Secret Liturgies

The Private Worship of a Public Leader

Sing! Conference | Nashville

In this breakout session, I’m excited to speak to you about what I think is one of the most important practical life and ministry topics we could discuss.

For one, the “secret liturgies” of spiritual leaders is a timeless topic: these truths remain the same across generations. For another, this topic is crucial. You cannot minister well to others for long without yourself being relatively spiritually healthy. So Paul says to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16); and to the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).

Also, this topic of “secret liturgies” is perhaps especially important in our age — “the age of accelerations,” according Thomas Friedman, when many of us need “permission to just slow down.” Today, he says, “the pace of technology and scientific change outstrips the speed with which human beings and societies can usually adapt” (Thank You for Being Late, 39).

According to Friedman, “We are living through one of the greatest inflection points in history, perhaps unequaled since . . . Gutenberg, a German blacksmith and printer, launched the printing revolution in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation” (3). And the late Dallas Willard, who died in 2013, said near the end of his life that “hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.”

So for those reasons, and more, I’m eager to address the topic of the leader’s “secret liturgies” and focus, very practically, on what we might call “the private worship behind a public Christian leader.”

Needy for Repeat

I’m especially eager to address this topic with those of you who are music people because of one little word you know well from hymnbooks and the sheets of worship music: repeat. Of all people, you know the power of repetition in corporate singing, however much you might be able to explain it or not.

Now, to be sure, many modern church-goers are miffed by repetition in corporate worship. The Information Age is conditioning us for new content, fresh ideas, new data. Why re-read what we’ve already read, why rehearse what we’ve already heard, why re-sing lines we’ve already sung, when new information is available like never before?

But do we know what our unprecedented access to novelty is doing to us? Indications so far seem to be that it’s making us shallower, not wiser and more mature. Running our eyes across the page and mouthing words to a song are not the same as experiencing the reality in our hearts. Our hearts simply don’t move as quickly as our eyes and our mouths.

Which makes worship of the living God — both in public and “in secret” — such an important remedy for what is increasingly ailing us today. God made us to worship him. And we are shriveling without it.

Consider the Psalms

Take Psalm 136 as just one example of the power of repetition. The psalm is twenty-six verses, and each verse ends with “for his steadfast love endures forever.” It rehearses God’s goodness and supremacy, his wonder-working and world-creating, his delivery of his people from slavery and provision for them in a rich land.

Twenty-six times the psalm repeats this refrain — and not one of them is wasted. With each new verse, another attribute or rescue of God is celebrated, and then our souls are ushered deeper into his steadfast, ever-enduring love with each glorious repetition.

The goal of the song is not to make God’s steadfast love old and boring, but exactly the opposite: to help us feel it afresh and at new depth. The dance of each new verse, with each return to the refrain, is designed to bore the central truth about God’s resilient love deeper and deeper into our inner person.

The psalm is not a treatise on the unwavering, persistent love of God, but what we call a meditation — less linear and more circular, or spiral — crafted to help auger the reality of his love from information on our mental surface down to an experience and taste in our hearts.

Heart of Leadership

Our task in this session is to focus very practically on the private worship behind the public leader. So let me take you to Deuteronomy 17 as we consider the “secret liturgies” of those who would lead the public liturgies of corporate worship.

Long before Israel had a king, the nation’s first and greatest prophet left specific instructions for him, including where and how he would find his bearings each day as the leader of God’s people. In Deuteronomy 17:14–20, Moses describes a concession God would make one day, setting a human king over his people. As he does, he warns such kings about the dangers of “excessive silver and gold,” “many wives,” and “many horses” — that is, money, sex, and power (Deuteronomy 17:16–17).

Moses gives a specific reason for these cautions: “lest his heart turn away.” This is where the point of departure will be, humanly speaking, for regimes and generations to come: the heart of the leader. Look at verses 14–17:

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.”

“As goes the leader’s heart, so goes the leader, and so goes the people.”

So, we might say, as goes the leader’s heart, so goes the leader, and so goes the people. Will he heed the siren calls around him, the subtle temptations to the compromises of acclaim and special privilege? Will he take advantage of his willing and submissive followers who are eager to give him benefit of the doubt? Will he slowly construct his own reality around him that serves his own private comforts rather than the holy interests of the people?

