The day after I graduated High School, I went to the mission field.  During my first summer as a missionary, we had long worship and prayer sessions every evening before our concert.  At first I resented these times.  They seemed long and boring.  I had little reason to resent them.  It was felt more than thought, and it was probably spiritual in nature, although I did fixate on the fact that we sang worship songs that I didn’t really know.  Therefore, I decided that they must also be worship songs that were not as good as the ones I knew.

But on that mission trip I learned how to worship.  I discovered that worship was a skill that came naturally to humans, but that I (like probably most people) had become so used to worship primarily myself and I had to fix that before I could understand how to worship God.

I took a Greyhound bus that August from Butte, Montana to Tacoma, Washington in order to start my freshman year of college.  There, I joined the university Christian club, who had weekly worship sessions.  I fought with all I had to not resent those times, because now the songs were different than the ones I’d learned as a missionary.

I struggled passionately to keep my intimacy with God.  I worshipped with them, learning new songs, but now I had learned how to worship, and I could worship anywhere.  I learned the joy of worshipping alone.  Some nights I would sneak away to the piano practice rooms in the music building.  They were open 24/7.  I could sit in a small empty room with a closet and worship by myself.

I would play what little I could, and always faced a resistance at first.  But I would press through that, and suddenly I would come to a song that would spark an emotion or a certain heart-string and the tears would flow.  All that was me would seem to melt away as I connected with God and felt His presence.  That feeling is indescribable really, but all I can say is that it is better.  List any good adjective you can think of, and that feeling is better.  It was water to my own soul.

It has been a while since I’ve felt that, I must admit.  I have taken times worshipping on my own and have even had moments of intimacy, but not like that.

It is my lunch break now, and earlier this morning I was listening to my worship mix from my hard drive as I worked.  Tim Hughes He’s Got the Whole Worship in His Hands started playing

When all around is fading
And Nothing seems to last
Each day is filled with Sorrow
Still I know with all my heart
He’s got the whole world in His hands
He’s got the whole world in His hands
I’ll fear no evil, for you are with me
Srong to deliver, mighty to save
He’s got the whole world in His hands

Lately, each day is not filled with sorrow and I feel like I am losing nothing, particularly.  I am doing quite well.  And yet the tears started to fall as I sang along.  All I can describe, the best I can do, is that His having all of it in His hands hit me in a new way.  My sin, my joys, the things that I have given up, and the things the enemy has stolen from me, the moments of triumph, and those things I can never undo…all of it, in His hands.

I have nothing to fear.  You are with me.  You’ve got it all in Your hands.  And here I am, better.

Indoctrination – part 2

Indoctrination header

This is part 2 in a 2 part series.  If you missed it, you can read part 1 here

What frustrates me about the indoctrinational aspect of Sunday morning worship is that so much of it is often so half-hearted.  This seems most clear to me whenever I’ve sung the song, I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.  I have to note that I have no theological, or artistic problem with the song.  I enjoy the work of Delirious? very much.  My problem is with the way we sing it (and yes, I realize that fortunately the era of singing this one to death is long past).

I could sing of Your love forever, (Repeat endlessly, or 4 times, whichever seems longer)

Oh, I feel like dancing – it’s foolishness I know;
but, when the world has seen the light,

they will dance with joy, like we’re dancing now.

Every time I’ve sung this song, I have had two main thoughts.  The first is about whether anyone in the room is thinking, “I really wish that this worship service would never ever end.  I am just going to quit my job and everything I do so that I can just do this from now on.”  The second thought involves me noticing that everyone is just standing there singing until it reaches the line about dancing, and then they step side to side for a couple measures, so that they aren’t actively lying to God.  If they didn’t do this, someone might stop them after church and say, “Why are you hurting God’s heart by not doing the Worship Two-Step?”

Now contrast that with the scene in Isaiah, chapter 6 where Isaiah is brought into God’s throne room.  I love the first verse, which just nonchalantly says “I saw the LORD, seated on His throne…” right after a detailed description of the timeframe.  It is like slipping you winning the lottery into a diary entry on what happened during your day.  Reading it that way, I imagine Isaiah on an anonymous Thursday afternoon when, BAM, he’s in front of God, and everything goes into overload.

As Isaiah describes the scene in this throne room, he is wrecked.  He’s lying face down on the ground screaming at God that he isn’t worthy to be here.  All he can think about is how his personal dirtiness is so vile in the presence of god.  I don’t sense Isaiah thinking much about this, just falling and screaming.  God picks him up, dusts him off, cleanses him, and starts talking to him as a son.

