I couldn't get enough of youth group. Let me re-phrase: I couldn't get enough of the fun of hanging with my friends, playing basketball, foosball, ping-pong, crazy skits and 10 packs of tacos. I accepted the more important aspects of youth group (Bible study, prayer, worship, etc.), but really I just loved being around this group of people at church. There were moments of "spirituality" where the Lord was doing some heart work in me, but the "church" part of church was hard. The meeting was the pre-cursor to the fun. The music at the time was all we had. There were no Hillsong or Tomlin hits yet. Michael W. Smith was still singing "Friends are Friends" at that point. So even the music was a "grin and bear it" kind of experience. As a solid Presbyterian kid, I knew these things were important and did my best to take it all in and let it change me. I prayed, studied my Bible, went on retreats, went forward at retreats, went forward again at another retreat - just in case the last one didn't take. For the most part, I stayed out of trouble and finished my high school church experience with a few notches in my spiritual belt.
I remember one moment on a retreat that almost pushed me over the edge of my tolerant self. Our Pastor of Worship was along for our summer retreat to lead a couple hundred high school kids in "worship". When I think back on the song selection, it's amazing that we sang at all. Actually I think more about my friends that I had coaxed to come and spend a week sleeping in a nasty bunk while listening to the most bizarre music they would ever experience. My guess is they tolerated it as well. There were pretty girls, decent food, lots of pranks and night time games of capture the flag to distract them from the spiritual elements of camp.
The moment in question was during an afternoon "breakout session" (Disclosure: I have problems with phrases we use all the time at church conferences. Instead of "breaking out" into a nice small group, I would rather break glass). Our Worship Pastor was teaching from Revelation, which usually carries a small promise that it might be cool - demons, antichrist, end of the world stuff.
We read the passage about the angels saying: "Holy, holy, holy" in endless refrain. They never cease. They never stop. As a good youth group kid, I gave the appropriate response with my expression and a convincing "wow… that's cool." Then he crossed the line and asked us to spread out in the room. We were now going to practice praying like this so that we got an idea of what it might be like in heaven. My expression changed to terror and several of us balked at this idea. Eventually I submitted to my inner youth group compass and found my spot in the room. This would not be one of those pray in your heart kind of moments either. He wanted us to say it out loud. Reluctantly, we all began to strain out a few "Holy, holy's". You've never heard a more pitiful group of worshippers. Like a bunch of cows who just ate some bad grass, we moaned and muttered our way through the exercise.
Far from giving me an awesome "throne room" experience, it actually made me question why I was planning on going there in the first place. This… was awful. How can angels do this? Do they expect me to do this when I get there? No wonder no one wants to go there or to church. We are a bunch of sick cows who are selling repetitive phrases and mantras. Keep yourself from worldly pleasures so that you get to experience this!
What was I missing?
Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, whose experience of God has one thing that far exceeds our small understanding on this side of eternity.
A front row seat.
I am most awestruck when I think about these witnesses, who now stand face to face with Jesus. What they believed in faith, what they trusted without seeing, the basket that held all of their eternal eggs… is now a reality. And if they could speak to us right now, I believe they would say this:
He is everything and more than you could ever imagine. The greatest works of literature cannot contain the wisdom and glory that we now behold. Words are not enough to describe Him. Songs cannot be loud enough to sing His worth. We never tire of the wonder of His nearness. Don't give up. He's worth it. Run the race. Throw off your sin. Fix your eyes on Him.
Our "experience" of Jesus in church, personal study, community and everyday life can carry a certain level of ebb and flow, wrought with a hundred different opinions/complaints on spiritual disciplines, worship styles, and the like (if there's one thing that prevails as a thorn in the spiritual side of the church, it's the opinions and complaints in this area). Yet these voices from Scripture compel me to see beyond this reality. They push and pull my heart to believe in the "now but not yet" of a life in Christ.
Even though I may feel as if my prayers and songs are nothing more than the droning utterances of a sick cow, I believe that what John saw in the revelation of Jesus, and what these witnesses now behold, is far beyond anything I can imagine. In faith, I believe they have no words to describe Him, that their hearts are full with joy in His presence, and that they've just begun the adventure of an eternity with Jesus.
I will wait with hope and great expectation for the Day when my heart will skip a beat, my words will fail, and John (the author of the "Holy, holy, holy" bit) will reach over to help me pull my jaw off the floor.
I can hear him now: I told you so.