Monday, September 29, 2008

Plugged In

Most of the power outages caused by Hurricane Ike have now been repaired, to the relief of Houston and the surrounding towns. Human beings can, of course, live indefinitely without electricity; but "life as we know it" is so dependent on that power that people tend to get ugly if it's off for even a few hours. Halfway through last week, someone hung a notice on my apartment complex's bulletin board urging everyone to blitz the power company with demands for instant results.

It's strange how many people go ballistic over losing their everyday luxuries--and how few show even small concern about losing access to God's Power, without which life would truly cease to exist. Thousands of people are sure they "can get along fine without a father figure in the sky" or "don't want a bunch of religious rules weighing me down." Even Christians frequently "pull the plug" on God's power: rarely opening their Bibles; going to church only a few times a year; and praying mostly when they're in trouble.

An appliance can be in perfect condition and so can the electrical service, but if the cord stays unplugged, you'll get no more useful work out of that appliance than if you were alone with it in the middle of untrodden wilderness. Likewise, we have to "plug ourselves in" with regular worship and prayer if we truly want to see what God can do.

Electrical power flows forth through wires,
And runs many a useful thing;
But if wires are cut or the plug is pulled,
All goes dead as a dried-up spring.

The Power for life flows forth from God,
And gives light to the paths we tread;
But if you pull plugs on your line to Him,
Then your spiritual life goes dead.

Turn on your switch to tap God's Power--
Give your heart and your mind to prayer--
To receive all the strength He has for you,
And be sure He will meet you there!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not the Gift But the Giver

The parable of the talents is among the first Bible stories taught in most Sunday schools. A rich man entrusted sums of money to three of his servants, apparently instructing them to make wise use of the gifts. Two of the servants doubled their holdings. The third was afraid to make even the most cautious investment, so he hid his share away where it would be "safe"--and useless. The master, upon receiving their reports, angrily removed the third servant from any further position of responsibility.

What comes as a surprise is the rationale behind the master's anger. The servant wasn't simply cowardly and indecisive to act as he did; he was "lazy" and "wicked." In other words, failure to make use of the master's investment was on the level of the indictment in James 4:17 (NIV): "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." We like to think that if we do nothing, we can't be doing anything wrong; Jesus says that there are times when God expects positive action, and if we refuse to take it, we are committing the sin of defying God.

Why did the servant in the parable commit this sin? For one thing, he apparently lacked confidence in his ability to bring in a profit, and feared that any attempt to invest the money would mean loss instead of gain. Moreover, he didn't really know his master; he apparently thought he was working for a tyrant (Matthew 25:24-25) who would be furious if the money returned was less than the money given, so he decided it would be safest to make sure that at least the exact amount would remain available. And there may have been another reason as well: perhaps the servant was secretly resentful because he got the smallest amount of money. "One talent" was a sizable enough sum; but another servant had received twice as much and still another five times as much. Perhaps the third servant really felt that "if my master thinks I'm worth so much less than the others, why should I make as much effort as they?"

The parable, of course, is an analogy: God is the Master Who gives each of His servants gifts (money, time, circumstances, abilities) which He expects us to put to good use advancing His Kingdom. Some of us look at the Christian author whose books are bestsellers even in the secular world; the Christian musician who gives fifty well-attended concerts a year and has released a dozen top-selling CDs; or the pastor whose church is growing by the hundreds and thousands of members--and we think, "I'll never be in their league; I can't possibly do anything major for God, so what's the use of even trying?"

Like the servant in the parable, we badly misjudge our Master. We not only imply that He didn't know what He was doing when He chose what gifts to give us, and that He doesn't really care whether we use them or not; but we fail to see that it isn't the size of the gift that matters. It's the size of the Giver. The God Who turned five loaves of bread into a hearty meal for thousands (Matthew 14:14-21) can certainly show us how to turn a single talent into great profit. Because our Master isn't really away on a trip. He's right here with us, just waiting for us to ask for guidance.

