What you might get out of worship

After several decades of participating in worship and leading worship, I have come to the conclusion that we get out of worship what we put into worship. 

If we put into worship merely token devotion to God, we will get out of worship a token—a souvenir worship program or a souvenir memory of having attended church this week.  If we give to God superficial, surface-level, distracted attention, we will receive from worship surface-level joy, superficial spiritual nourishment, and distracted serenity. 

If on the other hand, we pour our heart into worship, we will receive, in turn, the very heart of God poured out to us.  If we sacrifice to God our time and offering and attention and energy, we will receive in abundance the gifts of the One who sacrificed His very life for us.

The good news is that no matter how much of ourselves we give to God in worship, God gives more of Himself to us in return, for God has so much more of Himself to give away than we do!

Any gift we make to God is miniscule compared to God’s incredible gifts to us.  We are like a boy thinking that giving his mom a handmade lanyard compares to the multitude of gifts she has given to him.  Billy Collins, Former Poet Laureate of the United States, depicts this in a poem which concludes with these stanzas:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Psalm 132 reflects the same dynamic.  It opens by recalling how King David wanted to build a house for God.  From David’s perspective, a temple would be a wonderful gift for God.  But the best constructed building for God is really nothing more than a lanyard for a mother.  Walls of gold cannot impress God, for even the backroads of heaven are paved in gold.  Carved doors, ornate walls, bronze pillars, and even golden cherubim are but a preschooler’s art project compared to God’s awesome masterpieces of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mt. Everest, leopards, angel fish, and butterflies.  Nothing we give to God can compare to what God gives to us.

The psalm begins with the recollection of David’s desire to give a good gift to God, but it goes on to detail God’s commitment to pour greater blessings on us.  Verse 13 states, “For the Lord has chosen Zion,” and in verses 14-16 God announces, “This is My resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.  I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread.  Its priests I will clothe with salvation, and its faithful will shout for joy!” 

All of this serves to confirm that we will get out of worship what we put into worship.  If we give our hearts to God in worship, God will pour out to us in abundance the riches of His heart.

The Challenge of Learning to Rest in God

In Psalm 131, David presents a beautiful image of a soul at rest: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” 

A weaned child resting upon its mother is a lovely thing.  It is a mother’s greatest happiness to hold in her arms a resting, contented child.  It is a child’s deepest joy and peace to rest contentedly in its mother’s arms. 

Melinda Cousins remarks, “A weaned child…lies in its mother’s arms not for food, but for relationship, content purely to be held and know the peace and security that comes from being loved.”

Getting a mother’s milk is vital for the health of a growing baby.  But getting, and basking in, a mother’s love is the best of all.  It is vital for the health of a child’s soul.

What we have to face, though, is that getting to the point of a contentedly weaned child on its mother’s lap is not an easy achievement for the mother or the child.  A baby wants passionately and demandingly and expressively what a baby needs!  What a baby needs is its mother’s milk.  If the baby doesn’t get it, the baby cries with a piercing and painful shriek that seems to have been designed by God to be one of the most irritating noises in the world, guaranteed to grab our attention.  When a baby wants milk it cries; it screams; it grabs; it demands.  But as a child grows, it must learn that it does not always get what it wants when it wants it.  It is only after going through a painful deprivation process that a child is weaned and becomes content to sit upon its mother for love more than for milk. 

Ray Fowler comments, “Weaning is a child’s first experience of loss.  It is a difficult but important lesson that you can’t always get what you want in life, and that you can’t always have your own way.  Unfortunately some of us are still trying to learn that lesson.  You’d think we would have learned it back when we were weaned!  But weaning is a process.  It’s a battle to wean a child, and it’s a battle for God to bring us to this place of quiet contentment and rest.” 

Since weaning is a challenge to a child that involves the child giving up the illusion that it will always get what it wants when it wants it, what makes us think that it will be easy for us to develop a restful soul?  We only develop a peaceful soul by going through the same process as a weaned child: By learning to give up our demand at getting what we want when we want it, and by learning to come to God to rest in and to bask in God’s overflowing love for us. 

