Thursday, January 31, 2008

Look to the Stars

We live in troubled and uncertain times. That's been true for so long that it's become a cliche. Today we worry about terrorism, global warming, and hurricanes. A generation ago everyone was afraid of Communism and nuclear war. The generation before that had the Great Depression and World War II... and so on back to the day Adam and Eve left the Garden. "The days are evil" (Eph. 5:16, NIV), wrote St. Paul in the time of the Roman Empire. "The faithful have vanished from among men" (Ps. 12:1), lamented David centuries before Paul. Always, it seems, those who try to live godly lives are tormented by the knowledge that the world is far from righteous--and that real catastrophe could strike any day.

But it doesn't take as big a specter as worldwide holocaust to make a life troubled and uncertain. It can be something on a much smaller scale: a diagnosis of cancer, the sudden death of a spouse, the loss of a job. Such things, which go unnoticed by all but the handful of people who are directly affected by them, can seem like the end of the world to that handful.

When life's uncertainty is shoving itself straight into our faces, it helps if we can put things in perspective by meditating on the One Who never changes--and also on the less changeable things He has created. Generations age and die, but so far the sun still rises every morning, birds still sing in the springtime, and the ocean continues to wash the seashore. The bereaved and hurting have always felt comfort and consolation through nature, as have soldiers at war, expatriates, and the imprisoned and persecuted.

Despite secular predictions of a world covered in concrete, I like to think that up to the coming of the new, perfected heavens and earth, God will make sure some remnant of his natural creation is always available to humanity, through which we can contemplate His power and love.

When all around seems dark
And you can hardly find a soul
On earth who seems worth your trusting,
When your light is going dim
And everything seems out of control:

Raise your head up;
Look to the God of heaven;
Look to the One
Who promised He would never leave you alone:
Look to the stars,
Tiny lights in the darkness,
Often hid in earth's dazzle,
Yet above all our troubles
They shine on.

When the whole world seems mad
And you can hardly find a soul
On earth who seems uncorrupted,
When your mind spins wildly on
And everything seems out of control:

Lift up your eyes;
Look to the great Creator;
Look to the One
Who promised He would never leave you alone:
Look to the sea:
Few have seen what's beneath it;
Some never see the coastline,
Yet above most of this planet
It rolls on.

When the whole world seems lost
And you can hardly find a soul
On earth who shows signs of caring,
When your heart is growing faint
And everything seems out of control:

Open your heart;
Look to the God of mercy;
Look to the One
Who promised He would never leave you alone:
Think of the wind:
No human eye can see it;
No human hand can hold it,
Yet through earth's trials and battles
It blows on.

Pray to the Lord:
Praise Father, Son, and Spirit:
Look to the One
Who promised He would never leave you alone:
Look to our God:
And when your life is ended,
When no one else can hold you,
He will remain beside to
Bring you home.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Faith Builders

I've been having a rough time (at least by middle-class American standards) the past couple of weeks. Appointments cancelled on three hours' notice. Tempting invitations arriving too late to accept. Indefinitely delayed paychecks and imminently due bills. An overload of reading material. Communication difficulties with friends. And an overall sense, cf. C. S. Lewis's "Counting the Cost," of "God is pushing me to keep growing--but now that I'm mature enough to to be reasonably comfortable in my own conscience, I'd rather rest here forever and not have to keep struggling upward!"

Trouble is, the journey toward Christian perfection is less a climb up Mount Everest than a trek to the North Pole. We aren't walking over fixed granite but over floating ice; so when we sit still, we don't stay where we are--we drift backwards.

Many people say (and virtually all of us have thought at times), "I won't believe God loves me unless He removes all the difficulties from my life. If He did, I'd be a better Christian." But the Bible and even secular history provide ample evidence that those who "have it best" in worldly terms are the first to slide into moral laxity. God doesn't withhold what we want because He enjoys torturing us--He does it because He loves us enough to value our ultimate best over our momentary pleasure.

The next time you're tempted to whine, "God, why can't I have this or that right now?" try praying, instead, "Lord, please give me the faith to trust that You will work this situation out for my good."

"It's easy enough to trust Jesus
When blessings abound all the way,
But I just can't see
How He could love me
And stand by while I struggle each day."

It's easy to revel in riches
And forget Him Who gave them to you,
But the saint with less
Can still be quite blessed
And know God's gifts are many, not few.

"It's easy enough to be faithful
So long as life's tragedy-free,
But my faith's gone dark
Through a broken heart--
How could Love let this happen to me?"

The life that knows only the sunshine
Can easily fail to bear fruit,
But the plant grows deep
Through the days you weep
And shed tears that can water the root.

It's easy enough to blame Jesus
When life isn't all that you crave;
But the saint who grows
Is the one who knows
The true joy of just being God's slave.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Let Me Hear God's Music

What is your favorite music style? I have always liked songs in the folk/country/gospel tradition, as well as hymns. Classical music, having no lyrics to hold my easily distracted attention, rates somewhat lower. Nor do I personally care much for the harder and less melodious modern styles, though I agree with those who say there is no bad music (in the moral sense), only bad lyrics.

