The Landscape of the Heart

A few summers ago my family spent a week at Hilton Head Island in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Each morning I would wake up, drink a cup of coffee and either head out for a run or a bike ride. One particular morning I went for a bike ride down the beach with my camera pack, eager to get some great photographs of the sea oates and sand dunes. I biked for several miles, however, and soon entered the Port Royal Sound. I was surprised that as I biked into the more isolated, marshy landscape of the sound, the constant mantra of the tides dissipated into an eerie silence.

The terrain shifted from movement and current to stagnant waters, rock, and a more elemental presence. Still filled with beauty, but a bit more wild in its appearance. In the midst of this marshy environment stood two trees. I was captivated by their elemental beauty and the stark contrast with the sea oates and tidal rhythm in which I had been previously immersed. I took several shots of these trees and felt a kindred emotion with this somewhat primitive landscape. It was a lonely place, but its beauty was inescapable. It connected with me emotionally, intuitively, beyond words or simple description.

Often, the landscape of the heart is marked by barrenness and idolatry, but we never talk about it. It is a landscape we would rather avoid. We much prefer the background noise of a busy life to the eerie silence of loneliness, lamentation, and self-absorption.

After listening to friends and fellow worship leaders pour out their hearts in loneliness, frustration, or despair; after hearing of yet another fallen ministry leader; after reflecting on my own wilderness journey, I am convinced that we are simply not in touch with the barren and idolatrous landscape of our own hearts. And thus, we need to learn how to cultivate the heart of the psalmist. We need to learn how to find God in the midst of all circumstances of life. We need language that is deep enough and honest enough for the full range of human emotion.

From the darkest of lament to the most exuberant of praise, the psalms portray the lyrical record of lives lived in perpetual response to God. In the psalms we are given a vocabulary strong enough to articulate our deepest desires and emotions. Through the psalms we can learn how to express ourselves honestly, but healthily, in the midst of the various circumstances of life. This is one of reasons why, in our present day, we need a more robust use of the psalms in worship: to help us develop a richer expression of praise and lament, doubt and adoration, joy and tears.

I wish I had known this language more deeply as I began my first full-time position as a worship leader. Ironically, my first year in full-time ministry was filled with a deep sense of loneliness, a burdening sense of inadequacy, a naïve understanding of people and church politics, and an unhealthy need of approval.

All of this combined with a traumatic and devastating hand injury, a long distance relationship, and no real sense community often led me down a path of learning how to numb my pain and escape from my circumstances. So often I had a real choice before me: I could either choose to find satisfaction in God alone, or turn to something else for comfort. Unfortunately, I often chose the idol of escape.

The sad thing is that, most of the time, I wasn't in touch with the emotional landscape of my heart enough to know why I felt so restless; nor did I have a biblical language to meet me in my restlessness. And, quite frankly, I simply did not want to sit in my pain long enough to find the voice of God.

What I desire to see happen in the body of Christ is for worship to become more than just an hour on Sunday. My desire is to see worshippers, not just raising their hands in the congregation, but pouring out their praise and their lament on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. I want to see the full gamut of expression become second nature for the body of Christ. We need to make the connection from the corporate gathering on the Lord's Day to our private lives of worship the rest of the week. Getting there is going to require us to get in touch with landscape of our hearts, particularly, the barrenness (lamentation, addictions) and the idolatry (ambition, stardom). As William Cowper once penned:

“The dearest idol I have known, whate'er that idol be; help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee.”

I hope that we can learn to be more transparent and let the Lord search the deep places of our hearts. I hope that we will begin to sit still enough to hear the voice of God amidst the various landscapes of the heart. Hopefully, through the psalms, we can begin to know these places emotionally and intuitively. May we learn how to be still and gaze upon our Redeemer. May the Lord be with us on this journey into the heart of the psalmist, into the heart of worship.


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