Improving graces

John Newton, the captain of a slave ship, became a Christian and a prominent Evangelical preacher. Reflecting on his own spiritual state and transforming power of God’s grace in his life, he wrote the following:

I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

.

The profound honesty of his declaration is too beautiful to mar with commentary, so I won’t add anything of my own. I’ll simply end with Newton’s own response to God’s grace, which was to worship and glorify Him with these magnificent lines:

.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Forgive us our sins

Serious, not fanatical

Modelled behaviour

.

Advertisements

Our Father

Continuing to look at the Lord’s Prayer, I want to focus on the opening lines (Matt. 6:9). All passages are from the NLT.

.

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.

.

The form of address is beautiful – at once acknowledging God as Lord of heaven and Earth, and yet also personal and loving. There is both an intimacy and a majesty to this address: Jesus calls God his father, and speaks to him boldly as a child is entitled to. At the same time, Jesus declares that God is holy, that He is awesome and worthy of worship and praise.

The Lord’s prayer starts by reaffirming that we have a relationship with God, and it is by the right of this relationship that we approach the Lord of all creation. We declare that God is holy, and affirm our commitment to Him. We show this commitment, as His children, by trying in turn to be holy.

Both parts, I think, must be seen in conjunction: We recognise that God is holy; we recognise also that we are His children. We respond to that by learning from our Father and striving to live in holiness. In Peter’s first letter he expands this theme:

So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.  For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:14-16)

There are other implications that are worth considering. If we all call God our father, we are all equally His children. We must love and honour also our sisters and brothers in Christ. Peter continues a few verses later:

You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. (1 Pet 1:23)

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Asked and answered

Daily bread

Forgive us our sins

.

Psalm 30

I’m loving this psalm at the moment. I came across it last Sunday while flipping through the Psalms in church, and it is simply spectacular.

It seems to me that one reason that the Psalms are so powerful is that they give us a glimpse of the emotions experienced by God’s people under the Old Covenant. Often we can read the histories and the prophets as a dry (although powerful) story without really understanding what it felt like to the humans involved. What did Moses think about as he lay under the stars in the wilderness? How did Abraham rejoice when Isaac was born? This emotional element is not often explicit in the histories, but in the Psalms the fullness of human experience is exposed.

David’s use of imagery in Psalm 30 is profound and inspiring, and his joy is visceral and infectious as he lays bare his passionate heart for God. The version below is from the New Living Translation:

.

1 I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you restored my health.
3 You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
You kept me from falling into the pit of death.

4 Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones!
Praise his holy name.
5 For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

6 When I was prosperous, I said,
“Nothing can stop me now!”
7 Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.
Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.

8 I cried out to you, O Lord.
I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
9 “What will you gain if I die,
if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
Can it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
Help me, O Lord.”

11 You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
12 that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

.

All in agreement…

Yesterday we were playing drums and generally getting lost in rhythm and worship, and we started using a wooden whistle from the Rio Carnival – the sort that would normally be blown, in the words of one participant, by “a bronzed bikini-clad Brazillian beach babe”. And we were discussing the focus of our developing tribe, finding common ground and starting points of reference – foci on which we agreed and would like to build. In the discussion was a strong emphasis on the openness to inclusion (where appropriate, d’accord) of cultural elements and practices which may not necessarily fall within the accepted pantheon (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Christian traditional activities.

Of course, a Brazillian carnival would not necessarily be the precise cultural exercise that would would try to include. But at its core, it is a celebration and festival involving dance, music and good food and drink, which are surely elements of any culture. Indeed, are these not elements which are central to our humanity?

“That whistle is an instrument of the Devil!” thunders the preacher, pounding his fist on a large bible with a black leather cover. Sweat glistens on his brow, his face is red and contorted with passion. “It is made for a grotesque festival of lust and godlessness, a feast of destruction and sin!” he cries.

