The Life Journey of Worship


The Life Journey of Worship

Psalm 23

The Divine Shepherd

A Psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

my whole life long.

Worship done in spirit and in truth moves us.

David worshipped in the field for most of his life. If you follow the account of 1 Samuel you will see that, for the first half of his adult life, he was hunted by King Saul and forced to live in the wilderness and in foreign countries. He had less access to the temple than most of the people of Israel. Yet this did not prevent him from sharing his own worship in ways that would influence the people of God for over 3000 years.

Psalm 23 is an excellent example of this field worship. This is David’s story that can become our own story as well. YHWH is my shepherd, he writes. He knows this metaphor well from his own days as a shepherd. Because he knows what it takes to be good shepherd and because he knows God so well, he knows he will be provided for… he shall not be in want. The first step of any journey is preparing provision and David found all the provision he needed for his journey in God.

David then describes how God brings that provision. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. Note the directness of that verb. God does not set up a buffet of food options and let us choose. He takes us to the food and makes us stop to eat. The water God leads him, and us to, is not wild rushing water, but smaller springs that we will not drown in. It is there we are provided for and our souls are restored.

Having established the preparation and provision for the journey, David pulls out the map and notes the path we are taking. He leads me in paths of righteousness… Why? For His name’s sake. What does that mean? It means that where we are going and especially how we get there matters. What happens on our journey is going to affect more than just ourselves. We make this journey as a witness of Who God is, not just who we are or hope to become.

Where do these paths of righteousness lead us? Not always to the high mountaintop experiences and comfortable surroundings. These paths of righteousness will also lead us into the valley of the shadow of death itself. That’s right. The path of light and life leads through places of darkness and death. Normally, that would be enough to turn us all away, but then David reminds us (The LORD is my shepherd) so I will fear no evil. The same rod and staff that keep me on the path and in line, are used to protect me from any enemy that would come my way.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our good shepherd leads us straight through the valley of the shadow of death into the the heart of our enemy’s land, and there He proceeds to throw a party. He not only invites but surrounds us by our enemies, and there, in their presence, He anoints our head with oil showing the love He has for us. It is there, in the belly of the beast, not in the green pastures, that David proclaims, “My cup overflows!

If God can bring blessing in the darkest of places like that, as we faithfully follow Him along the path He leads us, what do we have to fear? How can we doubt that His goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life? Perhaps it is only in making this journey with God that we come to realize that to dwell in God’s house is not just to be in a place of peace, joy, and love, but to realize that place is wherever we can be with Him.

Does your worship take you along this journey?

Can you take your worship on the road, out into the field, and follow God to wherever your worship of Him will lead you?

Worship and the Lost


Luke 15:1-71

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

One of the biggest controversies in worship that has been debated in the last few decades has been around the concept of “seeker-sensitive” worship. The term alone sets off bells and whistles in the minds of most church leaders today, although, to be fair, the heat of that conflict has gone a bit underground in the last decade.

The original conflict grew out of the disconnect between tent meeting revivals that attracted people and brought about changed lives, but sometimes could not transfer the same spirit and passion into the regular Sunday mornings of local churches. But it was not just the folks outside of church that were drawn to these. Regular church folk are drawn to the food, fellowship, and musical performances – the entertainment value of these services as well. So are the performers. These services are often set up with names attached to draw people in. Sure you can advertise that your church is going to do a revival and that you expect God to be present and working there… but if you really want to draw a crowd, bring in a popular music group and get a well-known speaker, and everyone will come out to the show.

These kind of revivals are about coming to get something, not coming to give something. Generally, the only people who prefer normal Sunday services over those special worship events are the clean up crew, who pick up the mess left by everyone who came for their religious experience and then went back to live their life again. There are exceptions to this of course. I’ve participated in several revival services that incorporated a day or at least part of a day of community service where people came to give instead of just receive – but these are typically not perceived as “seeker-sensitive”.

It’s not just seekers that push us to ask less of church people, it is everyone. It is easier to be encouraged than challenged. It is easier to be the encourager than to be the challenger – especially if you are challenging in ways that involve supporting them with follow up and help after the service ends. In the last decade, as church attendance in many non-seeker-sensitive churches has dropped, it seems that the practical arguments to the debate have ended and we are now looking at being seeker-sensitive or closing our doors for good. The original arguments against entertainment based services and simplified gospel teaching are still there. Mature Christians still think that watered down gospel will not bring people to God or to the Church, and they may not be wrong… but the number of people outside the church, the seekers themselves, are far greater than those mature Christians inside the church. So many have taken those arguments underground for the sake of attendance, financial obligation, and just keeping the doors open.

