March 23, 2006

Celebration Worship

 don’t remember when my brothers and I first learned the song; it seemed to have been a family anthem from our earliest memories. Whether we were riding in the ’62 Falcon station wagon across the vastness of the Texas plains or twisting along the unpaved mountain roads of Vermont, if it was Sabbath, you could hear us three join Mom and Dad in full voice:
            “O the place where I worship
            “Is the wide open spaces,
            “Built by the hand of the Lord.
            “Where the trees of the forest
            “Are like pipes of an organ;
            “The wind plays an ‘Amen’ chord.
            “Where the stars are the candles
            “That light up the mountains,
            “The mountains are altars of God.
            “Oh the place where I worship
            “Is the wide open spaces
            “Built by the hand of the Lord.”
There was a kind of naive honesty about the words we sang. For the members of our family, the places where we truly worshipped were frequently the wide open spaces. We attended church services faithfully, but those were not the only places we worshipped. On the cliff trails along the Brazos River, in a field of April bluebonnets, along a summer creek rippling by the road, hiking the bare ridges of the Berkshires on grey November days, we found a scale by which to measure our true size and to wonder at the immensity of our God.
It wasn’t something we could have learned indoors. The priceless legacy that my family handed down to me was the knowledge that the heavens still declare the glory of God. The firmament does show His handiwork to those who leave some room for wonder in their lives.
And when our family would occasionally travel on Sabbath morning to visit a small church our relatives attended, we would barely have taken our places in the slippery metal folding chairs when the request would come that my brothers and I sing for special music. Invariably, as I remember it, that small assembly of saints and earnest farm families would want to hear one song:
            O the place where I worship
            is the wide open spaces,
            Built by the hand of the Lord.
It wasn’t any mystery why they always wanted to hear the same song, no matter how off-key I sounded as we sang. In those days, they met in a rented community hall, surrounded by the faded trappings of the Kiwanis Club, with the town’s police locker in the back corner of the room. It was a stuffy, overheated place, made even heavier by the dreariness of what sometimes occurred there. Like us, those believers surely sensed that the worship of God must somehow trace the grandeur of who He is, and so they called for music that pointed that direction.
I spent many Sabbath mornings there, studying the cracks in the wooden floor, looking out the clouded glass windows at the treetops along the river, longing for the freedom and the joy of Sabbath afternoon. Sabbath out-of-doors, when I could go roaming through the summer fields or simply watch the sunlight fade from my seat on an old stone wall. Out there, out from under a roof, with nothing but brilliant sky above me, and good, warm soil beneath my feet, I came to know and worship a God who is always beyond adequate description. There I came to understand the truth the psalmist celebrated:
            The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
            The world, and they that dwell therein.
            For he hath founded it upon the seas,
            and established it upon the floods (Ps. 24:1).
I pray these days for what the saints of another age called “largeness of soul.” Beneath the fluorescent bulbs, upon the padded pews, I ask for a heart that God will stretch with thoughts of His untamable immensity, His creativity, His goodness, His power. I pray for a holy passion that will never let me look upon the ocean without reverence or stand upon a mountain without awe.
In the happy words of the poet, my world is still “charged with the grandeur of God.”
And I pray that it will always be.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.