Keys to the Leader’s Heart

The battle lines will first be drawn in the leader’s own heart — which explains why Moses’s next instructions turn where they do, unexpected and perhaps peripheral as they may seem to some. And what Moses writes next is all the more striking because it’s issued generations before the nation would have its first king.

When a new king ascends to the throne in Israel — with all the pomp and circumstance that will doubtless accompany such a coronation — as his first act, he is to take out a quill and write word for word, with in his own hand, his own copy of God’s law, and “read in it all the days of his life.”

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18–20)

Note again the emphasis on his heart. God’s plan for his leaders so that their hearts not turn away, is that their hearts be formed and fed daily by God’s word. Consider, then, three aspects of this simple yet profound plan, which is just as relevant for Christian leaders and churches today.

1. The Book Shapes the Leader

This book, copied longhand by the king himself, is not a journal. The new king is not recording his own feelings or preferences or decrees — not in this book. Rather, he is copying the book of God’s law — an objective, fixed text, not open to edits and adjustments. This hand-copied book, then, is to be reviewed and approved by the priests, to confirm that no changes have been introduced or anything omitted.

In other words, the leader doesn’t shape this book; this book shapes the leader. However great he may be in the sight of his people, the king fundamentally does not shape the world (or even his own kingdom) through his words, but he is being shaped by God through God’s words.

2. The Book Keeps the Leader

God also designs that this book will keep the king, as he is bombarded by the world of privileges and temptations leadership can bring. As the king keeps the words of God in the book, the book will keep the king — that is, keep him from turning aside to the right or left, turning from the fear of God to fear of man, from faithfulness to God to the pursuit of his own private, sinful pleasures.

In shaping the king’s heart, the book keeps him from subtle daily migrations away from God, which is why Moses twice mentions the inner man, “the heart.” The unseen heart of the king will come, in time, into expression in his life and the nation’s. Self-humbling before God and his word will give rise to a whole trajectory of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions; pride, to another. And the greater the leader, the greater the effects, for good or ill.

3. The Book Calls Each Morning

Finally, the king’s hand-copied, priest-approved book, Moses says, “shall be with him . . . all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:19). With him — that is, nearby, constantly within reach. Having completed this great hand-copying project, he is not to store the book away for future reference, but make it functional, accessible, active in his reign — increasingly in him through countless hours lingering over it.

This book is designed to be read daily. And not the sort of reading to which the pace and pixels of our modern lives have accustomed us: fast-break, hurried, distracted reading, with words coming out of the head almost as quickly as they went in.

Different Kind of Reading

Rather, the kind of reading God intends for his servant is meditative — slow, unhurried, enjoyable feeding on the text, at the pace of the text, rather than the pace of the world. Pondering God’s words. Rolling them around in the mind long enough to get a sense of them on the heart. Such daily meditation on the words of God is what God so memorably expects of Joshua as he becomes Israel’s new leader in Moses’s place:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Joshua 1:8)

So too, generations later, when Israel finally had its king, the first psalm celebrated where the godly king would find his sense and wisdom to rule: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). And not only the king, but every man of God: “Blessed is the man . . .” (Psalm 1:1).

So too, when the ultimate man, David’s great heir, came among us, his shaping and keeping and wisdom to live and lead grew out of regular feeding on the words of his Father: “Man shall not live by bread alone,” he said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

In the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come [magically from heaven] during the period of his public ministry; it was grounded no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation” (The Holy Spirit, 44).

His Father appointed means for his stability in his truly human life. And it was not some extraordinary means or special trick. It was the same great and modest, amazing and ordinary daily means heralded by Moses, tested by Joshua, embraced by David, and imitable by the godly today: daily meditation on the very words of God.

Let’s say more about meditation, which is increasingly a lost art in our age.

What Makes Meditation Christian?

Non-Christian forms of meditation seek to empty the mind and transcend concrete specifics into the ethereal, and experience some form of meaningless enlightenment. But Christian meditation fills the mind with biblical truth and chews on it, seeking to savor it appropriately.

