Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Light Broke Through

This will probably be my last entry before Christmas--quite possibly the last for this year. Although I haven't definitely committed myself to taking off until January 6 or 7, the idea is very appealing. Partly because my blog ministry seems to be suffering from the same problem that plagues most of my life (work and leisure time alike)--a largely self-imposed "obligation overload" manifesting itself in a constant sense of "hurry up and finish this so you can rush on to the next item on your list." Which tends to spoil enjoyment of the present moment and often sabotages the current task by impeding concentration.

Thousands suffer from similar problems--thanks in large measure to the voices of society. It's not just advertisers who bombard us with "you need this" messages until we go crazy trying to keep up. The average American is advised by doctors, pastors, authors, and experts of every stripe to get seven hours of exercise a week; pray for an hour or two each day; read at least a dozen good books a year; take four or five business courses annually; give some eight hours a week to assisting church ministries or charities; perform regular maintenance on a hundred things that keep home and auto functioning; spend at least half of any remaining leisure time actively building relationships with family and friends; and maintain active "Goals" lists in six or seven categories of life. Small wonder that we work as hard at our "time off" as in our jobs. Most readers--currently in the thick of Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas guests, and Christmas dinner--probably nodded in rueful recognition there; but the point will apply equally in six months as we include our laptops in vacation packing or rush about trying to see a city's worth of tourist attractions in four days.

Despite "peace and serenity" images of the first Christmas, Bethlehem that day was probably as hectic as any modern airport on a holiday weekend. The town was jammed to capacity with long-distance travelers grumbling about the inconvenience of the trip and the unfairness of the tax census that necessitated it. Jesus was born in a stable because every available guest room was taken. Even the shepherds who first received news of Christ's coming were "out in the fields" because they were working, "keeping watch over their flocks at night" (Luke 2:8, NIV). It could be hard, unpleasant work, no doubt, but at least they knew the routine. Then, suddenly, a light burst out of nowhere, and they nearly panicked. Here was something new and unfamiliar, something far bigger than the busyness of everyday life.

God's light rarely shines on people so obviously or so spectacularly. When it comes in more subtle ways--in a human need or the beauty of a wildflower--we're prone to ignore it, or if that's not an option, to complain that it interrupts our schedules. Still, there are moments when "ordinary" things are appreciated even by the overworked and jaded. After the weather has been gloomy for days, as often happens at this time of year, people who frequently take the sunlight for granted welcome its return with the enthusiasm of someone greeting a long-lost friend.

Many of us are going about with darker clouds in our hearts than the weather ever visited upon anyone. Now, as we prepare to celebrate Christ's coming, is the time to live according to Paul's words in 2 Cor. 4:6:

"For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."

Two thousand years ago
A man lived life in darkness, blind from birth;
And then one day
A Man stepped up and rubbed blind eyes with earth,
And when those sightless eyes
Were washed and cleansed, the dark gave way to light;
For on that day
The man who was born blind received his sight.

Through years and years of time
Earth's people lived in darkness, slaves to sin;
And then one day
A Man stepped forth to die, and thus did win
Salvation for all souls
Who would believe, who would receive God's light;
And Heaven still sings
Each time a heart born blind receives its sight.

And so it is today:
All who live life in darkness, blind from birth,
Can still receive
The Power of Him Who came from Heaven to earth:
His gift of endless Love,
His bringing of new life, His gift of sight:
Just let Him in,
And He will turn your darkness into light.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Greater Is He Who Is in You

When asked what he did upon meeting temptation, one man replied--bitterly, not with humor--"I yield!"

Sometimes temptation does seem near impossible to resist. It can range from the more-or-less insignificant--"I know I decided not to waste my time with computer games, but what else is there to do while sitting in front of the monitor waiting for a poky connection to be established?"--to the coward's way out--"I don't want them thinking I'm a fire-and-brimstone type; I'll be a more effective witness, anyway, if they get to know me as a person before seeing me as a Christian stereotype"--to the plunge into outright sin--"I realize sex is wrong outside marriage, but she's so beautiful, and we're alone; surely it can't hurt anyone just this once." Some people even blame God for their own actions: "If He doesn't want me to do this, why did He let me get into a situation where it seems the only logical recourse?"

At such times, the Scriptural truth, "The one who is in you [that is, God the Holy Spirit] is greater than the one who is in the world [that is, the 'god of this world,' the devil]" (1 John 4:4, NIV), can be tough to remember and even tougher to believe. But it's never true that a person "had no choice" but to do the wrong thing. Many affluent Christians, especially, are major wimps when weighed on the "scale of suffering"--from ridicule to ostracism to physical abuse to death. Never seriously considering the possibility of having to go all the way to the end, they are afraid even to see out the first stage. How unlike the early Christians, who were not only willing to suffer for Christ but considered it a privilege (Acts 5:40-41).

Those first disciples were strong because they kept constantly aware of Christ's nearness and because pleasing Him meant more to them than did anything else. If we appreciate Christ's power in us, we needn't yield to the temptations of the world around us.

Though temptations from all sides assail us,
Though the world mocks our faith and heaps scorn,
Though all things that we trusted may fail us,
Though we be left distraught and forlorn,
Let us not cower in fear from the hater,
Let us not turn away, lost to doubt:
For the God Who is in us is greater
Than all powers of the world round about.

Though our flesh may be prone to temptation,
Though our selfishness pull us away,
Though our courage have strong reservation,
Though our hearts tend to lead us astray,
Let us not leave the battle for "later,"
Let us not doubt our power to withstand:
For the God Who is in us is greater
Than all strength of the flesh and its brand.

Though the demons of hell rise against us,
Though all evil seem bent on our doom,
Though the devil himself work amidst us,
And assault with dissension and gloom,
Let him find us unwilling to cater
In the least to deceptions and lies:
For the God Who is in us is greater
Than all powers that from hell can arise!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Upon awakening in the morning, how do you greet the new day? Do you get up eagerly, praising God for the new opportunities He has waiting for you? Or is your first thought, "Oh, no, do I have to get out of bed?"

I'm not talking about "early birds" versus "night owls." Although the latter may start the day as grouches when forced to conform to 8-5 schedules, when self-employed or on weekend time they may well bounce straight out of bed upon first awakening (even if that's at noon). On the other hand, some people are ready to drop by 10 p.m. on Saturday night and nonetheless spend twenty minutes convincing themselves to get up after a full eight hours' sleep. I frequently fit into the latter category--a natural "morning person" who nonetheless greets the morning with dread rather than joy.

Such cases are rare among children, who are usually out of bed and raring to go the second their eyes open. It's the physically mature among us who tend to see the average day as bringing in not endless possibilities, but drudgery, futility, and reminders of dreams we never expect to fulfill. No wonder it's so tempting to hide under the covers and wish the morning would go away.

Perhaps it's as an antidote that most experts recommend morning for "quiet times." If remembering God is our first priority of the day--chronologically as well as in terms of importance--we're more likely to see the day with His clearer vision. Provided we approach quiet time with the right attitude: starting with praise; asking (with a genuine ear for the answer) what God would have us do; and only requesting strength to face our duty after we remind ourselves that He never sends anyone to do anything without providing strength for the task.

Those stuck in I-dread-getting-up ruts might benefit from memorizing and daily reciting Lam. 3:22-23:

"Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (NIV, emphasis added).

In the morning twilight,
Just before the day
Comes in all its brilliance,
Chasing stars away,
Now, before the hustle
Of our work begins,
Now we ask, our Father:
Keep our ways from sins.

As the sun is rising,
As each sleeper wakes,
Some will get up groaning,
Dreading all it takes:
But let us, God's children,
Greet the day with joy,
Glad to serve our Master,
Strong in His employ.

As the dark is fading,
As the sunlight spreads,
Let us start each morning,
As we leave our beds,
With a time of worship,
Strengthening for the day,
That our Father's blessing
Send us on the way.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

God Has a Mission for Each of Us

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you," God said to a reluctant Jeremiah in calling the prophet to his life mission. "Before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5, NIV).

"He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth," said the angel Gabriel in predicting the coming of John the Baptist. "Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:15-17).

For each of His children, God has a unique mission in mind from the beginning.

