By Bryan Anderson, Director of Music
Last Sunday at St. Thomas, we sang and read Psalm 42, “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.” Such expressions, comparing the need for God’s presence to physical needs, are common throughout Scripture. Another that comes to mind is Psalm 84: “My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” Whenever I read these sentiments, I am reminded of my grandfather, who, in advancing stages of ALS, and home-bound for some time, was asked by visiting family members if he wanted to be taken to church. His response, typed on a keyboard, as he could no longer speak, was: “I am hungry for church!”
I wonder how many of us have ever found in ourselves such a “desire and longing” to engage in public worship. It is so easy to blame our rare appearances at worship on our schedules or our fatigue; at St. Thomas it is easy to rationalize that children have gone to chapel all week! It is especially easy to find fault with others to justify our lack of interest. Perhaps we don’t always like the sermons; we find singing awkward or music unfamiliar; we know those around us to be hypocrites and objectionable people of all description. Psalm 122 may ring hollow in our ears: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord!’”
It is often said in our society that we cannot change our desires. This is true; it is what Jesus meant when he compared letting go the desire for wealth with passing a camel through the needle’s eye. But his next line is what the Christian is concerned with: “With man this is not possible, but with God all things are possible.” Changes in our desires in the direction of conformity with God’s desires are not of us but are a work of grace. This includes our desire for worship and community with others. Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, communicated this clearly:
Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification.
It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God.
The meaning of the last sentence is clear: the glory of God that exists in Christian community is manifest in our own weakness, humiliation, and dishonor. Far from the athletes and public figures who in their triumphs often “give the glory to God,” we see in the Bible the opposite example. Achan is told, “Give glory to God!” and he does so by public confession. King David’s wife Michal sees his dancing in worship and says, “How the King of Israel dishonored himself!” And of course, St. Paul was told by Jesus so that he would not boast, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Think of these the next time you debate going to worship. Think of Joshua, who “would not leave the door of the tabernacle,” and find the same hunger for the Word of God. Psalm 84 also meditates on this: “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Think of David in his uninhibited praise of God, and sing with fervor, “loud and wrong,” as a musician I knew used to encourage (we are never told that David was actually a good dancer!) The rejoicing of worship is the knowledge that we are being made whole by grace; as George Herbert put it, “Let thy blessed Spirit bear a part, and make up our defects with his sweet art.” When there is conflict that tempts us to avoid contact, remember what the writer of Hebrews says: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
Living in this way, we will begin to find that “desire and longing.” We will find “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We will know the power of gathering together, that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” And we will take Herbert’s gentle rebuke to heart:
Sundays observe: think when the bells do chime,
‘Tis angels’ music; therefore come not late.
God then deals blessings: if a king did so,
Who would not haste, nay give, to see the show?