Beauty, Part One

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Worship and Art

Psalm 50:2 NIV
From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.

Matthew 26:10 NIV
She has done a beautiful thing to me.

I am a sucker for a sunrise, or a sunset, or a mountain vista or the shimmering oceanic horizon where winds and waves dance their eternal ballet. I take joy in a well-turned phrase, or a memorable melody, or a surprising rhyme. I get lost and find myself again in a great story filled with characters and events well developed and real. My heart is strengthened, and my spirit renewed by the high-sounding praise of God well prepared and presented. Soul-deep worship connects me with my Creator so that I feel His very breath, the ruach (OT) and  the pneuma,(NT) enabling me to pray.  These things and others like them I seek out. I watch for them, seize them, and traffic in them for they are the source of life to me. In times of rest and renewal I soak myself in beauty, from sweet music to classic films of excellence to great books, all in addition to regular prayer and Bible reading.  This feast of beauty always equips me with a fresh new vision for my own creativity and a clear path to follow.

Worship and the Arts
Whether or not the worship leader thinks in artistic terms, words like these express the true meaning of worship in spirit and in truth.  This is why Christian worship and the Christian arts are so vitally linked.  The theology of worship (its truth) comes down from heaven in His Living and Written Word.  The human expression of worship (spirit) rises up from the earth through the  arts of worship: words, music, images, ceremonies, silences, processions, and in times of significant stillness and quiet. To really understand what is happening when the church worships God, these distinctions must be clear in our minds.

  • Truth is fixed and not subject to the violent storms of change or the fleeting affections of the human heart. Still, truth is ever expanding for there is no end to the nature and character of God and therefore the revelation of them by His Spirit. Like the River of Life described in great detail in Ezekiel 47, the revelation of God flows as a stream of truth that one can never cross. These are deep waters in which the worshiper must swim. (Ez 47:3-6)
  • Spirit (not the Holy Spirit, but the expression of the human heart) is characterized by relentless change like the constantly shifting sands beneath a river. Because it is expressed through culture, worship in truth looks and sounds different from generation to generation and from culture to culture.  It is easy for the worshiper to confuse the cultural, temporary, and local expression of worship with the scriptural, eternal, and heavenly reality of worship.

For this reason, an ongoing, never-ending study of the Scriptures about worship is the essential practice of the Worship Leader–the Chief Musician–and for the Lead Worshiper–the pastor.

The Appropriation of Truth
We don’t have to seek out culture; it seeks us out, surrounds us and serves as an automatic context for our moment in history. The wise worship leaders will pursue an understanding of the subcultures of preference within their congregations in an effort to offer to as many as possible their inclusion in the public worship experience always bearing in mind Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that the church be ONE.

Truth, however, must be carefully sought out so that the two are never confused. Cultural expressions divide the congregation while truth unites the People of God in their shared adoration of Jesus and the public proclamation of His “manifold wisdom,” to use Paul’s rich phrase in Eph3:10, or Peter’s language, “His excellencies” 1 Peter 2:9.  Our worship arts exist as our earthly response to this heavenly revelation. One is fixed and the other is in constant motion.

The two verses under the title of this essay describe this holy exchange: the human response to the Divine revelation.

  • “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” (Ps 50:2 NIV) The perfection of God shines through His creation and in His Word. Jesus came to this earth as the perfect revelation of God. “When you have seen me,” He told the Disciples, “You have seen the Father.” This verse describes the revelation from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of God Himself, “the perfection of beauty,” as some versions say.
  • “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Mt 26:10 NIV) This is the response of Jesus to the worship of Mary of Bethany when she broke her alabaster jar and poured its contents over Jesus’ feet. To my mind, Mary is the quintessential New Covenant worshiper. Her love for Jesus went far beyond the time-and-place dimensions of the Old Covenant and travelled deep into the spirit-and-truth nature of New Covenant worship. What was the result? A supreme commendation from her Lord. “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” There was also a rebuke for the critics of her worship, “Leave her alone!” This “beautiful thing” is the goal of every worshiper.  For Christian artists of all descriptions this is the ideal for every song written, played, or sung, every essay of exhortation, every sermon preached, every play produced, every movie made, and for the worship leader, every service planned and presented.

The driving dream within us is to somehow create something that is true to the Word and beautiful in form and content.  We can sense deep in our spirit the pleasure of our Lord in our offering.  When the worship leader feels the commendation of Jesus, there is no greater or more personal reward.

Often, when this truth was new to me, after I had led my final song and backed upstage to my place in front of my choir and orchestra and between the organ and the grand piano, another staff pastor took the service.  Without me in the pulpit, the worship of the congregation would continue. I sensed deep in my spirit the commendation of the Lord. “Steve, you have done it!  You have done a beautiful thing to me.  Now this whole room is my office-place. I am walking among the people touching them in ways that only I can.”  What greater award can there be?

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2021 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

To continue with this essay go to Part Two: “Beauty: Art and Entertainment”

Beauty, Part One

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