By Pastor Glenn Pease
It was before my time, but I remember my parents talking about going to see silent movies. The movies made no sound, but according to Sam Levinson in his book Everything But Money, the audience made plenty of sound. As the hero and the villain shot it out, each firing two thousand shots without loading, the audience would be providing the sound effects.
When the hero appeared everybody cheered, and when the villain came on everybody booed. When the hero kissed the girl 400 kids would kiss their elbows and fill the theatre with kissing sounds. He made it clear that silent movies were far from noiseless. He goes on, "We screamed warnings, we screamed approval, we screamed at each other. Fights broke out, We stamped, we whistled, we wept when the faithful dog whined over his master's wounded body." The point is, it was by making noise and movement that the people entered into and participated in the drama unfolding on the screen.
This is the same idea that we see in the worship experience of the Old Testament. It was not a passive experience, but one where the people participated and became very active by adding sound and movement of the body. There was also a place for silence and a quiet worship experience where the people would be still and sense the presence of God. Most of the songs of the Old Testament, however, were songs calling for sounds of all kinds. Psa. 47 for example begins, not with quiet meditation and prayer, but clapping of the hands and a shouting to God with cries of joy.
The noise level was likely something like that of the old theatre where people got their body involved in the experience. Body involvement in worship is a subject we do not often think about, but the Bible is full of it. It is of interest that most of the hand clapping in the Bible is evil. That is, it is of the wicked clapping and rejoicing at the suffering of the people of God. Clapping was an expression of delight and approval, and evil people clap at evil for they approve of it and get pleasure in it, just as people today clap for comedians who use the foulest of language and ridicule God. But in contrast to man who claps more for evil, the world of nature is always pictured as clapping its hands for the glory of God.
In Psa. 98:8 we read, "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy." In Isa. 55:12 we read, "You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." Nature makes a lot of noise in praising God. The bottom line is, where there is a lot of noise, there is action and involvement, and so worship was noise oriented because man was to make sounds to express his praise of God, and joy in the Lord. Nature joins him, for nature by its very being and beauty praises its maker, just as any work of art is the glory of its creator. The Bible answers the age old question: "If a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a noise?" The answer is yes, because there is always someone there to hear it-God. He hears every clap of every tree in the forest.
This Psalm was part of the New Years Day celebration in the synagogue where they sing it 7 times and then blow the trumpets. The same Hebrew word for clap here is used over 40 times for blowing the trumpet. The idea is to make a joyful noise. In order to do that you have to go beyond the heart, mind, and soul, and love God with all your strength. That means with the instrument by which you produce energy, which is your body. You can pray silently but in a public expression of worship praises are to be fairly loud, for they are symbolic of enthusiastic thanksgiving. What if you went to a Fourth of July celebration and they said that this year we are going to have a quiet celebration and just light candles? The protest would be wild because noise is necessary to convey the joy and gratitude for our freedoms in this land. How much more should there be noise of joy when we celebrate the grace of God?
The volume that comes out of the mouth seems to be a Biblical issue. Listen to these verses:
Psa. 98:4, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth; make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise."
Psa. 32:11, "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, ye righteous, and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart."
The New Testament does not tone it down at all, but keeps the volume of praise on high:
Rev. 7:10, "And cried with a loud voice, salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb."
Rev. 19:1, "I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, shouting hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God.."
Praise in the distant past and in the infinite future is loud because it is to be an emotional release of joy. It is to be like the feelings we have when our team wins a great game, and we are thrilled and shout for joy. This, of course, explains why we do not do a lot of clapping and shouting. We just do not generate the internal energy needed to move the body to these levels of intensity. Different cultures and different people in each culture develop the levels of emotion they feel is appropriate. In England for example, Dr. Baxter says, for a certain type of Englishman to say that something was not without interest would be equivalent to saying there was "A Frenchman dancing in the streets with garlands in his hair." Most Americans are not that stuffy, but neither are we so free as those in the Bible lands. They kiss and hug in ways we do not feel comfortable about.
When Boaz let Ruth glean in his field, and let her eat with his workers, she was so grateful she fell on her face and asked, "Why have I found favor in your sight?" You can do a lot of nice and generous things for people, but I can guarantee they will not be falling on the ground at your feet to thank you. It is too radical and too emotionally expressive, and too much bodily involvement for our culture. A handshake and a thank you is quite sufficient in our culture.
