Within Us

One of the phrases I heard so often on worship teams and at churches was “We have to get into the presence of God.”

The impression I got was that God’s presence was a difficult place to attain, a challenging state to achieve, where all the music goes right and everyone is caught up in worship. That experience was the goal, and apparently it was rare, but we were going to try for it anyway.

For the “W” entry in the A to Z challenge, I want to talk about the term within.

This understanding of worship that I mention above seems to follow the Holy of Holies model.

If we look into the Old Testament and the laws about the setup and rituals of the Tabernacle of God, we find that there were three main sections to the place of worship. The Outer Court was the largest, where most people could go. It was where the average Israelites brought their sacrifices.

Then there was the Holy Place, the sort-of makeshift Temple in the middle of the Outer Court. That housed a number of key elements, and there was a much more strict set of rules about who could enter, when they could enter, and what duties they would perform.

Inside the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place – the spot where God’s presence dwelt. Only the high priest could enter, and that only once a year. It was a significant duty that could result in death if the rituals were not performed properly.

We sometimes treat worship like this, as though there are levels we have to reach, areas we have to go through, to progress from the start of the Sunday service as far as we can get toward the presence of God. Some Sundays, we feel like we almost made it. Some Sundays, everything comes apart. And some few Sundays, we feel like we really did it; we really entered into God’s presence through our worship.

Older songs convey this understanding… the chorus “Take Me In” uses the picture of the Tabernacle to describe the desire to draw near to God.

Take me past the outer courts, into the Holy Place
Past the brazen altar, Lord I want to see Your face
Pass me by the crowds of people, the priests who sing Your praise
I hunger and thirst for Your righteousness, and it’s only found one place:
Take me in to the Holy of Holies, take me in by the blood of the Lamb
Take me in to the Holy of Holies, take the coal, touch my lips, here I am

Nothing against the heart of the song, but I don’t believe that’s how worship works for us as New Testament believers.

“The Kingdom of God is in your midst” (also translated as “the Kingdom of God is within you.”  – Jesus, in Luke 17:21

A while back, a movie called Stigmata came out using religious symbolism and a thriller plot to call attention to a “Gospel” not included in the traditional Bible. The Gospel of Thomas, in the movie, contained a powerful truth the church would rather keep secret: the idea that the kingdom of God isn’t a church building or religious institution, but that the kingdom is actually within you and me.

I was dumbfounded by this movie’s attempt to convey this as a “new” truth that the Church would fear. It’s quite biblical (though I’d say the Gospel of Thomas is not, for good reason).

Consider the implications of these verses:

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.  – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NASB

and

For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,
“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty. – 2 Corinthians 6:16-18  NASB

and

the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 …which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Colossians 1:26-27  NASB

oh, and also

20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. – Galatians 2:20

So the point is, God in us is really not a new concept. (To be fair, the Old Testament has its share of verses that point to the same truth. The passage from 2 Cor 6:16-18 quotes from Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.)

Long story short, the movie was a silly attempt to make a big deal out of a Gnostic “gospel” by calling attention to a particular line that is already established Christian doctrine.

What does this have to do with worship?

When we realize that God is with us everywhere we go, it changes our understanding of “getting into the presence of God.” He’s not far off, waiting for me to get there, if only I can jump through the right hoops and hit the right notes and somehow bring the congregation with me. He’s here, inside me, inside you if you’re a believer, inside each of us in the church building as we gather together. It’s not about getting us into His presence at all.

It’s about opening our eyes to the fact that He is already there with us, within us.

Here’s an analogy: My heart is full of love for my wife and my children. In a sense, I carry them everywhere I go, because they hold a special place in my affections. It’s not something I have to work up or fake. There’s no complicated ritual about it. My love for them simply is, and it is within me.

I can be distracted, or I can let frustrations steal my focus, or I can allow problems in the relationship to keep me distant. But the love for them is there, and all it takes is for me to stop and think about them.

How much more so with God who lives within us?

What do you think? Do we often try to work our way into God’s presence? Or do we recognize He’s there already, and work to fix our gaze on Him? What does it mean that God is within us?

Flavor

I’m chilling in my recliner, putting my foot up (in a cast, post-surgery), and browsing through other A to Z blog challenge participants’ sites. (Here’s a list if you’re wondering how many people are doing this.)

To top off the relaxing atmosphere, I have a cup of my favorite coffee – extra bold Sumatra from the Keurig. Truth be told, the Keurig coffee tastes different to me. I don’t like it as much as a normal pot of Sumatra. But it’s still good, and I’m content.

There’s sort of a maple flavor to it, in my head. When I first tried it, I was deployed to the Mideast. Starbucks used to print a suggestion on the bag about what food would complement the coffee, and their Sumatra suggestion was “a syrupy stack of pancakes before the house wakes up.” The suggestion was perfect, and for the next few days, I kept checking at the chow hall to see if they had pancakes. (Of course, they did not.)

Not everyone likes the coffee. My wife hates anything made by the Keurig. Some of my friends hate the extra dark roast. Some of them, who shall not be named as friends, even go so far as to dislike coffee. (Kidding.)

And that’s all right. Everyone has their favorite flavor, none better than another.

An important lesson in worship is to not treat preferences like doctrine.

Every individual has a preference about music, about songs, about how they seek God. Worship teams are made of individuals, so it’s not surprising that teams end up having a sort of flavor to them as well.

Maybe you don’t like hymns. Maybe you don’t like Gospel, or maybe David Crowder drives you nuts. Maybe Jesus Culture is really irritating with those high synth pads. Or maybe it’s country music that’s the worst. (it is.)

We can all have our tastes. What we can’t permit is for our tastes to turn into judgment against another style of worship and music. When you think of the worst worship style you’ve ever heard, what comes to mind?

I can’t guess for you, but I can tell you mine.

I’ve never been a fan of certain kinds of Gospel. Gospel choirs are awesome, and the way that the choirs blend three or four different parts together into a smooth song, that blows my mind. But when the leader gives vocal cues to every single word before the choir sings it, oh, that drives me nuts.

I am also not a fan of breathy recordings or constant vocalizing. When someone sings the Star Spangled Banner, and the “Oh” in “Oh say can you see” has a dozen notes, I’m already done listening. If it sounds like the person just finished a marathon, exhaling audibly with every word, that doesn’t strike me as “passionate” or “emotional.”

And yet I’ve been in churches with that style of music and seen congregations deeply committed to worshiping God — in spite of all the obvious flaws in the musical style!

Of course, the worship is meant to minister to the congregation, not just to my tastes. More important than that, God’s the One the worship is for, not me. And He’s willing to accept all my clunky notes, all my shallow lyrics, and all my half-hearted efforts. He even accepts the very best I have to offer, like a father hanging a crayon drawing on the cubicle wall or refrigerator.

There’s no right flavor, just as there’s no best style, no perfect choice of song. There’s just giving our best and letting others do the same.