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Keeping the Parrot in the Cage
reprinted from the September 2002 edition of Essentials


   I was born with a squint, one eye turned in, and had to wear glasses from kindergarten. So I spent a lot of time at the eye-doctor's, looking through lenses, looking at one picture through my left eye, and another with my right, trying to put the two images together. Trying to put the parrot in the cage, the sentry in the box, or the sheep in the paddock. Denise Cooper-Clarke recently presented this paper at an EFAC training day at St Columb's Hawthorn in Melbourne,
   I never really managed this, and binoculars and microscopes are still useless to me. I can see with both eyes, but I have a tendency to be monocular- to look mainly through only one eye. But what is annoying from an optical point of view- not being able to put two images together, and so always having to focus on one or the other- is a much more serious problem when it is a matter of not being able to put together and keep together the two pictures that the Bible gives us of Christian worship. I think many of us have monocular vision here. We focus on only one view.
   So what are these two images or views? They're both in the Bible, and they're both in the ordinary understanding of worship. In fact I think the "man in the street" is sometimes better than the person in the pew at keeping the two images together, and understanding the connection between them.   
   I suppose we all understand that to worship a person means to adore them, to say, "You're wonderful, you're so beautiful, I admire and love you so much." But the man in the street would probably also say something like, "When you worship something, say motor bikes, or football, or a rock singer or movie star, you are always thinking about it (or him or her), and you spend a lot of your time and money on it, and it's the focus of your whole life."   
   Whereas if you ask the person in the pew what worship is, many Christians would quite likely talk about the special time that an individual spends with God, a time that is separate from day to day activities. Or they'll say it is what the church does on Sunday, and they might even narrow it down further and say that worship is singing and praying to God. They might narrow it down further still to mean singing a certain type of song, a song that makes people feel very close to God. And they call this sort of song a "worship" song, as opposed to a praise song or a hymn, or a children's song or a mission song and so on.   
  Which understanding is closer to the biblical presentation of worship?  
   Our English word worship is related to the concept of worth, the idea of recognising and declaring the worth of something. In the case of worshipping God, it's an appropriate response to what we know of his character and what he has done for us to thank and praise him and tell him how wonderful he is. Just as a breath taking view or a stunning painting or a beautiful piece of music powerfully calls from us, sometimes demands form us an outpouring of admiration, though we may struggle with the words to express the depth of our response. And so we associate worship with saying or singing words which express this response to God, this powerful feeling of awe and wonder.   
   In the Bible this concept is usually expressed using a word (proskuneo)- which means bowing down, or even prostration - literally throwing your self flat on your face before God to symbolise your fear and reverence, and the fact that you recognise his greatness and majesty. We see this word, often translated "worship" in the Gospel accounts of the response of people to Jesus when they realised who he was. The wise men worshipped the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:2, 8), as did the disciples in the boat after Jesus had come to them walking on the water (Matthew15: 25) and various people Jesus had healed, such as a leper (Matthew 8:2), the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:6), and a blind man (John 9:38). The disciples worshipped Jesus after his resurrection (Luke 24:52). So this is one of the biblical views of worship.   
   But if this biblical view of worship is the parrot, what is the cage?   
   What is the other view of worship that we find in the Bible? The second word often translated worship in the Old and New Testaments is latreia, which connotes service, the work that slaves or servants did for their masters. In the Old Testament this kind of worship was primarily understood as what happened in the Temple: the rituals of sacrifice, and prayer. But the prophets made clear that such worship was only acceptable to God, was only true worship, when it was part of a bigger picture- of obeying God in the whole of everyday life. So, to give one example, God says through the prophet Isaiah "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings… bringing offerings is futile, incense is an abomination to me." (Isaiah 1:11-13)   
   Now we might expect the prophet to continue with something like, "Be sincere in your worship, praise me from your heart, not just your lips. Don't just perform the rituals but come close to me and rejoice in my presence." But that's not what God says at all. Instead he says, " When you stretch out your hands I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen, your hands are full of blood.…. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:15-17) So what we might call religious worship- what God's people did together on special occasions to thank and praise God and acknowledge him, could and must not be separated from the way they lived their lives all the rest of the time.   
   And this is even clearer in the New Testament. The central and primary and foundational way of understanding worship here has to do with the way we live our whole lives. It is not just what we do when we meet together as Christians. This is what the Apostle Paul says:   
   "I appeal to you therefore brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable (or spiritual) worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:1-2)   
   When we look at the context of this passage we see that again, worship is seen as an appropriate response to how marvellous and awe-inspiring God is, and how gracious he has been to us. Paul has just been describing the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God: "from him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever." Therefore, the appropriate response is for us to offer our whole lives, which is what "bodies" signifies here, to God as his servants. This involves the very way we think (the transformation of our minds) and how we make all our decisions (discerning the will of God).   