There are many examples of Biblical customs where the body is used to express emotions that we do not follow. In other words, we are products of a culture different from the Biblical culture. We do not fall at the feet of anyone as was a common custom of people in the Bible. If their king visited, they would bow and kneel, but in our culture we do not bow to leaders but merely stand and clap to honor them. We honor people by standing in their presence rather than bowing. That is an obsolete bodily movement in our culture. It does not mean we honor people less. We just have a different way of showing it.
We cannot escape the fact that the Bible does command and urge us to use the body to make noise and movements to communicate our honor and praise to God. In Psa. 134:2 we read, "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord." In Psa. 141:2 we read, "May the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice." What does this mean? How can lifting your hands be like a sacrifice? The first part of the verse helps us get an idea. "May my prayer be set before you like incense." Just as prayer ascends to God like incense, so the lifted hands represent the body being lifted up in sacrifice to God's service. The steeple points up to God to represent a place of worship, and the hands uplifted represents a person who longs to ascend also to worship and be pleasing in God's sight, like a ascending incense. It is a symbol of the heart and mind. The body pictures what the mind thinks and the heart feels. The body is a tool for the heart and mind to express themselves.
You know that in the male and female relationship it is not enough to just think nice thoughts about each other. It is not enough to feel loving toward one another. The heart and mind can be all they ought to be in feeling and thought, and yet nobody would be satisfied. Love has to be expressed to be real and adequate. This means the body has to be the tool by which the heart and mind express love. The body through the mouth speaks forth the love. The body kisses, caresses, and develops the deepest possible intimacy with the one loved. The heart and the mind need the body to fulfill their love. The reason both the Old Testament and the New Testament use the husband and wife relationship to illustrate the God and man relationship is because the body becomes the key to the full expression of love in both the romantic and religious experience. Both need the body to be complete.
God is not content for you to feel love for Him, and to think loving thoughts about Him. He wants it expressed through your body, for your body is the visual revelation of your love. The body makes love incarnate where it can be seen and heard. Incarnation was the way God revealed His true love for us. He sent His Son into the world to take on a body, for only God in a body could communicate just how much He loved us. By means of the incarnation God made the feelings of His heart and the thoughts of His mind visible to us. And so it is that we, by our body, make our heart and mind visible to God. Yes, He looks on the heart, and He knows the mind of man, but until it is expressed in the body, it is only potential love, and not love fully realized because it has not been fully expressed.
So worship and praise needs to have a physical side to it to be authentic and real. That is why the clapping of the hands, the lifting of the hands, the dancing, the singing, the kneeling, and the playing of instruments are a vital part of worship. From the head to the feet the body is used to praise God. Your dog may be able to feel love and loyalty to you without wagging its tail, but that joyful wagging makes you feel good, for it says to you that the dog is happy you are home. It is a bodily symbol of the dog's heart feeling. When the baby smiles at your expression of love, and you know its not just gas, but an expression of true delight in your presence, it makes you feel good. Body language is a very important part of communication. The body of all those we love conveys a message of the soul, and that is what our body is to do in our worship of God. The body is to say, "I really love you, and I am delighted to be in your presence."
In our culture we have so separated the sensual and the spiritual that we do not even realize how they are linked. The Biblical saints knew their entire body, with all of its five senses, was participating in worship. The beauty of the architecture got their eyes involved. The beauty of the songs got their ears involved. The beauty of the incense got their nose involved. The beauty of the sacrifice got their mouth, or taste, involved. The beauty of the anointing oil and laying on of hands got their sense of touch involved. The whole point of all beauty in art, architecture, music, movement, and whatever else appeals to the aesthetic nature of man is to get the body to participate in the praises of God.
The resurrection of the body is a major Christian doctrine, and the reason is clear: Man is not fully man without a body, and God wants us to praise Him forever in the fullness of our being, and that demands an eternal body which can eternally respond to the infinite beauty of God's everlasting kingdom. Bodily worship is not a passing fad. It is eternal, and it is important to God, and should also be to us. To present our bodies as living sacrifices unto God involves the use of the body as a tool of worship.
