Tuesday, December 29, 2009

True Power

New Year's is three days away. Have you made your resolutions yet?

Or are you saying, "Why bother; no one keeps them anyway"?

Of course, "no one" is an exaggeration. Most of us know, or know of, people who set great goals (at or after New Year's) and consistently achieve them. Still, it's hard to find a definitive answer to the question of how many keep their resolutions for the long haul. As few as 2 or 3 percent, say some researchers; as many as 46 percent, insist others.

There are nonetheless things most experts agree on: Nearly half of U. S. citizens make resolutions each year. A majority let those resolutions die within six months. The primary reasons for failure are vague definitions of success, overly large expectations, and shallow commitment. Reward and accountability are effective motivators.

But even after acknowledging the value of accountability, few resolutions commentators, even Christian ones, ask the most important accountability question: Have you prayed about your resolutions and other goals? Have you sincerely asked God what He wants you to accomplish in 2010? Are you prepared to follow His instructions even if they lead to nothing obvious in terms of success?

I know as well as anyone that just asking, "God, what will You have me do?" rarely brings a quick and definitive answer. Often, even after days of prayer, we ultimately have to trust that our own best judgment coincides with God's intent for us--remembering that judgment must be fed with an understanding of Scriptural principles and a humility that would rather advance God's Kingdom than achieve our personal desires. It would be easier, certainly, if God simply handed us our daily orders in ways we couldn't misunderstand; and perhaps that's why He rarely does. One primary cause of goals remaining unmet is laziness not in our doing, but in our thinking. We don't mind working hard following explicit orders; we just want to be absolved of any responsibility beyond that. We do nothing because no one's told us to do anything, never mind that we aren't listening very consistently. Or we do the wrong thing and then protest that no one told us not to do it, while all along the warning was in the instructions we never read. Most people who go into business for themselves fail because rather than put out effort to learn what their "bosses" (their desired customers) want and to provide it, they sit back and wait for everyone to learn how wonderful they are.

As a Boss, God combines the best qualities of the "customer" and the traditional "employer." Unlike the typical supervisor, He challenges us to make real effort to learn what He wants--because one thing He wants is genuine loving followers, not just dutiful drones. But unlike the typical customer, He doesn't expect us to do all the work. Indeed, He gladly supplies us with the resources we need for whatever service He requests.

A good thing, too. Without His personal guidance and empowerment, even those resolutions we achieve leave us empty in the end.

People told you to trust in your strength alone:
"If you want it enough, and make up your mind,
If you fix on a goal and make it your own,
Then whatever you seek you will surely find."
And you never did think, as you went that way,
So assured of the might of your inner power,
There was something far more that you threw away,
That you crushed at your feet a far brighter flower.

You put trust in yourself to achieve your goal,
And you used your own judgment to plot the trail,
And had faith in your strength to fill every hole--
Now, you only have learned that success can fail.
You were spared all the pain of bleak tragedy,
And have left in your wake most successful years--
Yet, now looking at life, you can only see
You have nothing that lasts--all will end in tears.

God gave you all you have--all your gifts and strengths--
That you might do the works that He had prepared,
But you chose to put things toward your selfish lengths,
And what God might desire you but slightly cared.
And you did great deeds as seen by mortal eyes,
And you thought that you soon would achieve content;
But at last you can see--no fulfillment lies
On the path that you so had believed and went.

It is not too late to turn to things that last;
There is time to achieve the true best you can.
If you want to go far, whether slow or fast,
Turn your steps to the path of the Servant-Man
Who held all of the power in the universe,
But Who stooped low on earth, and for others' sake.
He Who broke all the power of sin's ancient curse
Will show paths of pure joy for your heart to take.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Not to Be Served

Are you looking forward to a merry Christmas? Or are you anticipating this Friday with some dread, expecting yet another round of cooking and dishwashing for thirty people, another day of listening to family squabbles and "this isn't what I wanted" whining--or worse, another lonely "holiday" isolated in a tiny apartment? Or are you one of those who half wishes the actual day would never come because it signals the imminent end of the music, the parties, and the extra time off?

Whatever one's personal reasons for not awaiting December 25 with unmitigated joy, they all begin with I: I want someone else to wait on me for a change; I want total freedom from stress; I want to be part of a tight-knit group; I want the fun to last forever. Many people let a selfish "I must have things exactly right" attitude ruin their holidays. Now, rest, peace, love, and even pleasure are legitimate desires up to a point--the point being when "I wish I had" becomes "I must have; I am too important not to have."

The irony of doing this at Christmas is that it flies straight in the face of Christ's example:

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:25, NIV).

"For even Christ did not please himself" (Rom. 15:3a).

"[Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil. 2:7a).

The One Who had every right to have things go His way chose instead to give up all special privileges and serve humanity to the fullest. Who are we to insist on always getting what we "deserve"?

More than that, serving others needn't be misery and drudgery. There's nothing Christian in the idea that duty demands we sacrifice the happiness that would be ours if we were at the top of the social status chain. Those who follow this line of thinking are unhappy not because they serve, but because they remain selfish, interested primarily in the future rewards they expect. (That's the attitude that refuses to welcome a prodigal because all it sees is someone else being handed what it slaved for.) But those motivated by love--who put others first for Christ's sake--are actually much happier than those who always get special privileges.

