In Praise of Worship

What is it to be a worshipper of the one who created the universe? Given the way we do church today it’s not surprising that many see worship and singing as synonymous. Neither is it surprising to note that the ‘praise and worship industry’, if I can call it that, is big business.
Sometimes you get the impression that worship is primarily for us – to meet our dreams and our needs – and that it’s about feeling good about myself, God and the world.

However WORSHIP, like a multifaceted DIAMOND,
is much more than that.

Certainly, singing praise is part of worship, in fact one of its highest forms as C.S. Lewis wrote: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise”. For Christians, praise of God is natural, however it is simply not all there is to worship.
When we gather in our buildings on Sunday mornings we call it ‘worship’ acknowledging that every part of our time is part of the act of worship. This includes our praying, confession, silence, being still, scripture reading, listening, taking notes, giving an offering, baptism, playing an instrument, communion, and greeting each other.
Sadly, we easily slip into thinking we have worshipped if we’ve been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. But, this is a very limited view worship. Worship is much more than an event within the four walls of a building.

Trevi Fountain, Rome
The iconic Trevi Fountain in Rome was begun by Salvi in 1732, and completed by Pannini in 1762. That’s my wife Jenny standing beside it.

Earlier this year, Jenny and I had the privilege to visit a number of art galleries across Europe. We saw works of art by people such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, and one of my favourites Van Gogh. While visitng the Louvre we caught a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile as recorded by da Vinci; and on another day marvelled at the perfection of Water Lilies painted by Monet. All these artists are household names, even though many of them died hundreds of years ago.
How is it that we know their names today? Throughout the centuries they have been admired by thousands of people who marvelled at their beauty and grace while acknowledging the skill, genius and character of the artists. The art remains a living legacy to the one who created them. So today in art galleries around the world, works of art are displayed each revealing something special about the one who created them.
Here we see a simple yet profound principal at work: created things reveal things about their maker. Whether that thing is a painting, or a sculpture, a birthday cake, music, a landscaped garden, or a dress, the principal doesn’t change.
The same is true of the earth and the universe, as they too are created things. In Psalm 19 the psalmist says,

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

In other words, the universe is a giant canvas displaying the work of a creative genius.
A painting is not just the work of an artist, but also reveals the nature of an artist.  So too creation declares the essential nature of the one who created it. Paul says in Romans, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20)
Throughout the Bible all things in heaven and earth are consistently implored to praise their Creator. It doesn’t matter whether they are heavenly creatures, angels, celestial bodies (the sun, moon, stars, waters), or the earth and its oceans, skies and land, if they are created they are to praise their Creator. Living creatures are not exempted either. Animals, birds, fish and bugs and everything that moves are called to give glory to their maker.
This is the essence of worship and the foundation of all praise,the relationship between a creature and their creator. That’s why you and I are inherently worshippers.  We are the handiwork of a Creator.

David after Michelangelo
This is a copy of Michelangleo’s David. The real one is inside the nearby Accademia Gallery which was shut the day we were in Forence

