What’s Your Song?

This morning, Alexa was kind enough to play some music for me. One of the songs in my get-ready-for-worship playlist is “The Stand” from Joel Houston of Hillsong. You’ll remember it:

I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all.
I’ll stand, my soul, Lord, to you surrendered.
All I have is yours.

The recording on my playlist is in a concert/worship setting, and toward the end, the singer/leader dropped out but encouraged the audience/worshippers to sing that chorus one more time. You could hear hundreds–maybe thousands–of voices singing as one, praying as one, worshipping as one. Cool stuff.

It occurred to me that it would be amazing to have a song that you’ve written or popularized that you could begin and then allow those listening to carry it for you. But then I realized that many artists can do that sort of thing. The Rolling Stones could do that with “Wild Horses.” It would be an intoxicating feeling, but perhaps hollow.

We know that for that experience to be more than just a good feeling, the song needs to be worthwhile. It needs to take people into the presence of God. That’s what I think I heard on that recording. And it’s something that I’m pretty sure I’ll never experience as the songwriters/singer/worship leader. (Sigh.)

In mulling over that bittersweet thought, I realized that every one of us is gifted by God to write such a song. More precisely, we’re called to do something that will powerfully bless others and help them draw closer to Jesus and to God the Father. My song isn’t a literal song with lyrics and melody. Yours probably isn’t either.

I’ve written some songs, and I’d love to be able to stand on a stage and lead people in singing them. That sounds great, but that’s not my calling, not my song. I could preach a good sermon, but that doesn’t seem to be my song either–at least not as a vocation.

What if I–or what if you–sat around lamenting that my songs don’t resonate with people in the way that, say, Michael W. Smith’s songs do? What if I couldn’t listen to sermons without wondering why I don’t get the chance to preach? If I allowed myself to get stuck in that way, I’d never create whatever alternate form of song that God has gifted me to fashion.

Paul addresses this thinking in 1 Corinthians 12:12-16

For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ…Indeed, the body is not one part but many.  If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. 

What is your “song”? There’s something that you were created to do for the people (or the future people) of God that will be every bit as life-changing and amazing as having thousands of people singing your song by memory. It probably won’t be as dramatic, and it probably won’t engage thousands of people at the same moment, but it can be just as powerful.

But if I sit around listening to “The Stand” and pitying myself that my songwriting won’t rise to that level, then I’ll never write the “song” that only I can write.

Grasshopper or Locust, Part II

I can’t get past Numbers 13, so bear with me. Last time, I focused on the end of the chapter when the bulk of the scouts sent to check out the Promised Land declared themselves grasshoppers in comparison to the scary people they would be facing. Today, I’d like to slide back to the opening of the chapter, Numbers 13:1-3:

The Lord spoke to Moses:  “Send men to scout out the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man who is a leader among them from each of their ancestral tribes.”  Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran at the Lord’s command. All the men were leaders in Israel.

The twelve men sent out, men who are named in the ensuing verses, were leaders among their respective tribes. Lest we miss that fact, it’s repeated in these verses. They were leaders.

Leaders? This is what leaders do? These guys came back from their little tour. From everything I can discern they all stayed together and saw the same things. After seeing those things, some of them–we don’t know how many–said, “Yeah, the land’s really great but there’s no way we can conquer it.”

Were these guys really leaders? Weren’t they the same leaders who had seen all the mighty works of the Lord in the preceding year? Honestly, they behaved more like Muppets than men.

After this Muppetry, Caleb stands up and presents the minority report:

Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!

That’s a leader! But the others became more determined in their cowardice. They compared themselves, as we saw before, to grasshoppers. Are you a grasshopper or a locust? These guys were content to be grasshoppers.

Before you jump to their defense and say things about the better part of valor and leaders exercising prudence, let’s look back to Numbers 13:17-20. Did Moses ask them to determine whether or not they advised an attack? No. Back in Numbers 13:2, God declared this to be “the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites.” He was giving it to them. These twelve were just to figure out the details.

The last two instructions Moses gave are intriguing to me:

Be courageous. Bring back some fruit from the land.

Be courageous and bring me some fruit. What a combo! The twelve men did the second of these but failed in the first. Why, if the people were so formidable, did the scouts slow themselves down with a two-person bunch of grapes? Could it be that they had more of a stomach for grapes than for any hint of danger?

Of course, the ten weak-willed spies received their punishment fairly quickly. But how often are we just as faithless? We’re pleased to accept the fruits of God’s provision but we back away when there’s a whisper of risk. Am I man or am I muppet? A grasshopper or a locust?

