Monday, November 10, 2008

The Song and the Sacrament

This will be a long post, but it begins with the Star Wars Last Supper. I therefore make no apology. Finally, after a couple of weeks of boring definitions and historical lectures, we get to the exciting divisive stuff that splits churches and starts wars. Yay! If you promise to try not to get bloodthirsty, I will begin with an observation. A couple of elements of corporate worship, it seems, have at least partially had their identities swapped within the past century. They are the song and the sacrament. Since one of the purposes of these essays is to give us a shared understanding of worship under which we can unite as a body, and since this topic is particularly divisive, I am going to attempt to tread lightly in my examination of this phenomenon. For those of you who know me, this is no small task, so please read with a forgiving spirit if I do offend. If you believe I have not taken a hard enough stance on an issue, perhaps you are right. But let us remember: "Unity in the essentials, liberty in the nonessentials."

1.) Traditionally a song has been a tool whereby the body of Christ might better align her sentiment with her intellect. The major purpose behind singing in corporate worship has been to identify one's self with accurate theology and appropriate sentiment. That is, to make sure we're thinking the right things about our feelings and that we're feeling the right things about our thinkings. It's a shalom thing.

Jonathan Edwards said, "True Religion, in great part, consists in holy affections." It reminds me of Robinson's famous plea that God would, "tune my heart to sing thy grace." (Almost as though there were wrong ways to sing about God's grace. Hm...) The song is often played with the minor 6 chord played in the 9th measure, around the time we sing "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it," giving us that pathos of longing to accompany the ethos of our depravity. Music has the uncanny ability to connect the realities of the intellect to the realities of the heart when used well. We return to the major cadence in the next part of the verse when we come to "Here's my heart, Lord take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above," and we are resolved both in the truth of the words sung and the spirit with which they are given. Music has been given special dominion over this phenomenon of unity. It joins the heart, soul, mind, and strength of a man as we see him cry out in his desperation to the God who alone can save him, encouraged by melody and harmony to express with everything he has in his person this deep declaration.

Very powerful stuff.

2.) Traditionally, a sacrament has been a means of grace whereby the body of Christ might receive the real presence of Christ through the senses. The Roman church recognizes seven sacraments, and the majority of the protestant church only two. There is not only this difference, but also what is meant by "means of grace," "receive," and "real presence of Christ" varies quite completely between denominations. Put your pitchforks away. We're not going to go there. First, I'd like to submit to the reader that I will only be focusing on one sacrament in particular here, for it is the common denominator and that's what we're going for here.

The traditional understanding of Holy Communion, (or Mass, or the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist), is that something unique happens when we come together in remembrance of Him, breaking the bread and taking the cup as He did, that happens at no other earthly time. For hundreds of years, this act was the centerpiece of each and every worship service. In fact, the Roman Catholic church still refers to the entire service by the name of the sacrament: Mass. You'll remember that the four main elements of the corporate worship of Yahweh since the Levitical law (never revoked or expired, only fulfilled!) were the Gathering, the Proclamation of the Word, the Sacrifice, and the Sending Forth. The sacrificial piece was preeminent, for it was what made the people right before God and enabled their relationship. Jesus' fulfillment of the sacrificial requirement was not an annulment of the debt but a complete payment of said debt. The church rightly saw that we did not therefore remove the time of sacrifice from the order of worship, but rather we celebrated it all the more. Jesus commanded his church: "Do this in remembrance of Me." One must believe that in remembering him, we are not merely reminiscing about the good old days, but we are instead honoring the God-man for who He truly is and what He really did.

