God is not a good idea. I took that thought apart when I helped Dr. Walt Kallestad write a book on understanding the basics of Christian faith. If God were simply an idea, a mental construct, a convenient way of thinking to explain the Universe or the sense of moral order, right and wrong, that exists in most people –at least the emotionally and mentally healthy – then we’re all in big trouble. I think of how many “good ideas” I’ve had that failed, but more terrifying, I think of the “good ideas” men have had over history that have wiped out entire villages and decimated nations. No, if God is only a mental abstraction, then there is no help or hope for any of us, no existence beyond seven or eight decades of getting up every morning, raising children or going to a job, to what end?
I vividly remember taking a shower one Saturday night when I was seventeen, when the thought of a universe without God struck me. The bleak emptiness and total senselessness of a universe, a dark lifeless vacuum, void of God sank me to my knees on the wet tile, my head in my hands. The moment of terror passed, and the next morning I was singing in the choir about the great love that’s ours in Jesus. I worshiped, reaching in my heart with thanks and gratitude that God is very much alive, real, and a Being of indescribable power, love, creative splendor and intimate relationship far beyond any “thing” I can imagine!
We were Methodists, of the traditional John Wesley “heart strangely warmed” variety who acknowledged God’s Spirit as a very real and immanent, personal presence in our lives. Perhaps my love of worship stems from the fact I was born, after a long labor, late on a Sunday morning. My father rang the bell in the steeple of the church in our tiny town every Sunday morning, and that January 22, after a tedious night with my mom in the hospital in the County Seat quite a few miles away, Dad drove back to church, rang the bell, then drove back to the hospital in time for my long-awaited debut.
I recall some of the very traditional liturgy, or form/pattern/ingredients of worship, I grew up hearing in the services every Sunday with a grateful heart that somehow the Responsive Readings, Apostle’s Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and weekly singing of the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost…”) after the Bible reading and the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) after the offering never became mindless repetition to me. In fact, I look back on those elements of worship with a warm glow in my heart and do miss them in the Sunday services of the non-denominational church I attend now, where lively and deep praise songs take center stage in worship.
I miss them, but I don’t worship them. I don’t worship the old structure, but at the same time I don’t worship the absence of the ”traditional” structure and presence of “tradition-free” services. I agree with the comment I heard one Sunday that the only difference between a rut and a grave is how far down you dig. God never meant real worship to be a rut or a grave, mindless and heartless routine completing a required ritual, like checking off boxes on a to-do list. I strongly suspect God created worship as a vehicle to carry us right into God’s love for us, the Holy of Holies itself: God’s heart. In true worship my heart meets His and becomes the room, the space for the Holy of Holies. How can I bring an angry, judgmental,selfish thought into That Presence?
I enter the Holy of Holies;I enter through the blood of the Lamb.
I Enter to worship you only; I enter to honor I AM.
Instruments or voice only? Sitting or standing, arms raised or decorously in laps? Oh, please, what’s the difference, if truly loving hearts are encountering the fiery heart of God and praising his love for them? Enjoy the beauty, forget condemnation, and see the splendor in the Lord, not the “faults” in each other’s styles and forms! I need moments of silent, wordless reverent awed awareness down on my knees, and I need the exultation of laughing and dancing in the midst of unconditional love.
Worship isn’t about what or how; it’s about Whom! I don’t worship a form, style, tradition, or experience; I invite God into my life by running into his presence to be lifted and honored and revered and enjoyed. God inhabits, lives in, the praises of His people, and yes, I dance right in the ”pew’ when I feel overjoyed by my Father God’s love for me. Look away if love disturbs you, or join me in a happy dance if you don’t care what anyone but your Daddy thinks.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous! For praise from the upright is beautiful. Praise the Lord with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy. Psalm 33:1-3 NKJV
Worship in its truest and most satisfying is real heart-felt, in the present and Presence praise, recognizing God is God and we are not, God is good, God is real, alive, personal as well as holy, God is here wherever here is, approachable as well as completely lofty and apart, and wants intimate relationship with us, with ME, with YOU! Whether I worship in my own house, worship while I walk the dogs, or worship in a church with others, it’s healing, comforting, depression-countering, en-couraging, and powerful as a weapon of spiritual warfare.
