SITTING IN THE TOP ROW

If you have known me for any length of time at all, you know I am a HUGE college football fan. Specifically, I love my Oklahoma Sooners, but I will watch any game, even Wake Forest or Rutgers.  Because it’s football!  Jerry and I have season tickets to watch the Sooners play in Norman, and we even go to a few away games.  When the Sooners play at home, I don’t get to watch many other games.  I can listen on the radio while driving, and keep up with the scores on my phone, but it’s not the same as a full day of football immersion.  And that is what I had last Saturday.  Since the Sooners were away, I got to watch football ALL DAY LONG, starting with ESPN GameDay at 8:00 AM, and falling asleep to the Pac 12 games on the west coast.  At some point during the Florida/Auburn game there was an aerial shot of the stadium, you know, one of those blimp views.  It was a dramatic shot of a full stadium and it made me recall something I had read earlier in the week about the top row of a stadium.  I will explain later, but first I will share some stadium experiences of my own.

As I said, we have season tickets to all of Oklahoma’s home games, and we usually have a ticket to the OU/Texas game in Dallas.  Our seats in Norman aren’t VIP seats by any means, but they aren’t bad seats either.  We have had the same seats for years and have gotten acquainted with the people who sit around us.  However, this past spring OU made some improvements to the stadium and they moved our seats slightly.  So now we are getting to know some new stadium neighbors.  Our new seats aren’t any better than our old, but they aren’t any worse either.  Frankly, I think one is lucky just to be inside the stadium.  Home games are always a sellout.  

I have a couple of memories of some not-so-good seats.  Years ago, before we had season tickets, we bought a pair to a home game.  It might have been my first game in Norman.  I was trying to remember what team we played that day—Jerry thinks it was Iowa State.  What I do remember is where the seats were located: on the very TOP row of the upper deck!  It felt like we were in another time zone!  Being that high up certainly gives you a different perspective on the game.  That is probably why you will often see a shot of a position coach operating from the booth.  He can see the big picture, often better that he can from the sideline.  And he can see much more than I can from my regular seats on the 20-yardline.

On another occasion we followed the Sooners to College Station to watch them play Texas A&M. Every football fan should see a game at Kyle Field.  And if you think it’s loud in Norman, you should sit with a stadium full of Aggies.  They even practice yelling!  But it’s a fun atmosphere, especially when your team is predicted to win.  As happy (and confident) as I was, on this particular day things didn’t go so well.  It started with our seats.  They were almost on the top row, and the their upper deck is so steep!  It was quite a hike to get to our row.  I was gasping by the time I found my seat.  On top of that, the Sooners had a bad day on the field.  And I had a big, birds eye view of the whole debacle.  

So all of this brings me back to what I read last week.  My friend Ronda has a brother, Rick Renner, whom I have never met, but I follow on social media.  He pastors a church in Russia, and has written several books, including Sparkling Gems From the Greeka devotional book based on Greek words from the Bible.  He does such a good job of painting word pictures, and I can always do better if I have a visual.  Last week he posted a study on the word “clouds” from Hebrews 12:1.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” (NIV) 

This verse comes after the famous passage in Hebrews 11 known as “the roll call of the faithful,” a portrait of the saints who have gone before us.  Renner says the word “clouds” describes the highest seats in the bleachers of a stadium.  Those saints are sitting up there cheering us along. This description gave me an entirely different perspective on that verse.  Those saints who have gone before us have a big picture view from their seats in the clouds.  They know the final score.  And they are there, cheering us on as we take our turn on the field.  

Each of us has a finite amount of time, and for those of us who are Christians, our own unique position to play.  The goal is to advance the Gospel, to move it toward the finish line.  There are some who may be called to important positions such as coaches or quarterbacks.  Others of us may be less significant.  We may merely serve as water boys, but that water certainly is important to those who are doing the heavy work.  As a team, as a part of the Church, we strive to carry the cause of Christ.  I think of the words from the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers:

 

Like a mighty army
  Moves the Church of God:
Brothers, we are treading
  Where the saints have trod;
We are not divided,
  All one Body we—
One in faith and Spirit,
  One eternally.

