Praise God for Real

 The real question concerning communal worship, the worship that takes place in church on Sunday mornings, is one of motive. What are we doing really? Are we a part of someone else’s show? Are we trying to portray some sort of image? Are we looking for others to validate whether or not we are spiritual? Are we afraid of being judged? Are we trying to prove something to ourselves? Are we trying to recreate a previous spiritual encounter? Are we trying to forget our problems and escape reality? Are we trying to impress God? Are we trying to get God to do something for us? Are we being swept away in the moment? What is really going on in this group activity called worship?

I have had a lifetime of observing church folk, and often people whose personal lives are the most unstable seem to spend a great deal of time in church. I wonder if they find church an easy place to hide and the worship experience an escape. Perhaps if I am shouting right now for my blessing, then I don’t have to deal with the mess I’ve made with my money. Or, perhaps if I am dancing for my marriage, then I can pretend that there aren’t very serious issues between us that need confrontation.

In churches today, the worship experience is appealing by design. Talented musicians are hired with the express purpose of “ushering in God’s presence.” I’m sorry to put that phrase in quotes because I don’t mean to imply that I think it’s all just for show. Honestly, I don’t. In many churches, very sincere men and women devote hours preparing and praying earnestly for God’s anointing on their lives, sincerely desiring that you have a real encounter with God during the worship service (shout out to WCC minister of music, Brannon Carnes). But make no mistake, in many instances, professionals are trying their best to entertain you and make you think you had a spiritual experience, while in fact there has been no lasting impact on your life.

Corporate worship is an individual expression that we experience in the love and safety of community. It is both a singular and shared experience. One of the concerns I have with corporate worship is that people are observing and measuring, and I am just as guilty as anyone else. The Biblical injunction is to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23) The psalmist David states, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) God is looking for authentic worship. This isn’t about who is doing what around us. It isn’t about pressure to be something we are not. It is bringing all that we are to express back to Him all that He is. What we offer to God in worship is ourselves – not who we are pretending to be, but who we are without reservations. We praise Him as an act of obedience, as an act of love, as an act of gratitude, as an act of humility, as an act of faith; because we love Him, because we need Him, because He is God all by Himself and above Him there is no other.

Often you will experience an emotional response during worship. In fact, it is to be expected. After all, this is God we are talking about. The psalmist David brought to his worship experience the full range of his emotions. 2 Samuel 6 describes an occasion when, as king, he “danced before the Lord with all his might.” In that same instance, it describes David as “leaping and dancing before the Lord” to the point that he removed his royal robes and humbled himself by wearing only a linen ephod – the religious garment usually worn by priests. The text implies that his behavior was extravagantly unorthodox to say the least, perhaps even slightly immodest, as his wife Michal’s reference to the slave girls suggests. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:14). The scripture states that when Michal observed David’s uninhibited praise that “she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16 NIV). God took serious exception to her attitude toward her husband’s praise to him. And the scripture tells us that Michal was barren from that day forward. So much for judging other people’s worship.

My worship won’t look like the sister’s next to me because my worship reflects God’s personal dealings with me. Sometimes in His holy presence, I am so overwhelmed that I am at a loss for words; other times I am so excited that I shout with joy. At times my worship is celebratory and I want to dance or sing. When people worshipped God in scripture, they danced–who can forget Miriam leading the throngs of women shaking their tambourines for all their worth (Exodus 15) –sang, shouted and played loud instruments (cymbals) and soothing instruments (harp).

The test is how our Sunday worship affects the way we live our life, or, as my friend Terri would say, does it pass the Monday test? Is our experience mere Sunday morning hype, or does it extend into our Monday morning reality? Does our worship come from out of our lives or from the music? These are the questions I ask myself. My worship must reflect who I am with God when the music isn’t playing or no one is looking. It must be worthy of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Therefore, I dare not come before Him carelessly or halfheartedly. It must reflect my thankfulness to the One without whom I am nothing. That is the true test, and then I don’t care who is looking, and I don’t have time to look at anyone else.