Grasshopper or Locust?

One of the key moments in Israelite history, a moment that we don’t always place in the first rank, comes with a supreme lack of faith in Numbers 13, when a dozen spies/scouts/explorers are sent to obtain a report on the Promised Land and come with a good news/bad news result.

The land is fabulous, they insist, leading with the good news.

But the people who live there are giants, they quickly continue. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them,” they conclude in Numbers 13:33.

A grasshopper–or a locust, the Hebrew word is the same–is a creature that, on its own, is pretty vulnerable. The biggest locust is no match for the smallest human. If these critters had human-level thinking skills, they’d be just as scared as the Israelites that day.

But there’s another aspect to these insects and actually something that differentiates them from grasshoppers. While both locusts and grasshoppers spend a good part of their lives as solitary beings, jumping around and munching on plant matter, locusts have a gregarious phase when they gather together. National Geographic describes the phase like this:

When environmental conditions produce many green plants and promote breeding, locusts can congregate into thick, mobile, ravenous swarms.

While a single locust is no match for a single foot, millions of these things can wreak havoc. One of the ten plagues of Egypt had been the worst infestation of locusts of all time; thus, the Israelites should have known about them. The prophet Joel refers to an infamous locust plague to speak of the coming Day of the Lord:

What the devouring locust has left,
the swarming locust has eaten;
what the swarming locust has left,
the young locust has eaten;
and what the young locust has left,
the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)

To this day, a swarm or plague of locusts is a largely irresistible force in an agricultural setting. In recent years these swarms have posed a problem in Middle Eastern countries.

So did the scouts of Numbers 13 mean relatively solitary and harmless grasshoppers or swarming, devastating locusts? We can’t really know for sure, but clearly they didn’t see themselves as terrifying creatures when they called themselves chagab or locusts/grasshoppers.

As individuals, those Israelites were perhaps no match for the individuals in the Promised Land. But God had not called them to conquer the land as individuals. They were supposed to operate together. As a group together, they would be seen as locusts–a plague of terrifying locusts–by the land’s inhabitants. Sure, the Canaanites, giants or not, might squash a few of them, but the swarm would prevail.

What’s more, this swarm had God on its side. This wouldn’t be some mindless, instinct-driven mob but rather the army of the Lord. These people had seen what God could do without requiring them to take any significant action. Did they believe that they’d become less powerful when they joined in at his guidance?

Those who follow God cannot be ultimately defeated. When we follow Him, we’re, like Paul says in Romans, “more than conquerors.” That’s what Caleb must have known when, in Numbers 13, he urged his countrymen to go on the offensive. But the others resisted and delayed the entry into the land by forty years.

Christians, we’re more than grasshoppers. We’re locusts!

The Shocking Truth about Atheism

Hang out with electricians and you might think that a padlock is their favorite tool. Any protocol-following electrician, when shutting off a breaker to safely work on a circuit, will slap a padlock on the box to ensure that some bozo doesn’t come along behind and turn the breaker back on.

The scene might look something like this: “Hey, why doesn’t my bagel toaster work in the office? No worries, I know where the breaker box is. Well there it is–number 13 is tripped. I’ll just turn it back on. (Click.) Who was that screaming?”

While Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, an electrician might amend that to say, at least while at work, that the fear of the current is the beginning of wisdom.

That well known verse is the flipside of Psalm 14:1:

The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.”

Our electrician friend would adapt that easily enough. The fool says, “There’s no way that this circuit is hot.”  The electrician switched the power off himself and then placed the padlock on to ensure that it stays that way. Only then is he not a fool.

But here’s the deal. Anybody who has worked around electricity for a while knows that you can get away without locking circuits most of the time. You don’t really have to treat every connection as if it were live. That’s just a safety guideline that takes care of matters in the worst case. It’s just like you can ride around in your car without a seatbelt most of the time without a problem.

That’s how it is with ignoring God. People can go through their lives for decades ignoring God and apparently prospering. Read through Psalm 14 for its dismal view of humanity. Not until Psalm 14:5 do we read the key word: “Then.”

Eventually, the fool who says there’s no God will discover the error of that assumption. Eventually. But in the intervening years, that fool can do a lot of damage.

What’s a God-follower to do? We can learn something from electricians. We can start by trying to live every moment of every day as if there truly is a God, as if the wires are hot. Do you already do that? If so, you’re ahead of me. We can also protect ourselves by trying to put locks on situations to avoid danger.

