My new love is the privilege – and I don’t say that lightly – of ordering public worship for the church startup I presently serve. I have fallen in love with thinking through a liturgy each week.
A sort of secret weapon for me in this work is a book that a friend gave me. It’s a reprint of the hymnbook used in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, pastored by Charles Spurgeon in the mid to late nineteenth century. One reason this has become such a great resource is that it not only includes the texts of forgotten hymns, but also arrangements of psalms. I like us to sing some form of a psalm each week, if feasible (and more often than not, it’s feasible).
About two weeks ago, I thought it would be good to include an arrangement of the hundredth psalm. The secret weapon offered several versions, and as I read through them, one of the versions stopped me dead in my tracks. Here is the first stanza:
With one consent
let all the earth
To God their cheerful voices raise;
Glad homage pay with awful mirth,
And sing before Him songs of praise.
Awful mirth. Now there’s a phrase you don’t see everyday.
I don’t use the term “juxtapose” very often, but if ever there was a time to use it, here it is. Whoever is responsible for this arrangement (the footnote says “Tate and Brady, 1696”) thought about the biblical text, which most English versions render as “serve the LORD with gladness,” and decided to capture that thought by juxtaposing these terms. Think awful in the old sense (i.e., full of awe), and you think of getting too close to the deadly cliff's edge, night skies with no clouds or noise, a New England meeting house hearing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for the first time. Think mirth, and suddenly it’s the belly-laughing Ghost of Christmas Present surrounded by holly and feasting, a six-year-old lost in bliss on the swingset.
Mirth with awe, deep joy with fear. This certainly rings true with the rest of the Bible. Another psalm, the second one, ends by telling us to “rejoice with trembling.” Luke tells us in the book of Acts that even as the burgeoning New Testament church was full of joy about what was happening, “awe (Greek, fear) came upon every soul.” And in his letter to the Philippians, Paul can’t seem to use the words “joy” and “rejoice” enough, but in the midst of all of it, he instructs them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
I wonder if this plays into why the categories “traditional” and “contemporary” more and more seem flat when we talk about Christian worship. The folks who prefer one or the other certainly bring mixed motives to the debate (as do we all), but their preferences shouldn’t be dismissed as unfounded. Some people have encountered God and experienced real awe, and they don’t want worship that feels flippant. Some people have encountered God and experienced mirth, and the smell of stilted orthodoxy is now the smell of death.
The reality is that we need both. I can’t remember how old I was when I first read the last of the Narnia books, The Last Battle, but my age would have been a single digit. I remember being struck by the description of the now-familiar characters making their way into Aslan’s country – the realization of their dreams come true. Lewis notes that at one point the characters burst out laughing about a remark, but then quickly stop laughing. He comments: “as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.”
Even as a kid, I felt some sense of what he was describing. Three decades later, and two decades into following Jesus, I feel it even more. I think every heart craves awful mirth.
© 2005, Brian Habig.