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What’s The Hype About Praise?: a/k/a The Time I Ran Around the Church (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote of a time when I was facing a spiritual and emotional crisis. After taking a long hiatus from attending the praise and worship at church, I finally returned, choosing to trust God and walk through the darkness despite my continuing doubts. Even though I am by nature reserved and was trying to deal with my own internal struggles, I lifted my hands and began to praise God out loud. It was not long before the crowd disappeared, and it was just God and me. While I was worshipping Him, He began to minister healing, love and forgiveness to my broken heart. It was like the hymn by William Gaither:

 He touched me, Oh He touched me,
And oh the joy that floods my soul!
Something happened and now I know,
He touched me and made me whole.

 And then the joy came in waves. I was crying, shouting, and before I knew it was running. It was just me and Jesus. But actually it wasn’t. When I moved into a new level of worshipping God, others began to experienced breakthroughs as well. Many were rejoicing, weeping, and running right along with me. So what’s the hype about praise? Is it just an emotional charge? Does it really take all that?

 As I mentioned earlier, I was emerging from a very dark place in my spiritual life. I was in a place of immense doubt and confusion. I learned from that experience that you get through a crisis of faith by faith. Worship is an act of faith because you acknowledge His Lordship over your life and the circumstances of your life. He is still God whether you sense his presence or not, He is God whether or not you have doubts, He is God no matter the outcome of your personal situation. The psalmist declares, “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3). When you magnify God, you place Him in the proper perspective, and everything else including you is subordinate.

Whenever you praise God you invoke His presence. “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabits the praises of Israel” Psalms 22:3. Inhabit means to “to live in.” And who is this God who lives in your praise? He is Elohim–The God of creation. He is the one who gives life and breath to all things (Acts 17:25). Can you imagine the God of the universe moving into your situation? God is El-Shaddai—He is the God who is more than enough. Can anything be too hard for Him? Is there a battle that you are losing with sin, your children, your work, your marriage? Imagine what can happen if Jehovah Nissi–the Lord of the Armies moves in and wages war on your behalf? What do you lack if God, who is Jehovah Jireh–The Lord who provides–takes up residence? What happens to sickness when Jehovah Rapha–The Lord your healer– makes your praise His dwelling place? If your mind is troubled, what would happen if Jehovah Shalom–The God Who is Peace– abides with you. God is as near to you as your praise. How much do you need Him? And when you have Him, what do you need?

 So what’s the hype about praise? There is no hype. We are created to praise God. Praise is simply telling Him who He is. He is wise, He is Good, He is merciful, He is righteous, He is holy, He is faithful. After reading Psalm 150, I am convinced that praise is something that engages more than your mind. It is a physical act. Jesus said that if we don’t praise him the rocks would cry out (Matthew 21:6). The scriptural directive is Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD” (Psalm 150:6). The truth about praise and worship is we aren’t doing God any favors; we are to instructed to give Him the Glory He is due (Psalm 29:2). In other words, praise is what we owe Him. All glory is His (Revelations 19:1). Most importantly, praise should be a normal part of our devotional life, and our expressions in public should mirror what we do in private.

And what happened to me? After that glorious experience, something in my life changed forever. I now enjoy a freedom in my private time with the Lord that is very precious. Have I had dark moments since then? Too many to count. Demonstrative worship is not a panacea nor does it replace bible study, prayer, and all the other spiritual disciplines. But I have found nothing that ushers me into his presence more effectively than when I worship Him. Am I searching for a “feeling” when I enter into praise and worship? Now, that is a very loaded question that I will have to address in the next post.

