In 2013, Hillsong United released the song "Oceans" as a single on their "Zion" album. Before long, it became one of the most popular worship songs in the world. For 50 consecutive weeks, Oceans was the number one song on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs list (which is a record) and has remained in the top three ever since. The song ranked as high as 3rd on the CCLI church licensing list, and as of August 2016 is 14th on that list. The song has been performed on The Voice, and even Selena Gomez has said that she listens to it in her dressing room.
So... basically everyone has been singing this song. If you've been in church in the last three years, you've probably sung it too. But here's what a lot of people don't understand when they sing songs like "Oceans:" God can hear you singing it, and he's keenly interested in whether you actually mean what you're singing.
We live in an entertainment saturated culture. And we're flooded every day (see what I did there?) with catchy songs that have a great beat and memorable lyrics. "Oceans" is one of them. But the truth is that we often sing those catchy songs while giving little thought to the meaning of those memorable lyrics. (as a fun activity someday, take the Billboard top 10 and just read the lyrics in a monotone, with no music or melody. You'll be like "how is this popular??"). If you were to stop and examine the lyrics of "Oceans," you'd realize that this is not a song that you should sing simply because it's catchy; it's a song of prayer, asking God to stretch your faith by taking you into very difficult situations. Seriously. Take a look at these lyrics:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior...
I mean, honestly. Read those words. Do you not see that this is a prayer for God to take you way out of your comfort zone? These words are literally asking God to take us to our breaking point, further into difficulty than we thought we could bear. This is no happy-go-lucky ballad asking for sunshine and rainbows. It's a prayer for God to test you and stretch you. Then there's the chorus, which is no better:
"I will call upon your name, and keep my eyes above the waves. When oceans rise..."
Yo, that chick is about to drown. If we replace those words with less poetic words that mean the same thing, that song would be sung like this: "I will scream 'jesus help me' and try to focus on you when I'm being sucked under water." Admittedly, that version isn't as catchy. It's got much more of a near-death-experience vibe. But here's the truth folks: that's exactly what the lyrics of Oceans is conveying. It's asking God to put you out in open water during a violent storm. It's asking God to put you on the boat in the Sea of Galilee, when the tempest is so bad that you've been rowing for hours but can't make progress because the wind is blowing so powerfully against you. And if you sing this song, and mean what you're singing, God will answer that prayer.
There's a running joke between my wife and I about this song. Two years ago, Alison and I requested that "Oceans" be played during our last service at our previous church. We were about to embark upon our move to South Bend to plant The After Church, and leave behind everything and everyone we had ever known. So we sang that song, and, thinking we understood the risk, we meant what we sang. Boy. Did God ever answer our prayer.
This church planting journey has been incredibly rewarding, but most of the time it has been so difficult. I work three jobs to make ends meet. There have been times when we weren't sure how we were going to pay the bills. Both of us have experienced a level of fatigue that feels like walls closing in to crush us. So often we have felt like we are completely alone in the dark, wondering why on earth God brought us here, and asking "Why aren't we seeing any return on our labor, Lord?" We'd expend all kinds of effort trying to raise funds, only to see nothing come to fruition. We'd train up leaders, only to see them move away. We've felt like we're constantly playing Hot Potato, with one deadline after another, one ticking time bomb after another, one catastrophe or unanswered prayer after another. And in each of those times, as Alie and I hold each other crying, one of us will chuckle through our tears and say "Doggone it, Oceans. This is our fault for singing that dumb song."
But in the midst of all the wind and the waves, in the midst of the storm and the strain, there's a desperate beauty to all of this. We often give Peter a bad rap for losing faith, and many times we teach that passage of scripture from the perspective of "Don't be like Peter! Keep your eyes on Jesus!" But if we're not careful, we miss one of the most incredible parts of the story: Peter actually walked on water. Even if only for a few moments, he WALKED on WATER. Out of faith and divine lunacy, a completely normal man climbed out of a boat, threw all common sense and logic and reason to the wayside, and because of the power of Jesus walked on water. That's insane. And incredible. And so beautiful. Even without the storm, it would have been an incredible story. But how much more beautiful it becomes when one considers that in the middle of the storm of the century a guy stepped off his boat and walked on water toward Jesus.
And that's the other thing this song is about. It's about going "where feet may fail," but also how in "oceans deep my faith will stand." Right now, The After Church is two weeks away from our official public launch on September 18th. We've felt the beating of so many waves, but as I sit here in Sufficient Grounds Coffee House, this is one of those beautiful moments where I feel like we're walking on water. God is performing miracle after miracle, putting all the pieces together, and building something glorious.
Have you ever experienced that side of "Oceans?" The rain is pouring, the thunder and lightning are deafening, and the darkness is overwhelming, but oh my God I'm walking on water. And I know that sometime soon, God will calm this storm. Sometime soon, the sea will be like a sheet of glass again, and the blustering wind will be replaced by a gentle breeze. But right now, he's showing how powerful he is compared to the storm, assuring me that no matter what comes my way he is bigger. Assuring me that he even holds hurricanes in his hand, so when a hurricane comes my way I have no need to fear. Assuring me that even when things are at their hardest, even then, if I keep my eyes on him, I can walk on water.
The funny thing is, there have been and will continue to be people who sing "Oceans" on a Sunday morning, and then when the storm comes on Monday will look up at God and scream "What are you DOING??" I can almost picture God saying "Isn't this what you prayed for yesterday? I'm doing what you asked me to. This is what 'trust without borders' looks like."
I'm not telling you to stop singing "Oceans." It's an incredibly beautiful and visceral song. But I am saying this: stop and think about what you're singing. Consider whether the beauty of walking on water is worth the pain of the storm. And think about the goodness of God, even in the worst of times, knowing that storms give us the unshakable confidence in how much more powerful he is than anything the world can throw our way.
Take it from me, friend, as I stand with my feet firmly planted on the crest of the surf: the journey of faith is worth it. And I can also promise you this: one day you'll find yourself in the middle of a storm with tears rolling down your face, but then you'll start to chuckle and you'll say, "Doggone it, Oceans. I should have never sang that dumb song."