Artur Weiser puts it this way: “Just as the child gradually breaks off the habit of regarding his mother only as a means of satisfying his own desires and learns to love her for her own sake, so the worshiper—after a struggle—has reached an attitude of mind in which he desires God for himself and not as a means of fulfillment of his own wishes.  His life’s center of gravity has shifted.  He now rests no longer in himself but in God.”

David, the psalmist here, seems to have a sense of humor, though.  He ends the psalm with the plea, “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  He invites Israel to enter that peaceful realm of resting contentedly in God’s arms.  But the name Israel comes out of a wrestling match between God and Jacob.  The name is a continual reminder that God wrestles with His people for His people.  As a child learns to be content on its mother’s lap only through the challenging process of weaning, so we need to recognize that we will come into God’s peace only by the wrestling God does with us for us, and the more we learn to surrender to God, the more peace we find. 

Lean toward God

The first verse of Psalm 130 could be the cry of one who is drowning in the agony, hopelessness, and despair of depression: “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.” 

That cry matches what Ginger Zee confides about her struggle with depression: “Depression, for me, has been a couple of different things—but the first time I felt it, I felt helpless, hopeless, and things I had never felt before.  I lost myself and my will to live.” 

It also matches what Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about depression in Prozac Nation: “That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight.  But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”

“Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.”

The depression of Psalm 130 may have come from guilt, as verses 3-4 suggest, but depression comes from many different sources, and the agony of it can be debilitating no matter what the source may be. 

Clinical depression should never be taken lightly.  Calling a counselor or doctor may be the essential first step to take. 

Along with that, Psalm 130 offers a couple of other words of counsel:

Cry out to God. 

God is a good one to cry out to because God cares immensely for you and will always draw near to you.  In his book Bounce: Learning to Thrive through Loss, Tragedy, and Heartache. Aaron Fruh shares,

“When my son, Nathan, was five years old, my wife and I were drinking coffee in the living room early one morning when we heard a cry coming from his bedroom.  When Sharon went into his room she screamed out to me because Nathan was having a seizure.  She came running down the hall carrying the twitching and flailing body with his little brown eyes rolled back in their sockets.  I ran into the kitchen to call 911, slid across the kitchen tile, and scraped my knee.  The ambulance took my son to a children’s hospital, and I slept next to him in his room for the next five days while the pediatric neurologists treated him. 

“When he had his seizure, Nathan was afraid because his body was doing strange things it had never done before, so he cried out for his mother and father.  It was a lament, a complaint: ‘Help me!  Something isn’t right!  Come quick!  I’m afraid!’  And what did I do as a father?  I ran across the kitchen floor and skinned my knee.  In the hospital I drew closer to my son in his distress.  That’s what a father does because of the covenant bond he has with his child.  A lament is a form of speech that releases us, even encourages us to complain about injustice and call on God to hear our cries of suffering.  And what does our Father in heaven do when we raise a lament His way?  He runs across the kitchen floor and skins His knee.”

Cry out to God, then lean toward Him. 

In verses 5-6 the psalmist states, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” 

The Hebrew word for watchman is tsaphah.  Literally the word has to do with leaning forward to peer into the distance.  Historically watchmen were appointed to keep vigil on the city walls throughout the night.  They would lean forward at their post, peering into the darkness, watching for any sign of danger, and waiting for the sun to rise in the east.  They could do nothing to hasten the rising of the sun, but they leaned forward, longing for the arrival of a new day to relieve the darkness. 

This psalm invites us to be people who lean toward God in the midst of our darkness. 

Better yet, may we be people who lean on God in the midst of our struggles and weakness.

Sometimes Christians are criticized for leaning on God, or for using God as a crutch.  Marshall Shelley reflected upon that criticism while he was on crutches after breaking a leg in a soccer match:

“From my point of view, crutches are not for the weak.  For the last month and a half, my arms and especially my underarms had gotten quite a workout.  And they were feeling much stronger….

“Who are crutches for?  For those who are broken, who admit something is wrong and want to get better.  For people who want to continue being active—not sitting around with their feet up—but getting around, engaging in work and relationships.

“Likewise, Christianity is for broken people.  But it’s definitely not for the weak or faint of heart.” 

Leaning on God is not a bad thing to do.  It is in leaning on God that we find healing and renewed strength. 

What to do when facing injustice

Psalm 129 is not the most uplifting of psalms.  One writer remarked that she could not find a single verse in the psalm that she would embroider on a pillow case. 

