My Good Book

Several weeks ago, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black delivered the message at First Baptist Atlanta, and while he made several salient points that were uplifting and edifying regarding how to be “Free Indeed” while on this earth, I was most fascinated by the point he made regarding a person’s devotional Bible. It was a side note, a five-minute tangent in a forty-minute sermon, one designed to add to his overall purpose, but it set me to thinking.

As a chaplain, he’s officiated at many a funeral, many for people he did not know personally. Therefore, in order to better understand the deceased and prepare more personal remarks, he often asks a family member for that person’s Bible.

Sometimes, he finds a Bible that still creaks when he opens it, the pages stiff and the spine unbent in order to lay the book open for study alongside a prayer journal or study guide. Some have neither name nor gift date written on the opening page, and no marriages, deaths, or births are recorded for his family’s posterity. Other might have still been in the box that protected the precious word of God when it sat on the bookstore shelf, the smell of fresh leather still clinging to it and its pages as pure as the wind-driven snow.

Those that have been opened have been studied still vary in degree. Some have a few key passages marked or a sticky note here or there, and there are a few he’s seen that are filled with underlined passages and highlighted footnotes; these usually have notes scribbled in the margins and study outlines on many pages spanning from Genesis to Revelation.

This is what I found fascinating. Chaplain Black stated, “I can gauge a person’s level of spiritual fitness by perusing his Bible.” I had never thought of it that way! He can see what passages shaped the course of a person’s walk with God and what difficulties that person overcame by immersing himself in the Word. With those Bibles, Chaplain Black says he can deliver a eulogy that is more than just platitudes or generic phrases because, as he put it, “I have a copy of [that person’s] autobiography” and can tell anyone the story of his life.

Chaplain Black then asked his listeners, “If someone who didn’t know you had to deliver your eulogy, what would your Bible tell them? That’s a pretty revealing question, one that might make quite a few Christians uncomfortable. I know it would have made me squirm uncontrollably several years ago because my Bible was often placed high on a bookshelf, taken down only to go to church or to read a passage when a moment of whimsy struck me. Thank God that is not the case now!

So what does my Bible say about my spiritual fitness?

Well, in the front pocket of my Bible cover, there is a white handkerchief, one that is folded over on itself four times and spotted with oil. When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis seven years ago, my great uncle, James Qualls, had some members of his church in Illinois pray over this object, anointing it with oil. He then mailed it to me and told me to keep it as a reminder that I was loved and was in the prayers of many. He also promised me that God would use my illness to do a great work in my life, and that is exactly what has happened. I keep it with me always to remember God’s goodness and often hold it during times of prayer.

Resting atop my Bible are prayer sheets—from Bible study classes or from work—that remind me that I must pray specifically as Jesus instructed in John 14:12-14:

 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

I haven’t always done this, but I’m finding having these lists ready for my daily prayer and devotional time helps me to stay focused and to speak more directly to my heavenly Father.  I cannot recommend it enough because it keeps me from “letting things slide” or telling God, “You know the rest of those prayers I forgot to mention.” It’s keeping me from being spiritually lazy, which is what I’ve been for far too long.

Books I’ve tried to study in depth, such as Romans, are fairly well marked in pen and highlighter, and I have notes tucked inside that can help me define words like “propitiation,” “justification,” and “reconciliation,” which I will need if I ever use this epistle to witness to an unbeliever. Sometimes, the differences among these words are slight, but even a small variation in meaning might hold the key that unlocks a person’s heart and allows the Holy Spirit to do His great work in his life. I want to be prepared!

I have memories associated with certain passages. For example, Matthew 23:25-28 is underlined. I remember doing so when I prepared a lesson on spiritual hypocrisy for my students several years ago when we were discussing The Picture of Dorian Gray in an Advanced Placement Literature course. It was a blessing to be able to learn the difference between outward righteousness, such as that of the Pharisees, and genuine and inward cleanliness before the Lord!