While few Christians are called to be famous prophets or even megachurch pastors, most of us have some sense of being suited for a particular type of work. Not all our dreams are of God, of course--one danger signal is when we start thinking in terms of self-gratification, whether "health and wealth" or a sense of pride that we've done something great--but for every believer who makes his own plan and asks God to bless it, there's probably another who is too afraid or too lazy to follow through on a genuinely God-given vision. How many of us will spend our lives working at jobs we hate while dreaming of what we could be doing--and one day, like the lazy servant in the parable of the ten minas, will find ourselves trying to explain to God that "I didn't use what You gave me because I didn't trust myself--or You"?

Some people never even bother asking God what He wants them to do with their lives. Sad as that is, perhaps some of them are better off than those who know what He wants and keep putting it off. Or worse, who are willfully blind to it.

Worst of all are those who do ask--but who, consciously or unconsciously, have decided that they'll only accept God's answer if it fits their preconceived conditions. The Israelites in Jer. 42:1-43:7 were like that. First, asking the prophet for advice, they declared that "we will obey the Lord" no matter what He told them to do; then, when they got an answer they didn't like, they called God's spokesman a liar and proceeded to go through with their own plans.

Usually, God's overall mission for a life is related to things we enjoy doing--but in ways far grander and farther "out of the comfort zone" than we imagine. Are we willing to step out in faith, trusting that God's way will ultimately bring us more fulfillment than anything we could plan for ourselves?

God has a mission for each of us
Long before we set foot on earth:
He plans every life yet unconceived
And decrees each one's path at birth.
While some have been called to serve in wealth,
Some are rich in the Lord alone;
While some leave huge tracks in history,
Many labor obscure, unknown.

God has a mission for each of us;
Yet so many defy His will:
We make our own plans at our own whims,
And presume our own good or ill
Are best decided by we ourselves;
But the Lord of all lives knows best,
And to go our own ways brings only grief,
And will lead us to little rest.

God has a mission for each of us:
If we trust Him to guide our ways,
We'll do greater things than we'd conceive;
If we walk with Him all our days,
We will find our lives are filled with joy,
And when the final day does come,
Will find greater blessings await us still,
When He smiles and He says, "Well done!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost in Praise

Have you ever worshiped God so completely that for the moment nothing else matters? Much Christian "worship" is so monotone and unemotional that outsiders and insiders alike joke about the "frozen chosen." There is no shortage of church services where a single spontaneous "Hallelujah!" would get a person thrown out for creating a disturbance. One such person is said to have protested, "But I was just rejoicing that I've found the Lord!"

The usher replied, "Well, I'm sure you didn't find Him here!" Indeed, one wonders if God is as bored by some church services as the congregants apparently are.

Whatever the origin of the idea that worship must be super-dignified, it isn't recent. In 2 Samuel 6:13-22, King David was so full of praise for God that he expressed it physically, dancing about "with all his might" (v. 14, NIV). Latter-day disco dancers and break dancers probably could have shown no less enthusiasm. Presumably God was pleased; but not everyone was. When David got home from the celebration, his wife greeted him with a sarcastic scolding for his "vulgar" behavior.

Even if our temperaments or church traditions aren't conducive to exuberant physical worship, surely we can occasionally allow God's greatness and all He has done for us to overcome us with awe and gratitude. Too few of us regularly know the joy of becoming so lost in prayer or song that minutes and hours fly past unnoticed; we're more likely to keep checking our watches and to grumble if the sermon doesn't end on schedule.

If we find ourselves regarding church and Bible reading as dull obligations, and our prayer lives are virtually nonexistent, maybe it's because we are in effect hearing God's Word with deaf ears. Have "God created the heavens and the earth" and "Jesus laid down His life for us" become mere religious cliches in our indifferent brains; or do we ever stop to consider how wonderful such truths really are? Those who not only read Scripture, but make its real meaning the primary focus of their thought lives (cf. Ps. 1:2-3), rarely find worship boring or difficult.

In Heaven, we will worship God forever--and enjoy every bit of it. Why not start practicing right now?

To sing the songs of pure praise of God
And to lose yourself in the joy;
To pray with no sense of the passing hours,
And no wandering thoughts to annoy;
To set aside even your pet concerns,
And to see only God Himself:
This is surely to worship in spirit and truth,
To seek God and forget all else.

But weak mortal minds will fall ever short
Of the Heavenly realms' ideal;
Some earthly concern always will intrude,
And diminish our spirits' zeal.
It is only through Christ and His holy blood,
That was spilled for our own poor sake,
That we ever can hope to behold our Lord,
And of worship to Him partake.

So fill up your mind with His Holy Word
And be ever seeking His will;
Think on His great works and His mighty deeds;
Bid your wandering thoughts be still;
And remember above every other thing:
It was He alone Who found you,
So place none of your faith in your own soul's strength,
But in He Who alone is true!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

There's a Blowout Celebration God Has Waiting

How many Christmas parties and holiday events are you planning on attending this month? Many of us are invited to, or hear of, enough possibilities to take up every minute of our spare time!

While too much celebrating can produce undesirable effects, such as bloated stomachs and no quiet time for rejoicing in the true hope and peace of Christmas, there is certainly no Scriptural warrant for the idea that having a good time is in itself sinful. Jesus Himself likened the homecoming of God's children to a party with feasting and dancing (cf. Lk. 15:22-27). If Heaven celebrates whenever one soul is saved, there must be a party like no other planned for the time when all the saints are gathered for eternity.

Some people, who perhaps have met too many dour "Christians" and who can't picture a good time without rowdiness and drunkenness, figure they'd actually enjoy hell more than Heaven. Perhaps you've heard the story--usually circulated as an e-mail joke--about the salesman who died, was told he could choose where to go, and was shown a vision of Heaven as an "okay" but rather boring place, and then hell as a barroom where everyone was smoking and drinking and having a great time. He chose the latter place--and was promptly thrown into a pit of fire. When he protested that this was nothing like what he had been shown, he was told that "as a salesman you should have known better than to believe everything you saw in a demonstration." Satan has many people falling for that "demonstration" in real life--and it isn't funny.

In the end, a self-centered striving for maximum pleasure brings nothing but misery. We only enjoy ourselves to the fullest when we share our happiness with God and our loved ones.

That's what Heaven is all about.

There's a blowout celebration God has waiting
For the time when we will see earth's troubles end,
For the time when death and every pain will vanish
And we'll gather for a party with our Friend;
At that time all true believers will be seated
At the table of our God and Lord and Host,
And we'll feast and sing and celebrate forever,
To the praise of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

There's a banquet God's preparing for consumption:
Heavenly Manna that will make a Living Bread;
Living Water flowing from an endless fountain,
Flowing from our Lord and God, our Living Head;
Wine of cleansing, squeezed by His own hands to fill us;
And the fruit that grows upon Life's holy Tree:
There's a blowout celebration God has waiting,
For the day He sets us all completely free.

There's a blowout celebration God has waiting,
One that never will see song or music end,
That will never know the tears and ache of parting,
Where no hurt or pain will ever come again;
There's a party where we'll celebrate forever--
Nothing that this world can offer will compare--
There's a blowout celebration God has waiting,
And I hope, when I arrive, to see you there.

Monday, December 8, 2008

True Freedom

"Freedom" is a wonderful word, but like many noble-in-themselves concepts, it has frequently been twisted to suit evil purposes. "I have a right to my freedom" is a cry common to the teenager protesting a curfew, the motorist grumbling about speed limits, and the employee unwilling to do one more minute of work than he was officially hired for. Not to mention the sexually active couple demanding abortion without restriction, and the Web site creator posting "false testimony against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16, NIV). To many people, "freedom" means the right to be selfish without restriction.

St. Paul saw freedom somewhat differently:
  • "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness" (Rom. 6:18).
  • "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible" (1 Cor. 9:19).
  • "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13).

Likewise, Peter writes, "Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God" (1 Pet. 2:16). And as for those whose idea of freedom is unrestricted sin: "they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him" (2 Pet. 2:19).

Anyone who has struggled with drug addiction or pervasive depression knows that one need not become the legal property of another person to be a slave. But even in everyday matters, freedom without limits leads to disaster. The new worker, told to "just do what needs doing," freezes in dread of doing the wrong thing. The aspiring violinist, who thought she had taught herself fairly well, is told that she'll have to spend years unlearning second-rate techniques. Traffic slows to a crawl as a stoplight breaks down and each driver is forced to use his own judgment on how to get through the intersection without denting any fenders.

It's because our own sin-infected judgment is so poor, that freedom to do as we please equals serious trouble waiting to happen. Even our attempts to do right--even our attempts to follow God's law--go sour when we try to navigate on our own, leading us toward either despair or smugness. When Paul wrote "through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2), and elsewhere, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1), he was thinking of the "slavery" that comes from the constant drive to "get things right," the drive that thinks in terms of "it's all up to me" and forgets that God is our true Source of strength.

