The Heart of Worship

Waves of water came in a rush, washing over me like a tide to sweep me away. The tidal flow felt like a heavenly flood. I opened my eyes to see ripples in the steaming black coffee in my cup. I blinked, wondering what was happening to me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I tried to go on with my morning prayers, only to be startled by a nudge on my shoulder. A man said, “You’re going on a tour around the globe, a holiday like no other.” My guide grabbed the travel bag I had packed for a weekend at the beach and whisked me away. He promised a trek that would bring us to many continents, allowing us to touch souls with many people as we joined together with the spirit of God’s people among tribes, nations, and peoples of every color and language.

My head felt like it was still spinning when my guide pulled tickets out of his pocket for a flight to the Island of Oahu, Hawaii. The screech of airplane tires on the runway brought me to my senses. “It’s real. I’m in Hawaii.” Our taxi driver accelerated away from the airport while I held my suitcase on my lap, wondering if my board shorts were stuffed in there. I looked to the left at the tropical scenery and to the right for a surf shop.

As we stepped out of the taxi, the salty ocean breeze that rustled the palm trees nudged me toward a simple building with a red tile roof, stucco walls and a wooden cross on the pinnacle of the roof. Music poured from the open doors and windows like a flurry of butterflies released into the spring air. My ears embraced the melodic chant that blended many voices, accompanied by the unfamiliar sounds of local instruments. As we entered the open doors, I couldn’t help but laugh with joy at the sight of children dancing in the aisles to the music of the ipu heke and several pahu.

The last note of their song still rang in my ears when the drums and kala’au took up a new rhythm. The young ones raised their hands holding their ipus and lifted their voices in praise before God Almighty. The words they sang were a mixture of Hawaiian and English and they were accompanied by steel guitars.

My feet began to move with the music, my heart joined with them, my hands lifted high with the children; I took up the melodious chant and lent my voice to sing God’s praises.

My heart soared; tears of joy flowed down my cheeks like streams of water through a fruitful garden. Though I couldn’t understand all the words they sang, their grateful hearts and their love of a Living Savior became perfectly clear to me. Their songs of exaltation and worshipful celebration made my heart overflow with joy.

My travel guide took hold of my arm and escorted me to the jet that would take us directly to Nanchang, China. As we descended over the city, the fog cleared to reveal a busy metropolis intersected with rivers. The city below us resembled a bustling anthill, crawling with activity. No sooner had we landed than I was whisked off to the north, as fast as the snarled traffic would allow. Our little white car slowed as we approached a building that looked vacant. The red brick walls were covered with a layer of grey soot, many bricks crumbled from age and neglect. We passed the building and stopped a few blocks away. My guide spoke with hushed words, “We have to be careful.” As we approached another building, I saw a light shining from a tiny basement window. The light flickered as if coming from the flame of candles.

We ran down the concrete steps and quickly entered through a rusty metal door, only to be greeted by smiling faces and courteous bows. We took our seats on the cold metal chairs that sported chipped and worn paint, making them look as if they had been rescued from a recycling bin. My attention was immediately captured by the voices lifted in melodic praise. My hands came together, as if by surprise, joining them in a festival of worship. Their thin voices joined together in unison, some singing in falsetto, others singing deep, resonant notes. Though I didn’t understand the words, I could grasp the rhythmic sense and meaning. Suddenly, a hush came over them and a single voice rang out from the crowd. I watched as tears came to their eyes and I could understand as they shouted out that universal praise, “Hallelujah.” The room filled with a murmur of voices, heads bowed, faces lifted up and shining with a glow of light.

Suddenly, an erhu and dizi began to play and were joined by a gin. A low buzz of the people’s prayers accompanied the staccato twang of the instruments.

The thought came over me like a flood: “My brothers and sisters.”  My only possible response was to lift my voice together with them. I sang the notes, but my words were not their language. Surely my words meant the same as theirs, words of exaltation before a Holy God.

As we left the gathering, we mixed with the crowds wishing us “Zài huì.” My guide flagged a taxi and rushed me back to the airport.

As we passed through the clouds I felt compelled to ask, “Where are you taking me now?”