Jesus taught that the good shepherd leaves the 99 safe sheep and goes after the one that is lost. It is this kind of philosophy of letting mature Christians fend for themselves while a church focuses its effort on the lost that some have used to justify “seeker-sensitive” worship. The problem arises from how we identify the parties in this analogy.

         For Seeker Advocates  
         - Seekers (non-believers) are the lost sheep  
         - Believers are the 99 "found" sheep  
         - The Shepherd is the Church worship leaders/organizers  

Here is my struggle with this perspective: It is too impersonal. Jesus emphasis is on the importance of the individual here. The lost are not 20 or 30 some people, it is a single sheep. The Shepherd is not a nameless/faceless leadership, it is one leader. The only corporate group is the 99, and even they are counted individually. He did not just say “the rest of the sheep”. Every individual counts.

I think a more literal and accurate application of this parable to worship would be to simply postpone worship until everyone had been personally invited. We won’t start church until we knock on every door in our neighborhood and make sure everyone is 1.) safe and 2.) personally invited to come to worship Jesus with us. I’m not talking about hanging posters or dropping fliers in mailboxes. The good shepherd did not just go post lost sheep posters around the towns. I mean person to person checking in and inviting. We would would hold off the service even starting until we had done that if we truly believed that their needs for God were even equal to our own, let alone more important, as Jesus teaches in this parable.

That would be kinda crazy and impractical, depending on your community, and it certainly would overturn the tables of expectations and leadership in most congregations. It is a practical exaggeration, just as the parable itself is. Yet it is the absurdity of it on a practical level that brings to light the true point Jesus is trying to make. In the absurdity of leaving 99 for 1, I believe, lies our true relationship and purpose with the lost sheep of our neighborhoods. The question is not about what we do with them once they come to church (although those details are certainly important). The question we have not been asking for some 30 years, that we need to be asking is: How are we reaching the lost sheep of our communities before they come to church?

Ezekiel 34:1-10

Israel’s False Shepherds

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

We, the Church, (meaning all those who have chosen to follow Jesus, making disciples in His name) are called to be good shepherds, but we have turned down the task. It has become to hard for us to try to bring salvation to people and then bring them to church. It is more convenient to my time to let the church building, the church programs, the church staff,… maybe even just God Himself go after those lost sheep. Yes, Jesus, I know You gave me the commission, the command to go out into all the world, look for Your lost sheep, and take the salvation I received from You and share it with them. But if I’m honest, sometimes I just don’t want to. I would rather just keep You to myself.

How does your own personal worship affect the lost in your community?

Who are the lost sheep that God has brought to your attention?

  1. (Mt 18:10–14)

Worship and Surrender


Worship and Surrender

1 Peter 2:11-171

Live as Servants of God

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Freedom is in. Surrender is out. We want direct connection with God, Whom we struggle to obey when we receive that direction, and if we are going to struggle obeying God, we are really going to struggle following human leaders. Is it any wonder why we preach and sing about freedom, forgiveness, and grace instead of surrender and submission to God’s will. Even, the songs about following God’s will for our lives put the emphasis on it being our decision. We want God to be in control, but we really would prefer God to control things according to our desires – and that comes awfully close to idolatry.

God, in His wisdom, has put others in charge of us though, and He works through them, in them, and sometimes around and in spite of them. Whether it is because He knows we need a reminder of His authority that wears skin every once in awhile so we do not doubt or forget Him, or because the interconnectedness and hierarchy we find ourselves in is a vital part of creation, I do not know. God probably does it for a reason I may never understand. But it is undebateable: God has put human authorities in our lives, and scripture specifically tells us it is our Christian duty to submit to it. Yes, even when I did not vote for them.

It is hard to swallow sometimes. It can be hard to see God working in them as well. If I’m honest though, I personally do not struggle with this the most in the political realm. Politics have more of an indirect affect on me personally, and I have seen enough of the system to know it is complex and difficult to really pin problems down as the decisions of individual people. The chains of compromise are far too long. Instead, I often struggle with it professionally – in church, and specifically in worship.

If you ask me what I think about worship or what kind of worship I like, do not expect a single statement as an answer, expect a five page thesis. I have many strong opinions based on education and experience, both good and bad. When I plan worship services, I think about them as they spread out over weeks and months, not just the 60 minutes we have together on a given day. I try to look at it from multiple angles, and, while I usually can let it all go with gratitude to God when it is all finished, I rarely am completely satisfied with my work. I always find something new to learn, to change, or remind myself not to try next time.

My struggle with authority comes in the few times a year that I visit other churches or worship in settings I am not responsible for leading. Within the first five minutes of walking into the door, my mind starts picking apart every detail of the service and those balcony critics in my head begin to go to town. It gets even worse when the sermon starts. There are times, I’ll be honest, when the critics are far louder to me than the preacher speaking into the microphone. Those moments, I am not submitting to the authority that God has put before me for that time (and if we really think about it, every human authority is temporary), and it keeps me from really worshipping – really experiencing and returning to God what He is due.