And the only Master Who knows the real meaning of freedom.

Freedom to do all that's right in your eyes
Is life's cruelest slavery in disguise,
And freedom to have everything you wish
Bears the bitter taste of a poisoned dish;
For the more that you flout the rules God gives
And insist each should choose the way he lives,
The more you will find, as each day's race ends,
You are "free" of peace, and of joy, and friends.

When God made for us all the rules of life,
They were not, like the slash of a cruel knife,
Meant to ruin our fun and erase our smiles
And make life a highway of dull, dry miles.
No, God writes His rules with the pen of Love,
As His gifts that flow freely from above;
But we foolish souls cling like vine to tree
To the notion selfishness makes us free.

It is only when to God's will we bow
That we finally understand just how
Heaven's yoke of peace will relieve our strain
And to do God's work is the greatest gain.
There is peace and rest laboring for our Lord;
For the poorer souls there is rich reward;
And the truth that guides saintly lives must be:
Only slaves of God can be truly free.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Thy Kingdom Come"

Anyone who has ever read the Gospels is familiar with the phrases "Kingdom of God" and "Kingdom of Heaven" (one or the other of the two expressions occurs nearly 100 times in the NIV New Testament). And your church may well be one of the many that each week pray "Thy Kingdom come" as they recite the Lord's Prayer. Yet how many of us, living in today's free and prosperous societies, are really as eager to see the coming of the Kingdom as were the early believers? Is our honest reaction to the idea of Christ's return "the sooner the better," or do we secretly hope He waits at least a decade or two so we won't be kept from enjoying the dream trips or perfect retirements we're saving for? Do we really look forward to seeing all evil and pain permanently driven out, or do we harbor misgivings that a perfect world might be a little boring, devoid of drama and excitement?

In this current world (not to mention in any great work of fiction), success and satisfaction depends so heavily on winning against powerful odds that, notwithstanding the pleasure we take in a day to relax or a "happily ever after" ending, many of us find it hard to imagine permanent rest as an altogether good thing. Someone has even written an allegory where the hero goes after death to a place where every wish is instantly granted--and eventually comes to realize that he is not in Heaven but in hell. No, most of us don't really want to spend forever lying on a couch eating bonbons, or "sitting on a cloud strumming a harp."

But is that really all there is to Heaven? After all, there was work--presumably including some hard work--in the world before the Fall (Gen. 2:15). Nor does the thrill of competition and challenge require real enemies as opponents: ask any child who has had a wonderful day playing outdoors with friends. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the children and the childlike (e. g., Luke 18:16); wouldn't the experience of Heaven, then, be like a child's concept of the perfect day--full of freedom to play hard, to laugh with pure delight, to enjoy the company of friends and to make all the noise and expend all the energy one pleases? The eternal, dour church service many people imagine as Heaven--which seems superior to hell only in being the lesser of two evils--could hardly be more different.

We don't yet know many specific details about Heaven. But we can be certain that those who go there will never compare it unfavorably with the present life.

There are kingdoms of wealth
And kingdoms of power
And kingdoms where pleasure reigns,
But only the Kingdom
Beyond this world
Is free from the sin that stains.
Each of us would rule
As a king or queen
And would build our own throne of pride,
But the greatest Kingdom
Has but one King,
And we must be servants inside.

There are kingdoms of greed
Where deluded souls
Would see God grant their every whim;
There are "pinnacle kingdoms"
All built on show
And in going out on a limb;
There are kingdoms galore
Where for earthly gain
People bow to the devil's ways;
But let me fix my eyes
On the Kingdom of God,
Who alone is worthy of praise.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rejoice in the Lord Always

"Rejoice in the Lord always," writes St. Paul in Phil. 4:4 (NIV). "I will say it again: Rejoice!"

Maybe Paul found it necessary to say it twice because we so easily forget. Things--little things and big--go wrong every day; and when they do, human nature seems to temporarily lose all ability to see anything good in life. Many of us let a rude clerk, a honking horn, a long wait, or a bumped elbow ruin the next several hours. Even a real tragedy often gets more emotional energy than it deserves; most of us have met people who are still crying or sulking over something that happened thirty years ago, and who have long since used up everyone else's sympathy.

Nor do we necessarily rejoice properly when things go exceptionally well. The employee who has just received a raise and an extra week's vacation with pay, the lottery winner, the newly engaged couple may all be bubbling over with delight: but how many of them are actually rejoicing in the Lord, rather than in the circumstance? Most of us actually forget God faster in the good times than in the bad. When everything is going wrong, we cry out for help; after we get it, we say a quick "thank You" and go back to enjoying life's gifts with hardly a thought to the Giver. Few of us are as spiritually mature as the young man who said, "I prayed for months that my mother would be healed of cancer, and now that she has been, I intend to spend an equal amount of prayer time thanking God."

For too many of us, our level of what we call joy always matches life's circumstances: up one day and down the next. If we want to achieve consistent, deep joy, we have to get our minds off circumstances and onto the Lord, Who never changes and Who is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).

When life fills with obvious blessings,
And vigorous health is your lot,
Content yourself not with mere pleasure,
But rejoice in your Heavenly treasure,
Lest the Lord, Who gives all, be forgot.

When life is a maze of frustration,
And everything seems to go wrong,
Do not whine that you deserve better,
But praise God, Who released your sin's fetter,
And rejoice in His grace with a song.

When tragedy ruins all you hoped for,
And life seems too heavy to bear,
Do not let despairing consume you,
But rejoice in the Lord, Who renews you,
And Who has better answers to prayer.

No life is an endless vacation;
We all climb a boulder-strewn trail.
But, whether in laughter or weeping,
Find your joy in the Lord, Who is keeping
Heavenly blessings that never can fail.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Rainbow Song

According to Genesis 9:12-15, God created rainbows to signify His covenant of mercy, as a promise to never again before the end of the world send as catastrophic a judgment as the Great Flood. Centuries later, Ezekiel saw the glory of God "like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day" (Ez. 1:28, NIV); and the book of Revelation (4:3; 10:1) portrays rainbows as surrounding the majesties of Heaven. Even without fantastic visions, those glorious bands of colored light, seeming to form a bridge between earth and sky, have long served as a means of raising human eyes to the Creator.

Although rainbows have received some bad press in recent decades because of their popularity as New Age symbols, the fact that some people "exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25) does not nullify the fact that " everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Tim. 4:4). This is especially true of natural beauty, which can move our hearts in special ways--if we let it. Many people miss the rainbow because they are too busy watching their feet, trying to avoid the puddles left by the rain. Worse, many people keep their eyes so firmly fixed at ground level that they hardly know whether the weather is sunny or cloudy.

If you've been one of those people, try making a conscious effort to look up more often. You may be amazed at some of the views God has waiting for you!

(He in fact has a pretty good one scheduled for early this very evening; read the details here.)

There's a band within the rainbow that's as red as any blood;
And God, the great Creator, is the Source of all that's good.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

There's a band within the rainbow that's as orange as the fruit;
And Jesus, our great Savior, sprang to birth from David's root.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

There's a band within the rainbow that's as yellow as the sun;
And we all are fit for Heaven through the work our Lord has done.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

There's a band within the rainbow that's as green as any tree;
And Jesus, our Great Savior, gave His life for you and me.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

There's a band within the rainbow that's as blue as any sky;
And Jesus, our great Savior, loved us all enough to die.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

There's a band within the rainbow that's as purple as deep wine;
And Jesus, our great Savior, is our power-inducing Vine.

And God sent our Lord Jesus to make us pure and free;
Light and water make the rainbow, that great sign for all who see.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Visions of Heaven

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving--and I'm very thankful that, after ten days and three service calls, the cable problems that cut off my Internet service have at last been fixed. We don't need to suffer major tragedies to be convinced we live in an imperfect world; nearly every "normal" day has at least one frustrating moment that can tempt us to curse life.

God's refusal to completely remove hindrances from our existence is, whether we appreciate it or not, for our own good. Not only does struggle build character (cf. Heb. 12:5-11); it keeps us from getting too fond of this world where we are "aliens and strangers" (1 Peter 2:11; Heb. 11:13). Jesus said that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt. 19:24, NIV), almost certainly because the rich are comfortable enough already and have trouble picturing even the Kingdom as being better. If relative comfort in this world can hinder a person's spiritual progress, how much damage might total comfort do?

