With Eyes of Faith

I’m waiting for my daughter, standing in the back of her youth group, watching how these young people are interacting. The music is a touch louder than I might prefer. The speaker and the singers scream a bit more than I’m used to. My bee girl is sitting by herself, and the worried dad in me hopes she hasn’t been left alone the whole night.

The service is wrapping up, they’re all singing one more song. Some friends join my daughter, and everyone is called to the front.

The speaker offers a simple invitation to relationship and life in Christ. A couple hands shoot up. Cheers break out. Applause echoes through the room.

The realist in me knows that so many youth from my generation turned away from their faith as young adults.

Worried dad hopes my daughter doesn’t join their ranks.

The cynic hopes those raised hands are sincere.

But eyes of faith picture angels rejoicing as lost sheep are found.

And worried dad remembers the Father’s arms wrapping around this prodigal son when i wandered off years ago.

So i look at my daughter in the crowd, and I know it’s going to be all right.

My Monkeysphere

“I want Jesus to be in my monkeysphere.”

Okay, weird conversation piece, maybe. First, what’s a monkeysphere (if you don’t know), and second, did I go off the sacrilegious deep end or what?

1. The “monkeysphere” is a term for the number of interpersonal relationships a brain can generally maintain and care about. The term comes from monkey research where the scientists discovered that the monkeys’ brains would only allow them to form societies up to a certain number of other monkeys. A bigger brain permitted a larger society. They then tried using a human brain and ended up boosting the monkey’s “sphere” of relationships from 50 to 150.

Basically, the monkeysphere is the collection of people you actually care about and think about as real people… not just friends on Facebook, or nameless humans that intersect your daily life. A good example is the trash man, whose job dramatically affects your quality of life, but whose name you probably do not know or care to discover.

The wiki article about it seems to make it pretty clear.

Clear on that one? Good.

2. No, I’m not losing my faith or mocking Christ. My wife and I were talking about how we relate to God, and she made the comment that she really wants to remember the personhood and humanity of Christ. A Man, someone she cares deeply for, willingly suffered beating and shame. He chose to endure anguish and agony, and He accepted His own execution.

Jesus is the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the other soldiers in the trench (except multiplied by 20 billion or so).

If a person does that for you in real life, it’s kind of hard to forget it.

The fact that I can say it that way, and you probably understood and agreed – that says something about how we view Him.

I find I happily recognize and recount the transaction, the theology, the spiritual “chemical” reaction that took place at the Cross. My sins were washed away by His blood, my inky stain of death was turned scarlet, and my scarlet sins were washed clean. I can quote the scriptures to say what took place: He died for all, that those who live should live for themselves no longer, but for Him who died and rose again… if through one man, death reigned in all men, how much more shall life reign through the one Man Christ Jesus… for there is no other mediator between God and men… and so on.

It’s a historical fact. On such-and-such day, the battle of Gettysburg was won by the Union. Abraham Lincoln wrote a powerful speech about it. And on such-and-such day way back in 33 AD or 29 AD or whatever, the battle over sin and death and hell was won by the Messiah. And Paul the Apostle wrote some really powerful speeches about it. I like to quote them, just like I enjoy hearing “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…”

Hopefully my point is becoming clear.

I find it easy to recognize Jesus’ unique place in history and theology.

I find it all too easy to stop there.

I don’t want a historical figure. I don’t want a relationship with a spiritual principle, nor an affection for a moving quote.

I want a personal relationship, a constant interaction, a recognition that there was a Man… and not just any Man, but my best Friend… and when the enemy opened fire, He jumped in front of me, arms wide, to protect me from every deadly shot.

You don’t forget that sort of love. And neither do you recall it with cold distance. It changes your life.

Oh, and don’t forget, dear self… all those other monkeys outside my sphere? He did the same for them.

Maybe I should care. Because He does.

Note to Self

Dear Self,

Maybe you didn’t notice, but you stopped expecting God to show up. You got used to the idea that when you play on the worship team, everything’s going to go according to the neat minute-by-minute plan, and you’ll have a whole hour in between services to drive home, pick up the wife and kids, and get back to church before the 2nd service worship set starts. There was, for a while, that nagging doubt that asked, “Yeah, but what if… Maybe today’s the day that something different happens.” But nothing unexpected happened that day. Or the next week. Or the next.

So you thought this week was just another week with three songs in the first service, five songs in the second service, maybe some measures of “free” worship in the middle. You thought the pastor would close the sermon, and there would be a song for the ministry time slash altar call, and then everything would be done.

