I am not going to tackle the entire subject of worship. I am going to touch on one piece: worshipping with others. Thank you for your descriptive words and stories. I loved them. I’d like to worship alongside you.
Confession: In the past few years, nothing has pushed me out of my comfort zone more often than worship – sometimes others’ worship, sometimes my own.
Worship is an uncomfortably engrossing activity. When you are fully present with the Divine, you are operating on the edge of what a human can handle or understand, and you cannot be sure what is going to happen next. You are submitting yourself to Another. This is always less comfortable when others are watching.
Because I grew up Anabaptist, Minnesotan, feminine, and shy (at times an excruciating combination), worship has always had two sides for me: the stable, comfortable, orderly worship that happens in church services, and the shy, intensely private, dynamic worship that happens at home. For better or for worse, I have rarely been comfortable bringing the passion of private worship to public worship. I am concerned about modesty, in body and spirit. I am concerned about the group experience, not only my own. In fact, until recent years, although I was shaped since childhood by corporate worship, my most memorable and transformative worship experiences were entirely solo.
This has raised questions for me as I have grown in confidence and in love for Jesus, and in belief in his body. No man is an island, especially in Christ. I’ve begun to encounter the Holy Spirit more fully in corporate worship. And, to be honest, I’ve encountered groups who do it differently, groups who emphasize different things, groups who blur my lines and bring the intimacy of what-has-been-for-me private worship into public. No church is an island either, especially in Christ.
Last year I spent time informally with Christians who worshipped in ways that were unaccustomed for me. We sang praise and worship songs over and over. We stood and swayed. We sang affectionate and tender lyrics that made me uneasy (publicly), like
I wanna sit at your feet
Drink from the cup in your hand
Lay back against you and breathe
Feel your heartbeat.
At my church, that would bring a blush for sure. At my church, we sing
Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes
Most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
You see, it’s not only our worship styles that vary – the personality on top – but also our underlying theology. Who is God, and how do we approach Him? His people do not all answer the same.
Some Sundays in my congregation, my praise stays on my lips and does not make it to my heart. But most of the time, I love (that is, I deeply connect with) the worship at my church. I love the music, like sinking into a hot bath and letting the tension and the dirt wash away. I love the quiet, and the people, and the way we feel much more than we show. Together, we value modesty and propriety, even in our worship. Yet when I first met the Holy Spirit in company with others, and felt in my spirit the smoke and the trumpets and the descending power, it was there.
The worship we do is a valid place to find Him. But it is not the only place.
I grew up believing, for example, that prolonged repetition in music is an unhealthy practice of “other” churches, an emotional trick to sway and hype the masses, but last fall, when I was desperate to connect with God, women from other churches showed me a different side of repetition: that when truth is spoken over and over, it sinks deep into the cracks of a broken heart.
You’re a good, good Father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
The worship we do is not the only place to find Him. But it is a valid place.
We Christians have always been good at line-drawing, and we are usually the ones who do it best. Or, if we dislike our upbringing, the ones who do it worst. The Catholics are too iconic, the Anglicans too liturgical, the black churches too emotive, the Quakers too quiet, the Methodists too formal, the Pentecostals too hyper, the Mennonites too traditional. Private worship is too individualistic, and public is too contrived or too showy.
In the end, is there any good way to worship? that’s unlike what we are comfortable with?
Not all attempts at worship are successful (that is, acceptable to the One we’re worshipping), but if the only worship we see as acceptable is the kind we like, we have not spent enough time with each other. We have not spent enough time with the holy people of Scripture, the likes of Jephthah and Abraham and Elijah and Moses and King David.
I have never worshipped by preparing to take the life of a child. I have never worshipped by holing up in a cave, waiting for the Voice. I have never worshipped with a face so bright it frightened people. I have never worshipped by dancing fiercely down Main Street, half dressed, with all the town lined up on the sidewalks to watch; but there was a man of God who did it. And when it was time for the judgments to be handed around, they were handed to the sensible woman who watched him from the upstairs window, despising him in her heart.
To an onlooker, worship can be suggestive of all kinds of other things. We label it with nasty monikers, as we stand at the window watching, but in recent months I have found a powerful antidote to scorn:
Worship and scorn cannot occupy the heart simultaneously. What would have happened if Michal had fallen on her knees before Jehovah, in that upstairs room?
What happens when God’s people, stretched uncomfortably both ways by one another’s practices of praise, choose to unite in His honor?
Could it be that we will learn to know Him?
Could it be that we may find ourselves immersed in aspects of Him that have been to us, so far, nothing but words on a page?
And yet I see your red flags waving, and mine are flapping too – because since the beginning of worship, there have been people who’ve incorporated pagan practices into sacred worship and called it all good since hey, it was about God. Think of the golden calf – Here are thy gods, oh Israel, who brought thee out of Egypt; so strip off thy clothes and worship.
How do you tell when your discomfort is a hint that the worship around you is not what it ought to be, and when the discomfort is simply your own inhibition because of – well, your discomfort?
Frankly, the pagan pieces are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about things much closer to home, worshipful and even Biblical practices that rub us the wrong way. The way she always raises her hands or the way he never does. The way he claps all the time or she never testifies or he doesn’t believe in private words from the Lord or she’s always getting a little crazy. I mean, can they really be of Christ? How can they worship while all that noise is going on? How can they worship without it showing on their faces, without it affecting their bodies? How can they worship with scripted prayers? Or without them? How can they? we ask, from behind our own folded hands.
I have been scornful, and able to be scorned, on both sides of the appearances coin, and I am here to testify that sometimes the Holy Spirit descends so powerfully His humans are undone. In public. And on the other hand, I testify that sometimes the tears slipping down the face of a woman sitting motionless in a church pew are not the signs of repression, but the equivalent of a different woman dancing in circles around the auditorium. Jesus is moving, and she is entirely at his disposal.
In my opinion, worship was never intended to be observed, except by Him (though in this fallen world it often is, raising questions about how we look, and how we may be misunderstood by others). Worship was meant to be experienced. Together.
Unless my heart is also yielded in worship, how am I – who am I – to assess the worship of others? I have only succeeded in separating myself.
He said he’d be in the place where His people gather. And I, for one, want to be there too.
I may have made you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry. After I started this conversation I regretted it, but by then I had committed to going on. How have you found this true, or not true, in your own experience? What questions does it raise for you?