   There's another passage in the New Testament where Paul sums up beautifully the elements of Christian worship, and that's Colossians 3:16-17. We see here both the expression of adoration, in the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, and this is closely connected to serving God with our lives: "Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus." We also see two other features of Christian worship: that it is based on the Word of Christ- the gospel- and that it includes a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension. The vertical dimension is relationship to God, and the horizontal our relationships with other people. This passage tells us that one vital part of serving God is the way we teach, encourage and admonish one another within the Christian community.   
   We might summarise this by saying that Christian worship, broadly understood, involves offering our whole lives to God to serve him. What we do in church, and in particular the expression of our love and reverence for God in prayer and song, is a vital and essential part of this, but it is not the whole of worship. Nor should it be separated from our everyday lives. God demands so much more of us than a few choruses on a Sunday. He is worth much more than this.   
   But why is it so important that we understand what we do in worship services in the broader context?   
   I'd like to suggest that monocular vision is not only incomplete, it's actually dangerous. Depending on our church background, we all have a tendency to see either the parrot or the cage. To focus on worship as either expressing personal adoration, getting caught up in love for and intimacy with God or to focus on action in the world, whether social justice or evangelism. Lobbying for political and social change, marching for peace, working in a soup kitchen, supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Campus missions, outreach programs, Christianity explained. Or our service might be more domestic- working in the health professions, serving coffee after the service, always coming to working bees, helping out in the church office as a volunteer, running Bible studies in our home. But whether you're in the first group or the second, whether you focus on the parrot or the cage, you'll likely say that this is what worship is really all about.   
   At this point, we might say, "Well, everyone has limited time, and we all have different gifts, so isn't it OK that some people put their efforts into writing or leading worship songs and others serve in the soup kitchen- we need both kinds of people in the church". Indeed we do. But we also need to keep both aspects together in each of our lives. Because it is dangerous not to. For instance, what happens if we see only the parrot and not the cage? If we see worship as primarily and almost exclusively something between an individual and God, which uses the language of love?   
   I certainly don't want to suggest that this is unimportant. We've been through a phase in the church, some churches are still in it, where our meetings together were very focussed on the rational. Willow Creek seeker services are like this. The only thing that is important is clear presentation of the gospel in a way that appealed to the intellect. But this is a very Modern (Enlightenment) way of thinking. Worship for Post-Moderns needs to address the whole person, not just the intellect. The heart must be moved, the senses engaged. There is an emphasis on mood, on experience, on creativity, on beauty and mystery. 1 What works for Moderns won't necessarily for Post- Moderns and vice- versa.   
   Music is a very powerful medium. Not all post-moderns will sing, but singing is a beautiful way to reach out to God and express our emotions, and there are some wonderful and moving songs, both old hymns and contemporary songs, which can facilitate a deep experience of communion with God in a way that goes beyond simply saying words. And this expression of worship is of course a very ancient one, as we know from the psalms, some of which are deeply emotional expressions of the heart's longing for intimacy with God. Some of these psalms, or adaptations of them, we sing to modern tunes today:   
   As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you (Psalm 42)   
   How lovely are your dwelling places… my soul longs for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 84)   
   I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications (Psalm 116)   
   Other examples of such songs include:   
   Renew in me a passion for you (Geoff Bullock)   
   Just let me say how much I love you (Andrew Ironside)   
   Jesus, lover of my soul (Daniel Gruil)   
   Intimacy (Matt Redman)   
   You are my desire, no one else will do (Draw me Close to You –Kelly Carpenter)   
   So close, I believe, you're holding me now (In your hands –Reuben Morgan)   
   Deeper and deeper, I'm falling in love with you (Saving Grace - Michelle Fragar)   
   We can see why the detractors of these songs call them "Jesus is your boyfriend" songs. But they do express truth about our relationship with God, and they do have an important place in Christian worship. Yet they are not the only type of song we should be singing. Nor should we think that these are the true, genuine real worship songs. What would happen if we only sang this kind of song? And thought that this was what worship was really all about?   
   There are four main dangers with this type of monocular vision:   
   The first is that we might fail to integrate our worship with the rest of our lives, and come to see them as having two quite separate compartments- the religious or spiritual compartment, and the rest of our lives compartment. We might not connect what we sing with what we do in our day-to-day life; our finances, our relationships, our work and leisure. We might fail to make what has been called the Sunday-Monday connection.   
   You might think that the result of this would be people whose lives in the world, in the everyday, don't necessarily honour or serve God, and so their worship in this broad sense is inadequate, but you might think that at least their heart's in the right place. You might be optimistic that eventually their love for God will spill over from the songs they sing to the rest of their lives. But will this necessarily happen? Isn't it just as likely that, as the gap between what they sing in church and what they actually do in the rest of their lives gets bigger and bigger, they might give up any attempt to integrate them, until they actually become hypocrites, singing words that become more and more meaningless?   
   So, we might sing week after week, "I surrender to you, everything I am and ever hope to be, I surrender", but never have teaching about what this means in our finances and our careers. Many aspects of our lives might not be surrendered in obedience to God. Or we might sing, "I give you my heart… I live for you alone", and yet be desperately lonely, longing for a partner. If we don't challenge each other about these things, aren't the lovely words, which ought to be so meaningful, in danger of becoming empty? And might we not think that it is a dangerous thing to sing empty words to God? Jesus had some terrible things to say about hypocrites. "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21).   
