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Category Archives: Worship

Don’t Criticize Our Worship!

Read Amos 7:9-17

A bit more on the plumb line text from Amos…

God shows Amos that he is “setting a plumb line in the midst” of the people. And it’s clear that the people won’t measure up. Destruction is imminent … but where will it be centered? “The high places”, “the sanctuaries”, that’s where (v. 9).

When it comes to worship, the people of God have, throughout the scriptures, always had the propensity to drift. Specifically, we tend to want to incorporate what we think are attractive additions to God’s prescriptions- either things we dream up, or things we pick up from the culture around us. Golden calves. Unauthorized fire. The high places. But why would we go beyond what God has called for? Almost always, it’s because we want to enjoy His worship more.

In today’s text, the high priest Amaziah has had enough of Amos. Amaziah is the leader of the worship program at Bethel – a brand of worship enjoyed by the wealthy Samarians, which incorporates some of the most attractive, diverse, intercultural elements of the neighboring religions. This bumpkin Amos has already declared Bethel’s worship offensive to the very God it claims to honor. Now, he has the gall to say that the sanctuary building will actually be ruined? Who would say such a thing about a fine, successful, religious man, his organization, his services, and his facility? So, Amaziah rallies the political support of the King, and then tells Amos to go home to Judah, and never return*.

It is almost impossible to speak prophetic correction into someone’s worship experience: there is so much self there. Worship can be very emotional. The use of the arts helps us express that emotion. When it comes to one’s heart and art, it gets very subjective, very personal. To say to someone “your worship is wrong” can, and does, elicit a violent reaction.

But Jesus is coming! In Luke 18:8, Jesus asked cryptically: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” The very fact that Jesus asked that question should make us cautious and reflective about our faith practices as we await His return. Are we willing to hear Amos-like challenges to the way we express ourselves to God? Or are we so confident in what we’re doing (after all, I picked this church because I really like the worship!) that we, too, would be dismissive of corrective criticism?

Because we need it! We need a plumb line for our worship more than ever. Because, like lemmings to the sea, our contemporary church has let the influences of our secular culture not only infect, but even set the agenda for our gatherings. They are now far less for God, and far more for people – often for unbelieving people. We do this in the name of “evangelism”, which is often simply a pseudo-spiritual redefinition of business development and procuring market share. Most church leaders have given little-to-no thought about the actual divine prescriptions for their people’s worship. Oh, that Amos would come to us today … and that we would not just send him away, but would hear his voice, repent, and do what is needed to be found pleasing Him in our worship when He returns!

(You…you want me to go now?…)

– EO

*(By the way, Amos could have said, “Okay, sorry, I went too far, I’ll just go.” Instead, Amos tells Amaziah that his wife will become a prostitute, his kids will be killed, his country will be taken over, his people Israel will be exiled, and he himself will die. Talk about doubling down!)

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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos, Eschatology, Worship

 

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God, Do You Hate Our Worship?

Read Amos 5:21-27

I have been a pastor for worship for several churches in my career. One thing that has always been true: When it comes to high holy days, we ramp up the arts. It seems obvious that the major festivals – especially Christmas and Easter – deserve our best, artistic offerings of worship. It’s as though we want to give God the biggest possible “thank you” for His actions connected to these important days. (Either that, or we want to impress and entice unbelievers.)

Today’s passage in Amos 5 makes me wonder if we’re really on the right track, especially during Advent.

Israel’s religion was strong. The faith-centers were well funded. The music being made was probably at a never-before experienced cultural apex.  Hey, if God is prospering us, attendance is great, and our arts expressions are excellent, surely God must be pleased, right?

A paraphrase of v.21-23 for our modern day has God saying through Amos … “I hate your big productions, as well as your pensive, ‘worshipful’ services. You’re taking big offerings, but they’re not for me, and I don’t want them. I choose to not even take notice. I prefer silence to your worship music, and I’m ignoring your massive bands and sound systems.” Is there any chance God feels this way about today’s contemporary, megachurch worship? Especially during the holidays, when so many of the people singing along don’t even believe?

