Let Praise Go First


Randy Felton makes an observation that continues to nudge me in a different direction than I otherwise tend to go in my life.  He writes,

“In the book of Judges, chapter 1, verses 1-12, Israel is preparing for battle and they inquire of the Lord, Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?  The Lord tells them, Judah is to go.  Later, in Judges 20:18, we find, Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?  The Lord replied, Judah shall go first.  There were twelve tribes of Israel.  Why should Judah be called upon to go up first?  The Hebrew word translated as Judah is used many times in English as PRAISE.  So the scriptures could be translated as, Let praise go up first.  This is good advice for us when facing struggles or battles.  Let us first praise.  This is both an act of faith and submission.  Praise God before the battle is entered; anyone can praise when the battle is over and won.  Only by faith can we praise at the start.”

I tend to react to difficult situations with a certain level of dread and discouragement.  With that, I have an inclination to run away.  When I can’t run, I roll up my sleeves and jump into the fray—but I do so with something of a blind, frantic obsession about simply getting the job done.  As such, I am churning with stress, and I don’t do the job very well.  I especially don’t do it or with much loving care for others who are involved.

But Felton’s concept of letting praise go first nudges me to go in a different direction, a better direction.

This new direction is the approach taken by Habakkuk the prophet in Habakkuk 3.  In the preceding chapter, God pronounces “woe” upon the nation and warns them of great judgment coming upon them.  As a result, Habakkuk admits that upon hearing this report, “my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.”  The situation Habakkuk faced was terrifying, but he led off with praise.  The chapter begins with this declaration, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.”  From there he goes on to recall great things about God’s character, and he describes some of the great things God has done.

The act of praise brought about significant change.  It is not that praise changed the situation Habakkuk faced, but it changed Habakkuk himself.  Cyril Barber points out, “As one compares the beginning of the book of Habakkuk with its closing, it is clear that outward circumstances had not changed.  Only the prophet had changed.  His former bewilderment and confusion had given way to peace and trust in the Lord.”

Praise changes us because it anchors our souls on a solid foundation.  Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God.  It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times.  True praise is not the declaration that I am happy about how things are turning out in my life; true praise is the declaration that I cast my hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly for me.  I am beginning to learn to let praise go first.


Turning Prayer from Monologue to Dialogue

Habakkuk 2.1

If we actually believe in a living God who cares for us personally, why don’t our prayers match what we say we believe?  Why do we spend so much more time talking at God rather than listening to Him?

Sadly, Gregg Lewis captures well what most of my prayers are like in an analogy he shares about a customer at a fast food restaurant:

“I’d barely started to eat when, looking out the window I noticed a businessman in a three-piece suit racing across the parking lot.  Throwing open the door, he jostled his way through a cluster of exiting customers and stepped into the shortest line—just in front of a young mother toting two preschoolers.  ‘One Quarter Pounder, large fries, a medium Coke, and an apple pie.’  As the girl at the register left to fill his order, the man turned on his heel, strode out the door and trotted back to his car.  By the time the girl returned to hand him his lunch, the man was pulling his car out of the parking lot.”

How often my prayers are like that: “God, tell me what to do about this mess I am in.  Give me the wisdom I need for this situation.  Enable me to discern Your guidance.  Oh…I’ve got to run now!  I’m too busy to talk to You further!”

I make requests to God for His wisdom, His guidance, His answers, or His peace, but I don’t stick around long enough to be in a position to receive anything He might give.

An anonymous writer observes, “‘Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth,’ said young Samuel.  Almost universally we have made the keynote of our praying, ‘Listen, Lord, for Thy servant speaketh.’  It is strange that it has never dawned on us that nothing we say to God can be half so important as what God says to us.  And yet, when every prayer ought to be a two-way conversation, most often we make it a monologue.”

Habakkuk, however, takes steps to avoid having his prayer become a monologue.

In Habakkuk 1:12-17, Habakkuk expresses to God his complaint and his confusion.  He cannot understand how God could allow people as cruel and immoral at the Chaldeans to invade and defeat his country.  In verses 12-17, Habakkuk presents his side of the dialogue.  In Habakkuk 2:1, he positions himself to hear God’s participation in the dialogue.  He states, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”

This verse is distant from my personal practice, but it is an inspiration and challenge to me.  Habakkuk does two things here that I rarely do but want to learn to do:

1: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk moved himself away from the bustle of public life.  Apparently Habakkuk recognized that it is away from the flurry of activity that we have the best likelihood of being able to hear God speak to us.