“Bangalore, India,” he responded. The rumble of the jet engine lulled me into a deep sleep. My guide shook me to wake up, but my eyes wouldn’t open until the door of the jet opened and the aromas unique to India greeted my senses. It occurred to me that each continent must have a scent of its own. The green and yellow taxi sped through the streets, barely avoiding bicycles, rickshaws, cars and pedestrians. More than once I flinched, prepared to hear the crunch of metal.

We arrived in a cloud of dust at a storefront with a simple white cross painted on the window. As we opened the doors, we heard the melodic sounds of voices lifted in praise accompanied by the sounds of instruments. A young man greeted us, putting his hands together with a slight bow and a big smile. He led us to our seats on a simple wooden bench, well-polished from years of use.

The sweet music and fervent singing compelled me to join in, lending my voice to the melody. The key changed as they began another verse. My spirit soared at the sounds of the flutes, sarangis and the beat of the damrus. I realized that my spirit was overflowing with joy — my face felt warm as I smiled with delight.

This felt like a heavenly home. My heart witnessed that these are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. This is my family. The language they spoke, the clothes they wore, the music they sang were unfamiliar to me, but our hearts were joined in Christ and our voices sang out to His glory.

They sent us on our way with blessings and bread for our travels, still warm from the oven.

My guide pointed straight ahead as we trekked along a steep cobblestone street in Haifa, Israel. Lively music, sung as joyful expressions, full of life and jubilant rhythms, greeted our ears. We stepped through ancient wooden doors to join a small circle of people. Some looked European, while others sported dark wavy hair, and still others were of African descent — all joined their voices together, accompanied by acoustic guitars and a keyboard, giving praise to a Holy God.

They didn’t miss a beat as they set out two folding chairs for us. They welcomed us to join them, placing their hands in ours. At once we knew we were a circle of friends, brothers and sisters in the Lord. Together we sang the same notes in this strange and beautiful language.

With only a pause to catch our breath, our voices overflowed with praise and continued in song. Those on one side of the circle sang out and the others responded in spontaneous inspiration. The melody flowed along as if on wings of angels. The deep voices of the men offered an undercurrent of strength to the song. Then, as the final note was sung, I watched as a young girl looked to her father. He nodded and she began to sing in a most pleasing mezzo soprano voice. At first the words of her song pierced my heart and a sense of being washed in a cleansing flow came over me as she continued in a lively Hebrew tune.

As we tried to leave we were detained by round after round of hugs and farewells of “Shalom.” Tears blurred my eyes as we left them. Our hearts had truly come together in a bond of love and fellowship.

Our safari truck came to a skidding halt, avoiding a giant puddle of water right in front of a stick building with a thatched roof. A crude wooden cross, aged by sun and rain, graced the peak of the roof. The weathered front door opened as if they anticipated our arrival. We ran inside to get out of the downpour.

Dancing children with their wooden rattles and shakers greeted us, dancing around our feet. Men of the tribe sat around the perimeter of the room, slapping their drums to the beat of the song. The notes of a flute and the simple notes of a kalimba joined the ruckus of joyful sound.

The women in their colorful kaftans swayed with the music and clapped their hands. Young boys with dusty feet abandoned their rubber thongs to tap out the rhythm of the drums on the clay floor. They danced, they shouted, they yodeled, they sang in soprano and bass notes, and came together with words of adoration. I didn’t recognize the words, but my heart witnessed a sense of exaltation before an Almighty God — Defender, Protector, Provider, Healer and Savior of our souls. My heart, my feet, and my hands joined my new family in joyful dance and song. Halfway through the second song, a gracious woman offered me a well-worn tambourine. I took up the beat, laughed with joy and felt one with them in their expressions of jubilation.

Before we could leave, the head elder offered his hand in fellowship, sending us off with a white prayer cloth his wife had stitched by hand.

My head whirled as we jetted to yet another continent. The pilot pointed out the Cumberland River as we made our descent into Nashville, Tennessee. Streaks of light burst through scattered, dark clouds to greet us as we strode across the tarmac. With travel bags in hand, we waved down a cab in front of the airport and soon found ourselves dodging in and out of traffic on a five-lane freeway.

The cabbie waved us off as my guide tried to give him directions. He knew the way. He’d been there many times himself. As he pulled in front of a white steepled church, he jumped out to get our luggage from the trunk. I wondered at the hush that hung over the place, despite the full parking lot. We slowly opened the front door to peer in, not wanting to disturb the quiet.

