"I sure did. Two and half carets."
"That's great, Bill. One thing though, I thought you said she wanted a new SUV?"
"She did. But, where was I going to find a fake jeep?"
Accidents and Substance
Gifts of love are wrapped in marvelous subtlety and nuance that dramatically change them. The change is more fundamental than the fabled curse of King Midas, turning ordinary cheap tableware into solid gold with a touch. To employ the Aristotelian language Thomas Aquinas brings to play in his teachings on the Eucharist, we can wholly change the substance of a gift, while leaving the accidents untouched.*
Of course, in my opening story, the joke is that both the physical nature and the meaning nature of the "diamond" were changed in your mind as you hear the husband's last line. That is, you suddenly thought of the diamond ring as an inexpensive fake (physical characteristics), but you also shifted instantly in your view of the ring's symbolic nature as an anniversary gift (meaning characteristics): it is a cheap trick void of genuine romantic love. If some man mutters something about it being just "good stewardship" at this point, women have a moral obligation to have that man flogged until he comes to his senses.
The incredibly fluid nature of how this works can be illustrated if we consider the same basic story and change just one element (sadly, it also loses its humor in the process). In this version, Bill does not know the ring was fake.
Bill was fooled by an unscrupulous online jeweler whose website has since shut down. He paid thousands of dollars for the ring that he gave as an anniversary gift to his wife. Only months later, when Mary took it to a local jeweler to be cleaned, did she discover it was not a real diamond. In that instant, the ring also changed for Mary.
In its physical nature, she no longer saw it as a diamond. She could not look at it and pretend it was. She knew and could not un-know the ring was a cheap imitation. But, follow me here, Mary still sees the ring as a sacrificial gift of her husband's love. The meaning-nature of the ring has not changed. It remains an ongoing symbol capable of both holding and bringing her husband's love to her.
So powerful is this unchanged perception that Mary's knowledge of it's true physical nature cannot rob the ring of its power to embody Bill's love. In fact, Mary might decide out of love never to tell her sweet husband that he had been duped. In that, she will return his gift of love held in a fake ring by one of her own: the precious gift of not telling her husband the truth about the ring. A fake ring balanced by dishonesty with both serving as conduits of amazingly real love. I told you it was marvelously subtle.
So, in this revised story we keep the ring fake, but change the husband's beliefs and amount of sacrifice. And, oh my, the husband's belief and sacrifice transforms the fake without changing its monetary value. Faith trumps the fake. Junk transformed into treasure while still, at the level of sterile reality, remaining junk.
Let's play with the story one more time. Let's make the diamond real. Real and very valuable. Worth many tens of thousands of dollars. But, in this version the husband bought it to try and patch up a failing marriage. His wife told him the night before that she had proof of his dozens of ongoing sexual affairs with housemaids and women from work. She announced her intention to see an attorney and get a divorce in which, by prenuptial agreement, she will keep much of the wealth of their marriage. Desperate to keep his affluent lifestyle, her philandering husband rushed out of the house that morning and bought the most expensive ring he could find at the nearest jewelry store.
There you have it in reverse. The husband's so-called gift has managed to physically be a true treasure while being transformed by the circumstances, into a pathetically self-serving act that does not hold a drop of love.
Junk as junk. Junk as treasure. Treasure as junk. Kind of overwhelming, isn't it? We hold within us the ability to separate nature from meaning, accidents from substance. Because it is so automatic, we easily assume the two are linked.
So strong is this assumption that jewelers can advertise a diamond ring shows a man's love for a woman. But that's not always true. The link is not absolute. Change the circumstances, particularly as they reflect the husband's intentions or the personal cost of the ring for the man, and the same gift no longer communicates the same love.
Now, think about the real subject of this post: the quality of the worship music we present to God when we gather. That's a relatively objective measurable reality. Great music sounds like great music. Poorly played and sung music, painfully out of tune, is universally recognized as bad music.
In the worship of God, we are all guilty of linking great worship music with great worship. Spectacular praise music well sung by an enthusiastic congregation worships God better than poor praise music badly sung by a small group of people seemingly void of musical tastes or abilities. We know great worship when we hear it.
Maybe. Or, maybe not.
If we think of circumstances where a church hires talented musicians who don't love God but love performing in church or a church with beautiful-sounding worship coming from hundreds of self-satisfied rich corporate executives who mistreat their employees and will not make the slightest personal sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom, the link is broken. It would be physically great sounding and great looking worship, but, at the level of meaning, it would be bad worship. Every year at the Grammy's, some awards are given for gospel music. As a part of this, the planners will bring a gospel group on stage to sing a gospel song. Gospel music sung to a whole theater full of performers and professionals in the recording industry who stand, clap and move with the music, and often sing joyfully along. Great worship? You're kidding, right?
