October 26, 2005

The Language of Heaven

OY AND I EMBARKED ON OUR FIRST trip to Europe in April 2004, with his sister Linda, her Italian husband, Willy, and their two grown children.

Before we left for our trip, I had faithfully studied my Italian language handbook and could say, "Hello," "Goodbye," "Good morning," "Where's the bathroom?" and "I speak very little Italian." But those few words didn't help much when Willy's family came to pick us up at our hotel--and Willy (aka Interpreter) was not around. After "hello," "Good day," and "Thank you," not much communication took place. Willy's family knew much more English than we knew Italian, but it was still difficult to carry on a conversation when it took 10 minutes to interpret one sentence.

One of the most disheartening moments came for me while at the bookstore. Only those people who consider books as "friends" may be able to relate to my deep disappointment when I discovered that all the books in the bookstore were in Italian--not one book in English. Nor could I find titles that contained the words hello, goodbye, good morning, where's the bathroom? or I speak very little Italian! (How does a bookworm explain the feeling of being in a bookstore and not being able to read? It's the stuff that nightmares are made of!)

Yes, it's possible to get around another country without knowing the language. But knowing the language makes communication possible. It also gives a person a sense of belonging; a feeling of home.

A New Home
Daniel 1 is well known to Adventists. We typically refer to it when we want to build a case for a vegetarian diet. It's here that Daniel and his friends refused the king's food, and came out faring far better than the other men who ate from the king's table. But I come to this chapter for another reason.

1544 page14Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, captured Jerusalem in 605 B.C. After he took Jehoiakim, king of Judah, captive, Nebuchadnezzar brought some of the most intelligent, handsome, and physically fit young men from the Hebrew aristocracy to his palace. Daniel and his friends were among this group. Along with the king assigning them an allotment of food from his table, he also made sure they were taught the language and literature of the Babylonian kingdom. Why? The king was doing what any king, monarch, or ruler does when they conquer a country: they seek to make the conquered people "one of them." Eating together, understanding the language, and learning the literature of a country are foundational elements to assimilation. Language and literature are bedrocks of a culture's philosophical base.

God's people are exiles in a foreign land. We eat the food of this land; we read the literature; we know the language. We can communicate quite effectively with those around us. And I think it's important to understand the culture in which we live.

But we are citizens of another country--a heavenly one (Phil. 3:20), a country in which the citizens order their lives according to a different philosophy and speak an entirely different language.

What is the language of that country? Can we communicate with the citizens of that land?

Can we speak the language of heaven?

If we do not speak and communicate in the language of heaven, I believe it will be very difficult--albeit impossible--to call that country home for eternity.

What Is the Language of Heaven?
As I was reading through the book of Revelation recently, I came to chapter 4: the throne room in heaven. This chapter is replete with symbolism--flashes of lightning, thunder, candlesticks, and creatures with six wings and bodies full of eyes. I'd studied the symbolism many times throughout my life. It is not easy reading; I was getting nothing out of the text. So I decided to draw what I saw; maybe that would help me embrace it.

I spent at least an hour or more drawing what I imagined John was describing. And I discovered that in spite of my poor drawing ability, the message of this chapter became crystal clear. Why hadn't I seen it before?

It's all about Him!

Everything centered on God! Day and night the people of God never stopped praising God! Praise is the language of heaven!

You may be thinking at this point, Well, duh, Bonita . . . of course we praise God. We sing hymns each Sabbath--or praise songs, depending on the church. We give our tithes and offerings; that's praise. We also say amen at the appropriate times of the service.

I'm not talking about that.

Adventists concentrate on doctrinal correctness--which is important--but we often miss what is more important: loving the Lord with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving others as we love ourselves. Too often it's all about us!

We complain about our circumstances, grumble about our coworkers, criticize those we should be loving, and argue about what a church member should be eating or wearing.

How many of us would feel comfortable prostrating ourselves in church in worship to God? Yet if we take this image from Revelation 4 seriously, that's exactly what we'll be doing in eternity: bowing our hearts and our bodies in total adoration, respect, and love for God. And I believe it's quite difficult to bow in total adulation to God and at the same time have something other than praise come out of our mouths--for God and others.

If we want to understand God's Word to us, communicate with the citizens of heaven, and feel at home for eternity in Christ's presence, we must learn the language of heaven, and live a life of praise to God now.

Ellen White notes: "Christ on the cross was the medium whereby mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other.

"The greatness of this gift was to furnish men with a theme of thanksgiving and praise that would last through time and through eternity" (Sons and Daughters of God, p. 243).

How Do We Learn the Language of Heaven?
I would like to offer three ways that I believe will help us learn to speak the language of heaven:

1. Training
Daniel spent three years intensely studying and learning the language and literature of the Babylonians. And I'm sure his studies continued for his entire life, considering the position he was in. Scripture says the Lord endowed him with knowledge and skill. But I don't think that meant he received it through osmosis, or that it just came naturally. It required discipline.

1544 page14Praise does not come naturally for us, either. It also requires discipline. Human nature spreads bad news and criticism much more readily than praise. Marketing experts tell us that in general a person will share negative comments about an organization or person five times in comparison with only two times for positive comments.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul compares the training of a person in the games of Greece with how we should concentrate on our training in the Christian walk. "Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one" (verse 25, NRSV). If we will discipline/train ourselves to exercise, eat right, learn a new skill, or save money for a desired object--all good things--shouldn't we be willing to discipline and train ourselves to learn the language of heaven?

One woman I know makes it a habit to thank the Lord for His blessings to her before she gets out of bed. "It may seem a bit contrived to some people, but I follow a particular formula each morning. I thank the Lord for the same three things each day: my home, my husband, and my health. I also ask for the Holy Spirit to fill me so that I can openly share God's love with others. (Yes, I like alliteration; I think God enjoys it, too!)"

2. Thinking
At work one day my friend Frank and I were discussing how we in North America have so much compared to the rest of the world, yet we complain about a lot of things. Then he made a very insightful statement, "When you have no bad in your life, the good starts looking bad."

Think about it: Wealthy people complain that their food doesn't look appetizing. Middle-class people complain if it doesn't taste good. Poor people complain that there is no food.

I'm not insinuating that we are to live a Pollyanna kind of life, pretending everything is fine when it isn't. We need to deal with the reality of situations. But how we think and what we think about have a tremendous impact on our lives.

Donald and Lenore* were church members whom most would consider "needy." In addition to their eccentricity, they had very little in the way of material possessions. Yet I was constantly amazed--and humbled--by their attitude of giving. Often I would find them pulling up to the church with food, clothing, and other items in their car that they were collecting to take to the community service center for those less fortunate than they were.

Obviously, Donald and Lenore didn't dwell on the lack in their lives.That must be why the apostle Paul so emphatically tells us to think about good, true, right, holy, and lovely things--healthy thinking contributes to healthy bodies as well as to a life of gratitude and praise.

3. Thanking
C. S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms asserts, "I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. . . . It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed" (p. 95).

While serving in parish ministry I told the kids at the church school where I gave worship that their pastor encouraged them to gossip! Specifically, I encouraged them to "God gossip." I coined that term to mean that they could spread as many good thoughts about God and other people as they could think of. Often we think good thoughts about God and others, but neglect to speak them. Yet there is power in the spoken word. And as Lewis has reminded us, the delight, the praise, is incomplete until it is expressed.

Calvin Miller has written an allegory called The Valiant Papers. It's the story of how a guardian angel named Valiant deals with trying to bring his latest charge, an Ohio businessman, named J. B. Considine, to faith in Christ. He writes:

"I have never forgotten that Daystar began his Great Insurrection by frowning and skipping his morning Alleluias. It must have seemed minor at the time, but hell grows out of paradise gone sour. Joy is a discipline, and fallen angels were always those who grew negligent with their praise."

Listening to His Voice
In John 10 Christ tells a parable about a shepherd and his flock, explaining later in the chapter that He is the shepherd (verses 14-18). He says His sheep "listen to his voice" (verse 3, NIV). How can one comprehend what someone is saying unless they understand the language? We must know our Father's language so we can listen to and understand His words. And I believe praise is that language.

Do we want to communicate intimately with God and His people?

Do we want to understand His Word for our life?
Do we want to feel at home with Jesus for eternity?

Then we've got to speak the language.

*Not their real names.

Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.