I can only imagine What it will be like When I walk by Your side I can only imagine What my eyes would see When Your face is before me I can only imagine Surrounded by Your glory What will my heart feel? Will I dance for You Jesus Or in awe of You be still? Will I stand in Your presence Or to my knees, will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine I can only imagine “I Can Only Imagine,” Mercy Me
If you’ve listened to Christian radio since 2002 you have undoubtably heard this song, “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me. It was the most popular Christian song played in 2002 and even cracked the mainstream chart Top 100 in 2003. As a matter is full disclosure, I have seen the band twice, and each time they have performed this song. It is a great song.
For all humans, it captures our deepest longing, as Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until it rests with [God].” For the Christian, the lyric is particularly powerful. It provides a magnificent vision of what it will be like when we are finally face-to-face with our greatest love…Jesus. The song’s words express our deepest emotions and longing in a way that most of us cannot formulate.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the imagery certainly captures what I hope to experience: the overwhelming relief of a good finish to my life, a race well run, a battle well fought, along with the overwhelming sense of wonder and worship at finally being in the presence of ineffable glory of Jesus Himself. To finally find true rest in God free from the weariness of this world.
I’d like to be able to tell you that…but I can’t.
The Divine Liturgy celebrated in the Orthodox church (“Eastern Orthodox”) has been an enigma to my western, enlightened mind. A mystery would be a better description…and a “mystery” in the truest sense. From the opening words of the Liturgy, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and forever unto ages of ages” to the final “Amen,” the Church has always assumed that during the Divine Liturgy the worshippers are actually(!) in the Kingdom that is both at hand and is to come, the place where all time exists in the present moment: Christ, the lamb slain before creation; the promise to Abraham; the Passover meal, the Last Supper, and the final Wedding Banquet; the giving of the Law to Moses; the birth, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus…all moments present in the moment. Further, in the Kingdom, where every knee now bows, we are worshipping God with all those who were, are, and will yet be, and with the tens of thousands of angelic beings. During the Liturgy we are in the very presence of the Most Holy Trinity, which means Jesus is also there, and Jesus is most literally fully present in bodily form in the transfigured bread and wine.
Honestly, though, during the Liturgy it is usually hard for me to feel like I am actually in the Kingdom and in the presence God, but it is not about “feeling” a particular way; rather it is about my faith, believing it to be true.
I can only image…Given this mystery of the Divine Liturgy, I don’t have to image what it will be like in God’s presence as though it is some future event. I can dare say I am in His presence during every Liturgy. And the body and blood of Jesus literally become part of me as I ingest Him from the Eucharist chalice. However, for me, being in Jesus’ presence it bears no resemblance to the song, above. Often, my feet and back ache from standing and I’m quite distracted by kids or others moving about or by my own mind wandering to the events of yesterday and tomorrow.
In those moments when I am able to tame the distractions, I do become aware of the Kingdom and I am overcome by the words of the Liturgy: “It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion; for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same…”
And then I am immediately aware how far I am from God in my expression of love for Him and my neighbor. Sometimes I do have the urge to fall to my knees, as the song imagines, but it is in repentance for my failure to be able to love Him and you, dear reader, as He loves both of us.
Such is being in the actual presence of the consuming fire that is God.
Being in the presence of God brings me pain and shame from my Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Slothfulness…each of these is at work within me to lead me away from Life Himself. I feel the shame. And, I experience the pain of His all-consuming fire that is His love for me as the Spirit slowly, so slowly, works in me to burn away the goat in my heart. I pray there will be found some sheep in me and that I will be saved through the His loving fire.
Being in the presence of God brings me fear. I too often believe the words of the serpent telling me that I can’t trust God. I want retain control of just enough of my own life so I can salvage it in the event I find I can’t really trust God. I’m like the character in the C.S. Lewis novel, The Great Divorce, who has a lizard-parasite on his shoulder. He is afraid for it to be removed; he doesn’t believe he will become truly himself without it. Like him, I’m comfortable with my demons; removing them is to give up control, to move toward the unknown—in trusting faith. I pray I would have the faith of Christ and come to fully trust God.
Despite the pain, shame, and fear I experience in His presence, I can’t seem to stop walking deeper into His fire. Where else would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His refining fire draws me like a moth. What God most wants from me is no more than He has already offered to me: Himself. He has first offered me a gift that cost Him the death of His Son; it is His gift to me of immeasurable cost and value. What He wants from me is a gift of similar value: all of me. But God’s refining fire still burns me—this is the suffering of becoming one with God. Yet God doesn’t want my fear and pain and shame; He is not a wrathful God. Rather, me bearing my fear, shame, and pain is the cost I to me to give the gift of myself to Him. And when I can no longer bear it, God offers me rest along the way.
While there have been many article written and movies made that focus on Jesus’ agony of His scourging and subsequent death on the cross, the biblical writers actually have little to say about it. Rather, they focus on God’s gift to us in the person of Jesus and the joy of Christ as He faced the cross…His gift to us. This should inform how we think of sacrificial gift-giving.
Rather than me focusing on my suffering, my pain, my shame, and my fear, I should focus on the gift I want to give God—the all-of-me-I-am-able-to-give gift. It is by focusing on the gift and not the cost where we find the peace and joy of Christ. This, after all, is His promise: “Come to Me and I will give you rest.” There is no need to imagine. We can experience it now.
Mike, thank you once again for your meaningful words. I really appreciate not only your thoughts, but the heart behind them. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability.
I’ve thought a lot about the fact(?) that as children of God and followers of Christ, we are living, here and now, in His kingdom. I’m sure that I don’t have your same perspective – not (yet?) Orthodox – but we are promised that we are in His presence ‘wherever two or more are gathered’, that we are in Him indwelled by the Spirit of God, that we participate in His suffering and His life, that we are surrounded by this ‘great cloud’… and so in a very real way, we are living life eternal now.
But doesn’t it feel like I’m walking in the fullness of Christlikeness, not every moment certainly. Of course, I am still in a dying body, with a decaying mind – and with Paul I yet see through this glass darkly. So perhaps there is something yet to imagine?
But I so much appreciate you sharing this. Truly, even if there is something to imagine, there is more to live into, to abide into, here and now. A gift indeed.
Thank you for this.