Not that knowing this makes discomfort that much easier to bear. We needn't actually reach the point of being suicidal to have moments when we want to scream (or groan), "Take me out of this world; I can't stand it any longer!" This isn't necessarily a wrong attitude, if we're motivated by a genuine longing to see God's eternal Kingdom come (cf. Rom. 8:18-25), rather than by a selfish desire for personal relief. In fact, most Christians spend too much time praying about individual problems--and too little time praying for the return of Christ, which will put a permanent end to all problems and establish God's total rule once and for all.

From then on, every day will be Thanksgiving.

When, in this life, you have trouble,
And are crushed under evil's great load,
When every day is a struggle
And each hour brings new holes in your road,
Lift up your eyes to the Father
And ask Him to show you the view:
He still gives visions of Heaven,
Where everything will be made new.

When, in this life, you have plenty
And the load set upon you seems light,
When every day seems all beauty
And each hour brings new joys fresh and bright,
Still keep your eyes on the Father
And ask Him to show you the way:
He still gives visions of Heaven,
Far grander than earth's loveliest day.

Life, at its best, is but fleeting;
Yes, and life, at its worst, soon will end;
But Christ, through His death, has defeated
Death's dark power, for all who call Him Friend.
Lift up your eyes; it is coming,
That Day of God's glorious Light,
When all our visions of Heaven
Forever will change into sight!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Still Small Voice

I recently read a book on prayer that included this insight: many of us who complain God never says anything to us, can't hear Him because our minds are "cluttered with junk." We can't expect our computers to respond at top speed if we've filled their drives to capacity; we can't expect to hear the doorbell ring if we're using headphones on a radio turned to full volume; and we can't expect to hear God's "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12, NKJV) in our heads if we've given them too much else to think about.

I know some people are going to be indignant to hear the word "junk" applied to their distracting thoughts (which is one reason I included a link to the book where I read it: so the other author can take the blame!). "Am I wrong to wonder what my kids are up to?" someone is bound to say. "Is it a sin to try to remember everything my boss wants me to do? Am I obligated to confine my TV viewing to church broadcasts and my reading to the Bible?"

Not necessarily. It would hardly be possible, or even desirable, to spend every moment of life on our knees; after all, Jesus went to parties. And even when we're officially "at prayer," it doesn't
necessarily mean we're listening to God. I'm not referring to minds that wander away from prayer altogether, though if you're anything like me you have your share of problems there. I mean that many of us do so much talking that we don't give God a chance to answer. Especially if we suspect we may not like what He has to say! (We all tend to take over conversations--as loud and fast as we can get away with--when we sense someone is about to bring up something that will make us uncomfortable.) The larger problem, the one that turns even wholesome thoughts into "junk," comes when we semi-consciously decide that our worries and pleasures are more important than our God. It's when we forget to give Him first place--and full say in anything else we feed into our brains--that we stop listening to Him.

Some of us don't even want to bother trying; we figure that if God has anything to say to us, He's perfectly capable of speaking loudly enough that we can't miss it. If C. S. Lewis was right that "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains," that could be a risky approach to adopt!

Like any good friend, God would much rather have us pay sufficient attention to Him that He
doesn't have to shout to get us to listen.

We fill up our lives with distraction's noise,
Then ask, "Why doesn't God speak out?
Why should we have to listen to hear His voice?
Surely He knows the way to shout!"
But the Master of Lightning, Lord of Storm,
Is a Gentleman at His core;
Though His arm is almighty, His heart is warm;
He will rarely kick down a door.

If you truly would hear God speak to you,
If you wish to discern His call,
You must tune your heart's ear to hear what is true;
You must crave God's will over all.
Then, in gentle whispers His voice will come,
As it comes to all those who seek;
No one who learns to banish distraction's hum
Need complain God neglects to speak!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Not for Me, O Lord

If you've ever worked in marketing, you've probably heard the wise advice, "It isn't features that do the selling; it's benefits." Benefits to the potential customer, that is. People don't make purchasing decisions because of how many awards a business has won, or how the moving parts in a lawn mower function together, or how many sizes an inflatable swimming pool comes in. They decide what brand to buy--or whether they need something like this at all--on the basis of whether it meets their wants and needs. There are still plenty of businesspeople who haven't learned this, if the advertisements we get in the mail and see on the Web are any indication.

And there are plenty of people in everyday life who suffer from the same delusion that the world is eager to hear them brag about themselves. Yet one thing nearly everyone agrees on is that there is no greater bore than a conceited person. As classic human relations expert Dale Carnegie put it: "I know and you know people who blunder through life trying to badger other people into becoming interested in them. Of course, it doesn't work. People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves--morning, noon, and after dinner."

Carnegie put his finger on a major irony there: the primary reason we find braggarts so boring is that we're pretty conceited ourselves. While the egotist is shooting off his mouth, we're thinking, "Look, buddy, don't you know I'm at least as important as you?!" And we, who condemn others for talking too much about themselves, do the same thing whenever we get the chance. For the vast majority of humanity, "I," "me," and "mine" are the most common words in everyday vocabulary.

Psalm 115:1 (NIV) says, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness." But many of us want to accept God's "love and faithfulness" while keeping the "glory"--and the control over our lives and destinies--for ourselves. Many people even have an overall attitude toward religion that adds up to, "If God really loved me, He'd always give me what I want." Like children who say the same thing when their parents deny outrageous requests, we attempt to set ourselves up as higher authorities than Someone Who is unquestionably wiser and more experienced. That attitude has been causing problems for humanity ever since Eve fell for the "you can have more--you can be as great as God" line.

And since every one of us is born with that same attitude effectively programmed into the psyche, it takes a lot of maturing before we can honestly say to God, "Not my will but Yours be done. I know You will do what is best for me, however opposite it seems to what I want at the moment."

Most of the world has instead fallen for the idea that to be fulfilled, we have to focus our lives on what we want--notwithstanding the large numbers of people who can testify that constantly thinking about oneself is a quick route to misery.

True happiness is loving God above all else.

Not for me, O Lord,
Not for any earthly pleasure,
May I seek Your Kingdom's treasure;
Make my will Your own;
Drive out all that seeks to hinder
Me from total, pure surrender;
Make my wish, alone,
To become Your loving servant,
Ever passionate and fervent:
Cut each earthly cord.

Not for me, O Lord:
All my longings may prove tainted,
For my heart is ill-acquainted
With its own dark depths;
I but faintly see--forgive me!--
The true blessings You would give me;
Faltering are my steps:
Make my one desire Your glory,
My one goal to spread Your story,
You alone adored.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For His Yoke Is Easy

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," said Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV), "...and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

The New Testament frequently contrasts the way of grace--the "light burden"--with the heavy emotional burden of legalism, that endless catalog of religious rules that tells us we have to do everything right to get to Heaven, and never provides any real assurance that we are in fact saved. The good news of following Christ is that He accepts us regardless of our past sins and present inadequacies--without demanding reparation in advance or threatening to kick us out if we don't do everything properly from then on. He's taken care of our admission tickets to Heaven; all He asks in return is that we let Him show us the best (in every sense of the word) way to live in the present. And He also supplies the strength we need to live that way.

The problem is, many of us who were saved by grace try to live by works. We feel obligated to respond to every perceived need, without asking God if He really wants us to fill them; we browbeat ourselves for sinning, instead of immediately repenting and rejoicing in His forgiveness; and we use the Scriptures as a means to feed our worry about whether we're doing everything right, rather than as a source of guidance and encouragement. No wonder many people dismiss Christianity as "just a bunch of rules."

St. Paul, who himself came out of strict legalism, lets his exasperation with such attitudes show in Galatians 3:1-3: "Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" To use a modern analogy: the road map (the commands of Scripture) can't be put in the gas tank where the fuel (the power of the Spirit) belongs. Not, at any rate, if the car (the Christian life) is to run very smoothly or very far.

If your life is so weighted down with responsibility that you can hardly move, it's time to ask God how much you have added to His own light burden.

You who are struggling feebly,
Bent under life's demands,
Come to the Lord for comfort;
Take mercy from His hands.

You who have found religion
Just a hard crush of rules,
Find in the Lord forgiveness;
Turn from the path of fools.

You who know all too clearly
How weak you are, alone,
Find strengthening in your Savior:
He guides and leads His own.

You, lost in doubts and terrors--
God knows you cannot earn
The grace that He gives freely,
The peace for which you yearn.