What does this mean for our understanding of worship?
It helps us begin to appreciate how worship has more to do with who we are than what we do. How does a work of art bring praise to its maker? How does the Mona Lisa bring glory to da Vinci? By being nothing more than being all that da Vinci painted it to be. The Mona Lisa just needs to be the Mona Lisa.
So too a star needs to be a star, a mountain a mountain, and an ant an ant. ‘Worship’, for them, is about being all they were created to be. It is the same for human beings. Worship is much more than singing in a purpose-built building on Sundays. It is as natural as eating or breathing. Just being all we were created to be we can exalt, honour, and bless the Creator at all times. As Martin Luther said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”
Conceiving of worship in this light gives new meaning to our understanding that we are a special creation of God’s, made in his image.
While every part of creation displays something of its Creator, there are qualities or attributes of God that can only be seen through humanity. Questions like – What is the Creator like? What is the Creator’s name? What kind of God is the Creator? – are asked by humans alone in all creation. Why do we ask them? It has to do with being made in the image of God.
God’s creativity, fellowship, community, mutual respect, justice, mercy, compassion and industry and so on, are only fully seen in and through humans. Being made in God’s image, we reflect these unique attributes of our Creator in a way no other creation does. Such attributes are more clearly seen in the way we relate to each other than it does in our singing.
From this perspective worship is not a part of life, it is life. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor 3:31) The early Christians, liberated from the constraints of the old law, saw their lives as a continuous act of worship. As Romans 12:1-2 Paul clearly states: we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God – this is our reasonable act of worship.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that Christians went to a place to worship. Archeologically there is no evidence that they had buildings purposely built and set apart exclusively for Christian worship. In fact it never says they ‘went to church’! For them worship was a lifestyle reflecting the image of their Creator.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t meet together, in fact the writer to Hebrews is very clear about this (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, the question is what should our gatherings be like? Interestingly, after saying we should meet together, Hebrews goes on to say that we need to encourage one another.
Throughout his letters Paul is clear that the overriding purpose of meetings is for the strengthening of God’s people, the church. In a stinging rebuke of the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul’s makes clear that their lack of love for each other showed they were living inconsistently with what it meant to be God’s people (Read 1 Corinthians).
Most people today would say that we worship God when we gather together, but the New Testament is clear, we don’t gather primarily for worship. It is true that by gathering we do worship God, but that is not why we gather. We gather for the purpose of encouraging each other and seeing each other built up. As British theologian I.H. Marshall wrote, “While it is true in the broad sense that everything which the Christian does will be ultimately directed to the glory of God, it is simply not the case that the purpose of Christian meetings was understood as being primarily and directly worship [in a ritualistic sense], homage and adoration addressed to God.”
When we gather together we do so as part of the family of God – to meet with our Creator and to meet with others. Our aim is help one another know, believe, and follow him.
Despite what one might glean from church services and Christian books, whether or not you are a real worshiper is not determined by your attendance at church services or how well one might sing. True worship is better determined by how quickly we forgive, how well we handle our finances, and what we do when no one is looking.
Worship is not confined to buildings, and it is much more than music or singing. Worship is what we do as we live for God in every aspect of our lives. So, let’s worship our Creator!
Stephen L Baxter

Being Baptist – more than meets the eye

It was a privilege to have Nigel Wright as speaker at Engage Tasmania, our Baptist State Conference, last weekend. Nigel is principal of Spurgeon’s College, London, and with his wife Judy, journeyed to Hobart for the conference. It was a delight to have lunch with them last Monday and show them both around our buildings at Hobart Baptist. Given the influence of Spurgeon, and his son Thomas, in the early life of Hobart Baptist Church it was a great reminder of the profound heritage we have.
Under the conference theme “Back to the Future”, Nigel suggested a “church without a past is a Nigel G Wrightchurch without a future” and reminded us that historically, Baptists are the “radical Protestants.” Better described as a “movement of Christians” than a denomination, Baptists have often been at the pioneering edge in areas such as the abolition of the slave trade, issues of religious liberty and the ministry of women.
Nigel called us to revive the radical stance of our forebears and return to a New Testament vision of the church which is at the core of our Baptist Heritage: believers’ church, believers’ baptism, disavowing Constantinian influences and the separation of the powers of state and church. While acknowledging the positive and negative influences of tradition, he called for the ongoing transformation of our congregations to meet the challenges of our day.
All this reminded me of the great heritage we have here at Hobart Baptist Church. It was encouraging to remember that while the church faces significant challenges, those who have gone before us have travelled similar roads. They too faced challenges that at times seemed insurmountable, yet they persevered and God brought them through. Why can’t it be the same for us?
By recalling our radical roots we can be inspired. Taking time to look back at our history reminds us of where we have come from, and of the journey we are on with the Holy Spirit. Church can and should be an exciting place to be. It may be difficult at times, and increasingly difficult in the midst of an increasingly hostile environment, but the future need not be dark and glooming, but exciting.
God still loves his church, Jesus is still building his church, and the Holy Spirit is at work. Let us be encouraged and continue to ask God to enable the church, no matter what denomination, to be all that God desires it to be.
Stephen L Baxter
If you have some time, why not check out this 15-minute video put together by the Baptist Church in the UK, explaining some of the profound heritage of the Baptist Church >>>

Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light

There many things people find difficult about Jesus. One of them is believing his resurrection actually took place. In fact, the majority of Australians today consider such a view unreasonable, unrealistic, irresponsible and irrelevant.
Yet sadly, as never before, many in our community, families, schools, and businesses need to know the reality and power of the resurrection more than ever. Despite our affluence, many lives are full of despair, disillusionment and brokenness, while some endure a living death. They need resurrection, not just at the end of their lives, but tomorrow and next week. They need something to help them see past their misery and depression in hope and anticipation.
Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) one of the principle founders of the Harvard Law School, and possibly one of the greatest legal minds who ever lived, believed the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a hoax and set out to disprove it. He was certain that a careful examination of the internal witness of the Gospels based upon his famous Treatise on the Law of Evidence (still in print today) would dispel all the myths at the heart of Christianity.
However, after a thorough examination of the evidence he came to the exact opposite conclusion. “It was impossible,” he wrote, “that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead…”
Wouldn’t it be exciting if those we know facing hard times and are sceptical about the resurrection, came to the same realisation as Greenleaf and could see the resurrection for what it is? Life would take on new meaning and depth for them.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if those facing hard times could see the resurrection for what it is?

Believing in the resurrection brings hope and helps to bring appreciation that there is more to life than we face now. In the midst of our trials and struggles, we need to be reminded that God loves resurrection and is willing to bring it to our lives today.
However, there is a catch. The paradox to resurrection life is that you cannot have it without dying first. God only gives resurrection life to those who need it. So many of us want such life but without the dying part.
Yet, surprising as it may seem, when we go through difficult times we are closer to experiencing resurrection life than before. It is as if the experience of suffering and despair herald the coming of resurrection.
What difficult things are you currently facing that God wants to see changed? He is longing for you to reach out and trust him for the impossible, bringing new life out of dead things.
Are you ready to trust him?

Stephen L Baxter

Work by faith for the glory of God

One of Martin Luther’s more provocative statements goes like this: “…the farmer in the field, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit.”
Brother Lawrence said something similar thing in his book The Practice of the Presence of God where he determined to make sure he saw the presence of God in his kitchen as well as the church. His simple daily prayer was, “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.”
Every Christian is called. ‘Calling’ is God’s way of expressing his will for each and everyone of us. We are all called to be saved, it is God’s desire “that no one perish, but everyone come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) We are also called to grow in discipleship, love of each other, and move onto maturity.
When we respond to his call it is an act of faith, belief and obedience. Each of us has a choice. We can choose to live ordinary lives, doing ordinary things, in ordinary ways without any extraordinary sense of purpose. Or, we can choose to invest time, talent and treasure in being obedient to God’s will and direction in our lives no matter what the task and how simple it seems.
This was one of the great rediscoveries of the Protestant Reformation: it doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, when God calls you he calls you to a life of serving him. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is whether we do it faithfully and lovingly that matters.
This is both an encouragment and challenge to us all. We can ask ourselves, is my life lived by faith for the glory of God? We can easily discount what we do just because it doesn’t seem significant, big, or spiritual enough. But we need to be reminded that anything we do, whether it is at work, at home, at school, voluntary or not, can be the highest and holiest of calls.
As you live this coming week, let me encourage you to talk it over with God. You may be surprised that he sees what you do in a very different way. Perhaps you work for the glory God in a way you hadn’t previously considered!

Stephen L Baxter

The Diversity of Jesus’ Church – in India!

Back in 1990, Jenny and I with our three young children and nine eager fellow travellers set out for a short term mission trek visiting our sister church which worked in the slums of Chennai (then called Madras). Chennai is in the province of Tamil Nadu, and is famous for its curries and very dark-skinned inhabitants. 