Coming at this issue from the opposite direction, C.S. Lewis offers advice on how to hide ourselves from God: “Avoid silence; avoid solitude; avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track.  Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your grievances.  Keep the radio on.  Live in a crowd.  Use plenty of sedation.  If you must read books, select them very carefully.  But you’d be safer to stick to the papers.  You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal” (p. 168-169 of Christian Reflections).

By setting himself away from the commotion of activity, Habakkuk improved the likelihood of his prayer being a dialogue.

2: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk gave himself the best vantage point to hear God speak.  It’s not just that Habakkuk avoided the distractions of activity, he took the active step of putting himself in a place where he had the best opportunity to hear what God would say.  He made the matter of listening to God the single most important thing to him, and he arranged his day so that he had time and location and opportunity to hear God.  One way we can do this is by setting aside time each day to talk with God and to listen to Him.

James Hamilton shares, “Before refrigerators, people used ice houses to preserve their food.  Ice houses had thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door.  In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the ice houses, and covered with sawdust.  Often the ice would last well into the summer.  One man lost a valuable watch while working in an ice house.  He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it.  His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile.  A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the ice house during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch.  Amazed, the men asked how he found it.  ‘I closed the door,’ the boy replied, ‘lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still.  Soon I heard the watch ticking.’”

We increase our likelihood of hearing God when we set aside time to be silent before Him.


The load that needs more carriers

heavy load

There is a short, prophetic book in the Bible that I think we need to pay more attention to—particularly at this time in the life of our nation.

We need to pay attention to this book because we need to learn from people who are willing to argue honestly with God…and who are also willing to listen attentively to what God says to them in return.  And we need to value this book because we need to learn from people who are driven by compassion and conviction.

The name of the book is the name of the prophet who composed it: Habakkuk.  The name has rich meaning.  It comes from the Hebrew verb habhak, meaning “to embrace.”  As such, the name means “Embraced,” and is generally considered to refer to Habakkuk being embraced by God.

We commonly think of embracing as having to do with taking hold of something or someone we cherish, holding that precious thing close or our heart or wrapping our arms around that loved one.  Every time a person called out the name, “Habakkuk,” this prophet was given a reminder of who he was: an individual who was embraced and cherished by God!

Yet the name has a dual significance to it.  It is not just a passive name, but an active name as well.  It speaks not only of being embraced but also of doing the embracing.  Martin Luther suggested that this prophet should be called the Heartener, arguing that Habakkuk is a prophet “who takes another to his heart and to his arms, as one soothes a poor weeping child.”

Habakkuk was an individual who was embraced by God and cherished by God, and he was a prophet who embraced the people of Judah and took them into his heart.  I love that combination.

The book begins with the announcement that what we have in this book is the “prophecy” or “oracle” that Habakkuk received.  The Hebrew word used here is massa.  It is used in other passages of Scripture to refer to a heavy load that must be lifted.

One example is found in Exodus 23:5: “If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its massa, don’t leave it there; be sure you help him with it.”  Here massa has to do with a load that is so heavy that it causes a donkey to collapse under its weight.  Even though the owner of that donkey may hate you, you are to take pity on the donkey and help to lift its load.

Another example is found in Numbers 11:11-12, as Moses is arguing with God about the heavy load God has given to him: “He asked the Lord, ‘Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant?  What have I done to displease You that You put the massa of all these people on me?  Did I conceive all these people?  Did I give them birth?  Why do You tell me to carry them in my arms as a nurse carries an infant, to the land You promised on oath to their forefathers?’”

Massa is what Habakkuk received from God.  He received the weight of caring for his people in a time of great ethical failings.  Strife, conflict, and injustice were rampant in his land.  In frustration, Habakkuk cries out to God, complaining that God has done nothing to stop it.

Habakkuk was written between 621 and 609 B.C., but Habakkuk’s complaint of strife, conflict and injustice rings true in our nation today as well.  Political rallies chant, “Lock her up.”  Elected officials are heckled when they go out to eat.  Bombs are mailed to political opponents.  Two people are shot to death in a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky simply for being black.  And 11 people are shot to death in a synagogue in Pittsburgh merely for being Jewish.  With Habakkuk, we could ask, “Why do You make me look at injustice?  Why do You tolerate wrongdoing?”