It is old fashioned now, and not used, but the old Anglican wedding had these words in it: "With my whole body I thee worship." One lover was to say to the other, "My body will adore you, and your body alone will I cherish. I will with my body declare your worth." The body and its actions are key elements in expressing love. How we relate to our mate with our body tells them just how great our love is. God wants the total man involved in worship because man is not complete as mind and soul without the body. If we are going to love God with our whole being, then the body has to be a part of our worship of God.
When we are baptized we surrender our body to be immersed in water to symbolize our burial with Christ, and our recognition that in Him alone we are cleansed from all sin. The body rises out of the water to symbolize the resurrection and our commitment to walk with our Lord in newness of life. In communion we take bread and juice into our body to symbolize our participation in all He purchased for us in His body on the cross. The point is, the only two ordinances that Jesus left for the church to observe for all time are bodily expressions of obedience and acts of love. Jesus is saying, "Love me with your body. What you do with your body is a major factor in communicating the reality of your love."
Even the very act of coming to church is a bodily act of love and worship, for by getting your body to the house of God you declare the worth of God in your life. We read in the Old Testament of the saints going to the temple. In the New Testament we read of the saints being urged not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. Why the big deal on going to a place to worship? It is because it is necessary to get your body involved in declaring the worth of God in your life. You can stay home and worship God with the aid of radio and television, and that can be meaningful, but you have not made a commitment of your body nearly as great as you do when you get it ready and take it to the place where other believers are assembled for worship. You have loved God less then with all of your strength.
On the parallel level of romance it would be like calling your lover on the phone and having a nice talk. You do not go to all the trouble of getting your body into their presence. It is far more meaningful to have face to face contact. The point is, God reveals to us that it matters to Him what we do with our bodies as instruments of worship. In His eyes it is a measure of your love. If you use your body only for what pleases you, and seldom offer it as a living sacrifice in His service and worship, God is not fooled by words. Any lover knows how selfish you are if your body is only minimally involved in expressing love. Do you think God is less discerning, and can be snowed by a prayer or two?
What you do with your body is a major factor in your spiritual life. Worship is to God what romance is to your mate, and that is why God repeatedly calls idolatry, and the going after other gods, adultery. It is using your body unfaithfully. Your body and its movements are to convey your love for Him and no other. The worship of God is to be an exclusion, just as sex is in marriage. Clap your hands for the gods of this world, and you are unfaithful. Kneel before the idols of this age, and you are committing adultery. Sing the praises of the false images of materialism, humanism, etc., and you become a spiritual harlot.
This is what the prophets were saying all the time to God's people. You cannot be a spiritual person without the body being devoted to the Lord. It has to be surrendered and used for His glory, or it will send you astray, and be enticed by the sensual god's of this age. The implications of this are astounding, for what all this means is that everything is sanctified, made holy, and pleasing to God, when it is devoted to the exalting of His majesty and worth. Dancing, which we think of as secular, can become sacred when it is movement of the body for the purpose of expressing joy in God.
We clap as a bodily act, and thereby we express the pleasure we feel in the presence of some beauty that has touched one of our senses. Clapping pleases God when we do it to say, "Thank you Lord for the beauty of your salvation, and for the beauty of your grace. We praise you with this bodily act of approval and appreciation." We don't just say it, for we know actions speak louder than words, and we want to shout it to the heavens saying, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."
God looks for love expressed in body language. That is what all the clapping, shouting, and dancing are about in the Psalms. We do not have to imitate what they did, but we can work at awareness of our bodies being instruments of worship, and get them more involved. When the famous dancer Baryshnikov joined the New York City ballet, he said he wanted to be under the direction of the world renowned choreographer, George Balanchine because, "I would love to be the instrument in his wonderful hands." This is to be our attitude in worship. We actually do more dancing than we realize. Dancing is the movement of the body to music. Lavonne and I do walkarobics almost every evening, and it is movement of the body to music. I never thought of it as dancing, just as I have never thought of our movements in church as dancing, but any organized movement we do to music is a form of dance.
Since we do not think of it as music, we often do not display the grace and harmony we should. When the choir stands you notice that they all rise in unison, for that is part of the dance. If they popped up one here and one there at all different times, it would give an impression of discord. There bodies are singing before their voices when they rise in unison. Often when we rise to sing as a congregation we dance quit poorly, and are like one stepping on toes, for we have not taken seriously the beauty of harmonious bodily movement. We as leaders have not thought it through, and so we have not made an effort to coordinate your movements with the music, and work at uniformity.