If we learn to let Christ fill us with His love and lead us in following His example, we can do better than a "merry Christmas." We can have a blessed Christmas--and the blessings can stay with us long after December 25.

In God's way, the mark of the leader
Is not the applause of the masses--
Is not being pampered and bowed to,
Nor turning each head as one passes;
The one who would lead with God's guiding
Must kneel at the feet of God's people,
Must do even lowly work gladly,
Not look for applause from the steeple.

For Jesus, the ultimate Leader,
Came not to receive earthly glory,
Nor wear golden crowns set with rubies--
Humility flows through His story.
His way was the way of the servant,
His path one of lowliest labor;
He was not ashamed of the common;
He looked not in scorn at His neighbor.

He lived all His life wrapped in weakness;
He died in deep humiliation;
And all of His suffering was for us--
Our freedom and our restoration.
Let us show our thanks in our service
To all for the sake of His Kingdom,
And humble ourselves before others,
That our simple meekness may win them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chasing the Wind

King Solomon is traditionally credited with having written the book of Ecclesiastes. Certainly much in the opening chapters fits with his life's story as recorded in the Bible: unmatched wealth and unmatched wisdom piling up and up. And though the histories in 1 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles say little outright about Solomon's attitude toward life, their record of his sliding away from dependence on God makes it easy to believe he eventually fell into the cynical, near-despairing thinking that permeates Ecclesiastes:

"When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun" (Ecc. 2:11).

Many a person who "stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God" (Lk. 12:21) has voiced a similar wail. The wind is impossible to catch and hold; likewise with lasting joy in life, if we insist on pursuing it according to our own designs. If, as is often said, the primary symptom of insanity is doing the same thing again and again in desperate hope that this time the results will be different, there is hardly a sane human being in the world's wealthier societies. We assume we'll be content for life once we get the income level or other achievement we have our eyes on; and when we prove ourselves wrong, we immediately react not by questioning the validity of the central premise, but by assuming we must not have set our material goals high enough! Like small children who literally spend their outdoor playtime running after the wind, we eventually collapse exhausted, but considerably less content than those youngsters who have the sense not to seriously expect to catch the wind--at least not to the point where they consider their lives ruined when they don't.

With most adults, the only difference between "just another work week" and the Christmas holidays is that our endless rush after status and material gain makes some minor changes in its outward manifestations. Instead of chasing public applause, we chase the status of giving or getting the most prestigious gifts; instead of working overtime all week for fear of missing a crucial step toward a promotion, we attend parties and concerts every night for fear of missing out on any enjoyment. Most of us are, if anything, more exhausted and "thank God that's over" on the morning of December 26 than on the typical Friday afternoon.

It doesn't have to be that way. But if we're serious about finding true fulfillment rather than just one fleeting pleasure after another--in the Christmas season or in life as a whole--we have to get out of the "windy rat race" altogether.

It's only once we stop running that our hearts slow down enough to let the Wind of the Spirit refresh them with true Life.

I thought that I knew what I wanted,
And so often I got it, too,
But with each step up, satisfaction, sought,
Only seemed to retreat from view.

I thought I knew what made me happy,
And I found it from time to time,
But brief pleasures passed till all life seemed bleak
As a song without beat or rhyme.

I thought joy came from achievement,
But no matter how much I did,
I raced on and on with no rest in sight,
And success seemed forever hid.

I crawled to the Lord bent and broken,
And I cried, "God, have mercy, please!"
He replied, "You have chased earthly dreams so long,
And ignored My own Truth that frees.

"But I still have much blessing to give you,
And true peace for your aching soul;
Come, take on My yoke and rest in My Word,
And let Me make your spirit whole."

All the pain I had built up in striving--
Oh, how treacherous this heart of sin!--
All the years I chased after fleeting dreams,
All regrets for what might have been,

All dissolved like a fog in the sunlight
In His love-glow more bright than day,
And His glorious Strength that renewed my heart,
Guiding me back into His way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Washed Clean

As a child, I wished I had been born in July rather than March, so I'd never have to go to school on my birthday. Dreams of having the world stop to honor the day of your coming are common in one's early years (while growing older actually seems like a good thing), so many a youngster considers a mid-December birth the worst thing that can happen to a person. Everyone is celebrating--but not birthdays.

Often not even the Birthday we're supposed to be celebrating. Those of us who complain about "politically correct" thinking that prefers to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" often do no better than anyone else. We get caught up in shopping, decorating, cooking, eating, dreaming of "what we'll get," and rushing about to event after event until even a worship service seems like just one more obligation. Once, Christians contemplated Jesus's coming for four weeks and then celebrated for twelve days. Now, we celebrate for what seems like twelve weeks (judging from the amount of time store decorations are up) and contemplate for perhaps four hours.

One movement dedicated to bucking that trend is Advent Conspiracy, which invites participants to put Christ back in Christmas not by bemoaning "commercialization" nor simply by singing "Silent Night" rather than "Jingle Bells," but by actively practicing the values Christ stood for--worship, simplicity, generosity, and love--and by spending our money and time not on our own pleasures, but on serving the least of God's people. The Conspiracy's motto is "Christmas can (still) change the world," which was, after all, the purpose of Christ's coming. He never intended to make anyone's life one long vacation; He wants to introduce us to the deeper joy of living in God's service through all circumstances.

