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True Worship: Experience or Encounter?

This feature is a special excerpt from the book Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society by Tim Willard and Jason Locy. Download the Kindle version for 99 cents until Monday!

Behold, the dwelling place
of God is with man.

 — Revelation 21:3 ESV

If you ever have the chance, do yourself a favor and explore the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona all meet. It’s the kind of place that feels like God took extra care to create. In New Mexico, you can drive a hundred miles in any direction, stop the car, and step out into the resounding silence of a mesa desert where the silence hovers, permeating the entire region.

The Durango silence differs; there, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains rifle up toward the sky, thick with bristle cone pine and aspens. Creeks and rivers knife down and through the mountains, splashing liquid white upon the outdoor canvas. And then there’s the sound. At 4:00 a.m. on a clear June night, you can see just enough of your surroundings to feel uneasy. All is still, except for the air whistling ever so gently through the pines while the aspen leaves rustle their approval. And when you look up, through the trees, the stars jump out of the darkness like millions of surfacing whales, majestic and fearsome.

Beneath the canopy, you can barely see your campsite. If not for the whale stars, all would be black. As you stand outside your tent, you can hear your heart beating, but just barely. The silence has a rhythm — the cadence of the leaves, the flow of the rushing water, and the crackle of a neighboring fire. These are the sounds of the San Juan silence, and they are wonderfully deafening.

Next, head west, just over the mountains, to Moab, Utah. Grab some java at Mondo Coffee and hit the Porcupine Rim trail on your mountain bike or take a jeep tour of the red desert. Then, continue northwest and spend the night in Bryce Canyon.

In Bryce, another kind of silence awaits, the brilliant kind. Camp near the rim of the canyon if you can. There are plenty of sites. Do your best to wake up well before the dawn. Hike over to Sunrise Point and set up your camp chair facing east over the canyon. And wait. If you have coffee, bring it; you may also want your journal.

From this vantage point, you will be able to see more stars than you ever thought possible. They are not the same whale stars from Durango; these are the minions of God — the infinite army of light soldiers, their shields shimmering like a pirate’s treasure. They’re a spectacle so vivid you can decipher them by color and size. But this is not why you’re sitting here.

As the sun gets closer to the horizon, the stars fade and the canyon begins to wake. All the hoodoo rock formations with their red-rock hues come into view, and you begin to see the valley stretch out before you. The thin mountain air crystallizes the view. And then it happens: the first peek of sunlight emerges, shouting past the horizon like a growling giant. The canyon explodes with color. The sky bleeds into a rainbow while the canyon dances in shadows and light.

The sound is brilliant, painted with color and majesty and wonder, and a touch of magic. As you watch it all unfold, you gasp. Again, you can hear your heart beating, fast. You breathe in while your eyes dart from canyon to sun to sky to journal. Nothing more to do but sit and listen and watch.

The weight of silence, the fullness of solitude — we are not familiar with either. They seem strange and uncomfortable to us. And yet within them are the deep murmurings of God.

You will, undoubtedly, be hard pressed to find a place devoid of sound, so perhaps the better idea of silence rests in the act of being quiet, hushing your words to hear God’s. And doing so in a place of beauty, removed from distractions.

The Four Corners’ version of silence and solitude is grand. Its massiveness makes you feel insignificant. If you’ve ever rappelled down a sheer Sierra Nevada cliff or dropped two hundred feet into the pitch black belly of a mountain, then you know the feeling of complete helplessness — your heart beating in your ears, your mind racing through death scenarios. Fear and exhilaration fill the encounter. The allure of this part of the country rests in its wildness and unpredictability. At any moment, you could be crushed by its immensity. It drips with holy grandeur, like God is hovering over and breathing down on the land.

Path to Self-Abandonment

Who is God to you?

When you daily approach him, how do you do it? What motivates you? Do you come to him with a scripted mindset as if you were taking a vacation to Disney World where you know exactly what to expect? Do you bank on God’s being and acting a certain way?

Or do you approach him with zero expectations?1 The same way you’d approach hiking a newfound trail. You would start walking, taking in the view. Nothing scripted, nothing predictable.

What do you bring before him? Do you bring him the cracked vessel of you? Or do you bring him a veneered you, the lost and afraid you?

What does it mean to worship him?

Too often we treat God as our pocket Savior, our own personal Jesus, or our political fail-safe or maybe even our get-out-of-jail-free card for a way of living we know isn’t on the up and up.

“If you have only come the length of asking God for things,” writes minister and teacher Oswald Chambers, “you have never come to the first strand of abandonment, you have become a Christian from a standpoint of your own.”2 And this will not fly. We cannot approach God as though he were a cosmic superstore. We must be willing to hold the relational position of self-abandonment.

Self-abandonment? Isn’t this the society in which the pursuit of self gets rewarded? Do we not promote language like “positive self-speak” and “leveraging influence” and “expressing yourself”? In our society, if you’re not leveraging or maximizing something, you’re underachieving.

But no matter how much we try to skew the Christian life, we cannot wiggle away from Christ’s own challenge to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”9 Through Christ we find that grace transforms us out of our fallenness and that mercy challenges us to follow after Christ himself, a way of life wholly other.

Life’s realities make following along this narrow path difficult. It can be lonely. We’d rather be friends with God and fall into a nonchalant faith of church attendance and worship events than to seek him in the brilliant silence. Many of us are frustrated in our spiritual lives because we feel like God doesn’t hear us. But should that frustration surprise us when we ask of him from a position of selfishness?

Seventy-five years ago, poet T. S. Eliot wrote,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.12

Eliot’s words are familiar to us. Not because we have read them before but because we have lived them and are living them. In gaining the world, we refuse to abandon the self. We are nearer to the dust and have nothing to show for it.