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We are categorical people; our brains work in categories. We love dividing things based on essential elements. We divide music and literature into genres. We divide stores into departments. We divide people into a host of categories based on a seemingly infinite number of criteria. At its best, this is a highly efficient method of processing information. At its worst, we resort to stereotyping. Less sinister, but more subtle, is the fact that we potentially lose meaning when we create categories unnecessarily. Let me show you what I mean.
A phrase I hear from time to time in church divides the typical worship service into two categories: worship and the Word. Worship encompasses the music – what one congregant at my previous church famously referred to as “the preliminaries” – and the Word is the preaching. It’s an easy distinction to make. For some, this helpful two-category approach can be useful in determining when to arrive at church (or when to leave), when to pay attention and when to set your fantasy football lineup. But the real danger in such a mindset is in losing the intimate relationship between these two things.
In Nehemiah 8, we find a great assembly of the people of Israel. Many had returned from exile and begun to rebuild Jerusalem. In the midst of grave danger from the surrounding nations, the people had completely rebuilt the city’s broken down wall. They then assembled to hear Ezra the priest read the word of God. For about six hours (“from daybreak till noon”) Ezra read the law as the people stood and listened. Then, something extraordinary happened:
“Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” – Nehemiah 8:6
And the people didn’t stop there. Once they understood the Word of God, an eight-day worship festival broke out, and verse 17 tells us “their joy was very great.”
This story illustrates an important principle: the Word inspires worship. And there is a danger should we separate the two. How often do we sing songs without knowing how the lyrics were inspired by scripture, or worse, if they are even scriptural at all? When was the last time you read scripture as a congregation? Worship leaders, when was the last time you integrated a scripture passage into your worship set?
This has affected me in a couple different ways. As a worship leader I have always valued scripture as a part of the worship set, but I have also realized just how easy it is throw four songs together and not do the extra work to study the Word and select passages for the congregation to hear and read as we worship. But this weekend I was reminded about how integral the Word is to true worship, and it renewed my commitment to meaningfully integrate scripture into our corporate worship.
As a songwriter, I’m always trying to come up with something new and clever to say, a unique twist on a familiar thought, a poetic turn of phrase. But I’m consistently reminded that sometimes what I really need to do is go back to scripture and let the Word of God be my lyrical source. (Songwriters, how egocentric do we have to be to try and write our own words of enduring value without consulting the Word that has endured for thousands of years?)
This was the motivation behind the song that became the title track of our new EP, “Goodness and Mercy.” I’ve actually tried several times to come up with a setting of Psalm 23, and I finally came up with something that I thought was worth singing. Of course, I can’t take much credit for the lyric – it’s been around for awhile – but as I sing the phrase I’ve heard so many times, “Surely Your goodness and mercy will follow me,” I realize that I couldn’t have written it any better. My heart is moved by the truth of the enduring Word of God, and I find myself truly worshiping!
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