Before reading this post, please listen to the song "Invitation".
In the morning, O LORD, You will hear my voice; in the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch. Psalm 5:3 (emphasis added).
I (John the Baptist) did not recognize Him (Jesus), but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. John 1:33 (emphasis added).
“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 (emphasis added).
One of my favorite lines about Jesus in the Bible is from John the Baptist. In essence, he says this is how they’ll recognize Jesus: He’ll be the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains.
I love this because so many times in worship these days I may have powerful visitations from the Holy Spirit, but Jesus lived in such a way as to be a constant, living, breathing, walking habitation for the Spirit. Jesus never quenches or resists, never offends or grieves the Spirit. But we do!
An illustration of this could be found in Revelation 3 where Jesus is standing outside the door (of a church, remember - not a lost sinner!), politely knocking, waiting to be welcomed in.
The heart of the song, Invitation, is saying we want to live in such a way as to be a prepared and welcome place for Jesus to take up residence through his Spirit. We recognize that God’s presence is in all places at all times, but his presence isn’t necessarily welcomed at all places in all times. So in this song, we’re not asking God to come over - we’re inviting him to take over!
This is critical. Let me explain why.
I’m becoming more and more aware of just how dualistic we have become in our worship language. We continue singing old songs (and learning new ones) that anticipate and celebrate some other realm, some other time, and some other place where we can really be with God.
Take a recent song for example. I very much admire the writer and his songwriting; I’ve loved many of his songs in my personal worship times, and I’ve led several of his songs in many corporate worship times. There is an unmistakeable gifting on his life. I’ve got to say how surprised I was at how expressly dualistic one of his recent songs seemed to me to be. Even the front cover of the CD captured the sentiment: where we all want to be, rising through misty clouds into clear view of the sun and ultimately heaven - evidently located somewhere in outer space. Here’s the chorus:
Let us start the ascension
Let’s begin the climb
Up this holy mountain
Where your glory shines
Further up, further in
Just to be with You again
Let us start the ascension
Now, to be fair, none of this is new. I’ve long sung songs just like this, especially back in my youth, and we have a long history of these songs in the church. I’ll Fly Away would be a textbook example; the second verse says:
When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from prison doors has flown
I’ll fly away
Life is pictured as passing darkness (shadows), and captivity / imprisonment. Albert Brumley, author of I’ll Fly Away wrote another hymn called This World is Not my Home. The opening lines read:
This world is not my home
I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere
Just beyond the blue
Again we find an honorable anticipation of what lies ahead in eternity, and a clearly expressed disinterest in this world or its inept “treasures.” Note that these songs aren’t saying that life presents these trials; life is these trials.
The language of ascension is clearly from places like Psalms 15 or 24 where it talks about ascending the hill of the Lord. But still, I can’t help but wonder what God thinks about these kinds of songs, and what effect they’re having on us. Is God so pleased that we are so looking forward to leaving this world and eventually/finally being with him?
Or might God be perhaps perplexed at our blindness (at best, to his radical generosity and availability in every moment of this life) and our contempt (at worst, for the remarkable gift he has given us in this world)?
From Ascension to Incarnation
Genesis gives God’s verdict of his world: “It is good.” I wonder what he thinks when we say, “Well, not so much. We can’t wait to get out of this prison!” I wonder if some of our songs of faith are actually, to God, a slap in the face?
Psalm 19 says, The heavens declare the glory of God.
Psalm 24 says, The earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fullness. (Paul quotes this in 1 Cor. 10.)
And the angels in Isaiah 6 say,
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts
The whole earth is filled with his glory.
If God is saying it, Paul is preaching it, and the angels are singing it, I’m guessing it’s good theology. All these scriptures (and countless others) seem to indicate that this world (ontologically speaking, not its ethical systems per se) is good, this world is God’s, and this world is filled with his glory. What that means for us in worship is this: the glory of God isn’t something we need to cry out for as much as it’s something we need to wake up to.
When Jesus prayed for his followers (in John 17:15-17), he was explicit in not asking God to take us from the world, but God using us in this world. But Gnosticism soon appeared as a major threat to the church living as salt and light in this world; their influence was strong, if subtle, even leading up to those critical councils of the 4th Century who sought to articulate orthodox doctrine in those creeds. Think about it in light of the first half of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and was buried.
Notice anything missing there? (Hint: the entire life of Jesus!) This paramount creed goes from the conception and birth of Jesus straight to the suffering death of Jesus, with nothing to say at all about the actual life of Jesus. Consequently, what we’ve ended up with are Christians who “believe” (propositionally) in the virgin birth and vicious death of Jesus but do little-to-nothing to actually follow his life in their day to day, normal life. We give no attention to how we lived his life, or what that might mean for how we are to live ours. We think trusting Jesus gains us entrance into some other life in some other place, instead of granting him access into all of our life, here and now.
I remember hearing a church slogan one time, to be “In the world but not Of it.” Sadly, instead, our worship today reflects our hope of being “Out of this world and not in it!”
Now, of course we need songs that celebrate God’s Heaven, God’s otherness, his eternal glory. And of course we need songs that articulate the hope that we have in light of this life’s trials. But we must not continue to do so at the expense of this world, this life, and this moment.
We do need songs that give a glimpse into our eternal life, but we urgently need songs that help give people vision for this life. If we’re not careful, we will inadvertently lead our congregations right back down the age-old, slippery slope of Gnosticism.
Jason Upton prophetically asked it like this: “How long are you going to keep running from my presence thinking that you’re running to my presence?” In a culture that flocks from one event to the next, one album to the next, one moment to the next, my hope is that we’d see what might be possible if we woke up to the reality in-between those events, aside from those albums, and outside those rarefied moments, because that is where real, ordinary life happens. John Lennon said famously, “Life is what happens when you’re too busy making other plans.
At a deeper level though: why do we keep slipping down this slope? I think it’s because it’s so much easier to worship God, be attentive to his Spirit, be reflective with his Word—when we’re away. So of course we end up singing lots of songs about one day being ultimately and forever away. We even project this onto our eschatology, interpreting things like Paul’s (in 1 Thes. 4:17) mentioning us “meeting the Lord in the air” as him taking us away, as opposed to us ushering Him into our world as its King (exactly like his entrance on Palm Sunday).
On retreats, at events, we’re listening for his word, we’re looking for his working. But taking my son to football practice? Vacuuming the living room? Cleaning dishes? I end up doing those with a grumbling spirit, a victimized attitude, and passive-aggression towards my wife. If I’m going to recognize God’s radical availability at all times, I’m going to have to change my attitude, my heart, and my life.
So my closing hope is that we would be less concerned with crying out to God so passionately in big stadiums, and more concerned with attending God more steadily in real life. And my prayer would be the following words that I wrote with Micah Massey a few months ago. May it be!
Open up our eyes to see
You in the ordinary
We don’t want to miss you anymore
Open every eye to see
Is burning with the glory of the Lord