Tuesday, October 12, 2010

As Incense

Missions trips can be very humbling experiences. North American Christians often presume that Third World nations would languish without Western input and ministry. However, I have discovered the very opposite to be true. We need what the Third World Church has more than we think they need us to minister to them. I have just returned from Bali, Indonesia, and was again humbled as I heard, saw and experienced God moving through believers’ simple and willing hearts there. I am also convicted of a proud, neo-colonialist, patronizing, religious spirit that has so often governed Western thoughts and actions and must indeed bow and break before the manifest presence of the God we profess to proclaim.
We need what they have more than they need what we profess.

Bali is a tropical paradise, a virtual Garden of Eden. Tourist brochures tout its exceptional beaches, hot, sunny weather and unique culture and promote it as ‘The Island of the Gods’. A small, predominantly Hindu island enclave, it’s centred in the midst of the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia is BIG! Approximately 240 million people on 17,500 islands (6000 are inhabited) stretched and scattered across an area equivalent to the continental US. About 3 million live on Bali in an artistic, creative cultural community of shrines, temples, carvings, statues, ceremonies, rituals... idols. Everyday some type of festival or ceremony takes place on the island. Religious ritual pervades the atmosphere. Streets not only fill with motor scooters, but Hindu shrines and temples overflow from sidewalks into intersections. Most houses are fronted by altars laden with offerings: incense sticks burn together with little packaged ceremonial offerings dedicated to a pantheon of 30 million gods! But the real consumers of these sacrifices seem to be countless homeless dogs more than invisible hungry gods!
To further complicate the scene, the wail of Muslim muezzins also spreads over the island, calling their faithful to prayer. Five times a day, from well before sunrise till after sunset, the same monotone, mournful laments lift their dreary cry and hang over the towns and cities till they drop like a suffocating religious shroud over the land and its people.
Paul perceived ‘in all things you are very religious!’ of the Athenians,
(Acts 19:22), and this could very well apply to Bali today.
Then there is the international contingent: the Western pleasure-seekers who have discovered Bali’s beautiful beaches, constant sun, surf and club scene. New Agers ply their relativistic philosophies; hedonists indulge without moral restraints; party animals celebrate their freedom to do anything or nothing. Life here is in holiday mode, but even as the natural climate’s sweltering heat and humidity can suddenly turn to thunder and lightning, so a spiritual storm has broken over the island and its formerly comfortable status quo is being challenged.
The struggle between religion and faith in Jesus Christ is a constant daily contest here. Locally, Hinduism’s deep roots entwine the Balinese in a pervasive bondage of tradition and culture. Nationally, militant Islamic jihadists have sought to radicalize Indonesia’s moderate Muslim majority with a more extremist practise of Islam. In recent years,they even pursued a policy of ‘island-cleansing’, similar to the Balkans’ ethnic-cleansing, in which militants attacked Christian villages to cleanse the island by either forcibly evicting or murdering their Christians inhabitants.
Eight years before this last trip, I had traveled with a ministry team to Ambon, one of the exotic Maluku, (Moluccas or Spice) Islands, the easternmost group of Indonesia’s archipelago, very close to Papua-New Guinea. While there we heard eye-witness accounts from Christians persecuted by Muslim extremists: church buildings burned to the ground and their congregations ravaged; men, women and children savagely beaten; entire families slaughtered. At one point, pastors even showed us helicopter-view video footage of Christian villages under attack. Scenes of white-robed marauders pillaging from house to house, setting them afire and then hacking with machetes those who escaped the flames out the front-doors, while others fled out the back, into the jungle for refuge. Government authorities and soldiers had often stood by passively, ostrich-like in denial, doing nothing to protect the Christian minorities, even sometimes assisting their attackers!
We had flown from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city. It took a whole day’s journey of 3 different flights to reach our destination. Also boarding our first plane was a sinister-looking group of 6 men, robed all in white, a sign of strict Moslem adherence and dedication. I watched them suspiciously, however. Frankly, I had never seen such evil hatred in eyes before! Fortunately, they disembarked before us, at our second to last stop, just before Ambon. The government did not allow anyone to continue to Ambon without specific permission. Officials had just turned back a planeload of Western journalists weeks before, insisting there was no story there for them to report. Our team was only able to continue because we had letters of invitation from some of the city’s Christian pastors requesting our visit. Even so, we had to skirt Muslim roadblocks and travel the last leg of our journey by boat across the harbour to reach safe haven in the city.
Much of Ambon was burnt out; many buildings lay in ruins, mere empty shells. A stench of stale smoke still lingered in the air. Roads were pot-holed detours around piles of rubble. Our hotel had electricity and light at night, but it appeared that few others did. Personal armed guards accompanied us at all times. We visited a pastor whose church had just been burned down the week before by Muslim neighbours.
‘They had always seemed friendly,’ he recalled.
’But,’ he also wondered, ‘why would these ‘neighbours’ suddenly burn down my church?’
We also met Alphonse, a young believer, who had been riding his bicycle when suddenly confronted by an angry Muslim mob. One of the crowd lunged at him with a machete and cut away almost half of this young man’s face! His attackers then just moved on, seeking their next victim, leaving him for dead.
Later, we discovered over 6000 people crammed into 3 decrepit warehouses, each partitioned into tiny 20-square foot family units with about 7 people jammed into each. Forbidden for over 2 years to return to their homes only 15 kilometers away, these thousands had barely subsisted in this makeshift city. Unable to work to buy food, or grow their own, they had now used up the last of their rice and faced starvation. Fortunately, we were able to buy them a few more days’ supply. I do not know what happened to them afterwards.
We visited the governor, but he insisted there was no problem, no persecution of Christians, no refugees, no food shortages, just a few minor, temporary difficulties that the government was capably dealing with. After a few days, we returned to Jakarta and I wondered what it would take for the Indonesian government to awaken to reality. Two years later they received their wake-up call when terrorists planted 3 bombs in Bali, primarily targeting Western tourists, blowing up stores, restaurants, and night-clubs, killing over 200 Australians, Europeans, Americans and even some Canadians. Under the threats of a tourist boycott and revenue loss, the Jakarta government then launched a crackdown on Laska Jihad, Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups responsible and brought some of their leaders to trial, conviction and lengthy prison sentences. Others resisted and were killed.
Persecution still lifts its ugly head throughout the nation, however, as minority Muslim extremists continue to seek to influence and impose their views and life-style on the moderate majority.
The cost of simply being a Christian is high in Indonesia.
Three women have been convicted of the heinous crime of teaching children Bible stories in Sunday School and sentenced to 3 years in prison. ‘They’re proselytizing Moslem children!’ the radical imams screamed.
In another city, 3 young Christian girls on their way home from school were beheaded recently by radicals.
Indonesia now hangs in a spiritual balance, ponders the outcry for change and considers its response.

