Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ever with Me

Jesus's "Great Commission" (Mt. 28:18-20) shows that our responsibility begins and ends with faith in His sufficiency. Before giving instructions, He reminds His men that He holds full authority over everything; after the charge to make disciples, He assures the apostles He will never leave them to struggle on their own. His authority was at their disposal, as long as they remembered His commands and trusted Him for strength.

Few of us, asked if that promise still holds for Christians today, would verbally deny it. Yet often our actions say that we don't believe a word of it: we focus on our weaknesses instead of on Christ's sufficiency; we forget to consult Him on any regular basis; we choose for ourselves what tasks we "should" undertake; and we rush frantically through our chosen duties as if the fate of the world depended on success and success depended on our sufficiency. No wonder we ignore opportunities to witness and teach; besides worrying about what others will think of us, we're too busy thinking about ourselves to be concerned with them!

We would discharge our responsibilities more effectively if we began and ended every planning session by reminding ourselves Who really makes the master plan.

"With you, ever with you"--what a wondrous pledge He made,
He, my soul's Redeemer; He Whose love will never fade;
He Who stays to guide me through each day of earthly strife;
He Who made this promise: "I am with you all your life."

"With you, ever with you"--He Whose presence drives out fear;
He Who gives me courage to stand firm each mortal year;
He Who lights my pathway through each dim, uncertain haze;
He Who gave His promise: "I will lead you all your days."

"With you, ever with you"--He Who cannot change or lie
Promised me His presence till I tell this world goodbye;
And, forever after, in His Kingdom I will be,
His Who made this promise: "All your joy is found in Me."

"With you, ever with you"--Lord, I know that others live
Lonely, empty, hopeless, never knowing You forgive:
Let Your presence with me show in all I do and say,
Till they learn Your promise to be with them all the way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Every Day He Has a Fresh Surprise

If anyone reading this is planning a surprise party for a friend or relative, consider this advice: before you go through with it, make certain you know the guest of honor well enough to be sure he or she will welcome the surprise. The traditional surprise party has been described as a perfect means of catching someone physically and emotionally unprepared to celebrate, and yet unable to express any annoyance without sounding ungrateful and churlish. My own father kept his birthday secret for most of his life, to make sure he would never fall victim to such an attack.

Even those who claim to like surprises would rather not be surprised at inconvenient moments: the sudden invitation to dinner when we're ready to drop from an exhausting day; the potential client who rings the doorbell when we're half finished cleaning the fireplace. All of us want to maintain some degree of control over our lives.

That's one reason we resist serving a God Who reserves the right to surprise us at a moment's notice. Moses was living the relatively safe and comfortable life of a shepherd when God called him to drop everything and lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Joseph was about to settle down and get married when he learned his fiancee was pregnant with the Son of God. Paul had to put up with regular last-minute changes from the day God interrupted his trip to Damascus. It would be hard to find a Bible hero or historic saint who never was caught off guard by divine instruction (verbal or circumstantial)--and many of them cooperated only after considerable argument and foot-dragging.

So when we don't want to follow surprise orders from God, we're in good company. Still, if we truly believe that He knows best and has our interests at heart, it only makes sense to act promptly on His leadings.

Even when they surprise us before we have the chance to wash up from cleaning the fireplace.

In this sad world where all may seem uncertain,
Our God is ever constant, sure, and wise--
But do not think Him also neat and tidy,
For every day He has a fresh surprise.

Our Lord is no one we can take for granted,
Who hands out favors like some contest prize,
Or Who makes rich or poor those who "deserve it"--
But every day He has a fresh surprise.

His wisdom is beyond our comprehension;
His ways are often strange to mortal eyes:
We see the pieces; He sees the whole picture--
And every day He has a fresh surprise.

Do not complain your plans have come to nothing,
But count yourself as blessed; look to the skies
Where dwells the One Who works all things for goodness;
And let yourself rejoice in each surprise.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Seek God's Glory

Fiction fans: Do you prefer happy or sad endings? Personally, I'll take a happy ending any day; but considering how many tragedies have become bestsellers and classics, many people evidently feel differently.

