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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Vision Thing (22): Musicians

You know who needs true vision? Musicians.

A composition professor at my college used to groan when a kid in chapel would introduce his musical offering by saying, "God gave me this song." "If God gave you that song," the prof would intone to those around him, "it wouldn’t have parallel fifths and octaves. And it would have more than four chords!"

No doubt, the "God gave me a song" thing is way overplayed (pun intended). But it does happen—in fact, for the sake of God's people, it must happen. (And incidentally, though it isn't fair to attribute to God lousy-to-mediocre music, if God inspired the awful grammar [parallel fifths and octaves] of the Book of Revelation and the small vocabulary [four chords] of the writings of John, then he may be inspiring more dull or ugly music than refined tastes care to admit.) The point is that those who make musical worship possible in the church need God's vision if worshiping God is really going to happen.

Of the many notable things King David did in his life and reign, one of the less familiar is his thorough reform of the organization and duties of the tribe of Levi. During Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan the Levites were responsible to transport the tabernacle, the mobile temple, but once Israel settled in their new land the Levites had kind of lost their way. One of the jobs David gave to a particular subgroup of Levites was to make music in the temple that David’s son Solomon would build. David selected three families, one from each of the three Levite clans, to constitute these worship choirs and bands forever after. The leaders of the three families were named Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (a.k.a. Ethan), and all of them were prophets.

We know they were prophets because they wrote Psalms (including some or all of these), and writing God-breathed, holy Scripture makes one a prophet by definition. But we also know this because they are called such in the Bible. Heman was David's seer. So was Asaph. During David's reign, other seers, Gad and Nathan, gave musical directions that came from God himself about the playing of cymbals and stringed instruments. Seers see. These worship leaders had supernatural vision.

If worship musicians don't have vision, they do something like this:

If they do have vision, they do something like this:

( . . . which, incidentally, was written to be entertainment, not worship music; it takes some vision to make entertainment something like that.)

Or (in my opinion, submitted just so that you know that I am pro-contemporary music) they do something like this:

I met a young woman from a non-religious background who had been exposed to Christianity by her aunt. Once she got to college she connected with the Christian group on campus. As a musician, what was most appealing to her about Christianity was the abandon with which she could sing and sway to songs like The David Crowder Band's "How He Loves." Please understand that I really dig "How He Loves" as an element of a well-balanced worship diet. But this poor girl had never heard the gospel (or at least never knew that she heard it or had never been invited to do anything about it) and never knew that sleeping with her presumed Christian boyfriend was contrary to the very love of God that she loved to sing about.

Where there is no vision in worship, it is easier for this kind of thing to happen. This is why the church needs its musicians to have true vision of God, the origin of true vision from God.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Vision Thing (21): Unusual Connections

Jean Restout II, Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (1719)
Quite often, true vision creates connections between people that wouldn't happen otherwise.

In the Book of Acts, a man named Saul was on his way with a band of Sanhedrin-authorized thugs to kidnap Christians in Damascus and haul them back to imprisonment or death in Jerusalem. Then he saw a vision of Jesus, and he discovered that he was bound not only to serve this Jesus as Lord and Messiah, not only to be connected as a brother to the very people he was doggedly hunting down, but even to have a special mission to bring the good news about Jesus to unclean Gentiles that he had never met and would never dream of associating with.

Three days later, a Christian in Damascus named Ananias was praying and saw a vision of Jesus, and he discovered that Saul had been completely turned around and that he, Ananias, was to pray for him in person to regain his sight. When he entered the place where Saul was staying, he addressed him as "Brother Saul."

In the following chapter, a Roman officer in Caesarea named Cornelius saw a vision of an angel that told him to send messengers to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter. Peter saw a vision of a weird sheet full of all sorts of animals being lowered from heaven and heard a voice call them clean to eat, because God can call the unclean clean. When the messengers showed up at his door, Peter heard the voice tell him to go with them. When he got to Cornelius's house and heard the Roman's story, he saw that God doesn't play favorites but accepts the person from any and every nation who fears him and does what is right. Then he saw Cornelius and his household filled with the Holy Spirit, and he saw that if Jesus saw fit to baptize them in the Holy Spirit, then surely he shouldn't withhold baptism in water. Suddenly the Christian movement extended beyond the borders of Judaism.

A few chapters later, Saul (known as Paul now) was wandering through modern-day Turkey, prohibited by the Spirit to announce the good news in all these places that had never heard it. Then once he got to the Aegean Sea, he saw a vision of a man of Macedonia, across the water, urging him to come and help them. A few days later, the good news had a new foothold in Europe.

There are so many barriers between people in the world—barriers of prejudice, of conviction, of custom, of affinity, and of mere routine. Whether obvious or covert, what surmounts the barriers is a willingness to go and do the unnatural thing, and what spawns that willingness is a vision from God of the strangers who turn out not to be so very different from us after all: people with the same desperate need of the salvation in the name of Jesus Christ and the same surprising craving to receive it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Vision Thing (20): One for Others

Louis Cheron, Le prophète Agabus prédisant à saint Paul ses souffrances à Jérusalem (1687)

In my last post I asserted that since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, true vision is available to everybody. But that doesn't mean that it's available to everybody at the same time. Sometimes one person gets the vision for everyone, and everyone else has to trust the visionary.