Unlike mere reading, even slow reading, where our minds and eyes keep moving at some pace, meditation slows us down, way down. We pause and ponder. Reading keeps us marching in linear fashion, while meditation moves us into a more spiral pattern by limiting the information set and seeking to press and apply the truth to our hearts, to actually experience the truth and not just let it run on through our minds on our way to the next thing.

Meditating Together

One remarkable aspect of corporate worship is that it gives us the opportunity to meditate together. The pinnacle of a good sermon is typically a form of corporate meditation, led by the preacher, as he circles around his main point and verbally kneads its goodness into our hearts.

And the summits of our best praises together in song are essentially meditative. It’s not the discovery and delivery of an obscure stanza that binds our hearts and draws us highest together toward heaven, but returning to the refrain, which has been enriched with each additional verse.

The verses provide fresh content, but the refrain bores the truth even deeper into our souls. The verses and refrain together help us to know the reality even better, as we collectively digest the truth from our heads into our hearts. They help us actually experience and be affected by the truth in our inner person, not just rehearse the data on the surface.

Secret Meditation

But we need to say more about “secret meditation,” or private meditation. Meditation involves a process. It’s not a switch to flip on. You don’t just meditate. Meditation is the goal and apex of Bible intake, and as a middle (often forgotten) habit, it involves lead-up and follow-up. You move into it, and move out of it.

Biblically, we find two kinds of meditation. One is spontaneous. It’s the kind of meditation that happens as we live and go about the day. Psalm 19:14 prays, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (also Psalm 49:3). That could be during the day (“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” Psalm 119:97), or Psalm 63:6 speaks of remembering God and “meditat[ing] on [him] in the watches of the night” (also Psalm 77:3; 119:148).

Another kind of meditation, we might say, is more focused, or intentional, or guided by God’s words. Genesis 24:63 tells of Isaac going “out to meditate in the field toward evening.” Joshua 1:8, as we’ve already seen, says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night . . .”

So too say many psalms. Psalm 1:2: the wise man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 119:48: “I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.” Psalm 119:15: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” This is word-guided meditation.

And while the New Testament may not use the same precise language of meditation, it does speak of setting the mind or fixing the mind (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33; Romans 8:5–7; Philippians 3:19). Perhaps most significant is Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

“What we choose to meditate on, we will gravitate toward meditating on in our spare moments.”

And these two kinds of meditation are related. Focused or intentional meditation — that is, meditation that we choose — leads to spontaneous meditation, the meditation that seems to happen to us as we go about our lives. What we choose to meditate on, we will gravitate toward meditating on in our spare moments.

Learning a Lost Art

Our focus here is on intentional, focused meditation. Having made time for such meditation, and found an undistracting place for such meditation, how might we go about pursuing it?

First is pace. By that, I mean read at the pace of the text and of understanding, and enjoyment. For most of us, this is a slower pace (perhaps a far slower pace) than we default to when reading other texts in our lives. In our age of accelerations, technology and society condition us to read faster and faster. But the Bible, as an ancient book, was written slowly and carefully to be read slowly and carefully. So we begin with an unhurried reading (and re-reading) of God’s word.

Second, then, is pause — or meditation proper. Having read the biblical text, we now pause over it to meditate on it. Without moving on, we want to go deep in this phrase or verse or idea, letting the words themselves lead us. That we not only have words in us, but we are in the words. Now what? Consider three encouragements about meditation.

1. God made us to meditate.

Meditation is a distinctively human trait; you know how to do this more than you think, like walking. And our souls were made for new mercies daily — to turn toward God. In meditation, we are fulfilling a vital aspect of how God made us: not just to do, but to think, ponder, reflect, to glorify him.

As Creator, he is glorified by his creatures doing what they do (tigers, cheetahs, eagles, whales). But he’s more glorified when his creatures acknowledge him. And he’s most glorified when they appreciate and adore him. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” So meditate in pursuit of satisfaction in God.

2. Meditation forms and shapes us.

Meditation changes us. We will meditate (that is, spontaneous meditation). Our minds will run somewhere. The question is not if, but on what. Sports? Image and physique? Job and money? Your children? Politics? Anxiety about society? News?

