Fully Present to Worship

(This last week I got to share my work on the Psalms at West Hills Friends Church in SW Portland. I appreciate the opportunity and had a bunch of fun. Click here for audio. Link fixed. 2/19/2014)

Good Morning, I am Gil George, the pastor at Clackamas Park Friends Church. I appreciate the chance to share with you today about the importance of bringing our whole selves into our faith. Even those emotions that we might call ugly have an important place in our worship. In my growing up church was not a place you could be struggling in. I kept hearing people say “life is hard, but God is good, so I can’t complain.” With the subtext being that it wasn’t OK to complain or take any negative feeling to God. God was like this image by Gary Larson. (I don’t have rights to the image, I had scanned it in from a book, but here’s a google search that will take you to it.) That God isn’t safe to come to with anger. I was under the impression that since God’s people had to have it all together that God wasn’t interested in our struggles, just in our praise. There were consequences for believing in a God that forced me to hide parts of myself. I learned how physically damaging it is to hide my feelings when I got my first ulcer at 14. I was forced to learn how to express my anger, doubts and fears as a way of preventing myself from physical harm. I also learned that the best one to bring these hard parts of myself to was God. That God not only could handle me being mad, but welcomed me in my anger and grief and rage, in my sadness, in my brokenness and in my frustration. It was only through expressing these things to God that I could then heal. This God who listens to our discontent, brokenness, anger and grief is the God Jesus shows us in the garden, the cross, and the resurrection. A Jesus who probably looked something like this guy was someone I could actually have a frank conversation with.

I had a problem though: I had no idea how to bring my emotional self to God. I wasn’t comfortable with my emotions since they didn’t seem to be controllable and my church background hadn’t prepared me to look at my emotions with anything other than suspicion. Those pesky emotions just got in the way of being rational and objective, how could that ever be a good thing? A family friend introduced me to the Psalms, which contain every human emotion and bring each one of them before God in worship. How shocking is it for us to hear the ending of Psalm 137 and think of this as worship?

7Remember, Eternal One, how the Edomites, our brothers, the descendants of Esau, stood by and watched as Jerusalem fell. Gloating, they said’ “Destroy it; tear it down to the ground,” when Jerusalem was being demolished. 😯 Daughter of Babylon, you are destined for destruction! Happy are those who pay you back for how you treated us so you will no longer walk so proud. 9Happy are those who dash your children against the rocks so you will know how it feels.

This Psalm is one of disorientation. The Psalmist is angry with a rage beyond bearing and throws it in God’s face as if to say “This is how I feel! This is what I want! What are you going to do about it?” It is in Psalms like these that we can learn to say “Things are not as they ought to be. God, things are not the way you have expressed your desires for this world. Why did you let this happen? God, why can’t we see your work against these situations?” Has anyone here ever looked at the way the world is, at a hard situation and felt the question burn within you “Why does God allow this to continue?” I want to give you permission to take this question to God. Not having the ability to take our religious frustrations and disappointments to God destroys the authenticity of our faith experiences. The destruction of authenticity is accomplished through making sorrow, mourning, fear, doubt, and uncertainty the opposite of true faith. Since every one of us experiences all of these emotions at various points in our lives, we damage our own integrity in our efforts to hide them from God and each other. When we give voice to these uncertainties in the presence of God and each other, we find the voice of hope within our relationship to God and then are freed to enter into praise.

The biblical scholar Walter Breuggeman describes three types of Psalm: Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation and Reorientation.

  • The Psalms of Orientation help us to share the controversial message that we depend on our God, because our God is faithful, mighty and continues to create all that is. These Psalms orient us to the fact that not only our lives, but the lives of everything are dependent on God for existence, or as Paul said to the crowds in Athens “In him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28. When we express gratitude for the bounty of God’s good creation, joyfully obey the call of Jesus on our lives, depend on the wisdom of God, rely on God’s justice, and recognize those times when we get to experience the well-being that comes from witnessing God’s loving power; we are oriented on reality.
  • The Psalms of Disorientation ask hard questions of God when we don’t understand what is going on and ourselves when we make those grave errors that bring harm to ourselves and others. Over half of the Psalms contain elements of lament, the children of Israel experienced loss and pain on a regular basis, some of it through circumstances beyond their control or influence and at other times they were the source of their own pain. Just like us. The laments take these negative circumstances and hold them before God in childlike trust. Their inclusion in the Hebrew Scriptures may be judged to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for us, and the Hebrews, I would say that bringing our dark experience into the light of God is an act of bold faith. By speaking our hurts, sorrows, anger, and disorientation in our worship of God we boldly proclaim that God is big enough to handle anything we bring to him, no matter how negative, even our anger or disbelief. When we bring the fullness of our disoriented thoughts and lay them at the feet of God, we prepare the soil where new life can grow.
  • Psalms of Reorientation that renew our relationship with God and reorient our lives to the paths of righteousness. One of the encouraging truths the Psalms share with us is that disorientation is not a permanent state. New life blossoms right when it seems all hope is gone. One thing important to note is that there’s no return to the simple faith that says bad things can’t happen. God will never call us to deny reality. Our faith must then grow to encompass the reality of disorientation and when the storm passes, to praise the God who walked beside us through it. This is our hope, not only that the storms of life pass, but that God is with us in those storms. The Psalms of Reorientation are, at their core, a witness to the good character of God.

In my life I have experienced all of these times, I have cursed a blue streak at God and I have sung the praises of my redeemer, and God has yet to hit the “Smite” button on his keyboard. God truly desires to be in relationship with us exactly as we are. The greatest worship occurs when we open ourselves fully to the light of God, allowing God to be present to us exactly as we are. This is a booklet I made for our church community that I bring as a gift to you. I hope that you may use the discernment tools inside and the guides to help you bring, with authenticity, your full emotional self into the Light within.

If any of you would like access to the booklet or are interested in having me speak at your church, please post in the comments and I will give you access to the document which is released under the creative commons license or contact you with more information.

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