But the blood of the martyrs is not silent.
The Father has heard the cry of their testimony above the militant mobs and He answers!

I saw this truth in evidence during my second visit just last week. While spying out the land in prospects of a future Discipling Training Centre, I was invited to speak at a Young Adults meeting. Their pastor was a lady, a widow. According to my friends’ initial report, she sounded like a bit of a radical herself. I always appreciate an opportunity to share with young people who have a vision beyond themselves and are seeking to pour out their lives for the gospel, so I was really looking forward to this time. Little did I realize the heights and depths this evening would hold!
My friends and I arrived early and were welcomed by a group of smiling, even cheerful, young men and women. One of them led us up a couple flights of stairs to an upper room.
‘Hmmmm,’ I thought, ‘good things have happened in upper rooms!’
Not very large, kind of like a gymnasium, no window views on the outside, no outside noise to the inside. Already some had started gathering. I watched as they entered and took their places. There were chairs, but these remained stacked along the walls. Rather than taking seats or socializing with friends, each one moved forward, to the front of the auditorium, and took their place standing in successive lines that gradually filled and moved towards the back.
I felt a holy Hush! fill the air as each one consciously presented themselves before their Lord: some bowing their heads, others lifting hands, all praying, seeking His face, His Presence. I noted a simple dedication and consecration as their prime purpose in being there: to meet with Jesus individually and also as a church community. It was sobering to witness such remarkable hunger and thirst for God.
And so it began... a steady stream of prayer and praise rising from those assembling and I joined with them: asking, seeking and knocking. The room steadily filled. About 8 lines of 10 formed, each row spread across the room, each a rank in this growing army of worshipers. In time, a worship team emerged from the group, filed up to the front and took their place with their instruments: guitars, keyboard, drums, and a couple of singers. Rather than introducing themselves and a whole new format, they simply joined the song already in process, picked up the flowing theme and blended their instruments and voices together. Worship here was birthed from hungry hearts, not imposed from an imperious pulpit.
My friends and I stood at the back watching, but were steadily drawn in by the Spirit’s leading, flowing with wave after wave of His power, love and glory. It grew intense!
And that’s when I began to smell a faint aroma, a gentle but alluring fragrance... like incense wafting through the room. At first it was only a mere whiff, like a slight breeze. Old hippie memories mingling with other aromas came to my mind. I figured someone was burning incense in the room, like what I had smelled passing those those ubiquitous Balinese Hindu shrines. But, I thought, ‘That would be strange for a Christian church to worship Our God so like their neighbours worship their idols? But maybe someone’s perfume, their ‘eau de Bali’, was just a bit strong?’ Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I approached my friend,
‘Stacey, do you smell something, like... incense?’ ‘No,’ he replied.
Then he did a sudden double-take: ‘But now that you mention it, Yes, I do smell something and it’s really strong!’
Seeking more input, I asked another friend.
‘Yeah, it sure smells like something here! What is it?’
I didn’t know, so I thought it best to go and ask the pastor.
‘Is someone burning incense here in the meeting?’ I tried to ask as discreetly as possible.
She looked at me and smiled a simple ‘No.’
‘But don’t you smell something?’
Her look further spoke to me like, ‘Yes, but what’s so exceptional about that? Doesn’t the Lord come to you in North America like that when you worship Him?’’
I decided to not pursue the matter any further and rejoined the rest of the body in worship.

Suddenly my focus cleared and I saw it: The Word confirmed what the Spirit was doing.
‘Let my prayer be set before You as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’ (Ps 141:2)
‘the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints’ (Rev 5:8)
‘and the smoke of the incense with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God’ (Rev 8:4)

As incense in the Old Covenant Tabernacle and Temple order of worship typified Jesus, Our New Covenant High Priest and His finished work on The Cross, so now our prayers and praise were rising before the our Ark of The Covenant, His Throne. And in response to our worship, Our Father God was pouring out His Presence in a new and living way, a growing wave of His Glory!
The lights came on as the scent and sense of His Presence grew.
Like a wave reaching for its destiny, the Spirit moved among us, unpredictably, first this way and then that, embracing and being embraced. I felt Him dance throughout the congregation, catching up whosoever willed, playfully tossing us along the crest of His beauty and joy! Like a surfer awaiting the best next wave, I began to anticipate the Spirit’s flow so I might hop on board and, with trust as my only security, ride it until it finally broke, washing, crashing, spilling its fullness over me.
And so it continued...for over an hour. We didn’t just sing songs. Sometimes a slightly familiar melody arose and Indonesian and English words appeared on the overhead. But this was that prophesied ‘new song’ crescendoing together with heavenly choirs, each one an instrument in a great symphony led by One Composer and Conductor. Worship flowed together to and from the throne.
Inevitably I was forced to my knees, surrendering to His omnipotent mercy, my face buried in the cup of His infinite grace. I poured out all my vessel to drink of His endless love. I pretty well forgot that I was the speaker. Usually just before ministering, I find myself searching my heart, asking the Holy Spirit to not only help me speak His Word with His anointing, but to just not say anything stupid, or unnecessarily offensive.
But this time it was totally different. I found my heart and mind overflowing:
‘Lord, there’s just so much of Your Majesty here!
How can I ever do justice to all You are by anything I might say? My puny little words would only cheapen such grand themes!
How can I ever convey the fullness of what I am now seeing and experiencing?’

