|Bolles Harbor, Monroe|
(From my book, Leading the Presence-Driven Church; chapter 3, "The Presence Motif.")
Last summer I experienced a moment of culinary terror. Linda and I went to P.F. Chang’s in Ann Arbor. We like this restaurant. No matter what happened to us that night, we will go again.
I ordered the entrée I mostly get when I’m at P.F. Chang's. The waiter left, and Linda and I spent time talking as we awaited the coming of the cuisine. It seemed to take longer than usual. Eventually, the waiter returned, to utter words I will never forget: “I am sorry, sir. We are out of rice.”
And there was silence in the heavens.
I was stunned. I thought of logical impossibilities, like square circles, married bachelors, and Cartesian mountains without valleys. An Asian restaurant with no rice? Logically impossible!
I saw the manager walking from table to table, confessing ricelessness to the patrons. When he got to us I had to ask, “How could this be so?” He replied, “They are having trouble in the kitchen.”
“They?” My thought was, “You had better get in that kitchen and fix this barren situation!”
Our experience at P.F. Chang’s brought back a memory of a similar event. It was a sunny morning in the 1980s. Linda and I lived in East Lansing, Michigan. That day we went to breakfast at International House of Pancakes. I ordered pancakes.
There was no maple syrup on the table.
When it comes to pancakes, I am a purist. I don’t want the strawberry syrup or the blueberry syrup or the fruity bacon syrup. So, desiring maple syrup, I asked:
“May I have some maple syrup please?”
“Sorry,” said the waitress. “We’re out of maple syrup.”
My response was: nothingness.
These two experiences were painful, but cannot be compared to The Big Absence two summers ago.
Linda and I were driving from Monroe to Chicago. We were on the Indiana Tollway, and stopped at a rest area for lunch. Linda went to one of the fast food places and got a salad. I got in line at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I can see the scene, as if it were happening now. Three of us were in line. There was a man in front of me at the counter. I was behind him, with a third man behind me. Three of us, about to be disenchanted.
Often, in life, we view events through the framework of what we are currently immersed in. At Redeemer, I was in the thick of preaching through the book of Revelation. I was thinking about Revelation all the time! I was reading and re-reading the text, looking at it in the Greek language, and studying the best commentaries on the subject. Revelation was my constant meditation.
The Greek title is The Apocalypse. Apocalypto means “an uncovering,” an “unveiling.” Like someone who lifts the lid on a simmering pot of stew to see and smell the ingredients, in The Apocalypse God lifts the lid off what is to happen cosmically, and John the Apostle is allowed to look inside. That day, at KFC, the lid was about to be lifted, and I would look inside.
“I want a three-piece chicken dinner,” said the first man.
“I am sorry, sir,” said the hostess at the KFC on the Indiana Tollway in the summer of 2015, “but we are out of chicken.”
With those words the lid blew off. A fiery abyss appeared to my right. I heard the hoofbeats of Four Horsemen thundering in the distance. I saw bowls poured out upon the earth. I heard the cries of saints beneath the Great White Throne. The man in front of me said nothing. He just walked away, like a floating, drifting planet that lost its sun, or perhaps its faith.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a voice spoke to me. I did not turn around as the man behind me said, “Did you hear what I heard?” Speechless, I nodded my head up and down. I left the little three-man queue and walked to where Linda was sitting. “No way!” she said, in unbelief.
My expectation, when going to Kentucky Fried Chicken, is to be served chicken. When I am at a pancake house, I expect maple syrup. When I am at an Asian restaurant, I expect rice. Anything less is unacceptable and irrational.
It is the same with God’s presence. When I am with the Church, I expect to encounter God. Real Church is a Temple. Temples house the presence of God. Anything less than God in the Temple is unacceptable.
I am like Moses, who despaired at the thought of God withdrawing his presence from the people. Moses pleaded, saying, “God, if your presence does not go with us, we are not going!”
“Do not,” appealed the psalmist, “cast me away from your presence.” The ultimate suffering and punishment is separation from the presence of God.
I see a world desperate for the presence of God. They long and pant, like thirsty deer in the Judean wilderness, for an experiential encounter with God. Anything less is unsatisfactory.