13 March 2011

Real. Simple. Worship. Thoughts on Psalm 95

Psalms still have a hold on me.

I thought I have have gotten them out of my system with a furious 10,000 words at the end of 2010.

I spent my meditation time last year in Solomon's Temple. When the Psalms were read, I heard them echo through the temple courts. I watched the procession of worshipers on feast days; I joined in their songs. I delighted in this book as my guide to elemental worship.

Elemental. That's where Psalm 95 begins. It begs the question: what is worship at its most basic--at its simplest?

Think of the different elements in a modern, Christian worship service:
  • Welcome/announcements
  • Singing/Praise
  • Prayer/Testimony
  • Offering
  • Special Music/multimedia feature
  • Liturgy/Scripture
  • Sermon
Which of these were evident in the Temple? Which have been added over time? Psalm 95 answers. It is a concise, 11-verse act of worship. It is a template that is still worth following today.

(Why is today the first time in my life where the obvious connections between the words "Temple" and "template" became evident?)

"Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord," the psalm begins, "let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation." Worship begins with praise, with "thanksgiving...music and song" (verse 2).

The psalm reveals the reasons for praise, too. It is God's creative power that drives us, the formation of mountain peaks and the sea's deepest depths. It reminds me so much of the hymn that goes, "I sing the mighty power of God that made the mountains rise, that spread the flowing seas abroad and built the lofty skies."

So often in my own worship, I find God's creative power at the center of praise--both for those things he has done for me and through me. My kids, for example, are products of His creative power, not mine. My energies and talents have little explanation other than the Creator who engendered them in me.

The second act of worship is prayer. "Come, let us bow down in worship" (6). The theme of the psalm's praise continues as the people "kneel before the Lord our Maker."

Yet God comes down from the mountain top at this point of worship, too, dwelling in the meadows among us, who are "the people of his pasture, the flock under his care" (7). God's creative power meets his warm embrace as worship moves to prayer from praise.

I have to admit that Prayer is the portion of worship that I have struggled with the longest. I grew up in a faith tradition where prayer was self-generated, where the best prayers spoken expressions. I found prayers in other traditions that were repeated. Nowadays, I find my best prayers to be those that are unspoken: that seek to strip away needless thoughts and listen to God's voice speak to me. Prayer is definitely the part of worship in which I feel least confident.

Psalm 95 ends with a sermon--or more precisely, a lesson from scripture. One of the features of temple-era worship was the lack of both scriptures and literate people who could interpret them. Accounts that I have read show that the editing of the Jewish scriptures probably began under Solomon. The psalms and other wisdom literature were under centuries-long development, and about 1/3rd of the Old Testament (Isaiah through Malachi, as well as Esther-Nehemiah) had yet to be written.

The lesson comes from Meribah , the site where the "people of his pasture" grew restless with the lack of water and threatened Moses with rebellion (Exodus 17).

At first reading, this seems like an intrusion into a very lyrical meditation on worship. Why God? Haven't we praised you as Creator? Haven't we submitted our cares to you in prayer?

As I reflect upon this psalm, I find that it closes with remembrance of what worship is not. "I said, 'They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.'" There is only one way to worship, and that is with God. If one's heart is elsewhere, or one does not know the way of praise and prayer, then the fullness of worship is not possible.

(This is where many people of faith get bogged down. For example, some may thing that praise "with God" requires an organ to play or the absence of drums. Others may argue that prayer "with God" invokes the Spirit through angelic utterances. I posit that "with God" implies a reverence and desire that come from putting self below God.)

The psalm ends on a somber tone. "So I declared an oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest'" (11). The psalmist reminds the people that their forefathers received a 40-year sentence for their failure to worship at Meribah and Massa. (A later generation of Israelites would receive a 70-year exile for the same reasons.)

What I find fascinating by this last line is the hope that it offers. "My rest" is, after all, the be-all that God seems to have withdrawn at Meribah. "My rest" is the perfect synonym for worship. When worshipers are at praise or at prayer, they are at rest--or more specifically, at God's rest. Sabbath is, then, also a synonym for worship, and we shut ourselves out from worship, from rest, from Sabbath when we fail to put worship in its proper place.

Lessons for Today
I love the simple worship template found in Psalm 95. Praise. Prayer. Lesson. When worship is focused like this, it is easier to shut out the extraneous things. Leave announcements and offerings at the church door. Enter to worship.

And within worship, I believe that individual efforts need to be channeled through these three elements. The best worship is done collaboratively with worshipers engaged, not entertained. And remember that engagement involves not just repeating hymns or responses, but action: the movement of standing together, coming to the altar, taking part in communion, kneeling in prayer.