I sat in my Subaru outside our family cabin at Mission Springs, and cried out earnestly as I pounded on the steering wheel: Are you hearing me, Lord!?!
Yes, God was listening. Oh my, yes.
And that’s the tale for today’s post – an incredible yet mysterious treasure I’ve only recently begun to understand.
My August post – May I have this dance? – closed with a promise: in another post we would reflect on how dancing daily with Jesus in this life helps us prepare for Heaven’s Big Dance. (Please (re)read it, as it is essentially part one to this conclusion).
If you’ve been opening the Blue Spigot for a while, you’ll know that it generally provides a personal story at the intersection of faith and life and God, adding some observations with the goal of making it practical.
I had a problem this fall: what tale could I tell to adequately speak to this topic? In the last few weeks, I’ve had a growing conviction that I was to pull this narrative out of the cedar chest of my memories. I’ve followed that prompting, so I offer you this story for you to ponder at Christmas.
It’s a three-act drama, but we’ll start with Act Two.
Anointing at Alpha
On Monday, August 30, 1999, I was at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church with some dear friends, Marion and Avis VanVliet. We had two days of training on how to bring the Alpha course to our congregation in Escalon.
Nicky Gumbel, Alpha’s developer and an Anglican Priest, told a story during his opening sermon about the Holy-Spirit-led transformation of DL Moody, a 19th Century evangelist.* (See notes at the end of this post for a brief summary of his experience). Following Nicky’s sermon, the worship band came to the platform to lead the congregation in songs of praise.
As they began, the leader invited people to receive an anointing and prayer during worship by coming forward and kneeling at the front of the sanctuary.
Surprisingly, Nicky returned to the microphone after only one song, stating that he sensed someone was deeply touched by the story of DL Moody. He invited that person to come forward. I practically leapt out of my chair and headed to the altar.
What prompted me to jump to my feet and get on my knees? That leads us back to Act One.
I had read that DL Moody story just thirteen days earlier, August 17, at a coffee house near Santa Cruz. Officially at our cabin to prepare for the fall sermon series, silently I had been longing for months – like DL Moody – to truly live in the presence and the power of God. I left the coffee house and drove back to the cabin.
Still in the car, I turned off the engine, but my spirit was ignited by reading about Moody’s experience that transformed his life and ministry. Among the soaring redwoods I passionately pleaded to the heavens: Are you hearing me, Lord!?!
Eventually my soul descended back into the driver’s seat of my Subaru. Facing the reality of an often-silent God, I muttered aloud in frustration: how do I know if you heard me? It’s not like I can expect you to send an earthquake or something.
I grabbed my keys and my backpack, locked the car, and headed back into the cabin, settling again into my place at the kitchen table. The accumulated books and papers were illuminated by the hanging lamp above me.
I had barely gotten my seat warm when I started to laugh, as the lamp suddenly turned into a swinging pendulum and I felt a slight rumbling beneath my feet. As a lifelong Californian, I knew immediately what was happening.
A few minutes later my mom anxiously called the cabin. She heard on the news that a 5.0 earthquake had shaken the region. (You can read the report here from CNN). She wanted to know if I and the cabin were okay.
I remember thinking – how do I answer her question? To calm her fears I answered yes, everything is fine. But I knew there was another dimension to her question that I couldn’t explain, and nor did I attempt to.
My months-long hunger to live in step with the Holy Spirit became super-charged, and two days later I wrote in my journal: "I struggle with living under my own power. I want to be anointed and work with his Spirit filling me, but I feel like that has not yet happened."
Now you know why I sprinted to the altar to be anointed at Nicky Gumbel’s invitation. As you can imagine, the next several weeks brought a heightened sense of God’s presence, including an event which is Act Three.
In early September, our son Ben walked back into our house after having just left to visit a friend. He asked me to come see something – a white bird sitting calmly on the sidewalk between our exterior fence and Yosemite Avenue.
I followed Ben outside and stood by the little bird, wondering what was happening. I moved toward it with an upturned hand, but he walked away from me without any indication of being wounded and sat back down. I asked Ben to go back into the house and bring my camera.
Dove or pigeon? They’re in the same family. It sure looked like a white dove, so I’m going with that, since that is a powerful Biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit.**
For around five minutes, with just a few feet between us, I sat on the sidewalk in silence, as well as in awe and wonder. The natural desire was to hold the bird, so eventually I inched forward, again with my hand out-stretched. The dove didn’t share my sentiment, so it flew away.
Shaking the earth beneath my feet – that sounds like something on God’s resume’. Prompting a white dove to sit with me – wow! It still moves me, and the picture above has remained in front of me for my personal worship times ever since then.
You may be asking yourself, what does this story have to do with dancing with Jesus? After twenty-six years of following Jesus, I was offered and received a huge change in my life with God.
Like many evangelical believers, I had bought into the teaching that we have a transactional relationship with God. To be candid and admittedly too simplistic: coming to faith means we shake hands with God on the terms of our agreement.
