The Curious Case of Two Worshipers…
Ethyl, the “Old Timey Hymns” Lady
Ethyl is now an old woman who just wants to get back to that “old time religion.” She tears up every time she hears the swell of that honky oohm-pah-pah organ rhythm that accompanies her favorite hymn, “In the Garden.” She remembers when she first heard the song back when she became a believer in the 1940s. She remembers the good ol’ days when she and the other young men and women would sing that song with all their might in that country church (and that church was a country church whether it was in the country or the city). “In the Garden” is so much more than the song itself. It’s a stamp, a marker, a gateway. Perhaps it’s a kind of “sacrament” to the past, a sign that points to a much better time…when America was undivided, when we weren’t wrapped up in materialism, when we weren’t tarnished by the 60s, when people cared about being moral, before Elvis provocatively girated his hips on national TV. “In the Garden” reminds Ethyl of that time and that world. Pause. Hold that thought.
Sean, the Modern Worship Dude
Sean is in his early thirties and just settling down into his adult life as a mature young (maybe even restless) evangelical. Just a few years ago, he was hitting up every Tomlin and Hillsong concert that came to town, and he’s now really digging on Jesus Culture…they’re all up in his iPhone playlist. Sean remembers being one of the early followers of the Passion movement when he’d make his pilgrimage to Atlanta in the early 2000s where he truly encountered Jesus in the power of His Spirit amidst thousands of other like-minded twenty-somethings. He remembers singing “How Great is Our God” and “Better is One Day” for the first time (before the rest of the world heard them). And any time his home church band leads the latest, freshest modern arena worship song, it almost doesn’t matter what the song is about…he’s in euphoria, because he’s remembering those mountaintop experiences and he’s sucking from their marrow once again. It’s that modern worship sound–the swelly keys, the delayed, verby electrics, and tom-work…lots and lots of tom-work–that takes him back to the arena, where he met with God. All those modern worship songs and sounds help him re-create those highs. Pause again.
One of the ironies here is that the Seans of the world don’t get the Ethyls and the Ethyls don’t get the Seans. They don’t get each other so much that they actually think it’s impossible to worship together. They’re on two different wavelengths. So Ethyl worships at Second Baptist with 72 other gray-hairs and Sean worships at Mega Community Church with 2,000 other thirty-somethings with young kids. Ethyl scowls whenever she thinks of Sean and that “loud, repetitive, mind-numbing rock music,” and Sean rolls his eyes when he thinks of that “cheesy, dated, boring organ music.” The irony is that, in all their differences, they share the same diagnosis–Nostalgic Worship Disorder (NWD). (I actually double-checked that it was in the DSM IV-TR…it’s there.) They suffer from that same disorder, only they’ve fixated their nostalgia on different things.
The cure is blended worship. Period. Selah.
Just kidding. It’s actually not. The cure for NWD is nothing short of the gospel of Christ’s kingship. You see, NWD, at its root, is mis-placed affection. Ethyl and Sean share a love of and for those times, those memories. And it’s okay to love and remember God’s faithful actions in the past. In fact, the people of God are to be a people of anamnesis, “remembrance.” But the problem arises when we allow those past events to be come the ends in and of themselves. We start to desire “that feeling” or “that time” more than we desire God Himself. We begin to enthrone a king other than Christ on our hearts, and the funny thing about lesser kings is that they can never live up to the kind of kingship our hearts need, even though we desperately want them to. The result is that we’re always dissatisfied, always clamoring for the reign and rule of our king. And we’re divided.
What would worship look like for Sean and Ethyl if Jesus were more fully the King of their lives? Maybe, for one, Sean and Ethyl could both more objectively analyze the blind spots of their era’s songbook. (Maybe Ethyl could see that “In the Garden” promotes a kind of partial, wistful, me-and-God spirituality that needs some tempering, and maybe Sean could see that constantly singing about what we will do for God apart from the explicit work of Christ can have a gospel-numbing effect on the soul.) Perhaps they’d see the value in singing songs from different eras and cultures of the church, too.
Secondly, maybe Sean and Ethyl could worship together in the same room on a Sunday morning, because, they might say, “If Jesus truly is King, then I become less concerned about getting my injection of nostalgia and more concerned with encountering, honoring, praising, and receiving the Father through Christ by the power of the Spirit.” Ethyl’s heart-songs may not float Sean’s boat. Sean’s songs may make Ethyl cringe. But because Jesus is King, and because He died for His glorious Bride that she may be one even as He and the Father are one, they’re both game for a little cringing and boat-sinking. In fact, they get to the point where they so delight in the pleasure of the Father that they almost see their mutual self-giving and mutual self-dying as a sign of health, maturity, and growth in discipleship.
Then, all of a sudden, in worship Sean and Ethyl start to receive all of the blessings and by-products of God’s rich presence in greater and greater abundance. Then, oddly enough, Ethyl is experiencing the same God she encountered in the 1940s, and Sean is experiencing the same God he felt at those Passion conferences. Even more, they’re experiencing God in a deeper, richer way.
Amazing things happen when you let the main thing be the main thing.