'Gravity and Gladness' Seminar, Part the First

At long last, I’ll be reviewing my experience last month listening to John Piper do what he does best! It’s rather lengthy, so today will feature the tense, first installment and we’ll conclude it as a Christmas present to y’all. I know it’s been a long time in the making, so I hope it doesn’t disappoint!

Anywho, Bob and I had a slammin’ time in Minneapolis over the weekend of November 11th and 12th when we were blessed with the means to attend a most excellent seminar from John Piper entitled “Gravity and Gladness: The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship.” It was a remarkable instance of synchronicity that I should have the opportunity to hear the fruits of Piper’s meditation on the subject of corporate worship as I had just begun a critical study of that very thing. In light of my recently becoming more involved in the music ministry at Morning Star I have been culling countless articles and books on the nature of worship in the New Covenant, liturgy in church history, worship service methodology, and music criticism, trying to wrap my head around some sort of philosophy of music ministry. A night and a day at Bethlehem Baptist Church was precisely the sort of christening my thinking needed to set to sea!

Bob made me aware of the seminar’s existence the morning of Tuesday the 8th during a meeting at Starbuck’s. His brother had two free tickets that he and I could use, he reported, but our being able to attend was unlikely at best due to transportation issues.

Wait… what?

For me, that’s sort of like saying, “Hey, Don Caballero is getting back together with Ian Williams for a free show but… it’s in Mogadishu.” “Bummer” doesn’t adequately convey the soul splintering woe of having your affections tread upon in the winepress of futility. The sensation is heinously close to plunging a thousand Antarctic daggers straight into my heart and tugging them out the other side! Thankfully, serendipity struck late that night when Bob called to inform me that arrangements had been put in place. A 180-degree phase shift of epic proportions had just rocked my casbah: we were Bethlehem-bound that Friday!

I had originally planned on attending the wedding of one of Kristin’s longtime friends that night but after about three minutes of discussing with her the pros and cons of going, she concluded that I had to be at that seminar. Her excited affirmation multiplied my already enormous enthusiasm exponentially, although five cups of coffee may have also played a part in my overabundance of ebullience that morning now that I think about it!

The morning arrived and with it, a desperate attempt to wash and dry some dapper apparel for the weekend, i.e. my two ultimate favorite sweaters. This madness is better filed under the category of “Things Best Done a Day or Two Beforehand.” Amidst the chaos of rewashing and drying the clothes I had idiotically left in the washing machine two days prior I managed to dig my suitcase out of our attic and pack the majority of my clothes and some crucial toiletries.

Side note: I still don’t understand why these items are called “toiletries,” but I digress.

For the first time in my life I brought no books whatsoever for the trip, figuring I’d have more than enough to ponder from the thousands of notes I would doubtlessly be scrawling that night. Don’t laugh- this is a pretty massive development, people! Disproportionately pleased with myself, I made my way back to the basement to recover my boss black sweater, only to discover that it and its brethren were still quite soggy! How could this be? I engaged the dryer’s drive system once more, glaring at the device as though the gravity of my gaze would speed the process.

The doorbell struck a shrill, impatient note and dread paralysis seized my innermost being. Bob and Jeremy were here? Already?

I threw open the dryer door in a fury as if I was about to rescue Timmy from a well and clenched my favored clothing articles in a panicked kung fu grip. I lurched into my black sweater, struggling to yank it over my awkward mane (I was still growing my hair at the time…again!) and made my way through the living room to the front door to greet… Not Bob?

No. Bianca-from-across-the-street had swung by to chew the fat for a minute or two or twenty.

My sweater, still damp from its drying cycle fail, wrapped me in a shroud of cadaver chill as I stood outside conversing with Bianca-from-across-the-street for a short eternity. Jeremy’s arrival cut that session mercifully short- I was freezing! Jeremy took the church van from my home back to his, leaving Bob and I with his minivan. I bid Bianca adieu and grabbed my belongings from inside, eager to hop aboard the Scott shuttle and melt the icicles that had formed in my sweater. I deposited my suitcase and satchel next to… Milou? On the seat directly behind Bob lay his trusty chien, Milou, looking rather dejected behind the merciless black bars of his cage. I had been curious what manner of canine care Bob was going to arrange for his faithful attack hound that weekend but the obvious solution had eluded me!

