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Coming Home

Outward expressions of joy are very culturally driven, dependent on the personalities of the individuals.
Read Time: 7 minutes

I grew up in a small seacoast village of fewer than 2,500 people on Cape Ann. Massachusetts has two capes, the larger one named after a fish and the much smaller one named after a queen. Like its more famous sibling (Cape Cod), Cape Ann juts out from the mainland into the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by water on three sides.

When you approach it from the south, there is a specific spot on the highway, a distinctive curve toward the east. When the wind is right, the instant you start to turn, the air changes. In the summertime, you can feel the temperature drop, smell the ocean, and hear the bells of navigation buoys and foghorns. It’s a multi-sensory experience.

Although I haven’t lived there for over fifty years, when I return and hit that curve, I know I’m coming home. I get profound feelings of gladness, peace, and, especially, a sense of joy. I am aware of changes taking place within me, both emotional and physical, which, although hard to describe, are nonetheless real and powerful. Cares seem to drop away, and I get a sense of “all’s right with the world” because of the joy I feel when coming home.

I suspect we all have a place like that: a place that generates warm associations. A place all at once familiar, imbued with fond memories, a place of family, comfort, acceptance, and nurture. As you think of that place, ask yourself three questions—Is that place your ecclesia? Do you always feel that way about your ecclesia? Do you ever feel that way about your ecclesia?  

Some Christadelphians have pondered, “Are our Memorial Services too staid? Are they overly somber? Are they devoid of joy?” After all, we are encouraged to make a “joyful noise unto the LORD.” And David danced before the Ark of the Covenant. But outward expressions of joy are very culturally driven, dependent on the personalities of the individuals.

The Bible does have something to say about joy in worship, but it doesn’t proscribe a one-size-fits-all approach. It focuses on inner joy and how we, as individual worshippers, feel as we, together with our brothers and sisters, come into our Creator’s presence. Our communal worship is distinct from our personal worship and should engender different feelings.

Psalm 84 tells us much about that inner joy when in God’s house and what it means to be there:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. (Psalm 84:1–4).1

We know that God is everywhere, and He can even make His home in us. Jesus put it this way in John’s Gospel: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23). Paul tells us “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). But there is something different and unique when we gather together to worship our Heavenly Father. This occurs when each of us comes home to God’s house, and we should feel the joy described in Psalm 84.

The Psalmist really understood the idea of “going home” and the joy it brings, not just being home, but the journey towards home. When he says that God’s dwelling place is “lovely,” he is not referring to a grand temple. After all, when the Psalm was written, the dwelling place was just a tent rather than the ornate building shortly to be built. What made it lovely was the presence of God.

This point is further emphasized in the use of the plural Hebrew word mish-khan for dwelling. Anywhere God is present is lovely. It isn’t the decorations or the architecture that makes it beautiful. God ennobles the humblest of circumstances just by being there. And since God is everywhere, we can find ourselves in lovely places wherever we, as a community, unite in worship. We don’t have to make a long journey to some center of worship (e.g., Jerusalem) to go home to God. We can feel that inner joy wherever our ecclesia meets together.

This Psalm 84:2 doesn’t describe any outward manifestation of the joy being felt but uses the language of internal feelings: “My soul longs, indeed it faints, or my heart and flesh sings,” (body and soul, in some translations). This was the place where people would feel closest to God’s presence. No wonder they felt such joy that it had a physical manifestation described as fainting. Like a bird nesting safely, the Psalmist feels it is akin to living in God’s house.

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Psalm 84:5–7).

The valley of Baca is a place of sadness (weeping in Hebrew), but those who journey to God’s house on Zion’s highway turn tears of sorrow into wellsprings of joy. Note the change from the singular in the first verses (my heart, my soul) to the plural (they go). We do not make our pilgrimage through life alone but rather in the company of believers. We strengthen each other against the cares and tribulations of the world. Like our Hymn 355 reminds us to press on in the face of adversity, to go “from strength to strength, go on, wrestle and fight and pray.”

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:10–12).

A single day in God’s house in the company of our fellow believers is a joyous day, better than all the other days spent elsewhere combined. Time with God should be our most valued time; no other time compares, and this should intensify when joined with others. God is our light and protector, our benefactor and generous Creator. Our trust in Him makes both Him and us joyful.

Given the learnings from Psalm 84, how do we manifest the joy we are instructed to have when we “come home” to God? Some feel we should approach Him with reverence and awe, conscious of the solemnity of the occasion, and “work(ing) out (y)our salvation with trembling and fear.” (Philippians 2:12)

Others feel we should make a joyful noise or sing and dance, à la David before the Ark. It is easy for us to describe other religious groups’ worship as superficial or even phony. I wonder how many variations are culturally driven rather than reflecting religious diversity.

I suspect Christadelphian Memorial Services in some parts of the world are not of the same form as in North America. I suppose the worship in Malawi takes a different local flavor than in Meriden (where I was baptized). Our religious culture now comes from a UK background, put through a New England filter—think Scottish Presbyterian as interpreted by Puritans!

In that light, I suppose we are lucky to have music still—but no guitars, please! My religious upbringing was as a Roman Catholic, where services were conducted in a foreign (dead) language. If you didn’t have a missal that translated it, the service was incomprehensible. Yet, there were times I did feel at home.

Cultures exist on both macro and micro levels. Nations have cultures, as do religious bodies (macro), but so do individual ecclesias and families (micro). Psalm 84 is all about the joy believers should have but says little, if anything, about how that joy should be expressed. 

It’s impossible to imagine trying to develop a common worship culture across our worldwide group. In fact, this is a very good thing, perhaps even divinely inspired. The Bible has a lot to say about externals versus internals. Jesus upbraided the Pharisees like this, 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. (Matthew 23:27).

God told Samuel about Saul,

But the LORD said to Samuel, Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7). 

Jesus told his disciples, 

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. (Matthew 15:18). 

James warns the early church about judging based on external appearances:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? (James 2:1–4 NASB 1995).

What matters to God is the inner joy we are supposed to feel when coming home to Him. Do our hearts leap for joy? If so, it matters little if our feet do not. Do we have hymns of praise in our souls? If so, it matters little if our vocal cords do not.

Questions like “Should we approach God with reverence and fear?” or “Should we make a joyful noise to God?” have an easy answer and the same answer—an emphatic YES!

Kevin Flatley,
Pittsburgh Ecclesia, PA

  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, unless specifically noted.
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