One more thing: if you consider yourself to be in the "ten talents and growing" pool, rather than the "one-talent" one, it's still the size of the Giver that counts. God doesn't discipline only those who neglect their talents; people who become arrogant and take all the credit for their success--as if they had created themselves--are if anything headed for a harder fall.

Lord, keep me from the sin of sloth
And also that of fear,
Lest I be like the wicked man
Who held Your talent in his hand,
But hid it in a piece of cloth,
And kept it useless there.

But keep me also safe from pride,
Lest, gifted from Your hand,
I think, "It all depends on me,"
And work not for eternity
But turn my thoughts from You aside,
And build success on sand.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Heart Sings

Hopefully this is the last update I'll have to post on the power outage here. The electricity came back about 12:50 this afternoon.

Hopefully, also, those of us Houstonians who have or soon will have our service restored won't use it as an excuse to hide behind air-conditioned walls watching television and surfing the Internet, at the expense of enjoying the autumn weather that is just settling in. Anyone who has ever sweated through a Gulf Coast summer knows the arrival of a cooler season as one of God's greatest blessings. Standing under a cloudless sky on a crisp blue day, hair ruffled by a breeze carrying just a hint of chill, watching a kettle (flock) of migrating hawks soaring southward on the high winds, is one of life's finest pleasures.

The natural world in its full glory has inspired many a great hymn. A favorite of mine is "How Great Thou Art," which praises God not only for His marvelous Creation, but also for the greater wonders of redemption--not only of our individual souls, but eventually of the whole natural order.

After His full Kingdom comes, every day will be infinitely more beautiful than the present world's most colorful autumn day.

When I think of all of the wonders of Creation,
Of the stars that stretch beyond any mortal view,
And of the birds with their songs and gleaming feathers,
Of the sea and the sunrise and the sky so blue,

My heart sings
In its joy to behold God's glory;
My heart sings
In its wonder to know God's love;
My heart sings
As I think of His deeds of mercy,
All the treasures that come forth from the Lord above.

When I think of how our God became a mortal,
How He suffered and then died to redeem the lost,
How He spilled His blood for the sake of those who despised Him,
And found the most contemptible fate worth the cost,

My heart sings
In its joy to behold God's glory;
My heart sings
In its wonder to know God's love;
My heart sings
As I think of His deeds of mercy,
All the treasures that come forth from the Lord above.

When I think of the coming day that the Lord has promised,
When all pain and tears and death will dissolve and be no more,
When our God at last shall perfect us, as He is perfect,
And we all shall forever live on His holy shore,

My heart sings
In its joy to behold God's glory;
My heart sings
In its wonder to know God's love;
My heart sings
As I think of His deeds of mercy,
All the treasures that come forth from the Lord above.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The power outage referred to in last week's post-hurricane blog lasted (in the apartment complex where I live) until late Monday evening--then, eighteen hours after electricity was restored, returned in the form of a blown power line fuse. Repairs there would normally take a few hours; but with several thousand hurricane-caused outages still a problem in the area, we're still waiting two days later. Nothing like feeling you're at the bottom of everyone's priority list.

And nothing like a blackout to emphasize how inseparable electricity and priorities can be. A century ago, there were only a few electrical appliances, used mostly by the rich. These days, the average person can hardly check the time, get in touch with a friend, do any work, or get out of bed on a regular schedule without using something that plugs into a wall socket. Most of us are smothering in appliances and gadgets.

And in possessions in general. Two bookcases and a closet worth of my personal property are still stored at the old family home because I can't figure out how to fit it into my current apartment. Anyone who's ever moved to a smaller place--or moved at all--can probably relate. It can take a week just to pack and unpack an average middle-class household's accumulation of "stuff." Much of it quickly becomes clutter and nuisance--yet just try to get the average American to give anything away! "I know I haven't used it in three years--but what if I need it next month?"