One possible reason is that tragedies are thought to be more "realistic," to delve deeper into the problems of humanity with the recognition that there are no happily-ever-after solutions that forever eliminate all problems (at least not in this life). Modern Christian fiction developed an unfortunate reputation for being shallow and escapist because too many writers packed their plots with obvious miracles, or wrote he-got-saved-and-lived-happily-ever-after endings. (Aspiring novelists tempted in such directions should first read articles #76 and #74 on this page.)

While becoming Christians does of course offer the promise of eventually living happily ever after, it definitely does not mean instant solutions (of our choice) to all our problems. True Christianity is, in fact, never primarily about the believer. It is about God; our creation, our redemption, our sanctification, our eternal life, and everything we go through along the way are first of all for the purpose of His glory.

Some readers' reaction to that statement will be, "I thought God did all this because He loved us. Are you saying He thinks in terms of 'every soul in heaven is a feather in My cap'?" No, I don't mean that God's love for us is any less genuine. As with the seemingly self-contradictory truth that God maintains complete control of all that happens and yet we cannot disclaim responsibility for our own actions, God's holding His own glory as the primary good and yet being totally unselfish is a paradox our limited minds can never really understand. But it's worth remembering that--unlike human beings who seek their own glory because they falsely believe they are more important than others of their own kind--God deserves it. He is more important--far more important--than anyone or anything else.

And--another holy paradox, but one thousands can confirm from experience--seeking one's own glory leads only to more and more misery, even with people who seem to have everything anyone could want. Whereas, even when outward circumstances look unbearable (and indefinitely remain so), seeking God's glory is the true route to personal peace and happiness.

If you would be free from worry and fear,
If you would live life in a state of cheer,
Then seek not yourself, promote not your own,
But seek God's glory and His will alone.

If your life is a maze of struggle and stress,
And the weight of your tasks a crushing press,
Then choose not, yourself, all that you "must" do,
But seek God's glory and His will for you.

If you would be strong in the Lord's great power,
If you would stand firm through each earthly hour,
Then do not forget God is all you need,
And seek His glory with each thought and deed.

It is He Who drives out worry and fear;
It is He Whose burden is light to bear;
It is He Who gives strength for every test--
So seek God's glory and strive for His best.

Monday, April 21, 2008

When Words Are Many, Sin Is Not Absent

When I started this blog, I intended to include only three or four sentences of prose commentary with each poem. Almost from the beginning, I have consistently fallen short--er, long--of that goal.

The tendency to ramble is almost universal--and makes for boring reading. That's why our teachers insisted we rewrite school papers before turning them in, and why published work of even the most experienced authors is nearly always shorter than the original drafts. It's an extremely rare writer who can avoid the compulsion to "tell all" when first getting words down on paper.

The problem is worse with the spoken word, which offers no chance to go back and edit. Today's title is lifted directly from the NIV translation of Proverbs 10:19, which also says that "he who holds his tongue is wise." For most of my life, I have regularly detoured from that wise path; even my family complains that I regularly "talk a subject to death." Usually out of determination to get the other person to admit I am absolutely and completely right, or a desire to show off my knowledge. The specific sin behind most people's "many words" is pride.

Pride is probably also behind the fact that, as Thomas a Kempis said, "it is easier to be silent altogether than to speak in moderation.” As with the proverbial bag of potato chips from which nobody can eat just one, letting out the few necessary words frequently unleashes an anything-but-necessary outpouring. "I'm sorry I did that, but [lengthy attempt to justify oneself]." "Thank you for what you did, but [long explanation as to why it fell short]." "I'm sorry for your loss, but [unwanted advice on how it could have been avoided]." Almost in midsentence, we forget the other's needs and start thinking about how we can come out looking good. Even in prayer, we talk too much, telling God what we want rather than determining to hear what He wants us to ask for.