The ushers as they come forward to receive the offering is another area of bodily movement that can be orderly and uniform, or chaotic. All we do in worship either adds to or subtracts from the grace of the dance. We will soon be seeing the graceful performance of figure skating champions. They move with such grace and beauty that our minds are in awe as we watch bodily movements as a work of art. Sports are also bodily movements that are so coordinated that they successfully accomplish a goal, which is usually getting a ball to some specific place. The movement of the stars and planets is God's work of precision art.
Physical movement is symbolic of the unseen world of mind and spirit. If the movement is that of a drunk who is uncoordinated and stumbles into things, breaking things, and falling down, you see a symbol of an impaired and fallen mind. When the movement is that of a skater who can do triple twists with the grace of a bird in flight, you see a symbol of an orderly mind that has been disciplined and committed to the display of beauty. All of this relates to worship in that when we use our bodies in harmonious movement we symbolize that we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. The Psalms urge us to do that, and our bodily movements are the way we do it. The universe moves with such precision and harmony as a dance to glorify the Creator. We too in worship are to sing and move in harmony as our dance to the glory of God.
Now let me stress an escape clause. We are not machines, and this is not a legalistic issue. It is a matter of great variety. As people we have all kinds of limitations and handicaps, and so not all can do everything in unison. We do not spend a major portion of our lives practicing as do skaters. The goal is not to develop a professional group of worshipers, like a marching band in a military parade. The goal is to simply be aware that our bodies are a part of our worship, and they add to or detract from the praise we offer to God. We are to do all we do to the glory of God, and the movements we make in worship portray either joy or indifference.
If you had a dance where some were doing the waltz and others the polka, and still others trying to square dance, you would have utter chaos. Everybody in a group has to be dancing to the same tune. In church we need to work at this by getting all to dance in unity. Why? Because our bodily movements are part of our worship. We don't just think praise, but we offer it with our lips. We don't just feel thankful, but we express it by what we do with our lungs and tongue. We don't just remember what Christ did for us on the cross, but we take the bread and cup and by bodily action we commemorate that salvation event. The dance is a legitimate form of worship, but it has great limitations in our culture, just as other legitimate Biblical movements do. The washing of each others feet, the holy kiss, the tearing of our clothes in anguish, the beating of our breasts in confession, and the falling on our face to show respect, are just a few of such movements.
Our goal is not to try and impose an ancient culture on our modern culture, but to learn how we can praise God more effectively with our whole being-the body being a vital part of our being. Because we have not thought a lot about the physiology of praise we tend to practice a sort of disembodied worship of the mind and soul. We are cerebral celebrants, and this is not bad, for we are to love God with all the mind as well. The problem is, we neglect the role of the body. The body can add life to our praise. If our mind is saying, "praise the Lord", but our body is saying, "Why did you drag me here, and when will I be able to go home and get a nap," you are sending mixed signals. The body is not in harmony with the mind and spirit, and the result is discord.
Ideal worship involves loving God with body, mind, and spirit, so that posture, gestures, and movement, all work together to say, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." The paradox of this focus on the physiology of praise is that it will make it worse rather than better for awhile, for we will be all the more conscious of our disharmony and uncoordinated movement. We will have to go through the bull in the china shop stage to get to the swan on the lake stage, but if we are serious about growing in our worship experience, we need to endure the pain of learning to do what leads to the enjoyment of greater pleasure. May God help us to praise Him with our whole being as we learn to practice the physiology of praise.
This song was written by me to the tune of Ode to Joy by Beethoven as an example of body praise.
Clap your, Clap your, Clap your two hands
shout to God with cries of Joy.
Awesome is the Lord beyond man
He indeed is Lord most high.
Clap and shout and with great Joy sing
let your Savior see your mirth.
Let the whole world know He's your King
King of All Kings on the Earth.
Clap your hand and raise your voices
do not hide your love for Him.
God has given many choices
to prevent Love's growing dim.
With the body now we Praise you
with the tongue we praise your name.
Help us now to leave this Church pew
loving more than when we came.