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What’s the Hype about Praise? (a/k/a “The Time I Ran Around the Church”) Part 1

I think we need to get one thing straight: demonstrative worship – and by that, I mean raising your hands, dancing, shouting, jumping, and all the accoutrements associated with Charismatic, Pentecostal, Full Gospel, or whatever other type of worship – does not make one more spiritual than the non-jumper, hand-waver, dancer . . . you get the point. For those of us who attend the above-mentioned type of churches, because we are encouraged to be “free” in worship, we might get the mistaken idea that the “freer” you are somehow translates into being a better Christian. Hey, I have no issue with a worship style preference or cultural tradition. I say to each her own. But, as the young folks say, “don’t get it twisted” – all that sweating and shouting isn’t winning you extra brownie points in heaven. Truthfully, I have been in services where people have been pressured to perform by overzealous worship leaders who gauge their own effectiveness (read “anointing”) by the emotional response of the audience. How utterly ridiculous. I mean, really, you don’t have to observe people very long to know that being able to exhibit appropriate church behaviors in whatever religious setting does not equate to integrity, character, a vibrant prayer life, personal Bible study, and being an active witness. These really are far better barometers of spirituality. So then, what’s all the hype about praise?

I tend to be by nature reserved. I am naturally an introvert. I am reflective and extremely sensitive. When I used to go out dancing, I was always self-conscious (probably because I was never really any good), unlike my sister who was loud and danced with gusto. Guess who is more inclined on Sundays to “throw her hands in the air and wave ’em like she just don’t care”? So then imagine what happened when in the midst of praise and worship I took off running around the church?

Let me pause here and place my life in context. I was recovering from the lowest point in my personal and spiritual life. For months prior, I was in such a state of depression that I purposely arrived at church just in time to hear the message and left before the benediction so that I would miss praise and worship and not have to talk to anyone when church was over. The idea of sitting through praise and worship was enough to drive me over the edge. It just felt too hypocritical. But, in time, with the support of my family, I started the journey of walking through the darkness. I didn’t feel God’s presence, but stepping over my doubts, I kept walking, trusting in the Word of the Invisible God.

On this particular Sunday morning, my brother, Pastor Paul, was leading the praise and worship service. I forget now what he said, but it resonated with me. And I took a step of faith and raised my hands and started praising God out loud. I told God how much I loved Him. I told Him that He was faithful and good. I told Him that I trusted Him, and soon the crowd was gone. (This brings tears to my eyes as I type this.) It was just God and me. And His presence, which I felt had eluded me so for so long, was real. I experienced His joy, healing and love wash over me, and I wasn’t just praising God, I was shouting. I couldn’t contain myself, and I don’t know when it happened, but, before I knew it, I was running. As if  from another planet, I heard my brother say something like, “Well, the Spirit of God must be here because this is a first.”

In the next post, I will write about what happened next. In the meantime, I’m going to shut down this computer and get my praise on!

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Finding Faith in the Midst of Doubt: Walking with God in the Shadows (Part 2)

We need to know things. I need to know things. I need to know that tomorrow will be better than today. I need to know that God has a plan. I need to know that suffering is not as senseless as it seems. I need to know that my life has meaning. I need to know that God is good. A crisis of faith is when you don’t know what you know. A crisis of faith is when you don’t know any of the things you once knew. A crisis of faith is when you aren’t sure if you ever knew any of it in the first place.

If there is ever pain associated with death, then the loss of faith is the agony of a spiritual death. St. John of the Cross, a major figure of the Catholic Reformation who was canonized as a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, identifies this crisis of faith as the dark night of the soul. The utter desolation in this place is akin to hell itself for those lost in this wild, dark wilderness. The story of Job details God’s silence in the face of unparalleled suffering without ever offering justification. Similarly, the 88th Psalm is an extended lament without the expected resolution. The truth is that God allows profound suffering in our lives without explanation. I have never read anything the least bit satisfactory that fully explains the suffering of Job. To this day, I still find the story deeply troubling. I have learned to live with that.

And yet, God’s silence does not mean that he is not there. Psalms 23:4 says, “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” I am reminded of when I made a serious attempt at getting my baby to sleep in his own bed (I failed utterly, but I digress) because it was best for him and his sleep-deprived parents. When my son inevitably woke up crying, I went into his room, attended to his needs and returned him to his own bed. Then I shut the door, but what the little guy didn’t know was that I was still in the room standing guard, bearing witness to his distress. He cried 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes. There I sat at the foot of his crib silently weeping with him, so wanting to pick him up and tell him that he was safe and that I was here. But I didn’t, since I knew that he would then never be able to conqueror the terror of the darkness if I appeared every time he cried. My baby had to learn that lesson alone, but I never left him for one moment.

