Making Room for the Presence of God

Presence Sunday South City

As worship ministers, it’s so easy, isn’t it, to play wonderful music, sing beautiful songs, move a big crowd, all the while thinking that God was in it all? I’m not saying He isn’t, by the way. But I wonder how much of it can sometimes be viewed as a substitute for God’s presence, even without our knowing?

Harold Best says it like this, in Unceasing Worship (p 166):

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek into idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf? Have we come to a place in our practices where God must say to us, ‘You cannot worship me in that way,’ meaning that music has moved from a place of offering to one of lordship, from servanthood to sovereignty? Or might he be saying ‘You shall not worship me in their way,’ meaning that we have adopted a pagan worldview that imputes a causal force to music that it does not properly have? We need to discover the critical theological difference between being merely moved by music and being spiritually changed by it. Yes, music might bring pleasure and change our pulse rates or blood pressure, but so does taking a simple walk in the park.

At the end of the day, music, programs, artistic expressions – all are means to an end. And the end must be nothing less than the presence of God. As worship ministers, we need to walk this fine line carefully.

This was really brought home to me tonight when I attended Presence Sunday at South City Church. My friend Darren Woon (who is one of the music directors at South City) had told me what they were doing at their church earlier in the week. My first thought was that I was going to be “churched-out” today. But I decided to go anyway. Partly because I wanted to see Darren and another friend of mine Clem do their thing on stage, but also because I thought it would be good just to worship from the audience.

Even though I only serve on stage two weeks in a month, as Assistant Worship Director at my church, it’s pretty hard to “switch off” from serving mode. You’re always wanting to gauge how the ministry as a whole is going, so instead of just letting go and worshipping, you end up critically evaluating all the worship sets. Then, instead of wholeheartedly singing, part of your mind is trying to remember some things that you want to feedback to the team at the end of the service.

So it was nice just to be in the crowd for a change with no agenda, with no one from your congregation expecting you to act in a particular way. Just you, God and some family members from a different neighbourhood, most of whom you haven’t met before!

After a pretty liberating time of worship, Ps Ken Lee came up to preach a short message about “Making Room for God’s Presence” from 2 Kings 4 – the story of the Shunnamite Woman.

In verse 10, the Shunnamite Woman decides that she would arrange a small room, put in a bed, table and chair so that the man of God, Elisha, can stay at her house whenever he visits the village. And here was Ps Ken’s point: even though the woman knew she had regular access to God’s presence (as represented by His prophet), she wanted to create space so the presence of God could stay. All it took was for some small adjustments in furnishings.

As a result, despite her barrenness, God worked a miracle and she conceived a son.

And years later, the son, who is then grown up, dies. The woman takes the dead miracle in her arms, and in verse 21, lays the body of her son on the “bed of the man of God” in her home. Elisha came into that very room and brought the son back to life. And Ps Ken’s point was that we must not only make room for God’s presence, but keep room for God’s presence.

It would have been easy for her, after receiving God’s miracle to rearrange the room. After all, her long-held prayer had been answered. She could easily put Elisha’s room to a different use. But she decided to keep room for God’s presence. And the result was that Elisha revived a dead miracle.

The message this evening really spoke to me.

I wondered what adjustments I needed to make to my life; to unclutter. Don’t get me wrong: the ministry opportunities this year have been amazing. In this Year of Open Doors, God has opened lots of doors of ministry and I’ve been able to confidently walk through them. But this has become singularly clear: Programs have replaced Presence. It’s been easy to try to implement change and to invigorate the culture of our ministry, to come up with brilliant new strategic ideas, but how much of it was birthed in God’s presence?

Pastor Benny likes to show us a video of Bill Hybels talk about a guy whose life was transformed because he chose to meet God every day in his rocking chair. This guy went from being a nominal believer to eventually going into full time ministry. Every decision he made was a result of sitting in the rocking chair and meeting with God.

I used to meet with God in my study room. But now it’s full of clutter. There are papers and objects everywhere. We treat it more like a store room. In my quest to keep the visible part of my apartment (the living room which guests get to see) neat and tidy, I shove things into the study room and close the door.

The analogy of furniture and clutter was too hard to resist. God was speaking to me about the need to de-clutter, to come back to His presence again. Programs can only go so far. It’s time for me to clean up the study and get me a comfy chair, where I can sip coffee, read my Bible, pray and host God’s presence.

I think as we draw near to the end of this Year of Open Doors, the thought that God impressed upon me was this: it’s one thing to walk through the doors God opens for us, but 2014 will be a Year of His Presence. It will be about making room for Him and opening the door for Him to walk in whenever He wants.

Defining Worship Part 2

Today, I want to finish up what I started a month ago when I introduced Harold Best’s definition of worship in my post Defining Worship. In that post, I extracted Best’s definition, being that worship is “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God”.

Here I want to unpack that a bit further.

First, the concept of continuousness. Best says in Unceasing Worship (p 18):

Worship does not stop and start, despite our notions to the contrary. Once we place emphasis on specific times, places and methods, we misunderstand worship’s biblical meaning. Worship may ebb and flow, may take on various appearances and may be unconscious or conscious, intense and ecstatic or quiet and commonplace, but it is continuous.

I want to pause here and consider the idea of “unconscious worship”. Most worship leaders will implore you during worship times on Sunday to “give your full attention to God”. This is a question of intensity and focus. But what happens when you go to work on Monday and have to think really hard about how to solve a client’s problem, or to draw up a design or to write up a complex formula? In my experience (and I’m being honest here), I don’t often think about God. When I am drafting a legal contract, I am don’t sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee…” whilst I am typing “Subject to the payment of rent, the Landlord leases the Premises to the Tenant” etc. I think my head will explode! And my secretary will think I’m nuts!