We all have problems with the failing, fragile human leaders God has put in our lives. But the challenges of our worship are not controlled by them. The surrender that we are able to give is a vessel of grace that sometimes needs to flow out of us, up into our leaders, instead of us always expecting them to give grace to us. When the flow of grace is stopped up, worship ends, and we all end up stuck in the mess, looking for God again.

What makes it difficult for you to worship?

How do you allow God’s grace to flow from you into those who help lead you in worship?

  1. (Cp Rom 13:1–5)

Light and Worship


Light and Worship

1 Peter 2:9-12

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.

Live as Servants of God1

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

The countdown came onto the screen as the lights begin to dim. The latest hits playing in the background began to slowly fade away as the guitar amplifiers hummed. There was a hiss and a cloud of gray smoke plumed out into the stage and suddenly everyone grew quiet around. Worship was about to begin.

I’m one of those odd ducks who sits at the end of Generation X and the beginning of the millennial generation. Culture sometimes moves a little slower in smaller, poorer, and/or more rural areas like the one I grew up in and I remember when I first got to college and began meeting some true millennials, I was a bit shocked at some of their differences. The scene I described above would be a dream come true for ‘gen X’ers, I think, but for millennials it probably just seems normal.

Well, actually no, let me amend that. I think they probably would get rid of the fog machine because it seems a bit too “performance driven” and inauthentic. They might replace the timer with a professional video of a church leader sharing a testimony/advertisement for the theme of the current month’s sermon series. The guitars are still there, but they are balanced more with keyboard synths, and the music overall has slowed down. Gen X wanted to jump and shout, while the new worshippers want to sway with God like a middle school slow dance.

I’m an odd duck, and I see humor in much of it. But I also so some great similarities as well. The younger generations might argue about the song selection and setup of the chairs, but the one thing they will all agree on is the light switch needs to be turned off. We want it dark in our worship spaces. We want to forget everyone else around us and create an environment of intimacy. The only light needs to be coming from the words on the screen, and we want to fill the space around those words with beautiful paintings of light, depicting the great creativity of our God.

We see a similar attitude from our older worshippers who love to attend candlelight vigil services, often around Christmas time. Shut the lights off and let’s create an intimate setting where we lose track of everyone but me and God, and the pretty lights all around. We want to lose ourselves and all the burdens we carry in the daytime, and we want to be caught up in the beautiful darkness around us. Maybe we learned it from the nightclubs and speakeasies of the Prohibition era as many former addicts became Christians and sought to attract in those looking for escape from life as they knew it.

I don’t really know where it all came from or why it lingers on. What I do know is that scripture calls us people who have come out of the darkness and now walk in the light. I’m not opposed to worshipping in dark rooms. I just wonder what it says about those of us who cannot worship outside of them, in the light of day. Peter, and God before him in Exodus, calls us a royal priesthood and a holy nation – those who worship on behalf of others. We do not live as Christians in their place, as substitutes. We live as Christians to be examples, to lead them to Christ. Do we do that in our worship, or are we lost in the dark, trying to lose ourselves and everyone around us?

I think Jesus Himself probably stated it the best:

Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Where do you find the light of God?

Do you allow that light to shine through you in your worship?

  1. (Cp Rom 13:1–5)

Sacrificial Worship


Sacrificial Worship

Exodus 24:1-11

The Blood of the Covenant

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

On the Mountain with God

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

It is hard for most of us to imagine what life must have been like for those Hebrew people recently liberated from Egypt. They, like Abraham before them, were called to follow God out into the wilderness and worship Him. While they were set free from harsh bondage, digging clay and making bricks without straw, building the pyramids of Egypt… they had no real plan for the future and did not know where they were going. Moses, their prophet and leader had never been one of them. He had first appeared as an adopted prince of Egypt and then later as a Midianite foreigner. Multiple tribes had come together and likely had some individuals vying for power and leadership over the others. These were many people who had been strangers brought together under the common enemy of Egypt and Moses was trying to bring them together under the common benefactor of YHWH.

Generally it is easier to unite people under a common enemy, playing on their prejudices and hatred. This is where the idea of political unification by going to war comes from. Gratitude is often harder to facilitate in the short term than prejudice. God was taking Moses the long way around building this new community of Israel. Instead of war, they were going to worship themselves into unity.

From the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to the potlucks of today’s Protestant and Catholic congregations, eating together has been an important connection between worship and community. On one level, it makes sense that, having traveled several days into the wilderness, they would want to stop, make camp, and cook up some food for the community. Furthermore, it would make sense to cook some of the livestock they brought with them from Egypt. Where we run into some of the logic issues is in terms of which livestock were picked.

