“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD” – Psalm 96:11-13
A few months ago my wife and I went on a traditional “dinner and a movie” date. Now, this may be no great feat for many of you but with our competing schedules finding time for the just the two of us to get out on a Friday night rather resembles 3-D relationship Tetris!
It was fun – seafood enchiladas at one of our favorite Mexican hangouts, then onto popcorn, diet soda (yeah, I know all about how bad the scientists now say they are), the obligatory box of Nestlé Buncha Crunch and a giant pickle – my infernal movie time addiction. You can see another reason we don’t get out much …
So in we settled, laughing at the campy trivia questions before the previews, making mental notes to see three upcoming films soon to be released, then sitting back as the feature started.
Everything was going great! Right up until about 5:27 into the movie, when three girls, er, women behind us – apparently on some sort of girlfriends’ date that I still have never completely understood – began whispering. And not that hushed, sotto voce whisper used for secretive exchanges, mind you. Instead, this was that loud stage whisper people use to make sure those of us all the way on the back row of the balcony are in on their little secret.
For the next hour and thirty-nine minutes, we were treated to a running narrative accompanying the movie soundtrack filled with stories from their personal lives, punctuated with comments like “she’s sooooo adorable,” and “omg! That so reminds me of …” and, well you get the picture.
Somewhere deep inside me still lives the polite Southern Gentleman my momma raised me to be. Accordingly, I held my tongue. But let me be clear: I wasn’t happy. I mean look – I paid my $24 for the tickets and don’t even get me started about the bailout loan I needed for the concessions. This was my movie, by God, and I wanted SILENCE. Why can’t people just learn to sit down and shut up?
I thought about this later after the side-effects of aspartame and salt had subsided. And I flashed back to an altogether different conversation I overheard several years ago in another place between two Elders of a church I was visiting.
Basically, the thread of the discussion revolved around their belief in an “accepted doctrine” view of scripture at odds with the Senior Pastor’s vision for their church. Apparently, and much to the dismay of these two Elders, the Senior Pastor felt that human beings were actually allowed and even *gasp* encouraged to respirate and vocalize during sacred worship time.
Their position – and I exaggerate here only very slightly for dramatic effect – was that God means for us to sit somberly and quietly in our pews on Sunday mornings, moving and making noise only when absolutely necessary and as directed by the proper order of service elements by duly appointed conveyors of said accepted doctrine.
Granted, this was an extreme example of doctrinaire imperialism. Few of us today would be so dogmatic as to suggest our fellow congregants “sit down and shut up” (with the possible exception of when attending services at the Inner Springs Church of the Posturepedic). Yet over the years I’ve noticed another, more subtle form of that perspective still spreading through our churches every day: silent solemnity.
Surely you’ve seen it: the long, serious faces on Sunday morning, the stiff backs in pew after pew, the awkwardness when standing for readings or singing; the hesitance to utter any syllable other than a Corporate “amen;” for the most part, a complete lack of joy or emotion in the midst of God’s presence.
I have nothing at all against quiet contemplation. Some of my most profound worship experiences have come when the sheer impact of God’s unfathomable power and love for creation simply overwhelms the soul and the only response is hushed union with the Word. These are moments where all of us can let the noise and clutter of our lives fall away as we’re drawn into the very presence of God.
Yet it strikes me that God wants more than our solemn silence. I’m reminded of this every time I open my Bible to the Book of Psalms, especially Psalms 92-98. Time and again in these verses we read of exhortations and counsel concerning how and why and what we should bring to God in celebration of His majesty. Rarely are we instructed to fall silent and mute in God’s midst. Rather, we’re encouraged to do just the opposite!
God’s manifest act of creation and the resulting kaleidoscope of human experience accompanying our attempts – however imperfect – to enter into communion with God’s creative spirit, are both borne out of joy and delight, not solemnity and seriousness. Momentarily set aside qualms over scripture-as-literal-fact-versus-allegory and look at the astounding language of creation from Genesis 1: God speaks and life explodes. Or the Birth Narrative in the Book of Luke, Chapter 2: Christ is born into the world and countless angels thunder their joy in song.
King David sang, and shouted with joy, and even danced before the glory of God. We read in 2 Samuel 6 that as David brought the Ark from the house of Abinadab he and all his men – the whole house of Israel – were “celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”
Even in my own experience as a worship leader, I’m struck by the difference in reactions to various services, and how an engaged congregation produces a vibrant, almost electric atmosphere that is literally charged with the power of humans accepting and rejoicing in the presence of God.
The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day
It seems odd to me that God would prefer our silence and stern faces to our laughter and joyful hearts. Didn’t Jesus surround himself with children as often as he could? Isn’t life itself a celebration of God’s love for His creation? Aren’t we encouraged to rejoice at our reborn spirits? This is how I imagine the true worship of our Creator – shouts of joy and wonderment, not silent vows of pinched frowns and uncomfortable postures masking thoughts of brunch plans and afternoon tee times.
One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is found in Matthew 22. Jesus is engaged in a tedious debate with the Sadducees about resurrection theology, a notion they ardently reject, as once again they attempt to trip Jesus up in details. Deftly defeating their argument, Jesus closes with this statement: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living” (verse 32). I love this! The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day we enjoy.
So the next time you feel an urge to shout out for joy, or close your eyes and raise your hands when singing a song of praise, or simply laugh at the sheer wonderment of creation, bring it on! But please, just make sure you silence that cell phone before the movie starts! Oh – and leave the life stories for drinks afterward.