The roles are clearly defined: we say the prayer, and God gives us the passcode to heaven’s gate. He promises to protect and provide, and we attempt to trust and obey. He gives but also takes away. Oh no, did I do something wrong? We try to remain faithful and figure out “how all things work together for good” until we die. But we continually fall short or wander off the path, so we frequently seek to shake hands again. I promise, Lord! And again. Rinse and repeat.
Yeah, the Bible says we become members of his family. But for me it felt like I was adopted into the family business, in that I always had an underlying sense that my celestial performance reviews were dismal – unmet expectations and feelings of disappointment and discouragement. I was convinced God had put me on his PIP (Performance Improvement Program), and felt that I wasn’t living up to my end of the deal.
Twenty-four years ago, everything changed – the transactional relationship became a transformative dance. The events I have shared have helped me to realize that God doesn’t want to cut a deal and shake my hand. He never did. He wants to hold my hand.
Yes, to dance with me. To be fully present with me, both now and in the life to come. God’s everlasting love, unfailing mercy, and the joyful light of his presence began to seep into my life.
I’m still the same guy. My family and close friends will heartily affirm that I continue to be a work in progress. But now I am fully convinced that God loves me. Yes, I know the dance steps – love God, love my neighbor – but my inner life is no longer dominated by the depressing sense that I’m a lousy dancer. I dismantled the emotional roller-coaster and tossed it aside. Now I rest peacefully and joyfully in the light and love of God’s presence, and keep practicing daily.
And he wants that for everyone he has created. Every human is made in his image. We are designed to live in his presence. Without it at the center of our lives, we will never thrive, which explains my inner longing. The transactional deal never satisfies, for it’s not what God ever wanted nor what we need. It’s all about his love and mercy, and we are transformed as we take his hand, join the dance, and keep in step with the Spirit. (See Galatians 5:25).
It’s likely that you are experiencing that same hunger and thirst. May you be blessed with a growing sense that you are loved by God and always have been, and that your Savior invites you to dance daily.
But how does one begin?
The journey out of a transactional relationship into a transformational dance begins by imagining Jesus asking you a very simple yet profound question, one we are told he asked multiple times***: What do you want me to do for you?
Do not pass lightly over this question. Reflect on it. Be honest with yourself and with him. Analyze your motives. God knows them, and will reveal them to you, even if they are hard to admit.
What do you really want from Jesus? What does your life declare?
Is it entrance into heaven? Merely an escape from hell? Comfort in this life? To be dearly loved by family and friends? Fame? God doesn’t want to be the means to your ends, fulfilling your secret hope regarding his part of your handshake agreement.
Anything besides the captivating, fulfilling presence of God will leave you unsatisfied. He is your life. Desire him. Desire the Real Dove at your doorstep – the Holy Spirit.
But don’t sit at your table and wait for a tremor. You must understand – the earthquake and the dove were not God’s defibrillators to shake me out of my lethargic discipleship. I was not spiritually asleep.
Just six weeks before the earthquake, at the same cabin, I had set my heart on the four dimensions of my personal mission statement, based upon Malachi 2:1-9. Here’s the first two: 1. Walk with God. 2. Walk in His ways.
The events I have shared were the fulfillment of my desire and of God’s promise: ”You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:13-14)
And what we find is a God who extends his hand to us, inviting us to join the dance of the ages. And remember, as I shared in part one, heaven will be living in the full, unfiltered presence of the Almighty God. The Big Dance. We practice dancing now to prepare for our life with God in heaven.
Nope. It’s not too late, and you are never too old to learn to dance with God, to leave behind the transactional deal you’ve found insufficient. Yes, you can live with a deepening sense of his presence.
Which is exactly the wonderful message of Christmas. God invited Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth to join him on the dance floor, and they said yes. Theirs was not a transactional deal – you do this and I’ll do that. He held out his hand and invited them to a life lived with a loving, powerful, and joyful God.
Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Esther and Amos, Huldah and Jeremiah, James and John, Peter and Paul and all the women named Mary – they all took God’s inviting hand and lived with him. Danced with him.
And so can you. May you have the overwhelming knowledge that Jesus – the one who is called Emmanuel, God with us – is stretching out his hand to you. Today. In this season. May you leave behind the unsatisfying deal you made years ago, and probably again in the last few months.
May you thrive in the presence of your dance partner from this day forward and keep in step. And may you enjoy all the blessings of Christmas!
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Benediction of Blessing:
May you have the courage to discover what you’re really hoping for in your life with God, and the wisdom to know that you were designed to live in his presence daily.
May you grow in your desire and ability to join in the dance and learn to follow God’s lead.
May your season be overflowing with light and love and joy!
* After leading a revival service, Moody was approached by two women who told him they were praying for him to “get the power of the Holy Spirit”. Perplexed by their comment, it aroused an intense hunger within him over the next few weeks. That longing culminated in a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit at a friend’s home in New York City. He later proclaimed about that event: "I began to cry as I never did before. I really felt that I did not want to live if I could not have this power for service".
** Matthew 3:16 and Luke 3:22
*** Matthew 20:32/Luke 18:35; Mark 10:35-46, 51; John 1:37-38
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM