Most of my growing up years were in a part of the world where religion was tolerated. It wasn’t necessarily dominant, but it was inherently part of the culture. So, when I started moving around the world a little, I was shocked when I met people who were being persecuted for their faith. One trip to the former Soviet Union was painful and poignant.
In 1996 my wife and I were mourning the very recent loss of our first pregnancy. As both an almost-father and actual husband, I had no emotional reserves at the time from which to respond well. I was asking where God was, hurting profoundly and feeling shaken down to my toes. Just a week or so after the news about losing our baby, I left for Belarus with some co-workers and friends. As short-term trips go, it was a doozy. New experiences popped up at every turn. At one point we came to the church pictured here. I was stunned that this Baptist church was allowed to exist during communist rule. During the tour of the church, I asked about the history of the building. Their answer shocked me: while it looked old, it was brand-new. The church leaders had been allowed to disassemble an abandoned nuclear missile base and use the construction materials to design and make this fantastic building by hand. They had recently finished before we arrived, and we were one of the first groups of outsiders to see the finished product.
As I listened in awe to their story, the elders and pastors told stories of being persecuted for being church leaders. Their lead pastor recounted the number of times he’d been beaten by the authorities. Each of them had been jailed illegally. I have vivid, clear memories of that early Sunday morning meeting in a downstairs classroom, listening to the high cost those church leaders paid for this not-really-free church building.
That first moment of being with the persecuted church changed how I experienced worship. They were literally giving their everything to worship Jesus. After losing our baby, being on an exhausting trip, with no emotional reserves left, I went to church that day and freely wept as I worshiped together with nearly 500 believers. These were disciples who were so passionate about worship they would hand-carry bricks from an abandoned nuclear base to use as building material! Later that day I sang alone in the auditorium, and I offered myself to the Lord anew in a compelling experience. I was changed; profoundly and permanently changed.
Since that time I’ve traveled to several places and met with people who have been persecuted, beaten and lost loved ones for the sake of giving God praise. It has messed me up about worship… And the real problem is, I have a hard time staying consistent! Sometimes I feel frustrated that the West seems to take worship so lightly and I’m bothered because of because of my experiences with the persecuted church. Other times I catch myself in a church service, treating it like flavors of ice cream–“It’s ok, but it’s not my favorite.” What a strange and complex life…
It’s interesting that in the two decades of ministry since I first experienced people who were persecuted, many of my colleagues and many Christian leaders still wrestle with the appropriate role and form of worship. We have lots of confusion about forms, art (and it’s role) and the “right” way to worship. For years I’ve heard people discuss the merits of rich theological teaching inside of worship compared to repetitive, “emotional” songs. I am convinced that there are times and places for both–especially depending on culture.¹ But making sense of it can be difficult. The more I thought about this, I started praying and thinking about my fundamental concepts of worship. During this time, I happened to be studying for a sermon series and I started thinking about from a different perspective. I’m not suggesting I’m right about all of this, but it has changed how I approach worship recently.
In Matthew 14 there is a story² where Jesus sends his disciples across the lake in a boat while he stayed behind on the mountain to pray. Somewhere around four in the morning, he saw his friends being “battered by the waves and that the winds were against them.” These folks were professional fishermen who had lived their whole lives on that body of water. Yet their connection with Jesus and their proximity to his miracles and presence did not keep them from that terrible night. I’ll be honest, that doesn’t fit my picture of a sweet, thoughtful Jesus very well. I mean, Son of God, he knew the storm was coming… right? Yet he sent them anyway? Hmmm.
I know the author was talking here about actual waves that were smashing the disciples’ boat around. But my mind immediately jumped to what it feels like to try to live a life that honors God: I am battered daily by all kinds of opposition. Do you feel me here? Just when you overcome one terrifying problem, you end up in the trough of the next wave coming at you like a freight train? Just when I think I’ve emotionally dealt with my Mom’s Alzheimers, one visit breaks me like I was made of glass. Another doctor’s visit with inconclusive evidence and a “specialist” co-pay. I want to be optimistic. I want to be brave. The wave-after-wave season wears me down by millimeters and getting myself back to a healthy place takes longer these days.
Or what about feeling like the wind is against you? Like every good move you make is immediately countered and even the desire to do or be good just seems like more work than you can muster up? These are times when hope seems like a fool’s errand, and the happy people seem like an enemy–maybe not an enemy, but at least someone we should hate. And when we do hate them, our guilt for how we feel about them makes us hate ourselves (and them) even more. For many of us, it’s a combination of trying to get your crap together and “not sweating the small stuff” while failing at losing weight, kicking a bad habit and facing the walk-off of those you love.
Back to the story: these were professional sailors/fishermen losing hope and losing the battle against their relentless and deadly environment. Into this mess steps the guy who sent them there–Jesus. Not as a hugging, cuddly and lamb-finding Savior. He meant to walk past them and not help them. But they saw him. They SAW him. Walking…on…the…water. Check it out: their first response was NOT to worship–It was to fear… it was staring at a guy who looked like Jesus but couldn’t possibly be…people can’t do that! When we see something that terrifying, we all kind of lose our minds and come to terrible, supernatural (usually evil) conclusions. At this point, if I were writing the screenplay for this pericope I would have Jesus laughingly tell the wind and the waves to settle down, get in the boat, they could all hug that mess out, and he’d say, “Y’all, I would NEVER let you guys down!” They would pull up to a sweet bait-shop-and-burger joint, turn some water into a craft brew and they’d make an awesome campfire with s’mores.