Come to the Lord for comfort;
Come to the Lord for rest.
Trust in His power to keep you:
His ways are always best.

Monday, November 17, 2008

You Cannot See the Wind

The third Person of the Trinity often isn't treated much like a person at all. I've heard even well-versed and orthodox preachers refer to the Holy Spirit as "it"--something we would never consider doing to any other friend who stuck by us through the hardest of times, offering constant support, advice, and encouragement (cf. John 16:5-15).

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is frequently regarded as impersonal because, unlike the Father or the Son, He gave us no specific words that were recorded in Scripture--nor is He ever described, even figuratively, as having any physical aspects. But even in the material world, many things with no solid or visible form are no less essential for that--the air we breathe being the primary example. And the air is not always content with being quietly "there for us"; it can do powerful things when it gets moving. As Jesus said in John 3:8 (NIV): "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

As the wind has its visible manifestations in moving clouds and soaring kites, so should observers be able to discern the Holy Spirit in His work through us. Are you letting His power move you?

You cannot see the wind,
But you can feel its power:
So is it with God's Spirit,
Who moves us hour by hour.

You cannot see the wind,
But it still cools your face:
So is it with God's Spirit,
Who with our hearts keeps pace.

You cannot see the wind,
But you can feel its breath;
So is it with God's Spirit,
Who freshens souls near death.

And just as mighty winds
Are plain through what they do,
The Spirit shows His presence
Through every soul made new.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Father Is the Lord of Truth

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" frequently seems like an endangered commodity. It's not just that there's been an overall breakdown in morality (however defensible that position may be); and it's not just that the best of us tell "little white lies" to make ourselves look good, avoid trouble, and spare others' feelings. It's also that the more vocal elements of our society now regularly feed the idea that the world is full of falsehood, perhaps creating an impression of more than is actually there, by throwing the accusation of "liar" at whatever political, media, or special-interest groups they disagree with. No longer is it sufficient insult to call an opponent a fool or an idiot; whoever fails to support one's own position is assumed to be not only dead wrong, but dishonest and malicious as well.

This is hardly to deny that deliberate lies are all too common, or that most people lie, even to themselves ("It won't hurt if I sin just a little"), a lot more than they'd ever admit. Nor is there any doubt that people can firmly believe blatant falsehoods; the idea that something can be "true for whoever believes it," without regard to any external facts, is ludicrous. And deliberate lies are indeed at the root of most of the world's problems; the devil isn't called "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44, NIV) for nothing.

In direct contrast, Jesus stated, "I am the... truth" (John 14:6). Notice that He didn't just say, "I always tell the truth," but "I am the truth." He is the epitome and originator of Truth; there is no trace of falsehood in Him. God may frequently act in ways we find hard to understand; He may not always give us all the facts (one clue as to why not is in John 16:12 [emphasis added]: "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear"); but He will never lie to us or lead us astray. In a world where every public announcement and many a private promise invite often well-deserved cynicism (who really believes that "your call is very important to us"?), it's good to know there is Someone Whose Word we can rely on.

And in a world where even small acts of honesty can catch people's attention, it's also good if we serve as His living advertisements by following His truthful example.

Our Father is the Lord of Truth,
Our Christ the Truth made real:
His Word will always guide us right,
No matter how we feel.

Our Father is the Lord of Truth:
In Him is not a trace
Of any malice or deceit,
And falsehood has no place.

And those who would deny His Truth
And scorn His holy creeds
May yet discern His shining Light
Within His servants' deeds,

For when a life reflects God's Truth,
It shows to others' eyes
A glimmer of the Truth beyond,
In Whom salvation lies.

Our Father is the Lord of Truth:
In Him the smallest things
Can win new souls into His Light,
Where joy and glory sings.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Heaven and on Earth

Some people's concept of God is of an aloof Power Who got the universe going and hasn't paid much attention to it since. Others, who give God a bit more credit for interest in His Creation, still see Him as too busy with big things like keeping the planets in orbit, to be bothered with the petty worries of human beings. And some get so obsessed with how bad their own sinfulness is compared to God's holiness (which is true enough) that they are ashamed to speak to Him, even to confess; or they go in groveling to the point of embarrassment, as if atonement depended on the fervency of their pleas for forgiveness.

Still other people go to the opposite extreme and treat God as a cosmic Vending Machine Whose primary function is to answer our prayers for parking spaces near the store entrance, or as a "buddy" (the lowercase here is deliberate and deserved) who can be approached as an equal, perhaps even as an inferior judging from the casual and flippant tones such people take with Him: "Hey, God, sorry my wife got so upset about my staying out late without calling, could you convince her to make a few more allowances?"

Even among believers, it's a relatively rare attitude that strikes a reasonable balance between God's holiness and power on one hand, and His compassion and concern for every human being on the other. Granted that God is too great for us to even remotely grasp, we can get into trouble concentrating on one aspect of His being to the exclusion of others. The purest worship allows one view to feed the other rather than shouldering it aside: looking in awe at God's perfection can make it all the more remarkable that He cares for the likes of us, and overflowing with gratitude for His redemption and providence can bring a deeper understanding of the purity that made the Atonement possible.

Though God "made the world and everything in it [and] is the Lord of heaven and earth" (Acts 17:24, NIV), He "is not far from each one of us" (v. 27).

In Heaven, yes, but not apart from Earth,
Not perched aloof above our struggling race;
He Who embodies mercy seeks a place
In every human life this world gives birth.
He Who did coil the spiral galaxies
And fans the supernovas into flame
Still tunes His ear to each who calls His Name
From this small planet. Every life He sees,
And even every thought in every mind.
To Him belongs all judgment, every act
Of grace, and all the love that makes a pact
With each repentant soul of humankind.
He Who Himself made all the things of Earth
And all beyond, came here, His might made dim,
That we might someday rise to live with Him.
The Lord of Heaven had a human birth!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Sun and the Rain

After several weeks of nearly-unbroken sunshine, it's been raining here all day, with plenty more expected through the rest of the week. The weather was so nice this weekend (during early November in Houston, the temperature rarely falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit) that it's hard not to feel a bit let down now. At least--since as a self-employed person I tend to take more days off than are good for me--I have no excuse for not staying inside and getting some productive work done.

"The weather" is a tired old topic of cliche conversations; and unless things have just taken a major turn for the better, the largest part by far of the conversation usually consists of complaints. If it rains, we grumble about having to either stay indoors or fool with umbrellas. If it's sunny, we worry about our lawns drying out. The summers are too hot; the winters are too cold; and the remaining seasons are too chilly, too rainy, or too windy.

Often, the weather we're complaining about right now is the weather we were praying for two months ago. It would probably serve us right if we had floods and tornadoes more often, as with the Israelites in the wilderness whose story was one long record of whining followed by punishment followed by apology followed by forgiveness followed by more whining. How many of us are in the habit of daily thanking God for the weather, be it sunshine or rain or just free of natural disasters?

Try it right now. Look out the nearest window and say, "God, You are so good to give us the sun, rain, and snow in Your proper timing."

The sun shines down
And gives us daylight,
A welcome sight
When days are cold
Or after rain;
But in summers brown,
We moan, "This heat grows old!
When will it pour again?"

Rain on earth plays
And gives us moisture,
It's welcome, sure,
When days were dry;
But when it comes
On our picnic days,
We moan, "Turn off the sky!
We can't stand rain that drums!"

The snow drifts soft
In wispy whiteness,
A lovely brightness
For winter fun;
But when it's time
To clear it all off,
We moan, "Bring out the sun!
Why can't the days be fine?"

And so it is
With all God gives us:
When it relieves us
And need is clear,
We welcome it;
But how strange it is
When we in comfort sit
And wish His gifts weren't here!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

When Things Go Wrong

Relatively minor frustrations have probably had a hand in more nervous breakdowns than have great tragedies. It's amazing how furious people can get over traffic delays, interrupted television broadcasts, and grocery stores that run out of tomatoes--amazing because most of those same people, if asked in their more rational moments just how important such things are, would quickly admit "Not very." The frustration issue of any given moment is actually only a surface manifestation of humanity's deeper problem: every one of us considers him- or herself so important that the universe owes it to us to ensure every little thing goes according to our plans.

