Monday, July 28, 2014

Worship, Prayer, and the Church: Part 2 "Worship"

Oh worship, what a magnificent thing, but unfortunately a practice that is complicated by religious tradition and obligation.  In the last blog I simplified in some ways the concept of what the church is, in other ways its' simplification left it in greater mystery than before.  Worship too will fade almost until it is unattainable, while at the same time it will stand out in renewed clarity.

Worship, the very idea elicits images of people in pews singing from hymnals, the sound of voices mixed in harmony, and the utilization of words and phrases that are intended to teach the singer and hearer about who God is.  Worship is not singing, although you can sing in a worshipful way, it is not the words you speak, although words will give voice to the true intent of expression. Worship is not something that God wants us to do out of obligation, nor is it something that we can just conjure up in our own will power.

Worship is merely an expression of affection of God, to God, and this can be expressed in a myriad of ways. It is simply expressing what we know, what we see, and what we feel. Worship implies relationship, in the sense that we can't have affection for someone that we do not know.  Our worship is a response to how we are affected by Him, how we are changed by Him, and how we are influenced by Him!

God is not after certain words from our lips, he is not after certain actions, or postures of humility or exultation; he is after our hearts.  He is after our affection, that we would love Him!  Just as a married couple would struggle severely if their spouse only gave them affection in 1 way, we too dishonor what God has truly done for us by limiting our expression to Him. Or at least we reveal our inability to see Him clearly by our limited expression.

Worship is supposed to be natural, it is supposed to be full of life and honest affection! Just think of a sports fan, they don't need to work themselves into an emotional high in-order to react to their favorites teams' success or failure. They are just invested in the team and so their emotions are freely expressed in that current reality of what is taking place on the field.  For the most part, we are more free in our worship of sports, music, and human achievement than we are of God.  It is as if we think God wants some sort of pre-packaged proclamation, or religiously regulated interaction.  Let me tell you something, He doesn't!  He wants your heart cry in all its bluntness and honesty.

God wants us to catch a vision of Him, to see Him in such a way that the only reaction we can have is to jump for joy, to fall on our faces in Holy Fear, and to sing with unending praise.  We, as Christians, are meant to be those who know God, who are invested in Him in such a way that when He moves or seems particularly near, our reaction to Him puts even the biggest soccer fans to shame.

Unfortunately God isn't as real to us as our beloved tangible world. You might be offended by that, but I think it is true. On the other hand, when our minds are renewed to see Him within the world rather than apart from it, our affection will brim to the point of overflowing! Breath in our lungs, eternity to look forward to, relationship to engage in, the opportunity to live and make a difference. The deeper our revelation of any of those could leave us breathless with thanksgiving!

I am not blaming anyone for our lack of expression, in some ways it is a reality of us 'seeing through a glass darkly', but there is far more to the reality of God then any of us have experienced so far. There is more available in this life then any of us have attained, and He wants to reveal Himself to us in ever increasing ways!

If our "stand up, raise your hands, turn around, sit down" worship times are an honest expression of our affection to God, than that doesn't speak highly to our revelation of Him in the moment. David danced almost naked in front of his entire city, shaming his wife and causing quite a commotion.  Paul and Silas sang loudly in prison as they saw a reality that was bigger than their current circumstance.

Now before we go any further I will try to make you feel a little better. Can our hearts be expressing affection while our bodies do not? Can we be 'worshipful' even in a traditional setting? Of course we can! There are no limitations to the expression of our affection, I just don't want to box them in or limit the potential interaction with God that could bring us to even more honest and ecstatic responses to His presence!

There is a valid place to honor God intentionally even when we don't necessarily 'feel' like it.  We can have an under-girding understanding of God that pushes us to proclaim His greatness even in the midst of depression or a trying circumstance.  Our past experience can motivate our present expression. This is good and valid, but this isn't the focus right now.  I am talking about the religious restraints we put on worship due to tradition and the fear of man; which, if we are honest, we can all see how we are affected by them in some ways.

Church leaders try to facilitate and motivate people to worship and connect with God, this is a good thing, and we all need help in this regard.  We say things like 'we rejoice Lord', or 'we worship you'; but are we actually being honest here? Are we actually rejoicing or worshiping or are we just saying that we are?  Again you can be worshiping in you hearts no matter what you say.  You could say 'shakalaka' as an honest expression to God, and it would be meaningful to Him; just as you could say 'we rejoice Lord' and actually be rejoicing. But doesn't it strike you as a little bit backwards, a little inhuman?  What if the language we use is influenced on some level by our inability to perceive God in the here and now?

Instead of saying "we proclaim your peace Lord", what if I just yelled 'Peace!'  Of course I would have an understanding of Christ in me, and my delegated authority to partner with the Holy Spirit, but what if we surpassed our religious consciences and stepped into a place of expressing honestly what was happening in the moment rather than trying to facilitate a reaction that may or may not be real.  If you don't want to stand then don't stand, if you don't want to raise your hands then don't; but if your affection just can't be contained then dance away, shout, and flail! Don't do it to offend people or to be weird, but just be honest with God ok!!!

Can you imagine yourself responding to God like you do at a sports game? What about how you react at the announcement of a friends engagement or a family members baby being born? Instead of a pre-meditated monologue, or a boring set of songs to sing, what if you just whooped in glee, laughed in joy, or hollered in exhilaration?  What if we saw God in such a real way that our expression to Him was a testimony of how close He is to us?  What if we had such an awareness of what God was doing in our midst that our greatest expression of emotion in life revolved around Him!?  What if we went absolutely bonkers in love and adoration of our amazing Father who saved us, set us free, and transformed our lives? Instead of our expression often implies that what He did wasn't that great. Lets stop trying to trick ourselves.

What if we got together with a bunch of other people who were honestly expressing themselves to God in relation to their present perception, experiences, and circumstances?  I think we would experience the Holy Spirit in pretty amazing ways.  Unfortunately our fear of man, our insecurities, and our inability to perceive God clearly, limits our expression both individually and corporately.  We end up just trying to motivate people to 'give God some sort of glory', and hope that they at least express something that is true.

I am not saying these things to make you feel bad, although i am not put-off if you want to feel bad.  This is a welcome into an upward climb into His glory, an invitation to express yourself honestly no matter the situation or expected protocol.  If you want to sit then sit, if you want to sing then sing, if you want to worship in the same way as a community for a while, then do that!! If you aren't as exuberant as the person next yo you, who cares! Thank God for what they are doing with them, hope they are being honest, invite Him to reveal Himself to you, and get back to expressing the affection you have for God. May we grow in our knowledge of Christ, and may our expression to Him be transformed to the same degree!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Worship, Prayer, and the Church: Part 1 "The Church"

What is the church, what is prayer, what is worship? So many times our perspective and practice of these things are skewed from years of routine, dead tradition, and performance mentalities.  Let us define these together; I want these explanations to be deep but simple, challenging but hopeful,  understandable and yet insightful.

Out of these 3 areas, the church is the first one we must tackle; and before we get started I want to say that I love the church.  I love God's people, and the Holy Spirit is alive and at work even when we don't see it.  There are many communities that honor each other well, who obey the Father's voice, who know who Jesus is, and live from His victory.  There are communities and leaders that I respect, that I know are Godly, and that cultivate genuine and intentional interaction with each other and with the Lord.

I also recognize God's ability to work with all of us in the midst of our misunderstanding, our stupidity, and our inability to relate with Him in a full way.  We are all realizing more and more God's love for us, and the freedom that we truly have because of Christ's sacrifice. I desire to rejoice in every small victory, and all evidence of the Holy Spirit's work, no matter how small I deem it.

I also recognize that when large groups of people get together you need structure; you need a plan otherwise there would be chaos.  I do not think that structure is bad, in fact it is necessary, but we can come to a place of serving that structure rather than making the structure serve us.

I say these things because my language is going to become more critical, even more cynical; but just as my hope drops in man's capability to religiously regulate community and transformation, my hope and excitement grows in knowing what the Father desires and is capable of working in and through us.

As you read, try not to automatically exclude yourself from my generalized observations and convictions; for I think much of this applies to all of us one way or the other (that is probably why we call it a 'generalization').  After all we live in a very 'churched' nation, where most everyone has had some experience with church in one way shape or form; and unfortunately that experience isn't always positive.

