Monday, December 17, 2012

Starry Night

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas, but not in the traditional sense of the term. Carols about Jesus, nativity scenes and “Merry Christmas” greetings have been edged out of town hall and marketplace in favour of Santa and “Happy Holidays”. Since this has been a gradual process that mirrors the secularization of our culture, most people have adapted to the changes without too much protest. A segment of the Christian Church has bucked the trend, meeting with modest success in retaining a nativity scene here and there, but my sense is that the eventual outcome of this struggle has been decided.

It is understandable that Christians might be disappointed that this is happening. How will people know or care about Jesus if mangers and crosses aren’t there to remind them? Regardless of whether or not we think it is realistic to expect a largely secularized culture to embrace Christian observances, I don’t think we need to be anxious about this. It may be true that increasingly more people either cannot or will not recognize Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, but I don’t know if hearing Christ-honouring carols in Starbucks is going to turn that tide.

The traditions and practices of the Church are a great encouragement to those of us who know God, so we continue to sing “O Holy Night” and place manger scenes on our mantelpieces. We remind each other of the great truths of our faith. We honour and glorify the Lord by celebrating what he’s doing for us and for the world. However it is not outward religious observance that leads unbelievers to discover their need for Christ. Ultimately, the Father draws them to the Son, who in turn resides in and amongst those who believe in him.

It’s a miracle, really, that the light of Christ shines through his followers - a God thing that defies rational understanding. As I contemplate this, a picture comes to mind. I see the world, awash with movement and activity, yet shrouded in darkness. People rush to and fro, bumping into each other, full of confusion. Dotted here and there are light beacons, similar to those that guide airplanes toward the airport at night. To me, that is a picture of spiritual reality. God, in his unsearchable wisdom, has chosen to place the glory of Jesus in the cradle of the Church. We aren’t perfect, but we reflect the light of Christ, like beacons guiding people home to the Father.

So, as the brightness of sacred carols and manger scenes in town squares and marketplaces dims, perhaps something even greater will come into focus. I might compare it to what happens at night, if we leave behind the artificial brightness of city lights and head out into the dark countryside. Oh my – see how many stars there are and how they twinkle so brightly without the competition of human-made illumination! Let it be so with God’s people, as we grow in the love and knowledge of Christ. May he reveal his presence among us to those who are walking in darkness.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. 
(Phil. 2: 14-15)

Merry Christmas, readers!
Photo Credits:
Manger scene:
Starry night:

This post first appeared at:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Worship And Mumford

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, 
the name of the Lord is to be praised. ~ Psalm 113:3

I’ve discovered that worship is not my natural forte. I’ll give you an example. It’s Sunday and I’m in church. I’ve settled my belongings around me, scanned the bulletin for interesting tidbits of information and am now people-watching. The band starts to play quietly and the worship leader calls us to stand and prepare to praise God. The opening bars of the first song are peppy and engaging and people start to clap to the beat. It seems churlish not to join in, so I clap too and try to stir up some enthusiasm.

Oh-oh – the song leader sings in the tenor range and I find it so difficult to wrap my alto voice around his key signature. I try to pick out the harmony line and, once I’ve found it, start to wonder if I’m singing off key. Will the people in front of me hear my sour notes? On the next song, I try to focus less on my voice and more on thoughts of God. This song is a favourite of many and people clap, sway and raise their hands, reaching up to acknowledge God’s greatness. I lift my arms too, but wonder, “Am I just doing this because everyone else is?” 

The man across the aisle is yelling, “Praise Jesus!” every few seconds and, after valiantly suppressing my annoyance at this distraction, my next thought is: “Why can’t I get as excited as he does about praising God? Lord, help me to worship you in spirit and in truth.”  We start to sing the contemporary hymn, In Christ Alone, and the words, so beautifully true, edge past my intellect and find a tender spot in my heart.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.*

I ask God to forgive all the red herring thoughts that entice my mind away from Him during worship times and then thank him for the steady stream of love and grace he pours out on me through Christ. Sudden tears well up and a wave of something akin to joy washes over me. I know in my head that God is with us all the time, but now I experience His presence and it fills some empty, needy part of me that cries out like a hungry baby bird. For the next few songs, I bask in this sense of communion with God.