Although most people wait until December 26 and the imminent new year to think seriously about how life could change for the better, why shouldn't we as Christians start during Advent? This week's poem was inspired by a classic sometimes called "The New Leaf," which focuses on how God wipes out our mistakes and enables us to start fresh.

After all, the celebration of Christmas shouldn't stop with remembering the manger. The manger has no real meaning without full appreciation of the Cross and the empty tomb.

He came in from play at the end of the day,
Dirty with grime.
"I'm sorry, Mother, I meant to stay clean;
I forget every time."
I scrubbed his arms till the mud was gone,
Then found clean clothes for him to put on:
"Now that you look neat,
Let's sit down and eat."

I knelt down to pray at the end of the day,
Dirty with sin.
"I'm sorry, Father, I meant to stay clean;
I forgot You again."
He doused my soul in His grace so free,
And clothed me fresh in new purity:
"Now that you are able,
Come sit at My table."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The God of Promise

The first week of Advent is a good time to contemplate the promises of God, not only because Advent represents a period of "looking forward to," but because the whole story of Jesus--past, present, and future--is permeated with the concept of promise. We remember the fulfilled promises of His birth and Resurrection; we look forward to the end of time with His promised coming in glory; we rely daily on His promises to be with us always and strengthen us through every trial. No wonder that Paul wrote, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Cor. 1:20a, NIV, emphasis added).

Sadly, many of us twist the Scriptures to convince ourselves God has promised to give us everything we want--and on our own schedules. Many former Bible-believers have stopped speaking to God because He failed to deliver what they were counting on. "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John 14:14) does not mean we can pray, "Lord, please let me win a million dollars in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes; In Jesus's name, Amen" and then go out and charge $500,000 on our credit cards since we'll soon have the money to pay it off. The Biblical--and sometimes contemporary--records of miraculous healings do not mean that every Christian is guaranteed to live, strong and vigorous, for a century or more. And the idea that "if God doesn't give you what you ask for, the only explanation is that you're doing something to hold Him back" has absolutely no Scriptural basis. A surprising number of Christians, far too wise to grant every craving their small children express, seem to consider their own judgment of "what's best for me" to be infallible.

Not that the devout of the first century did any better. The Jews of Jesus's time fully believed God's promise to send a Savior Who would free His people from oppression and set up a new Kingdom of peace and security. What they did wrong was to assume that freedom and security could mean nothing other than immediate relief from all earthly hardships. Nor was it only the enemies of Christ who made that mistake. Even at the very end of Jesus's earthly ministry, with the Resurrection an accomplished fact, some of His closest followers were still thinking in terms of "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6b). Like them, we become mentally fixated on our desires of the moment. We also forget how many times we have gotten what we wanted most--only to realize that we would have been better off without it.

Thank God that in the end, none of His promises will disappoint us.

We promise things lightly and forget them quickly,
The sacred word of honor grown rare.
We need a few lessons in keeping a promise;
Our word should be more than a breath of air.

The Lord is our great Example;
He has never broken His word.
He has made many promises to us--
Have you heard?

He promised to come as our Savior;
He promised of guilt we'd be rid;
He promised to die and to rise again--
And He did!

He promised to be with us always;
He promised to give strength to us;
He promised to lead us in paths of life--
And He does!

He promised to take us to Heaven;
He promised God's plan to fulfill;
He promised to come back to earth someday--
And He will!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thank You, Dear Lord

It's two days before Thanksgiving: what are you thankful for? A church acquaintance, volunteering at a ministry for the homeless, recently posed that very question to a group of clients who had as much excuse as anyone to insist there was absolutely nothing good in their lives. Still, a moment's thought revealed how much they still had: "Thank You, Lord, for my children." "Thank You, Lord, that I escaped a dangerous home situation." "Thank You, Lord, that I am still alive and healthy."

Many hospice workers and many missionaries to the poverty-stricken can tell similar stories. Sometimes it seems as if those who have little are more thankful than those who have much. Indeed, children of extremely wealthy families have a reputation for whining; high-powered executives are notorious for their high stress levels; and we "ordinary citizens" of materially blessed societies seem to have eyes only for the things we lack. I make no claims of immunity. At the moment, I am well along in the process of giving myself high blood pressure worrying about my blood pressure (leaving plenty of "anxiety room" for other health issues, along with financial fretting, business headaches, and fear of spoiled plans)--and full in the face of knowing better. To paraphrase St. Paul in Rom. 7:14-25, my mind and conscience know full well what my attitudes should be, but my emotions (and physiological functions) refuse to cooperate.

Is there any cure? As Paul implies, only the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit. God does, however, expect some cooperation on our part. Thinking frequently of "things above, not earthly things" (cf. Col. 3:2) is one of our responsibilities in the process. Being patient is another; rather than making instant major changes in us, God generally prefers to guide us slowly into deeper relationship with Him.

A third way to cooperate in our own sanctification is the simple thankfulness described above. Try it this week; instead of limiting "what I'm thankful for" to a one-sentence contribution at the Thanksgiving dinner table, expand your thankfulness over several days. Before every meal and before going to sleep, remember at least one thing in your life that you're thankful for.