For six weeks we shared life with our Indian brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there we learnt about the diversity of God’s church in ways we could never have imagined. It was a confronting, uncomfortable and challenging time; yet it was nevertheless an encouraging and life-changing experience.
On Sundays we sat on the floor through 2½ hour long services, with women on the right and men on the left, in humid, sweltering conditions. Most of the time we had little or no idea what was going on as men prayed and preached and women sang and wailed. We watched as the pastor prayed for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike and then asked us to join in.
Dance in Worship
Two of our group in ‘half-saris’ (worn by older teen girls) dancing to a worship song as learnt at home. They are dancing surrounded by the women’s half of the congregation.

As leaders, one of our main tasks was to counsel our team as they experienced culture shock, and guide them to a godly and biblical way to understand the gulf of differences that existed between the Indians and us. The way they lived their Christian life, their theology and practice of church was something we had never encountered or experienced before.
We often pined for home, yet we learnt so much during those six weeks and it was sad when we came to leave. While their church services seemed so disordered, often leaving us confused and uncomfortable, we could not deny the reality that God was at work amongst them, despite our disquiet and questions.
As I look back now I think it was the first time I realised that despite what I’d assumed, the opposite of disorder is not order, or certainly not my idea of order. When things are uncomfortable, confusing and seemingly out of hand, I look for stability in what I know and what I experience. But living in Chennai  that was impossible, there was no escape. I couldn’t walk away, I couldn’t withdraw. After all, I was the leader.
Jenny with our three children and some Indian friends

What God taught me was that peace is the opposite of disorder, not order. The apostle Paul says as much in a little verse in 1 Corinthians where he says, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (14:33). What a simple but profound statement, written to what was most likely the most dysfunctional church of the New Testament. Here was snobbery, sexual promiscuity, over-enthusiastic expression of spirituality, and disorderly times of worship. The church was divided and confused, and in the midst of their disarray Paul reminds them of the importance of peace, after all Jesus is the King of Peace (Hebrews 7:2) and the angels announcedat his birth that he would bring “peace on earth.”
Here I am preaching at 2am at the New Year’s Eve all night prayer vigil!

The lessons I learnt in Chennai served me well just a few years later when I became the Managing Director of Australia’s largest Christian magazine at the time (On Being magazine). Through the magazine I came in contact with people with quite a wide diversity of experiences and expressions in following Jesus. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Christians from all persuasions and walks of life. Some were more conservative even fundamental, some were liberal, some charismatic and Pentecostal, some were orthodox and some unorthodox. Many thought their way of being and doing church was the “right” way, and some really struggled to appreciate the uniqueness of each other’s gifts, heritage and experience.
However, I found the experience of learning about all this variety was rich and rewarding. I was constantly reminded of God’s love of diversity and the how body of Christ is made up people from different backgrounds, heritage and experience. Such a range in understanding is not a problem to God, and I learnt that it shouldn’t be a problem to me either.
This is one of the things I find delightful about Hobart Baptist. We are made up of three quite distinct and different congregations. In essence it is a small expression of the diversity of the body of Christ. Alongside our more traditional Baptist heritage, we have our Karen congregation and their experience of church, living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. And alongside these we have Church With No Walls expressing their faith in God in different ways again.
I am constantly encouraged by the willingness of people to work at being one church in the midst of our diversity, endeavouring to encourage one another through the exercise of grace, forgiveness and love. Despite our differences we are to work at being united, and in doing so be obedient to the command of Jesus. On the night before he died Jesus prayed for us (John 14-17) and insisted that as disciples we demonstrate our unity by our love for one another.
That is not to say we agree on everything, in fact the reality is we don’t. But we can agree to be united despite our differences. Often Christians make the mistake of wanting other Christians to think the way they do. Still others believe everyone should worship or work the way they do. But we were made to be different – different gifts but the same Spirit, different services but the same Lord, different ministries but the same God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The Bible is clear: we are called to unity but not uniformity.
Unity is not about having big services with all the congregations together, nor is unity singing the same songs and doing everything the same way. That is conformity or sameness. Such uniformity is unbiblical.
How is it possible to live with such diversity? I believe unity is a journey, not a static point. Our focus is not order (although that maybe important) but peace. Why? Because we can experience peace even in the midst of disorder or when we feel uncomfortable. Unity is being united in purpose and allowing each other to get on with what they are called to. We may sing different songs, conduct our services differently and see the world differently, but what is important is that we all reach for the same goal. We want to see each other’s ministries flourish; we therefore pray for each other and help out wherever we can. This is unity! That is what God taught Jenny and me in India.
We discovered God is much bigger than our experience, our theology and our ability to understand. Our thinking was too small at the best of times. Once we relaxed and experienced peace, we were able to see God at work in new ways, and learnt to appreciate their “dis”-order in a new way.
We learnt that we can’t limit God to our comfort zone and say, “God, I only want you to work in what I’m comfortable with.” We learnt that Jesus is not a comfortable Saviour, and if we were looking for comfort we need to look elsewhere than Jesus. So despite the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, it did not mean he was the Prince of Comfort. And although the Holy Spirit is called the comforter the Spirit’s job is not to make us comfortable.
God has not finished with Hobart Baptist Church, there is much more that the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – desires for us. And if God is at work amongst us, we can guarantee that the journey will be uncomfortable and challenging; for me as well as you. Our assurance is that God is with us, and Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is our Saviour.
I encourage you to be at prayer for the various forms of the Church in Hobart and elsewhere. Pray also for those who are experiencing a sense of disorder wehre they are; that they may seek God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding; and that they may grow in love for others despite differences.
Stephen L Baxter