Searching for security in the amount of property we own is at least as old as the days of the patriarchs. So is admiration of the rich--and the craving to join them, often to the detriment of our own spiritual and emotional health. Because not only does wealth not bring security, it often seems to decrease it by giving us that many more things to worry about.

The only cure is to concentrate on one thing--pleasing God in all we do. He may not call all of us to give away everything we have (cf. Mt. 19:21). But He does expect us to make Him, not simply our top priority, but our only priority. We can't say, "God, I'll stick with You if [and only if] You grant me these other things."

Unlike us, He can't be fooled into believing that our wants are actually needs.

M is for Miserly: hoard all you can,
Never a penny to share with the needy.
Spend on yourself everything you can spare,
It's only frugal; let none call you greedy.

O is for Owing, which soon comes around
When you use credit to buy things that tempt you.
Spend all you can; charge your cards to the max--
Surely the "pay later" law will exempt you.

R is for Rich, which we all want to be:
Wealth is the god that so many bow down to.
Always be thinking, "What's in it for me?"
Live for the monies that ever astound you.

E is for Evil, which is what it is
To live for "more" and to keep your greed humming.
Those who spend life chasing pleasure and gold
Will wail and weep in the day of God's coming.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lord, Light a Fire within Me

Do you ever feel like a "mechanically defective Christian" (to borrow a line from cartoonist Howard Paris) who, however much you agree with the principle of being active in the Lord's work, just doesn't seem to have the will to get up from the comfortable, safe couch potato life?

Christ said, "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.... apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). Trying to work for Christ without His power is like trying to run a car without fuel--or trying to dig all the oil and refine it into gasoline ourselves.

If we lack spiritual drive, maybe it's because we've forgotten to ask the Holy Spirit to put fuel in our tanks.

Lord, light a fire within me:
A tiny spark will do;
Ignite it by Your Spirit,
And make its light burn true.

Lord, light a fire within me:
My heart is cold and dark;
Send light into my spirit--
Oh, just one tiny spark--

However small the flicker,
I know that it can grow
As by Your power You feed it,
If You sustain its glow.

The Spirit's wind blows strongly,
And brings Your mighty power
To fan each sputtering ember
And feed it hour by hour

Until the light, enlivened,
Burns strong with steady flame,
And shines with blazing brilliance,
A beacon to Your Name,

A light that can feed others
From the true Source of Light,
Until they too are kindled,
Until their hearts burn bright:

A million flames ignited
Into one blazing fire,
All shining in the darkness
And burning ever higher,

Till the whole world is shining
With Your own holy Light,
And blazing with Your glory
To overcome the night.

Lord, light a fire within me:
However small it glows,
Make it a spark ignited
Through which Your own power flows.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lord of Time

All of us have memories we wish we could wipe out, or better yet, go back and do differently. All of us have moments when we would like to be anywhere but in the present situation. And all of us have at least occasional fears regarding an uncertain future.

It's hard to say what's hardest: dealing with the wounds of the past; coping with the struggles of the present; or conquering worry about the future. All three really feed on each other. "Lord of the Past," a popular Christian song in the early 1990s, talks about how the past can make the present miserable--and probably implies that the feelings and actions of the present affect the future. Past sin begets present agony. Present "just this once" begets future habit. Worrying in the present about the future can have especially unpleasant results; once fretting becomes a habit it soon grows into a compulsion, and the failure of past worries to materialize is more likely to add guilt for being so "ridiculous" than to actually lessen anxiety about the future.

"Live in the moment" is the standard pop psychology remedy--and can even be said to have Scriptural warrant (cf. Mt. 6:34). But if we try to conquer past, present, and future by our own willpower, we invariably fall short. God is the only One Who can be trusted with things to come and Who can turn even the worst past into a beautiful present and future (cf. Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28).

Things work out best if we make Him Lord of our time.

Our God is Lord of all past times--
So take courage, all you with regret:
However black your past deeds,
However many
Your lost opportunities,
There is hope for you yet.