That's the real answer to the common wail, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" God rarely sends our problems to punish us for specific sins--but He does use frustrations and hard times to beat lingering bad attitudes out of us, to scrub us clean of deep-rooted pride, to point up whatever rival "gods" we are clinging to. No living person ever reaches such perfect spiritual condition as to be beyond need of further polishing. Even Christ, Who had the unique distinction of being free of real sin, "learned obedience from what he suffered and [thus was] made perfect" (Heb. 5:8-9, NIV).

The next time you have "one of those days," don't go back to bed. Ask God what He wants to teach you.

When things go wrong--as they often do--
When it seems that the world has it in for you,
When each road you try hits a new dead end,
And fresh troubles greet you around each bend,
You may think you happened to greatly err,
And an angry God has shut out your prayer--
But, more likely, He has another goal
For the pains and troubles that plague your soul.

No human heart, in its mortal days,
Ever yields completely to God's pure ways;
There is always some small competing love
Vying for your heart with the One above;
Yet God loves you just as you are, but He
Cares so much He wishes to set you free
From all other "lords" that, however right
In themselves, will hamper your pure delight.

And He knows, too, that a life of ease
Rarely will give birth to the purest peace,
And if you were granted your every whim,
You would never fully depend on Him,
And your satisfaction would shallow be:
So when you are tempted to groan, "Why me?,"
Stop and ask your Lord what He plans for you,
And give Him your thanks for what He will do.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


After two weeks of nursing a bad cold and wading through materials collected during a recent library binge, I am returning to a regular work schedule--with the typical lack of enthusiasm that strikes when you realize things kept piling up while your back was turned. It's times like this that make a person sympathize with Peter's desire to build a permanent shelter on the mountain of worship (Mt. 17:4). Most of us will, at times, absorb ourselves in anything handy rather than face up to the more difficult things we know we should be doing.

While purely selfish "shelters"--pleasure, materialism, a "let them look out for themselves" attitude toward others--are fairly easy to spot, perhaps the more dangerous shelters are those that at first glance seem like superior choices. Who can fault hard work, or a life dedicated to prayer and worship? Yet even the most godly disciplines can be perverted into means of avoiding God Himself. Jesus had some hard words for people who become obsessed with the more nit-picking details of religiosity at the expense of developing overall godly attitudes (see Mt. 23). These were the same people who looked down on their Messiah for getting His hands dirty attending to human needs (cf. Luke 5:29-32).

Which example are we following?

We all would build our shelters
And huddle deep within,
Safe from the pain and sorrows
That plague this world of sin:
Some hide in drink or leisure,
And some in daily toil,
And some will live as hermits
Far from the town's mad boil.

And some build pious shelters:
They hide away in prayer
And hours of meditation--
"Our God is with us there."
But do they ever listen
To hear the Lord's command:
"The world I love is dying;
Go, take Me through the land"?

Our Master was a preacher
Who walked within the crowd;
He never feared the tumult,
However great and loud;
Though He spent hours in praying,
He always rose to go
To where the world was hurting,
And met with love its woe.

If we would be His followers,
We must not turn away
And hide within our shelters:
The world has needs today.
And if they mock or bruise us,
Remember all His pain--
Keep following in His footsteps,
And find in loss great gain!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Our Life Was in His Dying

When you hear that someone has foolishly incurred an unpayable debt--has let credit card use outrun the paycheck or a gambling habit get out of control--what is your first reaction? If it's along the lines of "She should have known better," or "Serves him right for being so foolish," join the majority of humanity. Even if it happens to someone you know personally, the temptation is to brush off any requests for help. Who wants to be the "enabler" who encourages people to think they can do anything they please and always have someone bail them out?

Would you ever offer to pay someone else's debt--even if it would cause you a serious financial hardship?

When you hear that someone has been arrested for a serious crime--and there is no doubt as to his guilt--what is your attitude toward that person? If it's along the lines of "He ought to be locked away forever," that's a natural enough reaction. But if it happened to someone you knew personally, would you refuse to have anything more to do with that person? Or would you offer your compassion and support?

And would you ever take the ultimate step and offer to serve his sentence for him?

Few of us are brave enough to rescue someone else at our own risk. Even fewer are willing to rescue someone from something he or she actually deserves. And if the person involved is no friend of ours, to step in and help is the ultimate act of compassion.

That's what makes it so remarkable that "Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.... when we were God's enemies" (Rom. 5:6-8, 10, NIV). Those of us who have never done anything blatantly criminal tend to forget that even the most exemplary human beings are actually evil enough to deserve eternal hell. Shocking when stated outright, it's nonetheless true; as fire by its very nature destroys cold, the fire of God's completely pure nature reduces the slightest taint of selfishness or immoral desire to ashes. And anyone who refuses to let Him remove the imperfection will be burned up along with it.

Not that removing sin is easy even with those who are willing to get rid of it--even with those who want very much to get rid of it. Although no human being can fully understand the natures of holiness and sin, it's obvious from Scripture that even God is unable to clean the sin from our souls like a parent washing a child's face, a fairly easy and painless process at least for the face-washer. As a virus literally takes over the cell it inhabits, sin somehow becomes inseparable from its host--and unlike a virus, sin infiltrates not a few dispensable cells but an entire soul. The only alternative to destroying sin and soul together is to somehow "transplant" the sin into someone else, someone willing to go through the fire. And only God Himself is capable of enduring His own cleansing fire and coming out alive. So Christ "took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.... he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:4-6, NIV).

The most amazing thing is that, after all He went through for people who deserved not a drop of mercy, there are still so many who would rather take their own punishment than give up their self-reliance.

Our life was in His dying,
Our healing in His pain,
Our comfort in His sorrow:
His loss was for our gain.

He, Who saved countless others,
Would not Himself set free;
The price at which He loved us
Declared how things must be.

Our sins were buried with Him,
And when He rose again,
He left them dead forever--
But raised our souls with Him.

His strength revives our weakness,
For only through His power
Can we live in His service,
Throughout each earthly hour.

Our life was in His dying,
Our healing in His pain,
Our comfort in His sorrow:
His loss was for our gain.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Like a Roaring Lion

Since its origins as a pagan religious festival in ancient Britain, Halloween has undergone more than one shift in its general reputation. The name itself comes from "All Hallow's Evening," a term which originated in the ninth century when--as happened with many ancient pagan celebrations--the old customs were Christianized. October 31 then changed from a night when the spirits of the dead were believed to walk the earth, into a holiday to honor the saints, or "hallowed ones."

By the mid-twentieth century, Halloween had lost most of its religious trimmings and--ghosts and witches being generally classified with fairies as things no one took seriously but which were fun to pretend to believe in--was considered mostly a night of harmless fun for children. In recent decades, as the real dangers implicit in occult activities have become more widely known, many Christians have opted to avoid the holiday altogether or to celebrate "All Saints' Evening" or "Harvest Festival" in non-spooky ways.

Whatever one's personal feelings about Halloween, no one who takes the Bible seriously can deny that evil spirits are real. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV) says, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." The chapter from which this verse comes warns us also to beware of greed, pride, anxiety, and discouragement--all of which the devil will encourage in us to tempt us away from God's path. Whether our external circumstances are good or bad, Satan is constantly looking for any hint of wrong attitude within us--and if we fail to remain "self-controlled and alert," he may establish beachheads in our hearts before we know it.

No solidier in a war--especially a spiritual war--can afford to let his guard down.

When all life is a crush of frustration,
When success seems to give you the boot,
Beware of the tempter who lies in wait
To water each bitter root!

When all life is a string of successes,
When it seems everything's going well,
Beware of the tempter who lies in wait
To urge lazy heads to swell!

When all life is continual struggle,
When the challenge is getting you down,
Beware of the tempter who lies in wait
To lure you to Give-Up Ground!

When you sit down to rest from the battle,
As we all must at times now and then,
Beware of the tempter who lies in wait
And urges, "Don't go back in!"

All your life, through the sad times and happy,
He will stalk you to make you his prey;
But fear not: just trust in your mighty Lord
Who drives the tempter away!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Glimpses of Glory

Yesterday's entry touched on the concept of "be faithful with little things and God will trust you with bigger and bigger things." We understand how that principle works in connection with responsibilities, abilities, and property; but how many of us consider that it also applies to what God shows us of Himself? Most believers have, at one time or another, felt cheated because they didn't get to live in the times--rare as such times were even in Biblical history--when spectacular miracles and visions of God's glory apparently happened every day. (I'm not talking here about the skeptics who say they'd believe in God if they actually saw Him perform a miracle--and remain smugly satisfied that they never will--but about sincere Christians who struggle with doubts and uncertainties.)

