“In the districts of Rueben there was much searching of heart. Why did you stay among the campfires to hear the whistling for the flocks? … Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.” Judges 5:15-18
For a while now I’ve been troubled about my own generation, about how many of us languish in spiritual retirement. I’ve never heard anybody actually say this, but it seems like a critical mass of us are whispering to ourselves, “I’ve paid my dues and worked hard for God in my youth. Now I deserve a rest. Now it’s the responsibility of the younger generation to carry the ball a while like we did.” They seem as tired of kingdom work as tired from it.
Some rationalize that since much of the work of the Lord they did was for the wrong motives, they are justified in staying as far from the work as possible. In hindsight they come to the conclusion that they served their egos more than the kingdom. They did what that pastor asked (or mandated) instead of what the Lord led them to do. Some of them neglected their families or their health for the work of the Lord, but rather than adjusting their motives and priorities they took an early retirement from the work.
Some of my contemporaries were disappointed in the results from all their labor that they ceased laboring altogether. They were hoping to see more transformation in the people in whom they invested, the church grow, and their prayers for kingdom advance answered. Their “hopes deferred” made their “heart sick” and so they left the battlefield in the hands of others. They languish in comfort instead.
Other people reason, “I did all that for God and he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain (as though he enters bargains with us at all) and I’m now divorced, or sick, or broke.” Or, “I gave it all I had and now my kids are off the rails.”
As real and as painful as are each of these scenarios, and I’ve experienced most of them myself, they’re excuses rather than reasons to retire from the work of the Lord.
The passage above is an excerpt of a ballad written by a legendary leader, general, poet, and composer named Deborah. In her time it was quite atypical for a woman to do what she did, yet under Deborah’s leadership Israel had defeated their enemies. She was a tough frontrunner for Israel during a time when they were desperate for someone to guide them. One of my favorite maxims for good leaders is that they “Know the way, go the way, show the way, and they get out of the way!” Deborah did all those things. She knew what her people had to do to escape the trouble they’d gotten themselves into, was willing to lead them into battle, and take others along so they would get the credit. That’s what I call a great servant-leader!
Like Moses and David, following their victory she wrote a poem and put it to song (Judges 5). It contained all the usual elements of a good ballad: a recap of the story, a praise to God for his help, and a shout out to those who showed up to fight. Yet her song was unique in that it included a rebuke to those who didn’t show up, people she had expected to fight next to her but didn’t. In her song, she actually called them out by name: “Those of you from the districts of Rueben, Gilead, Dan, and Asher; I’ve got a bone to pick with you! The people of Zebulun and Naphtali risked their lives to go to battle with our oppressors while you stayed at home in your comfy beds!”
Those should-have-been warriors were those for whom the bell tolled and who didn’t answer the call. They stayed among the campfires to hear the whistling among the flocks or lingered by their ships, and languished in their safe coves.
In her lyrics she identified those among whom there was “much searching of heart.” Normally, to search one’s heart is a good thing, but to coin a phrase, “too much of a good thing.” Meditation and introspection are both biblically mandated practices, but when rightly employed they should lead us to go do something. But these people were meditative yet not active. Searching our hearts is a means to an end, not the end.
Are you familiar with the song by All Sons and Daughters, Called Me Higher?
I could just sit, I could just sit and wait for all your goodness, hope to feel Your presence
I could just stay, I could just stay right where I am and hope to feel You, hope
to feel something again
I could hold on, I could hold on to who I am and never let You change me from the inside
I could be safe, I could be safe here in Your arms and never leave home, never let these walls down
But You have called me higher, You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You will lead me, Lord
But You have called me higher, You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You will lead me, Lord, You’ll lead me, You’ll lead me Lord
I don’t know how much worship team airtime this song gets in churches. My guess is that, along with Deborah’s ballad, it won’t achieve Top Ten Worship Set status. My experience is that we prefer to sing things like, “All I really want is to be in your presence… I only want to be where you are… Just to put my head on your breast…” Don’t get me wrong, but I adore the experience of God’s presence as much as anyone I know. I adore being enveloped in the conscious presence of the Lord. Nevertheless, when he sweeps me off my feet like that, I find that usually it’s preparatory to him taking me someplace to try to be a help to someone. When Jesus said, “I’m with you always” it was in the context of “making disciples of all nations.”
Since I’ve written a few myself, I make no criticism of anyone’s heartfelt song of worship, but I have to say that being safe or satisfied or satiated in his presence is not “all” I want or need like some of the songs we’re singing these days. It’s that spiritually satiated state that compels me and empowers me to go do something. As much as I love the simple serenity of reclining by the “campfires” enjoying the shepherd’s whistle in the distance and as pleasant as it is to muse about God’s love for me, I can’t justify this as the sole pursuit of my soul while my brothers and sisters are out battling the forces of darkness.
In her song’s first stanza Deborah praised ones who ventured beyond the safety of the campfires and coves, and went to battle, “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves – praise the Lord!” (5:2) And then later she sang, “My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people. Praise the Lord!” (5:9)
I was thinking if I were the unlikely subject of a ballad, how would I like it to go? What would I want it to say? Some people are content with the sound of their life’s song. They swoon in its melody, its rhythm, and tempo. They don’t seem to care about the lyrics, which represents the actual account of how they lived their lives. I’m a music lover, and don’t always pay as much attention as I might to a song’s message. If it feels good, unless its message is utterly profane, I might include it on my playlist.
But when it comes to telling my life’s story I hope the melody and the lyrics can honestly suggest that, while I might not have made the world a much better place, at least I showed up. I may not have won many skirmishes in the cosmic battle, but I hope the chorus will be able to say that I was “willing,” and that I didn’t spend all my time lounging comfortably by the campfires, searching my heart while others strapped on their swords and went to war with the evil one in order to free his slaves.
(5:21) “March on, my soul; be strong!”
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