In the late 90s my adult son, Nathan, and I climbed Mt. Elbert — the high­est moun­tain in the Col­orado Rock­ies. This, you under­stand, was a chal­lenge for both father and son. For me the chal­lenge was just to make it to the top; for Nathan it was a chal­lenge in patience as he often wait­ed for me to catch my breath! Below is a short record of that climb.

Alpine Jour­nal

Ear­ly on we mean­der through lush stands of aspen right on the verge of explod­ing into their fall dis­play of col­or and moun­tain streams tum­bling over an infi­nite array of rock for­ma­tions. Once above tim­ber­line the climb­ing becomes hard­er, more steep. (Frankly, I thought it was steep at the begin­ning of the trail!) Gran­ite dom­i­nates the land­scape now, but the hik­er who walks slow­ly (as I, of neces­si­ty, am doing) is reward­ed by glimpses of Alpine Sun­flower and Snow But­ter­cup and Moss Cam­pi­on and Yel­low Stonecrop and Fairy Prim­rose. The last five hun­dred feet of ele­va­tion are by far the most ardu­ous. (I am glad to see Nathan stop­ping to catch his breath too!) Above 14,000 feet now the very air seems squeezed out of our lungs — and so it is.

But the first step onto the peak makes it worth all the strain and strug­gle. What a sight! We can, it seems, see for­ev­er. Here we stand at what feels like the top of the world look­ing down’ on Mt. Mas­sive and Mt. Har­vard and all the oth­er four­teen­ers.’ We stare in stunned won­der at Longs Peak to the north and Pikes Peak to the south. Snow­mass to the west is decked out with a new dust­ing of snow. And the Maroon Bells sim­ply take our breath away — in both sens­es of the word! Since on this par­tic­u­lar day we are blessed with near per­fect weath­er, we stay on the peak for an hour or more, gaz­ing in per­fect silence at the inex­haustible panora­ma. The psalmist was sure­ly right in see­ing that The moun­tains skipped like rams’ ” (Ps. 114:4, NRSV).

The Many Land­scapes of Worship

I want to use this day of moun­tain climb­ing as a bridge to my theme: Renew­al Through Wor­ship. You see, some­times wor­ship is a lit­tle akin to strolling through a ver­dant for­est; it bursts with beau­ty and mul­ti­col­ored vari­ety, like the sil­ver and gold ves­sels and bright white linen of an altar at Epiphany. At oth­er times wor­ship resem­bles a steep climb above tim­ber­line; it is hard, stark, stripped down to the essen­tial, like the aus­ter­i­ty of plain chant or the sim­plic­i­ty of Quak­er silence. And, if we are per­sis­tent and steady in our wor­ship, once in a great while God allows us to break free onto the moun­tain­top of wor­ship where every­thing is vast and panoram­ic and awe-ful, like the majesty of Handel’s Mes­si­ah or the immen­si­ty of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

We all need this full range of wor­ship expe­ri­ences, and com­plete immer­sion in any one expe­ri­ence would be too much for us. We need the vari­ety and beau­ty of the for­est, but to be always in the kalei­do­scop­ic diver­si­ty of the wood­lands would undu­ly dis­tract us. The climb above tim­ber­line chal­lenges our sloth and self­ish­ness, but to be always on the steep ascent would wear us out. We need the clar­i­ty, the vision, the won­der that is giv­en us on the peak, but to be always on the moun­tain­top would do us in. There­fore we enter the many land­scapes of wor­ship — for­est diver­si­ty and tim­ber­line ascent and moun­tain­top ecsta­sy — seek­ing, always seek­ing to Wor­ship the Lord in the beau­ty of holi­ness” (1 Chron. 16:29, KJV).

Grow­ing Together

Wor­ship is crit­i­cal to exer­cis­ing our­selves unto God­li­ness. Below are a few sim­ple exer­cis­es that are designed to help you explore this impor­tant Dis­ci­pline of the Spir­i­tu­al Life.