But Psalm 129 is a vital portion of the canon of Scripture because Psalm 129 deals honestly with the painful reality of injustice and injury. 

Verse 3 expresses it graphically: “The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.”  About this verse, Eugene Peterson writes, “Picture Israel, the person of faith, lying stretched out, prone.  The enemies hitch up their oxen and plows and begin cutting long furrows in the back of Israel.  Long gashes cut into the skin and flesh, back and forth systematically, like a farmer working a field.  Imagine the whole thing: the blood, the pain, the back-and-forth cruelty.”

This is a psalm from which we learn three key lessons about what to do when we are struck by injustice: 

1: Do not sugar-coat injustice. 

This psalm never pretends that injustice is less than what it is: the infliction of cruelty and pain upon another.  Nor does this psalm ignore the emotional trauma injustice thrusts upon those who are injured. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words fit this psalm perfectly: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to act is to act.”  This psalm encourages us not to remain silent in the face of evil.

2: Pour out your heart honestly to God.  Express to God your hurt, your anger, your resentment, your fear. 

This psalm is bold enough to offer an anti-blessing on those who mistreated them: “May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward.  Let them be like the grass on the housetops that withers before it grows up, with which reapers do not fill their hands or binders of sheaves their arms, while those who pass by do not say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you!  We bless you in the name of the Lord!’” 

In her book When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada tells the story of a friend who has to travel out of town regularly on business, leaving behind his wife and three young children.  One day, as the children were seeing him off at the airport, Jim’s youngest child began wailing and sobbing, knowing his father was about to leave again.  It broke Jim’s heart to leave his child like that.  As he told the story to Joni, his eyes again welled up with tears.  As Joni watched her friend’s emotional reaction, she thought to herself, “If that boy’s cries tug at Jim’s heart, how much more must our tears move our heavenly Father.  Nothing grips God’s heart like the tortured cry of one of His children.”  (p. 155-156)  This psalm encourages us to pour out to God whatever is on our heart. 

3: Persevere.

Verse 2 declares, “Often they have attacked me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.”  That’s a message of perseverance!

In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey reports, “In the 1980s, a pastor named Laszlo Tokes took over a small Reformed church to minister to his fellow Hungarians, an oppressed minority living inside the borders of Romania.  His predecessor had openly supported the communist Romanian government, even to the extent of wearing a red star on his clerical robes.  In contrast, Tokes spoke out against injustice and protested government actions.  Soon the sanctuary began filling each Sunday, bringing together worshipers and dissidents of both Romanian and Hungarian descent.  Membership grew from forty persons to five thousand. 

“The courageous new pastor attracted the attention of special agents as well.  They threatened Tokes many times with violence, and one evening the police were dispatched to evict him.  Word spread quickly and hundreds of Christians—Baptists, Orthodox, Reformed, and Catholic alike—poured out of their homes to surround Tokes’ house as a wall of protection.  They stood through day and night, singing hymns and holding candles.

“A few days later, police broke through the protestors to seize Tokes.  Rather than dispersing and filing home, the protestors decided to march downtown to the police station.  As the procession moved noisily through the streets, more and more people joined in.  Eventually the crowd in the town square swelled to 200,000, nearly the entire population of that area.  The Romanian army sent in troops, who in one bloody incident opened fire on the crowd, killing a hundred and wounding many more.  Still the people held their ground, refusing to disperse.

“A local pastor stood to address the protestors in an attempt to calm the rising anger and prevent a full-scale riot.  He began with three words, ‘Let us pray.’  In one spontaneous motion that giant mass of farmers, teachers, students, doctors, and ordinary working people fell to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer—a corporate act of civil disobedience.  Within days the protest spread to the capital city of Bucharest, and a short time later the government that had ruled Romania with an iron fist toppled to the ground.” (p. 119-120) 

This psalm encourages us to persevere.

Happy is the one who fears?

Psalm 128 begins with a statement that seems to be impossible: “Happy (or blessed) is everyone who fears the Lord.”  It seems to be contradictory to put “happy” and “fear” together in the soul of a person.  The two emotions seem to be mutually exclusive of each other. 

