Here in Grand Rapids we are snowed in today, just as we were on Friday and expect to be again on Tuesday. The stores were busy yesterday as Christmas shoppers used a break from the storms to get out while they could.
Nearly every church in Grand Rapids cancelled services today, except the one that made a point of saying on the scrolling cancellations that they are having services today, “as usual.” If one of its members has a fatal accident on the way to church, the church will likely bury him as a martyr, saying that there is no better way to go than on your way to the house of God.
I thought I’d use this break in the action to share something that bothers me about the way we Christians worship. If you’ve read my first book, “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” you know that I believe that the church desperately needs to recover a holistic vision of the Christian life that culminates in a restored life on a new earth. While this message is making significant inroads in the evangelical community, thanks in part to the success of N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope,” I don’t think that we will ever eradicate our distorted, Platonic vision of the gospel until we change our worship songs.
Nearly every Sunday many of us sing some line of a hymn or chorus that encourages us to yearn for escaping earth to our blessed home above the skies. Besides the obvious ones, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” and “I’ll Fly Away,” here are a couple hymns with troublesome lyrics that I ran into recently (I’ve italicized the offending words). I don’t think that these hymns are the worst offenders, but they illustrate how even our best songs are permeated with Plato.
Verse 4 of “Rejoice the Lord is King”: “Rejoice in glorious hope! Our Lord, the Judge, shall come, And take His servants up to their eternal home.”
Verse 4 of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”: “Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be. Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
Why does this hymn think that the new creation will occur when we get to heaven? We will be disembodied souls there, awaiting our resurrection and the restored earth at Jesus’ return. In light of this, shouldn’t we change these lyrics about heaven to “Nearly finish thy new creation…”?!
Some may think that I am being overly sensitive, but I reply that it matters a lot what we sing. In fact, the words we sing—especially if the tune is catchy—stick with us long after we forget the sermon.
Basil the Great said it well in the 4th century. Commenting on the deity of the Holy Spirit, he said that the church must believe that the Holy Spirit is God because it has always baptized in the threefold name of the Trinity. He concluded that “As we worship, so we believe.”
So it is here. Despite the increasing number of preachers and books that rightly speak of God’s cosmic redemption, we won’t entirely eradicate Plato from evangelical Christianity until we get our worship leaders on board.