“We will meditate. Our minds will run somewhere. The question is not if, but on what.”

Ask yourself, What continually captures my attention? That will shape you. In fact, it is already shaping you. And especially so with what we choose to give our attention to: what we click. What you meditate on, in time, reformulates your desires. Christian meditation requires setting and resetting our minds, and in particular our hearts, on the greatest focuses possible.

3. Biblical meditation seeks joy in God today.

“Today” means right now (not just long-term formation). It aims to warm the heart, stir the affections, satisfy our souls right now in the one they were made for — as in these four statements about meditation from four seventeenth-century voices, back before meditation was a lost art:

  • Thomas Watson (1620–1686): “Study is the finding out of a truth, meditation is the spiritual improvement of a truth.”
  • Samuel Ward (1577–1640): “Stir up thy soul in [meditation] to converse with Christ. Look what promises and privileges thou dost habitually believe, now actually think of them, roll them under thy tongue, chew on them till thou feel some sweetness in the palate of thy soul.”
  • Edmund Calamy (1600–1666): In meditation, be like “the Bee that dwells and abides upon the flower, to suck out all the sweetness.”
  • William Bates (1625–1699): Since meditation often requires persistence, especially when you’re first learning the lost art, meditate “till thou dost find some sensible benefit conveyed to thy soul.” Many of us give up far too quickly and easily. Don’t let him go till he blesses you! Keep at it “till the flame doth so ascend.”

Practically, what kind of time might you set aside? I would say perhaps half an hour for beginners. And as you become familiar with reading the biblical text more slowly, and pausing to meditate on phrases and concepts that arrest your attention — and learn to find some sweetness, some sensible benefit to your soul — you’ll soon find yourself wanting more time and space, and perhaps grow it toward an hour.

We Pray to a Person

Moving toward meditation involves a certain pace — an unhurried reading of the text. Then meditation means pausing and going deep in, asking questions of, taking time to make connections and find insights. And finally, meditating leads to a third P: prayer. Prayer to God is “the proper issue,” the fitting completion of the process of meditating on him through his word. We hear from him in Scripture. We take it deep into ourselves in meditation. We speak back to him in prayer.

The way I like to say it is: begin with Bible, move to meditation, and polish with prayer. My encouragement is that once you have meditated on a verse or phrase or biblical concept for several minutes, turn it to prayer. Rather than pivoting to lists, pray through the text you’ve meditated on. Turn its concepts and promises and warnings into prayers for yourself, your spouse, your family, your church, your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors. Take God’s leading in meditation as his word to you that day, and invitation to prayer.

So: pace, pause, prayer — and if I could give you one more P, it would be Person. That is, Jesus. Bible reading is not just reading. It is God’s appointed medium, for now, by his Spirit, for our knowing and enjoying him through his Son. Remember in meditation: seek to enjoy the risen, living Christ, by his Spirit, through his word. Seek soul satisfaction in him.

Many of us expect too little when we come to the Bible and prayer. Christ is alive, seated on heaven’s throne. We have his word and his Spirit to make it alive to us. We are not just reading a book, but meeting with a living, divine Person. Jesus is real, and there, as we meet with him in meditation on his word.

Eat Like a King — and Sing!

Let me close by encouraging you to wake up each morning and eat like a king. That is, take the prescription of Deuteronomy 17 to heart, and take your cues from the commission to Joshua, and the celebration of Psalm 1, and the life of king David and king Jesus and linger in the words of God.

Steep in some specific text of Scripture. Feed your soul on the word of your Father. Come to the Bible not only to read and study, but to pause and ponder. Come to meditate on God’s word, in an unhurried, even leisurely, lingering and enjoying of God’s grace and truth in Christ.

And one last word for you as music leaders and choir members and soloists and accompanists, is this: sing. Sing! You know this better than most of us. This is what music and song are for — for slowing us down, for auguring soul-feeding and soul-sustaining truth down deep into the heart. For engaging our hearts, and shaping us, changing us, inspiring us, guiding us. Take your love of music, and your gifting in music, and put it to use in private, in secret, for the life and health of your soul.