Monday, August 25, 2014

Leaving Behind the Cowardly Lion Within

My youngest son stood half hidden beneath a natural arbor of overgrown bamboo.   Milk carton bucket in hand, his eyes focused on the thick, gray stepping stone beneath his feet. 

“Did you get the eggs?” I yelled across the yard.

He responded with a reluctant shake of his head. 

“Why not? What’s wrong, Emerson?”

Immediately, his face crumpled into tears.  “Because I’m scared there might be a snake!”

I gave a great sigh and marched to the hen house, flung wide the door, and gathered the eggs myself as I forced myself to speak calmly and softly about how the sunlight beaming inside made it impossible for a chicken snake to hide.

Courage, it seemed, was the topic of the month.  As a mother, I knew this sudden fear had nothing to do with snakes and everything to do with starting school a week earlier.

The first hint of his fears about Kindergarten manifested themselves in a more than usual fear of wasps.  Then, he began dissolving into tears over pool noodle light sabers, a party game he didn’t know how to play, and now snakes. 

Perhaps this personal issue with courage in my household over the past few weeks has made me more in tune with those in Scripture who altered their actions because of fear.

One instance involved King Ahaz, an evil king if there ever was one, a king who likely invoked fear in all his subjects.  Scripture says of him, “Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree” (2 Kings 16:2-4).

A man who would sacrifice his own flesh and blood was not to be trifled with.  Although he did not persecute the prophets as would his grandson Manasseh in 2 Kings 21, I imagine he did not treat with favor those who disagreed with his plans and philosophies. 

When King Ahaz decided to alter God’s plan for His holy temple, surely everyone knew a king did not expect to be contradicted, and he wasn’t.

Scripture records in detail Ahaz’s decision to create a new altar of sacrifice, one modeled after an altar to a pagan god: “Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction. So Uriah the priest built an altar in accordance with all the plans that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus and finished it before King Ahaz returned” (v. 10-11).

Uriah the priest had a choice—be courageous and stand against what he knew to be wrong or give in because he feared the king. 

He chose fear. 

Uriah built the altar, perhaps hoping that by giving in to this one whim of the king’s, he could positively influence the king down the road.  Or maybe Uriah thought this wasn’t that big a compromise.  Or perhaps it was just as simple as Uriah being more scared of telling the king 'no' than of disappointing a God he couldn't see with his physical eyes. 

But this one compromise and lack of courage began an avalanche, one small snowball transforming into something much more that would eventually bring down an entire kingdom: 

When the king came back from Damascus and saw the altar, he approached it and presented offerings on it…As for the bronze altar that stood before the Lord, he brought it from the front of the temple—from between the new altar and the temple of the Lord—and put it on the north side of the new altar.  King Ahaz then gave these orders to Uriah the priest: ‘On the large new altar, offer the morning burnt offering and the evening grain offering, the king’s burnt offering and his grain offering, and the burnt offering of all the people of the land, and their grain offering and their drink offering. Splash against this altar the blood of all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. But I will use the bronze altar for seeking guidance.’ And Uriah the priest did just as King Ahaz had ordered” (2 Kin. 16:12-16).

Again, Uriah stood by, saying nothing, as King Ahaz took over the role of the priest, offering his own sacrifices on his own altar, something God specifically forbade back in Numbers 18:7.  Uriah said nothing as Ahaz displaced God’s holy altar in favor of his pagan one.

All the while, Uriah simply remained silent, compromising more and more until he went down in history as the man who “did just as King Ahaz had ordered.”

The odd thing is that the prophet Isaiah called upon Uriah to serve as his witness, calling him a “reliable” or “faithful witness” (Is. 8:1-2).  Based on these words, it seems, then, that Uriah was a good and faithful man at one point in his journey, one who simply compromised, likely because he feared man more than he feared God.

It all boils down to courage.

Jesus warned his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). 

Uriah--along with more priests and prophets than I can count in Scripture—compromised his convictions.  He lacked courage.  But honestly?  How many of us Christians today find themselves compromising our own convictions.

Perhaps it’s that we think in compromising on one small thing, we will win someone to the Lord.  Or perhaps it is a fear of offending someone or even a fear of being rejected.

Many Christians around the world do live in fear for their lives.  But for those of us who need not fear death just for speaking the name of Jesus, we may think courage is not needed. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, I find modern Christians to be needing a huge dose of courage.  In our physical security, we have become so fearful of what others will think of us that we have become too scared to open our mouths and share the gospel with our neighbors and friends. 

