Going Through the Motions

1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.

2 Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his

presence with singing.

There are times in life when responding to the psalmist's call here is natural. We can let go of our cares and concerns and enter into joyful praise and worship, singing effortlessly about our God. Other times, not so much. We may be able to drag ourselves out of bed and to a worship service, but we hardly have a song on our lips.

When I was in seminary I learned a valuable lesson about this. For a year I served as a student assistant pastor at a small storefront United Church of Christ congregation in South Dallas. The pastor, nearing retirement age, was trying to hold this aging flock of a few dozen members together in the most meaningful way possible.

When I volunteered for this internship, I got a lot more than I expected. Seminary students were expected to serve in a church for at least thirteen weeks in order to gain some ministry experience in the real world. Many would take on one particular ministry or function for the prescribed time and be done with it, but I wanted to fully engage in the pastoral experience in order to help me determine God's call for me-whether I should follow in my father's footsteps as a pastor or pursue work in religious communications.

So this pastor took me under his wing and put me to work. I preached once a month, taught the junior high school kids (all three of them) weekly, attended church meetings, folded the newsletter, went on hospital visits with him, helped lead the Wednesday evening Bible study, even sat in on pre-marital counseling sessions. Whatever he did as a pastor, I was his shadow.

Before long, carrying a major seminary class load, working at several part-time jobs to support my family, and being so actively involved in the ministry of this church started to take a toll on me. I began to feel taken advantage of by this pastor, even though I had volunteered for it all.

Then, after nearly a year of all this, my son was born. That blessed event consumed several busy days, making sure he and his mother were healthy, bringing him home to our duplex, helping out with feeding and diaper changes at all hours, and all that. In the midst of it all, I was supposed to preach that Sunday morning. I called the pastor the Friday before and told him how exhausted I was, and that I needed to skip this Sunday.

He sighed deeply. "Pete," he said very seriously, and rather unsympathetically I thought, "when you're the pastor of a church, you don't get to skip a Sunday like that. No matter what's going on in your life, no matter how rotten or tired you feel, your people need you to be there and lead them in worship."

I was stunned and upset, but too fatigued to argue, so I showed up that Sunday and preached. I have no idea now what I said. Later I realized that this pastor himself was constantly dealing with personal issues, health problems, all manner of burdens, but he always showed up at church with a warm smile, a ready hug, and a word of encouragement.

Sometimes you just have to show up and go through the motions of worship. You just have to be there to hear with weary ears what the psalmist reminds us:

3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.

5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

When I don't feel like making a joyful noise, that's when I need to let the truths of this ancient song sink in. To let this psalm, no doubt sung beautifully and joyfully and loudly in the temple so many centuries ago, echo ever so lightly within my heart. To hear it. To know it. To let it shape my perspective, and reshape my priorities.

Gradually, over time, going through the motions enables us to stretch our spiritual muscles and helps us overcome our sadness, exhaustion, or self-centeredness.

Whatever is going on in our lives, God is worthy of worship. And in the grand scheme of things, ultimately, God's steadfast love and faithfulness will shine, banishing every shadow of darkness, every hint of pain and exhaustion forever.

So be there now. Enter into God's presence with thanksgiving and praise. Whatever it takes, give thanks. Praise God's name. Maybe it won't feel very authentic right now, but it will in time.

Adapted from a chapter in Peter's new book, _ Connected: You and God in the Psalms _ (Morehouse Publishing).