Australia and NZ Stop — ANZAC Day memories

WWI Charge
On the battlefront during WWI

This week I was taken again by the outpouring of emotion we see each year as Australia stops for Anzac Day.
The evening news bulletin showed men and women, young and old, taking the pilgrimage to Gallipoli with one grown man declaring it was the most significant day of his life. That the commemoration endures, when not so long ago that some declared it was about to die, could point to a hunger for spirituality that remains for many Australians.
Biblical scholar, and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, suggests spirituality is something like a hidden spring that continues to bubble up despite our materialism and secularism. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay seems to say similar in his book What Makes us Tick —The Ten Desires That Drive Us, where our “desire for something to believe in” makes his list. He writes that regardless of the debates “about the possible meanings of ‘God’… there is a powerful human desire to believe in something in the realm of the non-material.” Although people are attracted to memorialising Anzac Day for many reasons, it could be that for some it is this hunger for spirituality that we see at work. It is interesting to ponder why this is might be so.
Despite the enduring popularity of Anzac Day, there are those who are not drawn into its commemorations. Many a returned soldier has never marched preferring to bury the past and allow nothing, not even Anzac Day, resurrect the memories and the trauma. As one reflected recently, “I don’t like Anzac Day, my father returned from war an alcoholic, he was a gentleman sober, but violent when drunk.”
Post traumatic stress, as we now call it, didn’t have a name then and was never diagnosed at the time. Australia lost many young men in both WWI and WWII, but not only on the battlefield. There were too many who returned physically and or mentally wounded. The scars of war are still carried today by wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren.
There are others, who despite the scars of war, stop on Anzac Day to remember family members and the prices they paid. Without idealising war, they remember in the midst of their pain. They are confronted with the futility of war, but thankful for the giving of lives in the hope of making for a better world.
This perhaps comes closer to the ‘spirit’ of the Anzac. Although not commonly acknowledged, the diaries and the stories of the first Anzacs reveal how faith and religion were part of Gallipoli with many finding comfort in Scripture, song and prayer as they confronted the possibility of dying.
Then as Australians began to erect war memorials across our country in every rural town, they found inspiration from Jesus and quoted in King James English with Jesus’ words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Even at our modern Anzac Day commemorations we still sing the old hymns as we search to find reverence and meaning in our services.
Perhaps here is the spiritual link—the giving of oneself for others. Anzac Day commemorates what others did on our behalf and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate what Jesus did for us. Perhaps it is here that Easter and Anzac Day overlap and why Australians find Anzac Day strangely moving and spiritual.
Have you ever attend an Anzac Day March? What was your experience? Did it make you stop and think?
I’d be keen to know your thoughts!
Stephen L Baxter