Our God is Lord of the present--
So take courage if all life seems bleak:
However small your best deeds,
However scanty
Your best opportunities,
God gives strength to the weak.

Our God is Lord of the future--
So take courage; though you cannot see
How the life you are living
Can bear a harvest
From what you have been given,
God knows all that will be.

Our God is Lord over all time--
The Beginning and the End is He:
All past guilt He shall banish,
And He guards the future
Until time shall vanish,
Swallowed in eternity.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Look to the Light

My last blog carried a bigger irony than I expected in its mention of "storm water" vs. "living water." Hurricane Ike damaged, among other facilities, the city's water treatment plant; and for a couple of days Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous lines "Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink" were uncomfortably close to reality for millions of Houstonians.

Water service is, thankfully, restored now; but only about half the city has gotten back that other everyday utility, electricity. Going without electric power means, to me personally: using the laundromat because the washing machine doesn't work; taking cold showers (not to mention putting off washing dishes and other things that need hot water) because the water at my apartment is electrically heated; being able to eat refrigerated foods only in restaurants because ice supplies melt faster than a package can be consumed; and having to go to the public library (which took a while getting its power back) before I can check my e-mail or do anything else online. Which is the main reason this blog went six days without a new entry.

Actually, having no power isn't all bad as long the weather is decent. (Certainly better than the last major hurricane-induced power outage twenty-five years ago, which came a month earlier in the year while the outdoors was consistently sultry.) After all, we get a few extra days off, not to mention some unofficial National Nights Out. But once the night really settles in, being without electricity means one other thing: going to bed and getting up more or less with the sun. Light a candle or switch on a flashlight as you will, no weaker substitute really satisfies once you're used to modern electric light.

Imagine what it must have been like to live a few centuries ago when the only "night lights" were fires from lanterns and torches. There's something inherently frightening about the dark, about not being able to see what might be in your way--or what might be sneaking up on you. Small wonder that the Scriptures associate evil with darkness and God with light. "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5, NIV).

The following poem is the only one I have written that, to date, has been set to music (with slightly different lyrics) and performed for an audience--specifically, for a small group service at Wheaton Graduate School about ten years ago. I regret that I have lost the music and the name of the composer--if anyone reading this remembers either, please let me know!

All Creation had its beginning
From a darkness more black than night;
Our God spoke to create the world we know--
And the first thing He made was light.

Look to the Light
When the world seems lost in darkness;
Look to the Light
When it seems that hope is gone;
Look to the Light
When you feel your faith is failing;
Look to the Light
And find strength to carry on.

When the whole world writhed blind, despairing,
When the fullness of time had come,
There came One Who was called the Light of all;
There came One Who was called God's Son.

Look to the Light
When the world seems lost in darkness;
Look to the Light
When it seems that hope is gone;
Look to the Light
When you feel your faith is failing;
Look to the Light
And find strength to carry on.

When He died on a cross in anguish
It seemed darkness had crushed the Light;
But in three days' time He returned to life:
Now His light shines forever bright.

Look to the Light
When the world seems lost in darkness;
Look to the Light
When it seems that hope is gone;
Look to the Light
When you feel your faith is failing;
Look to the Light
And find strength to carry on.

Look to the Light
When the world seems lost in darkness;
Look to the Light
When it seems that hope is gone;
Look to the Light
When you feel your faith is failing;
Look to the Light
And find strength to carry on.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Living Water

Today's poem is another lengthy allegory (check last week's "Crossroads" for an earlier example), this time on the topic of spiritual refreshment and rejuvenation, what Jesus called "living water" (see John 4:1-41).

The phrase "living water" appears seven times in the NIV, always in reference to God's blessings and power pouring out on His people. But the first two occurrences, in the book of Jeremiah, are used in a negative sense: "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.... O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water" (2:13; 17:13).

