[article originally written for Worship Leader magazine on July 17, 2019]
I am a vagabond, of sorts. Like yours, my heart is prone to wander. Over the past few decades, I’ve moved from state to state within the U.S. and also enjoyed living in Europe eleven years. While my family and I made our home in the U.K. and Ireland, we took every opportunity to visit scores of other countries. However, my heart has always been most at home on the island of Ireland. Being saturated in such beauty is humbling.. it helps me remember who I am, and more importantly, who I am not. There’s something about the Irish landscape that urges me to slow down and listen.
The Bible states, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). I sense God’s presence acutely in His created order -the world He has made- because through it, I see Him. It’s in these numinous ‘thin places’, as the early Irish Christians called them, that I’m compelled to worship God- and incidentally the landscape of Ireland inspires me to worship Him impulsively. The truth is, we are all created to worship. It’s not that some of us do, and some don’t.. everyone worships. Whatever we set our gaze upon ultimately serves as our ‘north star’.
What is it that captures our eye? What consumes our attention? To what, or whom, do we affix our affections? These questions help tease out truth from this pithy fellowship of words, saturated with significance: ‘I become what I behold.’ What we worship -that which our eyes and heart are fixated upon- has the greatest influence over who we become. Taken as a whole, the Scriptures seem to indicate that the human heart is the center of our soul. Therefore, it’s no surprise we’re encouraged to, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23). Who we are and who we become flows from our center – our hearts.
Dr. James K. A. Smith, professor of Philosophy, Congregational and Ministry Studies at Calvin College, in a much more eloquent treatment on this subject from his 2016 book ‘You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit’ wrote, “Our hearts, we’ve said, are like existential compasses and embodied homing beacons: our loves are pulled magnetically to some north toward which our hearts have been calibrated.” (pg. 57, Brazos Press). Smith’s words echo earlier words of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430A.D.) in his tome ‘The Confessions’ where he famously addressed God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” While most Christians give mental assent to the truth that our hearts find their true home in God, those of us who’ve lingered on earth long enough understand that this reality is a slow drip feed from our heads to our hearts. Resting in God is a journey and a process.
In the meantime, we learn the rhythms and cadences of this nascent relationship with Our Father.. a relationship made possible by His Son, Jesus Christ, who inserted Himself into space/time history to, “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20). Relationship connotes communication, and communication rightly necessitates desire and discipline. What does communicating with the Almighty look like in our everyday lives? To describe it in basic terms, fostering a relationship with Our Father consists of pouring our hearts out to Him (Psalm 62:8), listening for His Voice (Psalm 46:10; 81:8), then responding on what He’s revealed to us in Scripture and prayer (John 14:23-24).
Worship is a means by which our hearts communicate with God. When many within the Body of Christ think of ‘worship’, what’s often inferred is musical accompaniment to an intentional expression of praise, thanks and adoration, directed to the One from whom all blessings flow and every good and perfect gift comes. We understand, of course, that worship is broader, encompassing how the entirety of our lives reflect Christ and give glory to God. As for sung worship, it’s an excellent vehicle to affectively respond to God’s grace, loving kindness, forgiveness and generosity. In sung worship our hearts free flow with gratitude, moved by the movement of the music. At other times, when feelings wane, we choose to express gratitude and praise regardless of emotion, because He is good and worthy of all we can offer. Sung worship is a conduit of expression, a response to God’s initiative to reach and rescue us, His people.
While living in Ireland I was afforded the opportunity of further study. I gladly accepted the offer, and followed my passion for spiritual/personal formation down a path leading me to the historical field of spiritual direction. If you’re unfamiliar with this ancient Christian practice, allow me to distill it down for you. Spiritual direction is the practice of inviting a trusted follower of Jesus to walk life’s road alongside you, helping you become more aware of God’s activity, and more attuned to His voice. This practice stems from the belief that we are all made for relationship with God, and that created within us is the desire and ability to foster a relationship with Our Father.
As I understand it, Jesus issues two calls to each of us. The first call is to ‘Walk with me’. This is the invitation to relationship and discipleship (who we’re becoming). If we respond to the call to walk with Jesus, we grow in intimacy with Him and our own sense of identity begins to take shape as a result. The second call of Christ is to ‘Work with me’ in building God’s Kingdom here on earth. This call sprouts from the first and matures into a sense of vocation – the purpose for which we’re in this world. But all of this begins with learning to discern, and obey, the voice of the Father. This is where the practice of spiritual direction becomes invaluable.
In a spiritual direction relationship there are three parties: the ‘directee’, the director and then the real Director – the Holy Spirit. A human spiritual director (or ‘soul friend’ in the Celtic Church) is trained to listen to the directee and the Holy Spirit simultaneously. This ability to listen well facilitates the directee’s awareness of God’s voice and work in their life via reflective questioning and praying with the Scriptures. If a director were to explicitly tell the directee what they believe God is saying to them, or desires for them to do, the purpose of this service becomes moot. Each of us can and must learn to discern Our Father’s voice, grow to know His heart, and begin to recognize His hands at work for ourselves.
In the past decade or two there has been a growing interest within Protestantism in more historic expressions of Christianity. Having spent my earlier years in a mix of non-denominational/mega church settings, I can relate to the curiosity one might have in liturgical expressions of faith. Not long after my unintentional move into Anglicanism, a sense of rootedness burgeoned within me which I hadn’t previously experienced. I also discovered a relatable rhythm to the church year which helped me find a place in the grand story of God. Overall, I became more aware of my part in something that God was doing which is much bigger than me.
Again, James K. A. Smith cuts to the chase reminding us, “It is in the worship of the Triune God that we are restored by being restoried. It is the practices of Christian worship that renarrate our imagination so that we can perceive the world as God’s creation and thus hear his call that echoes within it.” (You Are What You Love, pp. 174-175, Brazos Press). Spiritual direction is one such historical practice that’s making a comeback because it promotes a relational interaction with God that is rooted in the Bible and clearly demonstrated in Christ. However, it isn’t primarily a vehicle of expression to God, nor a transaction of information about God; spiritual direction emphasizes listening to God. If the role of sung worship is a means by which we can express our hearts to God, spiritual direction is a means by which Father God can more clearly express His heart to us.
Sung worship and spiritual direction harmonize with one another, and authentic engagement in both help us nurture a robust relationship with God which Jesus Christ affords all people. It’s because of Jesus we that can cry out to God, ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15). It’s through this heartfelt expression of affection for Him, and by learning to listen to His voice, that we remember who we are. We remember that we are His, the apple of His eye. In these moments we’re ‘put back together’, growing up to go out and fulfill our part in His mission – the renewal of all things (Rev. 21:5).