Long Winters and Worship

I was asked to write a blog post on another blog and wrote this:

I wish this post could be a how-to for worshipping well when you’re in a difficult season, but it’s not. In fact, it might be more of a “what not to do” based on my expertise as a person who has gotten a lot of things wrong during a very long winter.

About four years ago, I stepped down from my ministry position at my church. The perfect storm (or the Bermuda Triangle?) of mothering twin two-year-olds, worship leading for 3-4 services week after week, and serving alongside a husband who was also on staff took a major toll on me. My little guys hated being at church for 6-7 hours every Sunday, and Titus would cry every time I’d pick up my guitar. This just broke my heart. Also, I couldn’t do what I needed to do week after week with the integrity and engaged presence of mind and heart that I felt that the job deserved. I burned out, used up my emergency stores, and then burned out some more. Long story short, I had some hard conversations and quit my job. Hello, beginning of long and cold winter.

The next few years were emotional, to say the least. Leading worship had been my deep passion and so much of how I defined and valued myself was interlaced with that. Many of my friends were involved in worship, everyone knew me at church as a worship leader, and many weekends for the last 20+ years of my life were spent leading worship. Most of my world was related to worship leading. But now, worship leader retreats/ workshops/ conference lunches/ FB groups no longer felt applicable to me. I didn’t feel like I should be hanging out with the group of worship leaders in the back of the main auditorium or on Google Hangouts talking about worship stuff. Those days were in the past. I felt disqualified. I felt like I had no purpose. So I did what I needed to do to get through the weeks – I tossed out my passions, dreams, and hopes to some corner of my room. “Just forget about that part of your life. You’re done leading worship,” I told myself. But secretly I continued to wrestle. My prayer life was characterized mostly by my whining and complaining. “Why did you make me choose between my kids and worship??” “Why don’t men have to make this choice??” “It’s been over a year. Why is this still bothering me??” “Everyone will forget about me and move on!” My trust in God was broken. I felt abandoned. I thought my calling was to lead worship, but I figured that must have been mistaken. I felt like such a fool. Sounds dramatic but if I’m completely honest, it consumed me.

More years passed but they were a little different. The thing about dealing with intense emotions is that, after a while, the frantic need to respond to them begins to lose steam. I was tired of addressing them and getting nowhere. My stifled emotions began to merge together into this large mass. There was no more delineation between sadness and anger and doubt. That ugly mass just parked itself on my heart and cast its shadow all over my life. I started checking out in different areas of my life. I remember someone asking me once, “What brings you life?” and I couldn’t think of anything. I clung to my family but everything else lost its meaning. So I started counseling and working on that tangled mess that brought me to this place. I realized that I had to roll up my sleeves and work on my relationship with Jesus. Ground zero. I have been asking difficult questions, sometimes getting answers and sometimes not. I’ve been writing songs that are honest and raw, perhaps not marketable and certainly darker than what I’ve tried to write in the past, but true to myself in these moments. And I’ve been slowly opening my heart and mind and loosening my fists so that I can learn and become transformed. Messy stuff, really. No glory here. And I’m nowhere even close to being done.

Four years and four paragraphs later…what I have learned and am learning is that worship is a posture. It’s an everyday posture in dark, heavy moments, in joyful, optimistic moments, and in boring, diaper-changing, taking-out-the-trash moments. There’s no equation, no shopping list, no life hack in worship. And while I can readily put words to this in a blog post, in real life, it’s this completely ethereal thing that is so hard to grasp. I close my eyes and try to take hold of it, but I just. can’t. quite. get. it. I find that I try to contain things that are difficult to grasp, maybe so that it doesn’t escape in the midst of its formation in my mind and heart. For me, sometimes, worship leading, set lists, gear, song writing, FB groups, leading at retreats, etc., feel like cutouts in this great big shape-sorting toy where worship exists in the central space. I spent so many years collecting shapes that could fit into the cutouts so that I could somehow reach/ teach/ experience worship better. I invested so much hope and energy into those pieces, until four years ago when I had to give away most of my pieces and when the rest of my pieces no longer fit. I tried to make what I had left fit so that I could worship again, but none of it would work. No community, no invitation to lead worship, no perfect set list, no pithy saying set to catchy melodies would work. What I didn’t realize was that worship cannot be contained in that space, and those pieces/cutouts are not prerequisites or avenues to worship. It’s not about having THE experience. It’s not about leading THE worship set of all worship sets. It’s about everyday obedience and choices made in love for the most beautiful, sovereign, kind Father. And it’s full of mistakes and clumsiness, where you fall and trip as you run towards the One who has His arms out and who is cheering you on as He runs to meet you. (Just pause and let that imagery sink in.)

You know, I used to nod wholeheartedly in agreement when I’d hear these sorts of personal testimonies, but I had no idea what that actually looked like in practice in THE WINTER…The cold winter when everything is lonely and barren and covered so there’s no delineation between this and that. Winter brings a quiet death, but if you look deep into the earth, sense the rhythms of heaven, and listen with expectant ears, you can hear the whisper of what is to come. Winter’s terrain eventually changes into spring’s, but with a posture of worship, we teeter onward toward those open and strong arms while gazing at the smiling face of our Father.

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