And then there’s a bit of a lull and I think, “I wonder if we’ll go for coffee after the service today?  I’m hungry.”
Worship: the crown and centre of the Christian life and foundational to the relationship between God and his people. And I have a problem with it. It isn’t the concept of worship that bothers me, nor do I have an argument with the way in which various church groups express it.  As you may have guessed by now, I struggle with an inability to completely engage in it.  God is right there in our midst and yet it is clear that I am obsessed with myself and my concerns when I’m supposed to be worshipping him. The harder I try to do as that old chestnut of a chorus suggests and “forget about myself and concentrate on him and worship him,” the more distracted I become. I can lose myself for hours in a book or a good movie, so why is it so difficult to concentrate for more than a song or two on God, who is so much more real than those things?

Case in point: The other day, I was watching a concert video on YouTube. I enjoy the music of a band called Mumford and Sons, who have become immensely popular recently. They are passionate about what they do, which comes through in their performances. I haven’t seen the band perform live, but looking at concert videos is the next best thing. As I watched the following video clip, I was struck by the relationship between the audience and the band. If you’d like, you can click on this link and see for yourself:

If you can’t watch the video on your computer or device, I’ll describe it. The audience is swaying and singing along. A huge proportion of them have their hands raised high (possibly because “raise your hands” is one of the song lyrics) and they look happy. I can sense the unity in that place, as both audience and musicians revel together in the music. If I’d been there, I’d have been bopping right along with the rest of them, mind focused steadily on the here and now of the concert experience.

Mumford and Sons in performance

For most of us, there is something about music that touches our souls and calls forth our deepest responses and emotions. Victor Hugo once wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” It speaks of what is in our hearts. I think that the desire to be moved in this way and to share that experience with others is part of being a human being, created in the image of God. Throughout the Bible, music is intrinsic to communication between the Lord and his people.  God makes it clear through the prophets and psalmists that we are to celebrate and worship Him with music and song. Not only that, he rejoices over us with singing as well (Zephaniah 3:17).

Perhaps that is one reason the concert experience is so intense. It resounds with faint echoes of that design. If I arrive at a concert venue knowing and expecting to enjoy the performers, it doesn’t take long to settle in and become involved with the music, especially if the musicians are enjoying themselves too. Why then, is it so much harder for me to enter authentically into the spirit of a worship service? I know Jesus and always enjoy his presence, so that isn’t the problem.

Having rolled the dilemma around in my mind for awhile, I’m thinking it has to do with the nature of reality. There is the world that we all experience with our physical senses and minds, but there is another realm that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. We access that world through our relationship with Christ. The thing is, we don’t automatically engage with that reality in the same way we do with the natural world.

Jesus taught that his Kingdom was right there among the people, but they had to understand how to recognize it. I think it’s the same for us today. Jesus said that we cannot enter his Kingdom with our physical bodies. Instead, we have to become like little children – humble, teachable and willing to acknowledge how much higher God’s thoughts and ways are than our own. As we remind ourselves of these things, I think that our own spirits connect with God’s Spirit and we “wake up” to his presence. We start to worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

So, when I struggle to focus on worshipping God during the praise singing, it might be good to remind myself that the way into the courts of his presence is a bit more complicated than singing, clapping, kneeling or raising my hands. My spirit needs God’s Spirit to give it a little shake on the shoulder to rouse it. Wake up, little one; wake up.

A Morning Litany

Oh Lord, I wait for you in the morning;
my heart is quiet within me.

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast

Wake up, my soul; wake up!
I will sing and make music.

Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn

My spirit longs for you; my soul thirsts for the living God.

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.

Awake, my soul, awake!

*In Christ Alone, Stuart Townend, Keith Getty
Morning Litany: Words in italics taken from Psalm 57

Photo credits
Sunrise and gull:
Mumford and sons: