Friday, February 29, 2008

Lord, Remind Me

Is it hardest to trust God when times are difficult? The "automatic" answer is usually affirmative! But often, when everything is going well and we are confident it will continue that way, we aren't really trusting God--actually, we're hardly thinking about Him at all. Oh, we may attend church weekly, follow daily Bible reading plans, and say our nightly "bless 'ems," but only because (however subconsciously) we consider it our side of a bargain--God's side being to let us continue our comfortable middle-class lives. Our confidence is really in ourselves: we commit no crimes; we maintain respectable levels of piety; therefore, we deserve the best.

Small wonder we get so annoyed when things go "wrong."

Wayne and Joshua Mack's book, Humility: The Forgotten Virtue, prescribes quite a few things we can think about to shrink our swelled heads down to size: God's majesty and our insignificance; Christ's moral purity and our moral filthiness (there is no such thing as a slightly dirty sin); God's mercy and how much we need it; God's judgment and how much we deserve it; the great saints and their awareness of their shortcomings. Worship that includes no genuine sorrow for our own sins, nor any genuine awe at the majesty of God, is no worship at all, but the kind of lukewarm attitude to which Christ's reaction is, "You make Me want to throw up" (my paraphrase of Revelation 3:16). A shocking picture--but sometimes we need a shock to jar us out of our complacency.

The key point, however, is that everything in our lives comes from God. If times are hard, we can be certain that God means it all for our ultimate good. And if times are easy, we must not let ourselves forget that it is all God's gift--nor that He deserves our constant thanks.

Let us never forget to remember our Lord.

Lord, remind me in my trials,
When pain throb and rest evade:
Health and wealth are not life's purpose;
For Your glory I was made.

Lord, remind me in successes,
In the times when ease seems sure:
There is greater wealth awaiting
In the heavens where things endure.

Lord, remind me in my weakness,
When I fear my faith will slip:
It is not my strength that matters;
You still hold me in Your grip.

Lord, remind me in achievement,
When I draw great human praise:
Next to You I still am nothing;
Fast and fleeting are my days.

Lord, remind me all my lifetime--
I, who merit death and hell,
I, who scorned Your right direction,
I, who proud as Satan fell--

Of Your grace and love and mercy,
Of the price You paid for me:
Lord, remind me now to worship,
Now--and through eternity.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Alone with God

Picking up on yesterday's discussion of time alone with God, I think it's worth emphasizing that we don't "find" time to build relationships with God or anyone else; we make the time. We in the twenty-first-century United States are frequently tempted to blame it for our free-time deficits: no one who lived three hundred years ago had to worry about keeping a Web site up to date, commuting fifty miles to work, or reading a hundred magazines and newly published books each year.

Granted that the time-off problem was once more a matter of fewer things taking longer to do (and most of us have moments when we'd gladly take that situation in exchange for the frenzied speed at which today's unlimited options assault our brains), the issue of people being "too busy for God" must have been common even in Moses's day. Why else would God have included "take a weekly day off" in the Ten Commandments?

An outdoor retreat, incidentally, has two key advantages: human-originated distractions are limited, and reminders of God as Creator are everywhere. Jesus Himself told us to meditate on the birds and the wildflowers as means of directing our thoughts to God. The ancients were stirred to worship through observing the animals, the stars, and the whole of nature.

Even if all the "nature" you have access to is a neighborhood park with two trees and one bench, we owe it to God to at least get away from home and business (where reminders of upcoming tasks surround us on every side) once in a while. Unless we learn to forget about "all I have to do" long enough to concentrate on God, we may never hear Him telling us what we really should be doing.

I set aside my hopes and fears,
My struggles in life's daily fray,
My aches and pains and all my tears,
And all my dread of coming years,
To be alone with God today.

I left the city's noisy roar,
And went where nature reigns supreme--
Where birds are free to sing and soar,
And chattering squirrels are heard, and more--
To sit alone with God and dream.

The Lord of all is patience pure:
He rarely shouts above the crowd,
But will our base neglect endure
Until life's stress becomes so sure
We come alone to Him, heads bowed.

For only then, in quietness,
With no clock's tick to tempt the ear,
Can we be free for Him to bless,
And speak His words of loveliness--
Alone with God, where we can hear.

Then only can we truly pray
In reverence and humility,
And worship Him as best we may,
And yield to Him each coming day--
Then only are we truly free.