Jeremiah 2:13 is fairly frequently quoted, perhaps because most of us need to hear it so often. Like the child who wails for root beer when offered a glass of fresh water, we prefer immediate pleasure to maximum benefit. Every time we say, "If God won't heal my asthma/find me a marriage partner/get me a better job, I'll have to do something about it myself," we are digging our own cisterns. Then we're surprised when they leak: the "miracle asthma cure" turns out to be so much snake oil; the impulse marriage goes sour; the better-paying job extracts a high price in long hours and cutthroat office politics.

Impatience is usually a key factor. We not only want things to turn out the way we prefer, we want them to do so right away. The second our throats feel dry, we convince ourselves that we must have immediate liquid--and that only the showiest bottle holds real liquid. The truth is that we're rarely so desperately thirsty as we think. A person literally dying of physical thirst will hardly care if the water offered is lukewarm and flat and served in an ugly glass. It's those who are still reasonably well hydrated who grumble about petty details.

Ironically, God's living water--so cool and luscious and beautiful when fully experienced--often comes in what we see as ugly containers, the exact opposite of what we think we want in circumstances. That's why He often fills in our broken cisterns--so we can get thirsty enough to gladly take His best.

(Incidentally, there's another irony in a Houstonian's writing about the blessings of "water" today, with half the city tensed for what may be imminent hurricane-induced flooding. But what better circumstances under which to remember that God's water is better than the world's any day?)

A traveler lost in the desert,
Struggling on over rock and sand,
Had long since drained his water supply,
And his eyes the horizon scanned
In a desperate search for an oasis,
As the pain in his throat burned dry--
Till at long last, on the stretch ahead,
A blue gleam caught his weary eye.

He struggled along toward the shimmer,
His heart growing light as a boy;
He could almost taste that liquid drink,
And the thought filled his soul with joy.
But as he drew near that blue water,
His heart sank with a bleak despair,
For the vision vanished before his eyes,
A mere trick of the desert air.

He made his way on through that wasteland,
His hope sinking with every pace,
Till he crossed the top of a rocky hill
And a smile lit his sweat-streaked face,
For he saw at the ridge's bottom,
Trickling onto the desert floor,
A stream of water and a tiny pool,
And down the steep hillside he tore.

But the water was salty bitter,
And it burned his throat at each sip,
So he turned away with an aching heart,
And continued his painful trip
Over sand and rock and sharp gravel;
His thirst now consumed his all,
And his eyes were dim, and his skin now dry,
And his legs were about to fall.

Then suddenly he heard a trickling
That soon grew to a deafening roar;
And he came to the edge of a clump of green
And he saw, spreading out before,
An oasis of blue refreshment,
A grand waterfall spilling down,
Down into a pool of pure, fresh, cool drink,
Like a glimmering silver crown.

No juice ever tasted sweeter
Than the water he then drank there,
No Olympic-size pool ever cooler felt
Than the spray from those falls so fair;
And he would not have traded one moment
Of his joy in that desert place
For a year as the richest of men on earth,
Or the warmest sensual embrace.

We are all like that desert traveler,
Seeking water to quench our thirst,
And we chase mirages to horizon's end,
All the things that seem bright at first;
Or we settle for salty water,
While within us burns to the core
Deep conviction this never can be enough,
That we somehow were meant for more.

Then the One Who walked upon water
Calls to us, "Come, and drink of Me:
I offer the water that satisfies,
The flood that flows pure and free."
And once we taste His refreshment--
The one drink that can satisfy--
We will not trade a lifetime of fleshly joy
For the fountain that flows from high.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Left Behind

St. Paul had this to say to the bereaved: "we do not want you... to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13, NIV). Yet the Bible does not, as some seem to believe, say that "Good Christians don't cry" at all. Even "Jesus wept" (John 11:35) at Lazarus's grave--despite knowing that He and Lazarus would meet again, not in Heaven years later, but on Earth in a few minutes.

