Monday, November 9, 2015

Evangelical Worship: Celebrating Ourselves?

When I was a senior in high school I took a class that taught us how to do a term paper. For the term paper, we could choose any topic we wanted. For some odd, but providential reason, I chose to do a paper on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman's most famous poem is probably "Song of Myself." In this poem Whitman exalts self. The narcissism of American culture is not a new thing, for Whitman was "the" American poet in the time of Abraham Lincoln!

I fear there is a tendency for the Evangelical church, like Whitman, to sing songs about ourselves. We fall into this error by making ourselves the subject of so many of our lines and sentences. While we may want to be God-centered and Christ-centered in our singing, it is hard to avoid singing about ourselves if we are the subject of our sentences!

Just as the Pharisee in the temple prayed about himself, so many of our song lyrics (which ought to fit the general category of prayer) become about ourselves because we make ourselves the subject of our words/lyrics. We pray/sing about ourselves as we sing about our devotion: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." Notice, how "I" is the subject of his sentences: "I thank . . . I am not . . . I fast . . . [I] give . . ."

Now look at how we tend to make the same mistake in our songs in the Evangelical Church. Here is a song with somewhat decent lyrics:

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth's lamentation.
I hear the clear, though faroff hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest 'round me roar,
I hear the truth it liveth;
What though the darkness 'round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death knells ringing;
when friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing.
All things are mine since I am his;
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

But notice how this song is a song about myself---a song about my devotion:

"My life flows on in endless song . . . I hear the real though far-off hymn . . . I hear . . . How can I keep from singing . . . I'm clinging . . . How can I keep . . . I hear . . . How can I keep . . . I'm clinging . . . How can I keep . . . How can I keep . . . I'm clinging . . . How can I keep . . . How can I keep . . . How can I keep . . . ."

Should our prayers, which are really what songs are supposed to be in congregational worship, be about our devotion? Are we not imitating one of the worst examples we could possibly find in Scripture when it comes to the prayers we sing? The present day song I picked out is pretty typical and is far from the most offensive example I could find. But it illustrates the danger, that even if what we are singing about is good: thanking, fasting and giving or hearing, singing and clinging, if we are the subjects of the lines we sing/pray, we run the risk of singing the Song of Ourselves this world sings, rather than the Song of the Lamb that heaven sings.

Below is my reworking of the song, How Can I keep from Singing that keeps us from singing about ourselves, while keeping some of the good themes in the song intact:

O Jesus, risen from the dead,
the Author of salvation,
The Lamb has conquered by His death,
and brought a new creation.

Though on the earth men fight against
Your rule and Your position,
They won't succeed, nor overturn,
Your reign and heav'nly session.
The Father has installed His King;
the wise kneel in submission.
To Him who loved and gave His life,
give reverent recognition.

Though storms will toss and shake our lives,
and sin and death cause weeping,
The Lamb has loved us unto death,
He reigns and is not sleeping.

In Christ is mercy, grace and peace,
a fountain ever springing.
His blood can cleanse, His Spirit give
a heart of joy and singing.
So turn from sin, repent, believe,
and Christ will give refreshment.
Our hearts were made for Jesus Christ,
He gives us true contentment.

A Day will come when all will stand,
before our Lord in judgment;
and Christ the Judge will sift His world
in wisdom and discernment.
The unbeliever will depart
to weeping and bereavement,
but those who know and love the Lord,
will enter life abundant.
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