NOW, I think it only fair to point out the following things:

1.) The musical piece of today's worship service, is often itself called "worship." Hauntingly reminiscent of the sentiment that gave the ancient worship services the name "Mass." We've changed the name of the service to exclude the sacrament and we've changed the name of the song to elevate it to the centerpiece status once held by the Eucharist. Reformers may defend the switch, claiming that the sacrament had been raised to the point of idolatry. Perhaps, but the solution is not to lower it to the point of our sacrelidge. "The music IS worship" is the agreement now, whereas it was once said that "worship IS Mass." Communion has not been removed completely from the picture, however. It does have a recurring role quarterly (perhaps until the contractual obligations have been fulfilled and we can finally kill off the culturally irrelevant character one and for all). Instead of partaking in Holy Communion to remember, now we're merely doing it so as not to forget.

2.) When we gather in "worship," it is often said (if the music was good), that God was in our midst. We even feel like we've gotten an extra special boost from God and now we can make it a bit farther than we could have on our own. What we have effectively said is that this partaking in the musical acts has been "a means of grace whereby the body of Christ has received the real presence of Christ through the senses."

3.) When we hear that someone has visited a local church for the first time, the question asked is often, "So, did you like the worship there?" This question would not have even made sense to people who thought of worship as a duty and a need instead of as a consumer product. They also would not have understood that you were referring to the music and atmosphere.

What has happened? I feel dirty, as though I've taken part in staging the coup against Caesar Eucharist, and he's looking down at me, saying, "Et tu, musician?" My craft was designed to play the supporting role in a high drama where the starring role belongs to the craft that remembers Christ and His supremacy. I repent my part in this egocentric mutiny where our consumer mentality is paramount in our worship, and I pray that we as the Church will truly seek to respond to God’s divine progressive revelation appropriately.


Rick said...

I hope your readers are either really busy or heavily pondering the weight of what you've written. I grew up in the Bretheren Assemblies and until I moved to Memphis, I took part in 'worship' each Sunday which included partaking in the Lord's Supper, singing Hymns of Remembrance, singing songs of praise & worship, hearing a word from the Lord then responding in song. The singing was never distinguished from the other elements. I don't recall ever being disengaged mentally or emotionally. and I regularly encountered God in unique ways. I have attended services in which the emotion is high but the intellect is stagnant and vise versa. I think back to the ancient liturgical experience which seemed to engage all the senses in a way that would probably freak today's evangelicals out.
To your other point, the problem with elevating the song as the centerpiece is, unless the song moves you each time, many leave wondering if they experienced God at all. Other times people are so swept away by melodies that they never point their heart Godward. They could have accomplished the same end by going to a secular concert.

Jonathan Vowell said...

Worship went awry when it ceased to be of an objective nature in the minds of the worshippers and become subjective instead.
Instead of worship being focused on the absolute, transcendant qualities and character of God, it is now focused on the preferences of the worshipper, what "floats your boat," what you "like," what "felt like" God, etc. Now that worship (for many) has ceased to have a singular, absolute object to which it centers on (i.e., God), it has dissovled away into madness and chaos.

CSigler said...

I was challenged once by a good friend who questioned whether me partaking in Anglican Mass was idolatry in itself. I was offended until he went a bit deeper asking me if it was truly God that I was encountering, or did I just like the fact that I was worshiping in a church that found good in both reform and roman theology? Or was it that i had an engaging pastor with deep meaty sermons? Did it have to do with the mere FACT that there was communion and liturgy at all, or was I really partaking in the reality of it all? Had I joined a church based soley off of reason, and if that was so how could I ever fully engage with a parodoxical, mysterious, and often completely irrational God? I was caught speechless, for once, on a question of worship. I had always had the answers growing up as a music minister's son, but not this time. I admit to those reading this that I have not fully found the answers to those questions. I am learning that one of the primary objectives of the mass having a structure that cannot be strayed from, was to create something so familiar that the congregation could connect so strongly to what was said that they could disengage completely for "reality". It is a time that all of us have experienced in worship services where we feel like we have feet in the throne room itself. That is what we are meant to get to in a SERVICE (even though worship of course is a lineal and circular thing that is meant to be carried into all areas of time). But it is true that it only comes through sacrifice. Sacrifice that starts with REMEMBERING what the Lord did and eventually becoming what the Lord IS and WILL do. My pastor called it a rip in time where the throne room meets the rational. Please respond back in grace because remember, I am still asking myself these questions.

