I sat alone in a church without walls, perched at the ridge of a mountaintop in Panama. From my rickety wooden chair, I stared up at an equally shaky communion table on a platform of dirt, where a patchwork of corrugated tin sheets formed the back wall. The space contained just two chairs, and they didn’t match. Running left to right across the dirt floor were makeshift pews—strips of battered wood, tilted by uneven scraps of concrete. The church’s most modern component was an outlet box on a pole, which jutted up from a big log that marked the border between being inside the church and being outside of it.
It was a nothing like the closed-box worship centers found throughout much of the U.S., and even less like the ornate multi-million dollar, thousand-seat sanctuaries where I’ve sat under the preaching of Ph.D.’d pastors with wide broadcast audiences.
I twisted myself in that brittle chair, its legs unstable, the seat hard and unyielding, and imagined 10, 20, 40 people joining together later that week on a Sunday morning, as big cottony clouds sat low around them. The people would sing, and some might lift their hands. They would listen to the Word proclaimed, and they might break bread together. To worship in such an environment—with this view, a cool breeze, and all the spiritual essentials—made me jealous for such a setting. My usual Sunday mornings take place on a padded seat in a bland room without natural light. I sit in my usual spot, with coffee and donut, and fight off distraction. I’ll think about work, what’s for lunch, who’s around me, even the afternoon football games. And that’s a far cry from surrendered worship.
Reverent focus has always come more easily to me in beautiful spaces. It feels more hallowed to be in a wooden tabernacle overlooking a lake, or to sing in a sanctuary with sunlight pouring through windows along the side. And yet I know that God is always present with the believer. If I’m looking for the right setting, I need to look no further than my posture, my mind, and my heart. As James wrote, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you …” (James 4:7-8).
If this is my struggle in my Sunday morning space, what about the pitfalls I face the rest of the week? My days are measured by thoughts of what I need (food, shelter), what I love (family, football), and what I want (luxury, amusement)—temporal things worthy of some time and attention, but which too easily become the stuff that forms the framework of my thoughts and desires.
Though Scripture compels us to see that nothing satisfies like Jesus, I still catch myself constructing idols to the things that bring me comfort and pleasure. It’s such a natural and dire practice for the believer that John centers his first epistle on this pervasive threat living within our hearts. Yet time and again we rob ourselves of ultimate joy, all in the name of feeling comfortable or entertained.
One thing I’m learning is to take to heart what Jesus prayed for us before He went to the cross “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Far toooften I’ve imagined eternal life as something inherited once we’ve made it through life on earth. But knowing God through Christ means eternal life now. If I’m not living as if I have it already, with heart and mind set on Him and satisified in Him, I’m missing true life. I’m settling for less, for an inferior kind of life subject to the limits of my power and imagination.
I’m also learning not to underestimate the power of Christ’s coming. As Paul says, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:2-4) . I’m waiting and watching to see Him face to face, to know Him more fully, just as I am fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I’ll be honest: His return is easier to imagine from an open-walled church on a mountaintop than it is with a donut in hand, from inside the four walls of my own church. But then, it’s impossible to go through life always in the perfect setting. It’s an exercise in faith and love for my Lord to submit my posture, my mind, and my heart to Him no matter the circumstance, distraction, or trial.
I don’t know much of anything about the people on that mountaintop in Panama. But on the inside, I know they’re very much like you and me. They come to that church, stepping over the big log and onto the dirt floor, with the cares of life on their hearts and minds. Just like you and me, they need something to elevate them from earthly affections to heavenly ones. The solution is the same the world over: We set our sights on Christ.