The idea of the "best" music of course varies widely from generation to generation and from country to country. But virtually every culture has some sort of musical tradition. Genesis 4 records the first musical instruments as dating back to at least the seventh generation after Adam (v. 21). And the Hebrews worshiped God with music since before the building of the first Temple (cf. 1 Samuel 10:5; 2 Samuel 6:5).

The human love of music is yet another reflection of God's image in us. Even at creation, the Bible says, "the morning stars sang together" (Job 38:7a, NIV, emphasis added). The angels sing constant praises to God, as do the saints in heaven (Rev. 5:8-10, 11-13).

When we on earth contemplate God's glory, and His handiwork in Creation, we can catch faint strains of that heavenly music.

Creation sang God's glory in the beginning,
And the music will continue in the world to be:
Let me carry the songs of the Lord in me every day of my life,
And let heaven's music hear its voice expressed through me.

Let me hear God's music
Whether the sky is blue or gray;
Let me share God's music
With a world so often dark and drear;
Let me sing God's music
To show the way home to some poor hurting soul;
Let me give God's music
To a lonely world that longs to hear.

As the angels sang God's glory at the Savior's birth,
Showing the world a light that would shine from that day on,
Let me carry the songs of the Lord to a world longing for the Light;
Let me bear the torch that will guide to the final Dawn.

Let me hear God's music
Whether the sky is blue or gray;
Let me share God's music
With a world so often dark and drear;
Let me sing God's music
To show the way home to some poor hurting soul;
Let me give God's music
To a lonely world that longs to hear.

Let me hear God's music
Whether the sky is blue or gray;
Let me share God's music
With a world so often dark and drear;
Let me sing God's music
To show the way home to some poor hurting soul;
Let me give God's music
To a lonely world that longs to hear.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Time Lost

I'm in a rush right now (what else is new?), so today's entry may go unedited. Which is one reason I chose a poem on "time."

Paul tells us to "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is" (Eph. 5:15-17, NIV). In other words, don't throw away the time God gives you by spending it on anything besides what He most wants you to be doing.

Easier said than done, I know. Especially since God rarely drops His preferred schedule for each day into our e-mailboxes. Sometimes it seems that, if we are serious about God's will, we have to spend more time seeking it than doing it.

But maybe that's the point. We Americans, with our "always-producing" mindset, tend to forget that God has an even higher priority than our building successful ministries or writing bestselling books. Most of all, He wants a personal relationship with each of us--the kind that can only be achieved by spending time with Him through worship and prayer.

Even basically good things can crowd out God's best. Joanna Weaver's book Having a Mary Spirit gives the author's account of having to cut back on one "favorite thing" to seek God's best:

"I was a binge reader. Which meant one [Christian novel] right after another.... my drug of choice, my escape valve from stress or monotony... So when God asked me to embark on a yearlong fiction fast, I nearly hyperventilated.... I could feel the rationalizations lining up in my heart, eager to present their case before God. At the same time, I could feel grace being released in my heart. Grace to obey. Grace to let go.... [And] God began awakening in me a new hunger for His Word--and I actually had time to partake!... I began walking in a freedom I'd never experienced before.... My fiction fast... lasted a full four years. Not so much because God demanded it, but because I simply didn't desire it. The hunger had been filled by running to His Word rather than running away in my mind" (pp. 190-191, 193).

I'm addicted to reading myself, though my tastes run more toward nonfiction and my problem more toward "cram in all the knowledge you can as fast as you can--life is short." So Weaver's story helped me decide what to give up for Lent this year; I'm going to limit my days-off reading to 200 pages per day. (Believe me, in my case that is a drastic cut!) Will let you know how it works out.

The river of time rushes onward,
And, however our tears may flow,
We cannot make the current run backwards
Or retrieve one drop we let go.

The hands of the clock move forward,
And no tool can reverse their spin,
For life's clock is beyond all our powers
To reset or to wind again.

The progress of strength is downward
Once the prime of our lives is past;
Though our health may remain many seasons,
Yet the end must arrive at last.

But the people of God's own Kingdom
Need not fear to cross death's wide sea,
For we know pains of time will be melted
In the light of Eternity!

Friday, January 25, 2008

God's Eyes

One of my favorite songs is "His Eyes" by Steven Curtis Chapman (who, incidentally, will be giving a Valentine's Day concert in Houston this year). As with all the best Christian songs, the lyrics express truths the Scripture writers understood centuries ago: "His [God's] eyes never close in sleep" echoes Psalm 121:3-4 ("he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep," NIV); and the realization that God notices--and cares for--us tiny individuals in all the vastness of His universe, was voiced by David in Psalm 8:3-5 ("When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor"). These two truths--that God is in charge of the heavens and that His eyes are constantly on such insignificant creatures as ourselves--were the inspiration for today's poem.

Some people are less than comfortable with the idea of being constantly watched by God--especially if their consciences are already bothering them! And even the best Christians have moments when they rather wish God would look the other way for a while. But when we fully appreciate that the Lord of all--the all-wise and all-powerful Master of the Universe--is not only interested in us but wants only the best for us, we can follow David's example in Psalm 139:1-18, and rejoice that God's eyes are always on us.

