Saturday, July 25, 2020

Holy Space and Holy Time: A Few Thoughts After Reading "The Holiness of God"

I just finished reading The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. This is not the first time I’ve read it, but it is one I find it is beneficial to revisit every so often, and it’s a book I highly recommend.  As he says in the book, “People in awe never complain that church is boring.” Neither will they find taking time to think deeply about God’s holiness boring. 

I am not going to write a full review, but I did have some thoughts I wanted to share that I pondered as I was reading the last chapter today, which is titled, “Holy Space and Holy Time.”  First, some quotes from that last chapter: 

“The consecration of sacred space does not end with the close of the Old Testament. It is rooted and grounded in the act of creation itself, and something profoundly important to the human spirit is lost when it is neglected.”

“Each Sabbath day, believers observe sacred time in the context of worship. It is the keeping holy of the Sabbath day that marks the regular sacred time for the Christian. The worship service is a marking of a special liturgical time.”

“In sacred space and sacred time Christians find the presence of the holy. The bars that seek to shut out the transcendent are shattered, and the present time becomes defined by the intrusion of the holy. When we erect barriers to these intrusions, dikes to keep them from flooding our souls, we exchange the holy for the profane and rob both God of His glory and ourselves of His grace.”

Here’s what I got to thinking about. During the time when our church could not meet because of the COVID restrictions, we were blessed to be able to have the option to stream the service online.  I am so thankful for the technology that allowed us to do this and for the care of our pastors, elders, and teachers who did their best to stay connected with the church family during that time. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do at the time. I understand the necessity for that time, and I completely understand the necessity for those who are at greater risk to continue to use that option now that we are able to cautiously and in a socially distanced way begin to meet together again physically. So, please don’t take what I’m about to say wrongly. Also, PLEASE do not come at me with the argument, “the church is not the building.” Seriously, that is NOT what I’m about to say, so don’t hear that, and don’t come at me with it. I got SO, SO tired of reading that on social media.  It MISSES THE POINT of what those of us who were sad about not meeting together were trying to express. 

During the time when we only had the online version of worship services, our family did our best to make that time special.  We got up on time, got dressed, and set that time aside to watch and engage as best we could with the service on screen.   But there was just something missing.  It is just not the same. I couldn’t adequately describe what made it so very different, exactly, but this last chapter of The Holiness of God and the discussion of sacred space spoke to me deeply in light of what we’ve just gone through. That is what is missing. There is something profound  and indescribably powerful about physically meeting together with the church that is deeper than merely keeping the elements of the service but watching on a disembodied screen. No, the church is not the building, it’s not that the bricks and mortar of the building itself are inherently sacred, but it is what we do when we gather there that makes it sacred space. And of course, even worshipping by screen when that’s the only option we have can be sacred, too, but the church is the people - specifically the people gathered together. And yes, when we neglect that setting aside of sacred time to worship together, there IS something profoundly important to the human spirit that is lost. Though I understand and support why we had to forego the gathering for a time, we DID miss something profound. The first Sunday we got to go back, even with masks and social distancing and much fewer people in the building, it was like a breath of fresh air and that profound something that we have when we gather together in that set apart, sacred time and space was rich. The holy just felt nearer.

No matter how much we tried to make the online Sundays sacred, the profane was somehow just still so near. The distractions were many, and it was just not the same.  

There is something deep and profound that we gain when we are able to gather together and sense the energy of our church family all worshipping Jesus together.  There is something deeply sacred that points us to our holy God in a way that we lose when we are denied the opportunity to set aside time and space for the sacred.  We are embodied people and we experience this life with our physical bodies. There is just something other about setting aside time and space to focus our attention together on the Holy and sacred.  We are bombarded all week with the temporal and profane, we need that set apart space and time to put away those distractions and be reminded physically and through our senses with singing and praying and hearing the Word preached to focus our attention on our Savior. 

