Soul music. Then sings my soul. Soul searching. I’ve anchored my soul in the haven of rest. Put some soul into your singing. Deep in my soul. Soul Train. (Wow, I’ve dated myself with that one!)
We hear the word soul a lot in our society, but its usage has shifted somewhat. Nowadays, when someone says, “He’s such a lost soul,” we assume the comment refers to someone who acts confused and lonely, having no sense of purpose in life.

Years ago, we might have thought the comment referred to someone who needed to be evangelized.

Back then, gospel song writers penned lyrics such as “Lead me to some soul today.” Today we rarely hear of a person referred to as a “soul.”

No matter how it’s used, the word soul is hard to define. Describing it as “our personality” helps children understand, but that’s about as inadequate as using a red paper cutout to illustrate “love” or “heart.”

Psychologists often use the word soul to mean The Self, referring to the core of our being, or our unvarnished inner life.

Jungian analyst James Hollis has a recurring theme in his acclaimed books (“The Middle Passage,” “Creating a Life,” “Swamplands of the Soul”): Our lives have meaning and fulfillment only to the extent that we live consciously, i.e., not on autopilot, buffeted by reactionary behavior because of unexamined assumptions about the world around us.

Living consciously is the only reward of a never-ending process of self-examination (“soul work”), which requires honesty, love and courage.

One would think that such an effortful process of self-discovery would at least result in our finding answers to our problems or getting relief from our suffering.

However, consciousness (intentionality, meaning) is a greater reward and is exactly what our souls long for.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. … Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be … different for our having passed through it.”

If consciousness deepens our human relationships and self-understanding, how much more satisfying is our divine-human relationship when worship is experienced consciously.

The psalmist refers to our souls “thirsting” for God. Jesus said to “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind” (Matthew 22).

Simply “going through the motions” on Sundays is not really worship at all. It is merely pseudo-worship, and its insincerity is disappointing to God.

Authentic worship requires our being intentional. Being focused on God. Being “soul-full.”

Worship leaders may try to create space in which God can act, planning worship services that help people connect with God.

But even the most user-friendly worship format will fall flat for individual congregants unless they are attentive to God’s desires rather than to human likes and dislikes or distractions.

Function in worship is more important than form. There is no such thing as effortless worship. The word liturgy literally means “work of the people.”

So, what is the glorious reward for all our conscious effort at focusing on God during worship?

Transformation. A closer, deeper relationship with God. An awareness in our souls that God is both with us and for us. 

And that’s what we are ultimately seeking when we enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Right?

Naomi K. Walker is music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. This column first appeared on her blog about music and worship.

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