Worship that closes the us-them divide

Living outside of my home country changed me. I’ve traveled to almost every continent as a tourist, but it was those five years of living in Canada that changed me. I became a world citizen while still being an American citizen. I still have a unique sense of connection with the United States, but living abroad connected me elsewhere as well.

It’s easy to live with an “us” versus “them” mentality. Our preoccupation with sports continually puts us in that mindset. But we do the us-them thing in so many other areas of our lives — with race, with politics, with gender, with religion, with diet, with age, with almost anything.

We excel at tribalism, with taking care of ourselves while pushing others away.

The biblical vision could hardly be more different from this hunkered-down, self-serving approach to the world. It has always been expansive and all-inclusive.

The first chapter of the Bible establishes all of humanity as the image of God and gives us the task of spreading out and filling the earth to the glory of God (Gen. 1:27-28). But Gen. 11:1-9 tells the story of Babel, where the people refuse to spread out in order to make a name not for God, but for themselves. Talk about hunkered down self-service! God can’t have this and scatters them. Gen. 10 gives us a list of the nations of the known world at that time. Even spread-out humanity has devolved into tribalism.

So, God picks one man and his wife and promises them a family, which will grow into a collection of tribes, which will grow into a nation, which will grow into a kingdom to cover the whole earth, so that the whole earth will be blessed by them (Gen. 12:2-3). This vision gets lost and rediscovered throughout the Scriptures, but it continues as a major theme nonetheless. Jesus uses his last words to reaffirm this mission (Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-48; Acts 1:8). Finally, in the last chapter of the Bible, we see the tree of life restored to prominence and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), all of which have gathered before the throne of God (Rev. 7:9). And so the vision is ultimately completed.

But how do we live this bigger vision in our local contexts? How do we “think global, act local” in any practical way? Simply watching the news is no help. That just makes us anxious, as numerous studies have shown. We need something else.

Psalm 65 provides a simple way forward. As might be expected in the Psalms, it begins with worship.

Worship always starts locally.

We, this band of believers in this building, have gathered to worship God. It’s us and God doing some together time. There is praise. There is prayer. There is confession. There is forgiveness. There are vows. There is singing (Ps. 65 calls itself a song). There is a closeness.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion;
    to you our vows will be fulfilled.
You who answer prayer,
    to you all people will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins,
    you forgave our transgressions.
Blessed are those you choose
    and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house,
    of your holy temple (Ps. 65:1-4).

But in the middle of this local, building-based worship, something sneaks in: “to you all people will come.” That “all” messes up any potential tribalism in worship. Even though the psalm begins with “we” and “our” throughout the first four verses, that “all” glimpses outward, remembering the biblical vision.

That crack in potential tribalism breaks wide open as the psalm considers not just all peoples on the earth, but all of the earth itself. In a moment of beautiful theological honesty, the psalm acknowledges that if God made all of the earth, he also made all of the earth’s peoples. He is their hope just as much as he is ours — he is the “hope of all the ends of the earth.”

Good worship is always good theology. A true encounter with God will open our eyes to who he really is and the implications that has on how we view the world around us and how we live in it.

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds,
    God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
    and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by your power,
    having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas,
    the roaring of their waves,
    and the turmoil of the nations.
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
    where morning dawns, where evening fades,
    you call forth songs of joy (Ps. 65:5-8).

If God has answered our prayers with awesome and righteous deeds, then he is the hope of all people everywhere as well. But by mentioning all the earth and the farthest seas, the psalm’s theology-in-worship keeps rolling outward, reflecting on the creation story of Gen. 1. In that telling, God lifts the mountains out of the seas and puts boundaries on the uncreated seas so that their chaotic roaring will not harm the habitable land (Gen. 1:9-13). Because of this, everywhere where the sun rises and sets is filled with wonder at our Lord and the earth itself is summoned to worship (see also Ps. 104).

Our little local worship service has spiraled outward into a globe-spanning songfest that includes all created things. Though considered irrelevant, even the worship of our smallest gatherings sends tremors through all creation.

But the psalm isn’t done yet. The hostile relationship between the strong mountains and the malevolent seas shifts to the peaceful relationship between the arable land and the life-bring waters of streams and rain.

You care for the land and water it;
    you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
    to provide the people with grain,
    for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
    you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
You crown the year with your bounty,
    and your carts overflow with abundance
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
    the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
    and the valleys are mantled with grain;
    they shout for joy and sing.
(Ps. 65:9-11).

Not only do the “streams of God” (think on that term for a bit) cause the harvest wagons to overflow with abundance, the oases (“grasslands”) of the desert (“wilderness”) overflow as well.

And here we are, a people who began by being “overwhelmed by sins,” surrounded by a creation that overflows, blessing all the far-flung people in this vast world. Over the span of 13 verses, we’ve gone from a people waiting in silence for worship to begin to hearing, with our now worship-infused imaginations, the joyful shouts and songs of meadows and valleys. And in the middle somewhere, we reconnected with our Lord’s desire to bless and bless and bless all people and every place he has created.

Living in another country for five years helped me have a bigger vision than my own nation. But worship is the real answer to the tribalism our fractured world continues to suffer from. It’s where God’s vision enters our imagination, which spills into our day-to-day living.