• Learn to prac­tice the pres­ence of God dai­ly. With Broth­er Lawrence, let us sense the pres­ence of God with as great a real­i­ty when wash­ing pots and pans” as when receiv­ing the holy Eucharist. We can fol­low Paul’s words, Pray with­out ceas­ing,” by punc­tu­at­ing every moment with inward whis­per­ings of ado­ra­tion, praise, and thanks­giv­ing. We can sched­ule per­son­al times of inner wor­ship and con­fes­sion and atten­tive­ness to Christ, our present Teacher. Doing this height­ens our expectan­cy in pub­lic wor­ship, because the gath­ered expe­ri­ence becomes a con­tin­u­a­tion and inten­si­fi­ca­tion of what we have been try­ing to do all week long. 

Have many dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of wor­ship. Per­son­al­ly, indi­vid­u­al­ly we can learn to wor­ship God. Lit­tle home groups can meet not just for Bible study, but for the very expe­ri­ence of wor­ship itself. Gath­er lit­tle groups of two and three and learn to wait upon God, learn the expe­ri­ence of prayer. Many things can hap­pen in small­er gath­er­ings that can­not hap­pen in a larg­er group because of sheer size. If pos­si­ble, vis­it church tra­di­tions oth­er than your own and expe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ent approach­es to wor­ship: their strengths and weak­ness­es. All of these expe­ri­ences of wor­ship will empow­er and enkin­dle the Sun­day gath­er­ings in your home church.

• Find ways to pre­pare for the gath­ered expe­ri­ence of wor­ship. You may want to pre­pare for Sun­day wor­ship: by going to bed ear­ly on Sat­ur­day night; by hav­ing an expe­ri­ence of exam­i­na­tion and con­fes­sion; by going over hymns and Scrip­tures that will be used on Sun­day; by gath­er­ing before the wor­ship ser­vice begins to pray that God’s pres­ence will fill the room; by let­ting go of inward dis­trac­tions so that you can be gen­uine­ly present.

• Be will­ing to be gath­ered in the pow­er of the Lord. Learn to let go of your per­son­al agen­da, of indi­vid­ual con­cerns, of a spe­cial need to be blessed, of hear­ing the word of God. The lan­guage of the gath­ered fel­low­ship is not I” but we.” There is sub­mis­sion to the ways of God. There is sub­mis­sion to one anoth­er in the Chris­t­ian fel­low­ship. There is sub­mis­sion for the good of every­body. There is a desire for God’s life to rise up in the group, not just the indi­vid­ual. If I pray for spir­i­tu­al gifts, they are made man­i­fest not just to me but to any per­son in the group or upon the group as a whole if that would please God. We become of one mind, of one accord. We are gathered.

• Cul­ti­vate a holy depen­den­cy, a holy expectan­cy, and a holy obe­di­ence. In wor­ship, a holy depen­den­cy says that we are utter­ly and com­plete­ly depen­dent upon God’s touch for any­thing sig­nif­i­cant to hap­pen. There is inward tra­vail and inward strug­gle that we might be tru­ly depen­dent, that the evil will weak­en, that the good will rise up. With­in the group, a holy expectan­cy looks for­ward to God mov­ing and act­ing and teach­ing and woo­ing and win­ning. For every­one, a holy obe­di­ence is a deter­mi­na­tion to do what­ev­er Christ tells us to do. If he urges us to speak or to teach or to give a wit­ness or a prophet­ic mes­sage, we are obe­di­ent. If we are to make con­fes­sion, if we are to respond to what is hap­pen­ing, we do exact­ly what he says with a holy obe­di­ence that has been cul­ti­vat­ed by years of experience.