   We always need to hold the two elements together: what we sing in church and what is actually true in our lives. And as well as singing "Just let me say how much I love you", we will also sing "Brother, sister, let me serve you". We will sing not only "Draw me close to you, but "God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us compassion we pray".   
   B. The second danger in putting the focus in worship only on personal adoration of God and the experience of his presence has to do with the way we see the worship leader. We might see him or her as the person whose task it is to enter the holy place and to draw people with/after them into the presence of God. But whose role is it to draw people into God's presence? Who has entered the Holy Place and torn the curtain and enabled access to God? Surely it is Jesus who has done that. It's not the role of the worship leader. To understand the worship leader as doing this demonstrates an Old Testament priestly understanding of their role – as if we needed them to mediate between God and us. It is not a Christian understanding of worship. God's dwelling place is already among us, his people.   
   We must never fall into the trap of thinking that any kind of ritual, the saying or singing of special words or type of music, will open the way for us into God's presence. It is hearing and receiving the gospel which does that. It is the work of Christ, not of the worship leader.   
   C. The third danger with this view of worship is that it can become very subjective, more focused on me and my needs and my feelings, than on God and what he has done for us. Songs like Refresh my heart Lord or I will never be the same again actually say little about God, they're all about me. The songwriter Matt Redman addressed this issue in his song Heart of Worship2:   
   I'm coming back to the heart of worship
And it's all about you, all about you, Jesus.
I'm sorry Lord for the thing I've made it
When it's all about you, all about you, Jesus.
   In the Psalms, the hymnbook or song database of ancient Israel, alongside the expression of praise and longing for God, there is teaching about the character and acts of God. Psalm 103 is just one example of many: "The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his way to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love". Don't we also need to encourage each other in song with words like these? To sing not only "Renew in me a passion for you", but also, "The Apostle's Creed", or "Behold the Lamb of God" or "Consider Christ".   
   I find it very significant that Geoff Bullock, who wrote Refresh my heart Lord and Just let me say how much I love you, among many other wonderful songs, is now writing quite different songs. He has said, "Worship is not singing, it is not music- praise is part of our whole life of worship, but only one part of it", and, "Worship is based on what God has done, not on what we do."3 And so the words of some of his more recent songs sound much more like Psalm 103, or an old fashioned hymn: Oh the mercy of God, the glory of grace and No longer I (who lives).   
   But when we focus mainly on ourselves and our feelings, we can become so emotionally caught up in the music that the words become redundant. The criterion for a wonderful worship song becomes how it makes us feel, not what it communicates. Now there are some things which we find it hard to put into words, but surely we can do better than "la la lala la". God has revealed himself to us in human language, through the Bible, and in his Son, the incarnate Word of God. Words are important. Music is also a powerful communicator, but it is ambiguous. It says different things to different people- the meaning comes largely from the hearer.   
   Colossians 3:16 tells us that the Word of Christ is to dwell in us richly as we sing our songs to God. So content is important. There are so many wonderful and true things we can declare and acknowledge about God, surely we shouldn't content ourselves with singing a small number of phrases over and over until they have become clichés?   
   D. The final danger in equating worship with individual adoration of God is that it fails to recognize that in the Bible, worship is primarily a community activity. It is the people of God relating to God, not just the individual. It is deeply personal, but it involves a people, not just a collection of persons who happen to be in one place together because that's where the musicians are. We can remind ourselves of this when we sing not only "Love you so much, Jesus", but also, "We are many parts, we are all one body", or even "Praise God for the Body".   
   And worship involves the horizontal as well as the vertical dimension. The people of God relating to each other. Again, we saw in that passage from Colossians, that we are to teach and admonish one another. This was a major part of worship in the Old Testament. Think of all the psalms which begin with an exhortation to praise him:   
   Shout to the Lord for joy all the earth (Psalm.100)
Give thanks to the Lord for he is good (Psalm 107)
Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God, for he is gracious (Psalm 147)
   These psalms don't address God, they address one another. But this mutual encouragement which builds up the body of Christ is what God asks for us, it is part of our serving him, and so it is worship.   
   When we meet in church, we can worship God in songs of personal adoration, or of thanksgiving, of teaching about God, or encouragement to our fellow believers to live our lives the way God wants us to. The Eastern Orthodox writer, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, said this of meditation, but it also true of "worship songs": "It is important to realise from the outset that a meditation (or a song) has been useful when, as a result, it enables us to live more precisely and more concretely in accordance with the gospel".   
   In other words, let's keep the parrot in the cage.   

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1 Sally Morgenthaler, "Authentic Worship Culture" Worship Leader May- June 1998, p.25.

2 Matt Redman, "The Heart of Worship" Copyright 1997 Kingsway's ThankYou Music.

3 Cited in Mark Evans "Geoff Bullock changes his mind on worship" The Briefing April 29 1999