But why, exactly, was God so against these services? Because the people were practicing injustice and unrighteousness (v.24). The familiar theme of Amos is repeated: The economics of the rich were oppressing the poor. In addition, their worship practices were filled with unholy influences. Sakkuth, Kaiwan, some images … very trendy, very inclusive, very fashion-forward, very worldly … and very much detested by the LORD. The next stop for these worshipers? Forced exile.

The heart of Advent is that we would prepare our hearts from the coming of Christ. If these Israelites had prepared themselves in light of Amos’ prophecies, they would have jettisoned their corrupted worship practices, and focused their attention on generously loving their neighbor as themselves. We ought to do the same thing. But it’s hard to focus on this kind of self-assessment and repentance when we crank up the Christmas music, go to special performances, gorge ourselves at parties and feasts, and spend hours in the temples built to the god Mammon (the malls).

My takeaway today? I need some silence this season. Time to truly consider the LORD, the call of His Word, and the needed preparations for His arrival. As the carol declares, “He makes the nations prove the glories of righteousness.” Before He does that by means of the nations, may He do that, by His Spirit, through His holy nation, the people of God. Might His righteousness roll like an ever-flowing stream from the lives of His church.

Then our songs shall truly be heard by the only audience that matters.

– EO

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2015 in Advent 2015, Amos, Worship

 

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Is Our Amos Moment Coming?

Second Monday of Advent

Read Amos 3:9-15

The prosperous, wealthy kingdom was about to be brought low by the Lord.

(Interesting: God does everything He does in order for the world to see and understand Him. Even as He’s about to bring Israel down, he invites the power brokers from rival nations (Philistia, Egypt) to gather on the hillsides of Samaria – like festival seating – and watch the collapse.)

Their impending doom is coming from the outside – from the Assyrians, who will break them down and seal their possessions. But, make no mistake: The primary cause of Israel’s downfall is internal. “See what great tumults are within it, and what oppressions are in its midst. They do not know how to do right, says the Lord, those who store up violence and robbery within their strongholds.”  They were rich and strong, but their moral compass was lost.

(Grace: A central theme of the Old Testament is tucked into v.12. The word “rescue” leaps off the page with some unexpected hope. It won’t be most, and it won’t be many, but there will be a remnant from this beleaguered nation that will live on in fulfillment of God’s covenant. Amos uses the gruesome analogy of a few limbs remaining after being eaten by a lion. He also says that their beloved prosperity will be whittled down to “a corner of a couch, and part of a bed”… but they will live on.”)

Back to the judgment at hand. Two specific targets of God’s wrath are highlighted in vs. 13-15. First, Amos says God is going to “punish the altars.” He’s angry at the compromised religious practices. Second, God is going to tear down the residences and riches of the upper class. He’s angry at the economic inequality made possible through oppressive economic practices.

Can I just say it? I don’t see how 21st century citizens of the U.S. can read this, and think that we’re in some way different than Amos’ Israel. The inequity between the riches of the upper-middle class and the experience of the national poor (much less global) far exceeds that described in these Old Testament verses. We enjoy opulence that would make the Caesars envious. And the corruption of our faith practices is as plain as the growing noses on our faces. How does God feel about “His people”, cruising to their prosperity gospel churches in their expensive clothes and cars, to hear a message about “God’s favor”, while glorying in the “God-given” strength of our super-power nation? I’m sure the idea of a nationwide internal implosion would be scoffed at just as it was in Amos’ day. But might it be inevitable?

More to our Advent point: Is there anything we can do to repent and turn the tide before the destruction commences? Could we return to the rigorous truths of God in His Word? Could we cease striving for the prosperity of the American Dream, and instead live for the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness?

May we be part of the solution … or at least a part of the remnant of grace.

– EO

 

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A Response to “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman

A good friend forwarded me the article Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman. I thought his comments deserved a response from someone who has adopted the practice of Lent for the past several decades…though it was not a part of my original church tradition.