And don't just "count your blessings." Say a direct "Thank You" to their Source.

Thank You, dear Lord, for the food You provide;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the needs You've supplied;
Thank You, dear Lord, for our gifts, and each skill:
May we use all, every day, as You will.

Thank You, dear Lord, for the lakes and the sea;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the birds that fly free;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the rainbows and stars:
All of the wonders in this world called ours.

Thank You, dear Lord, for our families and friends;
Thank You, dear Lord, for each joy Your love sends;
Thank You, dear Lord, for each hour that we live:
You give so freely--now teach us to give.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


My daily prayer for this week begins, "Lord, free me from the obsession of trying to stuff every task into a predetermined neat little time slot." I can get so fixated on "keeping the schedule" that I'd hesitate to leave my work if the room caught fire.

A more likely danger is that fretting over what should be done (and in what order) could lead to an ulcer or something worse. Insisting that everything be planned perfectly down to the last millisecond is the sort of thinking that nervous breakdowns are made of. Many of us make things worse by trying to fit in more than sober thinking tells us we can handle. But even for the world's top time managers, it's literally impossible to ensure that things will always go according to plan, that there will never be an unexpected power failure or phone call or flash flood. Only God is never surprised by a sudden need to make adjustments.

And here as everywhere, our fleshly appetites try to usurp His rights--and complain when He overrules us. We cling desperately to the delusion that we must be in control, that we must have that security.

The saddest part is that, in the process, we cheat ourselves out of the true security that comes with faith that God is in control.

All our lives we chase control:
Fixed within each human soul
Is the urge for mastery,
Drive to grasp the things we see
And desire. We fret and plan
For each tiny thing we can,
Thinking this will make us whole:
All our lives we chase control.

But this longing for control
In the fallen human soul
Still believes the ancient lie,
"Be as God; you shall not die."
No one can cheat death for long;
Nor is anyone so strong
Just to meet each earthly goal.
We are not in full control.

God alone is in control,
He Who makes the oceans roll,
He Who lit each fiery sun,
He Who has for everyone
Better things than those we chase,
If we quit this frantic race.
"Know the Lord" should be our goal;
Rest, and let Him take control.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't Fret if God Made You Lowly

Although we all agree in theory that "beauty is only skin deep," that seems to be deep enough for most of society. More than one research study has confirmed what the less attractive suspected all along--people who fit cultural ideas of "good-looking" get more promotions at work, better service in public, and more prospective friends and dates. "Beautiful people" also get away with more misbehavior--up to a point, that is. Some actions are so ugly that even Miss America would be ostracized for engaging in them.

Not all such actions are those which society calls blatantly evil. One thing that can quickly kill people's admiration for the prettiest of us is a perennial scowl combined with a snarling, complaining attitude. Conversely, those who are always cheerful and smiling tend to be seen as "attractive" even when they share few physical attributes with the typical fashion model. Perhaps it's not physical "beauty" per se that we admire, but the aura of confidence that typically grows from receiving regular positive attention. Or, more likely, the aura of unselfishness that grows along with happiness as someone learns to count blessings and share them with others.

In any case, the Bible is in full agreement that "charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting" (Prov. 31:30, NIV). Peter wrote that "beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes" (1 Pet. 3:3). Even Jesus was described as having "no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). From the beginning of His ministry, He identified with and reached out to the unattractive and undesirable.

Besides healing the obviously ill, Jesus also "healed" ugliness, and still does. He rarely changes our physical features, but He gives us those attributes that make anyone more beautiful: thankfulness, happiness, and concern for others rather than ourselves. "[The] inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit... is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Pet. 3:4). And often enough, even in the sight of the easily-distracted-by-glitter world.

As Proverbs 31:30 puts it after noting that physical beauty is untrustworthy and temporary: "a woman [or man] who fears the LORD is [always] to be praised."

Black oil does more for more people
Than diamonds or gleaming gold;
A chicken's more use than a peacock
To humans, if truth be told;
Collectors of trash, if absent,
Are missed sooner than CEO's:
So don't fret if God made you lowly--
It's through such that His best work grows!

Monday, November 2, 2009

As the Tree Stretches Toward the Heavens

Although we saw some heavy rains last week, Houston has now entered another period of glorious fall weather. As of Monday morning, I've hardly seen a cloud in three days.

In all their aspects—from the beautiful to the frightening to the inconspicuous to the delicate—those things without human makers stand among the best evidence of God's existence. Even in our overly urbanized society, we see enough of the sun and the rain, the flowers and the grass, the birds and the insects to confirm Paul's words in Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV): "what may be known about God is plain... because God has made it plain to [us]. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" for denying God's existence.

Not that they haven't tried. After all, a chance "big bang" and the blind processes of random selection are far less likely to make inconvenient demands on us than might a God with a mind and heart. If there is no personal God, we are free to do as we please—though we're quick enough to complain when, as Paul goes on to describe in Rom. 1:29-31, the effects of everyone else doing as he or she pleases start to look seriously ugly.

