I Love to Tell the Story

I’ve mentioned this before, but many of my childhood memories of church revolve around old hymns, sung with more gusto than musicality– joyful noises, just not always faithful to the notes. But they were faithful to the Word, and the Worship of Christ. I will always be grateful for that heritage.

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In the more informal services on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights before we settled in for prayer, the worship leader would often ask for members of the congregation to call out the number of any random hymn. We would (attempt) to sing it, often a capella, just the first verse, or maybe the first and last. It gave people a chance to sing an old favorite, or a hymn we hadn’t sung in awhile. Sometimes, a brave soul would find a “new” hymn– one no one (or almost no one) had ever heard. Occasionally, the evening church hour would revolve solely around this worship model– a hymn-sing service. It’s a dying practice, and one that deserves to be preserved. My church has done it a few times over the past years, a local chapel does it once a month, and Bible Study Fellowship in our area begins with hymn-sing every week. It’s a great way to learn old hymns, long-forgotten choruses, and treasured truths of doctrine set to music.

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But I digress. As a child, I liked this spontaneous activity, except for one thing. I knew that if Mr. Teeter opened the hymnal and started to clear his throat, that he would suggest the same hymn he always picked. It never seemed to vary– ever. Mr. Teeter was one of the older men of the church. He was in his seventies, short, with wisps of white hair, wise and twinkling eyes, and a big, red nose like a strawberry, which he often blew–loudly–into his pristine white handkerchief. He always came to church in a suit, complete with a hat, which had its own special spot on the hat rack in the entryway. I could not imagine him any other way. And every time he had the opportunity, he would choose to have us all sing, “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I wasn’t much impressed with the song. It seemed old-fashioned. It was simple. It had no soaring musical passages– sometimes, it even sounded whiny to my young ears. I dreaded the thought that we would sing it (yet) again. I would try to get my hand up and choose another hymn, any other hymn, before Mr. Teeter could clear his throat. I did not understand why he never seemed to want to sing other hymns– I knew he liked “Standing on the Promises,” “Blessed Assurance,” even “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!” But, while he could be stalled for one or two other numbers, he would eventually call out the dreaded number, and we would sing at least one verse. It’s not that I hated the song, and I certainly had respect for Mr. Teeter, but I just couldn’t figure out why THIS song? Why EVERY time?

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Just a couple of years before his death, Mr. Teeter gave his salvation story in front of the church. Many of us had never known about his wild early years; his drinking or his rebellion against his family and the church. Many of us assumed he had always lived a quiet, rather pious life. He radiated the peace and wisdom of a man who walked daily with his God. And then, he told of his fascination with this old hymn. He liked the very simplicity of it–his life wasn’t based on some grand theological argument, or a complicated list of heroic actions he had achieved to win his salvation. His life–his born-again, wonderful, eternal life– was because someone had told him an old, old story, he had believed it, and that had made all the difference. That simple old story has been the same since the beginning– God made the world, mankind sinned and fell short of God’s glory, God sent His Son to pay the price of that fall, and Jesus’ death and resurrection allows anyone who believes to be adopted as a son or daughter of God. And though Mr. Teeter knew the old story inside and out, and lived it, he never tired of it. He was “hungering and thirsting” to hear it again!

Whenever I hear this song now (or suggest it), I think of Mr. Teeter singing with saints and angels, his quiet voice full of emotion, his eyes filling with tears of gratitude and worship, as he gets his request–“and when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love!”

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Why Journal?

In this blog, I try to focus on three basic aspects of prayer:

  • The purpose of prayer
  • The power of prayer and
  • The practical pursuit of prayer.

Today, I’d like to just put in a plug for journals as a very practical way to pursue a better prayer life.  For a more detailed list of ideas to get started, please see this page:  Prayer Journal

Journals are as individual as the people who create them, but the very practice of writing and keeping a journal has certain universal benefits.

  1. It develops discipline.  Prayer should be a daily practice, but having a journal can provide structure, accountability, and motivation.  Writing down requests, answers to prayer, questions I want to bring before God, even feelings or events of the day, can help establish a routine and a reason to come back to the same place (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) each day.
  2. It serves as a focus for each day’s prayers.  There are times when prayer is difficult–maybe the stresses of the day are distracting; maybe I just can’t think how to begin because there are so many thoughts running through my head or needs that I want to bring up.  If I begin with items in my journal, and add others to a list, it can be easier to bring order, focus, and steadiness.
  3. It serves as a witness and testimony.  One of the values of writing things down is that it gives me a chance to look back and review.  Sitting down every few weeks or months can reveal how many times God has answered prayers that I’ve already forgotten about.  It can also show how my ongoing prayers for certain situations may reveal changes God has made in my own heart and my own thinking, which sometimes helps me see why God didn’t “answer” my prayer when or how I imagined.

