I am taking a short break from the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church for a couple of weeks to highlight four of my favorite authors on the subject of God’s grace, this week as it applies to worshipers and, in two weeks, as it applies to worship leaders. The writing speaks for itself, but a general overarching theme relates to the previous weeks’ discussions on how we view worship–i.e., human effort we bring vs. divine effort the Almighty facilitates in and through us.
We begin with the namesake-founder of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (Jacksonville, Fla.), my doctoral alma mater, the chief person (among many) who kick-started my interest in worship. His Divine Embrace, one of his final books, sums up much of what had become passions for him.
If God is the object of worship, then worship must proceed from me, the subject, to God, who is the object. God is the being out there who needs to be loved, worshiped, and adored by me. Therefore, the true worship of God is located in me, the subject. I worship God to magnify his name, to enthrone God, to exalt him in the heavens. God is then pleased with me because I have done my duty.
If God is understood, however, as the personal God who acts as the subject in the world and in worship rather than the remote God who sits in the heavens, then worship is understood not as the acts of adoration God demands of me but as the disclosure of Jesus, who has done for me what I cannot do for myself. In this way, worship is the doing of God’s story within me so that I live in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Webber’s paradigm shift here is, for me, both subtle and profound.
The second quotes come from Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who also was a gourmet chef. Though firmly ensconced in the High Church, for a lengthy season he was a regular columnist for the firmly-ensconced-in-the-Low-Church satirical magazine The Wittenberg Door, published by those wild and crazy Youth Specialties folks in the 70’s and 80’s. Capon’s reflections on grace were then and continue to be transformationally life-giving for me. These excerpts come from Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace. Here is his take on Paul’s famous declaration in Romans 8:1.
Saint Paul has not said to you, “Think how it would be if there were no condemnation”; he has said, “There is therefore now none.” He has made an unconditional statement, not a conditional one–a flat assertion, not a parabolic one. He has not said, “God has done this and that and the other thing; and if by dint of imagination you can manage to pull it all together, you may be able to experience a little solace in the prison of your days.” No. He has simply said, “You are free. . . .”
As an often-self-righteous older brother myself, I resonate with this definition of grace:
Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cessations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.
And, finally, a plea to exhibit the one behavior that will carry believers through all kinds of trouble in this life (and an unhealthy shame that comes from not fully understanding or embracing grace): trust.
Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting–no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you–you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead–and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.
If it all seems too easy, I get it. Good chunks of my spiritual upbringing focused on human-derived efforts that unwittingly produced both legalism and shame. A pastor friend of mine once said that if you preach grace that doesn’t take you right to the edge of embracing a license to sin, it’s not grace at all. I think Webber and Capon, gone from this life but not forgotten, probably would have agreed.
The gracious Lord be with you!
Coming next week (Lord willing): A Seventh-Day-of-Christmas gift.