As I read the opening lines of Habakkuk’s massa my prayer is that God will make me more like Habakkuk, more willing to carry in my heart the pains and struggles of others.  And I pray for God to raise up more Habakkuk’s in our nation at this time—more people who will care about the pain of injustice and who will complain about it and speak up about it and pray about it.


An Invitation

Jesus inviting

The last chapter of the last book of the Bible concludes with an invitation to us then with a plea from us to Christ.

The invitation appears in verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’  And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’  Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”

The invitation to come to Christ is presented three times, followed by an invitation to take the free gift of the water of life.  According to verse 17, the Holy Spirit invites us to come to Christ; the “bride” (anyone who has already come into relationship with Christ) invites others to come to Christ; and “him who hears” (all who have already heard the good news of Christ) invites others to Christ.  All of us who have tasted of the love of Christ are to be involved in inviting others to taste of the love of Christ.  This invitation to come to Christ goes out to everyone.  “Whoever is thirsty” is invited to come to Christ and to take from him “the free gift of the water of life.”

In response to this wonderful invitation, and to the good news that Christ will be coming soon, the natural response is for us to plead with Him to come to us.  Thus verse 20 ends with, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.”

Thus the Bible concludes with God’s invitation to us to come to Him and with our plea to God to come to us.

Bryan Chapell tells a story about his wife’s visit to the St. Louis Zoo to see the attraction “Big Cat Country” which allows visitors to watch lions and tigers roam about in large enclosures: “As my wife and her friend took the children up one of the skyway ramps a blanket became entangled in the wheel of the friend’s stroller.  Kathy knelt to help untangle the wheel while our boys—ages three and five—went ahead.  When next she looked up, Kathy discovered that the boys had innocently walked right through a child-sized gap in the fencing and had climbed up on the rocks some 20 feet above the lion pen.  They had been told that they would be able to look down on the lions, and they were doing just that from their hazardous vantage point.  Pointing to the lions below, they called back to their mother, ‘Hey, Mom, we can see them!’

“They had no concept of how much danger they were in.  Kathy saw immediately.  But now what could she do?  If she screamed, she might startle the boys perched precariously above the lions.  The gap in the fence was too small for her to get through.  So she knelt down, spread out her arms, and said, ‘Boys, come get a hug.’  They came running for the love that saved them from danger greater than they could perceive.”

That’s the message with which the book of Revelation concludes: Come to Christ!  Come to the love that saves us from a danger greater than we can perceive.

The problem is that people don’t always recognize the love with which the call to us is made.  Clark Cothern tells the story of a squirrel that fell down a chimney into the wood burner stove in the basement of his Michigan home: “I thought if it knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out.  Nothing doing.  As I reach in…it began scratching about like a squirrel overdosed on espresso.  We finally managed to construct a cardboard box ‘cage’ complete with a large hold cut into one side, into which the squirrel waltzed when we placed the box against the wood burner’s door.  We let it out into the safety of our backyard.

“Later, I thought, Isn’t it funny how, before its redemption, our little visitor had frantically tried to bash its way out of its dark prison?  It seemed that the harder it struggled in its own strength to get free, the more pain it caused itself.  In the end, he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger—one who could peer into his world—could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged.  That is what we need the Lord to do for us.

The truth is that from the depth of love, God entered our world as one of us to rescue us and to invite us into a relationship with Him of never-ending love!

It is accomplished!

Jesus on the cross

At the most significant time of Jesus’ life on earth—as He hung upon a cross for three hours with a crowd of people listening carefully to everything He said—Jesus kept His words to a minimum.  It’s not that Jesus ran out of things to say or that He became too disillusioned to spread His message any longer.  It’s that it is extremely difficult for a person to speak while suffering the agony of crucifixion.  Dr. Cahleen Shrier, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at Azusa Pacific University explains, “Normally, to breathe in, the diaphragm (the large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity) must move down.  This enlarges the chest cavity and air automatically moves into the lungs (inhalation).  To exhale, the diaphragm rises up, which compresses the air in the lungs and forces the air out (exhalation).  As Jesus hangs on the cross, the weight of His body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into His lungs and remains there.  Jesus must push up on His nailed feet (causing more pain) to exhale.  In order to speak, air must pass over the vocal cords during exhalation.  The Gospels note that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross.  It is amazing that despite His pain, He pushes up to say ‘Forgive them’ (Luke 23:34).” (APU Life, Spring, 2002, p. 7)

Because of the difficulty in speaking, Jesus chose His words.  He uttered only seven brief statements—the last only one word in length in Greek.  The last two things He said—at least according to John’s record of the event—were “I am thirsty,” and “It is finished” (Tetelestai in the Greek).