I can see God's eyes
In the stars' bright light,
As they gleam like diamonds
In the blackest night,
Shining on like beacons
To guide wanderers home,
Turning ever onward,
Seen from Chad to Nome.

I can see God's eyes
In the moon's white glow,
As its face smiles on us,
As each month it grows,
Precious pearl of beauty
On the sky's broad frame,
Although daily changing,
Through the years the same.

I can see God's eyes
In the sun's fierce glare,
Though too bright to look at,
There's no doubt it's there,
Though the clouds may hide it
Or the hours of night,
It gives life to all things,
As earth's hope and light.

I can see God's eyes
In sunset and rise,
In the bright auroras
Of the polar skies,
In the clouds that shade us
And bring life through rain:
God is always watching,
And His power is plain.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Seek First the Kingdom

Over the past few months, I've been trying to live my life according to the Bible verse "seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all [of your material needs] will be given to you as well" (Mt. 6:33, NIV). I should say I've been trying it off and on, frequently for very brief periods and with limited success. My life is usually overloaded with distractions, all tempting me to seek something with more material substance.

Part of the problem is figuring out exactly what "seek God's Kingdom" means. Are the only legitimate activities those that directly and obviously advance the Gospel? Am I settling for less than God's best if I take time to read National Geographic or eat a leisurely meal? Even in my religious activities, can I ever be certain it's God I'm seeking, not my own pride or pleasure?

It is perhaps significant that Jesus does not say, "Find the kingdom and righteousness." He knows well that our best motives are mixed, our best understanding dim. He promises His blessing not contingent on our success, but on our making a sincere and honest effort.

What does that effort look like? One thing it must include is regular, honest self-examination, lest we slip into the attitude, "God sure is lucky to have me: I go to church every Sunday; I read the Bible every day. I'm so wise that I always know what's good and what's bad; and I'm so holy I have a right to expect the world to run according to my liking." An important part of seeking the Kingdom is never forgetting Who the King is--nor how far short we fall of His ideals.

Once we accept that, it becomes easier to seek His will for the whole of our lives.

What does it mean to seek? -- To search:
To look with an earnest soul and eye;
To hold to the quest till the sought is found;
To keep your eyes peeled lest it pass you by.

What does it mean to seek? -- To work:
To stay on the trail of a thing long sought;
To toil in the sun till you pluck the prize,
More precious than all that wealth ever bought.

What does it mean to seek? -- To yearn:
To thirst for the thing that so long evades,
With vision to guide you though sight be lost;
To never give up till the goal is made.

What does it mean to seek God first? --
To search for His will through long hours of prayer;
To work for His Kingdom with all your might;
To yearn toward the goal, for the crown waits there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hidden but Not Gone

The weather here in Houston has been rainy and gloomy most of the week. As the sky goes, so goes the average person's mood. If the day is dark, so are our spirits. If the sun is shining and the sky is brilliant blue, we expect the day to be wonderful.

Unless, of course, something painful or tragic is happening to us--in which case a beautiful day can seem a mockery. After being informed of a loved one's death or serious illness, many people want to scream, "How can you possibly be happy?!" at everyone they see smiling. Most of us, if we have to suffer unhappiness, would rather live by the motto "Misery loves company" than by "Cry and you cry alone."

Of course, the sun doesn't really stop shining just because our section of sky is full of thunderheads. Indeed, a good bit of sunlight still gets through--very few days are so dark that we need artificial light outdoors at noon. So it is with emotional darkness. We may not see or feel God anywhere in the face of tragedy, but His light is still leading us, keeping us from fumbling, tripping, or becoming totally lost.

And sometimes, after the worst is past, we realize that "it was good for [us] to be afflicted so that [we] might learn [God's] decrees" (Ps. 119:71, NIV)--that our joy is ultimately deepened by the struggle.

When the day is dark and cloudy,
When all trace of light seems gone,
Not a ray may show, not a glimmer:
But the sun still shines beyond.

When the day gives way to nighttime,
Though no light may reach our eyes,
Still, elsewhere in the world, it's daylight:
And in time our sun will rise.

Though we may not feel God with us,
Though our hope and faith grow dim,
He will guide us still in our journey,
When our hearts are fixed on Him.

Though this world may seek to lure us
With those things our eyes can see,
May the eyes of our hearts look farther,
To the one true life to be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heavenly Chorus

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands," wrote David in Psalm 19:1 (NIV). Having lived in the Houston metropolitan area most of my life, I have a special appreciation for the country night sky which, free from most light and air pollution, expands the city's handful of bright stars into a spectacular light show. Gazing on the heavens in their full glory, I always feel close to the God Who made them.

When admiring such a sky in the company of small-town and rural-area natives, I am amazed at how many of them take the stars for granted. Not that I have any right to cast stones. How many times have I been "too busy" to notice a gorgeous blue sky outside my window, or to pause and view the sunset or full moon? Familiarity breeds contempt--even with the beauties of the heavens. Even with God.