Today I sat with God alone,
From sunrise till the west grew red,
Then turned, refreshed, my path toward home,
Heart filled with heavenly music's tone,
And strengthened for the days ahead.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sitting at His Feet

Yesterday, I tried an eight-hour personal retreat, intended as a day in solitude and silence amid the beauties of Creation, a day of making space to better hear God's voice. It wasn't entirely what I hoped for--largely because in this urban area, the most convenient parts of the great outdoors weren't all that solitary or silent on a clear blue Saturday!

One thing that did get through is that I may never find the "perfect" retreat setting by my definition: absolutely cloudless weather; all-day temperatures just right for outdoor rest or activity; a handy free lunch; and an absolute guarantee that no other human will intrude even on my field of vision. After spending the first hour mentally accusing God of evidently not wanting my undivided attention after all, I wound up feeling like the fool of Proverbs 19:3: "A man's own folly ruins his life, but his heart rages against the Lord" (NIV). In other words, don't tell God that if He wants your worship, He had better make it easy, pleasant, and fun, because you find worship impossible under any other circumstances. Tell that to the saints who praised (and still praise) God from crowded dungeons.

Not that, as far as possible, we shouldn't regularly seek out quiet corners to pray and recharge our spiritual batteries. Jesus's own example (e.g., Luke 5:16) shows that we should. But perhaps those of us who tend toward overplanning miss a key point--our first priority has to be God Himself. Silence, solitude, prayer, worship--all the great spiritual disciplines--are mere means to knowing Him better; and if we pay too much attention to getting the means "right," we risk making them ends as well, forgetting Who we were supposed to be paying attention to. Then we complain that the disciplines don't do anything for us. Serves us right if they don't.

Another frequently missed point is that the "one needed thing" of Luke 10:38-42 isn't complete abstinence from hustle and bustle. It's listening to our Lord's voice. If we make that our first priority, God Himself will show us our perfect retreat setting.

Perfect by His definition.

The options in life are many;
The pressures of life are great;
But one thing alone is needed--
We must learn to sit and wait.

The voices of life are endless,
The callings a thousand odd;
But one Voice alone worth hearing--
Give ear to the Word of God.

The choices of life seem crushing,
The needs to be met insane;
But Christ knows the tasks worth doing--
And time lost in prayer is gain.

The yoke of our Lord is easy;
His burden is always light--
So if yours is heavy to carry,
Guess who cinched the straps so tight?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hunger of the Spirit

My pastor is preaching a Lent sermon series on spiritual disciplines. Last Sunday's, on fasting, challenged us to replace meal time with prayer time. I did--three days straight without lunch. Today, that was no punishment. I had a business breakfast that fed us so generously I can still feel it after 1 p.m.--eating lunch would have been more painful than doing without!

Fasting has been called the neglected discipline, in our well-fed society where more people worry about being obese than going hungry. Everywhere we go, we are confronted by restaurants, vending machines, and grocery stores. (Even my church's sermon on fasting was followed by a spaghetti dinner.) Many of us have come to think of constant nibbling as our due. If the refrigerator is nearly empty, our voices grumble louder than our stomachs. If a business meeting fails to provide refreshments, we wonder about the planners' competence. If we get caught on the road with inadequate provisions and no convenience stores in sight, we turn the trip into a gripe session. I personally did a lot of internal grousing on Monday, when my route over a dozen errands failed to pass anywhere offering free samples (which "don't count"). Tuesday was easier; I stayed home all day.

Small wonder that fasting and solitude tend to go together. Both involve escaping clamor--the clamor of the world in one case, the clamor of our own flesh in the other--so we can better hear the voice of a God Who is generally too polite to shout. The secret of successful fasting--as opposed to the counting-minutes-until-it's-over or the look-how-pious-I-am variety--is to redirect our hunger for material food into a hunger for the spiritual food that nourishes through joy in doing God's will. Then we can respond, when tempted to set aside heavenly concerns for earthly cravings, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4, NIV).

And our waistlines won't expand in the process.

The hunger of the flesh is great,
But hunger of the spirit greater;
The need for earthly bread grows faint
Beside the need for our Creator.

And yet, the cravings of the flesh
Speak louder than the Spirit's whispers:
God's voice is soft as airy mesh,
But mortal lust's a whip that blisters.

If you rely on human sight
And on your heart alone to guide you,
They soon will turn you from the right,
Away from God Who walks beside you.

If you would hear God's still, small voice,
If you would be His humble servant,
You must reject, by conscious choice,
Earth's joys and lures, however fervent,

And, oftentimes, reject the good
To find the best--to hear God speaking--
Postpone your work, postpone your food,
Set all aside a while, for seeking

God's voice alone--no earthly care
Allowed a chance for intervening--
And, extra time thus made for prayer,
To find the way God's will is leading.

The need for earthly food is great,
But need for heavenly food is greater:
So make some extra time to wait
And hear the words of your Creator!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The End from the Beginning

Anxiety is one of the great universal human afflictions. It can be triggered by things as trivial as low popularity; as potentially serious as cancer; or as general and speculative as environmental concerns. Whatever the cause, the effects are the same: difficulty concentrating on the present; diminished joy; and frequently physical symptoms such as nausea, tense muscles, and shallow breathing.

Even secular psychologists tell us that worry is useless, and frequently harmful. For us as Christians, it is also illogical--and frequently sinful. Fear of the future is rooted in the desire to "be like God," knowing all and controlling all--and also in lack of faith that the real God has our best interests at heart, or will give us strength to cope.

I understand the worry habit--for much of my life, I've had one of the worst cases. Part of it may be rooted in my imaginative-but-sensitive temperament. But "I was just born that way" is as poor an excuse for worry as for alcoholism or violent temper. It borders on blasphemy, hinting that God is too weak to help us overcome our problems.

Nor is He too weak to work out all circumstances--even death, war, and mass destruction--for His glory and our good (cf. Rom. 8:28). Nothing ever surprises the One Who said:

"I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please" (Is. 46:9-10, NIV).

The comfort in knowing that should override any temptation to anxiety.

Fear not if the highway is foggy;
Fear not if your vision is short:
God knows where your journey is leading,
And He is your strongest support.

Fear not if all life seems confusion
And all understanding seems fleet:
You have a mere piece of the puzzle,
But God sees the picture complete.

Fear not if your story seems tragic;
Fear not when fresh dangers portend:
Our Father has written each chapter,
And happy with Him is the end.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sing to Me, O Mockingbird

Here in south Texas, the birds rarely wait until spring--or even March--to begin their mating songs. Indeed, some of our year-round residents have already been at it for a couple of weeks.

The cardinal is a beautiful bird and a fine singer, but the Texas emblem--the mockingbird--puts on the best show. Mockingbirds imitate every other song in the neighborhood, their constant jumping from tune to tune being the only sure way to identify them by their voices. At the height of spring ardor, mockingbirds sing almost 24/7 (they have been known to keep people awake at night); and they "dance," too, constantly bouncing into the air from their perches as if to say, "Look at me! Look at me!"

Ornithologists say that birds sing for purely practical reasons--to attract mates and establish territorial borders--but it's hard to hear the music and not believe that God's feathered musicians are also expressing joy in just being alive. "The winter is past... Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come" (Song of Solomon 2:11-12, NIV). All praises to God, Who renews life, Whom even the oceans, the trees, and the rocks find worthy of praise (see 1 Chronicles 16:32-33; Luke 19:37-40).

Sing to me, O mockingbird:
Sing me a song of God's gifts to the world.
Sing of the trees and their budding leaves;
Sing of fresh air and the gentle breeze.

Sing of the flowers in brilliant shades;
Sing of the frost and its silver glaze.
Sing of the sea where the dolphins play,
Of gulls soaring over a turquoise bay.

Sing of the sun in April skies,
Of bright blue days under Heaven's eyes,
When the chill of winter has finally gone
And the heat of summer still lies beyond.

Sing of bright warblers flitting through
Fresh-budding trees, flashing yellow hue;
Sing of the bluebirds with bright red breasts,
And the meadowlark in its golden vest.

Sing of the moon in each glowing phase,
Bouncing off silver and pure white rays;
Sing of the stars on a country night,
Blazing in endless jewels of light.

Sing to me, O mockingbird:
Sing me a song of God's gifts to the world.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Choose to Trust

The idea "you get saved and that's that" is popular in some Christian circles, even among some evangelists who seem to forget that Christ's Great Commission calls us to teach as well as baptize. Not that God's grace is any less sufficient for the "baby Christian"--or any less essential for the theological scholar. The problem arises when we embrace what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," concluding that once we're saved, God will smile indulgently while we do as we please. That idea is hardly new; St. Paul refers to it in Romans 6.

But "cheap grace" is not an attitude unique to those who revel in blatant sin. It manifests itself in everyone who feels God has failed to "deliver" on something "logic" expects of Him, in everyone who has grown bitter because God did not prevent a tragedy or relieve long-term hardship--whether on a small or large scale. Such feelings are behind many a born-again Christian's turning skeptic. I read a brief excerpt Monday from a book by one such person: "A god who can't stop [all the evil in the world] has no right to my loyalty."

Understandable, perhaps--even Christian scholars have called evil the one atheistic argument that carries weight--but not really logical. If we can't trust God, whom should we trust? The better instincts of humanity? This seems ridiculous, considering that humanity is responsible for much of the evil. Ourselves as individuals? No one with a shred of integrity claims to be morally perfect or capable of becoming so, nor to have absolute power over death and disaster. Or do we simply conclude life is all chance and has no real meaning? Some philosophers have attempted to do so, but most people find it goes against their every instinct; and if you believe nothing has meaning, why are you still railing against "evil"?

Not that those of us who do believe in God will always find straight answers to our despairing "whys?" There come times in every life for which no explanation seems sensible or consoling. When that happens, we have a choice: do we get mad at God and storm off; or do we swallow our pride and say, "Lord, I can't make any sense of this; but I know Your wisdom is infinitely greater than mine, and I know I can trust You to work everything out for the good"?

Because ultimately, faith is a matter neither of logic nor of emotion. It is a matter of the will.

When your whole life lies in shambles
And your dreams seem turned to dust,
You may feel that God has foresaken you,
But you still can choose to trust.

When your utmost efforts falter
And you can't do what you must,
You may doubt the call you once clearly felt,
But you still can choose to trust.

For our feelings can mislead us
And our progress may stand still,
But our faith is always obedience,
And to trust an act of will.

When to struggle on seems hopeless,
We may not hear God's clear voice,
Be He holds us still in His silent strength,
And commands us to rejoice.

So when human courage falters
And you feel you're doomed to fall,
Don't let circumstances rule your thoughts:
Choose to trust the Lord of All!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Greatest Thing

The subject of this Valentine's Day blog is (surprise!) love. I have once again reached back into my college-writing archives to find a poem.

In some ways, traditional Valentine's-Day love is similar to the pure Christian love described in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest and most enduring of all virtues (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13). Valentines represent tender words, sweet gifts, and all the little attentions that women, especially, delight in--as opposed to the hot passion and rush to physical intimacy that too many people define as "love." Valentine romance means doing everything one can to please the other, and feeling honored by the privilege--like Christian love, and very unlike the selfishness inherent in passion-based "love" that sees the other primarily as a means of satisfying physical desires.

Still, Valentine's Day, and all other celebrations of feelings-based romance, always retain some focus on "what I get out of it," and in this they fall short when compared to the total selflessness of pure Christlike love. If you think you are in love with someone, ask yourself: Would you remain committed to her if she suffered a disfiguring accident? Would you still want to be with him if he became totally disabled? Is there anything--an annoying habit that the loved one may never change, the appearance of someone more attractive, even the simple familiarity that breeds contempt--that would seriously tempt you to leave this person? If so, you aren't really in love--not the total-commitment love that builds happy fifty-year marriages. "Issues" invariably surface in any relationship, and if you would rather walk away than put in serious effort to work things out--or, conversely, if you are clinging so desperately to the relationship that you will put up with anything rather than confront the issues--your "love" is selfish at heart.

True Christian love is not based on passion but on compassion.

Some live for fame and some for power and some for crowns and gold,
For many think that happiness is found in what they hold.
They set their minds on things of earth and turn from things above:
But listen as I tell you now: the greatest thing is love.

For beauty fades with passing years and ends within the grave;
And wealth can't bring true happiness, however much you save;
And fame and power will die away as others take your place;
But love endures forever, though earth's centuries onward race.

The purest love comes forth from God--the love that gave us birth;
The love that will receive us home beyond our days on earth.
This world itself will end at last--but love will still endure,
And it will bring a new world forth, forever whole and pure!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Not Our Way but His

Yesterday afternoon, I made a blood donation for the first time in several years. I didn't plan it; it was a matter of the blood drive van's "just happening" to be there, a "divine interruption" along the line of yesterday's theme: "It is God Who plans our lives, and not we ourselves." This particular interruption wasn't much of an annoyance; but I did have to keep reminding myself not to take pride in my own generosity, but instead to thank God for the chance to serve.