Probably what brought tears to Jesus's eyes was not so much the brief separation from His friend as the pain of being in a world where death had to exist at all. Those who insist that weeping over a death indicates lack of faith in God's eternal provision, should consider that death is as contrary to God's plan for this world as is evil. And no one would claim that to get angry at evil indicates lack of faith in God's ultimate justice.

It is true that, as one proverb states, true Christians "never see each other for the last time"--hence we have the joy of hope to temper our grief and to protect us from sliding into despair. But the God Whose Scriptures urge us to long for Christ's ultimate coming, understands our tears when we are confronted with reminders that, in the meantime, the pains of this world often prevail.

He even weeps with us.

Where you've gone we cannot follow
Till the Father calls us, too;
While your troubles now are over--
There is no more pain for you--
For your loved ones here remaining
In this world where pains endure,
There's an ache of separation
Time can never wholly cure.
Though a wound itself be mended,
Yet the scar will still remain;
Though reunion's hope is certain,
There is still an aching pain.

God calls each who walk Earth's pathway
There to travel side by side;
Yet we cannot leave together;
It is only for our Guide
To lead each who take death's passage
All the way they go across,
And to hold the ones remaining
As we bear the pain of loss.
But we know the time is coming
When we too will cross death's sea
To the land where you are waiting,
Parted nevermore to be!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


High in Judeo-Christian law--near the top of the Ten Commandments--is "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (Ex. 20:4, NIV). At first glance, that may seem like an easy commandment to follow--in Moses's day, people in every country may have bowed to statues, but today it's the person who does try something like that who's the oddball. But before we get smug, let's consider that idols can be "made" in the brain even more easily than with the hands. And that one of our popular television programs is called American Idol.

The dictionary defines an "idol" first as "an image used as an object of worship; a false god," second as "one that is adored, often blindly or excessively," and third as "something visible but without substance." That last definition, rarely used today, probably sums it up best. While many idols are "visible" only to the minds of the people who worship them, and some idols are quite substantial in the sense of being solid and material, every idolater "sees" quite a bit in his or her object of worship; and every idol lacks the "substance" to fully deliver on the worshiper's expectations.

In the broadest sense, an idol is anything to which people give more devotion than it deserves, be "it" a sports hero, a personal collection of awards, a new car, a lucky charm, or even a concept such as (one of my own top bugaboos) the idea of leaving nothing unfinished or uncertain. Even Christian worship practices can be distorted into idols; there are people who wear Scripture verses as protective amulets, or who tell everyone that "if you have enough faith and pray in the right way, God will make you rich."

The primary difference between idols--whether statues, philosophies, possessions, or human beings--and the one true God is that God does have the power to grant anything we ask. The reason so many of us prefer idols is that God also has the power, solely on His own discretion, to refuse any such requests.

And we don't like that. Because another thing all idols have in common is that they can be made to serve the whims of everyone's secret number-one idol.


In ancient times of ages past,
When science was a skill unknown,
The people saw the sun and rain
And also plants and crops they'd grown
As signs that gods must guide the world;
So, making stands of gold or wood,
They sacrificed to beasts and stars
To pray for things that they thought good.
Then God commanded, "You must not
Praise images of things you see;
For I, Who dwell in light unseen,
Will have you worship none but Me."

As we, today, look back through time
Through lenses ground in what we've learned,
We laugh at ancient ignorance
When no one knew how the world turned
Or what did cause the rain and tides;
They prayed to useless clods of stone--
And we make idols out of power
And set possessions on life's throne.
Our idols are invisible,
Yet quite as real as those before--
While God alone still rates our praise
And reigns in glory evermore.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Every now and then I get the urge to write a long poem--actually, I usually start out to write an average-length poem, nearly always one that tells a story, and find that it keeps getting bigger. Although every editor knows about writers who are too stubborn or too lazy to edit their work down to an appropriate length, even the best authors--the ones who go through each manuscript five or six times to make sure all non-essential words and scenes are removed--occasionally find themselves with stories that demand many thousands of words for the telling. (The popular Left Behind series started out to be a single book.)