You see, that electrician can avoid danger in two ways. First, he can simply stay away from the system. That’s not his calling. Second, he can practice safe methods, including locking circuits, to keep some bagel-toasting yahoo from shocking him.

The reality is that electricians and Christians sometimes get hurt when they deal with these dangerous things. But the electrician is paid to deal with that danger. The Christian is expected to engage a dangerous world in an effort to set its current right.

 

Recalculating from the Wrong Turn

A friend of ours just moved to Dillingham, Alaska. After finding this town of 2,300 on the map, we were curious as to its distance. When I asked Google maps to give me directions (and that distance), here’s what I received: “Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions from “Your location” to ‘Dillingham, Alaska 99576.'” So in this case, you can’t there from here. Happily, we can get most places by car. To the best of my knowledge, we can’t drive anywhere that leaves us trapped.

Sunday, our fill-in preacher, speaking on the tenth commandment, instructed us that coveting is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There are things we should covet. He went on to enumerate some of those covet-worthy items. One of them, he suggested, was faith.

You need to desire the faith that right where you are today is right where God wants to bless you and use you.

That’s what his message notes said, but when he spoke on Sunday morning, the words were a bit different:

Do you have faith that where you are right now is right where God wants you to be and that he intends to bless you there?

Do you see the difference? The first statement, the one that is more defensible in my opinion, says that God can and will (and desires to) bless us wherever we might want to be.

The second statement says that wherever we are is where God wants us to be and that he’ll bless us there. I have to differ.

  • When Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree, they were not where God wanted them to be. He still blessed them from that place, but he didn’t want them to be there.
  • When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then committed murder to cover his sin, he was not where God wanted him to be. God still blessed David from that (wrong) place.
  • When I drove my old van on the same oil for far too many miles and blew out the engine, I wasn’t where either God or I wanted to be. However, he could and did still bless me from that bad situation.

If I use GPS to reach some more reasonable location in Alaska–beautiful Ketchikan for example–I might well make a wrong turn. When I head east when I should have headed west, that’s not where the GPS wanted me to go. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I’m not abandoned. Typically, the GPS will pause and say, “Recalculating” before providing newly updated directions.

My sin will take me down many wrong roads and into many bad neighborhoods. That’s not what God wants. But just like the GPS, each time I take a wrong turn, God recalculates and blesses me from that new location.

I understand what our fill-in preacher intended by his words, but we should remember that God doesn’t want us to be heading down that wrong road. Regardless of where we’ve gotten ourselves, though, he won’t leave us stranded in the spiritual equivalent of Dillingham, Alaska.

Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.

The Sabbath-Driven Life

News Update: I have not mowed the grass on a  Sunday since my previous post on the topic. I’m feeling good about that, but my wife and I are planning on driving a very long way on this coming Sunday.

Back to the matter at hand, though. At the beginning of this summer, I had a great lawn care plan pop into my head. Typically, I need to mow the grass for the first time in April and do it roughly once a week until about October. If my records are correct, I average twenty-four mowings per year. So this April, I decided to work ahead. I mowed on April 10 and then on April 12, April 13, twice on April 14, and once a day until I reached twenty. I figured that I could do the remaining four mowings on some cool October Saturday and call it a season.

This seemed like such a great plan, but then the guy from the city waded through the two-foot-tall bluegrass to come to the door and issue me a citation. Clearly, our civic leaders have no vision regarding alternative work patterns.

The reality of lawn care is that no matter how much work we try to do ahead of time, the task is never done until we don’t own the lawn any more. It doesn’t matter how many times I mowed last month, I still have to do the job this week and next week, and next month, and next year.

Similarly, we cannot complete our obligations to God ahead of time. I can’t observe “Sabbaths” seven days in a row and then have nearly two months to spend as I want. I can’t work my tail off serving God for a couple of years and then declare that I have “done my time” and go into retirement.

God has given us lives that we’re to work through just as surely as we care for our lawns. Ignoring the work to be done is not an option. Working ahead is not a real  possibility. Instead, we are to continue serving  and stewarding until relieved.

Paul understood this, although I don’t think he owned a lawnmower. In 2 Timothy 4:7, he doesn’t speak of running hard for part of the race or of struggling through part of a fight. Instead, he sees himself nearing the end of life but pushing through the finish line or the final bell.

I have mowed the good grass? I have finished the yard? Yes, but only until it needs it again.