But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worshipping because as I have said elsewhere on this blog, your work is also worship.

So worship changes intensity, it ebbs and flows, but it never stops. It’s continuous. I like the idea of “unconscious” worship!

Next, is the concept of outpouring.

Outpouring implies a direction. You pour into or towards something. Overflowing is different to outpouring. Overflowing happens in every direction. When you fill up a bucket to its brim, it overflows everywhere. But pouring out has a sense of intention.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who said that if you look at how adherents of other religions worship, you can take away all the external trappings (like clothing style or music) and it wouldn’t look too different to what Christians do on a Sunday. This is true. The difference (and the key one) is one of direction, because as I have said before, everyone is worshipping something or put another way, nobody does not worship. The basis of that difference is being to able to answer the question why the Christian God is deserving of our outpouring more than any other God. That’s too big a question for me to deal with in this post, but hopefully one day I will be able to give a strong cogent answer to my friend (I suspect I may actually not give her a concrete answer, but we will probably ask a series of questions and come up with the answer together!).

Of “outpouring”, Best says this (p 19):

It implies lavishness and generosity: when I pour something, I give it up; I let it go. Dripping is not outpouring; there is space between the drops. But in pouring, the flow is organically and consistently itself. In spite of a mixed simile, pouring is seamless.

The lavishness and generosity of outpouring is illustrated in the Gospel story of Mary and the alabaster box (which I have looked at elsewhere on this blog). But here, I like Best’s comment about “giving up” and “letting go” the most. Worship is about surrender. When you worship, you are really surrendering your whole life to God, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, offering your whole life as a living sacrifice.

The thing with pouring, or with sacrifice (for that matter) is that once the act is done, it is irretrievably done. You can’t take it back. You have either poured it out, or you have been consumed by fire. There’s no going back to the way things were. How we continue in that process is by the grace of God, knowing that God never lets us out of His hands once we commit our lives to Him.

Lastly, worship cannot be self-contained, as Best says, “even when it barely dribbles out”. In the story of Mary, the Gospel writers say that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s worship. In this sense, worship and witness are really one comprehensive reality.

Okay, now enough of the big, complicated ideas.

Let me reduce this into somewhat more simple terms: Worship is like being married to someone. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go! The fact of marriage means that you give priority to your wife. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes not. Your daily routine reflects that priority. You always come home to her; you have time for her (even though you have a lot of other things on your plate) and you share your whole life with her.

Sometimes, you give fuller effect to that priority. For example, you would like to watch the cricket (actually this is a bad example because I abhor watching the cricket!) but you decide to spend some quality time sipping tea with her and chatting about your day. You might call this “quiet time” (I know, I couldn’t help chucking in a religious term). Still more intensely, there will be times when you pay especial honour to her, and everything you do is about her: you write her a card saying how beautiful she is, what a great person she is, you buy her dinner, you give her flowers.

But yet, there will be times when you don’t pay her enough attention. You do things that make her upset. You’re inconsiderate. You put your own desires above hers. (Okay, I am talking about myself, but using the “you” pronoun gives me a sense of solidarity with the rest of you). That doesn’t mean that I stop being married.

And that, my friends, is very much like our worship.  It makes me wonder whether this is why the New Testament church is often described as the bride of Christ.

At the end of the day, worship is relational. When we enter into relationship with God, we have changed the direction of our worship from ourselves, from other gods and things which seek mastery over us, and we are now directing our worship towards God. It doesn’t always feel like we are worshipping, or that God is at the centre of it all, or that God is even close to us, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re coming home again.

Defining Worship

I expect that this will not be the only post I write on this subject because “worship” is one of those words which we all understand in some way or another, but find extremely difficult to pin down.  Depending on the context, its meaning expands and contracts.  Also, a lot our understanding will also be derived from our subjective experience.  It’s very much like the word “love”.

But I’ve been writing about worship and the church for the last four months and I still haven’t explored this important topic, so it’s about time.

I want to begin by establishing context:  when I talk about “worship”, what I really mean is “Christian worship”.

At its simplest, “worship” and “god” are interconnected; you can’t talk about worship devoid of a “god” being the endpoint of worship.  Without “god”, there is no worship.

But “god” takes some pretty surreptitious forms which we often don’t recognise.  For the unredeemed, fame, fortune and popularity may well be “gods”, things around which people centre their lives.

In the Christian context then, it’s obvious that when we talk about the endpoint of our worship, it is Jehovah God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revealed through the books of the Bible from eternity to the present, existing outside of time and dimension, yet stepping into history through Jesus.

So here is the best definition I’ve come across so far for “worship” (I expect that more definitions may be proliferated in the future that might replace this one as my favourite).  It is “best” in form and substance because it is provided by theologian Harold Best.

In Best’s book Unceasing Worship, he defines worship as “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become” to God.  (I am simplifying his definition somewhat, because it gets a lot more theologically technical, but what I have extracted here are what, I believe, are the core elements.)

This is a much better definition than the popular, oft-quoted definition of “worship is a lifestyle”.  Best’s definition recognises that worship is more than a lifestyle: it is also a state of being (“all that I am”) and also a life goal (“all that I can ever become”).

There’s a lot more to unpack in Best’s definition, but I will keep is as that for now.

In the meantime, have you come across a good definition of worship?  Or have you come up with your own?  Share with us by commenting below!