The Great Exchange

Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
– cast off that I might be brought in,
– trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend,
– surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best,
– stripped that I might be clothed,
– wounded that I might be healed,
– athirst that I might drink,
– tormented that I might be comforted,
– made a shame that I might inherit glory,
– entered darkness that I might have eternal light.

My Savior wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes,
– groaned that I might have endless song,
– endured all pain that I might have unfading health,
– bore a thorned crown that I might have a glory-diadem,
– bowed his head that I might uplift mine,
– experienced reproach that I might receive welcome,
– closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness,
– expired that I might for ever live.

–from The Valley of Vision

Hurry and Worry, part 2


The clock is my dictator; I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted;
It leads me to deep depression;
It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy for activity’s sake.

Even though I run frantically from task to task I will never get it all done.
For my ideal is with me;
Deadlines and my need for approval they drive me;
They demand performance from me beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines;
My in-basket overflows.

–author unknown

A Heavenly Perspective

Suppose a man was going to New York to take possession of a large estate, and his carriage should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him wringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, “My carriage is broken! My carriage is broken!”

–John Newton (in Richard Cecil, “Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton,” The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Vol. 1 [Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985], 108 )

*  *  *  *  *

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

–Jesus Christ (Matthew 13:45-46)

The Glory of Mercy

Through heaven and earth so shall My glory excel,
But mercy first and last shall brightest shine.

–Milton, Paradise Lost

* * * *

“He exalts himself to show mercy to you.”

–Isaiah 30:18

* * * *

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

–Romans 15:8-9

The Priority of Participation

The current generation of Christians, having been raised in a culture of television, radio, CDs and personal listening devices, has slipped into the habit of living life vicariously. We no longer gather around the piano for an informal sing-along, but just slide a CD or DVD into the player. Our “sophisticated” tastes have come to expect and be satisfied only with polished symphony orchestras, high-profile singing idols and technological bells and whistles. We are dissatisfied with our own often imperfect attempts to make music and want to be “ministered to,” if not by professionals, at least by the more competent and gifted in our congregation. . . .

Indeed, many great pieces of music were never intended to be sung by a group at all, but rather by soloists. Meditating on the words of a song performed by others can be a significant spiritual exercise, as much as reflecting on the words of a book written by a Christian author of acknowledged wisdom and insight. The value of listening to beautiful music itself, apart from the lyrics, should not be underestimated. We are created in the image of a creator God, as creative beings ourselves, and the exercise of our creative gifts can bring glory to God as well as edification and pleasure to others.

Performance of sacred music certainly has a valuable place in the worship service. Problems ensue, however, when performance dominates the music at the expense of participation. Morganthaler warns, “We are not producing worshippers in this country. Rather, we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God” [Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism, 17].

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 145-46

Music and Culture

All music is a product of culture, past or present, and . . . previous historical cultures were as deeply flawed as our modern Western one. Even the Israelite culture that produced the Psalms, the ultimate book of praise songs and the only one to achieve canonical status (something even Bach and Isaac Watts have failed to do), was constantly corrupted by syncretism, apostasy and sin. . . . The tendency to use what is familiar and popular—the musical vernacular—and sanctify it for holy purposes, has powerful precedents throughout church history.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 150-51

An Audience of One

Søren Kierkegaard originated the idea that in worship, the congregation is not the audience; they are the performers. The worship team members are not the performers; they are the promoters. God is the ultimate audience. . . . When we purchase a ticket to a concert we have the right to base our choice of performer and music on our personal tastes and preferences, whether that be Renaissance motets or acid rock. We have the right to criticize the performance, and evaluate whether we got our money’s worth. We have the right to sit passively and expect to be entertained. Depending on our mood and personality, we have the right to have our expectations realized, whether that involves being intellectually challenged by a complex work brilliantly performed, or experiencing emotional catharsis brought on by a deeply moving and evocative work. We even have the right to leave at the intermission if we are disappointed. If Kierkegaard is right, however, this all changes when it comes to worship.

If Yahweh, the true and living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is the audience, and we are the performers, then we must approach worship with infinitely more humility and reverence. God initiates the conversation in this encounter. If he makes us aware of our sinfulness, we should lament, and if he reveals to us his majesty and goodness, we should offer praise and thanksgiving. If he speaks to us and says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4), we have no right to sulk or sigh if we prefer contemporary songs and other believers like traditional hymns. If we are told, “Sing
to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name” (Ps 30:4), we have no right to sit and expect others to entertain us or make us “feel good.” If we are to tell of his greatness to unbelievers, then we must welcome outsiders into the context of our praise, and speak the truth to them in love.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 156

The Case for Choruses

There is a significant difference, however, between simple and simplistic; profound truths can be simply and powerfully stated. The sheer density of theological ideas in some traditional hymns, and the abstract literary techniques used in their composition, would place them out of the conceptual range of many people, especially the young, the new immigrant and the new believer, who have not yet developed fluency in “Christianese.” Focusing on one or two well-stated ideas at a time could actually promote depth of understanding.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 149

Catechized by Consumerism

As daily consumers of popular media culture, we have learned to be egocentric in our selection, selfish in our evaluation, impatient for gratification and eager for novelty.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 147

[We have been] catechized by consumerism.

–E. Byron Anderson, “Worship and Theological Education,” Theological Education, Vol. 39, Number 1 (2003):120

Dynamic Tension

The Christian faith is full of tensions, between the law and grace, between judgment and mercy, between the divinity and humanity of Jesus, between free will and the sovereignty of God, and between the “already” and the “not yet,” to name but a few. It is as simplistic and counterproductive to attempt to resolve these tensions by advocating an insipid, trite, “one size fits all” theology, as it is arbitrary and presumptuous to recognize only one end of the continuum as the ultimate truth of God. In the theology and practice of worship, as in all these areas, Christians must learn to live with dynamic tensions. To do so is not only possible, it is preferable, for it is only in honestly wrestling and interacting with a spectrum of truth that is beyond our current finite comprehension that we keep our faith alive and active, that we keep our theology humble and faithful, and that we keep our practice relevant and honouring to God. All this is particularly true in the contentious area of worship music styles and practices. . . .

If Yahweh, the true and living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is the audience, and we are the performers, then we must approach worship with infinitely more humility and reverence. . . . If we accept this paradigm of worship, then we will be far more able and willing to compromise in the positive sense: to keep these tensions in dynamic, constructive balance. We will be more able to celebrate the diversity of our fellow-believers and to integrate their modes of worship with our own, without resorting to divisiveness and exclusiveness, extremism or simplistic solutions.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 133, 156

A Neverending Battle

Too often we don’t construct worship “for God” but for individuated consumers who come for an experience of God. This is how we manage to endlessly fight over worship. For those coming to be fed, taste is a neverending battle. [emphasis mine]

–J. d. Walt, “It’s All About Who? Part Two”

For Whom? About Whom?

Too many of our worship songs are more about us than God. Yes, we say the words “praise/thank/bless God,” but mostly, what for?

For glorious attributes and wonderful mysteries? For historic deeds and cosmic judgments? For rescuing the widow and orphan? For setting the captive free? For humbling the arrogant and sending the rich away hungry? For spinning galaxies and salting starfields with glorious light? Uh, no.

Rather, we praise God for holding us close, for keeping us secure, for making us feel loved and blessed and forgiven and warm and cozy in our electric blanket of eternal security (with a warm comforter of national security thrown in too). We congratulate God on how well God is meeting our needs. When we say, “You’re such a good God,” it sometimes sounds like comforting words spoken to a pet.

It pains me to say that, but I think it needs to be said.

When we’re not affirming God for how well we’re nurtured, our songs often congratulate ourselves on how well we respond to God’s grace. Have you noticed how much we sing about how loud or passionately we sing? We talk a lot about what we’re going to do—usually in the singular: I will worship, I will praise you, I will bow down, etc., etc. One beautiful and well-intentioned song even tells us that God thinks of “me above all.”

As my professor friend says, “Begging your pardon: the only person who thinks of Me above all is Me.”

–Brian McLaren, “It’s All About Who, Jesus?”

Peeling Off Our Conceit

“When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I
could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and
wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much
their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate
music. But as I went on I saw the merit of it. I came up against different
people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then
gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which
were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and
benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then
you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your
solitary conceit.”

–C.S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” in God in the Dock:
Essays on Theology and Ethics
, 61-62

Valued for the Intention

“We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. . . . For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.”

–C. S. Lewis, “On Church Music” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

Rash Assumptions

“The first and most solid conclusion which (for me) emerges is that both musical parties, the High Brows and the Low, assume far too easily the spiritual value of the music they want. Neither the greatest excellence of a trained performance from the choir, nor the heartiest and most enthusiastic bellowing from the pews, must be taken to signify that any specifically religious activity is going on. It may be so, or it may not.”

–C. S. Lewis, “On Church Music” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

Of Planes and Pews

People on a plane and people on a pew have a lot in common. All are on a journey. Most are well-behaved and presentable. Some doze, and others gaze out the window. Most, if not all, are satisfied with a predictable experience. For many, the mark of a good flight and the mark of a good worship assembly are the same. “Nice,” we like to say. “It was a nice flight/It was a nice worship service.” We exit the same way we enter, and we’re happy to return next time.

A few, however, are not content with nice. They long for something more. The boy who just passed me did. I heard him before I saw him. I was already in my seat when he asked, “Will they really let me meet the pilot?” He was either lucky or shrewd because he made the request just as he entered the plane. The question floated into the cockpit, causing the pilot to lean out. “Someone looking for me?” he asked. The boy’s hand shot up like he was answering his second grade teacher’s question. “Well, come on in.” With a nod from his mom, the youngster entered the cockpit’s world of controls and gauges and emerged minutes later with eyes wide. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “I’m so glad to be on this plane!”

He wanted to see the pilot. If asked to describe the flight, he wouldn’t say “nice.” He’d likely produce the plastic wings the pilot gave him and say, “I saw the man up front.”

Do you see why I say that people on a plane and people on a pew have a lot in common? Enter a church sanctuary and look at the faces. A few are giggly, a couple are cranky, but by and large we are content. Content to be there. Content to sit and look straight ahead and leave when the service is over. Content to enjoy an assembly with no surprises or turbulence. Content with a “nice” service. “Seek and you will find,” Jesus promised. And since a nice service is what we seek, a nice service is usually what we find. A few, however, seek more. A few come with the childlike enthusiasm of the boy. And those few leave as he did, wide-eyed with the wonder of having stood in the presence of the pilot himself.

–Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus, excerpts from pages 77-79

Of Amateurs and Adoration

[recalling the time when he was young, and he and his brother made a disaster out of preparing Mother’s Day breakfast for their mother]

“Even when Christian worship is at its best, it is much like that Mother’s Day breakfast. It is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen over-cooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration.”

–Thomas C. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, vii