I received the initial phone call in the fall of last year. The idea of a ministry tour throughout the state of Illinois was the topic of the conversation. A minister from Alabama was suggesting that a team from his network and a team from my network cooperate to put together a series of meetings throughout the state. As we looked at our calendars and our commitments, we projected ourselves ten months into the following summer and tentatively put a hold on a block of two weeks.
As the months unfolded, we set our itinerary. We would travel from the southernmost part of the state at Cairo to the northernmost part at Zion. We would not just go straight up from the bottom to the top, but we would zig-zag our way in order for us to touch the eastern border at Mt. Carmel and the western border at Peoria. Just in case our 2800-mile caravan would not be strenuous enough, we decided to add a meeting each day at noon and another each evening; and these two-a-day gatherings would be in different locations. So the twenty-four cities in twelve-days tour was conceived and constructed.
July arrived and our tour began. Our team consisted of no less than 12 members at all times and as many as 15 at other times. We caravanned in five vehicles because we carried our sound equipment and instruments with us. Some meetings were conducted in parks; others gatherings were in churches. Because of our prior advertising, folks were awaiting our arrival. Each meeting was unique and each meeting contained a special touch from the Lord. In spite of a rigorous schedule, the expectations of God’s people and the presence of the Spirit at each location kept us refreshed and revitalized.
Then – there was the driving. We covered interstates, state routes, and country back roads. We traveled along river roads and big city skylines. Although our journey never left Illinois - the state in which I was born and have lived all my life - I saw sights that that I had never before seen and viewed scenes before unknown to me. Illinois is a land rich with heritage, plentiful in character, and excellent in beauty.
Undoubtedly, the most reoccurring attraction of the state was the fertile farm lands In mid-July, one can see corn “as high as an elephant’s eye”, to quote the musical Oklahoma. Spreading out into the horizon were straight rows of tall green corn stalks boasting of the strength they received from the prolific soil and the warm summer sun. From north to south, the fields were full and fruitful with the agricultural commodities of corn, and soybeans, and hay. Grain silos stretched heavenward. Cattle grazed in fields. Tractors were parked near the barns waiting the time of harvest. Day after day, the farm land sights celebrated the abundance and prosperity of Illinois.
Many routes directed us through small town, USA. Main streets were lined with local, family owned stores. A few locales looked like they had been created to be the back lot of a movie set. Rural, quaint, home-style, and reminiscent of days-gone-by, I almost believed that Sherriff Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee still lived on in our Illinois version of Mayberry. Several times we stopped for a home-cooked lunch at the town’s diner – sweet tea and all.
Then there was Chicago. What an amazingly lovely town displaying the shores of Lake Michigan as its grand border and parading the Chicago River that runs through the center of the town as one of its cultural charms. With both the attractions and the trappings of big city and suburbs, Chicago fascinates the heart of the visitor. Of course, the Chicago-style pizza bid our appetites to stop and dine.
By the end of the tour, I forgot the fact that Illinois has no oceans or mountains. I was awe-struck by the natural and man-made wonders that give our state beauty, dignity, value, and distinction. Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, will soon celebrate her 200th year. I intend to commemorate that anniversary on December 3rd, but I have even more to celebrate now that I have taken my twenty-four cities in twelve-days tour.
“Bow down or die!” Little boys are fond of playing games of war and fighting imaginary battles. They envision themselves as combatants who fight the foe and overcome the enemy. They are conquerors who experience the thrill of victory, stand tall at the end of the fray, and are proclaimed by all to be the hero of the hour. Youngsters in our day visualize this. Little guys in Bible times played the same way.
Daniel’s childhood must have been similar. “The Babylonians are coming,” shouted his friend Hananiah. “Come on Mishael and Azariah,” Daniel called, “Grab your weapons and let’s show these enemies that God is on our side.” Hours of imaginary sword fighting always yielded peace and safety. Nighttime would come, and they would lay their heads down on their own beds in their own homes knowing that they had done all that was necessary to secure the victory. Until, one day when the four young men were in their teens, the Babylonians came.
The war was anything but imaginary. Real battles were fought. Family and friends died. Houses were burned; the wall of Jerusalem was torn down; and most devastating of all, the temple was utterly demolished. “Bow down or die,” were undoubtedly the words that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah heard as they were bound and taken captive into the land of the enemy. In one horrendous event, the life of imagination fell along with all the security they had ever known.
Their captor, King Nebuchadnezzar was shrewd. He selected the sons of the nobles of Israel to be trained in Babylonian knowledge and customs in order that they might serve him in the king’s court. In the battle of knowledge, the conflict of traditions, the skirmish of cultures, or the fray of lifestyles, the young men were made to bow down. Even their identity was confiscated. Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were given names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively.
Bowing down became a lifestyle. They would bow their backs to serve the king in obeisance, but they would only bow their knees before the God of their youth. “Prayer time is coming,” shouted Shadrach. Daniel called, “Grab your spiritual weapons and let’s show these captors that God is on our side.” Their outside environment may have been compromised, but these heroes still envisioned themselves as conquerors and victors.
The day arrived when the king raised up a golden statue to honor himself and commanded everyone to bow down to the image. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused. “Bow down or die,” the king demanded in fury. The battle line was drawn. Had every bowed knee and every prayer been just an exercise in imagination like the war games of their youth? Their spiritual combatant skills were being tested. This time, would the outcome be different?