Maybe it was a warning sign when last week’s pre-service practice turned into half an hour of pre-service worship. Maybe it was another warning sign when the worship leader said on Thursday that we needed to get the congregation to break out of that programmed “X number of songs and that’s it” mindset. Maybe you had an idea something was different when pre-service practice today turned into about an hour of worship and prayer. But by then it was too late.

So, now you know. Sometimes the congregation will hear what God is saying through the sermon, and they’re going to want to respond. Sometimes, the whole church is going to be up on their feet crying out surrender and desperation to God. Sometimes, they’re going to want to keep singing when you’re thinking, “Ok, things can die down now and we can end this song.”

Sometimes you’re going to have to dash out the door half an hour later than you planned, while the crowd is still worshiping, because you didn’t expect anything to happen and you got caught unprepared.

That time of corporate, unplanned response to God — that was what you’ve been asking for, wasn’t it?

So, why weren’t you expecting an answer?

From here on out, try to remember that God doesn’t always pay attention to your church’s service schedule in Planning Center.

Also, good job today. The experience was awesome, because the congregational response was awesome, because the worship team did an awesome job both playing with excellence and following the flow of the Spirit, and you were part of that.

So, now you know it can happen. Even if it doesn’t next time, expect that it could.

That’s called faith. God likes it, and sooner or later, He rewards it. Be looking.

With love,

Self

Quality Time

Catching back up to the A to Z blog challenge… I took too much time over the weekend and failed to get Q and R posted. It’s amazing how fast stuff piles up.

If I don’t make the time for writing, I find I won’t get much done. It’s intentional, a choice, a setting of priorities that I must then carry out.

Otherwise I find myself scrambling to keep up, or looking back on missed opportunities.

My daughter turns 14 in June, and my wife and I aren’t quite sure how we feel about that. On the one hand, she has often been so helpful and mature, and on the other hand, we worry she may not be fully prepared for adult life. And of course there’s the fact that as parents, it’s hard to let go.

Our children grow so fast, but the distractions and trials of life often keep us from noticing the passage of time until it’s too late. Especially when they’re young, but even when they’re older, parents often worry about their relationship with their kids.

Are we spending enough time with them? Are we getting quality time? Do they know how much we love them?

One of the hard lessons as a parent is that we can’t make quality time without quantity time. We don’t get to flip the switch and say, “I’ve got ten minutes right now, let’s make it awesome, okay GO. Instant quality.”

Quality moments happen here and there as we spend a significant amount of time and put forth significant effort to make it as good as it can be.

The same is true of our relationship with our Father in heaven, isn’t it? I never feel like I’ve really connected when I take five minutes in the morning to glance through a devotion and whisper a prayer. I hardly feel close to God when I forget Him in the daily shuffle and only remember just before bed.

And just like with kids, greater quantity doesn’t ensure quality unless we put forth effort. I’ve been to prayer meetings and worship services where I come in exhausted. Sitting there half asleep listening to the prayers and songs of others, maybe mumbling an Amen or Yes, Lord… that doesn’t grow my relationship to God.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that just like with fitness, the collection of little things we do all day is more important than some arbitrary measure of ‘devotion.’ Keeping God in mind, staying true to our beliefs, maintaining frequent prayer, and meditating on His Word is – in my experience – more beneficial than trying to read five chapters of the Bible a day or hitting an hour-long prayer goal.

But there should also be those special moments, as with any relationship, where we take extra time to be together, to grow closer, to learn more about the other party. And that will often only happen when we set aside time.

We are called upon to seek the Lord, to draw near to Him. He’s taken several steps to reach out to us, hand extended. How we respond determines the quality of our relationship to God.

We make time for what is important. Our kids see that. Our friends see that. Our spouses or significant others understand it. God is no different in this respect.

I have to make a quantity of time available, and as I do so, I’m sure to discover a better quality of time. That’s not just my opinion, not just a hope or common sense. It’s His promise.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” – James 4:8

Storm-proof

There’s nothing quite like being at the center of a cyclone. 100 knot winds have an effect on things!

A super-typhoon heading toward Okinawa

A super-typhoon heading toward Okinawa

I spent a total of 14 years living on Okinawa while serving in the Air Force. Being a tropical island on the Pacific Rim, Okinawa can get hit by several typhoons each year. As much as we pay attention to hurricanes in the news in the West, you’d think this would be a big deal.

But Okinawa is used to getting smashed by the weather, and so all the housing on base and off base is built to withstand powerful storms. For the most part, strong typhoons mostly result in some time off from work, sitting inside, listening to the wind and watching the trees bend and sway in the storm. Damage can occur of course, but it’s usually minimal, especially compared to the post-hurricane devastation we often see on the news in the States.

As I started prepping for the A to Z Blogging Challenge, “C” seemed full of options and possibilities.

