A short presentation I’ve prepared for a mini-retreat at my church, Port Charlotte United Methodist, happening tomorrow morning:
If we were to make it a priority to grow in “passionate worship” during 2015, we should first be clear among ourselves what such growth is not. It is not about manufactured feelings and excitement, as if the emphasis in the phrase lay on “passionate” rather than “worship,” as if growth were to be measured in terms of what would be observable to the human eye and ear or in terms of imitating self-expression at rock concerts or sporting events.
It is about growing in our awareness of God as the Other who inhabits this space with us, in our desire to encounter and engage this God directly and personally, and in our openness to – and our transparency before – this God. Growing in passionate worship will be the result of growing in this relationship with God through more frequent and more open encounters. It will be the result of heightened attentiveness to God in at least two arenas – our worship together as a congregation not least on Sunday mornings, and our worship individually in between our times of corporate worship. And I will say again for emphasis: growth in passionate worship will be the outcome of our increased intentionality in terms of our personal openness to God, focused desire for God, and frequency of interaction with God.
Currently some of us may have the quality of relationship and interaction with God that the stereotypical teen has with his or her parent. We come to sit with our divine parent once or twice a week; our divine parent seeks to open the lines of communication between us and nurture a relationship; we reply to God’s earnest “how is it going with you?” with the equivalent of a sullen “fine” and go back immediately to whatever else preoccupies us. Those who have sought and found God, and who have come to delight in God in the midst of prosperity and adversity, model a very different approach to their divine Parent – one that we must make more and more our own if we seek to have the experience and the practice of passionate worship:
“O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you: my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and barren land where there is no water.” (Ps 63:1)
“One thing I asked of the Lord, after this I will seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple… Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” (Ps 27:4, 8-9)
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:1-2)
Passionate worship grows out of a passionate desire to meet God – not to sing about God, not to hear about God, but to meet God again and again. And this desire grows, in turn, as we experience what it is like to meet God and to find ourselves open to and aware of the presence of the Almighty surrounding us. Being in God’s presence – not in the presence of holy trappings, but in the presence of God’s very Self – is described as that which brings joy when everyone else is complaining or that which satisfies the soul’s hunger like a rich banquet satisfies the body’s hunger not only for plentiful, but for delightful food:
“There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’ You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” (Ps 4:6-8)
“I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” (Ps 63:4-6)
This last passage clues us in to another important practice that leads us into more passionate worship: frequency and regularity. This psalmist makes it a practice to think of God on his bed and meditate on God into the watches of the night; another declares, “seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances” (Ps 119:164). If we are to grow into passionate worshipers, we need to exercise ourselves more regularly in worship. A relationship feeds upon and grows with regularity of encounter – and intentionality within those encounters. What we bring to the act of worship, to the encounter with God, on Sunday is the fruit of our worship Monday through Saturday. If there has not been worship Monday through Saturday, we come week after week just to get reacquainted with God, but not to grow into a more passionate relationship with him.
Another lesson of the psalmists, those passionate worshipers of God, is that God becomes more present to us as we become more present to him, more real and transparent before him. The psalmists are shockingly honest in what they say and what they feel before God – thanksgiving and overflowing gratitude, joy and appreciation, fear and anxiety, disappointment and despair, even raw anger and resentment. No human emotion is off limits here. And as these psalmists expose their innermost selves to God they also strip away the layers that separate them from experiencing God’s presence and all that God would bring into their souls and situations in that encounter.
For many of us, the way forward toward more passionate worship may simply be to take up the discipline of daily worship, giving some time each day to be apart with God, acknowledging God’s presence and goodness, practicing opening up before God and becoming more and more open to God. It requires discipline until it becomes desire in response to richer and richer encounters with the divine Other. There are many strategies for facilitating this (I’ve prepared a sheet with some starting points); the main question to decide will be whether to invest in this, and the main task to find which strategies fit who you are and how you live.
For many of us, another way forward is to take the time to prepare ourselves prior to our worship together for that time of worship together – to prepare ourselves to come expecting to encounter God and to give ourselves permission to encounter God with our whole being, mind, heart, speech, and body in the presence of our fellow-seekers here. Many of us give a lot of attention to getting ready for church without giving any attention to getting ready for worship. If we arrived in the parking lot expecting to encounter God and to hear from God, eager for that encounter to begin, our experience of our time together here would be transformed in the direction of passionate worship. If a critical mass of us committed to the disciplines that nurtured this expectation, then our worship experiences together would indeed be of the sort to make the visitor who comes among “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14:25).