Others of us fail to give God the glory for Creation simply because we're "too busy" to pay attention to it. One much-quoted "prose poem" sometimes called "Letter from a Friend" (click here to read it) poignantly describes how much pain it must cause our Lord when we go about preoccupied with our human concerns, giving not a thought to the beauty with which He constantly surrounds us.

The Bible contains many references to Creation praising its Maker (see, for example, Ps. 69:34, Is. 55:12, and Lk. 19:40). May we who belong to Christ never be put to shame by trees and rocks.

As the tree stretches toward the heavens,
Pointing ever up toward the sky,
Let us lift up our hands in worship;
Let us give praise to God on High.

As the swallow soars through the heavens,
Swift and graceful as summer's wind,
Let us let our hearts soar in worship
Of the Lord on Whom we depend.

As the stars shine on in the heavens,
Glowing lovely and pure and bright,
Let us each be a sign of worship,
To show all of our world God's light.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

All Else Was Forgotten

St. Paul urges all Christians to "Be joyful always... give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16, 18, NIV). I have a painful tendency to come up short on both points. Even when there's nothing obvious to dread, the first mental message I get upon waking is usually "Why bother getting up? Nothing worthwhile ever happens to you anyway." Even when there's nothing obvious to complain about, I feel semi-depressed a good bit of the time. Blame bad habit, natural temperament, physical health, or all three--in any case, "life stinks" is not a pleasant attitude to live with.

Still, as with most negative personality traits, those of us who suffer from chronic pessimism tend to dread even more the prospect of changing. There's something comfortable about familiar territory even when we're miserable in it. The idea of moving up to new ground can generate a mental image of perpetual climbing, never reaching the top, never being able to rest, never really seeing things get perceptibly better. With this idea fixed in our heads, attempts at self-motivation prove sporadic at best.

The antidote is God-motivation, which is probably why Paul placed "Pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17) right in the middle of his call to joy and thanksgiving. The three are inseparable in a Christlike attitude, and there is no place for being sporadic; this approach is to be practiced "always... continually... in all circumstances."

Hard? No question. Slow progress? Almost certainly. The development of such practices--even coming to understand exactly what they look like in an individual life--usually is sporadic. But it becomes a bit easier when we remember that it's not our strength but God's that does the real work. The mistake most of us make is to let our circumstances, our weaknesses, and our emotions "get in our eyes" and block our view of God's strength, God's adequacy, and God's provision. Even our prayers often focus on our wishes for what we see as the best solutions--which leaves little time or inclination to praise God for Who He is and to thank Him for all He has already done.

Next time you find yourself thinking "I can't" in regard to a point of spiritual growth, don't argue directly. Read the Bible, look at the stars, or review what God has done for you in the past--and see if your gloom-and-doom feelings don't fade away in His light.

Job saw life's achievements all crumble around him;
It seemed God had left him when trouble had found him.
He cried out to Heaven for some explanation,
For justice, fair hearing, and quick vindication.
And God finally answered from out of the thunders,
Directing Job's vision to all the Lord's wonders.
Job quickly left off from bemoaning his story:
All else was forgotten in light of God's glory.

I cried out to Heaven for freedom from troubles,
And for quick relief from my doubts and my struggles.
My longing for ease was obscuring my vision
Of God's mighty strength and His endless provision.
Then He urged, "Remember the ways I have brought you,
The deeds I have done and the things I have taught you."
I felt so ashamed in recalling life's story:
All else was forgotten in light of God's glory.

Our Father is Master of everything living;
Our Lord, the Almighty, is constantly giving;
Yet we, wretched mortals, crave comfort and pleasure
And give little thought to God's Heavenly Treasure.
Stop praying for things that you think you're "deserving,"
And look to your Lord and His purpose unswerving,
And open your Bible--get lost in His Story--
Let all be forgotten except His own glory.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Seventh Day

This past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Houston was blessed with perfect fall weather: virtually cloudless, clear blue sky every day, combined with just-above-chilly temperatures and the near absence of detectable humidity. Especially after the recent heat wave, it would have been almost sinful to spend any of those days indoors.

So I started the weekend a day early. And I don't feel a bit guilty about it.

One advantage of being self-employed is not having any real ethical dilemma in the occasional spontaneous day off. But a surprising number of people feel guilty about taking even officially alloted vacation time. The typical "workaholic" is convinced that his or her career, if not the entire company's financial well-being, depends on being constantly on call to prevent catastrophe--and is blind to the impending personal catastrophes of relationship and health failure. Small wonder that more enlightened employers sometimes reach the point of literally ordering staff members to take time off.

The example was set by the wisest Employer of all. When God included "take every seventh day off" among the Ten Commandments, He knew that regular breaks were vital not only to our physical health but to our spiritual health as well. And an important aspect of spiritual health is remembering Who our real Boss is. Read carefully the above description of a workaholic, and you'll notice that the primary characteristic of such a mindset is an "everything depends on me" attitude.

So one reason for periodically stopping our work is to let God remind us, "No, you need to leave everything to Me."

One day for light, one for the sky, and one for all that grew,
And one for sun and moon and stars, back when the world was new;
One day for birds and water beasts, and one for beasts of land
And human life: and then one day for rest, at God’s command.

God gives His blessing to our work; but on one day in seven
He gives a time of holy rest for those who look to Heaven;
To those who follow in His ways, to those who seek His mind,
He says, “Withdraw from work today, the best My will to find.”