It is impossible to follow the great commandments to love God and other people, if we would rather talk at others than listen to them.

If you would keep your loves and friends,
If you would please your Lord,
Know when the time for talking ends,
And watch your every word.

If you owe an apology,
Let that be all you say,
And spare the lengthy "But, you see..."
To justify your way.

If you are angry or upset,
Or if you disagree,
Still keep from stirring up regret
By tossing words too free.

Beware of telling all you know,
Explaining on and on,
For there the seeds of conflict grow,
And peace will soon be gone.

If you would love your God and Lord--
Your fellow humans, too--
Beware the thoughtless spoken word,
Where danger ever grew.

Friday, April 18, 2008

God Is Bigger than Our Troubles

Someone has commented that, in Numbers 13:17-14:38, ten of the Israelite spies to Canaan saw great giants and a little God, while only two had the faith to see a great God and little giants. The majority dwelt so much on the difficulties that they wasted the opportunity God wanted to offer them.

The more attention we give something, the bigger it looks. Anyone who has made a parachute jump or high dive knows that the drop appears longer with every second of hesitation. The same principle applies to leaps of faith; when God calls us to do something, and we procrastinate in getting started, we find more and more reasons not to go through with it.

The temptation can be greatest when the "something" is the seemingly passive act of waiting in faith for God to make a move. Few of us have the patience. If we don't attempt to solve our problems without God's help, we at least let them usurp His place at the front of our minds. We end up seeing great problems and a little God--a sure route to misery.

The best cure? Whenever your problems start to seem insurmountable, divert your thoughts to God's power and sufficiency!

God is bigger than our troubles:
When you want to fume or fret,
Think instead on all His splendor,
He on Whom our hopes are set.

God is bigger than our worries:
When your problems seem immense,
Think on all He has to give us,
Greater than our hearts can sense.

God is bigger than our sinning:
When you feel submerged in shame,
Think upon His great forgiveness,
All He paid to take our blame.

God is bigger than our feelings,
Bigger than our minds can dream:
Fill your mind with all His glory,
Till the day He reigns supreme.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Life Is the Lord's

For many, "giving to the Lord" stops with what goes into the Sunday offering plate. But if we want to become the best Christians we can be, our giving must go much further. We remain only shallow believers until we honestly say to God, "Everything in my possession--my money, my time, even my life--is Yours to use, take away, or destroy as You please."

Actually, our lives should be first on the list. Paul reported that the Macedonian Christians of his day were particularly generous with their resources because "they gave themselves first to the Lord" (2 Cor. 8:5, NIV). If we start by offering the whole package, the small details will follow naturally.

Which would you rather be: a worldly Christian keeping all you can for yourself and accomplishing only worldly goals; or a totally committed Christian who, rich or poor, is helping to advance God's Kingdom?

My work is the Lord's; every task I do,
May it be for Him and His purpose true:
He does His own work with my good in mind,
And calls me to work of the purest kind.

My mind is the Lord's, every thought a prayer;
May no bitter longing be rooted there:
He set His own mind to His people's best,
And, Christ's mind within, I can stand each test.

My heart is the Lord's; by His power above,
May my every act be performed in love:
He set His own heart on this soul of sin--
Now I can love too, by His strength within.

My life is the Lord's; every hour He'll give,
Let my one desire be for Him to live:
He gave His own life to reclaim my soul,
And only in Him can my life be whole.

My all is the Lord's: all my mind and heart;
Each thing that I do, to the smallest part;
Each minute and hour--He gives all to me,
And I, as His slave, become truly free.

Monday, April 14, 2008

When I See the Stars on a Country Night

Pride is the most insidious and universal of sins. It actually is the original sin, the one that led Eve to try the forbidden fruit through the attitude, "I have a right to be everything God is." Whenever we think we know better than God--whether we express this idea through blatant disobedience or through silent despair over His not giving us our own way--we reenact the Fall on a smaller scale.