There’s Christ of course. That’s the Sunday School answer, absolutely correct but all too obvious. There’s conviction but that’s very close to beliefs, which I wrote about yesterday. I thought of the center and how we must make sure we keep Christ as the focus of our individual and corporate worship. Then I considered the change that must take place when we experience an authentic conversion and a genuine relationship with God.

The overall analogy of this blog came to mind. When we pursue God, we open ourselves up to the powerful, the mysterious, the far-beyond-our-imagination, the One who is holy — separated and transcendent above us, wholly other than us. Over and over in Scripture, we see that encountering God leaves permanent changes in the lives of men and women of faith. Isaiah spoke of himself as doomed by the sight of God. Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his days after wrestling with the Angel at Bethel. Job’s entire life falls apart around him, and then when he has nothing left but his faith, his understanding of God crumbles as deeper revelation overwhelms him. Nebuchadnezzar is reduced to an animal’s lifestyle for years. The disciples are drawn away from everything they know by a repeated two-word invitation to “follow Me.” With only one exception, they meet violence, persecution, and execution. Paul’s world gets rocked and his eyes go blind at the sight of the Savior.

Chasing after God often means experiencing sweeping changes in our lives.

But there’s another sort of danger here. We have another choice. Instead of allowing God free reign, we can become callous.

When those tropical cyclones batter Okinawa, after you’ve lived there a bit, it feels very routine. “Ho hum, here comes another storm. No big deal, our house is made of concrete. Our windows are sturdy, our doors are well sealed, and our stuff outside is all tied down. Bring it on, I can use a day off from work.”

Similarly, we can become too familiar with God, too presumptuous. “Here we go, another set of worship songs. No biggie, we got this.”

We take the security of our relationship with God and His great intimacy with us, and we mistake it for an equality, as though God is a safe little thing we keep in our back pocket until we want to show Him off to our friends.

How else do we see Judas walk with the Son of God for three years and yet grow disillusioned? How else do we see Ananias and Sapphira decide to put on a show of holiness to win the respect of their peers at the expense of their integrity before God? How do we explain the failure of the priest Eli, who turned a blind eye to the corruption his sons brought into the priesthood? Consider Uzzah reaching up to steady the Ark as if it were a common thing – and consider the willingness of the people of God to simply toss the Ark on a cart in the first place.

Take Laodicea, the church who Jesus condemns in Revelation 3.

15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. (NASB)

Jesus calls out not only their failure, but their mistaken assumptions about their security and relationship with Him.

He challenges us as well. Oddly enough, a verse we often preach as an invitation to sinners is actually spoken to the Church.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. (v.20)

The presence of God comes to us all sooner or later. We who routinely chase after Him must be careful. God’s presence must change us, or we will grow calloused. Jesus Christ must remain the convicting and challenging center of our worship, or He will call us out for our unsanctioned comfort and mistaken confidence.

Are we changing? Or are we concrete?

Where Feet May Fail

I’m enjoying the new Hillsongs United release, Zion, as I edit and update blog posts. One of the songs in particular speaks to my heart for this worship-specific blog.

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker & Salomon Ligthelm

from user *clairity* on Flickr, see description for details

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

I spent over two years at the Presidio of Monterey in California. On my first trip there, I was a single young man with few responsibilities outside of work. My friends and I often headed to the nearby beaches to enjoy the surf. For a Chicago boy, the ocean was something completely new, extraordinary and vast, fresh and vibrant.

I learned quickly that it is also very powerful. My best friend and I were climbing around on jagged rocks as huge waves were crashing into the beach at Asilomar. We got a little close, and I remember turning to see a waist-high wave breaking before I found myself pushed backwards across the rocks.

The ocean can be a risky place.

My daughter Deborah was about seven and was playing in the water at Kadena Marina on Okinawa. She stayed close to her mommy, at the point where she could keep her head above the gentle waves while still touching the surface beneath the water.

Then she went past the natural ledge and hit a sharp drop-off. My wife Jami heard a sudden panicked “Mommy!” before Deborah went under. Thanks to a swift instinctive reaction, Jami’s arm shot out and caught hold of Deborah under the water, pulling her to safety.

When you walk out into the water, you risk finding depths where your feet won’t touch the bottom.

When we step out in faith, we find places where our abilities and our capacities come to an end… where we’re forced to rely on God.

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

I’m not at this point yet, that’s for sure. This concept of “wanton disregard for safety” and chasing the storm is something I’m saying as much to myself as to anyone else. My fears and my hunger for security try to hold me back from stepping out of the boat, even though Jesus stands there saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.”

That doesn’t mean I have to stay that way.