Take a moment today to pause, look up at the sky, and contemplate the power it took to create the sun, moon, and stars; the air, the clouds, and the rainbows; the hawks and the hummingbirds; the shooting stars and the northern lights. Whether you live on the steppes of Siberia or in downtown Manhattan, God has some surprise for your eyes if you put them to use.

The sun comes up each morning to drive away the night,
And as the day moves onward grows ever more bright.
Too bright for eyes to look at, too fierce to bear for long,
It gives us food for eating and makes plants grow strong.
Our God shines in the heavens, the Source of all that lives,
Too bright for sin to stand in; and yet He forgives.

The moon swings in its orbit and smiles upon the earth,
The sign of light in darkness since man came to birth.
Its shape is ever changing, one side is always turned,
Yet we can chart its phases and trust what we've learned.
Our God shines in the heavens, like hope's own glowing hue:
Though we may see Him little, we know He is true.

The stars shine through the darkness, each light a twinkling glow,
The sign of hope and constance to us here below.
Each one a fiery giant, yet small to human eyes;
Still steady burns the faintest, a sign to the wise.
Our God shines in the heavens, our hope against the night:
May all the days we spend here reflect forth His light.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Roll Call

Today the U. S. celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Some of you reading this probably remember King's time well. Perhaps some of you were even active in the civil rights movement--or were among those who squirmed in disgust when the idea that "all schools, restaurants, public transports, etc., belong to all Americans" became official.

The need to feel "too good to associate with" certain others seems inherent in human nature. Those of us who don't look down on others' skin color usually find some other "inferiority" criterion: income level; education; family background--or even others' being "less respectable" Christians than ourselves. That last is no more than a Christianized Pharisaism "confident of its own righteousness and looking down on everybody else" (cf. Luke 18:9-14), including fellow Christians who associate with "disrespectable" types. Those of us tempted to indulge such attitudes should remember who drew Jesus's fiercest criticism in the days of His earthly ministry.

"When the roll is called up yonder," no doubt most of us will be surprised at some of those who make it into the Kingdom. But we can prepare ourselves here on earth by resisting the temptation to write anyone else off.

Especially in a group.

The teacher is calling the class to order:
"Dianne; Miguel; Katara; James"--
Each one in his place, each one in her corner;
The teacher has records of all of their names.

And none of them chooses the others' places,
And none can have another banned;
The teacher has names for each of their faces,
The teacher tells each where to sit or to stand.

They may be strangers each one to the others;
They may have faces of different shades;
They all came from different fathers and mothers:
The teacher keeps records of each of their grades.

And some will be smart and some be slow learners,
Some get straight As, some barely pass;
But whatever brews in their mental burners,
They all remain members of one single class.

And some are poor and some are wealthy;
And some are happy, some hardly at all;
And some are frail and some extremely healthy;
But all are equal when the roll is called.

The Teacher is calling us all to follow:
"Salome; Ruth; Paul; Philip; James"--
Each one from his work, each one from her hollow;
The Teacher makes records of each of their names.

And none of them chooses another's calling,
And none can say who else may come;
The Teacher sends gifts on each of them falling;
The Teacher records what each student has done.

They may be strangers each one to the others;
They may have come from a thousand lands:
They all are God's children, whomever their mothers:
The Teacher alone says where everyone stands.

And some followed Him since they were mere toddlers,
Some welcomed Him in the prime of youth,
And some were snatched from the fire as codgers,
But all remain children of He Who is Truth.

And some were poor and some were wealthy;
Some found life happy, some hardly at all;
And some were sickly, some extremely healthy;
But all are equal when the roll is called.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Image of God

We are all made in God's image, but none of us reflect the holiness of that image perfectly. However hard we try, we all let our pride and love of sin get the better of us far more often than we like--or realize.

Fortunately, we have the perfect Image of God--Christ--as both an Example and a Mediator to make up for our shortfalls.

Our race was made in the image of God,
To reflect His love and care,
To create, as He, works all pure and good,
And with Him perfect peace to share.

But our race has tarnished the image of God
With ambition and selfish pride--
Now we stand so far from the pure and good,
It may seem that all hope has died.

But our race has seen the Image of God:
He has walked in our world as man.
When we give ourselves to His truth and grace,
God's own image grows in us again.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


A world without light would not merely be inconvenient--it would likely be a world without life. Few plants can grow without sunlight, and without plants the oxygen supply in our atmosphere would quickly drop to zero.

Still, the adage "You can get too much of a good thing" applies to light. Ask anyone who has suffered skin cancer or cataracts--or even a burn--from too much sun. Even artificial light can be hazardous to health; many a nighttime car accident is due to high-beam headlights catching someone in the eye at the wrong moment.

Therein lies the flaw behind the common idea that one hardly need bother about religion, because God loves people too much to reject anyone halfway decent. (Which is just another way of saying God isn't all that important, that our own standards are good enough.) Actually, God is so pure and perfect that His mere presence destroys sin as surely as the sun blots out lesser lights. If we love our sin (not least our pride that says we are as good as God) too much to part with it, He will throw us out along with it.

