits and in process smoothness. We cannot worship God as long as we retain old habits of stiffness and refusal to change. We must be led by the Spirit to worship God. This is done by letting God lead us. All of us. The first thing is to let God break our old habits, our old paradigms and our stubbornness.

2) Worship is Not Digging For Information

The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or to think.” (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, NY: Pantheon, 1955, p15)
I spent the week enjoying the Oregon Coast. With miles and miles of spectacular beaches, I marvel at how creative the coastline is. Each landmark deserves more than a photo-shot, or a journal entry. It beckons anyone against doing anything else other than admiring, and appreciating the beauty of the sandy beaches. The magnificence of nature humbles the most glorious man-made structure. Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I find myself simply unable to work my normal routines, read my stack of books, write the articles I have, and think the plans I want. (This is why this week's SabbathWalk is late.) Lindbergh goes on to add how she discovers the multitudes of seashells:

But it must not be sought for or – heaven forbid! – dug for. No, no dredging of the sea-bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” (17)

Isn't that true of worship as well? Worship in Church is like this beach experience. It is to be enjoyed not analyzed. It is to appreciate God’s people, not deprecate them. It is to be open to the LORD, not closed up and shuttered down.

3) Worship Begins with Breaking Our Alabaster Jars
Each time I read the gospel about the woman breaking the alabaster jar (Matt 26:7), I find myself behaving more like the disciples, in complaining about the waste of such good perfume. Why not sell it to the poor or better still, earn a profit from it? Unfortunately, this is the way we often come to church with. We refuse to break our stubborn alabaster jars of idolatry. We prefer to keep the good perfume inside us, and use the Church service as another opportunity to FILL MORE PERFUME. This we do by digging and more digging.

I find that our worship on Sundays is often likened to our individual efforts to dig for information. Such a view is like seeing Church as a form of spiritual oil rig that stores up fields of spirituality. We think that a ‘worshipful’ experience is one that looks like this:

“Powerful Music” + “Solid Sermon” + “Professional Band” + “Sleek Program” = “Great Worship.”

My question: Where is the Holy Spirit?

If true worship is to be in Spirit and in Truth, it has got to do less with the program and the process, but MORE with the PERSON of Christ.

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Where is Christ during our Sunday worship? Do we see Christ magnified in the programming? Do we see Christ preached from the pulpit? Do we see Christ-like behaviour in people, and in particular our own selves?

4) Breaking the Jars
We must break our alabaster jars that contain idols of popular and hip music that draws attention to melodies and fanciful lyrics instead of to Christ. Sometimes, when certain music plays, I find myself remembering the music videos of pretty singers and could not detach the music from the actors in the video. The music may be perfect, but the idols inside me prevent me from worship.

We must break our jars that contain ideas of what a ‘solid sermon’ is to be. This particular idol is quite easy to detect, but hard to destroy. One of my favourite preachers is my mentor: Haddon Robinson. I notice a trend that whenever he preaches, crowds will follow. On the other hand, when an unknown person is preaching, you will see a significantly less crowd. Same passage, different preachers, different turnout.

If Christ is preached, should we not be excited about the message rather than the preacher?

I acknowledge that some preachers are downright boring, even misleading in their preaching. What about seeing ourselves being used by God to behave like iron sharpening iron? If the preacher is not connecting with the audience, do not remain silent. Tell him. Talk to him. Let him learn to improve with our feedback. Let me caution: Be gentle in your correction by offering feedback in love.

We need to break our alabaster jars that contain images of professionalism and sleek performances we see in Hollywood or worldly circles. Jesus uses ordinary people to reach out to ordinary people. We should not presume to be ‘high-class’ Christians expecting kingly treatment from people running the Sunday services. Rather we are humble servants seeking to serve and to expect less of people, and more of God.

5) Emptying Ourselves
Last month, I twittered the following:

Christianity 101 - 1) Seek Christ Always; 2) Invite Christ inside; 3) Behave Christlike outside.

I think this is the essence of enjoying and desiring God. Before that can happen, we need to break our alabaster jars of idolatry, and to let ourselves be poured out open in front of the altar. If true worship is to be in Spirit and in Truth, we must let ourselves come to God in Spirit and in Truth. This is the essence of worship: Seeking Christ; Inviting Christ; Becoming Christlike.

In summary, worship is not about us. It is completely about God. It is seeking Christ by letting the Holy Spirit move us. The late bishop of Canterbury, William Temple says it much better than I can. This oft quoted definition of worship can be found in many places.

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love and submission of will to His purpose. All this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of expressions of which we are capable.” (William Temple)

May we learn to do the same by breaking our alabaster jars of idolatry each Sunday, and hopefully every day. Try breaking them this Sunday, and let God work his miracle in you to bring you to a new level of worshiping Christ.

Thought: "Worship is first and foremost for His benefit, not ours, though it is marvelous to discover that in giving Him pleasure, we ourselves enter into what can become our
richest and most wholesome experience in life." (Graham Kendrick)

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