That one-person-speaking-to-all-people model isn't just an Old Testament thing. The activity of Agabus in the early church bears this out. Even in that assembly that was full of people who saw visions and had dreams from God, at least twice Agabus received messages for the whole church that no one else received directly.

The most amazing example of this in the Bible in my opinion is the crisis Judah faced under King Jehoshaphat when they were threatened with invasion by the combined forces of Moab, Ammon, and Edom. Jehoshaphat calls the people together to pray for deliverance and guidance. God answers their prayer right away by filling a Levite named Jachaziel with his Spirit. In front of thousands of praying Israelites, Jachaziel informs the nation exactly where their enemies will be positioned and also that they won't have to fight because Yahweh will do all the fighting for them.

Can you imagine the guts it would have taken for Jachaziel to break the silence and effectively take responsibility for Judah proceeding on this unusual course of action? And can you imagine the guts of Jehoshaphat, who so believed Jachaziel's message that instead of placing elite warriors as his vanguard on the way to meet the enemy, he had his worship team go first! (Think about your church's worship team. Would you do that?)

Even today, sometimes God only gives the vision to one—not necessarily the expected leader either—but he expects the rest to trust and follow.

As I read the Old Testament, I am struck by how prophets emerge and people just know that they're legit prophets. (See Samuel for one of many examples.) Sure, after a while a prophet could develop a track record. But in Jachaziel's case for instance, the assembly (or at least Jehoshaphat) knew that he was the real deal just by hearing it the first time.

On the other hand, there are many examples in the Old Testament of false prophets, prophets who say whatever people want to hear, whom people believed even though they hadn't really seen a vision from the Lord. (See a good example of the contrast between false prophets and a true one here.)

So when someone says to your church, "I have a vision; here's what God wants us to do," how do you know that it's true? Paul gave practical instructions about this kind of situation, which he expected to be routine in the church. He wrote, "Do not extinguish the Spirit—do not despise prophecies—but test everything: hold on to what is good; stay away from everything that looks wrong" (1 Thess. 5:19-22, my translation). In 1 Cor. 14:29 he says that as a general rule, prophets should be allowed to speak when the church gathers, but once they do "the others should evaluate what is said."

Without going into much detail here, suffice it to say that the primary criteria for evaluating the vision that someone recounts are (1) does it cohere with what we already know to be true, especially from Scripture? and (2) does it enjoin an action we're supposed to take or adjustment we're supposed to make that glorifies Christ? Beyond these criteria there is also a certain gut-level sense that believers full of the Spirit have. Like in Jachaziel's day, when a true vision is recounted, the Spirit-filled believer often just knows—and they often just know when it isn't true.

So what does this all mean for vision in our churches? First it means, when you get a vision, don't expect someone else to go first. Don't hold back until someone else has seen the same thing. Sometimes God gives the vision to one person for the sake of all the others, and that one person might not be in charge either. It might just be ordinary you. If you don't speak it, it won't be spoken, and the church will stumble into danger. Speak up!

Second, be open to hearing the vision coming from only one person, including someone you don't expect. Leaders, be open to the vision coming from a person outside of the leadership circle. Be as wise as Jehoshaphat was—listen to your Jachaziel wherever they're located on (or off) the organizational chart and submit to the message even though you're the king.

Imagine how nimble and faithful the church would be if everyone was prepared to adjust and obey as soon as a mere one of us received a vision from God.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Vision Thing (19): For Everybody!

True vision is for everybody!

It was a motley crew meeting daily for prayer after Jesus ascended to heaven. There were men and women (together in first-century Palestine? shocking!), Galileans and Judeans, former zealots, tax-collectors, prostitutes, widows, businessmen, Pharisees, probably old and young. The only things they had in common were their experiential conviction that Jesus was Lord and their heritage as the children of Abraham (though that would be redefined sooner than they would have imagined). Part of that heritage was the tradition of the prophets—men (and sometimes women) who were filled with the Holy Spirit to bring a message from the Lord. They were special people, few and far between, an elite and awesome spiritual fraternity.

Could these praying disciples have guessed that they were all about to join it?

After the fiery wind of the Spirit burst upon them and they spontaneously went into the streets proclaiming the good news of Jesus in languages they did not know, Peter rose to make sense of it all, hearkening back to the words of the prophet Joel:
"And in the last days it will be," God says,
"that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy [Acts 2:17-18].
From that moment on, vision was no longer the privilege of the spiritually elite few. Vision belonged, in theory, to anyone on whom rested the Spirit of God. No human distinctions had any bearing on whom the Spirit came upon. Every believer who asks for the Holy Spirit will receive him and the vision that he brings.

The early church was not a group of loyal followers of a few visionary leaders. It was a group of visionaries. That's why they took over the world. What would happen if your church and mine were groups of visionaries too?