My prayer is that I don’t fumble, that I don’t lose yards, that I can advance the ball.  And when my time on the field is over, may I take my seat on the top row and cheer on the next generation.

BEING A WATCHMAN

One of the things I am enjoying in retirement is the time to really dig into my Bible study lessons at Community Bible Study.  This year we are doing a study called The Road to Jerusalem, the story of the Jewish exile and the restoration of Israel.  Yesterday’s lesson highlighted the life of Ezekiel who was appointed by God to be a prophet and watchman to the people.  His main job was to warn the people to turn from their idols.  That term, “watchman” reached out and grabbed me. What was the job of a watchman?  

My thoughts turned to the medieval towns in Tuscany and Provence that we have visited over the years.  They were all built on a hilltop and they all had walls surrounding them.  These walls provided fortification and defense against attackers and intruders.  Along the walls watchtowers were erected a place for a watchman or sentry to stand guard.  Strategically, the towers were erected at points where entry were more likely, and where the watchman could have a 360 degree view of the landscape, where they could spot enemies before they got too close.  If an enemy approached, the watchman’s job was to alert the town of impending danger.  I’m thinking sentry duty then and now is a lonely job.

So what does Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman have to do with me today?  I guess I think of watchmen as those people who will be on the lookout for the things that will threaten to destroy us.  Those who will sound the alarm.  Modern day Paul Reveres.  From a Christian perspective, watchmen are protecting our faith and defending our society from our modern day idols.  In my opinion, our biggest danger comes from our secular culture.  Watchmen have to be able to stand against the tsunami of a godless society.  As we were discussing these ideas, I was having my own private conversation with God.  “Please don’t call me to be a watchman.”  I thought of some of my friends who can stand boldly in the face of criticism.  I confess that is a lonely and scary place for me.  I don’t like it.

I remember a day during a sociology course when the subject of abortion was discussed.  I was the only person in my class of about thirty who expressed opposition to it.  And the backlash against me was fierce!  I looked around the room and though to myself that surely I can’t be the only one in this class who thinks abortion is wrong.  Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma?  The buckle of the Bible belt?   After class, several people came up to me and told me they were proud of me for standing up.  “Where was YOUR voice,” I thought.  

I don’t want to be a watchman.  I don’t like opposition.  I often feel that I can’t muster a cogent defense quickly enough.  I remember that day when I felt like I couldn’t get my words together.  I think of my friends who speak out on different issues and I find myself like those classmates.  I admire the watchmen, but I don’t want to be them.  However, in these times when religious persecution is on the rise (Christians being the most targeted group), perhaps God is calling all of us to be watchmen.  Because if we don’t watch, who will? 

All these thoughts were going through my mind when I finally allowed God to speak to me.  I realized He isn’t necessarily calling me to be a watchman to the world as much as He is to myself.  “You need to be a watchman over your own heart!”  Wow!  As always, God is right.  I have a full time job guarding against idols of my own.  An idol is anything that takes my time, energy, and devotion away from God.  My potential idols are more subtle than golden statues.  Self-indulgence, screen time, acquisition of things, even (Gasp!) Sooner football.  I could create quite a list.  I guess even my family could become an idol.  

So my first calling to be a watchman is a call to guard my heart from the benign or even “good” things that could take first place in my life.  I think of the words from the old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” 

“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, 

Prone to leave the God I love.”  

So today I lay open my heart before the Lord, and I ask Him to remove anything that has become an idol to me, and to keep me alert to the things that could sidetrack me in the future.  As I said, it’s a full time job.  But I also ask God to burden my heart for the things that burden His.  I want to “watch” for God, to see where He is moving and what He is doing.  Being a watchman is more that keeping an eye out for evil, more than warning about the dangers of sin.  A watchman also has the privilege of proclaiming the good news of the gospel.  As Believers, we get to announce to the world that God has provided a remedy for sin.  And we are all commanded to be on the alert, to watch for Christ’s return.  The more I think about it, I don’t get to opt out of being a watchman.  Nor should I want to.  It is an honor.