There are smart people out there with books and articles and quotes intimating that the wick of the worship wars flame has burned to a stump. Now, only sticky wax remains out of which we may safely pull something shapely and useful. Whether that is true or not I can’t really say. But, we’ve been sailing post-modern seas long enough to have emerged in a somewhat better place regarding shared worship practices. What interests me most however lies much deeper than mere ritual.
So much of our corporate experience of ecclesiastica these days is about efficiency, effectiveness and euphoria (no extra charge for the cute alliteration). Even big box churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are recognizing that it’s much easier to draw crowds than deepen congregations. Spend enough money in the right places, position the right people in your dream team staff and learn the angles (this, apparently, means relevance or some such thing) and success is all but guaranteed.
A scourge, not just of contemporary faith and practice, but of early New Testament times as well, is that of pragmatism; visible, quantifiable, “helpful” theology. If some practice of faith doesn’t yield measurable results it is considered suspect, superfluous; even useless. Dead-weight. Dross. The average church building boasts classrooms for every grade, meeting rooms for everything from Ladies’ Teas to A.A. to Family Ministries. Closet space is dedicated to coats, robes, wedding paraphernalia, soup bowls and Christmas decorations. Signs in the Narthex (lobby, foyer) proudly point to these rooms, giving visitors the impression that this is a church on the move. Look at us, we’re not idle. We’re doin’ stuff. Good stuff. Lotsa stuff. It’s exhausting just to consider the dizzying possibilities, let alone dive in.
In our culture, if an idea or practice isn’t immediately and continually beneficial for coffers, volunteers, or givers, it is suspect at best, anathema at worst.
I committed my life to Jesus while driving home to Calgary from a pub gig in Edmonton. A creeping loneliness blending with a troubled psyche was replaced by a lightness of mind and heart I can only describe as…good. Really, really good. I was barely eighteen and living at home. That very evening, my own gratitude and joy spilled over to my Mom, who became the surprised recipient of a fifty-dollar bill for doing my laundry. There is nothing quite like the joy of lavish waste in the name of thanksgiving. Well, and the look of delightful surprise with concerned consternation on someone’s face on the receiving end of such magnanimity.
As I’ve been discovering ever since, such acts are nothing new. Happy hearts become ready harbors for such ships of gratitude, over-laden with desire to be offloaded onto the object of their affection. The Gospel is all about waste and abundance in the name of love; the praise of those who get what it means to be seen. To be known. If you don’t believe me, ask your wife if the time spent making love might not be better spent painting the guest room. I dare say it might be a venture that just prepped your new sleeping quarters. The scriptures are replete with examples of extravagance in the name of love.
I am rather fond of a seedy picture of a woman, obviously swooning in gratitude for the courteous and loving attention of a well-known Rabbi casually saunters over and basically pours her beer on Jesus. Well, actually super expensive perfume. Like, way expensive. A rather sexual act by any standard, it alone deserves volumes for it speaks of much more than simple extravagance. Jesus affixes theological significance to the act. And, of course, the pragmatists in the crowd, thinking themselves in-sensed out of high ideals jump all over it.
Of course, as we can always expect under such lavish displays of unadorned praise offered inappropriately to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, self-proclaimed keepers of the moral gates then, as now, cry foul. They either spit out their tea or drop their knitting needles. By the way, have you ever wondered where those sneaky bastards always come from? They’re positively creepy in their ubiquity as though finding crevices behind rocks, under the dining room table, or behind the rhododendrons.
The scriptures are replete with such acts of selfless wastefulness. Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ wealthier followers, became his post-mortem patron in the form a top tier burial plot. Not the magnanimity one would generally prefer, but there it is; another example of a heart needing to express itself in wealthy waste. King David craves water be brought him while facing the brutal Philistines but decides instead to pour out the most valuable currency in the desert back to the desert. He too knew the art of worshipful waste.
Although an overused example, it serves to illustrate my point here; if this woman by her act has openly laid bare her heart, swollen in the ache of gratitude, then she shows us what worship truly is. What it means to adore someone. And her risky act of risqué devotion mirrors God’s own character. Jesus is God’s wasted perfume. Jesus understands her because he understands his own journey into the dark abyss of broken humanity. It is a pilgrimage of pain, not the pain of the cross primarily, but the pain of loss and loneliness.
She mirrors the heart of God who knows only too well the art of wasting perfume.