This is a call for you and me to become courageous followers of Christ.  May we refuse to compromise the truth found in the Word of God.  May we bravely speak the truth in love to those around us.  May we have the courage to share Jesus with everyone we meet.

Let us take the words of one of my favorite hymns to heart:

Be strong in the Lord, and be of good courage;
Your mighty Defender is always the same.
Mount up with wings, as the eagle ascending;
Vict'ry is sure when you call on His name.
Chorus: Be strong, be strong, be strong in the Lord;
And be of good courage, for He is your Guide.
Be strong, be strong, be strong in the Lord;
And rejoice for the vict'ry is yours.


So put on the armor the Lord has provided;
And place your defense in His unfailing care.
Trust Him, for He will be with you in battle,
Lighting your past to avoid every snare.


Be strong in the Lord, and be of good courage;
Your mighty Commander will vanquish the foe.
Fear no the battle for the vict'ry is always His;
He will protect you wherever you go.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Finding Out You Can't Sing

My daughter sits in the top of the buggy, hands reaching out for whatever is in arm's reach, all while singing at the top of her lungs. Like many children, Amelia has trouble distinguishing between what is an outside versus an inside voice. This time is no different.

As I run fingers down book spines, quickly searching the stacks at our favorite thrift store, I listen, trying to make out the tune. I can't. I listen harder only to realize her words are so run together that I can't understand anything...except the word Jesus. Every few loudly sung non-words, I clearly hear Jesus followed by more nonsense, then Jesus again.

My cheeks flush as I bite my tongue. Half the store can hear, but how can I tell her to hush when she's singing a heart's praise? Isn't that what I've taught? To sing like there is an audience of One, soul turned upward to the Father?

All too often, this world makes real singing impossible. Even when we should be singing praises to God in worship, sometimes the pain of life, the suffering, overwhelm our fleshly senses to the point where we feel a song can't pass our lips or when it does, it is as mere emotionless words. Other times, self consciousness about what others might think turns our heart song into a whisper, especially if we have a talent for being off key.

When the Israelites lived captive in Babylon, they also had a problem with singing real songs from the heart. The Psalmist, perhaps even the prophet Jeremiah, writes:

"By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:1-4).

Why the Israelites brought their harps with them is unclear. Did they bring the instruments for comfort's sake, soothing familiarity in far away land? Did they keep them for preservation's sake when all Jerusalem was being burned, a hope that they would be used once again by Levites in worship when they returned home?

Whatever the reasoning, they seemed to be unable to use the harps for comfort or even worship away from the temple. The mere sight of the instrument caused them to remember and weep. But instead of packing away the harps in storage or hiding them in the cleft of a rock, the people of God "hung" their harps in plain sight when they "remembered." The Hebrew word used here means "to cause to be remembered,"* implying the people were consciously sitting down in their captivity, forcing themselves to remember and grieve, not an instance where they merely fell into a heap when overwhelmed by sudden emotion.

Although with downtrodden spirits in this conscious grief, the people of God had hearts that still could have sung in worship to God. Scripture commands, "in everything give thanks"(1 Thes. 5:18). The Psalmist even advised, "This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps. 118:24). Yet, like many of us have likewise felt at moments such as these, the Israelites could only focus on what was lost versus on what God was still providing in His every-present mercy. They could only send up lamentations instead of praise, unable to see God at work in their present circumstances, "In a foreign land."

Despite their seeming inability to choose praising God through song, Israel was still required by her captors to sing. And so they sang, out of compulsion, not out of joy or worship of Yahweh or even out of lamentation. These songs of Zion the captors wanted so badly to hear were hymns of worship, of Israel's history as God's chosen ones, and of God's faithfulness to protect and provide. Surely, the captors wanted to hear the words in order to mock the slaves...and to mock the God of Israel.

Amidst the mocking and grief, the sung words were empty, soul disconnected from words.

Only when the captives were returned to Israel seventy years later did their souls soar enough to feel like singing once again to God:

"When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
'The LORD has done great things for them.'
The LORD has done great things for us;
We are glad" (Ps. 126: 1-3).

The King James Version translates "joyful shouting" in verse 2 as "singing," the Hebrew word ranan meaning "to be overcome," "to cry out, shout for joy, give a ringing cry."* It is this type of soul overflowing song of praise that is generally thought to be true worship, when the heart cannot not sing because of joy.