Pride was probably at the root of my having gone so long without even trying to give blood. Pride and stress, the latter of which was behind my being rejected the last few times I offered. Either my pulse or blood pressure had temporarily gone high, or I was just so visibly nervous that no one wanted to risk sticking a needle in me. After the first such time, the fear of another rejection caused more stress than the fear of the needle. But still it was largely pride talking: "They have no right to waste my time with all these questions and then turn me away."

Pride is the bad attitude that nurtures all other bad attitudes: anxiety, anger, and envy alike are rooted in the delusion of a natural right to have things go our way. Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV), has even been quoted in defense of the idea that God will make all true Christians healthy and prosperous if they only ask in sufficient faith.

What pride ignores is that, as with Olympic stars who give up sweets and evening parties to help themselves become the best athletes possible, reaching the true "best" often requires sacrificing some lesser "good."

We all have our plans and our longings;
We all hope to see things go "right";
We're tempted to fume in frustration
At every dead end or red light.
But God knows the flaws in our planning,
And He sets the course of our days:
The greatest good isn't our comfort,
But that we would live for His praise.

We all dream of comfort and fortune;
We all hope to live lives of ease;
We all tap our feet in impatience
When things fail to go as we please.
But God knows the best for each lifetime,
And He plans its times and its length:
It's not our "success" that's His purpose,
But that we will grow in His strength.

Some saints will be called to be wealthy,
And some will be called to be poor;
For some every venture will prosper,
While some see dreams crushed on the floor.
God knows what each soul can use wisely,
And He gives each joy and each pain
To strip us of all earthly idols
And help us allow Him to reign!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Only a week into Lent, I'm reconsidering my choice for this year's "give something up" commitment. Not because restricting my days-off reading to 200 pages is so tough: I've only had one Saturday and Sunday to test that, and filling their extra hours wasn't all that hard. Saturday, with two social events, actually kept me up until midnight finishing 200 pages!

That's the problem. Without the option of "making up" for reading time lost on work days, I find myself pushing too hard to do the same 200 pages every day. So far I've been over an hour late to bed on 4 nights; neglected about half a day's worth of work; and sat through an Ash Wednesday service with heart pumping palpably and mind fixed on "will I have time to finish that magazine after I get out of here?" Not exactly a Christ-centered mindset, especially since most of the reading isn't even explicitly Christian. Not that I'd be any less likely to rush through if it were. What I should give up for Lent--if not for life--is the idea of permanently keeping up the daily breakneck reading speed of college days, when other responsibilities were fewer and my eyes younger.

Not that it was ever a good idea to get into the habit of thinking in overregimented terms: "I must read a complete book every day." "I must complete my reading list by December 31." "I must finish this chapter by 10:00--if I take until 10:01, I'll be struck by the lightning bolt of judgment." No wonder I get so testy at interruptions.

Many of us, if we're honest, would choose neat, tidy, predictable lives and a neat, tidy, predictable God. Although Christians, we're spiritual kin to the American Muslim who, asked why he'd abandoned his Baptist upbringing to embrace Islam, replied that Islam was everything he'd always wanted religion to be: orderly, logical, and defining clearly what to do when. What he didn't seem to realize--what we too often fail to realize--is that "how we want things to be" is a pretty weak standard for judging what is.

A better attitude to emulate would be that of Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen, who said, "My whole life I've been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work." God isn't really interested in our ability to make plans and carry them out, even if those plans seem to be for His glory. What He wants to see in us is a humility that drops everything else, without complaining, whenever He calls our attention to a need of the moment. Regimentation is the mark of legalism; spontaneity is the mark of a Christlike heart. Even if it means realizing our "spiritual discipline" plans aren't God's plans for us.

I think I'll change my Lent commitment to "give up counting pages, and give up an hour's worth of available reading time every day, turning that time to worship and prayer."

As the traveler paused in his journey
To help an injured man,
I stumble each day on some needy
Who were not part of my plan.
Will I pause in my work, to help them,
And let God's love shine through,
Or go on about my own business,
Having "other things to do"?

When our plans fail to go as we'd hoped for,
When things turn stalled or wrong,
Will we take on Christ's godly patience
And see things through with a song,
Or think only of our convenience
And grumble our way through,
As though we were gods of our own lives,
With important things to do?

We make plans for the lives we wish for,
But God knows what is best,
And He sends us each interruption;
From Him comes each trial or test.
When His wisdom guides our responses
To needs that still break through,
Then we truly walk in Christ's footsteps:
For we have God's work to do!

