This is not the dirt you’re looking for.
Several summers ago we built five raised garden beds in our backyard. We love having fresh veggies and herbs around. It’s hard to beat a plate of garden-fresh tomatoes and basil, drizzled with a little olive oil. But building the beds was only the beginning of the process. The next step was filling them with dirt. After a lot of research we found a source of soil that looked good. It was riverbed soil, a good mix of soil and sand. So we ordered a truck-full.
A few days later a truck dumped an enormous pile of dirt in our driveway. That’s when we found that it was not what we expected.
It had very little sand and its consistency was more like clay than soil. We were so disappointed. It took a mountain of extra sand and peat and garden soil before this soil was anywhere close to what we needed for our garden. We expect that we’re going to have to keep adding those things every spring for the next few years in order to end up with the soil we really wanted – the kind that is bursting with life
Ummm… what does this have to do with a worship experience you ask? Hold that thought.
Jesus’ Dirt Story
In Matthew 13 Jesus told a story about soil. Short version: a farmer went out to sow his crops, but the seed that he threw landed on different kinds of soil. Some fell on the hard-packed roadway. Some fell on the rocky soil by the road. Some fell in the ditch with the weeds. Some of it – finally – landed in the good soil that had been cultivated and prepared.
Of course, what happened next with that seed depended on the soil it landed on.
The seed on the hard-packed soil never even made it into the dirt. Birds flew down and helped themselves. The seed in the rocky soil started to grow, but the roots were shallow because of all the obstructions. When the weather got hot, the plants withered. The seed that fell in with the weeds never really grew, because the weeds took all the sun and nutrients. Only the seed in the good soil produced a crop.
In Jesus’ story, the soil was an analogy of different hearts and how they respond to the gospel message. Hearts that are hard don’t hear. Hearts that are shallow or overgrown with competing priorities can’t really listen well to what they hear. Only hearts that are ready and laid open can hear.
The Dirt on Worship
Jesus wasn’t talking about a worship experience, but this principle has pretty significant implications for that area of the Christian life. In my years as a pastor and worship leader, I have heard a countless stream of people complain about how little they get from worship.
One man told me that he didn’t do personal worship or time with scripture anymore because he’d already heard it all, he couldn’t find anything new. Essentially he was bored. You might not have ever said anything that extreme, but if you’re like me, you’ve struggled with finding meaningful worship time.
First, I will say this: Worship is not a machine.
Whether we’re talking about personal worship in the early morning over a cup of tea, or gathered worship with a gospel choir and rock band, worship is not a vending machine where you put in your time, turn the dial, and get out an experience that feels a certain way.
Sometimes God shows up in powerful and unexpected ways. Sometimes God doesn’t show up like that. There is a flexibility and uncertainty about how God will show up that we need to accept. In the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis created the character of Aslan the Lion in order to talk about the nature of God and one point he made several times was that Aslan was not a tame lion.
What kind of soil are you?
But having said that, there is a diagnostic question we can ask about the quality of our worship time. What kind of soil are we?
Jesus’ story says two important things. One, our hearts can be in different states. Two, the state of our heart impacts His ability to break through into our experience. So what does that look like when you choose to worship?
- Are you a hard-packed road when it comes to worship?
Do you find yourself hard and numb to the experience? Some of us have been doing this for years, longer than we can remember. We’ve sung our favorite hymns and worship songs countless times. We’ve read the passages. We’ve done the “worship activities.” If we’re honest, our truthful expectation is that nothing new is going to happen. Well, Jeremiah 29 says that we will find God when we seek with all of our hearts. It’s hard to seek if our expectation is that we’re not going to find. Maybe you need to pray for the hard-packed surface of your heart to be broken up to new expectations?
- Maybe you are rocky soil in your worship time.
You love the experience. Maybe the music moves you, or you’re one of those who loves candles and art. Maybe you love to sing at the top of your lungs and it feels so cathartic. But then you leave that moment and the truths you just sang about don’t find any root in your life. Romans 12:1 tells us that worship is an act of submission. If we aren’t willing to align our lives with the heart of the One we worship, then our worship is shallow. It’s the experience of a moment, rather than an expression of who we are becoming. Maybe you need to choose to come to worship with a heart willing to be changed, and consider how you might take the experience of worship into the choices, the words, the actions of your day, where they can take deep root in you.
- And of course, it’s so easy to be lost in the weeds during worship.
Every one of us has to choose what to do with our competing priorities. Every worship leader has to learn to transcend the logistical issues – arrangments and craft and musicianship – in order to truly worship. The rest of us have to sort out how to navigate past the emotional baggage of the week, or the pressures of making ends meet, or unhappiness with something happening in our church. Any of us who choose to set aside time for personal worship have a similar list of things to set aside – the pressure of work, responsibilities, the sense that personal worship is wasted, unproductive time. These weeds can choke the life out of worship, never even letting it see the light of day. Maybe you, like me, need to pray about how to worship in spite of competing priorities.
The good soil times.
But there are times for all of us when our hearts are ready for a worship experience. We read scripture, we sing a song, we journal, and for a moment it really seems like we connected with something beyond ourselves. God shows up and confirms or convicts or comforts. Those moments are so wonderful. Some part of that is about when God, in His sovereignty chooses to show up. But some part of it – a big part – has to do with whether the soil of our heart is ready for worship.
Next time you set out to worship – whether it’s at your kitchen table, or in a sanctuary somewhere – start by considering the soil of your heart. Does it need a bit of cultivation? Does it need to be broken open first? It’s not all up to you. Grace means that God is there to meet you, equip you and empower you. But you still get to choose. Bring your heart in whatever state it’s in, but ask for God to help you lay it open to worship, so that He can take deep root in you.