Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Visions of Heaven

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

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

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

From then on, every day will be Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Still Small Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Not for Me, O Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

True happiness is loving God above all else.

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For His Yoke Is Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

You Cannot See the Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Father Is the Lord of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Heaven and on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Sun and the Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

When Things Go Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


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

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

Which example are we following?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Our Life Was in His Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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