It was Wednesday night fellowship at church and I heard it–someone’s phone was “ringing” and the sound was the theme song of a greatly popular PBS series called “Downton Abbey.” I know the tune well, for I have likewise become attached to the story. It is about the goings-on in a lavish British manor house with its wealthy family and array of servants around and during the time of World War I. The show is a wonderfully accurate period piece of the time in history properly called “post-Edwardian,” an era of great fashion, rigid social class, and political upheaval.
The show also illustrates the entrenched habits of the powerful period of English history that came just before Edwardian times, named in honor of the long reigning ruler of England, Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Known as the Victorian Era, this time of great British influence implanted Victorian manners and style across the globe, including America. Among the most striking of Victorian manners are strict social lines, low tolerance of crime, and marked RESTRAINT in matters of sexuality. This led to an ideal manner of speaking and behaving that often made for persons to be inhibited and less emotionally direct. The manner of emotional restraint became so ingrained that it was not simply expected; it was THE accepted and passed down manner of interacting. It was so normal, that folks exercised restraint without consciously trying. And restraint is certainly good. But without “restraint on restraint,” there can be “over-restraint,” such that folks are shut down, inhibited and always holding back under all circumstances.
We might not realize it, but to be called “Victorian” used to be considered a high compliment. Today, the label “Victorian” is most often used to insult people who seem stuffy, high mannered, and morally restrained. This is because our age is a time of what could be called Expressionism. As the latest western cultural fad, there is great emphasis on “expressing yourself,” “speaking out,” “coming out,” even acting out.” These are all manners of expression. For instance, a trendy behavior is that it matters not what you say, but that you say. This is expressionism. If the Victorians were sexually restrained, the Expressionists must be sexually UNrestrained. Sound familiar? We are living in the time of OVERREACTION to Victorian manners. Yet the absurdity of Expressionism as a total way of life is lost on many who aren’t really listening but waiting to get their next word in (expression in) the conversation. Expressionism is the natural enemy of and reaction to Victorianism. But Expressionism is just as problematic for the person and society as Victorianism. I will not go on about our current emphasis on “expression,” but the point is that I am not criticizing Victorian manners simply because it’s unpopular in our time of an equally extreme over-emphasis on expressing ourselves.
The apostle Paul laid down a wonderful principle in dealing with extremes like this. He told the Galatian churches: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). In Paul’s thinking, it is neither Victorianism or Expressionism that matters, but faith working through love. Christians are not into extremes for the sake of reaction, but Christians are free to be extreme when the center of our life in Christ demands it. We are not to be tossed to and fro in our common culture’s weary and frantic knee jerk reactions. We act from higher principles, based in a Higher Person.
So what about Victorianism? I want to suggest that for a large part of us at FH, the manners of Queen Victoria continue to hold a strong influence. This is because many of us were born and raised in parts of the country where Victorian manners continue to be passed on. And that is not all bad. But what happens when we bring our Victorian Restraint into the worship service before God? Is it possible that our inherited cultural restraint might become an inhibiting wall to worshipping the Lord? I can answer that my confirmed Victorian background has definitely kept me from pouring out before the Lord. It has meant that I have been just as concerned about holding back as about showing the Lord my worship and adoration. I believe there are times when my restrained manners have kept me from intimacy with God. In view of the vigorous Biblical worship of someone like King David, who danced before the Lord, I have to wonder whether my strict emotional thermostat is perceived by the Lord of Life as something close to frigidity.
So am I saying we should become “Pentecostals” or “Charismatics?” No, and Yes. The Biblical emphasis of both words must surely be true of us,: 1) that we are partakers of the Holy Spirit who came on the church at Pentecost, and 2) that the Lord has given each one of the body “charismata” which are literally “little graces,” or “gracelettes”, which we call gifts or ministries of the Spirit. Yet I am not saying we change the church sign, but I am saying there is much we can learn from the “Charismatic” churches about being emotionally available to God, especially in worship! I am not recommending any particular manner of expression, such as raising hands or bowing down, but rather something more profound, and practical, because it is so basic to Christian life. It starts with asking myself a question: Is my emotional restraint more about me than the Lord? In answering this question I find that the more I focus on the Lord, the less I am worried about managing impressions and privacy, and the more free I am to pour out worship before the God Who Is There—The Audience of One.
But what about the Scripture that says, “All things should be done decently and in order” (1Corinthians 14:40)? The Scripture is certainly binding, but what is its context? It was written to a church that was so highly expressive (yes Expressionism) that it was in danger of becoming chaotic. As mentioned earlier–the extreme of Expressionism is just as problematic as Victorianism. But a Scripture written to correct a hyper-drive, disorderly service does not necessarily teach the opposite extreme. 1 Corinthians 14:40 is only one Scripture on worship. It is expedient that we consider others as well. For instance, the Apostle Paul describes Four characteristics of the church to the believers in Philippi when he wrote: For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— (Philippians 3:3) What does it mean to “worship by the Spirit?” I doubt that if you asked Paul what he meant he would have said, “I mean raising your hands.” No, Paul was speaking more profoundly of the very principle and power of Christian worship: It is by-in-with-through the Holy Spirit of God. So what does worshipping in the Spirit mean then? Each one of us is given to grapple with this question before the Lord. And the first One to ask for an answer is the Lord Himself: “Lord, what do you mean by this? Would you work this out in my life.”
The question is not simply for one point in life. It is for all my life, for I am called to a growing “worship relationship” with God in Christ. It is properly “by-in-with-through” the Spirit. Fortunately, worshipping in the Spirit can be done without my being fully aware or conscious of it, for He takes me out of myself and focuses me on the Lord with thanksgiving and awe. I can worship by the Spirit and not even know an answer to the question. But we can also be shown answers to the question, many in reflection (living forward, and thinking backward from the experience). For instance, one “answer” for me was very simple yet important. I started singing louder. Yes that was it, but that was a big thing for me, and that is what I believe the Spirit was leading me into–more pouring out and expression in singing. I do not believe the Spirit is finished answering.
So what is the bottom line of what I am trying to say here? An answer cannot be some superficial list of practical remedies. We are talking about an attitude of worship, and that is deeper, and ultimately the most practical. Yet that is the Spirit’s work. I am asking if my holding back in worship is something that can actually cripple my worship and I think it’s true. For the Spirit is leading us to pour out in worship before the Lord. As with all worship issues, the question of allegiance comes to the fore. Queen Victoria or the Holy Spirit? LH