Meeting God In The Arabian Desert Or, How We Learned To Listen

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First and foremost, we went to the middle east to learn about worshiping the God of the bible. We went to a city and a county under Sharia Law. One that adheres strictly to the tenets of the faith of Islam. A few facts about the City:

  • 85% of Dubai’s residents are Ex-Patriots (those who originate from another country)
  • The official language is Arabic, but English is the lingua franca (common language)
  • Islam is the official state religion, though there are many Ex-Pat communities that follow Christian, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Muslim faith. It is legal to have churches of other religions in Dubai, however proselytizing and promoting outside of the establishment is ground for imprisonment and/or deportation 

We did the usual touristy things:

  • Got ripped off by a shady taxi driver? Check
  • Visited the Burj Khalifa but didn’t go to the top so we could all pay rent this month? Check
  • Walked 10’s of thousands of steps before realizing we should “maybe take the train next time”? Check
  • Bought coffee, often. Check, Check annnnd Check (shakes a little)
  • Ate as much traditional Arabic food as comfortably possible? Check
  • Learned that its Ah-RA-bic, not AIR-ah-bic? Check, and check again.
  • Took a rickety boat across an overly packed-with-rickety-boats creek? Check!
  • Bought “Pashminas” that, we’re pretty sure were 100% cashmere? Check!
  • Made questionable choices about “upper room watch salesmen and their locking doors”? Sadly, Check!
  • Discovered a people and a culture that we will absolutely never forget? Big ol’ Check.

Three worship leaders from the three Anthem Churches we able to travel abroad and attend a Worship conference called “World at Worship” Josh Lewis from Thousand Oaks, Cayse Day from Camarillo and Jon Johnson from Ventura. The purpose?

John 1:5 says it perfectly:

“The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it” (John 1:5 ESV)

We were invited by a close friend of the Anthem family of Churches, Chris Wienand to attend a worship gathering that focused on the nations.

Worship leaders from America, South Africa, India, The Middle East, Canada and others flew into Dubai to learn from each other, worship with each other and grow closer to the Lord. 

We had panel discussions on inspiration, theology, liturgy and cultural shifts within the worship community. We had leaders in industry speak to the heart of God in business and professional songwriters speak to the heart of God in creativity. We worshiped. We worshiped in song and in teaching.

Here are a couple highlights from the three of us:

Josh Lewis:

One of the very simple things that I felt growing in my heart while I was in Dubai (the United Arab Emirates) was a heart for the nations; people outside of America. It was so crazy to see a high level of wealth that I’ve never seen before mixed right in with the third-world living conditions of the working class people all in the same city. My heart broke for the Muslim world on this trip. So many of these people live in tragic poverty. 

Our Dubai trip was an amazing chance for me to think deeply about why we have certain traditions and ways of doing things in our worship gatherings. I came away feeling how important it is to constantly evaluate why we do things during our gatherings together.

Everything in our times of worship should be designed to point to Jesus and should be built in such a way that God is able to make the changes that He wants. It actually seems like we will have to plan and prepare in order to be “Spirit-led”. That doesn’t just happen!

Cayse Day:

I met God in the desert.

That is my highlight from the trip. Of course I will remember all the wonderful people, exotic foods, and panic inducing taxi rides that (thanks to God & all of your prayers!) never ended us too lost or abandoned in the dessert as my darker thoughts might have led me to fear.

But Dubai carries a moment in my life that I will look back on because God met me there and revealed more of who He is to me. I value this above all else because every facet of His character that is revealed to me deepens my personal worship and my passion for worshipping with my Anthem family.

My heart is full with the idea of our people singing their own songs to Him as we begin creating a culture of songwriting. There is such an intimacy in singing your own song to God. It's like writing your own wedding vows as opposed to declaring the traditional ones. (I didn't write my own vows when I got married so don't feel TOO judged) Traditional vows have meaning and heart, but the ones we write ourselves declare our own journey and hopes for the future.

God is continuing to reveal himself to me and all the people of Anthem, and that revelation of His character is the most powerful way to stir up our hearts for worship.  

Jon Johnson:

Over the last six months I have felt a sense of “dryness” in my life. It’s either simple exhaustion from the rigors of building a church from the ground up, or just the busyness of our daily lives. Regardless, I have felt this in the city of Ventura as well. In a city that is tired of “church” and Jesus. A city that regularly feels the cool breeze of the ocean but needs more desperately the fresh air of our Savior. That being said, going to the literal desert didn’t really seem like the place to find “refreshment.”

My deepest desires have been to bring new songs and themes into the church. Into the city. I long for a day when our church pours out into the city a refreshing spirit of the truth and beauty of Christ. Part of that comes from a spirit of singing. We need to sing. We need to sing our own songs.

On the last night, we journeyed about an hour into the desert. We had about 10 4x4’s filled to the brim with folks. We had the intention of holding a worship service in the dunes, surrounded by sand and sun, sky and wind. We only spent about an hour out there, sang 2 or 3 songs, but we prayed. We prayed for the nations around us, for the people in the city behind us and as we were closing, a funny thing happened. We began to hear the Call to Prayer echo off the towers of the city. The mosques were beckoning the people to come and pray. I’ve never felt a more poignant moment of “spiritual warfare” in my life.

To be standing amongst friends, yet surrounded by the forces of darkness in an attempt to extinguish the light that God had brought into the city was humbling. But to know without a doubt that the dark would not win? That was awe inspiring. 

Out in the middle of the desert, in a country I have never been too. I felt a small breeze. A quick little gust of something. Like in Ezekiel 37 where God speaks:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37:4-5 ESV) 

Leaving that desert, to go back to our host home I felt a breath of fresh air, as cheesy and as simple as that sounds, I felt new life. I stood among towering men and women of God. Prophesying over a city that is among one of the darkest in our world. Praying against the spirit of fear and sin. And yet with all that happening around me, I felt a small little nudge in a direction that I have prayed about for over two decades. I wrote a song.

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The biggest thing we three took from the event was the simple and clear fact that we were born to worship a living God.

We were given talents and gifts to bring glory to a King of Kings. We were told to sing new songs, too. So, that’s what we are going to do. We are going to write songs for Anthem. Not with the intention of proclaiming our own names, but to continue to build a foundation for the souls and hearts of the people who call Anthem home.

We want to sing. We want to sing loudly. We want to share with you all of the wonders of a God who met us in the desert. You may not have been there in body, but I promise you, each and everyone of you was in our hearts as we prayed over you, as we sung over you and as we looked into the most brilliantly blue sky we have ever seen and worshiped God with you. It changes our lives.