• Absorb dis­trac­tions with grat­i­tude. If there is noise or dis­trac­tion, take it in and con­quer it rather than fuss­ing or fum­ing. If lit­tle chil­dren are run­ning about, bless them. Thank God that they are alive and that they have ener­gy. Maybe they’re a mes­sage from the Lord. When I’m preach­ing, I love to have lit­tle babies and chil­dren in the con­gre­ga­tion because some­times they are the only ones that appear alive! Become will­ing to relax with dis­trac­tions. Learn to receive what­ev­er hap­pens in gath­ered wor­ship as an expe­ri­ence from God instead of feel­ing that the ser­vice has to fol­low your agen­da or that dis­trac­tions some­how deter you from wor­ship­ing God.

• Learn to offer a sac­ri­fice of wor­ship. Many times we don’t feel” like wor­ship­ing. Maybe we have had so many dis­ap­point­ing expe­ri­ences in the past where the sense of God’s pow­er is so low that we think it is hard­ly worth the time. Peo­ple are not ade­quate­ly pre­pared, and it is very, very dis­cour­ag­ing. But we need to go any­way. We need to offer a sac­ri­fice of wor­ship. We need to be with the peo­ple of God and say, These are my peo­ple. As stiff-necked and hard­heart­ed and sin­ful as they may be, I stand with them and togeth­er we come to God.” The Bible tells us not to for­sake the assem­bling of our­selves togeth­er, and it does that because we are the Body of Christ together.

Resources for Renewal

With a theme like Renew­al Through Wor­ship, there are books galore. But I want to nar­row the field down for you and at the same time give you a sol­id foun­da­tion upon which to think about wor­ship, and to enter into a deep­er, rich­er, fuller wor­ship expe­ri­ence. Here are six resources:

A Brief His­to­ry of Chris­t­ian Wor­ship by James F. White. White is the undis­put­ed author­i­ty in Chris­t­ian litur­gi­cal his­to­ry with fif­teen books in the field. This book is a jew­el in its brevi­ty and sweep of his­to­ry from the ear­ly Chris­t­ian cen­turies through the Mid­dle Ages and the Ref­or­ma­tion up to the present. It even has a brief state­ment on Wor­ship in the Church­es of the Future.”

Prayer and Wor­ship by Dou­glas V. Steere. This ten­der lit­tle book is a won­der­ful anti­dote for what Steere calls the pres­sure and tem­porar­i­ly sat­is­fy­ing nar­cot­ic of intense busy­ness.” Indeed, the book is worth those star­tling sen­tences that seem to jump out of the text, e.g. In the school of ado­ra­tion the soul learns why the approach to every oth­er goal had left it restless.”

Reach­ing Out With­out Dumb­ing Down by Mar­va J. Dawn. This is the most sub­stan­tive of the new books which is try­ing to guide us through our wor­ship war” over tra­di­tion­al” ver­sus con­tem­po­rary” expres­sions of wor­ship. Dawn takes both the­ol­o­gy and cul­ture seri­ous­ly which is what makes this book so help­ful. I espe­cial­ly like her stress on the role of wor­ship in char­ac­ter for­ma­tion — e.g. con­sid­er her chap­ter title on preach­ing, Wor­ship Ought to Kill Us: The Word.”

The New Wor­ship by Bar­ry Liesch. Liesch is a pro­fes­sor of music and this is reflect­ed in the music empha­sis of his book. It is exceed­ing­ly prac­ti­cal and will give you many sol­id han­dles for fram­ing your prac­tice of wor­ship. The book has a sup­ple­men­tal com­put­er disk deal­ing with key­board mod­u­la­tion and improvisation.

Wor­ship by Eve­lyn Under­hill. For a the­ol­o­gy of wor­ship this book real­ly sets the stan­dard among Protes­tants, and every­one mea­sures their under­stand­ing of wor­ship off of it. Her dis­cus­sion of rit­u­al and sym­bol, sacra­ment and sac­ri­fice” is worth the price of the book.

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First pub­lished in Per­spec­tive, Octo­ber 1997.

Pho­to by Peter Pry­hars­ki

Originally published September 1997