Edgar Wallace described fear as “a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the snake.”  In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” then he went on to define fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

How could a person possibly be happy with such terror (or with such a tyrant) stomping around within one’s soul? 

But what if the fear of the Lord is different than being terrorized by fear?

The evidence of Scripture suggests that they are different.  In Exodus 20:20 (just after the giving of the 10 Commandments), Moses says to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so that you do not sin.” 

Moses calls us away from the kind of fear that paralyzes us and terrifies us; he calls us to the fear of the Lord that enriches our lives. 

Phillip Keller provides a wonderful picture of the two kinds of fear in his book Lessons from a Sheep Dog.  He writes about his experience bringing a severely mistreated Sheep Dog to his sheep ranch in British Columbia.  Because of the mistreatment the dog had been subjected to, Lass was terrified of Phillip Keller.  He records, “As I put Lass into my old car and started off down the road to ‘Fairwinds’ she was sure something terrible was about to happen.  She crouched on the floor behind my seat, trembling and tense with apprehension.  Even when I stretched out my hand to touch her head, or spoke softly in reassuring tones, she withdrew in terror, snarling with tension.” (p. 40-41) 

That’s the kind of fear Moses calls us away from—the kind of fear that leave us terrified, suspicious of all that comes our way, snarling with tension at others and at God.

As the book progresses, Phillip Keller describes the change that takes place as Lass begins to trust him.  Later in the book, Keller writes, “The use of this word ‘fear’ all through the Old Testament scriptures has, most unfortunately, left the wrong impression upon our minds.  And it was Lass, more than anyone else, who brought me to a clear concept of its true meaning.  ‘To fear,’ with regard to God means to reverence, to respect, to regard with awe and affection, to hold in such loving esteem as to be afraid of offending or grieving the One so admired.  This was the attitude Lass held toward me.  It had been built on trust.  It had grown gradually with the realization she could count on the consistency of my conduct and credibility of my character.  She had come to see me as more than just her master, but also her friend.  We were fellow-workers in the great responsibilities of running the ranch.  Her loyalty was grounded in love.” (p. 76-77)

That’s the kind of fear God calls us to: Not the kind of fear that leaves us suspiciously snarling at God, but the kind of fear that causes us to honor and revere God so highly that we bow before Him in worship and seek to honor Him with our obedience.

The fear of gravity is similar.  I hope you are not awakened at night from nightmares of gravity chasing after you like a malevolent monster who keeps trying to throw you to the ground.  But I hope that if you are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, gazing into the chasm below, that you will have a healthy fear of the law of gravity.  I hope the fear of gravity will keep you from leaning over too far so that you are free to enjoy the Canyon’s amazing beauty without plummeting to your death.

That’s the kind of thing Psalm 128 has in mind when it counsels us, “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord….”  When we revere God our lives are enriched.

Unless the Lord builds the house….

Journalist Bernard Levin once observed, “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with non-material blessings like a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet and, at times, noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact there is a hole inside them, and that however much food or drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many children and friends they parade around the edges of it…IT ACHES.”

Out of his own personal experience with such an ache, King Solomon wrote the opening verses of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives sleep to His beloved.” 

It seems that the “you” in verse 2 is not so much aimed at the reader as at himself, for in Ecclesiastes 2:11 Solomon confides, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” 

Solomon started off well.  He began his reign by seeking the leading of God for his life and for his kingdom.  But over time, he became more and more enamored with foreign wives and with the international clout they brought him.  Over the years, he took 1000 wives and had 300 concubines.  He became less and less faithful to God, and more and more welcoming of foreign gods.  His kingdom ceased to be a kingdom built by God and filled with the goodness of God.  It became a nation driven by his self-absorbed heart, and consumed with displays of his power and prominence. 

As this went on, Solomon became increasingly and painfully aware of the truth that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  And he became increasingly and painfully conscious of the reality that his self-absorbed life was “vanity and a chasing after wind.” 

The movement in this psalm from verses 1-2 to verses 3-5 is significant.  Don’t be misled, though, by a fantasized perspective of what verses 3-5 seems to say.  The mere production of sons is not always a blessing.  Solomon knew this well from his own family of origin: One of Solomon’s brothers raped a half-sister.  Another brother killed the rapist.  That same brother staged a rebellion against their father.  Another brother tried to steal away Solomon’s crown.  Then, at Solomon’s death, his own son broke apart the kingdom of Israel by trying to exploit even greater personal wealth from his subjects. 