Our heads jerked, for the moment we set foot inside the doors, the music began. Voices came together in harmony led by a quintet singing soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and deep bass. A musician’s fingers flew up and down her keyboard and a young man played along on a slap bass. They sang together, mingling their voices with banjos, guitars, violins, and cellos.

Toes were tapping, hands clapping, melodies sung in every range as lifted hands brought them together as if carried to the heavens by the music and singing. We were greeted like long lost family and ushered to our seats. A crying baby a few seats away could barely be heard for our exuberant songs of praise. We stood with them, singing the words shown on the screen. I lent my baritone part to the song and my guide added to the joyful noise with his tenor voice.

In the middle of a song, we spontaneously joined hands across the aisles, swaying to the music. The words we sang proclaimed God’s majesty. The lyrics led us to exalt God’s mighty acts. The music carried us along in blessed proclamations of our Lord’s might and power to save.

Shouts of hallelujah and praise came forth from the people to punctuate our jubilant ballads. Some took to the aisles to dance a glory jig. Others knelt at their places to pray. Still others bowed their heads in solemn intercession. Every act of worship came together, strengthening us as one in Christ.

The pastor gripped my hand and shook it vigorously, “Y’all come back any time.” Then they offered us a hug and a mug with the church logo emblazoned on it. I accepted it as a cherished memory as we left walking on air.

The jet engines slowed as we descended through Minnesota’s foggy mist. I shivered, looking at the gray, icy precipitation sweeping against the window. The landing gear whirred into action and I braced for a landing as the wind beat against the airplane.  We broke through the fog just seconds before the wheels screeched on the pavement.

Without delay we were shuttled away to our next destination. I asked where we were going, but my guide only had to point to a towering steeple atop a church clock tower. The bells rang out a cheerful bong, bong, calling people to worship. We followed the crowd as they ascended the steps and entered through the hand crafted double doors hung on rustic iron hinges.

The morning sun shone through stained glass windows that graced the sanctuary, illuminating powerful illustrations from Creation all the way to the resurrection. Streams of rainbows shone about, lighting the room with floods of color. We squeezed into a padded pew next to a family of four. No sooner had we sat down than the choir’s voices rang out from behind us and the orchestra accompanied them with a welcoming symphony that washed over me like refreshing bubbles from a mountain spring.

A man rose in front of the congregation, his close-cropped beard and dark wavy hair laced with threads of silver. He held his hands toward the people to speak, calling us to worship. He spoke in a strong, confident voice. He wore a simple white robe, tied with a rope, his neck was graced with a gold cross and a red stole lay across his shoulders, adding to his aura of authority.

We rose to our feet as one and joined our voices with the melodious sounds of the choir and the orchestra. The children, the men and women, even the teens sang out with heartfelt zeal. Our voices mixed with all the complex sounds of music and our jubilant refrain seemed like it might shake the dust from the rafters. A toddler stood on a pew trying to match his mother’s joyful alto voice. He sang wonderfully out of tune.

Some began to sit down until they heard the orchestra and choir start singing “The Hymn of Joy,” bringing all of us back to our feet. I took a deep breath to sing the words, “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.” A young couple in front of me sang with the chorus, looking into each other’s eyes and smiling.

The music, the instruments, the choir and the voices of the people brought to mind our future glory, as written in Revelation by the Apostle John: “I heard a sound like massed choirs in Heaven singing.” The songs of worship we sang together were like expressions of loving trust, joy, and eternal hope.

The pastor’s resonant voice spoke out as if his message was simply an extension of our worshipful hymns. His words proclaimed Christ and Christ crucified for the salvation of souls — for the poor in spirit.

We departed with a sense of having been washed and in complete peace. It was a peace beyond my understanding.

Another six hours in the air brought us to the Pacific coast in Southern California. I looked down through the window to see a narrow strip of sandy beach; a clear demarcation between the calm ocean waters, dotted with sail boats, fishing boats and pleasure boats, and the bustling shops. Beyond it I could see the distinct skyline of Los Angeles.

A yellow taxi took us from the commotion of the airport, back toward the beach towns. My guide gave the cabbie directions and we sped away, racing in and out of traffic and speeding past any cars that might slow us down. I breathed a sigh of relief as we arrived safely at our destination.