Let's take worship to the other extreme. Bad worship that's great worship. Imagine eight old widows at the Sunnybrook Rest Home who gather each Sunday around an out-of-tune upright piano. And, these eight ladies are, one and all, terrible singers. Let's say six of them had followed their husbands overseas to serve for years a missionaries. All eight of them now live with old bodies that struggle to get out of bed and shuffle their way around. Three of them know they are dying and will not be around six months from now. But, none of those things keep them away from their little weekly gathering to badly sing the praises of the Lord on another Lord's Day morning. As surely as that Sunday sun rises in the east, those eight ladies are just as surely producing bad music that is giving God great worship.
A Tale of Two Services
I am writing this post because a young lady, one of my student (I'm a college teacher) who told me yesterday of a church her music team sang for. The church had two worship services on Sunday morning. The earlier one was overwhelming old people (isn't that always the case?). The older gathering was not much into the music at all. Most of them were unexcited and subdued. This was a stark contrast to the second worship service. It was filled with people, mostly younger, who joined in singing the praise music with enthusiasm and appreciation. So, it was natural for her to comment (very kindly, I might add) that the second service really worshiped on Sunday, while the first service people not so much.
We've all thought the same way. I know I have. But, that's just not always right, is it? At least, we do not know for sure if it is right. Most younger believers have yet to be tested by catastrophic illness. Few of them have struggled to hold on to their faith looking at the coffin of one of their own children. Many older Christians have seen people come and go over the years in the life of that church. Appearing and then disappearing with the same enthusiastic promises-made-but-not-kept that the same people bring into failed marriages or a string of jobs.
Of course, most younger believers gathered for worship will be faithful through the long flow of years. They will refine their faith in the slow hot fire of perseverance, gradually drawing off the dross as they bring God worship. Their enthusiasm in the praise music is the true outward sign of the inward reality of whole-soul adoration. The link between great music and great worship is real in them.
But, the thing is, we are too quick to link precisely what cannot be always linked: Great music greatly sung does not always demonstrate great worship greatly given. Sometimes. Many times. But not every time. Quality matters. I'd rather be in worship with great music greatly sung service, sure. But, I've got to recognize the quality and outward enthusiasm of what we do in worship is important, but it is not that same measure by which our heavenly Father receives that worship.
I am not writing because that talented young lady who shared her assessment of two worship services is shallow or unwilling to revise her assessment. She is neither. It is precisely because we all draw those same links between great music and great worship. And, on reflection, we are all able to recognize that those links may not be how God sees worship.
Quality Matters but does not Measure
A larger and talented church usually does have better sounding worship than a small church. But it is always possible the smaller church might be offering God better worship. But, and this is important, this does not suggest small church worship badly sung is better because it is worse -- sort of taking the last will be first and absurdly applying it to musical quality. Many times, badly done worship music and a church that just doesn't care go hand in hand. And great worship music that has been planned and structured and rehearsed is like a giving a costly diamond to his wife: there is a direct link. Normally genuine worship does flow from inner passion to outward excellence.
Smaller churches have smaller worship. Other churches have lots of people who simply don't sing much or don't sing well. Either way, the music usually suffers. That's the one reliable observation. Smaller is not more spiritual. It's just smaller. Poorly done worship music might just mean the church doesn't have much talent or doesn't care for the music being led.
Quality still matters. In fact, while I'm on the subject, I would respectfully beg some smaller churches with limited musical abilities to please stop trying to duplicate the thirty minutes devoted to singing praise in the nearby large church. Five or ten minutes of bad worship music is enough. In the name of decency, have mercy on those who us who cringe at an out-of-tune piano. C. S. Lewis generally read a book during the music of worship. There are times I'd certainly like to. But, even then, I still know in the ears of our great God, surrounding by eternal praise, we are all worshiping out of tune and that it's the harmonics of hearts, not harps, that are carried by divine grace before the throne of mercy.
I'd rather sit in a service with great music than bad music. Who wouldn't? If you lead worship, make it as amazingly and impressively wonderful as you can. Let's not give God a fake ring we bought on the cheap and imagine he'd be pleased. But, if you promise not to tell, I'll let you in on a secret. Even at our best, we've never actually given God an honest-to-goodness diamond, anyway. But, that's okay. He loves us enough not to come down and point that out every week.
* Yes, I realize substance and accidents are terms actually being used in Aquinas as categories to understand objective, not subjective, realities; but don't let theological accuracy get in the way of a good illustration. He may have been smarter, but, if you've read any of Summa, my posts are good deal funnier. Requiescat in pace, doctor magnus.