Battle Hymn of the Republic
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Julia Ward Howe, 1861
The verses of Battle Hymn of the Republic are filled with vivid images, none more striking than that of a hundred circling camps with fires dancing through the night, or officers, safe in their tents, reading by lamplight. Unlike the artificial light we enjoy today, these watch-fires and oil lamps produced an unsteady light, sometimes dim and other times flaring, but sufficient to read the Word of God even in the darkest night.
The fire within the believer is much more like the dim and flaring flames of the 19th century than the constant electric illumination we enjoy today. Sometimes the inner flame burns bright, flaring to illumine all around us. At other times the flame languishes, dimming to almost no flame at all as the darkness closes in. When the lamp within us flares, life is good, creativity flows, good ideas keep coming as we need them, and work is fun. When the flame is dim, life is boring, creativity is only a memory, the only ideas that come to us are tired re-treads or useless bits of nonsense, and work is a drudgery better left undone.
Wood, Wicks, and Filaments
Watch-fires burn wood. Oil lamps burn wicks made of cloth. Electric lights burn filaments made of long lasting metal. Each of these fuels offers a different remedy for failing light.
- Wood must pass its flame to another piece of wood. With wood, heat transfers from one piece to another by proximity.
- Wicks must be extended and soak up more oil. Wicks drink deeply from the bowl filled with oil and extend themselves upward to maintain the light they produce.
- Filaments must be replaced. Metal filaments burn until they break and then must be replaced.
There are lessons here for us as worship and music leaders.
When the watch-fires of our heart begin to lose their heat and light, we must find fire in the hearts of others. Fellowship with hot-hearted brothers and sisters who share our passion for life and ministry is essential. One of the challenges of worship and music ministry is the feeling of isolation. Even if we serve a church with several other staff members, we are most likely the only musician and perhaps the only artist of any sort. However we can arrange it, we need to come into contact with others who love what we love, who serve the way we serve, and who understand our creativity.
Once a week I play in a community band as we prepare for monthly concert. I take my place in the clarinet section and try to remember what the key signature is and how to count rhythms and block rests. I also come into direct contact with other band people, those who love to play, and this is good for me. I fully expect the watch-fire in my heart to get hotter because of this activity. We need social, artistic, and ministry contact with others.
As a leader you may need to seek out the fellowship of other leaders in the community. I have long observed that music/worship leaders can get along across denominational lines. Good music is just good music; it is trans-denominational so we share it freely. The difference between singing or playing in a local church and leading the singers and players is one that only other leaders can understand. Sometimes we need to talk to each other, sharing needs, dreams, hurts, victories, and, perhaps most important, the funny things that happen in this ministry. In these meetings we listen as much as we talk. A little of this kind of fellowship can warm our hearts and cause our inner flame to flare.
Drawing Fresh Oil
Oil is used in the Bible as a symbol of the Holy Spirit:
- Old Covenant Anointing Oil (Ex 30:22-31)
- The 7-fold golden lamp stand in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:331-40; Revelation 5:6)
- Jesus’ disciples anointed people. (Mark 6:12-13)
- Anoint the sick folks with oil and pray for their healing. (James 5:13-16)
- Jesus said each of us had an oil lamp meant to shine, not be hidden in a basket. (Luke 11:33-36)
- Jesus told a parable about ten virgins, five wise and five foolish. (Matt 25:1-13) The difference between their wisdom and folly was the extra oil the wise ones carried. They were the ones who were ready when the Bridegroom came.
The lesson was obvious—“Stay full of the Spirit!”
At the Last Supper Jesus explained the difference between the Old Covenant and New Covenant ministries of the Spirit: “…he lives with you and will be in you.” The difference between “with you” and “in you” is huge. (John 14:15-18)
The Holy Spirit burns within us with a flame that we don’t create. It isn’t enthusiasm. We don’t get it from others. Because Jesus abides in our hearts, so does the Holy Spirit! The lesson Jesus taught with the “wise and foolish virgins” story was this: “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour…” In other words—tend the wick. Keep it trimmed and burning, resting deep in the reservoir of oil He has placed in our hearts. We are meant to shine with a light so bright, the world will not help seeing us!
When we feel our lamps dimming, we need to adjust the flow of oil from our reservoir to the point of the flame. The longer the top of the wick that hosts the flame, the greater the burning will be. What does that mean? We need to set aside time for more prayer and more of the Word, drawing up into us the light and power of the Spirit of God Who is the Spirit of Truth. It could be that our daily habits of prayer and reading the Bible need a boost. We need to read larger portions in one or two settings:
- All the works of one writer
- An entire Gospel, and perhaps
- From 5 to 10 psalms a day
It might be necessary to plan a prayer/Bible reading retreat for this type intensive renewal. Whatever it takes, get more of the Spirit of God flowing from deep in your well so that your lamp can burn brightly!
Replacing the Filament
Sometimes we dim; sometimes we flare, but in this world none of us shines forever. When the filament in an electric light has burned all the hours it was designed to burn, it snaps and the flow of the current is broken. For there to be light in the places that lamp illuminated another lamp must be found. So it is with each of us. Our time has come and now we are shining, dimming sometimes and flaring at others, but the Spirit flows through us to bring light to the darkness around us. Soon our light will be only a memory on this earth. Those who saw us and frolicked in our light will remember us with warmth. If we have done our work well, someone who saw our light and understood it will be selected by the Holy Spirit to shine in our place and in places we could never have gone. They will illumine sights we never could have shown and give light in dark lonely nights to someone who will never know what we said or did that gave light to the one who now gives light to them.
Just Before You Fall Asleep
When my lamp is brightly burning, I fill the last few minutes before I fall asleep with images and ideas of what I want to accomplish for the Lord. For three years as I did the doctoral work at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, I envisioned the moment when Bob would place the hood over my head and declare me a “doctor of the church.” This really stoked my inner fire.
When our lamps burn low, as we trim the wick and draw in the oil, let us also see the future. As each day ends, let us permit our prophetic imaginations to run. Our work will be rewarded. Others will see our light and rally around our Savior. As we drift into the land of dreams, this exercise of faith will give us rest for the night and hope for tomorrow.
Somehow, in the land to come where there is no need for the sun or the moon, that place where the Lamb is the Light, we will still shine. Like a silver mirror reflecting the One True Light, we will shine forever.
His Truth Is Marching on!
Stephen Phifer is a third-generation minister with more than three decades of experience as a pastoral artist, worship leader, conductor, teacher, and writer. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Education from the University of Arkansas at Monticello (1971) and Wichita State University (1986), and a Doctor of Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (2004.) he currently serve as Online Professor of Worship Studies at Valley Forge University.