The seventh day, the day of rest, He blessed before the Fall;
And to His people long ago, He gave command that all
Would set apart that time again, all work to put away
To worship Him without distraction, on the seventh day.

God gives the time we need for work, but also time to rest
While we walk through this fractured world as those His love has blessed;
But work and rest will soon be one, when time will pass away,
And Seven Spirits guard the Throne, in God’s Eternal Day!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

God Is Working His Way in Us

"Most Christians who need counseling have one thing in common," writes Jay E. Adams in his booklet Christ and Your Problems. "Their conversation is studded with the word 'can't.'"

Most experienced counselors, Christian or otherwise, would agree that "I can't" is frequently the lazy person's euphemism for "I don't want to bother trying; I don't want to do my share of the work." When a Christian talks this way, it also implies a lack of faith: "I don't believe God is strong enough to change me, or fair to expect me to change, or going to be much help in the process."

But there's another side to the "I can't do what God wants me to do" complaint. Many of us are willing, even eager, to change; come to the point of admitting we really can't do it unless God works in us; announce our full surrender to His will in the matter--and then, when we don't see instant and obvious perfection as a result, sink into discouragement over how often we still fall short. We even start to suspect that God is annoyed with us for not trying hard enough.

Perhaps we're trying too hard--trying to rush ahead of Him in the process. When it comes to spiritual growth, God is fond of the slow-and-steady approach; our problem is that our limited perspectives have little eye for slow progress. It's like losing weight after having been obese and sedentary for years. If the dieter chooses any reasonably healthy approach, the excess fat will come off bit by bit, ounce by ounce; and with new muscle building up at the same time, the scales may not even show much weight difference. It can be easy to conclude, "It's been nearly a month and every day I look the same as the day before; I'm not making any progress at all"--until someone we haven't seen in weeks greets us with, "I hardly recognized you; you look so much thinner!"

God does plan to make us perfect--in eternity. But why does He let us struggle so much in the here and now? Perhaps because the first sin to arise in humanity, and the last to be conquered in the individual, is pride. Like the Israelites in Dt. 8:10-18, who were prone to take personal credit for God's physical blessings, we might easily be tempted to start considering ourselves fully responsible for leaps-and-bounds progress--and slide into the same trap that caught the Pharisees, who in trying their best to "be good" turned themselves into the lowest of sinners.

The only proper approach to changing for the better is full submission to God at all times--and that includes willingly accepting His chosen pace.

God is working His way in us
By paths that we cannot see;
God is using each circumstance
To make us all we can be:
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll bring us His full, true light,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days
As we worship the Lord of might.

God is working His way in us:
Though struggles seem hard to bear,
God is building our lasting strength:
Doubt never that He does care.
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll call us up to His side,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days
As we rest in our holy Guide.

God is working His way in us
To purge us from love of sin;
God is cleaning our minds and souls
To wash out all taint within:
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He shall bring us home at last,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days,
With the hardships of life all past.

God is working His way in us:
So let us fulfill each task
That He gives us to do for Him:
He sends all the strength we ask.
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll send out His final call,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days,
And our Lord will be All in All!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

You Have Heard It Said

In Mt. 5:21-48 (NIV), Jesus said six times, "You have heard that it was said [or, 'It has been said']... But I tell you..."

J. B. Phillips wrote a "Most People Think" list presenting the world's version of the Beatitudes: "Happy are the pushers: for they get on in the world... Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end... Happy are the trouble-makers: for people have to take notice of them." (See Phillips's book Your God Is Too Small, p. 92 in the 2004 Touchstone Edition, for the full list.)

So often do our natural, pride-infested human instincts run dead opposite to God's way. In our own society, there's an epidemic of the idea that thinking primarily of oneself is a virtue. While most people do know better than to advocate actually ignoring and abusing others, anyone who states outright that "the convenience/needs/lives of others is/are far more important than mine" (cf. Phil. 2:3) is likely to be pounced upon and chided: "Sounds like you have an inferiority complex." "You'll never get anywhere until you convince yourself you deserve the best." "Don't you know you can't really help others unless you first take care of your own needs?" Admittedly, many have burnt themselves out because they were such people-pleasers or so "driven" that they never said no to anybody. This is really just one more manifestation of "the world says selfishness is good for you": we think that we have to make everyone happy, or our lives will be ruined for lack of popularity and success; and meanwhile God is trying to tell us that our souls are overdue for rest and prayer.

Small wonder we listen more to the world's voice than to God's, since the receivers of our sin-infested souls are better tuned to the world's frequency. No amount of experience seems to teach us that the world's "how to be happy" program just doesn't work.

The only remedy is to "adjust the dial" by studying and following God's guidelines in the Bible.

You have heard it said, "Have faith in yourself,
And believe you deserve the best;
Make sure you get all the praise you're due,
And that medals adorn your chest."
But Christ says to us, "Think not of yourself,
But, in love for the human race,
Live your life to serve, in humility,
And to others reach out in grace."

You have heard it said, "Stand up for yourself,
Or you'll find that nobody will;
Make sure that no one walks over you;
Take no insult just standing still."
But Christ says to us, "Think not of yourself,
But of everyone else's good:
Never take revenge; never grouse or gripe,
But show love as your Father would."