“I am thirsty.”  This is the very human reaction to the trauma of crucifixion.  Cahleen Shrier comments, “By this point, He has lost a great volume of blood which causes His blood pressure to fall and puts Him into shock.  The human body attempts to remedy imbalances such as decreased blood volume, so Jesus’ thirst is His body’s natural response to His suffering.”

Later she adds, “I am struck every time with the stunning realization that as a flesh and blood human, Jesus felt every ounce of this execution.”

That brief sentence, “I am thirsty,” reveals Jesus’ complete humanness—perhaps more than any other sentence in Scripture.  If He was not completely human—if He was not fully of the same substance as you and me—He would not be able to resolve the very human problems of sin and guilt and death.

But because He is more than just human, He can also say, “It is finished.”

It is important to note that Jesus’ last words on the cross were not, “I am finished,” as though He were sighing in despair, ‘I give up,’ or ‘I am done for.’  Nor is the impact of His words that time has run out on Him, as though He were saying, ‘It is over.’  The Greek word tetelestai has to do with the satisfactory completion of something.  Jesus was declaring that what He had come to do has been accomplished.  He came to die for the forgiveness of our sins, and with His death that has been accomplished.  He came to set us right with God, and through His death that has been accomplished.

Brennan Manning remarks, “Through His passion and death Jesus carried away the essential sickness of the human heart and broke forever the deadly grip of hypocrisy on our souls.  He has robbed our loneliness of its fatal power by traveling Himself to the far reaches of loneliness (‘My God, my God, why have You deserted Me?’).  He has understood our ignorance, weakness and foolishness and granted pardon to us all (‘Forgive them, Father, they do not know what they are doing’).  He has made His pierced heart a safe place for every defeated cynic, hopeless sinner, and self-loathing derelict across the bands of time.  God reconciled all things, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when He made peace by His death on the cross.” (Abba’s Child, p. 155)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer adds, “God himself takes the humiliating path of reconciliation and thereby sets the world free.  God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us.  God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner.  Now there is no longer any godlessness, any hate, any sin that God has not taken upon himself, suffered, and atoned for.  Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled with God and in peace.  That is what God did in his beloved Son Jesus Christ.”

Jesus ended His agony on the cross in triumph and announced to the world the good news, “It is accomplished!”


Grace is always shocking

Prodigal Son

Grace always catches us by surprise.  It is always rather shocking and unexpected.

When Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, His grace was bewildering to all who observed it, and unwelcome to some.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law (the most religious people in the country) grumbled about Jesus sharing meals with “sinners.”  They were strict about matters of right and wrong and about the consequences.  From their perspective, good was rewarded; wrong was punished.  They were upset with Jesus not just for eating with sinners; they were also upset with Jesus for healing sinners.  According to their theology, injury and disease were judgments from God against sin.  People were sick or disabled because they had earned such a punishment; to remove such a punishment was to go against God’s will.

After Absalom rebelled against his father David, the king of Israel, Absalom erected a pillar to himself so that he might be remembered in Jerusalem throughout the ages.  However, the commemoration didn’t turn out the way Absalom had hoped.  Throughout the centuries, there has been a custom in Jerusalem that fathers of rebellious sons bring their sons to Absalom’s Monument to throw stones at the monument so that these sons might learn what becomes of rebellious children.

When Jesus began to tell His story of the “Prodigal Son,” it would have sounded—at first—like Jesus was joining the religious leaders in judging rebellious sinners.  After all, the description He gives of the younger son is how the religious leaders viewed sinners.  Jesus painted this young man in the worst possible light.  He describes a boy who comes to his father, saying, in essence, ‘Dad, I am sick and tired of waiting around here for you to die.  Could you, at least, pretend that you are dead, so that I can get the inheritance you should give to me when you finally kick the bucket?”  To dishonor a father with such a request would have been the height of rudeness.  By Jewish Law, the elders of the community could have taken the boy out of the city limits and stoned him to death as a rebellious son.

When Jesus reached the point where this young man “longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything,” the religious leaders would have been cheering.  They would have shouted out, “See what happens to rebellious sinners!  They get what they deserve.”  Indeed, the Pharisees used to tell a similar story—though the villain in their story was not as despicable as the son whom Jesus described.  In the story the Pharisees told, a son who dishonored his father by moving away and engaging in sinful living repents of his sinful ways, returns home, and knocks on the door of his father’s home.  Upon opening the door and seeing who is there, the father would slam the door shut in the face of the sinful son.  For the Pharisees, the moral of the story was that when you dishonor your father, there is no coming back; you must bear forever the consequences of your sinful choices.