Few of us fully appreciate how evil pride is. We even speak of it positively: "You've got to take some pride in your work." "Don't you have any pride?" Perhaps the general idea of self-respect, for which "pride" is often used as a synonym, isn't entirely bad; it has kept many people from violating their consciences. But when our reasoning progresses from "I couldn't stoop so low" to "I am incapable of ever doing that" to "I am too good for certain work/people/circumstances," we quickly start sliding toward serious trouble.

The best way to avoid disaster is to get in the habit of chopping down prideful thoughts before they get the chance to take over our heads. And the best "ax" for the job is forged by constantly reminding ourselves how great God is.

And how He, Who actually was too good for us, was never too proud to give His best in the face of our worst.

When I see the stars on a country night,
Or look on in awe at a swallow's flight,
Or see wildflowers bright with a hundred hues,
Or a rainbow's gleam in the airy dews,
Let me ask myself: Who am I, that He
Who made all of this, gives a thought to me?

When I start to feel that I know it all,
And that I am great and all others small,
And I have a right to some selfish whim,
Let me ask myself: Who am I, to Him
Who knows every thought in each human soul,
And sees all of time in one seamless whole?

When I start to feel pride in doing well,
Let me see how sin paints me black as hell,
How my purest deeds bear the taint of wrong,
And then ask myself: Where do I belong,
And what have I done to deserve His grace,
He in Whom no sin ever found a place?

What am I, O God, that You care for me?
Who am I, my Lord, that You stooped to see
Just how lost I was; and You found me worth
Bearing all the guilt that my sin gave birth?
I am nothing, Lord; You are pure and true:
Crush my pride, O Lord; keep my eyes on You.

Friday, April 11, 2008

There's a Shallow Faith

Becoming a Christian is easy enough--at least once one swallows the pride that says, "Surely I must play a major role in my own salvation." Doing obviously "Christian" things such as going to church, or refraining from theft and adultery, is fairly simple in the "free world." But growing into the best Christians we can be--cooperating with God when He wants to make major changes in our self-centered attitudes--can be a serious struggle.

Too many believers think of Christianity as being primarily about them--as a means of having their needs met, their wishes granted, or their lives kept running smoothly. These are the people who, as in Christ's parable of the sower, have hearts filled with "stones" (aversion to difficulty) or "thorns" (attachment to worldly commitments) and fail to let the seed of God's Word take full root. Their hope is primarily for their own interests, their joy is dependent on circumstances, and their faith fails to accomplish anything significant.

The greatest purpose there is--the one goal to which our faith and lives should become more and more committed as we mature--is God's glory alone. And frequently the only way He can get our attention off ourselves and onto Him, is to take away the earthly things our minds so easily become fixed on. We may be think we'd be better Christians if God granted our every request and kept our lives free from hard times. But as with children who get everything they want on demand, it's more likely that we'd turn into whining, selfish brats whose capacity for happiness was never realized because we never experienced the joy of conquering difficulties.

True, strong character has to be forged through struggle.

There's a shallow faith that's absorbed from books
And believes in what it can measure,
But the faith that trusts through the keenest pain
Can be forged only under pressure.

There's a shallow hope for when things run smooth,
That thinks only of earthly blessings,
But the hope that longs for the heavenly things
Is squeezed only from hardships' pressings.

There's a shallow joy that depends on life's
And God's giving us what we long for,
But the joy that sings in a prison cell
Will need trials to make us strong for.

There's a shallow love that gives as it gets
And that picks and chooses its neighbor,
But the love that dies for its enemies
Is the fruit of a painful labor.

It's a shallow life that is lived for self
And thinks little of God and others:
If you would drink deep of the Spirit's power,
Greet your trials as your welcome brothers!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

All Praise to the Lord

Praying for help with our problems has its place. Thanking God for His answers to prayer (and His other blessings) is essential. But few of us give adequate attention to what should take up the largest share of our prayer time: pure adoration, praising God for all that He is.