You have heard it said, "You must plan your life,
And set goals for yourself each year;
Always know what you'll achieve each day,
And let nobody interfere."
But Christ says to us, "Only God can know
What the week or year may bring;
Do not clutch your plans as if they were life;
Trust the will of your Heavenly King."

You have heard it said, "You just can't trust God:
He will take away all your fun.
If you live your life for 'Heaven's rewards,'
Here on earth you'll be left with none."
But Christ says to us, "When God lives in you,
All your joy will be complete."--
Yes, the world's own "joy" is a hollow thing,
But God's Heavenly gift is so sweet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Sufficient Grace

"[God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.... For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9-10, NIV).

"Sufficient" is almost a dirty word today. Try posting in a chat room that "$50,000 a year per person is enough for any household; those who earn more should give the rest away"--and brace yourself for a firestorm of "You must be crazy" responses. Nobody really wants to believe that wealth and success cause more problems than they solve, that average achievement is good enough, that constant striving for "better things" is bad news waiting to happen. At least, no one really wants to believe that these principles apply to them. No matter how many people prove by example that there's no such thing as "enough wealth/success/popularity to make you happy," the vast majority of humanity remains certain of being the exception to the rule.

Such a "more for me" attitude is a widespread manifestation of the self-centeredness that equals pride--and no one is saying much against it. God calls pride of heart detestable (cf. Prov. 16:5); we call it a virtue. While we still detest the blatantly arrogant, we chide the self-deprecating soul to "have more faith in yourself," and we become indignant if someone suggests that "thinking our way to success" is a selfish idea.

Paul, who saw more than the average number of ups and downs in his lifetime, knew better. He was so confident that God's grace--God's constant presence, support, and forgiveness--was the only thing needed to meet all his needs, that he actually was grateful for his inabilities and hard times. His problems helped keep him humble, after all; and only the humble experience God's grace to the full.

The next time you're about to pray for relief from a problem, why not start by thanking God in advance for whatever He's going to do through it? He may not show us His real purpose for years--perhaps not even in this life--but we can be confident that in His never-failing grace He is always up to something good.

When the weight you carry seems too much to bear,
When you see no answer to your desperate prayer,
When your life seems haunted by unceasing pain--
Trust God has a purpose and will make it plain.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

When your will is failing fast beneath a test,
That is when the Spirit's strength is at its best;
When you have no basis left for human pride,
You are at your strongest through God's power inside.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

Do not fret and worry when your strength is small;
Do not curse your weakness--God ordains it all;
Take your trials in gladness as His gift of love;
Strength is found in weakness through His power above.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

Monday, September 21, 2009

God Has Great Blessings in Store for Us

"The trouble with opportunity," says an old quote, "is that it always comes disguised as hard work." The Christian equivalent of that principle is: The trouble with many of God's blessings is that He rarely bestows them in the absence of any action on our part. Not, of course, that even the laziest among us don't enjoy such blessings as air and water (cf. Mt. 5:44-45), nor that the most diligent of us can do anything to earn God's favor; nor, for that matter, that those who seem to be experiencing few blessings are always "lazy" by the normal definition of the word. Workaholics who put in seventy-hour weeks three times a month are as likely as anybody to be whining that their lives are miserable and God isn't doing a thing about it.

Usually what we want Him to do about it is to make things perfect according to our own definitions, to get rid of all frustration and fill our lives with prosperity and happiness--preferably with minimal effort on our part. And we let this shallow dream of "the good life" so fill our vision that we blind ourselves to the far greater vision God wants to give us: a lifelong experience of the incredible excitement, joy, and security that comes only with total submission to our Lord's will. Therein lies the true action we have to take to realize God's greatest blessings: an active submission that not only does whatever He asks of us, instantly without argument or question, but that fills the time between obvious "marching orders" with prayer and Bible study and an ongoing determination to know Him better at all costs.

No, doing this doesn't mean we'll always get the blessings we want. It does mean we'll get the real blessings--the ones God most wants to give us.

God has great blessings in store for us,
And He brings new gifts each day;
And new joys will spawn with each rising dawn
If we eagerly seek His way.
But if we grumble to see the sun,
If we long to sleep some more,
If we dote on rest, we will miss the best
Of the riches He holds in store.

God has great blessings in store for us,
And He longs each life to fill,
And the joy we ask will flow through each task
When we eagerly do His will.
But if we grumble our way through work
And despise all labor brings,
If we live for ease, and ourselves to please,
We reject such amazing things!

God has great blessings in store for us;
And the thankful, humble heart
Will rejoice each day to pursue His way,
And be eager His work to start.
But those who grumble because they want
To take charge of life in whole,
Only rob their days of God's glorious praise
That brings joy to each faithful soul!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Come Aside

I recently started a program of regular fasting--not from food but from an aspect of life where I have an even worse "can't stand to do without it" idolatry problem. Sunday mornings and every fourth Friday are now times for fasting from information input: no reading except the Bible, no computer time, no telephone, no forms of media except Christian music. I have some maturing to do before I can look forward to these "fast periods" with joy; often, the evening immediately preceding is marked by a pervasive dread of being bored to death.