Like the herald racing from the Battle of Marathon* we hurtled northward on our pilgrimage to Minnesota with all possible haste and intermittently caught glimpses of Illinois and Wisconsin vanishing into microscopic singularities behind us. As we conversed about music, family, and obnoxious partisan politics I discovered in Bob some of the same radical strains that had lain dormant in me over the past three years. He introduced me to Sandra McCracken as we forded the furious rapids of the Mississippi and scaled the Scandinavia-saturated heights of Minnesota. Right around this time I let Bob down by offering to drive for the remainder of the trip and then falling asleep about thirty minutes into my tenure. Co-pilot assist fail!

We finally arrived at his brother’s home and dined with his and Bob’s families. Jennie had driven there already with the kids, so we all chillaxed for a couple of hours to prepare ourselves for the intellectual and spiritual typhoon that would be unleashed that evening. I lost myself in sumptuous feasting and probably embarrassed Bob with my repeated barbaric yawps of delight at the culinary masterpieces being conveyed to me like an assembly line of gluttony. I’m drooling right now thinking of it, to tell you the truth.

We departed for Bethlehem and had an insightful conversation about the complexity and morality of rock music that was so refreshing for me. Bob had begun a book written by a music professor whose thesis annihilates the myth that rock music is the realm of wannabes who couldn’t make it in “real music.” Bob and his brother grew up in a culture where rock was not only derided as simplistic non-music, but also was condemned as sensual and evil by its very nature. I’ve always found the claim that an assortment of sounds can have an inherently evil ontology questionable at best, but questioning that claim with mature Christians with years of life experience behind them turned it into an edifying period of fellowship rather than a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Frank Garlock was mentioned in snide tones several times, eliciting belly laughs around the van. Things like this made Minneapolis rush hour traffic scarcely even noticeable!

I was struck almost immediately by the simplicity of Bethlehem as soon as my sneakers struck sidewalk. A very unassuming façade and an almost austere interior firmly placed Bethlehem within the Puritan tradition of minimalist décor. This was welcome, honestly, as it communicated forethought and intention- elements vital towards maintaining a positive attitude on my part for someone who is, despite his very probably attempts not to be, a celebrity pastor. I love Piper’s works; to say that God used them to further my development as a believer at a crucial time in my growth (indeed, near the very beginning of my new life as a Christian) would be a grand understatement. Nevertheless, I do take issue with most evangelical rock stars currently garnering attention for themselves and their shallow theology by strutting about like so many peacocks in season. However prim their outward forms may be, I hear in their pontifications souls haggard with addictions to pomp and circumstance and little gospel light. Not so, thankfully, with Piper, this weekend helped to confirm for me. Then that typhoon I had anticipated earlier (and then promptly forgot altogether in the face of succulent dining at the Bixby home) struck like the laser blast that obliterated Alderaan.

Friday night’s lecture was a shock to my system- as someone sympathetic to the ideals behind the Regulative Principle (largely due to my own questionable, comic book geek zeal, I admit), I felt like the earth was opening beneath me as Piper exposed the absence of prescriptive norms for worship services in the New Testament. You know- the authority for our life and faith? That’s slightly disconcerting when you equate zeal for being faithful to the authority of Scripture with explicit mandates for everything! If it isn’t spelled out detail for detail, how are we supposed to let our Regulative flag fly? We’re not turning into Willow Creek, are we???

Stay tuned for the answer to that question, for new insights to mull over and, as always, more Star Wars references than you can launch a gundark at! Take care, merry Christmas, and God rest ye merry gentlemen (and gentlewomen)!

*Unfortunately for that guy, he didn’t have a minivan.

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