Rather than accusing God of unfairness, we should be unmeasurably grateful that He loves us enough to remove our sin so we can enter His presence. And if we truly are grateful, we will not only rejoice in His light but will do everything in our power to share it with others whom He also loves.

Light is a guide:
A guide to keep our feet from stumbling;
A guide to keep our hands from fumbling;
A guide to keep us safe from tumbling,
Lest we drift aside.

Once light is lit,
Whether the sun on a cloudless day,
Or one dim match in the deepest cave,
Only those without sight can ever say
They cannot see it.

Light brings us warmth:
It lends tones of joy to the coldest day,
It can cheer the heart from a fog of gray,
And it lifts the soul that was lost in pain
From a hurt or harm.

Light can cause pain:
It shows each blemish and tiny scar;
It leaves no place to hide in the dark,
And when at its highest, may leave a mark
No one counts as gain.

Light from above
Came into this world to give hope to all,
And to those who see, it gives forth the call
To let God's light shine to the great and small
As a sign of love.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

God Made the Birds

For the first two or three decades after pollution became a concern, Christianity and environmentalism were generally seen as antagonists. Christians charged that environmentalism bordered on pantheism by promoting the idea that all species were created equal; environmentalists claimed that Christianity, drawing on the Genesis 1:28 command to "subdue" the earth, considered it a God-given right to destroy the natural world at will.

Fortunately (though it is probably unfortunate that so many waited until the problems were too big to deny), most Christians now realize that the natural world, like all God's gifts, comes with great responsibilities attached. (I recommend Tony Campolo's 1992 book, How to Rescue the Earth without Worshiping Nature, for a readable early view of Christian environmentalism.) God never intended for us to "beat nature into shape" by crushing everything that stood in the way of our desires. He calls us to use the world's resources frugally so enough will be left for future generations' needs, and to realize that those needs (take it from a dedicated birder) include the enjoyment of nature for its own sake.

God made nothing without a purpose. He reserved the highest purposes for humanity: since the first days of Adam (Gen. 2:15), it has been our duty to take care of the rest of the world.

God made the birds to fly and sing;
God made the flowers to bloom in spring;
God made the trees to give us shade--
And us to care for all else He made.

God made all things to have their part:
The dragonfly to swoop and dart,
The wolf to howl and bats for flight--
And us to help His whole world run right.

We stewards are of all God gives,
Protectors we of all that lives,
All ours to use, but not destroy:
Only that used right brings lasting joy.

May all the lessons of our past
Purge us of greed, until, at last,
We find the beauty of Creation
Brought into balance with civilization.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In His Hands

"She's always taking things into her own hands" is rarely intended as unqualified praise. However much our society praises initiative and self-reliance, we recognize that some things are best left to the experts. Hence the jokes about the homeowner who sets out to fix the refrigerator and succeeds only in running up a bigger repair bill; the youngster who won't take off his cap for weeks because his parents tried to save money by cutting his hair at home; and the preschooler who decides to surprise everyone by cleaning house and gives them a somewhat less pleasant surprise than intended.

Such relatively harmless messes can make even their victims chuckle in retrospect. But the world is full of people who are trying to do God's work by taking full responsibility for their lives into their own hands--and the farther they get before the inevitable crash, the less funny it is. The worst-case scenario is someone at the end of what seemed a life of unqualified success, moaning on his deathbed, "What have I really accomplished? What's left for me now?" A self-directed life that never takes God into account, is ultimately a life wasted on trivialities.

Whether your life is going well or looks impossible, remember not to take things into your own hands. Leave things in God's hands!

When struggles and temptations overwhelm you,
Lay them before the One Who understands:
Our God provides escape so you can meet the test,
And every day you pass on earth is in His hands.

When situations of "what ifs" are troubling you,
Remember that their outcomes are God's plans:
He wrote out every day of time before it had its start,
And every trial of your life is in His hands.

And when your days upon this earth draw to an end,
He'll be with you along your way to heavenly lands:
For in God's Kingdom all your struggles are as distant dreams,
And He holds all eternity safe in His hands.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ask What You Can Do

The speaker at the Christian entrepreneurs' meeting was going full throttle on the value of positive thinking. On how her life was a failure in terms of health, income, and family relationships until she realized God wanted only the best for His children. "And then I prayed: 'God, I want this illness to shrivel up and disappear, and I want to find a six-figure job, and I want this family problem to be resolved for good...". On and on went the list of "I wants," without even a "please" finding its way in edgewise.

I went away wishing I'd had the nerve to ask that speaker a few questions: Are you saying that we always know what's best for us? Was St. Paul a weak Christian because he never got rich? What's more important: that we be comfortable and successful according to the world's definition, or that we become as spiritually mature and Christlike as possible?

Certainly there are strong Christians who are successful by the world's standards (and don't we all long to be counted among them!), but I doubt many of them got there by talking to God as though He were a butler. Jesus Himself told us to seek first the advancement of God's Kingdom and godly righteousness, and then expect God to meet all our needs (our basic needs, not our every wish--see Matthew 6:31-34). And while "You do not have, because you do not ask God" is also in the Bible (James 4:2, NIV), in context that verse is hardly a license for demanding what we want when we want it--quite the opposite, it is part of a warning against greed and selfishness.

