While walking through the woods behind our home the other day, I spotted a group of deer at the top of the hill. They were already leaping away at the sound of me when I saw them, with their white tails bobbing up and down, moving at a pace I could not even dream of pursuing. Still, I decided to follow them up the hill.
In time, I came to a fence line, and I suddenly realized I had never crossed it before. There was a downed tree on a portion of the fence, giving me no reason as to why I shouldn’t cross it, so I did.
I began to think about all the times I had walked through those woods, each time taking a new path. It reminded me of a passage from Wendell Berry’s excellent novel Jayber Crow:
The woods has many doors going in and out. It is full of rooms opening into one another, shaped by direction and viewpoint. Many of these rooms are findable only once, from a certain direction on a certain day, in a certain light, at a certain time. They could not be returned to either now, after years, or then, after an hour.
I have found this to be true, as I have tried on multiple occasions to disprove it. When walking at length through the woods, it seems that at any point one might stumble into another dimension. An overhanging tree, rounded by wind and age, could be a doorway, or a dried up creek bed could lead further down into the earth. With these thoughts in mind, it’s almost impossible not to consider Professor Digory’s words to the Pevensie children at the end of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, when he tells them not to expect to return to Narnia by the same route. In fact, he tells them not to try finding a way back there at all.
Even more so, it makes me think of the times I have tried to reenter the presence of God by trying to recreate a past experience.
I come from a Church of Christ background, most of which have no instrumental music in their worship services. My first experience of attending a service with instruments was that it felt not unlike attending a concert. The contrast was a stark one. In my worship experience, there had rarely even been clapping, so when I walked into a service with people raising their hands and clapping in front of a fully lighted stage with three guitarists, a keyboardist, and a drummer with the full getup, my attention was obviously a bit preoccupied. But even so, after spending a good deal of time in the company of both, as well as a few in between, I’ve realized that the pitfalls I often face in worship can be found in either setting. A tight, four-part harmony can be just as distracting as any guitar solo, and the desire to be self-seeking is the same in both situations.
As for the re-creation of past worship experiences, I’ve found the same to be true. An elderly member of the church who requests that we sing “I Come To The Garden Alone” just one more time is no different than a young person who wants to sing “Awesome God.” We all have this longing to re-create a time where it all felt right, as if that one experience was the highest form of worship we could ever achieve.
It makes me think of 1 Samuel 4, when the Israelites decided on their own to take the ark of the covenant with them to battle against the Philistines. Why not? After all, it had worked before. Why shouldn’t it work again? So they brought it to the camp, and the sound of their rejoicing shook the ground so much that it filled the Philistines with fear, and instead of retreating, they rallied their troops and proceeded to slaughter thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers. The Israelites retreated and the Philistines captured the ark.
I can imagine their confusion. After all, the ark was supposed to be a holy thing. Its presence had brought them victory before. Why not again?
I find myself in the same situation at times, treating a certain pew, or a certain chord of a song, or a certain tone of voice in prayer as if it is the thing that matters. I end up treating worship more like an elaborate incantation, where God is a sleeping deity who must be called out of his slumber whenever I need him.
When it comes down to it, I see that there is a deeper issue in place. I read scripture as a tool guide, as a step-by-step instruction manual, or as a collection of stories with unlimited morals to be absorbed, but I fail to read the scripture as what it truly is: “the word of God,” which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I fail to see that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that in Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all mankind. It’s literally the living, life-giving breath of God.
So in thinking about this, I find myself back in the woods, chasing after those deer, following where they lead.
As a deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God!
I thirst for God,
for the living God.
I say, “When will I be able to go and appear in God’s presence?”
(Psalm 42:1-2 NET)
The psalmist goes on, arguing with his soul, saying, “Why are you depressed, O my soul? Why are you upset? Wait for God!”
I find myself pleading with my own soul, begging my innermost being to wait for God. “Wait for God!” I find myself hiding in the cleft of the rock like Elijah, searching for God in the wind, and in the earthquake, and in the fire, unprepared for the still, small voice.
I find myself pleading for a deeper awareness, waiting in expectation for the God who has said that He will come at a time when I do not expect Him (Matt. 24:44).
I, like the psalmist, plead with my own soul, calling out to the one that truly must be called out of its self-imposed slumber, asking God, as David did, to “restore unto me the joy of my salvation.”
My enemies’ taunts cut into me to the bone,
as they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you depressed, O my soul?
Why are you upset?
Wait for God!
For I will again give thanks
to my God for his saving intervention.
(Psalms 42:10-11 NET)