Restoring worship

Ezra 3:8-13

The Jews didn’t waste any time upon their return to Jerusalem; within two years they had settled into homes, rebuilt the altar for worship, cleared away the rubble and laid the foundation for the new temple. At the foundation’s completion a celebration was in order; Priests dressed in their finest, the band played, the people sang – it was a party.

The rebuilt temple would signify a new expression of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites and announce to the surrounding world the power and reign of King Yahweh. Laying the foundation was just the beginning, years of labor were ahead of them to restore the temple. Yet, a promise was given, provision was made and the work had begun, that was enough to elicit praise and rejoicing from God’s people.

Take some time and recall some of the promises God has made to you. (e.g. forgiveness, peace, new mind) Consider the ways provision has been granted to allow these promises to be realized. (Grace through Christ, a new perspective on your situation or relationships, etc.) Mark the signposts that indicate movement toward the completion of this promise. (Less anger, compassion, patience…)
Throw a party to celebrate all that God is doing! Tell another about God’s faithfulness, let your praise be loud and joyful.

Notice, though, not all of the people were rejoicing, “but many of the priests and Levites and head of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house.” (Ez 3:12) This group of people were ones who had been carried into captivity from Jerusalem 70 years ago, they had seen the splendor of Solomon’s temple, they knew its glory and beauty. This new temple would pale in comparison.

Do you ever miss out on the current thing God is doing because your attention is fixed on the old? How do comparisons, regrets, or judgements rob you of joy available in the present moment? God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:13,14a) Look around and see God’s activity right now.

Do as the Israelites did

The returned Israelites set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. Ezra 3:3

King Cyrus allowed 50,000 Israelites to return from exile in Persia. They were given freedom and fortune with the assignment of “rebuilding the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.” While captive, they were far from the holy place where God was worshipped. They were marked by sorrow and lament, wondering if they would ever again worship in the temple. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” They longed for the joyful worship they knew in Jerusalem. (Ps 137)

Upon returning to their homeland, their first act was to build an altar upon the site where the original altar had stood, so that they could begin to offer worship and sacrifices as Moses had commanded. God’s people were always building altars, a holy place to give thanks to God and to remind themselves of what God had done for them.

Like the Israelites, do you feel far from God? Have you doubted you’ll ever reconnect with God? Then, do as the Israelites did; return to an earlier moment of your life with God, recall the nature of God’s actions for you, create a holy place where you can willfully offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. And sometimes, when your life doesn’t feel joyful, saying no to the negative emotions that oppress and yes to the truth of God’s goodness does feel like a sacrifice. This is where joy begins.

I imagine the Israelite’s were excited about their return to Jerusalem; I know they were afraid of the people they would encounter (Ez 3:3). So what did they do? They began to worship God, twice a day, offering sacrifices that reminded them of God’s protection and provision.

Like the Israelites, do you live in the midst of fear? Then, do as the Israelites did; come to God regularly. Do not let fear keep the nearness of God from your heart. Imagine your heart as an altar dedicated to God. Every time fear threatens: pause, be still for a moment, turn your attention away from the source of your fear and focus on God’s face of love. When you are in the presence of the Lord of life, fear fades away.

Are you plagued by perfectionism? Then do as the Israelites did. They didn’t wait until the proper temple was built to begin their worship. They started where they were with what they had. Now is the time to worship, here is the place you meet the Holy. Jesus gladly receives you and shares his joy.

Worship as a spectator sport

Isaiah 29:9-16

Worship that pleases God requires your whole person to be involved.

All too often we show up on Sunday mornings because it’s our habit, or we have obligations to fulfill, or our spouse expects it of us. Our bodies are in the sanctuary, but our minds, hearts and spirits are far, far away. We repeat the words of scripture, we sing the songs, we politely listen to the sermon and we depart. We showed up, but we weren’t present to the wonder of worship.

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk hits the nail on the head.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

God issues a warning that should be heeded –  Worshipping with only your lips and words without your heart being involved causes the voice of God to be quieted.

During the worship service, don’t just hear the words, listen to the voice of God. Expect to be shown some wonder of God’s majesty; don’t tune out when prayers are offered from the front of the sanctuary, let your spirit connect with the Holy Spirit as the prayers rise up as incense into God’s presence.  Jesus is here, ready to meet you. He says “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Listen with your heart.

Answer this question honestly, Why do you go to church? How will your worship experience be different if you draw near to God with your heart? Do you find the church service boring? Try praying for the singers as they lead, for the preacher as the word is shared. Get involved with the service. Worship is not meant to be a spectator sport.


Are you ready for some worship?