Even among Christians serious about developing godly character, it is relatively rare to hear someone pray, "Lord, show me what to do and I will do it." We'd rather make our plans--and they may well be made with every intention to serve God or meet genuine needs--and then ask God to bless them.

What we really need is to remember Who has the right and wisdom to make all the plans in the first place.

Our God is a God of provision;
He fills every cup to the brim:
But ask not what He can do for you,
But what you can do for Him.

Our God owns a world full of riches,
And all of the stars and the sea:
But ask not what He can give to you,
But what He would have you be.

For the joys of this world are fleeting,
And the rich of this world are poor
If they spend their thoughts on earthly wants
And miss Christ's knock at the door.

We become distracted by good things
And forget that "one thing" is key:
If the way of Christ is your one goal,
He will give you all that you need!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lord, Let Me Be a Blessing

The first prayers children learn usually involve asking God to bless someone or something: "Lord, bless this food." "Lord, bless Mommy and Daddy." Most of us continue prayers along this line all our lives: "Lord, bless the missionaries." "Lord, bless our church." Lord, bless our family."

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with asking the Giver of all blessings to pay special attention to those we love; but how often do we consider that He may want us to help bring His blessings to pass--not only for our families and churches, but also for acquaintances and strangers who may be quietly desperate for a touch of Christlike love? A kind word, a hand with a difficult chore, a bottle of water may mean the world to some hurting soul.

Ask yourself: How can I embody Christ's blessing to someone today?

Lord, let me be a blessing
To others on my way,
A word of cheer and comfort,
An answer when they pray;
For Jesus was a blessing
To all who crossed His path;
If I would be His servant,
I must extend His grasp.

By the One Who called me,
Who blessed me with His power,
Let me be a blessing, Lord,
To others every hour.

Lord, let me be a blessing
To everyone I meet,
For Jesus charged His servants
To be His hands and feet;
To carry on His blessing
Of love to hurting souls,
And where the Master beckons
His servant always goes.

By the One Who called me,
Who blessed me with His power,
Let me be a blessing, Lord,
To others every hour.

Lord, let me be a blessing
On every day I live;
As you gave me a lifetime,
So I must also give,
Through toil or age or illness,
Through any pain or loss,
As Jesus gave His blessing,
Gave even from the cross.

By the One Who called me,
Who blessed me with His power,
Let me be a blessing, Lord,
To others every hour.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Temptation Is a Subtle Thing

Have you ever known someone who was once on fire for God, then fell hard or walked away? Without getting into complicated theological debates about “eternal security” or “loss of salvation,” it's impossible to deny that some people have gone, in a decade or less, from "I would willingly die for Christ" to "I don't even think there is a God."

Sometimes it's a crushing disappointment or tragedy that does in their faith. But often they fall away bit by bit: first a Christian willfully if reluctantly decides to do some "little thing" he knows is against God's will; then he rationalizes, "One more time won't hurt"; then the "one more times" mount until he is doing it so regularly that his conscience has shut up and he has plenty of excuses ("God wants me to be happy" is a favorite) if challenged on his actions. It's a short step from there to explaining away those passages in the Bible that contradict his behavior, and from there to discounting the relevance of God Himself.

The best way to keep from starting on this slippery slope is to first get rid of the pride that says, "I'm so spiritually mature I'll probably never sin again," and then to commit ourselves to regular self-examination, preferably with the aid of a strong Christian friend or mentor. Sin is like cancer: its roots get into us through some seemingly innocuous piece of everyday life; it can grow big enough to kill before we even suspect its presence; and the best way to root it out is to catch it early.

An even better approach is to recognize and head off temptation before it has a chance to become sin.

Temptation is a subtle thing:
It comes before we know;
It infiltrates in tiny seeds
That like the kudzu grow.

Temptation is a subtle thing:
It comes before we see,
And weaves its threads to iron chains
And thus enslaves the free.

Temptation is a subtle thing:
It strikes in times of need;
It strikes in our prosperity;
It taints each thought and deed.

Temptation is a subtle thing:
It paints as good our sin,
And makes us prisoners in a war
That only God can win.

Temptation is a subtle thing
We are too weak to fight,
So let us find our strength in God,
And conquer through His might.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Father Is a Sculptor

Thanks to the recently launched Poetry Workshop at Grace Presbyterian Church, Houston, for suggesting I post this one.

God is the consummate Artist. His creation inspires the beauty of great visual works; His love sings in our music and poetry; and His story forms the basis of our best literature. The greatest art is that created to the praise of God.

Not that art, like everything else in this fallen world, can't be used for ungodly purposes. There are "artists" whose work takes a direct stand against the Christian God (anyone who follows the entertainment news knows of the recent furor surrounding The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass--not to mention the many books, songs, and movies that glorify sexual immorality); but more insidious is the situation where the art itself may be good and wholesome, but where all glory is given to the human creator instead of to the Creator. Even Christian artists have let praise go to their heads and have forgotten that God is the true Source of all beauty--and of their talents.

