October 3, 2018 - Battlefield Worship

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In last week’s blog, I wrote about a seminary placement I undertook in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. I had a lot of response to the piece and felt led to return to this place and time once more. I believe the brave and faithful souls who lived there have more to teach us about the power of worship.

Constructed in pale yellow brick during the utopia of the 1950s new Elizabethan age, the housing development had been built around the economy of a large cigarette factory located at its core. Those early days were remembered with affection by the older members of the community, the halcyon days of factory outings to the coast and a rather elegant furniture store on the main street. In the 1980s, however, the factory permanently closed its doors and the entire community plunged into poverty and chaos, torn apart by high unemployment, drug abuse, and gang violence.

During my placement, I was invited to speak at a gathering called The Light House. Here, people crammed into a tiny tenement sitting room that belonged to a wonderful lady called Brenda. And Brenda — armed with a boombox, a mixed cassette tape of worship songs, and some threadbare photocopies of the lyrics in tiny, tiny print — called the community to worship. When I got to her tenement sitting room, it was standing room only. Those gathered there raised the roof as they worshipped God with all their hearts.

Why? What on earth did they have to worship about? Drug addiction was tearing their families apart, the local economy was depressed, and the streets were scarred with graffiti, discarded needles, and trash. The only recent investment in the community was an unemployment benefit office that had been built to look like a cross between a medieval castle (complete with arrow slit windows) and a war-time bunker. When the faithful gathered at their local church to worship, bricks were thrown through the church windows. As it happened, the local pastor was delighted. He had a vision to turn the clear glass into panes of colored glass, and with every missile the insurance company blessed the church with a different shade of pastel-colored glass! But why did people keep showing up? How could they keep on worshipping with such heart and passion?

We might not live on a street where we fear for our physical safety, but we can identify periods in our lives when perhaps we have felt cast off or discarded. Times when we felt unjustly treated — when life felt especially brutal. What would move you to worship God at those times?

What I came to understand was that in the love of God, in this seemingly hopeless place, their tenement worship was in fact the Lord’s initiative. C. S. Lewis wrote, “In the process of being worshiped . . . God communicates his presence to men.” And so it was. Tear-stained and exhausted, these weary soldiers huddled in worship — and as they did so they were drawn back into the reality of God’s presence. Worship will always, if at times gradually, awaken us to God’s loving presence.

Crammed into Brenda’s tiny sitting room, their celebration of God was simultaneously an act of war against the darkness. They did not hold back. With God at their side they would not back down. They held out for His promises and trusted Him for more. And in Brenda’s sitting room, God met His people. He poured out His blessing and His presence.

The worship taking place was not a means of escape but a place of advance. Certainly, the room was filled with wounded and weary soldiers who needed respite and healing. The Lord was their refuge — and even amidst the grey heights of the tenement block, He remained their strong tower. But this was no pietistic withdrawal. If they had believed their praise was “escape” then they would have lost sight of the power of God available to them. More than just a temporary reprieve or a distraction from their problems, their worship infused them with a Spirit-filled joy deep within their souls. It was not the idea of joy, nor a persuasion or even a decision. It was a conviction that rose up from the depths of their being. It was a joy that delighted in the presence of their God. And you could witness God’s strength rising up in them, just as Nehemiah exhorts God’s people, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10b).

And this promise is for all of us. Worship is about the revelation of His presence and the release of His power and love on the battlefield of life. There are times when tragedy strikes, our courage fails us, and the world appears to be a hopeless and menacing place. And while worship may seem entirely counterintuitive, beyond any rational explanation, we find within us His invitation to press on. We feel the nail-scarred hand take hold of our hand. Somehow, He is able to breathe His life within us, and draw us, perhaps even with reluctance on our part, into His presence. Somehow, we discover that in His strength we have made it through the night and there is hope for tomorrow.

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