But our destination was a park, dotted with oak trees and giant sycamores. I shaded my eyes and glanced around, wondering why we stopped here. The guide ignored my questions and led me to a shady spot with a circle of people who were sitting cross-legged in the grass. I was amazed at the eclectic group of people, some sporting tangles of morning hair, others with an armful of tattoos, some in their sun dresses accompanied by a baby in a carriage. A few sat in front of their surfboards, and still others sported pierced ears, noses, lips and eyebrows. A young family shared a beach blanket, wearing swimsuits with beach sand still stuck to the children’s legs. I felt out of place in my long sleeve plaid shirt, jeans, and runners, but they moved aside, enlarging the circle to welcome us.

A young couple with matching dreadlocks strummed the strings of their acoustic guitars to lead the others in songs of praise. They lifted their hands, swayed to the music, and shouted out their joyful words of gratitude. Some sang with eyes closed, others lifted their faces to the heavens. The sweet sound of their voices blended in a chorus of joyful expressions, honoring God, Creator of all heaven and earth, and exalting our Lord Jesus as Savior, Lord, and soon coming King.

A young mother rocked her baby, singing as if to comfort the child with words of peace from above. Little children ran around the circle of worship, stopping occasionally to lean on their parents and to join in their celebrative chorus. Birds in the trees united their songs with those of the brothers and sisters below.

As the singing ended, a man in black jeans and t-shirt with a rough wooden cross hanging from his neck on a string, opened a wicker picnic basket, popped the cork on a bottle of Napa Valley wine and poured it into a wooden cup. He took a loaf of bread and broke it in two. He spoke in a confident, clear voice, quoting Jesus: “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He lifted the cup and proclaimed God’s Word to the gathering: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

He broke off a piece of bread, ate it, and passed the loaf around the circle for each to partake. The little children eyed their parents as if they were ready to eat too. Then he drank red wine from the wooden chalice and passed it around the gathering.

As I joined together with them to eat the bread and drink from the cup, my heart knew that I was one with them in spirit.

I came back to reality with a start as the morning sun pierced through the slats of my window blinds. My eyes blinked, wondering for a second where in the world I would find myself. But I was in my chair at home where I had been praying before my day began. I shook my head to gain my bearings, I felt saddened that this may only have been a dream. I started to reach for my coffee cup, but I realized I was clutching a white prayer cloth to my chest. Tears of joy welled up in my eyes.

Recollections of the journey caused my head to spin and overwhelmed me with memories of this life-changing journey. I looked into the bottom of my coffee cup and saw a reflection of my face, but it was as if I could also see the faces of friends with whom I had joined in praise and worship around the world. I could see the bright Hawaiian faces, the joyful faces of the Chinese, the delighted faces of the people of India, the sparkling brown eyes of my African brothers, the grateful, worshipful expressions of the Israelis, the glad faces of my country family, the happy faces of those who worshiped in Minnesota, and the delightful faces of the circle of friends in the park at the beach.

I could hear the echo of their voices and instruments joined together from every corner of the globe in great celebration before the throne of our Great and Mighty King. My ears became overwhelmed with the resounding music, a choir of ten thousand blending their voices harmoniously, each in its own style and manner, perfect chords of praise and worship coming together to honor and glorify God, Creator of all heaven and earth.

A light switched on inside me, brighter than the morning sun, enlightening me to a great truth. Music, every style of music, is a means God has given us to carry our heartfelt praises before the throne of grace. This is now my heart’s desire — to invite all my newfound brothers and sisters from every tribe, nation, people, and tongue to come to my church to teach us the very heart of worship and praise and to bring the gift of exaltation for us to enjoy with them. I imagined faces of every color coming together in a great, melodious orchestra of worship, strengthening us in a bond of Christian fellowship. I could see a wave of lifted hands moving around the earth as the sun rose to warm God’s creation, songs of praise, worship and exaltation to a Mighty and Holy God, Creator of all heaven and earth.

Now I see that worshipful music of all kinds is a way to carry God’s living Word into our hearts, renew our minds, and imprint Christ in our spirit. At each stop on our round-the-world jaunt, no matter how different the music, Christ was glorified as each gathering lifted holy hands with words of adoration resonating from their heart of hearts, accompanied with music that was familiar and pleasing to them.