The trouble with focusing on the asking part of prayer is that it keeps our focus on our concerns and on what we want--frequently to the point that our problems and desires start to look bigger than God. Like the student who gets 99% on the toughest test of the year and sinks into misery over not making 100, we effectively call the trivial vital and the vital trivial.

The best cure? For every request you make of God, find four things to praise Him for! Try a few of the following for starters.

All praise to the Lord, the Maker of all--
The stars and the stones; the great and the small;
The seas and the lakes; the clays and the sand;
The sun and the moon; the air and the land.

All praise to the Lord, the Gardener of earth,
Who makes all things grow, Who gives the seeds birth.
The trees and the flowers, the mushrooms and reeds,
Spring forth by His power; He meets all their needs.

All praise to the Lord, the Giver of breath,
The Ruler of life, the Master of death:
The birds and the beasts, the insects, the fish,
The frogs and the mites--all live by His wish.

All praise to the Lord, the Father of men,
Who gave Adam life, and all after him.
Each baby who comes to breathe on this earth
Is sent in God's love, and blessed at its birth.

All praise to the Lord, Who makes all things new,
Who seeks wandering souls, Who paid our sins' due.
The day soon shall come, when all who trust Him
Shall sing a new world's eternal Amen!

Monday, April 7, 2008


Fuming over the past month's disappointments cost me $600 this morning--paid out to my dentist to treat stress-aggravated gum inflammation. A sore mouth is by no means the worst thing that a "why me?" attitude can do to your health. Back in 1944, the book Stop Worrying and Get Well described how fretting feeds everything from colds to rheumatism to diabetes; advances in medical science have since only confirmed that, while "stressing out" has never added an hour to anyone's life (cf. Mt. 6:27), it can easily take hours off our lives.

For me at least, one of the easiest ways to get upset is to set my heart on something and then see things refuse to go according to plan. Often, things don't even have to actually go wrong--the fear that they might does enough damage on its own. If we built physical idols today, the inscription on my favorite would read, "Satisfied Expectations."

And, like all idols, expectations disappoint us. When that happens, we can wail over the unfairness of life, turn surly and punish innocent bystanders, shake our fists at God--or swallow some much-needed humble pie and ask, "Lord, what do You want me to learn from this? What better thing do You have for me than what I was hoping for?"

He may not answer clearly or immediately. But merely making the effort to submit ourselves to His will, rather than fighting it, will lower our stress levels.

And besides benefiting our physical health, it will do wonders for our spiritual health.

We all have our expectations
About what we will do or be,
But God has plans of His own kind,
And they come unexpectedly.

When you see your expectations
Interrupted or shoved aside,
Do you fume at the inconvenience,
Or demand your own way in pride?

Why not see it as God's timing?
Why not welcome the things He sends?
Don't swear at His interruptions;
Learn to take them from Him as friends!

For greater than expectations
Ever formed by the human heart,
Is our Lord's greater purpose for us,
In which each small thing plays a part.

And greater than we can hope for
From the world where we live today,
Are the things He has waiting for us,
Better than any tongue can say.

But if we wish to be ready
For that Kingdom which He prepares,
We must let Him remake us for it;
We must trust that He knows and cares.

And when our own expectations
Are different from that which He knows
Will make us in Christ's perfect image--
Then He must do away with those.

But with every expectation
That He crushes into the dust,
He gives us something better for it--
As we see when we learn to trust.

We all have our expectations
About what we will do or be,
But our Lord's unexpected-ations
Bless us so unexpectedly!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Rattling Song

If you're a homeowner, chances are you like a well-groomed yard, free of such "eyesores" as dead trees. But many nature lovers sigh in regret when a "useless" snag is removed--because many birds depend on old treeholes for nesting.

One family of birds makes its own holes. There are nearly two dozen species of woodpeckers in the U. S. and Canada, and most of them prefer dead trees to live ones for digging out nesting places and tasty insects. Some woodpecker species regularly seek out whole tracts of dead trees, usually remains left by forest fires.