It’s been almost five years since I was pregnant with that same son and that I faced my own dark night. My life was unraveling; I was on the verge of a complete mental and spiritual breakdown. In that dark place, I learned that it is possible to live with unanswered questions. I learned that it is possible to live with a certain level of doubt. Now that takes faith.

The English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in the poem In Memoriam, after learning of the sudden death of his 22-year-old friend, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds” (stanza 95). When you come to the end of doubt, dark and silence, God is. It is not a truth that you feel or even believe, but that you know. From out of the darkness, Job cried, “For I know that my redeemer lives … yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 10:25-26). It is from this place of knowledge that you begin to walk with God in the dark. You read your Bible when it seems fruitless, you pray when your words fall flat, you go to church when all you hear is noise, yet you keep walking because you know that God is. And you worship. Then, in His time, as you and your Shepherd emerge from the shadows, you begin to see that, in the darkness, His goodness and mercy have been sustaining you all along. That is something that you need to know, but that sometimes you have to travel through the darkness to discover.

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Finding Faith in the Midst of Doubt: The Dark Night (Part 1)

A loved one’s betrayal, a grim diagnosis, or the worst possible phone call can be the push that plunges you spiraling  into a crisis of faith.  Perhaps the chronic conditions of regret, depression, anger, suffering and disappointment have slowly become resistant to clichés offered as sermons and ritual masquerading as worship.  Perhaps you are now where I have been, facing your own life and death struggle for everything you believed.  No one talks about this in polite Christian society, but it is more common than you think.  And if you are in this struggle, you are not alone.  It has happened to the best.

John the Baptist was the first to publicly recognize Jesus as the Messiah:  “Behold the Lamb of God.”  He was the promised messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord; his miraculous conception was heralded by an angel.  He was chosen to baptize Jesus and bore witness when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus proclaiming Him as the Son of God.  Yet, John the Baptist, who Jesus pronounced as the greatest of all, wrestled in the dark with his doubts.  Alone in prison facing death he wondered what it all meant.  In his zeal, could he have been duped?  Had he been punked in some cosmic joke?  He sent a last desperate message to Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

The 16th Century Carmelite Priest, St. John of the Cross, describes this loss of faith as the “dark night of soul.”  It is as if the believer is plunged into a pit of doubt and despair while God is seemingly silent.  For some it is the shadow of death and hell itself.  Both King David and Job echoed this hopelessness:  “ . . . Why are thou so far from helping me and from the words of my roaring?” (Psalms 22:1b).  “But I don’t have the strength to endure. I have nothing to live for” (Job 6:11 New Living Translation).

Mother Teresa was one of those rare individuals who seemed to be born with an intense longing to love and serve Christ.  Revealed in the book of her letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, her postulator (the official responsible for gathering the evidence for her sanctification), she writes, “From the age of 5½ years—when first I received Him—the love for souls has been within” (p. 15).  The world marveled at her unselfish devotion to Christ, heaping on her accolades including the Nobel Peace Prize.  My father recalls hearing her speak at the 1994 National Day of Prayer breakfast to then-President Clinton.  He was astounded when this tiny woman addressed the most powerful man on the planet about the rights of the unborn. And yet, Mother Teresa lived under a cloak of utter despair doubting even God’s existence.  She wrote, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me” (p. 192).  She continued, “I have no faith—I don’t believe—Jesus, don’t let my soul be deceived –nor let me deceive anyone” (p. 193).

John the Baptist, the psalmist David, Job, St. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa all experienced what James describes as “the trying of your faith” (James 1:3), and, yes, God allows it. For those who are in the throes, I will not take the place of Job’s friends, and offer religious platitudes. We all have to travel our own road. I can only share what I have learned on mine.

I will blog next on Walking with God in the Shadows.

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