Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Psalm 103:1 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I will mark a milestone in my spiritual journey. It was a frigidly cold February night in 1981 when I decided to become a follower of Jesus. It’s been forty years.
The number 40 is significant in the Great Story. It is the number of trial, testing, and ordeal:
Noah’s flood resulted from 40 days of rain.
Moses lived 40 years in Egypt, then led the Hebrews through the wilderness for 40 years.
Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days being tempted by the Evil One.
The resurrected Jesus appeared to his followers over a 40 day period before ascending to Heaven.
Ezekiel laid on his side for 40 days as a word picture of the sins of the kingdom of Judah.
Elijah fasted for 40 days on Mount Horeb.
So, I’ve found myself meditating on my spiritual journey of late as I mark the milestone. I had been raised going to church as a child, but the experience for me was largely about ritual. It was something I did because it was what my family did each week. It’s not to say that it wasn’t without its lessons and benefits, but it was largely a weekly physical routine and family ritual to be endured. After completing my confirmation coursework at the age of 13 my parents told me that I could decide on my own if I wanted to go to church or not. So, I stopped going.
What happened a couple of years later on that cold February night was something completely different than anything I’d ever experienced. It was not a religious ritual or physical routine. It was something that happened in my inmost being. I opened my spirit and invited Jesus to come in. I made a spirit decision to surrender myself to following Jesus, whatever that might mean. Something was spiritually birthed in me that is still growing 40 years later.
Jesus gave His followers a word picture about the most religious people of His day. He said that religion was an ornate marble crypt you might see in your local cemetery. It looks beautiful, majestic, and expensive from the outside as you’re driving by, but if you step inside the crypt you’ll only find darkness, cobwebs, and decomposing bones.
If find that a really accurate description of my spiritual experience before that February night forty years ago. I physically went through religious rituals. I mentally considered the things I was taught. I took a class, learned what was required to take a test, and got a piece of paper telling me I was now a member of the institution. Yet, there was no spiritual change.
In today’s chapter, Psalm 103, King David pens the lyrics to a really beautiful song of praise to God. When David was still a kid, God called him “a man after my own heart” and Psalm 103 is a testimony to the intimate Spirit relationship David experienced.
In the very first verse David says that it praise comes from his soul. The Hebrew word he uses there (nepes) alludes to “breath” or the “essence” and “life force.” He then states that his “inmost being” (the Hebrew word is qereb) praises. This word alludes to the intimate interior of the heart that is the seat of thought and emotion. In other words, David is not calling his listeners to trek to church each Sunday and go through the ritualistic motions. This is David, who once got so intense in his worshp that he peeled down to his tighty-whities as he danced and publicly embarrassed his wife. David is calling his listener to an experiential rendevouz with the Creator. He is calling for an all-out ecstatic expression that comes from the depths of one’s soul. A personal exhale of life force in a euphoric song and dance with the divine.
In the quiet this morning, I find my spirit stirred by David’s spirit and the words it motivated in his lyrics. Dude, I get it. It isn’t about empty religious ritual and rote mental and physical machinations. That’s just a crypt. It’s about that which is spiritually alive in me that has to get out. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah described: a fire shut-up in my bones. It’s that life that was birthed in my inmost being forty years ago. I look back from 40 years further down life’s road and find that it only grows stronger within me, even as my body grows slowly weaker.