I am part of several groups on Facebook that are centered on sacred music or worship. From time to time, a question is posed (occasionally a rant) followed by a generally animated discussion. In the music groups, the debate on whether Shine, Jesus, Shine or Here I Am, Lord pops up all too frequently, both hymns being often denounced by conservative traditionalists as trite indigestible pablum, with others countering that the texts of each are doctrinally sound and scriptural. I’ve come to the conclusion that the main reason for the traditionalists’ objections is not so much the text (Here I Am, Lord is pure scripture), but that the music (and to some extent the text) doesn’t have a strict poetic meter; it isn’t a traditional Long Meter (L.M.) or Common Meter (C.M.) hymn, or even a stately 76. 76. D., such as the meter of The Church’s One Foundation.
So curious it is -- and sad – that a solid text with a profound message should be skewered for its lack of thee and thou and Thine as well as its pairing with a modern, perhaps even lilting, tune.
Then there is the argument I read all too frequently: that all hymns must mention Jesus. Really? That would omit such all-time favourites as O God, our help in ages past which is Psalm 90 from the Isaac Watts Psalter of 1719. It would also prevent us from singing The God of Abraham Praise which is drawn from texts in Genesis, Exodus, Malachi, Galatians, and Hebrews. Other beloved hymns such as The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended and Abide with Me would have to be relegated to the landfill as well, for they too fail to mention Jesus.
When we obsess with the failure of hymns to mention Jesus, we would do well to remember that there are two books on the Bible that make no mention of God. Ought they to be cast out of Scripture or declared non-canonical for their failure to mention God?
Such obsessions replace our worship of God with the worship of texts. This is idolatry. More than once I have encountered statements along the lines of “This awful hymn is keeping me from praising God.” Here I Am, Lord (as but one oft-cited example of a “bad hymn”) cites no less than 36 passages of Scripture, including three each from Matthew’s and John’s Gospels, and two each from Luke and Acts. Many modern hymns are in fact direct quotations of Scripture, but in a modern idiom. When we reject these hymns, we are rejecting Scripture and the message thereof.
This brings me to the second form of idolatry I often encounter in my groups: the idolatry of the liturgy itself.
Anyone who has attended or experienced worship in various denominations (even vicariously via YouTube) is aware that there are a great variety of forms. At one end you have high Anglo-Catholic worship which is highly ritualized, with strict rules about who does what and when they do it, as well as strict rules about when something may not be done. Heaven forbid you should sneeze at the wrong time! At the other end of the spectrum we may find traditional Quaker Meeting, with an hour of silence wherein worshippers follow the Biblical admonition to “Be still, and know that I am God.”
In liturgical churches & denominations, the rules – or rubrics, as they are called – define not only the nature of the liturgy and ritual, but prescribe when certain things may or may not be done. The Roman Church is perhaps the most strict of all, not only in its rubrics, but also in the text of the liturgy itself; it is strictly forbidden to alter, omit, or add even one word. Extemporaneous prayer is forbidden. It is as if the Holy Spirit herself is not welcome.
I have encountered ritualists obsessing over such things as to whether a processional cross of permitted in the absence of a bishop; whether it is permitted for the congregation to participate in the singing of the processional hymn, whether the use of “Alleluia” is permitted for funerals during Lent.
More than once I have read or listened to comments from people who assert that unless the rubrics are strictly and rigidly obeyed, the worship becomes invalid and an offense to God. The inherent problem I see here is that these rubrics are man’s rules, not God’s. If you think God is offended and blasphemed by the use of the word “Alleluia” during Lent, what must you think of a Quaker Meeting where no one says anything (usually)? (Not to mention that Quakers do not follow a liturgical calendar.) Or a Pentecostal gathering where “Alleluia!” is the word of the day every day? How is it that God is offended by your accidental Alleluia in Lent, whereas that same God welcomes the Alleluias from the Baptists down the street? How is it that your God is offended by female ministers, but the Methodists’ God welcomes them?
All of this falls under the heading of the Idolatry of Worship. It is when we obsess over male vs. female clergy; when we obsess over the Eucharist being celebrated facing toward the people or facing East; when we obsess over free-standing altars over east-end altars; when we get offended by seeing a graceful liturgical dance incorporated into the liturgy on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost while completely ignoring the day’s Old Testament Lesson from II Samuel which tells us that David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, or perhaps when the readings include Psalm 149 or 150 which instruct us to praise God with dancing in his sanctuary? In Scripture, we find it is the Pharisees who obsessed over such minutiae and rules, and we also know from the same Scripture that Jesus himself condemned the Pharisees and their behavior. For Trinitarians who believe that Jesus is God, it then becomes God Himself condemning their modern obsessions with rubric and ritual.
When we arrive at church of a Sunday, it is meet and right that we should worship God, and God alone. When you allow yourself to be gnawed at and upset by a free-standing altar, you are committing the sin of idolatry by worshipping furniture instead of God. When you cringe and want to run away screaming at the hymn Here I am, Lord, you are not only committing the sin of idolatry of hymnody, you are also ignoring the command of Scripture in Isaiah “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” What is it that God is calling us to do in worship? He is calling us to give thanks for blessings received, and then listen to and obey His call to go for God to tend the poor and lame, and to bring the message of God’s Love to all people through service & stewardship within our community. And it is here, in service and stewardship, that True Worship is found, not in church on Sunday.
The poor and the hungry and the homeless and the oppressed really don’t care about Alleluias during Lent; they don’t care whether the minister is male or female; they don’t care which way the minister faces at the altar, or whether the altar is free-standing or east-facing. They care only if you are worshipping God by doing your part to live the Gospel, that you are being and doing Christ, and to the best of your ability making a difference for the better in the world around you. When we fail to do this, everything else is idolatry.