Not that, if we did see obvious miracles, it would necessarily prove a permanent cure for doubts and complaining--anyone who thinks it would should read the book of Exodus again. Too many of us are so busy whining that God never breaks into our lives in spectacular ways, that we're blind to the little glimpses of Himself He provides every day. When was the last time most of us contemplated God's craftmanship in a wildflower, or thanked Him for giving us air to breathe, or realized that He inspires the small kindnesses others show us?

If we can't worship God in the little things, we have no right to demand He show us big things.

Does God still work His wonders?
Lift up your eyes and see:
Observe the sky at sunrise,
The branches of a tree,
The might of wind and thunder,
And you will know: each hour,
Each aspect of Creation,
Gives glimpses of God's power.

Does God still care for mortals?
Take heart and look around:
Count every tiny blessing
That in each life is found;
Observe how rain and sunshine
Flow freely from above:
Each aspect of Provision
Gives glimpses of God's love.

Can there be hope for mortals
When all the world seems dark?
Look deep within your being,
And feel the Spirit's spark:
We all still bear God's image,
The breath of life He's given;
And every heartfelt longing
Gives glimpses of His Heaven.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Life That Counts

The program title and topic are long lost to my memory, but I clearly remember the "two key questions" the speaker asked:

1. If you knew you would die in a year, how would you invest your available time?
2. Why aren't you investing it that way now?

These are not questions for which most people should be satisfied with the first answers that come to mind. To illustrate why not, my personal "first answers" were: 1) I would try to cram in every book, trip, and activity I ever wanted to experience; 2) I am doing it that way already--and probably shortening my available time with the self-inflicted stress that comes from constantly thinking in terms of "when will I finish this so I can start on the next item?" But behind the cynicism and frustration that haunts so many of us in this area, lies the fact that most people spend their lives neglecting their dreams for more "practical"--and boring--matters.

It's strange how afraid we are of the deeply significant and the breathtakingly beautiful. One can understand why people procrastinate on starting boring or unpleasant tasks; but why do the majority behave the same way when it comes to the things they should want most? "I'd like to use the wedding china for dinner, but I suppose I should wait for a special occasion." "I really feel called to this ministry, but I should wait until I have more in savings." "I could write a great book, but I just don't have the time now." "I really should give my life to God, but there's plenty of time for that."

The "plenty of time" excuse is heard so often that one wonders if most human beings expect their earthly lives to last forever. Some apparently do; there are people who take seriously the idea of scientifically extending life spans to several hundred years, perhaps prolonging life indefinitely. But what would they do with those extra centuries? Anything more significant than the working-at-a-dull-job, just-surviving-day-to-day existence of today's typical American?

The Bible says (e. g. Luke 16:11) that few people are trusted with big things until they have proven themselves able to handle little things. It's safe to assume that those "things" include not only money and abilities, but hours and years as well.

And it's also safe to assume that God doesn't give us our dreams to be wasted.

There are those who dream of an endless youth
That their science may soon create,
Those who wish to live for a thousand years
Or forever evade death's gate.
But it's not a question of when you die
That tells what to your life amounts;
And it's not the time that you have to use,
But the way it is used, that counts.

God allots to each every hour of life,
And He knows just how much you need;
And ten selfless years have more life in them
Than ten decades of idle greed.
So take all your time and then use it well;
Live each day like you had but one
On this earth--but look to eternity,
And pray, "Lord, may Your Kingdom come!"

Friday, October 24, 2008


The New Testament repeatedly commands us to be "witnesses" for Jesus and the Gospel. Perhaps the best-known passage on this matter is Acts 1:8b, where the risen Christ tells His disciples, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (NIV).

It's been noted that there is a difference between witnesses and lawyers! Lawyers are the subject of many bad jokes because too many of them rush into court on the slightest excuse; hamper direct communication between the parties most involved; paint opponents in the worst possible colors; try to goad people into looking stupid; and overall seem to thrive on picking fights. Some so-called Christian evangelists behave similarly--and likewise draw down ridicule by association on more humble and compassionate preachers.

When called to court as a witness, how is the average citizen advised to behave? Go in looking respectable and intelligent; be polite even to people who try to annoy or confuse you; never lose your temper; answer all questions truthfully and concisely; and tell only what you know, without making unwarranted assumptions, volunteering irrelevant information, or pretending expertise you don't have. Those aren't bad principles for the Christian witness to follow in everyday evangelism.

Remember the healed blind man in John 9? Faced with a hostile crowd demanding to know what he thought of Jesus--about Whom he really knew relatively little--he didn't hurl insults back at them. He didn't knuckle under to their pressure. He didn't pretend he was capable of arguing complicated theological points. He simply held firmly to what he knew--and that was enough to enable him to bear up under any abuse:

"One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" (v. 25).

We all of us are witnesses
To what our hearts believe;
It shows in all we do and say
And pass out and receive.
We all of us are witnesses
Through all our earthly days,
And everyone whose life we touch
Soon knows what "god" we praise.

Our tongues can serve as witnesses,
But even more our deeds;
For how we act when pressure strikes
Speaks louder than our creeds.
Our actions are our witnesses
To all our thoughts within;
They show the world our inner hearts
And bring out secret sin.

We, called to be Christ's witnesses,
Must walk along His way,
And trust His Word to be our Guide
For all we do and say.
His Spirit leads His witnesses
And strengthens them to be
Ambassadors of Kingdom love
For His eternity!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Stars above Sing the Might of the Lord

The following poem is a pantoum, which means that its basic structure is built on the repetition of lines. In poetry and song, a surprising amount of variety and beauty can be generated by using certain elements over and over.

Perhaps that's an example of how human creativity reflects God's image. Much of Creation's beauty is surprising in its consistency. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if the sky showed a totally different number and layout of stars every night? What if the sun rose in a different part of the sky each morning, birds changed their feathers and songs from day to day, and rainbows regularly shuffled and intermixed their colors? Would we appreciate the variety? Or get bored quickly, as do many spoiled children showered with endless toys?

Maybe our reaction would be uneasiness; it might be hard to believe that "the Father of the heavenly lights... does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17, NIV) if He kept rearranging those "heavenly lights" drastically and obviously. If He regularly changed His mind about how His firmament should look, who's to say He might not change His mind about more complicated matters, such as whether to keep His promises to us? Even on the human-to-human relational level, it's a lot easier to trust someone who is basically consistent than someone who has a history of unpredictable reactions.

Granted, people who always tell the same stories or keep harping on the same theme are boring. But even more than with poetry, human beings display a surprising amount of variety within their consistency. And a surprising amount of depth within the basics.

God is even more like that. Maybe that's why it's a lot harder to get bored exploring nature than watching television.

You don't hear many people complaining about "having to look at the same old stars tonight."

The stars above sing the might of the Lord:
Though they have no voice at all to give sound,
They speak of His power without a word,
For their beauty is seen the world around.

Though they have no voice at all to give sound,
Their praise shines out plain to all eyes that will see,
For their beauty is seen the world around,
And they speak of great wonders still yet to be.

Their praise shines out plain to all eyes that will see,
Through the mark of the Power on which they depend;
And they speak of great wonders still yet to be,
On the day when the world that we know will end.

Through the mark of the Power on which they depend,
Human hearts can dream of a world to be;
On the day when the world that we know will end,
Greater joys await than our eyes now see.

Human hearts can dream of a world to be,
Yet without God's Word we would never know;
Greater joys await than our eyes now see,
For He Who prepares them has told us so.

Yet without God's Word we would never know;
Only through His love do we dare to dream,
For He Who prepares them has told us so,
Of a world beyond where pure joy will gleam.

Only through His love do we dare to dream,
And the light of His love outshines the stars;
Of a world beyond where pure joy will gleam,
We all have His Word of what will be ours.

And the light of His love outshines the stars--
They speak of His power without a word--
We all have His Word of what will be ours.
The stars above sing the might of the Lord.

Monday, October 20, 2008

We Are Children of God

How many of us can honestly claim to follow, with any consistency, Paul's admonition in Phil. 2:3: "in humility consider others better than yourselves" (NIV)?

The era of oppressive colonialism may be over. Literal slavery may be history in most of the world. And officially sanctioned segregation may be rare. But bigotry is still far from dead--and it's not confined to extremists who spew hatred and advocate brutality. Nor is it always a matter of one ethnic group or social class considering itself too good to associate with another; the "I'm better than they are" attitude can manifest itself in a thousand ways. When someone is trying to maneuver a wheelchair through a narrow door ahead of us, and we fume because our time is being wasted; when we look at the homeless person on the street, or the arrogant teenager in the store, and see an annoyance rather than a human being; even when we're tempted to push past a dozen people "just like us" and grab the first place in line--we are in effect declaring ourselves a superior breed. One doesn't have to show consideration and compassion to one's inferiors!