But Jesus turns the story around entirely.  As He goes on, what Jesus tells is no longer a story of judgment but a story of inconceivable grace.  It is no longer a story of someone getting what he deserved but of someone receiving a gift that is far beyond what was warranted.

While the son is still a long way off, the father runs to him.  Pulling up one’s robe and baring one’s legs would have been shameful in that culture.  But that’s what the father does because he cares far more about the return of his son than about the rules of decency.

He throws his arms around the son and kisses him.  He greets his son not with the lecture the son deserved but with a loving embrace that went far beyond what was warranted.

Then the father calls for gifts that proclaim the son’s return to the family: The best robe (the family robe), a ring for his finger (with the family insignia), sandals for his feet (only family members could wear shoes in the home), and a fatted calf (to celebrate his restoration to the family)!  The father explained, “For this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

Rather than getting what he deserved, this young man received a gift that went far beyond what was warranted.  That is the shocking nature of grace—to him, to you, and to me.

Communion: A Declaration of Love


When Jesus gave bread and wine to His disciples at the “Last Supper,” He made a loud and clear declaration of the depth of His love for them!

When He took the bread and gave it to the disciples, He said, “Take and eat; this is My body.”  The bread that He likens to his own body was made without leaven, to symbolize that it was without sin—like Jesus Himself.  The particular bread they ate that night is still referred to in the Passover tradition as the “bread of affliction,” representing the hardships the Jewish people went through during their years of slavery in Egypt.  It consisted of stripes and holes.  Jesus claimed that this striped and pierced bread was His own body, which would soon be “striped” by the flogging He would receive and “pierced” by the nails that would be driven into His hands and feet.  Even today, the custom during the Passover meal is to break the bread into three pieces (which speaks to me of the three members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  The middle piece (which could represent Jesus) is wrapped in a napkin (reminiscent of His burial cloth), and hidden from the children (like His burial in a sealed tomb).  The children run off to find the missing piece (like the women who hurried to the tomb on Easter morning).  When they find the piece they rejoice (like those who rejoiced at Jesus’ resurrection).  The piece is then returned to its place with the others (which sounds a lot like Jesus’ ascension back to heaven).

Jesus declared that bread to be His own body, and He told His disciples to take it and eat it.  Every time we join in this meal, we recall the depth of love Jesus extended to us.  Brennan Manning put it this way: “I heard Jesus say, ‘For the love of you I left My Father’s side.  I came to you who ran from Me, who fled from Me, who did not want to hear My name.  For love of you I was covered with spit, punched and beaten, and fixed to the wood to the cross.’”

The cup Jesus shared with the disciples, declaring “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” is referred to in the Passover Meal as “the Cup of Redemption.”  It is the cup that has to do with restoration of our relationship with God.  And the beauty of its symbolism goes even further: In Jewish culture of that time, when a man wanted to ask a woman to marry him, he would go to her home with his father and a flask of wine.  In the presence of her family and of his own father, he would pour a cup of wine and offer it to the one he hoped to marry.  Wine was symbolic of life, so as he offered her a cup of wine, proposing marriage to her, he was offering his life as a gift to her.  With the offer of wine, he was saying to her, in essence, “As this wine is poured into the cup, so will I pour out my life for you.  As I offer this cup to you, so do I offer my life to you.”

Once the wine was poured and offered to her, she had a choice.  She could receive the cup or she could refuse it.  To refuse it would be to turn down his proposal.  She would be announcing, “No, I am not interested in you pouring out your life for me.  I do not want to merge my life with yours.”  But if she wanted to accept his proposal, she would reach out her hand and take the cup.  By doing so, she would be saying, “I accept the gift of your life and your love.”  In putting the cup to her lips and drinking from it, she would be announcing, “I take your love into myself; I welcome you into my life!”

That same proposal is made whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.  When the cup is offered, it is as though Jesus is standing there, saying to us, “As the wine is poured into the cup, so I pour out My life for you.  In offering this cup to you, I offer My life to you.”

When the offer is made, we have a choice: We can turn down the “proposal,” or we can accept it.  But make no mistake about it: The cup that is offered is not merely a nice little religious ritual; it is an invitation to take Christ’s love into ourselves; it is a proposal to join our life with His.