authentic worship, hands down

A few years ago I was in a worship service with a Tambourine Lady. No one else in the service had brought a tambourine, much less decided to play it during the singing. No one else had moved to an open space to find room to sway and to jingle. Like the lone apple in a bowl of oranges, Tambourine Lady took her place among us. I am thinking of her now.

I’m standing at the front of the room, just to the left of the podium I will shortly stand behind to speak, and my body language is completely wrong. It’s a fairly small room, so the fact that my hands are at my sides is particularly evident, even though everyone else is on their feet as well. From behind the keyboard you repeat your plea that we be free in our worship, that we let go and throw our hands in the air, let go of worry about what others might think. Come on, ladies, let’s raise every hand in this place to the glory of the Lord. Be free.

The music swells, the singing grows louder. My arms stay conspicuously at my sides.

It’s a beautiful song, a God-exalting, glory-laden chorus, suitable for the throne room itself. I am deeply moved.

No one will judge you here. Raise your hands to your Father! Every hand!

Oh, man. I try to focus my thoughts away from the possibility that eyes are watching me through that sea of upraised arms, wondering why their retreat speaker is so uptight. I half expect to glance up and see my hands, like two traitors, mutinously occupying the space above my head. But no, they seem to be still in their usual place. Think about the God of the song. Think about the God of the song. Don’t worry about it - just worship.

The chorus, one more time. Okay, sure, three more times. I hear a faint jingling sound in the back of my consciousness.

Sweet, earnest worship leader, I hope I haven't let you down. Your job, like mine, is hard: we ask people to step outside what is comfortable. I gather that you may have recently flung off the fetters of conservative worship, and that’s tremendous. I say that without irony. But there's something I need you to understand.

Authentic worship means to me exactly what it means to you: the freedom to worship as the Lord leads. I have traveled the length of the denominational spectrum. I have been instructed to kneel, shout, laugh, fall over, chant, throw my hands up, take off my shoes, sway with my neighbor, and dance like David danced. It was a long trip through myriad worship styles, and participation was not always optional. My hands are at my sides for the same reason yours are thrown in the air: because I am free - free from the expectations of any of my fellow worshippers, free to worship in whatever posture the Spirit leads.  The truth is, I do occasionally raise my hands, but never when told to by a worship leader or a lyric. Because of my history, nothing could be more inauthentic, nothing less free.

So for me, and I suspect for a few others, authentic worship looks a little different than it might for many – a little less demonstrative. Let’s just say you’re never going to sustain a tambourine-related injury standing next to me. It would grieve me to know that you felt dishonored by my failure to participate in the manner you encouraged.  But it would grieve me more to know I had traded authentic worship for the comfort of conformity.

Tambourine Lady understood that. And taught me that. I am her, in my own way.

You are dead right – we must be free in our worship. Sometimes freedom raises its hands, and sometimes it sways and jingles. And sometimes freedom stands quietly and trembles. Believe me, it is entirely possible to have your heart in your mouth and your hands at your sides.  What you see is not fear or hardness. It is worship unbound.