“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come before him!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness”
(1 Chronicles 16.9)
“Let us go to his dwelling place,
let us worship at his footstool”
In the late 1990s, I had an experience that I have related many times. I had studied with a lady and eventually baptized her into Christ. I remember not long after her baptism she came to me and asked me to “teach me how to worship.” It was one of the most unexpected questions I had encountered in all my years as a Christian, years in “Christian” colleges and even full time ministry.
I literally had no idea how to respond. But I told her to just go to church. That was the beginning of my discovery of the Psalms. I have since become convinced that worship is – even public worship – among the most important, and blessed, “activity” a human being can participate this side of eternity. In fact I believe we have “communion with eternity” as we gather in God’s Presence. But at the time I had very little conception of “worship” before this newborn Christian threw me for a theological and existential loop!
My conception has continued to grow as I have both participated in worship and studied. The first presentation I gave at the Pepperdine Lectures in 2001 was on “Desperately Seeking SPIRIT-uality.” Much of that was about my “discoveries” resulting from that conversation. My discoveries were new to me but had been known by many long before I was born.
But I do not want to talk about theology per se today. I want to talk about a few practices (that are rooted in biblical theology) that have helped me (even if no one else) prepare my heart and mind for public worship with the Gathered family of God. I believe these practices can enrich us whether we gather in a backyard, in a house church, or in a traditional building. The location does not matter rather it is gathering with God’s People in the power of the Holy Spirit. Further, I do not reduce worship to the Gathering because worship covers all of our life. But I do believe scripture teaches something profound takes place when God’s people are gathered together in the Spirit. I want to share some habits that have enriched my participation with God’s family.
My personal story with God is deeply intertwined with the people of God’s journey. It is the story of consciously choosing us over me. This remains challenge.
Preparing My Attitude
I have found over the years that one of the biggest hindrances for my enjoyment of the worship and basking in the presence of God (with his family) has been my attitude. It is amazing how my attitude impacts my receptivity of the wonder of God in our midst. When someone has been hypercritical it is easy to milk a grudge. Sometimes it is not about me but I will hear a brother or sister say something negative about [insert subject or fellow disciple]. This can really negatively impact my worship of our Abba with them.
Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said when you go want to join worship and then remember your attitude sucks then go find the person you have a problem with before you worship (Mt 5.23-24; The Psalms of Ascents are all about this). One of the reasons for this is because a bad attitude toward the family of God – any single member of it – can and does inhibit my enjoyment of God.
Living in the World of Private Worship
I have found over the years that my “expectations” for worship with the corporate family of God has risen through constant worship of him as part of the rhythm of my life. You, of course, expect a preacher to say this. But it may surprise you that many preachers personal worship – be it Bible study, prayer, singing, etc, is (like a phone battery) in the Red Zone! I was one, and I still wrestle with that beast.
I am not a creature of discipline by nature. I tend to be on the laid back side. I have had to force myself into certain patterns of life that have become the bedrock of my walk with God. So what started as grudgingly, getting up at 5:30 everyday to read the Psalms has grown into something more akin to a date (to use an analogy). For me cultivating Psalm reading and prayer (lectio divina) each morning actually makes me hungry for the people of God. It is weird but oh so true.
I admit this was no magical transformation overnight. Few things in life are instantaneous. Rather I liken it to the beginning steps in a running program. When you first start out if you run a hundred yards you you feel like you are about to die! But you keep it up and soon a hundred yards doesn’t even make you sweat. Then it is three miles and your whole day is in a rhythm. Daily time in the Psalms, Bible reading and prayer give my mind and my heart a set of glasses through which to see the activity around me. God is yet working. The story of God’s relationship with creation has not ended. This has nothing to do with preaching but with worship. I have to give James A. Harding the nod for this.
Private worship for me includes singing. I never did this before before 2014. In fact, I did not start this until after my retreat with the Nuns at Santa Rita Abbey that year. I have taken our hymnal, Songs of Faith and Praise, and just started singing. I began to sing and chant the Psalms (not just read them) as Paul tells us to do and Jesus did. It is amazing how singing helps stress and refocus our vision. Singing pulls me into something bigger than myself. When I am singing, I imagine Revelation 4 and 5. I imagine myself surrounded by the angels, those weird looking creatures, and all of creation before the throne of God. I hear music in my head (cf. Pss 19.1-4; 148; 149; Rev. 5.13; etc). I hear the chorus singing the words that I am. I have found that praise of the Lord in my office, on my bike, and under the stars makes me hungry to praise his Name with those who wear his name.
A Thursday Ritual
This next practice, like the singing, began as well in 2014. When I was living in a trailer in the church parking lot for a good portion of this year (there is a long story here!) I found myself in a situation, as they say. I loved my church family. But I was not happy with some of the church family. Actually it was not the church but leadership of the church. It was a challenging season of life. One night, which happened to be a Thursday, was a particularly stressful one. I walked from the trailer to the door of the church building. I walked in and I literally hollered “God I am so stressed out! Answer me! Deliver me!”
It dawned on me I had shouted Psalm 120.1, a Song of Ascents. I did not consciously quote it but that is what came out. The Psalms of Ascent hides the individual within the corporate and hides the corporate in the individual. Before that sister asked me to help her in the late 90s, I would never have known that. I had almost no understanding of this before my life with the Psalms.