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  4. It serves as a reminder of God’s general faithfulness.  In times of doubt or pain, it can be encouraging to see and remember how God has helped or healed so many others around me.  Even if it brings up questions, like “Why did you heal that person, and not me”, in the end, there are mountains of examples of God’s care and faithfulness that allow me to see that He works “All things” together for good.  All of which can be written in and added to the journal as a further reminder!
  5. It serves as a reminder of God’s specific faithfulness.  If I look at the list of people and situations in the past and present, I am often overwhelmed at the amount of love that God has showered on me in the form of friends, family, opportunities to meet and be inspired, or share and give kindness.  In big ways and small ways, God has brought in and through my life miracles, amazement, and blessings– so very many.  It is tragic that I can so easily dismiss such blessings, or be distracted by the same worries and fears that God has brought me through in the past.  The journal sparks powerful memories of God’s enduring love for each one of us.
  6. It convicts.  As I mentioned above, it is tragic to think that I can so easily be dissuaded and discouraged by present troubles, when there is so much clear evidence of God’s faithfulness in the past.  But the journal can also show times when I have been unfaithful or lacking in faith.  This is important, not to beat myself up or become despondent, but to turn me back from such behavior and help me get back on track.

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  7. It inspires.  As mentioned above, each person’s journal is unique and personal.  God has given each of us passions and interests that can be brought into our prayer journal.  If I have a heart for missions, I can include prayer requests from missionaries of my acquaintance, or from web sites.  I can research cities and nations and people groups being reached by missions organizations.  If I have a passion for art, I can include drawings and sketches that flow out of my worship time.  My journal (and yours) can be filled with unique expressions of our heart for God– our deepest questions, hopes, worries, aspirations, and worship.

If you don’t already keep a prayer journal, I hope you will consider starting one.  It’s never too late or “the wrong time” to start one, and it can be as personalized as you wish– keep a notebook, a sketch pad, index cards, a electronic journal, a calendar– whatever works best for your resources, your personality, and your needs.

 

On The Witness Stand

Last week, I was called upon to give testimony in court as a witness to a crime.  The crime itself occurred months ago, so I was very nervous, trying to remember the sequence of events, and trying to make sure I didn’t add or leave out important details.

There is a reason the judge asks for “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  It is very easy to exaggerate, to leave out details that may reflect poorly on us or on those we know, or to add commentary or opinion.  Even the way a lawyer asks a question can evoke a certain memory or reaction that is more or less than the original event warrants.

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As hard as I tried, I couldn’t tell the entire “truth”–not because I lied or withheld evidence, but because I only witnessed a portion of the crime, and because I don’t have total and perfect recall.  No one does.  Three witnesses may testify and get certain details “wrong” or mix up the sequence of events, or be confused or hazy months after the event.  Even seeing the same event from a different perspective can alter one’s testimony.  One person hears a conversation clearly, but cannot see one speaker’s facial expressions or gestures.  Another sees the event close up, but cannot see what is happening “behind the scene.”  One person’s personal biases may come out in the way they give testimony, even if they are unaware of it. While I hope and believe that I told the truth as I witnessed it, my witness alone is not enough to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence–nor should it be.

The ninth Commandment (in Exodus 20) warns about giving or “bearing” false witness.  We usually equate this with lying, but it is more than telling “a whopper.”  Bearing false witness includes spreading rumors, “sharing” questionable posts, omitting facts, and even “faking it” until you make it– pretending to be what we are not; hypocrisy, and false appearances.

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As a follower of Jesus, I am a full-time witness.  This is far more important even than being a witness in a court case.  I should always speak and behave as if I am “under oath.”  Not just when I know all eyes may be watching; not just when I’m with other “witnesses.”  Always.  This doesn’t mean that I aggressively volunteer my opinion and beat people over the head with commentary everywhere I go.  It doesn’t mean that I smile and say only what I think others want to hear.  It means that I speak less than I listen, but when I speak, it is truth–loving, sometimes harsh, spoken with the intent to help, heal, encourage, challenge, and bring justice.

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In prayer, it means that I repent of falsehood, pride, envy, anger, and bitterness.  It means that I acknowledge God for who He is, and myself for who I am in Him.  It means that I ask for wisdom to seek and see truth, and to see through deception and falsehood–even in my own heart and mind.  And it means that I thank God for His Truth, which is perfect and victorious.  I pray that the Truth will shine in, around, and through my life and my words, and in the lives of others.

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Many people will point out when I get it “wrong.”  They will point to other Christ-followers, other “witnesses” whose lives may look different from mine, who speak differently, act differently, vote differently, even worship differently than me.  And I need to trust that the “whole” truth will come from each of us bearing honest and full witness to what we know and experience of God’s goodness, His power, and His love.  I don’t have the “whole” truth– but I am a witness of the one who IS the whole Truth!

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