I am semantically sensitive. Not militantly so, although my wife might argue that one, but I have an acute awareness of the power of particular words.
I grew up in a home where there was a easy-to-spot jar of Keen’s Mustard Powder in the pantry. I don’t recall it being used much for cooking, but I do remember it being put on my tongue when I spoke certain words. There was a cake of soap that was also used to ‘cleanse my palate’ occasionally as well.
I grew up with an aversion for mustard that would take a couple of decades to overcome while I’ve never acquired a taste for soap. The semantic sensitivity, I suspect, is in for the long haul.
I struggle with the word ‘hate’. Even with inanimate objects, the word thrusts a little dagger in my side. When used against another person, it’s a weapon of death. I know that may not be true for everyone, but the word stirs deep emotions for me.
I’ve got others.
I hear a cyclist yell out to his peloton “joggers up ahead!” and find myself thinking “don’t call us joggers, we’re runners!”
I hear the word “Christian” and find it laden with all sort of politics, judgement, hypocrisy, and agenda. I mostly steer clear of it altogether, opting for “follower of Jesus” to remind me more unambiguously of my adoption into His family rather than an assimilation into a movable bunch of beliefs.
Words have live-giving and life-taking power – of that I have little doubt. I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it. But the scope of a word has gravity, too. Define a word too narrowly and, depending on context, you can lose its intended meaning. Define it too broadly, and you might just lose everything.
We’ve just started a series at The Big Table called ‘Highest’. It’s about the worth-ship of God and, ok, if you push me, a series about ‘worship’ – another one of those words that’s gotten a bit pesky for me. Not because of the notion, but because of the way in which we can be prone to limit its definition.
As a ‘worship leader’, I’ve found it hard not to begin with the declaration and invitation:
“It’s great to be joining with you this morning, let’s stand and worship God”.
There’s not much wrong with that sentence. It’s true, it is great to be standing shoulder to shoulder with others who have put their hope, trust, and identity in their Creator and the work of His son, and it’s good to be united in our declaration of that truth. My struggle is that I might equate the fullness of my worship of God with a specific creative expression of that worship in a corporate context.
Yeah, I have hang-ups. But here’s the thing: If we cast the net of our definition of ‘worship’ too tightly, we abstract it. We confine it to a time, place, and particular mode of creative expression.
We are in danger of forming the notion that our ‘worship’ occurs from 9:45 – 10:05 am each Sunday – or whenever it is that you gather. And then we’re done. If singing’s not our thing, well, it was great to listen to others ‘worship’.
Of course, singing prowess has little to do with joining in with the congregation of the saints in declaring praise to the one who has ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven us, but you know where I’m heading. Abstract the definition of worship tightly enough, and the life that it was intended to reflect becomes seemingly irrelevant.
There’s another end of that spectrum as well. Dignify our enjoyment of anything as an act of worship without attribution, and we lose our purpose in bringing glory to our Creator and Sustainer. Revelling in the beauty of a spectacular sunset is only an act of worship when I attribute its beauty to the Creator of the sunset. It’s still lovely otherwise, but it’s an aesthetic observation rather than an act of worship.
Our worship, which Paul describes to the Romans as ‘the presentation of our lives before God as living sacrifices’ is to set ourselves apart from a world that pulls us towards its cheap substitutes. ‘Reasonable worship’ is to find our rest, purpose, joy, and hope in the One who has called us out of darkness and into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9). And, having called us out, he invites us to “proclaim the excellencies, the wonderful deeds, the virtues and perfections” of our Saviour.
There are plenty of great tunes that help us make these declarations, yet they are just one mode of creative expression. And our creative expressions are just one mode of expression of a life lived in gratitude to the one who has rescued and redeemed us. My words to others, the use of my time, talent, and money – each of these are opportunities to find my greatest joy and declare the excellencies of the One who has called me out of darkness into his marvellous light.
I have little desire to sign up for the Semantic Police Division – it has too many members already, and I struggle that I may already be a defacto adherent – but declaring the worth-ship of God is a grand invitation. It’s an invitation into a lifetime of discovering God’s character, my new identity in Christ, and the new family that I’ve been thrust into by His work. Of one thing I’m sure, He never meant for me to limit my enjoyment of this truth to a twenty-minute block of singing each week.