Archives For suffering

The Reflex of Worship

November 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

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Have you ever sensed God in a room?


I think I have.

Sounds strange, I know. But if you’ve participated in enough corporate worship or prayer, you may know what I mean. And hopefully you’ll sympathize with how difficult it is to explain.

The first word that comes to mind is lightness. There’s a certain levity that pervades the room, this sense that you could almost climb into the air.

At the same time (and here’s where things get odd) there’s a heaviness. Not a bad heaviness, like gloom. It’s a good heaviness. The air feels heavy—thick with God, if you’ll forgive the expression. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word for glory, kābôd, comes from a root signifying “weight.”

I know such a description will sound hopelessly subjective to an outsider. I wouldn’t submit it for proof of God’s existence to my skeptic friends. Yet if you’ve experienced it, there’s no denying God’s presence. It’s palpable, vivid. As clear as the nose on your face.

God is always present, I believe. But he doesn’t always manifest his presence in quite the same way. The remarkable thing about those services in which I have sensed his presence, it wasn’t because the music was particularly good or the prayers especially profound. It was because there was a collective sense of God’s power and glory, of his holiness.

I recall standing in a room with three hundred people singing “How Great Is Our God” and feeling like we were blending into heaven. Only an intense appreciation for God’s holiness produces such moments.

We go to great lengths to create atmospheres conducive to meaningful worship. Each year we publish hundreds of new books on worship, hold conferences, and spend millions of dollars on instruments and décor we hope will lead people into the presence of God. None of this is wrong. Atmosphere is important. But I believe that no matter how much we invest, from stained glass to strobe lights, without an appreciation of God’s holiness, our worship is fated to be superficial and, at best, momentarily moving.

“Ultimately transcendence is what makes a worship service meaningful,” writes author Bill Giovannetti.

He’s absolutely right.

When God shows up, worship doesn’t have to be manufactured or drummed up. It happens instinctively.

Worship is the natural reflex of mortals to the presence of a holy God.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Most people quote the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18. As much as I love the poetic cadences of the King James, this is one instance where the famous translation misses the mark. The context and content of the verse make it clear this isn’t just any “vision” the people need. A better translation would read: “Without a vision of God, the people perish.”

It’s God himself who makes worship meaningful. It’s a vision of his holiness that drives us to our knees. God’s holiness is the heart of our worship.

Theologian Rudolf Otto described the experience of the holy as the mysterium tremendum. That is the phrase that became popular, but his original description was longer. He called it the mysterium tremendum et fascinates—the overwhelming mystery that fascinates or attracts.

These Latin words capture a paradoxical truth about God’s holiness. It overwhelms, but it also draws. It terrifies and captivates. It bows our heads even as it lifts our hearts.

This is an excerpt from YAWNING AT TIGERS: YOU CAN’T TAME GOD, SO STOP TRYING. Click here to read more!

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A Person, Not Answers

May 29, 2014 — 6 Comments

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The Bible offers no escape from the problem of suffering. And no easy answers for the pain we experience in this world.

Don’t get me wrong—it has plenty to say on the subject. It tells us that suffering builds character, turns us to God, and even brings redemption. But ultimately Scripture presents no philosophical formula explaining why we suffer.

Even the book of Job, a veritable suffering saga, is silent on the topic. Job’s friends offer their beleaguered buddy various explanations, but they’re all wrong. And when God finally shows up, it’s not to answer questions.

This can be frustrating, especially for those of us drawn to life’s big questions. We want to know why. Yet for people in the throes of suffering, the Bible offers something much different than an answer—it offers a Person.

The Bible tells us we’re not alone, no matter how deep our suffering. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest who can “empathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). This is crucial. Identifying with someone’s pain requires that you have at least some experience of their suffering. The very word compassion comes from the Latin compassio, which literally means “to suffer with.” Only one willing to suffer truly has compassion.

On his 39th birthday, poet Christian Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer. He wrote frankly about the agonizing effects of his illness and the treatments.

I have had bones die and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk . . . I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone.

When the diagnosis came, Wiman was a rising star in the literary world and editor of Poetry, the world’s most prestigious poetry publication. Though Wiman confessed his Christian faith had “evaporated in the blast of modernism and secularism to which I was exposed in college,” the diagnosis started a journey that ultimately led him back to God. It wasn’t a particular doctrine that drew him back to the faith. Even the resurrection, he admits, is a struggle for him to accept. But Wiman found a friend in the suffering Messiah.

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me. . . . The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering.

In the face of brutal, isolating pain we don’t really want answers. We want a person. At such times there is simply no substitute for the presence of Christ.

* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: unpolarized via photopin cc

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