Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Worship - Ecstatic and Christian

The title of this post is of course meant to say that ecstatic worship is not Christian. Our worship is "with the mind also", the prayers of the Christian are contrasted with those of the pagans who babble and think that they will be heard for their many words. It is the worshippers of Baal on Mount Carmel who work themselves into a frenzy, and Elijah who calmly prays for God to answer.

In the 19th century the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about revivalism. The last part of it, beginning Dear Lord anf Father of Mankind is a popular hymn today. It is viewed with suspicion in evangelical circles, mostly (if not entirely) because its context is not known.

The first stanza of the hymn reads:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Now, if you did not know its context you could be forgiven for thinking that "foolish ways" referred to sin. If it did, this would be a heretical poem. Only it doesn't. Instead it refers to revivalism. There are in fact 11 stanzas in the original poem before these words, all of them about ecstatic worship, pagan and 'Christian'. So 'our foolish ways' in fact refers to the revivalism of Finney with all its excitement and excess, its hot-house methods of 'conversion'. Whittier contrasts with this the calm of Christian worship:

O sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

At the old Quaker Meeting-House at the Pales, near Llandrindod Wells, one can get a good idea of what Whittier was about - a restful calm that, rather than exciting the emotions, calms and quiets them. Now, I would not go as far as the Quaker, but I would say this - worship that tries to induce an altered state of consciousness and to work on the emotions while bypassing the mind is dangerous, and is not Christian. No, rather we pray,

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm!

Evangelical worship has become increasingly foolish, and liberal worship has done the same, when we have 'clown services', barking like dogs, rock concerts and the like. Whatever we may think of Whittier himself, or even of the hymn that has been made from his poem, we have never been more in need of the prayer he gives us to pray, "Forgive our foolish ways."


Jonathan Hunt said...

First class. Once again I learn something new and exciting from Pastor Charmley!

Highland Host said...

Credit should be given to my brother Gerard, who brought the fact to my attention in the first place