Monday, February 11, 2008

There Can Be No Joy without Praise

Continuing the last post's "praise first, petition second" theme: if you talk about your difficulties, you'll only talk yourself into further worry. If you praise God, you'll strengthen yourself to let go and let Him deal with your problems--in the way He knows is best.

Someone probably is thinking right now, "That's easy to say if your worst problem is shortage of funds to buy a yacht. But I've got cancer/my husband just left me with three small children/our house burned down and we don't have insurance/I've been out of work for six months--how can I possibly think of anything but my problems?"

Well, if you think your troubles are bad, consider Job. He had just about every tragedy that could happen to a person--financial ruin, loss of family, chronic illness--hit him in rapid succession; and to top it off, his best friends kept telling him he must have brought it on himself. He had all but demanded an audience with God so he could prove he had done nothing to deserve all this. And then God showed up--to confront Job with the full force of His power and authority. Job's response? He stopped complaining about his pain. He stopped protesting the injustice of life. All he could do was admit his unworthiness, and apologize for his presumptive attitudes (Job 40:3-5; 42:1-6).

We tend to forget that God not only doesn't owe us problem-free lives, He doesn't owe us anything at all. For all the derisive comments about "pie in the sky by and by," it's unmistakably true that if God only saved our souls while denying us all earthly blessings, that would still be infinitely more than we deserve. The more we realize that, the closer we move toward being able to find happiness in the only place that counts--in God alone.

But we'll never make any progress in that direction until we learn to consistently praise Him for Who He is.

Does your soul feel heavy and burdened?
Do gloom and despair stalk your days?
Try counting the Lord's great attributes:
There can be no joy without praise.

We talk about counting our blessings,
And that stands among the best ways,
But do not forget--bless the Giver!
There can be no joy without praise.

For even the richest of blessings,
If they're to preeminence raised,
Soon grow dull and taken for granted:
There can be no joy without praise.

God's mercies are new every morning,
God's light stands out even through haze,
God's glory outshines all earth's treasures:
There can be no joy without praise.

So do thank the Lord for His blessings,
But thank Him the more for His grace,
And let what He is overwhelm you:
There can be no joy without praise.

Confession will free you from burdens;
Thanksgiving will sharpen your gaze,
But if you'd be always rejoicing,
Be sure to keep singing God's praise!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lord of the Heavens

Today's selection was inspired by King Jehoshaphat's prayer in 2 Chron. 20:6-12. As Jehoshaphat and other saints of the Bible understood (compare Acts 4:24-30), the best approach to praying about our troubles is to begin with pure praise of God's power, love, and trustworthiness--before we start telling Him how big our problems are. After we remember how big God is, our problems seem a lot smaller.

Lord of the heavens and all on the earth,
Lord God Almighty, Whom none can withstand,
Lord of each life from the moment of birth,
All power and might come at last from Your hand.

Lord, You have promised Your presence within:
Guide and Provider for all of our days,
You Who have promised to keep us from sin,
Strengthen our hearts to burst forth with Your praise.

Fierce are life's battles with want and with pain;
Fiercest of all is my own sinful heart.
You are the Warrior, Your victory is plain--
I a mere servant, obedience my part.

Strengthen our wills, grant us faith to stand strong,
Drive away fear; give us eyes that can see
Your mighty triumph that conquers all wrong;
You in Your love win the victory for me.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

In You Is My Strength

I have a confession to make. I hate Scripture references.

Before anyone calls the Inquisition, let me quickly add that I do not hate Scripture. What I hate is to be cruising through a Christian book or Bible study, and hit a list of fifty citations consisting solely of book names with chapter and verse numbers--accompanied by the not-always-unspoken demand that I interrupt my reading to pick up a Bible and review each one. Presumably to compensate for the writer's being too lazy to copy them out herself.

I very nearly threw a book out the window last night when, already hurrying to get through the chapter and move on to finish other things by bedtime, I came upon a written exercise instructing me to "Review thoroughly each Scripture cited"--two double-columned pages of them--"and note any instances where God humbled people."

That was the book's subject: Christian humility. And there I was considering my time too valuable to waste on studying it.

Like most human beings, I tend to think of myself as a "good," if not exactly perfect, person--until I remember what the Bible has to say about our natural depravity. "'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12, NIV). "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way" (Is. 53:6).

Even aside from our natural propensity to obvious sin, we make fools of ourselves whenever we forget how great God is and how infinitesimal we are. Most of us could benefit quite a bit from taking half an hour daily to review God's attributes and our total inability to measure up on our own.

