Today, I sit in Florence writing poetry and a blog. I am extremely blessed to be able to travel after two years of pandemic restrictions. What a privilege to be here and see all that has gone before. Sunday morning, I was in Venice in the Piazza San Marco. I had a quiet worship time at 7:00 in the morning before the rest of the tourists rose from their beds. I looked about and saw the amazing works of art and Saint Mark’s Basilica where the relics of Mark the Evangelist are said to be buried.
Much of the art of course has a Christian theme and was made as an act of worship to God. There are paintings, frescoes, bronze statues, marble sculptures, and so much more. It is beautiful and I felt a sense of awe and grandeur for those who have gone before and dedicated their whole lives to creating works of art and architecture which not only worshipped God but also pointed others to the great Creator of all. Stories from the Bible were laid before me in glass, marble, bronze, and paint as if I were an illiterate peasant from the 13th century. Yet, it occurred to me that much of this worship directed toward God was misguided, corrupt, or imperfect in some way. Those who had gone before tried to worship God with a whole heart and give of their best to him. But truly they often failed. Much of the time they failed because their motives were wrong. They made art and considered it a sacrifice to God as a form of appeasement so that he might not smite them; or that he might give them good crops; or that he might save them from the black plague. The COVID-19 pandemic has surely drawn us back to prayer and worship, but have we too given in to a baser form of prayer that focusses on our own well-being? Others who went before gave of their best to God to try to earn their way into heaven. They felt that if they did enough good deeds, they could point to those at the final judgement and get into heaven on the merit of these works of art or charitable gifts.
How much of my worship is imperfect? How much of our worship is imperfect? The reality is that we seek to worship the One who made the universe, and indeed the universes if it turns out to be true that we live in a multi-verse. How can we rightly worship a God this immense and this mysterious? We have the example of those who have gone before. We have the lessons of the Bible. We have leaders in the church who point the way. Yet, none of this is sufficient to keep us from going astray. Those who went before made their mistakes – whether that be the popes, Alexander of Alexandria, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, George Muller, Thomas Campbell, Herbert W. Armstrong, John Wimber, or Bill Hybels. The Bible requires interpretation, and we can see how the interpretations vary greatly among many learned scholars and the everyday Bible reader. Our pastors and teachers are indeed a guide, but as one of those who leads and teaches in the church, I may guide others but would never demand that my understanding is the final authority.
It seems we must give up on being certain! Perhaps our greatest error is when we think we are not in error. Is this not what Jesus was getting at with the Pharisees and 1st century teachers? He warned them repeatedly of their misaligned worship: “…you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb garden, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” Luke 11: 42 (NLT). This tells us that it is easy for our aim to be off target. I may feel sure that I am on target, but Jesus wants to gently turn my shoulders a few degrees and point my arrows in a new direction. If I soften my stance and yield to his hands, might I see the target before my eyes?
Is it not possible that some of the things of which I am most sure may in fact be wrong? Oh Lord have mercy upon us. I know you have. Give us an immense amount of your grace in our lives. I know you do. None of us could stand if you did not give grace and redeem the rotting fruit we give to you. Redeem the works of art that we have gifted to you. Take the things that have an aroma of self and wash them clean so that they are a pleasing scent to you. “Search me, O God, and know my heart: Try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:23, 24 (KJV) “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51:7 (NLT) Yet, I will not stand still. I press on, seeking to know ever more, seeking to get more of it right, seeking to be more pleasing to this God who does not want us to please him but rather to accept his great gift of grace. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14 (NLT)