On Sunday, I watched as our worship leader sang his way through what seemed a challenging pair of songs. Something was just a little… off. The band mostly held it together, but our usually-effortless songster seemed to slightly push against his songs rather than flowing with them.
Worship was great despite this, and I messaged him later to encourage him. Anyone can have a down day. But it turns out something deeper was going on. He wasn’t just wrestling with musical issues — he was struggling with a personal disappointment. That week, he’d been waiting for good news after applying for his dream job. He aced every interview and assessment, and even has plenty of experience in the field. He was the pin-up candidate. Regardless, he’d just found out that he wasn’t accepted. To him, it wasn’t just a job. He really cared, and it rocked him deeply.
I wondered, did he actually mean all those positive, faith-filled lyrics he just sang?
He’s not a dishonest guy. In fact, he’s an exemplary man in just about every measure, and has the respect of all who know him. Your only grounds for not liking him would be jealousy, since he seems to have won the gene-pool lottery on every front. Good-looking, smart, funny… he’s one in a million.
Exactly what was going through his mind in those moments of worship, I’ll never know. But even if he didn’t mean a word, I believe his worship was faithful, true and beautiful. How is that possible?
Touch The Sky?
There’s a great worship song by Hillsong United called Touch The Sky (for the curious, it’s here.) It’s potent from beginning to end, but the most memorable moment is the second half of the chorus:
Upward falling, spirit soaring,
I touch the sky when my knees hit the ground
(They stole that ‘upward falling’ business from me, I swear…)
When I listen to these words, I have to admit that they don’t describe my average experience in prayer or worship. When I wake up, I grab my coffee and I pray before I do anything else. But nothing spectacular happens when my knees hit the ground. Actually, my knees hurt, so I unroll my blue fitness mat.
My words don’t even work right away. I rub my eyes and sit in silence while I wait for caffeine to do its work. I pull up my track pants in a sleepy haze, fighting off the many distractions that already flood my mind. Then, I pray The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9–13) to start off, moving next into personal worship and thanks. I love my prayer life, but it can feel like pure routine on tired days, which are common. My spirit sighs as often as it soars. It’s usually not romantic, and it’s very rarely like ‘touching the sky’.
But when this song comes up in a playlist, something strange happens. I still sing along. I happily join the dream, knowing that such moments with God as those described are not only possible, but likely, even if they’re miles away from manifestation right now. In fact, the less I can relate to the words in the moment, the more powerful they become as a statement of faith.
Romans 4:17 encourages us to speak those things which are not as though they are. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is ‘the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen’. If we aren’t able to stretch our hearts and hopes beyond our current reality, we’re not being people of faith.
Sometimes, our worship is least honest when we most need it.
This seems absurd. Is it some cunning, underhanded cop-out to keep us mindlessly worshipping even when evidence clearly suggests that we sing untruths? No. In reality, our words are not strictly applied in the rest of life. To worship is to love, and the rules of love are different.
The native language of the heart is poetry, not reason. This is so true that when we over-apply reason to matters of the heart, things quickly go sideways. This three minute clip hilariously shows a pedantic best man insisting on factual correctness in a groom’s wedding speech:
The upshot is obvious. In some contexts, when we stubbornly demand correctness, we actually miss the point. It’s like stopping someone when they say, ‘My mum makes the best lasagne ever’ only to point out a Michelin-starred restaurant that leaves hers for dead. It’s like telling your five-year-old that her drawing of a flower is, well, rubbish. The stem is crooked, the stigma lacks detail and her pink crayon only has one hue, leaving the petals looking two-dimensional. In that moment, while being entirely objectively correct, you’ve become a douche, plain and simple. An onlooking friend would be right to backhand-slap you for your dullness.
The poetic language of worship is one of faith and expectation. Its vocabulary is grandiose and romantic, and its words may not even fit your current world. You may even wrestle with the words as they leave your mouth. I used to think this was ‘dishonest’ and that if we don’t mean the words of worship that we sing on Sunday, we shouldn’t sing them. Better to let that one song pass you by and only sing it again when you can sing it honestly.
But I’ve learnt that as I sing them anyway, regardless of my feelings, they slowly call me up to a place of faith. Does this mean we shouldn’t express our struggles, too? On the contrary. I suggest that a balanced diet of Godward expression is much like the Psalms – raw and honest (even ruthlessly so), yet stubbornly optimistic, always returning to hopeful declarations.
There’s an old saying on romantic love, that when your feelings are waning, ‘act romantic and you’ll feel romantic’. It’s true. When things get stale, if you just put on a suit, light a candle and pour a glass of wine, serving your otherwise-common dinner on a well-set table, something magical happens. Romance just… happens. You don’t have to wait months for it to reappear like an elusive uncle who randomly visits in his combi van. You can create it any time you like. Even just saying the words ‘I love you’ can elicit a loving feeling as you speak them out. Worship is like this. Even when we feel nothing, we slowly sing something greater into being. It may not be immediate, but it’s worth the fight.
Of course, to the non-worshipper, this is nonsense. But in the same way, to the non-parent, a lovingly-crayoned flower is just a bad drawing.