But Satan has no instruments of his own. All things are created by and ordained by God. And all people, of all cutures and nations, are in with God if they want to be. “the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you’.” (Gal 3:8)

Thus it is not the whistle, or the food, or the person which is inherently wicked and perverse, but the practice and use to which it is put. And so why could we not put the same instruments to a different purpose? If the very body of Mary Magdalene, for instance, which had been entirely dedicated towards ungodly purposes, could be redeemed and made acceptable to God, is it so hard to believe that we could use a carnival whistle in worship? I mean, Christmas is pretty much a pagan festival, but the church certainly tries its hardest to extract something Christian from it…

Of course, there are certain caveats to this, as further mentioned in Galatians, where Paul exhorts us to be pure in our intent. “If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” (Gal 1:10) But with that in mind, it’s all potentially useful for the sacred. Paul himself was an example of an instrument of wickedness reworked to divine purpose, which he points out later in that letter. Much of his text expresses concern for those who have come to know God, and yet still fall back into ways of ritual and law, where they should be exploring new freedom and joy in their faith, unbounded by petty restrictions of culture and tradition. He goes so far as to call the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched”, in their habit of returning to routine and legalistic forms of worship, rather than following the spirit of their faith.

Anyway, enough with the heavy stuff. The point is, if you want to do your thang in worship by dancing naked in the desert while banging a drum, you go do that – just don’t try to impress anyone with it. Oh, and take some suncream.

All in agreement?

Moving towards worship

I am the heart, I need the heartbeat;
I am the eyes, I need the sight;
Now I see clearly I am just a body, I need the life;
I feel the beat, I go through the motions;
But who’ll give purpose to chance?
I am the dancer, I need the Lord of the Dance.

Dance has long been used as a metaphor for the interactions between Creator and creation, leading and following, the invitations and acceptance of Grace. In the above lines, Stephen Curtis Chapman considers the permeation of God throughout existence as giving direction and vitality to what is otherwise just an empty vessel, giving function to form and purpose to potential. And as a dancer, I’ve always had a keen sympathy towards this analogy, the leading and following of a dancing partnership are deeply ingrained in me, and it is undoubtedly a superb illustration of the dynamic between us and God. But what of dance as an explicit act of worship?

Last week I went to a Nia session to explore movement and dancing in a worship environment, and to try to experience something of God through these forms. I was unfortunately only able to attend the second of the two sessions, and this may have been a contributing factor in my experiences, but I have to admit that the whole thing left me pretty cold. We began with exploring simple movement and focussing on the details of motion, but I found my attention wandering continuously. Was the action too slow? Was it familiar and over-done territory for me? I’m not sure. But I realised that the group setting and the medium were both posing some fundamental challenges to my experience of worship.

Let’s firstly consider who is involved in a worship environment, and who is really important.

Of course it’s nice to say that God is the focus and the sole consideration of a worship event, but realistically, if that’s true then why do we worship communally at all? We can always interact with God by ourselves, so gathering to worship implies an important degree of support and reassurance of ourselves and others. We are focussed on the community of believers, and any useful ecclesiastical body is aiming to build up a supportive group of people. Sit on a mountaintop all your life and you can commune with God – it’s for people that you need a church.

So what of worship? If we are involving our fellows in our act of worship, it needs to be comprehensible to them. That’s why music so popular – with or without lyrics, it provides a tangible and collective emotional and philosophical anchor. It is understandable. For dance to do the same would require a high degree of sensitivity and intuition towards understanding movement, and I’m afraid that in my case at least, I just don’t have that. A well-choreographed routine might be understandable, but there isn’t a “vocabulary” to dance which I could use to freely communicate with God or with others. Simple gestures, fine, but complex thoughts and sentences?

And so I find myself distracted. I am happy to pray or sing freely and unscripted as an act of both worship to God and community with my fellows, but with movement I feel I’m trying to communicate without language. The end result is random and just frustrating, like a meaningless jumble of sounds when you are trying to speak.

There is another advantage of music over dancing in my experience of worship – you can do it with your eyes closed and not bump into anyone. This may sound trivial, but seriously – I found myself wanting to “express freely”, and thus not be influenced by what others were doing, and at the same time to “avoid collision”, which meant that I had to keep an eye on others. So I ended up doing a strange corner-of-the-eye kind of thing where I tried to be aware of where people were without seeing too much… as if I wasn’t distracted enough already. But with music, you can sing and be joyful with the community, you can retreat into your closed-eyed solitude and spend a quiet moment with God, or whatever.

For me, it seems that dance is destined to remain a metaphor as an act of worship. To take delight in the glory of creation, and feel the love of the Creator, to sing and praise and revel in the abundance of His goodness and grace, that is to dance with the Lord.