Suddenly a hand touched my arm. I looked up to see the pastor motion me to follow her to the front. We somehow managed to walk through the lines of worshipers without disturbing them. It was like the Red Sea parting before me. The band continued playing. I looked out over the hungry and thirsty group before me. I felt like how God must feel when facing such a sea of overwhelming devotion: here are true worshipers in spirit and in truth, firstfruits of Christ’s labour! The kingdom of heaven had truly invaded earth! ‘As it is in heaven’ had actually come ‘here on earth’! And I was a part of it! so I joined with all those ten thousand times ten thousands and thousands of thousands I knew also encircled the throne and together we sang out, ‘Worthy is the Lamb!’
Another wave of heavenly fragrance washed over me. I was out of my comfortable boat now, swimming in the River.
I felt our prayers and praise ascend, so filling and fulfilling the Lord’s desire, that He just couldn’t contain Himself either and so poured out more of His sweet fragrance of gratitude. Then our hearts were touched in turn more deeply and further overflowed! It’s called ‘LOVE’! and we were exchanging gifts.
So I began to sing out loud: just had to let it go and it flowed. I had to thank Him and let the others know God was so pleased! So pleased that: sons and daughters would simply worship Him for who He is and what He’s done; this just more fully released the River of Revelation from His throne; praise was both fruit and fragrance of His Presence! Buds, blossoms, fruit of the Tree of Life in every season!
Circumstances make no difference: poverty or plenty, famine or abundance, wilderness or palace, peace or persecution. We, His people praise because He alone is worthy! No opposition can stand against Him; no weapon formed against us will prosper. The armies of heaven follow the Lamb wherever He goes. He is going forth to conquer and so do we! The Prince of Peace has given peace and no one can take it away! And so it came: the words + the melody: a new song to the Lord!
And then a further glory, from glory to glory, a greater glory! and we got to soak it in and give it out again! Take it in and give it out! Take more in, give more out! The river flows and increases as it reaches the mouth and becomes an ocean.
‘For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea!’ (Hab 2:14; Isa 11:9)
I could barely stand as I sang, but the words and music kept coming! Finally, I stopped, but the Spirit kept moving through the sea of His people. I was enjoying what was happening and it was quite evident the Father was enjoying it too! My smile couldn’t stop and I felt the Father’s heart swell with joy within me!
The musicians stopped. We waited and... another wave of the Spirit rose up and broke against our shores. We needed little convincing that we are but sand.
Then the keyboard started to softly play again.
I wondered, ‘Where is this all going?’ I looked to the pastor. She was all smiles.
I thought, ‘That’s a good sign. If the pastor’s happy, it’s OK!’
Walking on water is an art; you have to step lightly from wave to wave.
I continued to wait. The silence seemed awkward at times. I wondered when the pastor would release me to start preaching, unaware that they were waiting for me. But I was so enjoying the Lord’s Presence any uncertainty quickly melted before another wave of His glory! Five... ten minutes? Can’t say I really know how long this lasted. My friends later said they were wondering when I was going to start speaking, but I just kept riding the wave!
Finally, I looked again to the pastor and motioned if I should speak.
She nodded and I tried but... my mouth wouldn’t speak!
All I could do was sing... and so we went from glory to glory again and for the next few minutes I sang my message of The Father’s Heart:
His acceptance breaking our rejection,
His peace removing our anger and anxiety,
His joy replacing our pain.
So much more than we could ever ask or think. This message has touched hearts in every nation I have preached it, but I must admit that that evening took my natural breath away and I stand in awe of the gospel, this good news of the kingdom, Our King... Jesus!
I couldn’t hold anything back even I had wanted to. What a wonderful predicament!

Like the woman with the alabaster flask of precious ointment. She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, broke the flask and poured its ointment on him...
‘and the house was filled with the fragrance.’ (Jn 12:3)
Spectators complained and chided her for impropriety and waste, but Jesus commended her lavish outpouring upon him.
‘What this woman has done will be told as a memorial to her!’ (Mark 14:9) No one else had been in time to anoint His body. All others were too late.
So these worshipers had counted the cost and paid the price for worship in spirit and in truth.
A new song is rising in the earth. It’s the Song of the Redeemed, the Persecuted Church: Indonesian, Chinese, African, believers from every walk and nation standing through this world’s trials and tribulations, following the Lamb wherever He goes. It cannot and will not be destroyed; it will only increase as the glory of Jesus fills our hearts and all the earth!

That night I fell asleep refreshed. My air-conditioned bedroom cooled the evening air, but it was a still-lingering fragrance of worship that coloured my dreams.