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples, Give to the Lord glory and strength. Give to the Lord the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come into His courts. Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth. Psalm 96: 1-9 NKJV
Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth. Psalm 47: 1-2 NKJV
I don’t cling to tradition and disdain contemporary, but I don’t disdain tradition as irrelevant. There is beauty to find in it all, every expression because our God is beautiful.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. Psalm 100_ 4-5 NIV
Hearts sang with passion when Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World” erupted as radical praise and worship in 1719, and we feel that when we sing it today. I find such freedom in worship, such delight in connecting with God and praising, even when I attend a different church or different denomination. In one church I loved being part of, the arts school affiliated with the church regularly brought dancers, singers, artists and even aerialists to add beauty, awe, wonder, joy and life to our worship. I keep my hands at a respectable height yet raised about mid-body in more conservative churches, raise them high in others, kneel on kneelers in some fellowships, kneel right on the floor in the row of chairs in others when I feel the weight of God’s holiness and goodness, repeat the written prayer along with the priest or pastor and everybody in some churches and offer up my own words along with everyone else after a particularly moving “7-11” contemporary song in others, seven words sung eleven times and nobody gets tired of singing!
Our family spent two months in Beijing, China in 1984, and “church” there meant meeting with Christians from literally all over the world in one of the embassies. The International Fellowship had no pastor that summer, so individuals from the congregation took turns leading worship and giving a message. If one of the Africans was preaching, you could count on being there for two hours. If a European or American spoke, we were likely to be out sharing lunch within an hour. What fun to meet and enjoy being God’s kids together, singing songs that might be unfamiliar, praying silently or out loud, in unison or each in our own words, but recognizing and drawing close to the same Lord, Father, Savior.
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3: 7-18 NIV
It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done. Psalm 92: 1-4 NIV
The truth is that I don’t worship God because I’m required to, or because a narcissistic God demands praise and worship. Honestly, I worship God because I NEED to! I need to connect with the reality and person of God, to encounter His love for me as I reach toward him, some days to dance ”in His arms,” some days curled up in His lap in my wing chair, some days with my feet splashing in a stream, some days flat on my face on the floor in my bedroom, but as often as I can in the company of other Christ Followers, whatever their denomination, tradition, or “flavor,” in the power and joy and reverence of our combined love, gratitude, and communal vision and passionate purposes before our mutual Father God.
To You belongs silence [the submissive wonder of reverence], and [it bursts into] praise in Zion, O God; And to You the vow shall be performed.
O You who hear prayer, To You all mankind comes. Wickedness and guilt prevail against me; Yet as for our transgressions, You forgive them [removing them from Your sight]. Blessed is the one whom You choose and bring near To dwell in Your courts. We will be filled with the goodness of Your house, Your holy temple. Psalm 65:1-2, 4 AMP
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. Palm 42:1-5 NIV
A “…BUT…” to pray: God, help me look inside myself and see if and where I’ve been rigid, mindless, heartless, judgmental, relegating worship to some archaic practice out of touch with today, or decrying the freedom of expression in other churches. Show me where I’ve been judgmental about Believers who enjoy tradition for the richness they feel. Where do I need to re-think worship, Holy Spirit? _____________________________________________________________________I truly want to worship and praise you, God, but some days it’s hard. Some days I feel dry as a bone and no praise can give life to me. BUT on days when I’m dry, and feeling empty, Holy Spirit, come and refresh me. Remind me WHO you are, God, remind me of your love, Jesus, and broaden my vision of praise and worship. I want to be alive in you, God! I know you want that, too, so as I say amen in Jesus’ name, Holy Spirit, I’m listening, and I’m willing to __________________________________________________________________________ as you stir me, whether I think I might look silly or not! Come, Father God in the power of your Presence and let’s together _____________________________________________________________________________