I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! Jerusalem – built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
PSALM 122:1-4 (ESV)
I was sitting down in a room full of strangers. Some I had just met, briefly exchanging names and home cities; others faces for whom names and stories would never be attached. It was the first day of my first semester at the Institute of Worship Studies, and our orientation was beginning with a worship service. Before a note was played or word spoken, already this seemed beyond my comfort zone. For one, we were in a chapel elaborately decorated with vivid stained-glass murals. As you know, our church sets up every week in a hotel ballroom. It’s cozy and warm, but the carpet also resembles something like a cartoon coral reef. There were stranger things in this sanctuary. I held in my hands a service guide with printed lyrics, sheet music, and instructions for corporate prayers. ACC projects lyrics through a computer program onto motion backgrounds. The whole scene seemed so foreign. Part of me felt like a new student thrust into a school play, and I quickly flipped through the pages to learn my part before the show began.
Before this day, I considered myself something of an “experienced” worshiper. I have sang with congregations participating in charismatic, physical expressions of praise. I can recall spending the occasional service as a child sitting beside my grandmother and pondering the language and ceremony of her Roman Catholic Mass. I have found myself on a random Sunday turning to designated pages in a Baptist hymnal and pretending to read the music I was directed to, mouthing the words as I searched for the melody. In many ways I have fostered an openness to experiencing the diversity of Christian worship.
This was something else entirely. I was surrounded – outnumbered, the quietly frightened pastor might admit – by a diverse body of worshipers. There were people from Mennonite, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches. There were believers representing countries and regions all over the world. Each of us had come to grow in our craft, to study the Bible’s words on worship and use them to edify and encourage our congregations back home. But before we opened a single book, we came together to say and to sing. As I participated in this service, uncovering bits of familiarity among the strangeness, I realized that my experience was the same as everyone else’s there. This was a blended service, in just about every way imaginable, and though we each showed up with our own brand of peculiarity, we quickly encountered an overwhelming unity emerging from the rich diversity around us.
When I was a kid I sat in a dentist’s office waiting room, trying to stave the terror of the impending shriek of the cleaning drill, and stared long and hard at a “Magic Eye” picture. It seemed like a computer-generated mess, a pixelated jumble of odd colors and shapes. The secretary at the office saw me staring and offered some helpful advice. “Look closer… Try to imagine what you’re looking for is behind the picture.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I gave it a shot. After a few failed attempts I saw it: a cross. Despite the noise in the image, I could definitely see its outline. And the longer I stared, the bolder the image became. The cross was on a hill, and behind it a sun. I called my mom over to teach her this strange new method of sight, and suddenly the drill didn’t seem so loud.
This is what worship offers – a chance to see differently, to reorient ourselves around Jesus’ view of the world. Just as staring at the poster changed my perspective, so should staring at the cross. In content and practice, worship teaches us how to find what we can’t when we’re left to ourselves, to see the picture beyond the picture, among the noise and the blur and the distraction and the pain. Worship is formative. It shapes us. It changes us. Because it has to. Because we need it. The journey of this life is too precarious and the stakes too high for us to be on auto-pilot and expect to arrive.
If this sounds frightening or intimidating, find hope in this: God leads His worship! The Christian life is not some hopeless death march. It is the road to life, abundant and eternal. He has called us to do great things on this journey, as we are shaped and molded into the image of our King, but we are not abandoned slaves with heads down and backs arched. We are cherished sons and daughters, standing tall in the light of resurrection, and in our calling He has given us two great gifts. First, He has given us Himself – in the revelation of Christ our Savior, in the Spirit-breathed words of the Scriptures before us. And in this gracious calling, He has also given us each other – blessed shoulders to carry each other’s tears and burdens, hearts made to share joy and encouragement. The road before you is one you were made to walk with Him and with a family.
The vivid picture from my seminary experience of such a diverse and united body of believers has stayed close to my heart. When my walk wearies me and the dust of the path obscures my vision, I think back on that moment. I listen for God’s voice, and I look for my brother. I am never alone. Every time we get together to worship our God is a chance to remind ourselves of this truth. We return to the voice that first called us out of darkness and wait for the fresh illumination of His word, basking in this light of grace together.
Of all the things I studied that semester, the thing I wanted most to bring home to my church was this picture. I believe this is what God desires every church to be for the communities around them – bright shining examples of unity that seems impossible and joy that seems unattainable. The beauty of what I saw in the brothers and sisters singing with me is that none of it required a degree and a career or a trip and a flight. What this kind of unity and openness and fulfillment in worship requires is a hunger for God, an awareness of how He speaks, and a commitment to listen.
For the next forty days we are going to cultivate together a life of receiving and responding. Each morning we’ll be gathering around a passage of Scripture, reflecting together on what God is saying to us through it, praying that He would conform us to this truth, and committing to spend the day ahead of us seeing with the clarity of Kingdom eyes. We’ll post each devotional at the same time every morning. In this way, whoever feels tired or distracted or even bored by the exercise can find comfort knowing that there is a brother or sister who is encountering this same text and prayer from a place of rest and joy, ready to share the Spirit-given insights gleaned from faithful practice. Some days you’ll be the encourager. Some days I’ll be weary. Always we’ll be together.
God is still speaking. He’s still moving. And He’s doing all of it for His people. My prayer for this guide is that it would be a daily reminder of this, that it might spur within us honest prayer, patient reflection, and fruitful discussion. I pray that it would inspire greater responsibility and holy activity for the places we call home. In a word, I pray that it might renew – in you and me, in our church family and those yet to join us in this journey – a life of deep, testifying worship. If we believe God still moves we have to be a people of movement. I’m so excited to walk with Him and with you these next forty days. We won’t be the same on the other side of this journey. When we worship God we never are.
Pastor of Worship