Soon, as long as I was camping in the church parking lot, I spent many nights walking down the class room wing, walking up and down the aisles in the auditorium, going into the sound booth, into the nursery, into the gym, into the teen room, into the office wing and I recited the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). I took out Zion and Jerusalem and inserted the name of my congregation.
This has evolved into a Thursday ritual that I do. I see my journey and my church family as linked together as a mother to her baby. So on Thursday’s, in specific anticipation of Sunday, I walk all over the building of our congregation and I pray
“WE [not I] life up our eyes to the hills,
from where will our help come from” (Ps 121.1).
I go by the nursery and pray
“Lord we are glad when the parents say
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!” (Ps 122.1).
I walk into the sanctuary and I pray
“If the Lord had not been on PV/Gunnison/Eastside’s side,
when the enemies of your family attacked us,
we would have been swallowed alive!” (Ps 124.1-3).
I walk into the elders room and the office wing and I am praying
“Abba how good it is when your family can gather before your table in unity,
what a testimony to the Spirit and the death and resurrection of your Son” (Ps 133).
On Thursdays I walk about the whole building. Sometimes I stop in specific pews where some family habitually sits and I pray Psalm 134
“Come bless the Lord with me all you family of God” (vv. 1-3).
Every week since that evening in 2014 Psalms 120-134 has been prayed – in my own fashion – up and down the halls, the sanctuary and all over the building (symbol of the family) in Tucson, Gunnison and Antioch. I have to confess this has done incredible things for my love for my family. This has done amazing things for my experience of worship with the Family of God. Loving Zion means loving those who are my brothers and sisters and Gather at his Table. I realize that even when I am by myself that I am never alone when I come to the Presence of God.
Praying the Sermon
I am not a homilitician. I am not Jerry Taylor. I am not Fred Craddock. I am not Mike Cope. I am not Fate Hagood. I am not David Fleer. I am not Martin Luther King Jr. I am not anybody special. I know this. The odds against me are pretty high indeed. The mere fact that I have not been divorced once but twice is enough to make some folks not listen to a syllable I say. I am painfully aware of this.
But “sermonizing” is tough work, especially if the sermonator is serious about their task. The only people that do not think so have never done it. Usually by Thursday I am hoping to be done with anything that has to do with my sermon on the coming Sunday. So I pray not only about my sermon but through it. The notes I have assembled, sometimes as much as a term paper, I pray them and offer them to God. I seek obedience to God’s word in my own life. I ask God to guide the words and to give the words that need to be said. On Thursday afternoon I go through another ritual that I have come up with over the years. I offer my sermon notes to God as a holocaust. Normally this means I would burn them as part of a sacrifice. But since that would set the fire alarm off I go to the paper shredder machine in our office and I pray a prayer between me and God. Then I shred those notes one sheet at a time and I implore God to accept it as a sweet and pleasing aroma to his glory. By this time I have internalized my notes I hope (I do not preach with notes). But I ask the Lord to take those words, and if they are pleasing, to accept them as an act of worship. I pray that the Spirit will take them and feed them back to me like Ezekiel for his own family on Sunday.
So I have come to conceive of the sermon on Sunday mornings not as me lecturing to a captive audience. Rather the sermon is an opportunity for the whole Gathered family of God, including myself, to feast upon nothing short of the manna of heaven. Proclaiming the mighty acts of God … it is a corporate act of worship.
The Incalculable Value of the Family
The final thing I do each week is remind myself over and over and over again of the inestimable value of the family of God. I can experience God in many powerful ways and do. Yet nothing compares to the time I am with God’s family in the Lord’s Presence. It is the Psalms, again, that has impacted my “doctrine of the gathered people” in the presence of God. Psalm 16.3 records the ancient worshiper as saying,
“How excellent are the LORD’s faithful people!
My greatest pleasure is to be with them!” (TEV).
With this I have come full circle to my opening above. Through my own journey each week I am convinced that God desires me to not only experience blessing but to be a blessing to his people. My experience of God helps the whole assembly. My attitude helps the entire family see God. My singing is impacted tremendously if I am convinced the angels are singing in fellowship with you and me. My entire outlook on the Gathering is conditioned by that Psalm 16.3 text. When my “greatest pleasure” is to be with God’s people, lost in worship, that will have a tremendous impact on what I experience on any Lord’s day no matter who is leading singing or how badly the sermon stinks.
So making sure my attitude is right helps me worship with the family. Spending time with God in worship during the week orients my whole life to the Lord as a sacrifice of praise. My Thursday Songs of Ascents ritual and offering the sermon as a sacrifice to God seeking the Holy Spirit’s power and blessing. And finally making the decision that the greatest thing in my life is the family of God. When these are combined then Gathered Worship with the family of God is very rich. It is rich because I am bringing the best I have, not only to God, but also to my sisters and brothers. I seek to bless them with the overflow of God’s wonders in my own life.
My journey has been a long one. Along the way I have learned from many. I shared koinonia by coauthoring a book with John Mark Hicks and Johnny Melton about themes in this article (A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Divine Encounter). But God’s Spirit has continued to open my eyes to the treasures of God’s inheritance among the saints who are pulled into the Presence of God becoming the very temple of the Spirit.