Of course, you may not be any kind of earthly artist--and even if you are, there are bound to be artistic fields into which your talent does not reach. But in a sense all Christians are God's apprentice artists--by cooperating as He shapes us and by telling others of His love, we help make beautiful things in His world.

My Father is a Sculptor:
The mountains are His blocks;
The canyons are His hewings;
His statues are the rocks.
I may not wield a chisel
To chip a stone away,
But I can help Him sculpt me
And mold my heart each day.

My Father is a Painter
In sunset atmosphere,
In nights all decked with glitter,
In leaves dyed every year.
I may not touch a canvas
With shades to tempt the view,
But I can help Him paint me
In colors pure and true.

My Father is a Singer:
He teaches birds their tunes;
He plays the wind through canyons
And in the grass He croons.
My voice may be near useless
For stirring joy or grief,
But I can speak His message
That sings of sweet relief.

My Father is a Writer:
His works each mortal scans,
Some through His poets and prophets,
Some in wild wonderlands.
My words are ever meager,
But, Father, let them speak
With all Your peace and comfort,
That others find who seek.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sing Praises to God

How often do you pray? More importantly, how do you pray?

Many of us lead prayer lives that, if we saw a week's worth written out, would make us blush with shame to realize how much like spoiled children we sound. "I want this." "When are You going to give me that?" "Why didn't You give me those?" "Why don't You do something about all these problems?!!" And what "thank Yous" we remember to say are in reference to specific, obvious, and unusual blessings--and far outnumbered by demands and complaints.

One antidote for a sense of entitlement is to use the ACTS approach to prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. We start by praising God simply for what He is; then remember how unworthy we are to receive anything from Him; then count all the blessings He graciously gives us anyway; and only then, after finishing with the important stuff, tell Him what we still feel we need.

Often the first step, Adoration, is the hardest. Some of us feel self-conscious showering anyone--even God--with streams of undiluted praise. Others of us get tongue-tied by the feeling it doesn't count unless we produce great poetry. If you have problems there, try starting with a few Biblical psalms or classic hymns, reading them--even aloud--with all your heart.

And by all means feel free to write down your thoughts as they follow.

Sing praises to God, Who reigns over all:
The stars and the suns respond to His call.
All things of this earth were made by His hand:
The beasts and the birds, the sea and the land.

Sing praises to God, Redeemer of souls:
He loves and forgives; He makes all things whole.
He guides every life that yields to His will;
Through hardship and peace, He stands by us still.

Sings praises to God, Who heals and restores:
He seeks out lost souls; He ever is Lord.
The time soon shall come, the end of earth's days,
When all evermore will sing to His praise.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Oh, Lord, Can I Trust You?

The rhythm of this poem was inspired by the spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," which, like Green Grow the Rushes and many other folk songs, builds on a numerical pattern. I have used a different pattern--the "six basic questions"--as a structure.

The Bible says that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6 NIV). But (notwithstanding what some skeptics say) God isn't looking for blind faith that believes everything it hears, regardless of evidence. Saving faith is built on solid evidence: historical evidence of Bible accuracy, yes; but even more important, the evidence of what Christ has done and is doing in our world. He has changed millions of people for the better; He has lifted up countless souls society had written off as hopeless; He has inspired much great art and literature; and, through His followers, He has launched tremendous philanthropic and educational movements.

Still, some people claim, "I trusted God, and He let me down." Nearly always, the problem is that they convinced themselves God had promised some specific thing--usually increased prosperity or reduced suffering--when He hadn't. God's specific promises, as they apply to all believers, are relatively few. He does not promise to grant all our wishes if we just summon up enough faith. He does promise us eternal life--if we trust Him for it. He promises to make us better people--if we trust Him with control of our lives. He promises we will have the strength to resist temptation--if we trust Him to provide a way out.

Surely we can also trust the eternal and omniscient God to know what is best for us.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
How should I trust You?
"Trust with faith like seed from the mustard tree;
Trust Me as the Truth that sets you free;
Trust Me as the One Who could part the sea."
Oh, Lord, so will I trust You.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
For what should I trust You?
"Trust Me for the food that you eat each day;
Trust that I'll be listening when you pray;
Trust that I will drive your guilt away."
Lord, for these things I'll trust You.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
When should I trust You?
"Trust Me when the day seems dark as night;
Trust Me as you walk by heaven's light;
Trust Me as you're standing for the right."
Lord, all my days I'll trust You.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
Where should I trust You?
"Trust Me in the depths of the darkest pit;
Trust Me at the door where your lamp is lit;
Trust Me at the table where you're called to sit."
Lord, everywhere I'll trust You.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
Who am I to trust You?
"You are a precious child of the heavenly King;
You are My messenger when the tidings ring;
You are one to whom I will countless blessings bring."
Lord, I, Your servant, trust You.

