Worship. What is true worship? It is both a noun- a state of being, as well as a verb- an action. It comes from acknowledging the worth of someone or something, and is rooted int the Old English word “weorthscipe”. Synonyms are as follows: reverence, veneration, adoration, glorification, glory, exaltation, prayer, praise, devotion, admiration, adulation, idolization, revere, exalt, extol, glorify.
These are all good definitions, but do they get to the heart of worship? The idea of worship has been on my heart and mind a lot lately. Not only because of my passion for worshipping through song, but because of three incredibly powerful experiences recently that made me take pause and ask myself, “What is true worship?” Some of you may have read snippets of these experiences in the Advent Journey blog, but I want to share them here, because they have had a profound effect on my spirit lately, and I never want to forget them. Right around Christmastime is when they happened, and I want these experiences to carry my heart through this entire year, especially as I embark on recording a new album of worship, with a collection of favorite old hymns.
I’ll call the three experiences the following: Mary, Joey, The Chapel. I don’t remember the chronological order in which they occurred, in my mind they seamlessly flow together as an exquisite picture of true worship.
Mary. Weathered and worn, yet full of life. Wrinkled and white, yet overflowing with joy. A twinkle in her eye that no wrinkle can wipe away. A smile so bright, even if the color has faded and a tooth here or there is missing. Standing tall to the heavens, even as she is hunched over and shrunken. Mary is a soul so sweet, so shining that I’ll never forget her. Part of my music ministry lately has been to visit local nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and memory care places to do special music for the residents. I have the opportunity to bring Joey along so he can get to know these precious elderly folks and build friendships with them. I love singing the old hymns, because many of them recognize the tunes, and even if their memory is fading, it will kindle a fire and they will burst into smiles and song.
I adore all the residents, but dear Mary stands out as a soul with such grace, joy, and faith. From the first day we met, I caught a glimpse of that sweet soul…Every time I sing the hymns, she unabashedly sings along with passion and vigor, but it is her eyes, her movements that catch my attention. She lifts her hands in glory. She closes her eyes and it is as if in that moment she sees the splendor of Heaven, as the look on her face is so serene, yet so captivated. She moves her arms and makes the sign of the cross, she waves her fingers in the air and it is like angels are descending from above and filling the room with a choir so magnificent. She is caught up in the moment and her heart is filled with spirit and truth. The joy as she worships is astounding. That is the kind of joy I want to have whether I sing in the pew or I sing on stage. That is the joy I want to have when I sing around the house, doing laundry and doing dishes. She is raw, honest, unashamed, delighted, radiant, soaked in the abundance of the Spirit, grateful for the gift of Jesus. When I see Mary close her eyes and lift her hands and hum a tune, I see a picture of complete worship in spirit and in truth.
Joey. When our baby boy first started saying words, it was of course “Mama” and “Dada”. We loved it. That’s all he said for quite some time…a few other words smattered here and there. Then Christmastime came and one Sunday morning, Jamie snuggled him and said “Today we have Church! Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” And that was all it took- Joey burst out in “Ahhh- yay -loooo- yahhh!” We couldn’t believe our ears! He continued saying it for days and when the 24/7 Christmas carols were playing in our home, he would sit by the iPod speakers and when a song came on with his magical word, he would burst out in all triumphant glee, “Hallelujah!” He would sing it with passion, zeal, giddy joy, and a bit of gravitas too, for it seemed he knew this was a special word. He began to say “Praise G” for “Praise Jesus.”
Christmas came and went, and then croup came. He caught those few wintertime colds that babies can’t help but catch, and the one cold kept him up all night, coughing, hacking, breathing so heavily. He sounded like a winter bear, it was so deep and loud. He was in our bed one night, because I was keeping an eye on his breathing, and he woke suddenly, sat up, coughed his awful croupy cough, and then said in his raspy, deep voice “Hallelujah. Praise G. Hallelujah. Praise G!” He was so matter-of-fact about it. In the midst of his terrible state, he wasn’t crying, he wasn’t whining. He was quite uncomfortable and so sick, but he chose to focus on praise. Okay, okay, I know many of you reading this are thinking, “Yeah, right, a 12 month old choosing to praise? Are you out of your mind?” I’m not. Maybe my little boy didn’t know the full extent of the power of that moment, for truly his innocence and naivety kept him from that, but the weight of glory in that moment of praise is something I will never forget.
I believe God has wired our hearts to praise. He knits a baby’s very being together in his mother’s womb, and he designs their hearts to praise. Jesus Himself said that unless we become like the little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is natural for children to praise. It is natural for children to want to pray. It is natural for children to believe. As adults we think we are so advanced, so sophisticated, so wise, so strong, so learned…but in the Kingdom of Heaven, the reality is that things are upside down to what we understand or expect. It is a Kingdom of paradoxes, and in Jesus’ Kingdom, it is the little ones who are inclined to have faith and inclined to worship. Maybe my little Joey didn’t realize just what he was doing in that moment, but I believe God has created this baby boy to worship, and he did just that in his moment of illness and weakness and fear- he sat up with all his strength and began to speak praises from his little mouth. And in that moment, the very powers of darkness were shaken by the majesty and glory of our Lord receiving such beautiful praise. I will never forget that night…may it be a constant reminder to me to choose to praise, even in the dark, even in times of illness or pain or fear, even in times of brokenness and weakness, even when I want to cry and whine…it is in those times when praise is the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most thunderous and glorious and exquisite to the ears of my Lord. Praise brings healing, and praise brings joy.
The Chapel. Our church is quite large, seating 2,000 in the main sanctuary auditorium. You can imagine the beautiful worship on Sunday mornings with nearly 2,000 voices lifted up together! But that is not what I want to write about here. There is a tiny chapel down the hall, where the service is televised each Sunday morning, as well. Because our little Joey kept catching colds in December, we didn’t want to put him in nursery and get the other babies sick, so we kept him with us, and worshipped in the little chapel. There is a special needs ministry at our church, which is amazing. It consists of mostly young people, and there are wonderful volunteers who lead the ministry. Before they have their Sunday School hour, they always come into the chapel for the worship time. Well, that one Sunday, their presence spoke to my soul in a deeply powerful way. I witnessed and experienced worship in a way so unique and beautiful, unlike any other time I can remember.
While we sang Christmas Carols, I was joyfully singing out with my lungs that morning. I felt that familiar Christmas cheer in my heart. But then I paused. The music in the chapel was overwhelmingly stunning and caught me by surprise. The atmosphere was so free, so full of life and light. It was a sound of worship like I had never heard before. Probably my all-time favorite Christmas carol is “O Holy Night,” and that is the song we were all singing. Let me tell you, the group of beautiful teens and young adults with special needs and disabilities sang out with the greatest joy, greatest triumph, enthusiasm, abandon, and heart that I have ever heard. The pitch was a bit off, the timing not on cue, and even some of the words missing here and there, but that version of “O Holy Night” made my eyes well up with tears and my heart beat with a raw and authentic worship that brought me back to a place of Spirit and Truth. It seems that somehow as I’ve “grown up,” the essence of true worship has slipped away, because I get so distracted by life, by even the music, and by the worries of this world. I want to live with such raw abandon, such zeal, as that precious group in the chapel. I want my life to be a continual song lifted up, not perfect by any means, but passionate.