Today's entry is like that: I at first meant it to be a brief allegory of how Jesus is the Way and how trying to attain Heaven on our own power is as foolish as trying to get to a specific location by driving down whatever street has the most appealing name. But it grew into seventy-two lines covering the ways we try on our own.

Everyone has from time to time known the despair of feeling completely lost--physically, mentally, or spiritually. It's not always a problem we can solve ourselves. Once we admit our impotence, what a relief it is to find someone (or Someone) who is able and willing to help!

I stopped one night at a crossroads,
Uncertain which way to go;
Each path looked as dark as the others,
And there seemed no way to know
Which path went where I was headed,
Nor where might the others lead;
I had no map at hand to guide me,
No answer to serve my need.

Then another traveler approached me,
And I called, "Please tell me, friend,
Do you know where these roads may lead to?
Do you know where each might end?"
"Why, don't you know where you're going?"
"Yes, but what leads there from here?"
"Why, just choose as your heart may lead you;
You'll be right if you're sincere."

He vanished into the darkness,
And left me there just as lost;
I doubted "sincere" equalled "certain";
The wrong turn could mean high cost.
Then I saw someone else approaching,
And I called out, "Do you know
Which of all these roads I should follow?
Can you tell me the way to go?"

"Why limit yourself to these roads?
I'm working to build my own!
Just think how people will cheer me
When my finished work will be shown."
"But I have nothing to build with,
And I doubt I have the time."
"You hardly need bother trying;
Your work cannot equal mine."

He left me alone, despairing,
Gazing mutely at the fork,
And feeling more lost than ever,
Having no will left to work.
I slumped with a moan, so hopeless
I felt I could die right then,
No resolve left now, and no courage,
And convinced I could never win.

But even as I knelt sobbing,
Someone else did come along;
I could not bring myself to ask Him
Which road was right and which wrong;
But He Himself stopped and asked me,
"My friend, don't you know your path?"
"No, Sir, and it all seems so hopeless;
I can't find it, whomever I ask."

"It's true that you never will get there
If you try to go it alone;
No amount of striving will help you,
For you are weak on your own.
I could point to the right direction,
But even if you turn true,
You will soon wear out from the journey."
"But, Sir, then what can I do?"

"You must allow Me to take you.
Let go your grip on life's wheel,
And put all your faith in My guidance,
However strange it may feel,
And My strength will be as your strength;
If you stay with Me come what may,
I will bring you where you are going,
For I Myself am the Way."

So I swallowed my pride and my struggle,
And I reached out to take His hand,
And I followed as He led onward
Through a rough and a barren land;
And as we journeyed on together,
Though the night stayed dark around,
And I could not see where we were going,
I knew that the lost was found.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Celestial Bible

I mentioned in my last blog that I spent Labor Day weekend in the Texas Hill Country--in a rather remote area, actually. One thing I like about remote areas--besides being out of cell phone and e-mail range, safe from people who consider it everyone's duty to be "on call" 24/7--is the overhead view on clear nights. Those of us who live in major metropolitan areas see only a smattering of stars through the city lights and haze; there is just no comparison to the brilliantly spangled sky in the country.

In Bible times, when there were no electric lights and few large cities, the view must have been, if anything, more spectacular. It must also have offered comfort to people who had only fire to push back the dark where wild animals (and who knew what else) lurked; shining on against the black sky, growing all the brighter as it grew blacker, the stars must have represented assurance that darkness would never overcome light.

Small wonder that most ancient peoples worshiped the stars as gods. The Bible warns against such practices (e. g., Dt. 4:19), but never forbids admiring the stars. Indeed, many Scripture verses use that as a take-off point for worship of the stars' Creator:

"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?" (Ps. 8:3-4, NIV).

"He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name" (Ps. 147:4).

"Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars" (Ps. 148:3).

