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Contemporary Worship: Apart from Me

What do The Karate Kid, a bowl of grapes, a lamp and dried-up grass clippings have in common?

This past Sunday, some of us doing contemporary worship in the heart of Dixie found out. The stand-alone service (in other words, not part of a longer series) at Frazer UMC focused on abiding in Christ, and our CW pastor John Schmidt used a clip from the film and those images to lend fresh ways of understanding what’s involved in that concept. (Get the outline here.)

Living fruitful lives: After a good worship set (ack, I didn’t note the songs, sorry) and a contemporary Christian song during the offering take-up (again, forgot to note the song), the auditorium darkened and on the screens began the infamous wax-on-wax-off clip from the classic film.

The scene begins after teenager Daniel LaRusso has spent days painting fences and waxing floors at Mr. Miyagi’s home. He can’t see the use in any of it in learning karate, the reason he came to Mr. Miyagi in the first place. Mr. Miyagi finally gives him a hint, asking him to repeat in front of him all the motions he used as he did the work. Then Mr. Miyagi reaches out to strike him, and Daniel’s reflexes kick in with all the motions he just learned through the work of waxing and painting. Surprise and awe mix on his face as he begins to understand Mr. Miyagi’s purpose in having him do all that seemingly unrelated tasks.

And so it is with our relationship with Jesus. To abide in Jesus, we must do all those little things God asks of us (like praying, worshiping, reading his Word, confessing our sins to each other, encouraging each other, helping each other, etc.). When we abide in Jesus like that we bear fruit. We are like a refreshingly cold grape (a bowl of which was sitting on a small table next to John on the stage) on a summer day: we explode with refreshment and energy. What does a fruitful life look like? It is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Gal. 5:22-23). If we abide in Jesus, we produce good deeds from a good heart (Luke 6:43-46), righteous lives (Prov. 11:30) and a huge harvest (Mark 4:14-20). People look forward to being with people like that. People want to be with people like that. People want to be people like that.

Remaining connected: But if we want this kind of life we need to be working on a relationship with God every single day, again by doing all those little things that make difference in the long run. We can’t be those things—or have that life—unless we abide in Jesus (John 15:4-5). Another way to understand that is by looking at a lamp (which was also sitting on the table along with the grapes). When a lamp is connected to a power supply, it gives light. But if it isn’t connected to a power supply (here John unplugs it from an extension cord), a lamp is nothing more than a metal stick. Plugged into Jesus (abiding in him), we experience and are life to those around us.

When we aren’t abiding in him, however, our lives are like chaff (Psalm 1:1-4)—or, for us today, like those dried-up grass clippings left over after we mow (which John lifted out of a garbage bag and let sift through his fingers onto the stage floor). And that kind of life is worthless to people around us.

Fruitfulness involves pruning: Now, just because we abide in Jesus doesn’t mean our lives will be easy or without problems. In fact, in order to have the life God wants for us, he’s got to get rid of the bad habits and behaviors we have (John 15:1-3). God often does that by using the tests and trials we go through in life to help prune and strengthen us.

The lives of Jesus’ own disciples are a good illustrations (Mark 6:35-52). For example, thousands of people are gathered in a desolate place to listen to Jesus—and they get very hungry. Jesus asks his disciples to feed them, but they can’t. So he sends them to gather what food is available, which ends up being five loaves of bread and two fish. But that is more than enough—in fact, there are 12 basketfuls left over (coincidently, one for each disciple). Afterward, Jesus sends his disciples across the lake and spends some time on his own. Then he sees the winds and waves have picked up and his disciples are struggling. So, he walks out on the water—which (sigh) doesn’t comfort but instead scares the heebie-jeebies out those men who just witnessed thousands of people getting full bellies from a few loaves and one fish. Jesus comforts them, but they still don’t get it. They don’t understand who he is or what he can do.

Oswald Chambers writes about that passage, noting that Jesus can walk on the chaos of our lives like he did on the water then. If we are plugged into Jesus—abiding in him—those troubles and problems become opportunities to watch God work in awesome ways and grow in trust of him (James 1:2-4). Rather than chaotic storms, they are “speed bumps”—as we heard described by a man from our congregation who just recently went through a heart attack and heart-bypass surgery. In a video-taped testimony with him and his wife, they talked bluntly about the peace and comfort they each felt throughout the ordeal. He adds at the end, that it was a continued day-to-day relationship with God that enabled him to experience the peace and stability he felt during those hours.

Final question: So, how are we doing on fruitfulness? Are we experiencing a “fruitful harvest of right living” (Heb. 12:5-11) or does our fruitfulness depend on our situations? Are we connected to Jesus? Because that is the only way to live energetic and refreshing lives filled with love, joy, peace and all the other fruit God produces.

All in all, I thought it a good service with a great use of film clips, images and personal experience to unpack what Jesus means when he tells us to abide in him. Final note: Our clever worship band played Marvin Gaye’s “I heard it through the grapevine” for pre- and post-service music. Heh.

(Note: I’ve been trying to blog about how we do contemporary worship in our little corner of Alabama, but I haven’t been keeping up very well on these CW posts. We finished our DVC series over a week ago (see the outlines here) but I blogged only once about them, ack. I’ll try to do better.)

(Images: Columbia Pictures (Karate Kid); Agricultural Research Service (grapes); qmnonic (lamp); PartsnPieces (grass))

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