In defining the church, my hope is that you are able to begin to questions why it is we do things the way we do.  Who's idea was it to meet once a week and have an educational lesson? Why do we pray the way we do? Do I need a 'prayer voice'? Should I kneel, bow, or stand in prayer? What is worship? Is God glorified by my words or by my heart's affection? For my part, I think these questions are even the wrong ones to ask, and they themselves reveal a deep misunderstanding of our connection with God and how simple it is to actually relate with Him in a genuine way.  Our preconceived notions, self-dependent theology, and religious pre-disposition can easily keep us from the truth of walking with, and experiencing God Himself!  I do not want to have "a form of Godliness that denies His power (2 Timothy 3:5)", but unfortunately that is often how we function (myself included).

Church is a word that carries many connotations both negative and positive. Some people see church as a building where Christians meet. Others see the church as a group of narrow minded, stubborn, hypocrites. Many young people recognize that 'church' is boring and it seems irrelevant and intangible, so they decide to leave once they have the independence to do so. There is a large portion of people that go to 'church' because they feel guilty.  They think it is the 'right thing to do', or that God will surely look at them differently if they enter into this religious practice.  This mindset is so far from actually understanding the Gospel and the church that I don't even really want to expound on it.

Church is translated from a word in Greek that is found only a couple times in scripture. We will look at the one instance where Jesus uses it.

"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' Andy they said, 'Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it (Matthew 16:13-18)."

Let's pick this passage apart for a while. Jesus asks the disciples who people say that 'the son of man' is. He assumes that very same title, by asking the disciples, 'but who do you say that I am.' Peter is given a revelation from Father God Himself, about the nature of Jesus, the nature of the son of man. He recognizes Jesus' true identity, of being the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Now this truth that Peter came to, got Jesus' attention, for it was different than what everyone else was saying. He blesses Peter by first calling out his name, Petros; which in Greek means 'a detached rock or boulder.'  He then goes on to say that on this rock, petra: which means 'a solid or native rock, rising up from the earth', he will build his church.

Now the Catholic church has taken this passage to mean that Peter was the first pope, and that Jesus was instituting Peter to lead the church.  Although Peter was one of the first to come to a revelation of this truth, and perhaps the first person to become a part of the 'church, I do not think this interpretation does the passage justice. The emphasis here is on the different Greek words for rock. Petra, rather than referring to Peter himself, is more likely referring to the revelation that Jesus is the Christ. Petros is just a part of the whole (petra).

The word church, is translated from Ekklesia, which was a word used in the Roman government to describe a ruling assembly.  The word means 'out from and to', so a group of people that have been separated for a purpose. So now for our definition of the church. "The church is the group of people that are set apart from others by the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Now the next question is, what does it mean to 'know that Jesus is the Christ.' What does that entail? Is it who He is? Or what He has done. Did he save us or will he 'if we believe in Him'? But does not believing in Him mean that we understand what He has already done for us? Is this knowledge primarily intellectual, or is it emotional, experiential?  These questions have separated Christians since the early church; and how we can have confidence that one person or another actually has a true revelation of Christ I don't know.  Do I even know what Christ has done for me, do you really know who He is?  That not being the purpose of this particular scripture passage, or that important in my opinion, it will suffice to say that this revelation seems to be the necessary factor for one being a part of the 'church'.

So here we have person A who has come to the 'secret' knowledge of who Christ is and what He has done.  Now for all of us, we can maybe point to a time in our lives when we happened upon this tidbit of information.  It may have been quite an exciting time! "Holy crap God is real!" "He loves me, and saved me!" "I am forgiven and no longer feel guilt and shame from the past!" "I just got taken up into 3rd heaven and saw angels!" "I feel good, at peace, at rest." "I now know that I can face these struggles in my life because I have someone facing them with me." Whatever the experience that person A may have had, lets just assume that it would be dynamic since Jesus goes so far as to say we become completely 'new creatures', maybe not dynamic experientially, but we will be satisfied with a dynamic objective change (2 Cor. 5:17).

How much transformation needs to be evident in a person's life for us to have confidence in their faith? Frankly I don't think it matters that much, and I don't think that is our job; but that question causes quite a conundrum for believers all over the world and it drives us to control and regulate our lives with God.

Scenario: The Simple Church
Person A meets Person B who also 'knows Jesus' (whatever that really means).  They now have the most intimate connection any 2 people can have, the shared knowledge of Jesus Himself.  Chances are they will want to spend time together, since no one else seems to get the fact that Jesus came to save them.  They just have so much to share, so much in common, so much to discover together! So Person A and Person B start spending time together, they genuinely express to themselves how awesome God is, and they tell God how awesome He is too (worship).  Since they know that Jesus connected them to the Father (John 14:7), they start talking to Him, asking Him questions and making requests from Him; both for themselves and for each other (prayer).