Even if--especially if!--it interferes with our preferred schedules.

Lord of all Greatness and Source of Grace,
Lord Who alone has the Power to Save,
Quick to respond to the sinner's prayer,
Who helps the tempted all things to bear--
You are Almighty and I am weak:
Give me the courage Your face to seek.

Lord of all Healing and Source of Strength,
In Whom all Wisdom and Justice link,
Gateway to Glory and Path to Peace,
In Whom all sinners can find release--
You are All-Righteous, I evil-stained:
Give me the victory that You have gained.

Lord All-Sufficient, Great King of All,
On Whom the suffering and wounded call,
Faithful and Merciful all in One,
You Whose Plans never can be undone--
You are enduring, my strength will fade:
Give Your own Power to this soul You made.

Lord Ever-Faithful and All-Supreme,
Incomprehensible, Mighty Being,
No power of earth ever conquers You,
Even dark death becomes nothing too--
You are Immortal, I trapped in time:
Give me the patience for Your Design.

Lord of the Present and Days to Come,
Master of Each Age Past and Gone,
Lord All-Deserving of Every Praise,
King Over All, Unsurpassed in Grace--
God All-Sufficient, my faith is small:
But feed it till it grows strong and tall.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stars and Pebbles

"I will... make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore," God promised Abraham centuries ago (Gen. 22:17, NIV). The implications of that promise may go even deeper than foretelling Abraham's spiritual descendants. Stars are among the largest objects in the physical universe; grains of sand are among the smallest objects in the visible world. Our God is not only powerful enough to exercise His will over the universe, but thorough enough to pay attention to the tiniest detail.

Often we wonder why God calls relatively few Christians to be eloquent preachers, famous authors, and wealthy philanthropists. Surely we could win the world faster, if only there were more of us capable of real impact? But while thousands may be "converted" through a TV broadcast, the most sincere and committed Christians are usually won and discipled by the up-close-and-personal faith of relatives and acquaintances. As St. Paul wrote, "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.... so that no one may boast before him.... those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor" (1 Cor. 1:26-27, 29; 12:22-23).

When tempted to be jealous of fellow Christians' "dynamic" gifts, we should remember two things:

1. What matters is not for us to do great deeds, but for God to do great deeds through us.
2. Only God has the wisdom--and the right--to define which deeds are ultimately great.

If we truly want to do God's will, we should be pleased to do it His way.

The stars of heaven, small to our eyes,
Are blazing giants of enormous size.
The stones of earth, small at our feet,
Together could pave every city street.

The gifts of God, which some disdain,
Fall thicker than heaven's drops of rain;
Like stars and stones, which none can count,
His blessings flow in untold amount.

All that we have comes from above;
The tiniest talent's bestowed in love.
Do not despise your gift as small:
God's wisdom and power supply us all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


While many believers are reasonably certain of God's general will for their lives, I have never heard of His handing anyone a program that lists, along the lines of an academic course syllabus, specific activities for each day to come. Maybe it's just as well. In college days, my first reaction on receiving a syllabus was usually panic: "How will I ever get all this done?!"

Still, most Christians have moments when we wish God would supply a little more detail. We may see the goal clearly, but have no idea how we're going to get there from here. Or we may not even know where we're going to end up; all may be thick fog as far as we can see beyond where we're standing.

Perhaps the Psalmist remembered similar moments as he wrote, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Ps. 119:105, NIV). In an era when people complain that resort lights ruin the view of the stars, it can be difficult to picture how dark nights could get when the Psalms were written. Lamps were the only source of artificial light, and frequently a feeble and sputtering source at that. Finding one's way home in the dark, especially in a rural area, could be terrifying; who knew what lurked in the shadows just beyond that tiny circle of visibility? Yet, as John Henry Newman wrote centuries later in "Lead, Kindly Light," the Psalmist did "not ask to see the distant scene" so long as God's Word was guiding his immediate step.

We can do nothing about the future until it arrives. Let us be content to let God keep the coming years, and to do the duty He assigns us for today.

I asked for a map to show me
The full route of life to the end,
But God said, "No: take My compass,
And Me by your side as your Friend."

I asked for a panorama
And a full view for miles ahead,
But God said, "Walk in the darkness;
Let Me guide each step that you tread."

I moaned, "But in paths uncertain,
I could journey faster by sight."
But He said, "Faith guides you truer,
When it puts in your heart My light.