“When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.” Wow. Nothing like putting the reader on the defensive in the opening statement. As a career pastor, and instructor of church history at Phoenix Seminary, I find this personally offensive. Now, because I practice Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need to prove that I’m not poorly instructed, that I do have a theology, and that I am a part of my own history.

(Why does believer-to-believer dialogue have to take this kind of shape? Is this kind? Is it anything like accurate? Or are blogs without incendiary remarks like these simply too boring to read? A subject for another time…)

Or, Trueman goes on to say, maybe I’m just a worldly, superficial consumer. Or I’m just “trying to look cool”. Or I’m “carnal”. Or that I’ll just “appropriate anything that catches my fancy”. And, clearly, I am “eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires.” Why does he assume an embrace of Ash Wednesday can’t also be an embrace of the wider riches of a liturgical tradition? For me to adopt a rhythm that I believe helps shape my soul – whether it’s Ash Wednesday, attending Sunday School, or a daily Bible-reading regimen, does it have to be reduced to “an eclectic grab bag” of spirituality?

It seems that for Trueman, to be Presbyterian, you have to stay Presbyterian, and you dare not learn from anyone else’s practices.Trueman states that “Old School Presbyterianism is a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder…the Anglicans.” Plunder – that’s a pejorative word, is it not? We shouldn’t plunder because “an appropriate rich and reformed sacramentalism” renders Lent “irrrelevant”. So, we should just stick with Presbyterian Sundays, and not add a special Wednesday form of worship? Does Presbyterian worship render my quiet time irrelevant, too? In what way is it edifying to pit one act of worship against another? (I guess the Presbyterians are saying “once-saved-in-your-tradition, always-saved-in-your-tradition”…perseverance of the worship?)

What I can’t figure out is this: Countless contemporary Evangelicals long for a richer experience of worship because of the bankrupt nature of the drivel that passes for thoughtful worship today. I have to believe that Trueman wishes better for them as well. So, if they explore some of the practices of liturgical traditions, why jump on them like it’s a bad thing? The tradition I was saved in – dispensational fundamentalism – left me with a bare cupboard. Can I not explore the broader traditions in search for something more?

Some other allusions Trueman makes: Lent-followers say it should be normative for all Christians (I’ve never met such an animal – cite a quote here?); Christians developed the church calendar to control peoples’ lives (maybe some, but certainly not all, or even most – and give me examples, please); All traditions have unbiblical forms of worship (maybe some, but most are extrabiblical, not unbiblical – examples?); That practicing Lent in a congregations is an objectionable “imposition” (don’t we “impose” a host of practices on our people every Sunday, including bad music and bad sermons?!?).

The grand issue I take with in Trueman’s article is the notion that certain traditions of our faith are not mine to practice — that, if I’m a Protestant, I certainly shouldn’t do a Catholic or Orthodox thing. Or that, if I’m a Presbyterian, I shouldn’t do an Anglican or Baptist thing. I find that sort of parochial attitude somewhere between mystifying and pathetic. The Christian tradition is my tradition. It’s my family. And I refuse to play Hatfields-and-McCoys when it comes to my practices.

Okay … some points of wholehearted agreement:

“The reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” Agreed.This is why I’ve always believed that contemporary Christianity will inevitably seek out practices, both old and new, with more substance. So let them explore, and don’t call their character and theology into question for trying out and even adopting things along the way.

“If your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.” Agreed. This is what I eventually did. I spent years trying to usher contemporary churches, void of heritage, back into their greater, catholic (small-c) heritage. An admirable pursuit I still believe, but very tough sledding. Eventually, I embraced the classical Lutheran tradition (which now needs a dose of contemporary Evangelicalism’s energy and passion). I think Trueman is okay with me now, that I’m “all in” — but before then, I because I was prone to only borrow idea from other traditions, my character and theology would certainly have been impugned.   

“Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is” considered a good time to offer a generalized reprimand to one’s broader spiritual family, because some of us have been blessed by the appropriation of edifying elements from our worship heritage. This, while priggishly espousing one’s own styles as the plumb line or orthodoxy and depth? I fail to see how this is edifying.

– Bill Hartley

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Discipleship, Worship

 

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