But Jesus just lets the waves keep battering, the wind keep oppressing and says, “Take Courage! It is I!” Personally, that’s a tough one to take when you feel like you’re about to go under. It’s like at a funeral someone says, “Chin up, son. It’ll be all be alright” (a quote from my brother’s funeral). It’s a preacher promising that all you have to do is believe in your heart and God will show up–only to go home after church and wonder how you’ll pay rent.
Enter Peter’s courageous/moronic pendular swing from adventurer to fish bait. He decides to be “that guy.” The guy who is going to do something crazy for Jesus and prove that he’s all in. Instead of Jesus reining in the crazy, he actually encourages it! Peter gets out of the boat and is walking on the blankety-blank water–for three seconds. And then realizes what kind of ridiculous choice he made, and he sinks. Again, regardless of his own choices, he cries out to Jesus. Instead of holding Peter and saying, “Hey kiddo! You did great for your first time!” he chides him. “O you of little faith…why did you doubt?” As Peter slipped into the cold oblivion, crying out to God, he is reprimanded.
Finally, Jesus gets in the boat. As he climbs over the side, the waves stop trying to breach the tiny fortress of the gunwales. The wind stops working to shove the boat over and kill them all. On top of that, they suddenly find themselves moved across time and space, across the sea, safe at the shore.³ THIS is when they worship him and say, “you are the Son of God.” Huh. It’s NOT when they heard him preach, it wasn’t when they saw the healings. It was when they saw him change the nature of the world to save them. Nothing else could have stopped the waves. Nothing else could have saved them. Only Jesus, the Son of God who built this funny old world with battering waves and oppressive winds, to begin with.
As I read this story thinking about my own life and the lives of those whom I pastor, I find myself unsettled. Our lives are a god-awful mess (pun intended). Even those of us who are chasing hard after Jesus are beset by all kinds of burdens: secret sins, family anxiety, abuse, sickness, work troubles and therapy all play into keeping us broke, afraid, jealous or cowardly. We are a wreck floating in a hurricane.
Into our mess steps Jesus. We see him near us, and we long for his help. Yet sometimes he just looks like he’s gonna just walk past and let us drown. Even when there are those blissful moments when we hear his voice yelling something over the distance, we find ourselves bitter that he’s out there, close enough to be noticed but too far away to help. Admittedly, some of us take the Petrine plunge and go all-in! We also have all looked away and started to drown in sight of those who chose to stay in the boat. The “I-told-you-so’s” and the shaking heads, both pity and accuse as we embarrassingly flail toward Jesus. Others of us smugly decided to trust a one-inch thick plank to be between us and Davy Jone’s locker. We even stay in the boat trying to do something useful. But the fact remains that all of us, boat or not, at some time or another, feel like we’re not going to make it. Jesus walks near and says that same excruciating phrase that freaked out the disciples: “Take Courage, It is I.”
At some point, somehow, he does save us. Maybe not from pain…maybe not from suffering; battering of waves and a resistant wind. But somehow, he steps into our mess and stays put. He is not afraid of the storm because it’s HIS storm to begin with. Somehow, through the rain blinding us, through the darkness keeping us from seeing the shore, Jesus stays with us. And it is in the midst of the storm that we have to press into Jesus even more.
Here’s what I’ve noticed about myself. When I’m fine and dandy, “living my best life” and all is mostly well, I start getting picky about how I worship. Things like the mix in the “front of the house” or the difficulty of the transitions start to really bug me. If the click track is off in my in-ears or someone does a worship song that sounds pompous or shallow to me, I become judgmental and, to be honest, a little self-righteous. I think all of us struggle with this. All of us have a tendency to elevate our preferences to the point of righteousness (see previous entries). But when life is hard–when I feel like I’m going to drown, my best response is to worship–because that’s when I see God’s character the clearest. In that posture of humility where I bow myself before the King, I reconnect with the hope that keeps my heart alive; it’s the rescue point for me when things are at their worst. God is my refuge, no matter what this environment throws at me.
Take some time out of your busyness to worship God today. Try it alone, try it with others, put it into your prayers or turn it on your radio during the commute. Learn new styles of worship without judging and give grace to other forms of worship that don’t appeal to you. Together, let’s offer Jesus the worship that is his right and due regardless of form and preference. In the end, all of our knees will bow, and all of our tongues will sing the same song. As I think of that day in my mind’s eye, I want to already be in a mindset of worship when He comes back; knees bent, tongue giving praise–no matter if I’m onshore, safe and sound, or still on the boat, battered and oppressed. If I want that to happen, I need to start again. Today.
Pray for me friends–ask the Lord to help me continue to make worship a priority in my life; with or without the storm.
¹While I was doing some consulting with a multi-ethnic church in Los Angeles, an African-American worship leader explained the role of repetition in gospel-styled worship–“It’s to let the worshipers stop thinking about the words, stop looking at the text, stop trying to follow along and really experience God’s power at increasing depths of our being.” (My paraphrase of my notes from the meeting). Since then I’ve asked worship leaders and ethnomusicologists around the world about it. They all agree it’s a lever to deepen experience during the worship.
²I am not going to quote the whole story. You can read it in Matthew 14, Mark 6 and John 6.
³John 6 added this element to the story
*The photo at the top of the post is the former home and now kitchen of some persecuted believers in Southern Mexico…They shared out of their deep poverty to host a team and me several years in a row… They are delightful people who have suffered a great deal to worship Jesus