Yet, I would argue that even this is not the fullness of what a song to God will one day be.

Although Israel had returned home to Jerusalem, their question, "How can we sing the LORD’S song In a foreign land?" was and still is a pertinent question.

Peter refers to Christians as "aliens and strangers"--blood-covered, spirit-filled foreigners living in a sin-stained earth (1 Pet. 2:11). Perhaps, then, God's people can never sing the Lord's song in this foreign, impure land.

If this is true, then consider the singing depicted in Revelation: "And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth" (Rev. 14:3).
This "new song" sung around the throne may not be filled with uncommon words or a tune man has never heard before. Instead, perhaps it is a newness in that it can only be sung in its fullness by a redeemed soul finally home.

True heart-song singing need not be out of joy. It need not be loud or in time with a harp. In one sense, a raw song of worship, unadorned by instruments yet quietly lifted from a soul that is torn, battered, and in captivity--this is an equal, perhaps greater, song of worship.

Either song, though, is inferior to the one Christians will sing one day before the throne. On that day when we are no longer foreigners but are home once and forevermore, perhaps we children of God will discover none of us has ever been able to sing before. We only thought we knew how.


(Archives 09.04.11) 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Choosing to Live as "Dust Pans"

In the early 1900s, an American missionary named Raymond Bush went to South Africa to spread the gospel to the natives.  While there, he took a young African boy named Tisese under his wing, allowing the boy to leave his village and come to live at the mission station with him and his wife.  There, the boy learned to love Jesus and God's Word.  

At one point after hearing of Saul's conversion to become Paul, Tisese said, "'Now that I am a Christian, my name shall be 'Dust Pan' forever!'"  When Raymond asked why he had chosen the name, Tisese replied, "I was just passing your house and saw your wife sweeping, with that tool called a dust pan in her hand. She carried all the dirt out of your hut with it. I want to be a dust pan, too, so that when I go home I may carry out the dirt from the lives of my father, my family, and all my friends. I want to be a Dust Pan for Jesus!" 

And a "dust pan" he would be.  

When Raymond prepared another journey to the boy's village, Dust Pan insisted on going: "There is no time to lose! Even now my family could be dying without Jesus. My father could be killed in a tribal fight. My mother may be eaten by lions while working in the garden! My brothers and sisters may die and never hear of Jesus in time."

Reluctantly, Raymond relented, allowing the boy to accompany his caravan.  After several nights, the boy's feet were covered in blisters, but still, young Dust Pan refused to turn back.  Instead, he walked for days on bandaged feet until his blisters burst.  His feet bled with each step until, at last, he reached his home village. 

One year later, missionary Raymond returned to Dust Pan's village.  There, he found 364 new Christians all waiting to be baptized, including the boy's former-witch-doctor father, his mother, his three sisters, and his five brothers.  

The witness of one small boy had brought so much light to the dark heart of the African jungle.*


My children and I read this story over a week ago and still, it remains in my heart and mind what one little boy could accomplish for the kingdom of  God.  It makes me look at my young children differently, wondering what they could accomplish for Jesus, what I could accomplish for Him, if not weighed down with self doubt.

Even in my late thirties, I am still guilty of thinking myself too unknowledgeable, too insignificant to make a difference for Jesus.  But the apostle Paul cautioned against such a defeatist attitude, telling Timothy:

"Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you" (1 Tim. 4:12-16).

In other words, it isn't our physical age that determines our usefulness but rather our spiritual age. Maturity, in these verses, seems to come from three things: (1) being "absorbed" with the reading and teaching of the Word of God, (2) ensuring our daily conduct always reflects Christ, and (3) using our spiritual gifts.  

Although they seem independent qualities, the three are connected.  In order to properly teach Scripture, I'm going to need to be absorbed in reading/studying Scripture in my private time, which will naturally spill over into my speech and direct my conduct.  Another byproduct of being absorbed in Scripture is that I will be seeking to use my spiritual gifts to exhort and edify others.  My public life is merely a reflection of my private life with Christ.

The end result is that my "progress will be evident to all." 

As Christians, we simply must stop thinking in terms of "I can't" or "I don't know enough" and start seeking to use whatever spiritual gift God has endowed us with.  Then, just let God take care of the rest.

It is in this way that we can all be little Dust Pans for Jesus.  

*The story of Dust Pan can be found in Mildred A. Martin's book Missionary Stories with the Millers.  (pp. 153-159).