I’m not at all sure I adequately expressed what I’m pondering in this post. Boiled down, I am reminded to think carefully and prepare myself before I go to worship and remember that we are on holy ground because we are gathering to worship a holy God. I am greatly looking forward to getting to meet with my church family tomorrow morning, even if we have to wear masks and sit apart to make it happen. How thankful I am for the grace of God that sustained us during the months we had to be apart, and how very thankful I am now that we can meet together again. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Mysterious Power of Music

Every once in a while I’m reminded how mysteriously powerful music can be. Whether it’s hearing an instrumental piece of music that gives you chills and makes you just want to sit and submerse yourself in the music to enjoy a glorious music moment, or maybe it is a song that comes on and immediately transports you to another time in your life, complete with all the emotions and senses that go with those memories, music has a deep and rich power that is hard to describe.  I think God gave us a wonderful gift in music, and I think music must be special to Him, too. Think about it, the entire book of Psalms is a song book. There is music and singing throughout the Bible. There is even music and singing in Heaven, can you imagine how glorious it must be? (Revelation 5:9-10, for example) 

Yesterday I found myself alone in my car, for one very rare instance these days, and I had my playlist going. A song came on that brought me right back to the early ’80’s and a flood of emotions filled my car - the awkwardness of junior high, the expectation and hope of youth, the joys of driving to the beach with friends, the painfulness of feeling lonely and awkward and ignored, the joys of cherished friendships, and all kinds of other wordless emotions all wrapped up in a Chicago song. Followed by other songs, all with their own beautiful, jumbled, complex mix of memories and emotions. 

Then this morning, I was listening to another playlist and several songs in a row came on that brought back vividly that year in Ohio, especially the ray of light our membership at Parkside Church was in that otherwise dark and lonely year. Again, a flood of complex and varied memories and emotions filled me. Parkside introduced us to so much really good congregational worship music, and modeled for us such beautiful and rich prayers, and so much of my memory of that time is wrapped up in memories of the beautiful, scripture-saturated, corporate prayers we prayed from sources like The Valley of Vision, among others, and worship music that was rich and deep. One of my most profound memories comes from an evening service during that cold Ohio winter.  Our pastor had just preached a sermon on our hope in Christ, and the closing hymn was It is Well With My Soul. There is something deeply moving and encouraging about standing in a room of people who deeply and truly believe with all their heart what they are singing, and sensing the genuine hope and longing mingled up in the heartfelt voices being raised together to worship our Savior. I hope I never forget how profound that is, though words cannot adequately describe it.

That year we lived in Shaker Heights was a difficult one for our whole family.  I don’t think I’ve ever been as lonely or depressed as I was by the end of that winter. I was talking a while back with one of my sons about that year and he told me some things about how lonely that year in middle school was for him. I cried. I had known it was hard on the kids, but I had not known that he ate by himself almost every day at lunch that year. My older two children both told me they never really fit in with the kids at their schools that year. It broke my heart all over again to hear that they were as lonely as I was there. And the winter. Oh, the bitter, bitter cold of that winter. These, sadly, are some of the complex memories and emotions that music also dredges up.

This, too, is why it is important to expose ourselves to good music. Though we did not live there long enough for it to come even close to ever feeling like home or to really get to know anyone well at all, though we did meet wonderfully kind and caring brothers and sisters in Christ I wish we had had the time to get to know better, had we not had the light of that church, it would have been much darker that year. This morning several songs came on that, to this day, lift my soul and remind me that there is so much more to life than what my circumstances scream at me. It is songs that are rich and doctrinal that will stand the test of time, and they bring a deep comfort to me even today because of the deep comfort they brought me in one of the most difficult years we’ve had. Songs that point me beyond my selfish depression to my glorious Jesus, who has never left me and never forsaken me. For all the darkness and loneliness, God used that time (as He has used many other times) to grow us close as a family, to introduce me to the treasure that is The Valley of Vision, to allow us to sit under truly excellent teaching and preaching, to grow me in learning how to pray deeper and to sing better and to draw me nearer to Him.  I wouldn’t trade it. And, talking with my boys in the years since, they, too have grown and learned, and in time, the next years in Texas allowed us to develop friendships and a loving church family that mended much of the loneliness we left behind. God is so kind.

I’m thankful for God’s good gift of music - all kinds of music, and the way it has a language of its own that often goes deeper than mere words. That’s why band kids can tell you that each year there’s always at least one piece among all the others that they all agree that all of them just LOVE to play. Music stirs us in a way little else can.  But, even more glorious, when beautiful music is combined with rich and Christ-exalting words, it can drive rich truth deep into our very soul in a way that words alone may not.  Can you even imagine, if music here is so mysteriously powerful, what the music of Heaven will be like?