Joshua Andrew Smith said...

Caleb - I struggle with the idea that God is ever irrational. When we don't understand Him or His ways, it is we who are mistaken, not Him. I realize that most people wouldn't make a connection between being irrational and a making a mistake, but I think it is necessary. God does not exist if he is not completely rational. He IS the Logos, from which we derive the word logic. Logical is not just a way to describe our puny way of thinking. It is the definition of His being. He is Logic as a being just as He is Love as a being. All of the truly transcendent realities flow from his being and have no shadow. Enlightenment is the realization of truth - to shed light on or illuminate a subject. The Logos and the Light are One and the same, and there is no darkness or confusion in Him.

Truth without rationality is nonsensical. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to refer to Him as super-rational. His ways, after all, are higher than our ways. Not other than, but higher than.

Some will accuse me of idolatry here, saying that I have elevated truth. This is not so. I have only brought truth rightly underneath the Lordship of Christ rather than wrongly crediting it as a creation or convention of man.

In conclusion, I like everything you said, but I would appreciate a vocabulary adjustment so that I don't develop an ulcer.

Jamey said...

I love this. You have articulated well what I think God has progressively revealed throughout the ages and what we have gotten away from over the last 30 years or so. I would add a point of clarification. It sounds like you're saying that those of us who are leading worship should do so with excellence, seeking to engage the congregation with compelling melodies and harmonies and sermons and articulation of the communion liturgy. Yet for the laity, whether the elements of the service are excellent should not be their concern. The clergy and laity are coming to give their best to God.

Another point, where we worship is not ALWAYS a rational, logical decision in that it is based on the best empirical evidence that we have at hand. Sometimes God will call us to worship and serve in a church with music we don't particularly like, a pastor we don't trust, and that doesn't serve Holy Communion regularly. I guess we all have reasons for which church we call home, but sometimes God's logic is at a different place than what we can discern here on earth.

Joshua Andrew Smith said...

Dead on, James.

Passionate Fire said...

I know I am kind of late in writing this, but what about the sermons. My fear is the sermons have too taken the place of the true remembrance of God. I agree with your argument about the song, and it saddens me to think that I myself have asked how the music was when visiting a church (just recently I was excited to encounter a church where the choir sang in back and actually was on key).

But the next question asked is how was the speaker. How would you argue that?

I am asking because my fiancee and I are trying to find a home church and we are becoming very confused.

One more thing, I find 2nd Pres. to be an amazing church but I can not wrap my mind around the concept of two services, even as Jon Vowell would put it three (being as the night service is contemporary). How would you approach the problem of multiple services? Does it not divide the body?

Joshua Andrew Smith said...

Hey Jessica,

I just found your reply on my blog. I agree that the sermon is often elevated too highly. The purpose of the sermon is to remember God's will so that we may better obey it. Worshipful, but not sacramental.

I appreciate 2nd pres deeply. I believe their two services are a matter of prudence. Among their reasons is the fact that they can't fit all of their people into the sanctuary at once. The services are nearly identical, so it's not a matter of pandering to preferences. The Sunday night contemporary service is an attempt to meet members where they are. I think it's less a matter of right and wrong and more a matter of more or less ideal.

Something that has really helped me is to remember that ideals are meant for vision. They exist so that we may know for what we are aiming when we make decisions about which move to make next. In chess, practicality forces us to take losses and make retreats, but ultimately, we are aiming to take out the King. At the risk of sounding post-modern (which I hate), there's more than one way to skin a cat. 2nd Pres's method is a pretty good one if you ask me.

If you want my opinion in the matter, join the church closest to your house, forgive their sins, ask their forgiveness for your own, and serve your God with them. That would be the most ideal.