Bear in mind that Isaiah didn’t come to this little party as a heathen.  He was already a prophet of God.  He was one of the good guys.  But Isaiah suddenly had a new realization of who God actually is, in a deeper way than he ever had, and he could no longer even stand up.

I bet Isaiah would have quite a chuckle as he watched us sing many of our worship songs.  I guess that most of the characters in the Bible would.  David danced around the city semi-naked-ecstatic.  Paul worshipped as he sat chained between soldiers in prison. So did Daniel as lions licked their lips and imaged him as a roast, Wile-E-Coyote-style.  They did all this without even having video projection.

I bet many churches throughout history have worried that they are secretly the church of Laodicea.  I worry sometimes too.  I don’t think we are, but I bet that the church of Laodicea thought they were quite awesome at their worship too.  Jesus was out front banging at the door for them to invite him to the party, but they couldn’t hear him over the sub-woofer.

I hope God doesn’t hear our worship and get really upset at how polished and hollow and arrogant it is.  Sometimes I approach worship so arrogant and distracted.  I hope I never have an Isaiah experience that leaves me wrecked, but I bet Isaiah would have counted it as the best moment of his life.  Maybe in that light, my worship is pretty hollow. -Ryan


Indoctrination – part 1

Indoctrination header

This is part 1 in a two part series.

It must be strange for someone who isn’t a Christian to go to a Protestant church service.  There is row after row of nicely dressed, well mannered people, standing and staring at projection screens.  We seem to be singing the words written there mindlessly.  “I could sing of your love forever…”

We even make motions the songs tell us to.  “Oh, I feel like dancing,” they sing, and do some half-hearted side-to-side-step.  It all must seem to the uninitiated like some Orwellian indoctrination, and I’m not sure in some sense that it isn’t.

We teach our children Bible songs that are easy for them to remember and sing along to.  “Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We hope that they get these songs into their head and they echo around in there for the rest of their lives, like some Christian It’s a Small World After All.  This indoctrination works quite well, in fact.

I learned this when I was a boy, with a paper route.  This was back in the days when people would actually buy news that was over a couple of hours old, and printed on actual paper.  At the age of 8, I would wake up before dawn, fold and band the newspapers, and then deliver them on my bike to a nearby neighborhood.  I enjoyed this job, and it built a great work ethic, although I was really bad at the part where I actually had to collect money.

Some mornings when it was cold and dark, I would ride my bike alone and see shadows coming to life.  Every corner hid an escaped murderer, and every bush housed a probable pack of marauding wolves.  I remember feeling quite scared.  In those times, I would start to sing songs to myself and God.  Some were simple Bible songs I learned from Christian records my Mom would play on the stereo, and some were songs we sang together in church.  I knew at those moments that God was with me, and that I was under His protection.

An atheist would say that we are deluding ourselves and our children with brain-washing propaganda, but I don’t see it that way at all.  Sometimes intellectual indoctrination is true and necessary.  We know this is true in other areas of life, often regarding safety and emergencies.

My wife is prone to fires.  These don’t usually occur because she is intentionally starting them, but they do just tend to happen around her.  She is very wise and measured in her approach to everything, but when emergencies happen she tends to throw composure out the window in favor of a Chicken Little approach.  I am the opposite of her on this.  I realized recently that I had to pound into her head the mantra of Stop—Drop—and Roll, in case one of her spontaneous combustions were to happen.

I think that she doesn’t do well in emergencies because she is so thoughtful.  She likes to deeply analyze the details of a situation in her mind until she has looked at it from every angle.  But when there is no time to analyze, she goes all spinning-pinwheel.

I wanted to burn the Stop-Drop-and Roll into her RAM so that in a moment when she couldn’t analyze, she would instinctively know what to do.  When her mind says “FIRE!” she wouldn’t think, the meme would kick in, and she’d act.  It might save her life.

The point in all of this is that there are many things that need to be stored in our heads as automatic default routines because we can’t completely rely on our ability to analyze a situation.  Our minds are full of system errors, faults, and competing memes.  We also don’t always have the time for a thorough debate on things.  Sometimes we just have to operate on something that we know is a basic truth, a fact that our mind must assume is a given in the equation.  If we aren’t allowed this, we get into internal debates on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

Continued in part 2