If Christ had harbored that attitude, He never would have left Heaven for earth. Indeed, He spent most of His earthly ministry in conflict with people who did harbor that attitude and who "muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them'" (Luke 15:2). It wasn't the "bad apples" and the "rejects," but the pious, and "respectable" types--the "good" people--who most hated the Epitome of true moral perfection. The puncturing of their superiority bubbles was more than their pride could take.

The Crucifixion is the ultimate proof that "little" attitudes of superiority can grow into monstrous evils.

We are children of God, whether black or white,
All of us equal in His sight.

We are children of God, whether rich or poor,
All of us standing at His door.

We are children of God, whether young or old,
All who are gathered into His fold.

We are children of God; we must not despise
Other souls precious in His eyes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Storms and Rainbows

It's rained quite a bit in Houston the last couple of days--not an entirely unwelcome turn in the weather, considering that the area has dried out a little too much for comfort since last month's hurricane and that the whole of 2008 has been shorter than average on rain. The modern tendency to use "rain" as a metaphor for hard times and misery tends to forget how essential rain really is--and that in the Bible, "rain" is a good thing at least as often as not. Jesus's famous words from Mt. 5:45--"your Father in heaven... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (NIV)--probably refers not to a blessing versus a curse, but to two complementary blessings.

Still, rain (like sun) can quickly turn into a curse when it arrives in seemingly unlimited amounts. Just about everyone has heard of Noah's flood; and in the same Sermon on the Mount where Jesus mentioned the rain's falling on the just and the unjust, He told the parable of the wise and foolish builders, where rain causes rough times if not total catastrophe.

Incidentally, the famous quote "Into each life some rain must fall" is not from the Bible, but from the nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow knew his share of "rain"; twice widowed, he carried for his last twenty years burn scars from the same fire that killed his second wife. Virtually everyone who lives a normal life span will experience at least one real tragedy at some time. For some, the agony is sudden, wrenching, and totally unexpected; for others, it is so long and drawn-out that the tragic end is almost a relief.

It's comforting to know that for Christians, tragedy is never the real ending. A happy final ending is waiting beyond this world.

As the rainbow that was created after Noah's flood symbolizes God's promise never again to send such total catastrophe, the rainbow surrounding God's Heavenly Throne is a sign that no "flood" will ever again reach His servants there.

It rained in the time of Noah
Forty days and as many nights,
Till the mountains were under water
As it rose to unheard-of heights,
And it washed away earth's corruption;
So God gave a fresh start to all:
And He set in the sky a rainbow,
To bring hope after each rainfall.

It rained in the time of Jesus
Over many a shore and coast,
Leaving many a house in shambles
To give lie to the builder's boast.
Jesus told us to choose foundations
Made of rock to withstand the storm:
Human spirits are filled with rainbows
When we trust Christ to save from harm.

It rains in each life that's human,
Through real weather and floods of pain,
Till some feel life is drowned forever,
Blown to shambles by hurricane.
But what first seems to be disaster
Can bring cleansing to start anew,
If we look to God's Heavenly Rainbow
And stand strong in His Light so true.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Song of Sevens

Not that I want to slip into superstition about "lucky" or "magic" numbers, but the recurrence of certain numbers in Scripture does suggest that God has some fondness for them. Take the number forty, for instance: it rained forty days in the time of Noah (Gen. 7:11-12); Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:18); the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35, among other passages); and Jesus fasted forty days before His temptation (Mt. 4:1-2). Or consider the twelve tribes of Israel; twelve apostles; and twelve foundations and twelve gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

One number that appears in several significant Bible passages is a number that has acquired a general reputation for being lucky: seven. To the class of super-logical mathematicians (where I admittedly hold no membership), seven might seem a strange number to honor: it is neither small enough to be a basic unit like a two or a three, nor evenly divisible into any smaller units besides ones; and few extensively used larger numbers can be divided evenly by seven (even the seventy years traditionally estimated for the human life span now seems lost to an era of greater longevity). Why does seven, rather than a rounder figure like six or ten, so often seem to represent perfection in Scripture: seven days in the week; seven years of work for Jacob to marry each of his wives; seven days (ending in seven circuits around the city, led by seven priests) to bring about the fall of Jericho; seven deacons in the early Church?

Maybe I'm being whimsical here--and I definitely don't presume to be reading God's mind on the matter--but I wonder if He chose an odd number, and one not divisible without leaving something out, partly because He places high value on the oddball, the nonconformist, the person who always seems to be left out?

Certainly He has used many such people in amazing ways.

Seven were the days which God set for the week,
One set aside so His face we would seek.

Seven are the hues in the rainbow's bright gleam,
Set in the sky once the world was washed clean.

Seven were the times the troops circled around
Till Jericho's walls came a-tumbling down.

Seven were the foods Jesus blessed with head bowed--
Five loaves, two fish, fed a whole hungry crowd.

Seven were the deacons when the Church yet was new,
Servants who all would work hard as it grew.

Seven were the churches Christ named from His throne:
He Who is holy, is holy alone.

Seven are the verses in this song I have sung:
Let us give praise for the things God has done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rebuilding Piece by Peace

No, that isn't a typo in the title. It's a deliberate play on words--God rebuilds "peace" in our lives by reassembling the "pieces" of shattered dreams. The following poem (first published in Sol Magazine in September 2002, and reprinted in New Covenant Connections in November/December 2002) was originally written to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11/01; but the message is relevant to anyone whose life has been effectively smashed to pieces--whether by a natural disaster like Hurricane Ike, or a private storm such as the loss of a career or the sudden death of a loved one.

God rarely heals such injuries instantly. We may wish that such miracles as in the New Testament were routine today: wouldn't it be wonderful if a tumor shriveled up overnight; if damaged muscles regained full function in a second; if the victims of sudden disaster were restored to life? Such things do still occasionally happen; in a few circles they even seem to happen on a regular basis. But most of us, however sincere our devotion and strong our faith, heal slowly. And why is it that many injuries never heal completely in this life, but leave us with permanent scars (physical or otherwise)?

No one has ever come up with a completely satisfactory answer as to why God allows so many of His children to suffer long and terrible pain. But perhaps we would ask the question less often--or at least with less bitterness and despair--if we remembered that God's highest purpose for us is not a constant state of pleasure and comfort. It is that we become fit citizens for His eternal Kingdom: patient; compassionate; trusting; and content, even joyful, to receive whatever He gives us. To remake natural, selfish human nature so thoroughly, He has to dig down deep, sometimes even pull us inside out.

It often hurts quite a bit--and all the more when we haven't done anything obvious to "deserve" suffering. Few of us really appreciate that God doesn't just want "decent" or "nice guy" followers; as far as He's concerned, we aren't finished works until we become unreservedly loyal and totally unselfish. That is the greatest miracle of healing--and like all healing, it usually happens bit by bit. Why is it so slow? Maybe for the same reason that the human author goes through a half dozen drafts before publication; there's just something about the "rush job" approach that makes most final products seem sloppy, inferior, not quite finished. To make something the best it can be requires time and attention to detail.

We all remain in the rough-draft phase throughout our earthly lives. But it should be some comfort to know that God regards us not as problems to be fixed, but as beautiful works of art to be lovingly perfected. And the Christ in Whose image we are being made over does understand when we feel sick of the whole process.

Remember that He Himself carries permanent scars.

When disaster's dust has settled,
When light dawns on a brand new day,
Life cannot be rebuilt in an instant:
Piece by piece is the only way.

When a human heart is shattered,
With no hint of a chance to mend,
The deep wounds will not heal in a second,
But a seed is planted within.

It may not mature for a season;
It will not reach full flower in a night;
But the final result's worth the waiting:
Inch by inch is the path toward light.

As the winter warms to springtime,
As the sun lights the world each dawn,
So the soul comes to life as time passes,
And, with strength fresh and new, goes on.

If a soul knows only pleasure,
Beauty soon proves shallow at best.
Scars can shine with a glorious splendor
When adorning a soul at rest.

When life seems to become a dungeon,
When there seems no hope of release,
That's the time to start gathering pieces:
Piece by piece is the path to peace!