There you have it, the church! It is simple and real.  The people are just naturally engaging out of what they know and experience.  Of course in our day it is far more complicated than that.  We are real people after all! Thousands of theological understandings, the reality that people can still be self-centered, and the fact that there is enormous pressure to have 'right thinking' and 'right practice', transforms a simple expression of genuine thought and emotion into a complex system of what is right and wrong.  Theology is important, and I understand why and how we have made this 'Christian thing' so complex, but this helps us simplify our understanding of church and sheds light onto how it became what it is today.  On with the scenario!

So soon the new church becomes muddled with worry and fear, with insecurity and guilt.  Person A doesn't think Person B really understands Jesus because he surely wouldn't complain about Person C who also started hanging out with them.  Meanwhile Person C feels completely inferior to Person A and B because they keep claiming that they have a truer and more whole understanding of Jesus.

Person D comes along from a different community that she left because she felt like 'her leadership gifts' weren't being used, and tells everyone that if they really want to 'know Jesus' they should try and worship more.  Soon everyone falls into the religious rigmarole of trying to be better, to do things differently or exactly the same, and they forget their simple beginnings. They forget to rely on the person of God himself, they forget the joy of knowing and resting in who Jesus is and what He has done.  They feel bound up by expectation, they fear the opinions of others, and now feel pretty inadequate before God.  Oh the difficulties of an imperfect world!

Worship and prayer become practice that Christians 'should' participate in rather than them being natural responses from present experiences.  Religion takes over and we feel obligated to do certain things, ro feel certain ways, and even to speak certain words.  Freedom that Christ promises becomes bondage to religious practices and principles.  Person Q, R, and S (the younger generation), look at what they are 'told they have to do', but don't actually have the genuine encounters and revelation themselves, so they reject the package that Christ supposedly comes in.  A, B, and C become really worried because the good 'church' kids became rebels later in life.  They didn't realize that 'church' is not a good substitute for Jesus himself; and although they had good intentions to help their children be 'good eggs', they did a greater disservice by undermining the work of Christ by worshiping a form of Godliness rather than God himself.

Church is the natural byproduct of a true revelation of Jesus, it the simple and genuine interaction between people who have come to the same conclusion about who Christ is. Much simpler said than done obviously.  Worship and Prayer are also meant to be simple, real, genuine ways we talk to and relate with God, but because of our religious heritage and our 'churchiness' they become obligatory practices that are muddled with all the manner of insecurity and mis-understanding. Religion causes us to want to produce things in ourselves or in others that aren't being produced naturally.  We fall under guilty compulsion to love God because we know we 'should' love God.  We create a system out of prayer, not just for practical efficiency, but because we actually have very little desire talk to God on our own. We know certain thoughts, practices, and feelings are 'good' to have, so we try to make them happen, or even worse we fake it.

What is the solution? Well I don't really know.  I have some ideas, but for now let's just get real and be honest. We can admit that we don't really know what we are doing, and that we have climbed the ladder of religion that leads to nowhere in at least some area of our lives.

I am tired of jumping through religious hoops, of doing something just for the sake of it being a 'good idea'.  I am frustrated with our inability to honestly address insecurity, fallibility, and even doubt.  I am tired of caring more what other people think than what God thinks.  I am tired of honoring a system and a form while missing out on the tangible reality of God Himself.  I am sick of moral compromise and the love of religion. Are you?

 The church is supposed to be the most dynamic community this world has ever seen. The way we relate with each other, how we handle difficulty and struggle, our patience, love, and joy! Not to mention the demonstration of His power that scripture associates with the 'people of God'.  Regardless of all our inadequacies and failures, we have a lot of good going for us too. The Holy Spirit is faithfully moving and working as He always has and will do, millions of people in the world have been touched and changed by Jesus, and the church is the light of the world; but lets give the Spirit as much space as possible because we haven't even gotten close to our potential.  Lets learn to expect His involvement and stop 'doing church' because it is comfortable and safe. Let us dig deep until our interactions with each other and with God are no longer soiled by obligation, guilt, fear, or religious duty, but until they are true, honest, real, and tangible!