Oh, Lord, can I trust You?
Why should I trust You?
"Trust Me 'cause I died and rose again;
Trust Me 'cause I cleaned your soul from sin;
Trust Me for these hands where the nails went in."
Lord, I know I can trust You.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Goodbye Will Never Be the Final Word

I wrote the following song-poem after my father died unexpectedly in August 2006. The best comfort--the only true comfort--in losing our loved ones to the grave is the knowledge that the separation is only temporary, that "those who hope in Christ never see each other for the last time" (my paraphrase-translation of a "German motto," exact source uncertain).

St. Paul said it best, as he so often does: "We do not want you to... grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.... And so we will [all] be [together] with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:13-14, 17b, NIV; see also 1 Cor. 15).

There is nothing un-Christian about mourning the death of those we love; even Jesus did that (John 11:32-36). But we must not let grief rob us of hope or of our own will to live. For the Christian, death is merely the door that leads to real, lasting life; for a believer to shun it would be as foolish as a newborn refusing to leave the dark constriction of the womb and enter into the larger world. There is where the true light is; there is where our real growth and potential begins.

"Therefore encourage each other with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).

You left us when we scarcely were expecting it,
And no power on earth can fully soothe the pain,
But the One True Source of Comfort still remains with us,
And the day will come when we'll be with you again.

For I know
That our God is faithful,
And I know
That our prayers are heard,
And I know
That for those who hope in Him,
Goodbye will never be the final word.

Our hearts still ache from the bitter sting of losing you,
And our souls long for that world no eye can see,
But our Father watches us all while we are apart,
And one day we'll be together eternally.

For I know
That our God is faithful,
And I know
That our prayers are heard,
And I know
That for those who hope in Him,
Goodbye will never be the final word.

For I know
That our God is faithful,
And I know
That our prayers are heard,
And I know
That for those who hope in Him,
Goodbye will never be the final word.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

From Everlasting to Everlasting

The phrase "from everlasting to everlasting" occurs seven times in the NIV, always in reference to God. No one and nothing else has always existed. No one and nothing else has inherent immortality, or the power to grant immortality to others.

We human beings tend to say our best creations will "last forever" or "be remembered forever." Frequently it's just another manifestation of the arrogance that wants to be like God. Intellectually, we know that even the most durable of mortal monuments will crumble with time; but there's a strong appeal to pride in the idea that "If I cannot achieve immortality of soul by my own efforts, I can at least ensure that my accomplishments will be remembered as long as the human race lasts!"

Along that line, the rulers of ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Mesoamerica had great stone structures built to honor their achievements. Today, many of these works are reduced to rubble, the rulers are no more than names, and the surviving structures are quick visits on tourists' itineraries. Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1817 poem, Ozymandias, points up the folly of attempting to build for eternity.

No human being can achieve immortality by exalting himself. We can only receive immortality by submitting ourselves to God--the One Who is "from everlasting to everlasting."

From everlasting
To everlasting
Our great God is Lord of all;
From everlasting
To everlasting
Mortal souls can on Him call,
For He is faithful
To hear the hurting
And to respond to them in love:
From everlasting
To everlasting
Our great Father reigns above.

From everlasting
To everlasting
The Creator shall be blessed:
To every creature
Within His caring
He alone gives peace and rest,
And to His glory,
To the Almighty,
We our worship song now raise:
From everlasting
To everlasting
He alone deserves all praise.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Most of us have dreams about what we'll accomplish in 2008. Some of those dreams will come true. Some will soon be forgotten amid the everyday worries of life. And many of us will find that God has plans for our lives quite different from our own--far greater and better plans, though it may not seem so if our immediate dreams are crushed beneath apparent tragedy.

Dreams and visions play a major role in the story of God's people. Prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah. Daniel saw apocalyptic visions of wars and great powers. John received the Revelation of God's eternal kingdom. Probably the best known "dreams and visions" story is one of the oldest, that of Joseph, son of Jacob. Joseph never suspected, when God first revealed the honors awaiting him, that he would endure over a decade of hardship and low position before seeing his dreams come true. Probably he had many moments when he wondered if God had forsaken him and if he had deceived himself from the beginning.

Our dreams for the future may come directly from God, but that doesn't mean they will be easy to achieve. God plans to do great things through us, but He also plans to do great things in us. He doesn't mean for us to become discouraged or lose faith over the long, hard roads we walk to see our dreams realized. He only intends to strengthen our character by building our humility and perseverance.

The willingness to accept that process separates the true achievers from those who are satisfied to keep dreaming--and never get out of bed.

As Joseph's dreams showed the glory
But not the hard road he would take,
So our minds may not fathom God's timing
As we yearn for our goals that He makes.
Our dreams and visions are from Him:
We must tread the path He will show,
Be content with a light for each next step
And walk on by His side as we go.

As Daniel's eyes saw the visions
That raised in him a holy dread,
So our hearts may be trembling with panic
As God shows us the struggles ahead.
Fear not: from Him is the vision,
And whatever the tests that wait,
He will give us the strength for each moment,
And through us His own deeds will be great.

As John looked up to a future
When all struggles would end at last,
So the day soon will come when our trials
And our pain will belong to the past.
Our hope brings us strength for the present:
God's love will endure to the end,
And we dream of the Kingdom that's coming
Where we'll live with our heavenly Friend.