As I’m sure is the case with many Christians, not all books are marked equally. For instance, of the four Gospels, the one most marked in my Bible is that of Luke, which makes me think I’m like the Gentile doctor who wrote it—obsessed with detail and focused on the humanity of Christ. Some of my favorite Biblical narratives—the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—are only found in the book of Luke. Also, of the four, Luke devotes the greatest amount of scripture to the role of women in the early church, and I’ve searched them all in my quest for godly role models.

I see a lot of myself in Paul, and I spend as much time with him as I can, leaving marks scattered throughout his epistles to remind me of the perfection of God’s grace, the need to refrain from legalism, and the fact that trials and sufferings bring about spiritual growth. James, too, is a friend (one with whom I share a name!) who has taught me the practical way to live as a Christian, and from his letter, I learned that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).

I’ve marked the hard lessons, the ones that hurt me to read but that are essential if I am to walk the path that leads to the narrow gate:

 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23).

However, I’ve also read of God’s miracles and Christ’s healing of the blind, the leprous, and the lame. I’ve been promised that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), that I will have life more abundantly (John 10:10), and that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

I marvel at those scriptures that tell me how the same God who created the heavens and the earth knows my name; He knew me even before I was formed in my mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5). It was He who loved me enough to reconcile me to His holiness, He who brought me up “out of the the mire clay and set my feet upon a rock” (Ps. 40:2). This is why I’ve poured over the words of Jesus’ intercessory prayer for believers, the prayer sent up from the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in John 17, leaving marks like bread crumbs to lead me through further readings later in my life. The Bible is God’s love letter to me, the guidebook He’s blessed me with so that I might be more Christ-like each day, and like David, I ask:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:3-5).

There are gaps in my studies, oh yes. Many books in the Old Testament are without one line or circle to show my time spent there, and the many that pepper the book of Revelation reveal my frustration when attempting to discern what awaits us before Christ’s return. However, instead of looking at those gaps as failures, I see them as unexplored territory on a map. I have a guide to lead me through them when the time is right and I am spiritually ready, and I am ready to follow the Holy Spirit through each page.

When I die, I want the pastor who delivers my eulogy to know me, to be able to say with blessed assurance that I am home with my loved ones and walking the streets of gold. I want them all to know that I have heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” and that there is no need to grieve because they will see me again in glory (Matt. 25:21). I want my “spiritual autobiography” to be one worth reading, one that my family can keep as its spiritual heritage. Lord, help me make it so!

Following Marching Orders

As I study the book of Judges, I see time and time again how God uses people who are seemingly insignificant to bring about mighty triumphs for His chosen people. Whether it was the left-handed man, Ehud; Shamgar and his seemingly insignificant weapon, the ox goad; Gideon who threshed wheat in hiding until declared a “man of valor” by God Himself; or even Jephthah, the son of a harlot, our Father had a habit of choosing unlikely heroes to deliver Israel from bondage.

Of the twelve men and one woman chosen to be the judges of Israel, only two worked as a “spiritual tag team”–Deborah and Barak. Naturally, whenever I see a break in a pattern, I assume that the divergence holds some special significance and merits further study, especially since one of them is the only female judge in the book.

As I read, I noticed quite a few references to trees and other forms of plant life in this book so far, and I’m sure each will reveal a new truth to me in time if I read with a careful eye.  For example, Deborah, as the author of Judges states, sits “under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (Judges 4:5). According to my research, the palm tree (or the palm branch) is used as a symbol of victory. Hence, palm branches were placed before Jesus on His entrance into Jerusalem, and they often decorate the tombs of martyrs and other who experienced a triumph of the spirit over the flesh. Deborah, therefore, is well-placed under a tree of victory, and her people seek her out for council and judgement.

However, it is she who calls for Barak to come to her, bringing him up from Kedesh in Naphtali. She tells him, “Has not the Lord God of Isreal commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabins’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hand’?” (Judges 4:6-7).