“In the year that King Uzziah died….” Isaiah 6:1

King Uzziah began his reign as a good king, doing what was favorable in the sight of the Lord and as a result God prospered and strengthened him. But “when he became strong he grew proud” and considered himself sufficient to carry out the priestly duty of standing before the holy God and offering sacrifices. In his pride he thought he was good enough, clean enough to face God’s holiness. He didn’t need the priests, he could handle it.

Wrong! When confronted by God’s priests with the truth of his apostasy, he raged and was struck with leprosy, living in isolation and disease until his death. (2 Chron 26)

Isaiah had a very different response to the holy God.

“Woe is me…” Isaiah 6:5

In the presence of the holiness and the glory of God, Isaiah realized his lack. He knew he had the stain of sin on his lips and supposed he was lost. Uzziah assumed he was enough; Isaiah knew he was not.

God graciously gives glimpses of his holiness so we can recognize the infinite gap between his greatness and our smallness; this awareness is the beginning of true worship.

The true way to be humble is not to stoop till thou art smaller than thyself, but to stand at thy real height against some higher nature that will show thee what the real smallness of thy greatness is. …. Phillips Brooks

It’s amazing, isn’t it? The holy God, the one who lives in unapproachable light comes to you as he came to Isaiah. What other response is possible but to trust his grace?

Don’t be like Uzziah, taking your connection with God for granted and forgetting that you need God’s mediator standing between your unholiness and God’s perfection.

God’s purifying fire of love touches your sin-stained lips, imparting his worthiness to you through Jesus Christ. When you are touched and transformed by such a fire, you are able to hear God’s call and you are ready to respond with a willing and eager heart.

  • When have you had a glimpse of God’s greatness? How did it feel? What was your response?
  • It’s easy to forget in whose presence we stand when we enter worship. How can you ensure you don’t take God for granted?
  • What prevents you from saying, like Isaiah, “Here am I; send me!”?

Originally written for CBC’s weekly devotional thought.

Fake it until you make it

A few years ago I visited a church that was a little more expressive in their worship than was my typical style. The pastor opened the service by inviting the congregation to speak the words of Psalm 118:24.

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

We stood, obediently recited the words of the text and were ready to sit down, allowing the order of the service to continue. But the pastor halted our sitting. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Did you listen to what you just said? ‘This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ You don’t look glad. Are you glad? If you were glad, you’d be smiling and bouncing,” he said as he was smiling and bouncing. “Let’s try saying it again, only this time believe it. Let me see some smiles on your faces. Come on, show me some glad.”

Checked by his kindly reproof, I said the words again, this time smiling and looking around at the other smiling faces; nodding in agreement with my brothers and sisters. This indeed was a day made for us by God. We were happy and sharing in it’s goodness. What a difference it made to inhabit the words, not just mimic them. I realized they were meant to be experienced, not just repeated. A dry, isolated repetition became a lively, joyous fellowship as we smiled. The gladness bubbled up and we were definitely glad. As my friends in AA say, sometimes you have to ‘fake it until you make it.’

Listening for your mother tongue (aka tuning out sin’s voice)

Molly, my pug, at the Louvre

Thoughts from a long-term tourist – II

Being a long-term tourist has had an interesting effect. I’ve become accustomed to not understanding the conversations I overhear as I’m walking down the street or sitting in a café. The sounds of these conversations have become background noise for me. When I attend to them I realize they are speaking a language I don’t understand, but for the most part, they provide the white noise of my walking around existence. Occasionally, I hear English spoken and it gets my attention. But generally, even though the people basically look the same as me and dress the same as me (well, to be perfectly honest, they are a quite a bit more fashion forward than me. The women dress like they do in magazines or in Macy’s display windows and they carry it off!) The different language we speak reminds me that I am not at home. I am in fact a tourist, albeit a long-term one.

This got me thinking.

You see, Jack and I have found a church we like. It feels very similar to our church in San Francisco – it is young, we sing many of the same songs and the service style is relaxed. We walked in and felt at home. There is something about the familiar that causes a welcome feeling inside you.

The church is called Trinity International Church and it is definitely international. We’ve met people from so many different countries and cultures. The only thing we have in common is that we love God and we speak English. We look different, we sound different, and we hail from different homelands. But we all desire to worship God in a common language.

It is the common language of worshipping God that makes me feel at home with these people. As Eugene Petersen says in the message, “Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word.”

The good news is that as a citizen of heaven, walking around on earth, the dead language of sin can fade into the background and become the white noise of our walking around existence. We can become accustomed to not understanding it. Instead whenever we hear our mother tongue, which is the love and worship of God, our attention will be piqued, we can join the conversation and be at home even while we remain long-term tourists.

With you in the journey,


Written while living in Paris, 2005