The opposite of worshiping the stars is to become so used to them as to no longer appreciate them. When I was a college student in a small town, I was surprised at how many of my rural-raised classmates seemed completely blind to the beauty of the night sky. Once one starts taking Creation for granted, it is only a short step to denying the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:18-21); if the stars aren't all that great, who's to say it took a great God to make them?

Whether you live in the wilderness or in a Manhattan high-rise, pause this evening to admire some small part of Creation--be it the brightest stars, the moon, the ocean, or a tree on the corner--that you pass every day but have been ignoring. Take time to really see it in all its splendid design.

Then praise the God Who made it!

God's glory shines forth from the heavens
So even pagans know
A mightier Power than human
Set all of the stars aglow.
God formed all space and the heavens
And lit the fires of the sky
That shine through centuries of nighttimes,
Proclaiming Him to each eye.

Earth is but one tiny island
In the universe's sea,
And I am but one speck of life--
Yet God cares so much for me.
Every life is a mere instant
In the span of time's great whole;
But in eternal worlds beyond,
God will keep each faithful soul.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the Mountain

I spent Labor Day weekend at a church retreat in the Texas Hill Country; the theme was "mountaintop experiences." No doubt a native of Colorado or Nepal would laugh to hear the hills of central Texas described as "mountains," but they're tough enough climbing for those of us who live on the flat Gulf Coast.

Perhaps because it takes effort to reach the summits, perhaps because they seem to rise above the world's problems, or perhaps simply because they point up toward Heaven, mountains hold deep spiritual significance in almost every religion. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus's Transfiguration took place on a mountain, and His best-known preachings come from what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Numerous Christian works use mountain imagery; Hannah Hurnard's novel Hinds' Feet on High Places and Steven Curtis Chapman's song "The Mountain" are just two examples.

Both those works--indeed, most mountain-climbing stories--mention the descent as well as the heights. For all the beauty and triumph of attaining a mountain summit, every climber eventually must return to the "lower world." Often it's a "comedown" in more ways than one. Moses, for example, spent forty days alone with God on a mountain--then returned to that same God's supposed followers to find them worshiping an idol. No wonder he exploded with anger (Ex. 32:19); sin seems especially dirty after we've received a close view of God's holiness and purity.

Our first instinct, on realizing that our time "on the mountain" is drawing to a close, is often to beg for an extension, to delay our return to the dirtier matters of earth. Peter was thinking in such terms at the Transfiguration, when he said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (Mt. 17:1-9, NIV). Let's not spoil the experience, Lord. Let's all just stay here. Didn't You just tell us a week ago (Mt. 16:21) that there was suffering and death waiting in Your earthly future? Why would You want to go down and face that?

Jesus went down because His love for helplessly sinful people like Peter--and all the rest of us--was stronger than His love for glory. The same heart that led Him to leave the unimaginable riches of Heaven for the hardships of earth led Him away from the mountaintop and toward the Cross. He did it for us, to break the spiritual shackles that kept us earthbound with no hope for more than temporary joys.

We can never truly be His followers if we let selfishness replace worship--which is exactly what we are doing if we cling to the mountain summits while He is telling us to go work in the valley.

Moses was upon Mount Sinai
Six long weeks through day and night,
All alone in God's great Presence,
Bathed within the glorious Light:
Must he not have wished to linger
In the Father's luminous glow,
Rather than confront the idol
Rising on the plains below?

Jesus taught upon a mountain,
Taught of blessings and God's grace;
As His followers sat and listened
In that wilds-made-holy place,
Must they not have wished to linger
In those moments' radiant glow,
Rather than apply His teachings
In the stress-filled world below?

Peter saw, upon a mountain,
His Lord shine in radiant white,
In the presence of the prophets,
Blazing with a holy Light:
Can we fault his wish to linger
In that perfect, heavenly glow,
Rather than to face the trials
Waiting in the world below?

We all have our "mountain moments,"
When God seems especially near,
When Creation shines with beauty,
When we feel no trace of fear;
But, though we may wish to linger
All our lives within that glow,
If we love Him, we must also
Go to do His work below.