"For those who walk paths marked plainly
May put all their trust in pride;
But if you would grow in wisdom,
You must make Me your only Guide."

I still tread a path uncertain
Where even close views are dim,
But with God beside each moment,
I see things far clearer through Him.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Honest Souls

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, nicknamed "The Cynic," was said to have carried around a lantern in daylight to make a show of looking for an ever-elusive honest man. Today, many of us don't even bother searching; we're too busy making sure the dishonest people don't get the best of us. Planning to hire someone? Make sure you run a full background check--and have him sign a 20-page contract. Buying something at a store? Keep one finger over the number on your charge card; someone might photograph it with a cell phone. Never offer to help a stranger. Never accept help from a stranger. Teach your children early on to be suspicious of anyone who shows interest in them. Don't even smile at people. Better to snub the innocent than fall victim to the unscrupulous.

Unfortunately, since unscrupulous people do exist--and since the most dangerous ones are very good at faking trustworthiness--I can't advise you to ignore all of the above and feel free to get into cars with strangers on dark streets. But it does seem worth noting that the more suspicious people become of each other, the more dishonest the world as a whole seems to get. It shouldn't surprise us. The more we distrust others, the more we avoid them--and the less we know them. The less we know them, the less inclined we are to get involved when they're in trouble. The less people help others in trouble, the more criminals feel free to do as they please. The more crimes are committed, the more we distrust others.... and so on and on.

Both Paul (1 Cor. 6:6-8) and Jesus (Mt. 5:38-42) said that it was better to let people take advantage of us than to dishonor the name of God by being petty and vindictive. Not that we should never defend our safety or our rights; but we must not let them become idols. If we do, we show that we don't really trust God; we don't believe He will defend us, so we take that job out of His hands. And often we turn dishonest ourselves: stretching the truth here; calling in sick there; telling "white lies" to avoid embarrassment--all in the name of not letting other people take advantage of us. We become as worldly as any non-Christian.

We would do better to concentrate on becoming living examples of godly honesty. Maybe then others will realize that we do, in fact, have something they want.

The world has need of the honest souls, who work hard for their daily bread--
An honest day's work for an honest day's pay, and no thought to take ease instead--
Who give what they can, and take what they earn, and want only to do their share,
To put in their part so the world runs smooth, for they know what is just and fair.

The world has need of the honest souls, who will not take a chance to sin,
With whom every unlocked door is safe, and cash down to the final ten;
Who return what is lost, and pay what they owe, and see others receive their due;
Who hold to their word even when it hurts, for they know what is firm and true.

The world has need of the honest souls, who work to correct the wrong,
Who stand for the right whatever the cost, for their courage is firm and strong.
Lord, make me an honest soul for You, and a beacon and guiding light,
Till the world is an ocean of honest souls, and a mighty force for the right!

Friday, February 1, 2008

All These Things

Today's selection is one of my older poems, the earliest version dating back to college days. But the topic matter is timeless--especially to us natural worrywarts who, no matter how many catastrophes fail to materialize or how many needs are met, have to keep up a constant mental battle against the idea that every element of the universe is constantly waiting for its chance to ruin our lives.

However much we may want to blame the pressures of modern life, there was no shortage of such uneasiness in Jesus's day, judging from His famous "do not worry" passage in Matthew 6:25-33. Ironically, the same superior intelligence that allows humans to know God better than do any other creatures, feeds the worry that encourages us to doubt Him. "Dumb animals" never waste time fretting about anything apart from immediate concerns.

"Look at the birds," Jesus tells us. "Look at the wildflowers. They have all they need for life. Do you think your Father loves them and not you? Do you imagine He has less than your best interests at heart? You concentrate on the work of building His Kingdom, and leave the rest to Him."

That's good advice for anyone in any age.

Oh, look at the flowers abloom on that hill,
That bright splash of color that gives us a thrill.
They don't give a thought to save money for clothes;
They just wait for God to provide them with those.

Oh, look at the birds soaring high in the air:
Where is their next meal coming from? They don't care:
They just go and eat when there rises the need,
For God will provide them with insect and seed.

Now look at the people all bustling about:
More often than not they just worry and pout.
"Will I find a new job?" "Will I have enough food?"
"Will anything ever work out for the good?"

How foolish we are, we who worry and fret,
Who doubt Him Who never has failed us as yet!
He cares for creation, from sky to the sod--
And we're the most precious creations of God!