Think about it. If you were wandering through the Sinai wilderness (read desert) with no sure plan about where you were going to end up, would you offer up your own livestock first? Even if everyone was pitching in, would you offer up your bulls and oxen first or would you rather start small with some sheep or goats and save your oxen to continue carrying your possessions until you got to the Promised Land, wherever that was? Sinai was too soon to celebrate for anyone who was even half a skeptic, so these sacrifices, whose meat were shared by the community were more than a community picnic. They were costly. They were sacrifices.

The Hebrew people became the nation of Israel not through the invitation to a free meal or pitching together for their common good, they were unified by the commands of God which required real sacrifice from them. As they slaughtered and cooked their best chances for surviving in the wilderness, they were turning over their faith to God and the community around them. It was, in its own way, an act of love and trust to God and their neighbors.

What does this tell us about worship? Real worship is much more than a feeling. It involves trusting God and your community sacrificially. And it probably involves food. Let’s be honest now. We’ve been to many concerts where worship music was played and we felt warm and fuzzy, but we couldn’t tell you the name of the person sitting three seats away from us because real relationships were not formed there. The concert may have inspired us to get closer to God, but we did not pack our bags, quit our jobs, and head off on tour with the band. We just waited until they came around next year. Real worship asks more of us than that,

Wise Worship


Wise Worship

Proverbs 8:32-9:6

“And now, my children, listen to me:

happy are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise,

and do not neglect it.

Happy is the one who listens to me,

watching daily at my gates,

waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life

and obtains favor from the Lord;

but those who miss me injure themselves;

all who hate me love death.”

Wisdom’s Feast

Wisdom has built her house,

she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,

she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls

from the highest places in the town,

“You that are simple, turn in here!”

To those without sense she says,

“Come, eat of my bread

and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

and walk in the way of insight.”

Proverbs begins with a statement of truth: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;

fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This fear, or awe and reverence is a significant part of what we all are commanded to do, so there is a sense that wisdom brings us to worship and worship brings us to true wisdom.

Wisdom brings us to worship. If we seek truth honestly and earnestly, we may first discover our limitations in understanding the world around us. The deeper we dig into even the simple things around us, the more mysteries and questions we discover… and God invites us to bring our wonder to worship.

Wait… what? Isn’t worship all about repeating doctrine statements in chants and in song and sitting through long explanations of what you are supposed to believe blindly? No, it really is not. You can come with your questions and pondering minds, hear real life accounts of the work of God from other Christians, and discover the long history of that wisdom passed down the ages in scripture. God offers real answers for you to consider carefully and thoughtfully. However, if you have already made your mind up about God and do not have honest questions and consideration, do not be surprised by a disappointment you have set yourself up for.

God not only brings us some, and I emphasize some of the answers we seek in life, He also asks us questions. A major part of growing in true wisdom is not just getting answers that sound good, it is refining our questions. We cannot find proper answers if we are not even asking the right questions. God helps us ask the right questions, and He often does that by reminding us of our own responsibility and part in life around us. Our actions, our words, our thoughts and feelings… they all matter and they do make a difference around us for good or for ill. Sometimes it is hard to see that when we are stuck in ourselves and cannot get an outside perspective. Coming into the presence of God and listening to His Spirit speak to us is one way that we can get a better, clearer, or at the very least different perspective.

Worship is not primarily about making us feel better. It is an act of aligning ourselves with the Creator of the universe so that we can actually be better. It is wise to worship and worship brings us true wisdom.

Night Worship


Psalm 134

Praise in the Night

A Song of Ascents

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,

who stand by night in the house of the Lord!

Lift up your hands to the holy place,

and bless the Lord.

May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth,

bless you from Zion.

There are three main thoughts as to how the “Songs of Ascent” were used.

The first is that they were sung by the Jewish people as they made their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Other scholars think it may go back to the rededication of the Temple in the time of Nehemiah. Other scholars think it may have been a praise song used by the priests taking their night watches in the Temple.

I think it is awesome to have a worship song designated specifically for those who take the night shift. It is not just a song to be sung by the night shift in the Temple, it is a prayer lifted up on their behalf.

I won’t try to drag more out of these simple verses than are really there. But perhaps we should pause and consider the number of people who work those twilight hours while many of us are home, asleep in our beds. Does God work in their lives, even if they live in places that do not have access to worship services they can readily attend? I remember serving with a retired pastor, Rev. Harry Prince, who once told me that his favorite church to serve was a night church in Philadelphia, PA the had been created specifically for the nurses, police, EMS workers, and the many others who could not attend a Sunday morning worship. They had a life unto themselves and he considered it a blessing to be in God’s presence with them. This is a song for Rev. Prince and his night church.

Are you a night person as well?

How do you worship God at night?