I find it interesting that, unlike the others who sought her out, Barak was called by Deborah but even more so that her words to him are so specific. She does not reveal anything to him; she does not tell him, “God told me to tell you….” Instead, she says, “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded….” She is asking a rhetorical question. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that God had already given Barak his marching orders, so to speak, but that Barak had done nothing with them since he heard them. It took Deborah repeating the missive for him to act.

God also told both judges specifics including the force to be met, the place of the intended battle, and even the inevitable victorious outcome! That, too, is also insufficient for Barak. He asks Deborah to accompany him to the battlefield, saying, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” (Judges 4:8). Even after an order from God, one filled with specifics and predicting triumph, and a recapitulation of that order from the mouth of the prophetess Deborah, Barak still has neither the will nor the faith to ride up to Mount Tabor.

Even while they are there, Deborah has to crack the whip. She tells Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?” (Judges 4:14). Once again, using a rhetorical question, she scolds him into action. I noticed that Deborah uses the present perfect tense verb phrase “the Lord has delivered.” For those of you who aren’t grammar nerds like I am, here’s what makes that choice so interesting. Present perfect tense describes an action that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues in the present as in “Nobody has climbed that mountain.” In essence, the victory had already been won; the Lord had already made it happen. It doesn’t read “The Lord will deliver” or “The Lord might deliver if…”

There is no Heisenberg uncertainty principle here. There are no unknown variables or x-factors. Barak is not dealing with physics after all, but rather with the God who is beyond even the metaphysical, He who called all things physical into being. There should be no doubt or indecision, yet in the man chosen to lead Israel into battle, doubt still exists.

The truth of the matter is that the Lord needed neither Deborah nor Barak to carry the day against the Canaanite army; thus, the passage from Judges reads, “And the Lord routed Sistera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak” (4:15). Barak was merely an agent used by God to carry out His good purpose. In fact, even his name lends symbolic significance to this fact. Barak means “lightning” or “thunderbolt,” and if one reads the Song of Deborah and Barak that follows the detailed summary of the battle, one can see exactly how God uses ten thousand foot soldiers against a superior force of nine hundred iron chariots, the old testament equivalent of a brigade of tanks. The song contains the revelation that, “…The earth trembled and the heavens poured, the clouds also poured water; the mountains gushed before the Lord, this Sinai, before the Lord God of Israel” (Judges 6:4). In essence, God sent forth a deluge from the heavens,  capturing the heavy wheeled chariots of His enemies in the mire, leaving them useless. A man whose name means “lightning” and a storm called from the heavens are all God needed to defeat the seemingly insurmountable foe and bring glory to His mighty name.

So what does this mean for a Christian? After all, this is material from the Old Testament relating the history of the Jewish people lost in their repeated disobedience, captivity, and defeat. However, I think the same lesson God meant for Barak is also pertinent to us, too. It is a fine thing to say we trust in God’s providence and goodness, but to actually lean on it in times of difficulty, especially when odds seem overwhelming, is another matter entirely. Absolute trust brings more complete victories, ones both physical and spiritual. God begins to bless each of us to an even greater extent when we are faithful rather than doubtful. Our faith is built and girded up in this way, making us mightier warriors in His service.  

For example, because he does eventually carry out the required action, Barak and his army are victorious, but not entirely. He is not permitted to kill the enemy commander and gain the glory that comes from it. It is as Deborah promised him before they left for Mount Tabor,  “…there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). The honor is given instead to Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Unlike her husband who had broken faith with Israel, she remained obedient and true to her people. As a result, when Sisera comes to hide in her tent, she carries out an act of swift justice, driving a tent stake through his head and killing him instantly. She, another humble instrument, attains the final victory because she was willing both to listen to God and to act on His instructions without hesitation. As a result, her name and Deborah’s are the two we remember while Barak’s is often hazy. 

Like them, our joys and triumphs can only be truly complete and our service to God satisfactory when what is required of us is carried out in obedience and trusting faith.