The woodpecker is not much of a songbird--most species simply rattle or squeak--but it is still a welcome friend in backyards and parks. There's something bright and cheerful about these industrious birds, marked in various striking patterns of black, white, red, and yellow, working their way up and around the tree trunks, as busy on gray days and in patches of dead trees as when the sky is clear and the woods full of fresh greenery.

We as humans are supposedly much smarter than birds, but there are times we could learn from them. Too often we look at the "dead trees" of our lives--ruined plans and shattered dreams--and sit down in despair, convinced that all hope is lost and no good will ever come from the remains, never hearing God whispering that He has wonderful gifts buried in the ruins for us--if only we will get to work and dig for them.

Only then will we fully appreciate Paul's words in Romans 8:28 (NIV): "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."

In a burnt-out forest where all seemed black,
On a snag in a pile of peat,
A woodpecker sporting a bright red cap
Perched and drilled for an insect treat.

He cared not a bit that the world was ash
For a dozen square miles around;
He tossed back his head with a rattling call,
And the acreage rang with the sound.

He slid up the trunk of the fresh-burned tree,
Which would never again stand tall,
Yet as he dug out food from the remnant bark,
He sang out with a joyous call.

Times come to us all when the world seems black,
Like burnt woods with no trace of green,
When horizons around are all cloaked in clouds,
And all desolate ground between,

And we have not the voice nor the heart to sing,
But can rattle a bit at best--
Yet a rattle may hold some deep hidden joy,
If we choose to withstand the test.

So consider the bird with the rattling voice,
But the jaunty red cap and strong bill--
Even when all the trees of our lives seem dead,
They may hold hidden treasures still.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lord, Please Send Me Some Encouragement

Discouragement is the arch enemy of progress and improvement. The key piece of information that remains elusive after weeks of research; the major business prospect who is repeatedly out of the office when called; the equipment failure that occurs one hour before a crucial deadline—all taunt us with that insidious whisper, “You’ve already failed. Give up trying!”

Spiritual matters are not immune. We think the anger habit is finally conquered, then blow up again under stress. We pray daily for healing of a cancer, yet it continues to spread. We witness to family members for years, but they remain cold to all things spiritual. Then the demon of discouragement whispers in our ears, "Give up. You should know by now that God doesn't really care anyway."

Of course, God cares very much. But His "thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [our] ways [His] ways" (Is. 55:8, NIV), and sometimes He knows--however obvious the contrary seems to us--that the best thing for us is to get what we want, but not immediately. Lack of an instant "Yes" on His part doesn't always mean "No." It can mean "Wait." And "Wait" doesn't always mean "Do nothing"; it may mean "Keep working." The only way we can find out is to keep in constant touch with Him.

And He will keep in touch with us. Even when things seem futile, He sends us His little "encouragement notes"--a kind word from a friend, a beautiful sunrise, a nuzzle from a pet--all of which are His means of saying to us, "Take courage; I still care," if we refuse to let discouragement dig in so deeply that it keeps us from watching for them.

And, as Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 1:3-4, let's remember to pass some of God's encouragement on to others.

Lord, please send me some encouragement:
Any form of delivery will do,
But please lift me out of discouragement,
And draw my soul closer to You.

Lord, please send me some encouragement:
A bluebird; a cardinal in red;
A song on the radio; a phone call;
A friend to dry tears I have shed.

Lord, please send me some encouragement:
You promised to stay to the end,
But at times I crave something material,
As a sign from my Heavenly Friend.

Lord, please send me some encouragement:
But open my heart's eyes to see,
To know what You send when it gets here,
To thank You, whatever it be.

Lord, please send me some encouragement,
To fill up my soul with Your joy,
And, forged in the furnace of pressure,
A strength that no gloom can destroy.

Lord, please send me some encouragement:
And then, when my joy is made whole,
Use me as a means of encouragement,
To strengthen some other poor soul.