It is not simply that the production of sons and/or daughters creates happiness, but we learn two vital lessons from raising children:

1: Children teach us that life is not about what we toil after.

Bob Deffinbaugh points out, “Some scholars have suggested that this Psalm was originally two separate psalms.  They propose this because the connection between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3-5 is an enigma to them.  I personally am convinced that there is a very clear sequence and progression of thought.  Children provide an excellent conclusion to the argument of verses 1 and 2…. The provision of children differs from that for which men toil.  When men work they are striving for wages, not a gift.  Wages are what we produce with the work of our hands.  Gifts are those things generously and graciously given to us by another.  Children, verse 3 informs us, are a gift from God….

“Isn’t it interesting that children, while given by God, are conceived when we are at rest, not when we toil.  Children are normally conceived in bed.  What a beautiful illustration, then, of what we are told in verse 2, that God gives to His beloved in his sleep.”

2: Raising children teaches us that contentment comes from the giving of love rather than the amassing of fortune or power.

I want to be careful with my words here, because verses 3-5 can stomp painfully on those who have longed for children but not received such a blessing, or who have lost a child, or who are estranged from a child.  But the general principle of verses 3-5 is vital: satisfaction in life comes not from what we amass for ourselves but from the love we give to others.

The Holy Spirit is busy growing Christ’s character in us.  At the very core of who Christ is is the giving of Himself to those whom He loves.  Children are natural recipients of a parent’s self-giving love, but even without children the principle holds true: We are most Christ-like and most content when we are giving of ourselves to another in love.  May we focus more on giving love than on toiling for ourselves.

Hope for those in a desert

Psalm 126 is a psalm that is written for those who are going through tough times.  It is written for those who know what it is like to wander in the desert (literal or figurative), tired and thirsty, with your energy depleted, longing for water, praying for rain, and waiting and waiting and waiting.

It was written for a people who endured hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, who faced hundreds of years of harassment from surrounding nations, who went through internal schism that ripped their nation apart, and who were dragged away as captives to live in exile for decades in the land of the nation that conquered them. 

It is written for people who deal with personal hardships, with chronic pain, with disappointments in life, with tragedies, with prayers that remain unanswered day after day or month after month. 

The psalm begins with rejoicing over the return of exiles to Jerusalem.  It declares, with joy, that God “has done great things for us!”  But the hope this psalm presents is actually the kind of hope that is like streams in the desert (verse 4), and it is the kind of hope that involves sowing our tears (verses 5-6).

On most days, “streams in the desert” are dry ruts—rocky and sandy creases in the barren land.  But on those occasional times when rainclouds build up overhead and release their contents, the otherwise dry riverbeds fill with life-giving water.  The water brings plants to life and provides life-giving sustenance to desert creatures. 

Psalm 126 is the hope of those who live in a desert, who recognize that life will not be a perennial outpouring of blessings upon them, but who continue to pray throughout those long, dry stretches that God will send the refreshment they need before it is too late.  Psalm 126 reminds us that we must become the kind of people who learn how to live not with the expectation of perennial blessings but by retaining and preserving every precious gift of refreshment God sends our way. 

Many people live under the false impression that a crop of joy grows out of a commitment to face all of life’s troubles happily.  They would expect this psalm to advise us to put on a happy face no matter what problems might confront us.  They would suggest that if we sow our masks of happiness, we will eventually reap the happiness we were pretending was there.  However, if we sow a pretend smile, all we will get back is more pretension.  If we sow hypocrisy, hypocrisy is what we will reap.

If, on the other hand, we want to reap a joy that is real, we need to plant that which is real.  If our tears are what is real to us as we go through those desert times in our lives, then what we need to do is to plant our tears in the good soil of God’s love.  It is that soil of God’s rich love that will bring forth the fruit of joy in our souls.  As the apostle Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15, the seed that is sown dies and comes up from the ground in a gloriously new form.  The tears we deposit in the soil of God’s love will come to new life in the fruit of joy—a confidence and well-being at the core of our soul that knows that God is with us, that He loves us, and that He will walk through it all with us until He brings us to the home He has prepared for us in heaven.