When the music fades...
Today in the notes accompanying the ‘Bible in One Year’ passages I was reading, Nicky Gumbel quotes an illustration told by Pete Greig in his book, ‘The Vision and the Vow’. I quote below:
“… a distinguished art critic was studying an exquisite painting by the Italian Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. He stood in London’s National Gallery gazing at the fifteenth-century depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, with saints Dominic and Jerome kneeling nearby. But the painting troubled him. There could be no doubting Lippi’s skill, his use of colour or composition. But the proportions of the picture seemed slightly wrong. The hills in the background seemed exaggerated, as if they might topple out of the frame at any minute onto the gallery’s polished floor. The two kneeling saints looked awkward and uncomfortable.
Art critic Robert Cumming was not the first to criticise Lippi’s work for its poor perspective, but he may well be the last to do so, because at that moment he had a revelation. It suddenly occurred to him that the problem might be his. The painting had never been intended to come anywhere near a gallery. Lippi’s painting had been commissioned to hang in a place of prayer.
The dignified critic dropped to his knees in the public gallery before the painting. He suddenly saw what generations of art critics had missed. From his new vantage point, Robert Cumming found himself gazing up at a perfectly proportioned piece. The foreground had moved naturally to the background, while the saints seemed settled – their awkwardness, like the painting itself, having turned to grace. Mary now looked intently and kindly directly at him as he knelt at her feet between saints Dominic and Jerome.
It was not the perspective of the painting that had been wrong all these years, it was the perspective of the people looking at it. Robert Cumming, on bended knee, found a beauty that Robert Cumming the proud art critic could not. The painting only came alive to those on their knees in prayer. The right perspective is the position of worship.”
Yes, a different perspective can make a huge difference on our position of worship.
I have found myself pondering the story today whilst awaiting guidelines from the Welsh Government about how church services might resume. Amongst the many challenges, I am expecting there to be something advising against congregational singing. My immediate reaction is one of sadness as I imagine a church service where we cannot sing. Whether our preference is for modern worship songs, led by a band, hands raised in praise; or to lift our voices, accompanied by a pipe organ, with the familiar words of a much-loved hymn; for many of us, singing is an integral part of corporate worship. What will worship be like if we cannot sing together? The loss may well feel great. It is into this perspective I reflect on Robert Cumming’s revelation: Could there be another perspective about not singing together that will benefit our position of worship?
Some of you may be familiar with the story of the Matt Redman song, “When the music fades”. It dates back to the late 1990s and a period in the life of Matt’s home church, Soul Survivor, Watford, where they felt they were struggling with sung worship. Whilst an outside observer would probably have regarded the music as excellent and that the church was up to date with the current charismatic church culture, the church leaders felt there was something missing and that they had lost their way in worship. They made the bold decision to get rid of both the sound system and the band for a season. They stripped everything away to come back to the heart of worship. Mike Pilavachi, the pastor, reminded the church family that they were not consumers of worship but producers of worship. He asked the question: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” Later, as the church rediscovered a heart for worship and reintroduced the musicians and sound system, Redman wrote a new song that describes what was experienced:
‘When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come
Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart…
I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus
I just wonder… is this the beginning of a new perspective of worship? If we are not allowed to sing corporately when we meet together, can we see it as an opportunity to approach God in a fresh way? What if every Christian who comes through the doors on a Sunday were challenged with the question: “What are you bringing as your offering of worship to God today?” What if each of us, whether officially involved in a service or not, understood that we are producers of worship, not consumers. In other words, we are not simply there to receive but to give, and our very presence adds something to corporate worship.
In Hebrews 13:15, we read: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” The sacrifice of praise takes us beyond attendance and singing and into the realms of what it means to be true worshippers of God. Perhaps we can have a change of perspective, from a sense of loss, to a sense anticipation of what we might discover in the next part of the journey.
South Wales Baptist association is holding a Zoom conversation called ‘When the music fades’. Why not join the conversation on Monday 20th July at 2pm as we explore what worship without singing might look like? This is a session where we can seek to learn from one another and share ideas to help resource us for the future.