A fiery furnace was prepared and stoked extra hot. The young men were bound and cast inside the incinerator. When the king looked inside, he saw the men alive, unbound, and accompanied by a Heavenly Being. Nebuchadnezzar recognized that the God of the Israelites had won the battle for spiritual dominance. He released his prisoners. For the rest of the days of their captivity, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood tall as the heroes of the Lord.
The early morning rays of the sun have begun to beam through the small windows on the right side of the airplane. Its bright light has arrested my attention. My flight departed San Jose in Costa Rica, Central America just after sunrise. I am scheduled to land in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where I will change planes and begin my last leg to the St. Louis airport.
After eight days abroad, I’m glad to be going home. I have greatly missed my family, my church, my own bed, and central air-conditioning. (Everyday comforts seem to be those things that we take for granted when we have them and sorely miss them when we don’t.) Strangely though, the thoughts running through my mind on this bright new morning are balanced equally on what lies ahead and on what lies behind. The past days have provided so many diverse opportunities that I am sure I will be months sorting through both memories and emotions.
My mind keeps rehearsing the vastness and infinity of God and how His people reflect that diversity. So much of what I have encountered in Costa Rica was new, different, and unknown to me. Customs, language, food preferences, buildings, and types of businesses beckoned to me constantly, as though to persuade me that they had a story to tell unlike anything that I had ever heard. They were testifying accurately and I was listening attentively. My hosts graciously answered my countless questions as they transported me from their small town into major cities, along country roads and one-lane bridges to the capital city with its seat of government, past centuries’ old structures into new and modern malls. I inquired of them continually; they informed me patiently.
Yet as I sit here, I am reminded that God is also unified and consistent; and His people reflect that unity. I experienced numerous circumstances that were familiar and well-known to me. Having been invited to Costa Rica to minister at a pastors’ conference, I had the honor of meeting and praying with many servants of God who tend to and love their congregations just as we do in the states. My accommodations were in the home of a local resident. Night after night, I sat at the dinner table with a family whose patterns of relating, tales of daily adventures, and dreams of future aspirations paralleled those expressed at my family’s nightly meal. I laughed with their children, admired photographs that encapsulated their family history, and joked with their neighbor who dropped by for fellowship.
Warm tears of affection flow down my face as I pen these words. Scripture tells me that God’s creation constantly tells the story of His power and His character. Mountains and oceans, sun and stars, or plants and animals continually testify to the wonder and wisdom of the One who fashioned them and gave order and meaning to their existence. But this morning, I hear my Creator’s story through His most grand creation – the people of the earth. English-speaking North Americans and Spanish-speaking Central Americans communicate God’s diversity and consistency, His variety and congruity, His novelty and harmony. This morning my heart and mind are reveling in the tale of God’s glory as told by the wonderfully-created, marvelously-fashioned, and remarkably-made people that I have had the honor to meet and know. Thank you, Lord, for this awesome trip to Costa Rica. Thank you also for home.
Conversation has a way of revealing the innermost workings of our hearts. I don’t mean short-term greetings, the ‘how-are-you-doing’ as two people rush past one another, or the thirty-second blurb left on a voice message. Most of us can project the image by which we wish others to view us in those ‘quickie’ communiqués. However, when a conversation delves into how we feel, think, dream, or long, then the true heart shows up.
I remember a day when I was talking with a young, well-dressed, handsomely-groomed woman who was lamenting certain aspects of her life. Her external image was almost flawless. As she spoke, she revealed that she was unhappy with her material and social status. She consistently compared her possessions to those of several of her friends. In her estimation, she had not gotten her fair share. A myriad of questions filled her thoughts and words. I was aware that she was not rehearsing the questions for the first time, because she promptly followed each question with her interpretation and answer, indicating that she had previously invested a great deal of time considering her opinions.
After I departed from her, I re-thought our conversation. I also reflected upon dialogs with other persons in which I had noted a similar vein. The discourse of comparison is a common malady of life. It flows from a heart that longs for something yet not granted or gained. It believes that someone else has the lion’s share of the luck. Sister ‘so-and-so’ has more time and money than anyone needs. Brother ‘born-with-a-golden-spoon-in-his-mouth’ never had to rough it like the other guys. Neighbor ‘man with a Midas touch’ has money to burn. These musings and others like them reveal a heart condition.
Whereas longings may be legitimate, comparisons can be dangerous. All of us dream and desire. Everyone longs to be loved unconditionally, treated with dignity, and rewarded with prosperity. However, our portion is never enhanced because another’s portion has been diminished. We are not made legitimate by viewing another as illegitimate. We cannot build our reputation from the ruined foundation of our neighbor’s good name.
To engage in the discourse of comparison reveals an unsatisfied longing that has been fueled by erroneous assumptions. Perhaps the mind has entertained a measure of jealousy or has feasted upon covetousness. Maybe a wounded self-image seeks to extrapolate assurance that it can win some competition even if only within the mind. Whatever the cause, comparison is filled with pitfalls.
Scripture teaches that the issues of life flow out of our heart. If our heart is filled with some form of ill will, these issues or characteristics not only flow out, but they also damage our heart’s container. Comparison is counter-productive. It has no power to produce a change in our status, but it is detrimental to our emotional and spiritual health.
Therefore, scripture also instructs us to diligently guard our heart. Rejoicing for the good favor of our neighbor, hoping for the prosperity of a friend, and even praying for blessings for others are sure ways to fill the heart with life-giving attributes while, at the same time, avoiding the pitfalls of comparison.