Most of us are effectively terrified of stillness and silence. When we cram our brains with outside input in the manner of soldiers throwing up a defense barricade, when we attack our daily duties with all-out fight-or-flight adrenalin, is it all due to fear of falling behind or seeming lazy? Or are we, somewhere on the semiconscious level, afraid that God's "still small Voice" will get through and tell us to go the last place we want to go, to do the last thing we want to do, to give up forever something we doubt we could live without? Many a person shrinks from medical exams as though they somehow caused life-threatening illness; the spiritual equivalent is convincing ourselves that ignoring God will save us from both the pain of following His instructions and the sin of defying Him outright. But just as a treatable medical condition may grow into a lethal one while someone continues to pretend it can't be there, "protecting" ourselves from God's input will only free our spiritual problems to grow steadily worse.

Better to take periodic, even indefinite, breaks from earthly loves on our own volition, than to let them grow to the point where they endanger our very souls. It's not a pleasant experience when God forcibly rips something away for our own good.

The world is a rush of flash and noise,
From traffic to buzzing phone,
And everyone clamoring for your ear,
And high shortage of time alone.
If you want to rest from the endless din,
And listen to God's soft Voice,
You must come aside through your own free will,
Your own effort and your own choice.

The mind quickly fills with flash and noise,
And hummings of idle thought,
And worries and fears and the daily rush,
And the duties that life has brought.
If you want to shut out the endless din,
And hear when God speaks to you,
You must still your thoughts through your own free will,
And trust Him to direct you true.

The mad din of the world is bad enough,
But when it invades the brain
Through its endless siege, then the din within
Is still louder in its refrain.
And it is hard work to find time for rest:
But if you would do God's will,
You must trust that He will give you His strength
So your soul may at last be still!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Not for Our Own Righteous Living

"The Law of Attraction" has entered the lexicon of phrases that everyone recognizes and many treat like a creed. At its most extreme, the concept regards positive thinking as magic and human beings as gods. That in terms of the general population, the confident and cheerful are healthier and more accomplished than brooding pessimists is hard to deny; that you must therefore bring on yourself literally everything that happens to you seems a bit of a leap in logic. Nonetheless, the idea has its own attraction, especially for people who have never suffered any real tragedy and like to think themselves safe as long as they keep thinking positive. If Job were alive today, his "comforters," rather than assuming he was being punished for some active evil, might well seize on his statement that "What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me" (Job 3:25, NIV) and tell him that it only happened because he dreaded it.

It isn't only neopagans--those who believe that all physical aspects of the universe, including us, are simply manifestations of one central energy source--who think in these terms. Many people push the same idea in Christian dress: didn't Jesus Himself say many times, "Your faith has healed you" (e. g., Mt. 9:22); didn't He say that faith could move mountains (Mt. 21:21); and isn't it true that the reason He performed few miracles in Nazareth was "their lack of faith" (Mt. 13:58)? So doesn't it logically follow that a lack of faith can block God from doing the good He wants to do for us?

Well, no, it really doesn't, unless we throw out much of the rest of Scripture. If God "can do all things [and] no plan of [His] can be thwarted" (Job 42:2); if "nothing is impossible with God" (Lk. 1:37); if He created the whole universe from nothing and will someday defeat all evil forever and give us a new heaven and earth--it's more than a little ludicrous to think that a single human being could generate enough bad attitude to paralyze Him. Especially since the whole human race together hasn't even figured out how to build a cost-effective automobile that runs without waste or pollution.

Still, we all love our delusions of personal grandeur. We hate to let go of them even when we mature enough to realize that faith is more than a tool for gaining earthly health and wealth; when it comes to genuine spiritual growth, we tend to assume God wants us to get rid of all our own shortcomings overnight. I, for one, know well the "guilt fallout" from doing the same wrong thing for the ten-thousandth time; the discouragement of living with a brain that seems determined to consistently steer my thoughts away from wholehearted worship and into trivial daydreams; the despair of longing for a personal "spiritual progress" yardstick to reassure me I've grown even a little in the past few months; the impatience of wanting to see a few major growth spurts right now; the frustration of not even knowing whether I'm really coming up short or simply expecting too much of myself.

Ultimately, that's where most of our problems lie: ever since Eve fell for the line about a quick bite of fruit bringing omniscience, we've expected too much of ourselves because we've considered ourselves God's equals. John 15:1-7 is worthwhile study for those of us who think we can perfect our own lives (in terms of either worldly success or spiritual maturity) with maybe a little help from God. To paraphrase: first we give ourselves to Christ and let Him cancel the eternal penalty of our sin; then we concentrate, not on making ourselves perfect, but on staying close to Christ and getting to know Him. Then He will do the work of perfecting us--providing we don't forget that we are literally helpless without Him, providing we don't unplug ourselves from our only Source of power by wandering off into self-generated attempts at "making things better." If we let our own plans and ideas usurp His place at the center of our lives, we risk becoming spiritually useless; if we make Him all that counts, then we can pray in faith and see great results. But we must never forget that "asking for whatever we wish" is to be saved for after we submit ourselves and our wishes to His authority.

We all like to think that we can find a way to put God in our debt. But since He owes us literally nothing, shouldn't we be all the more thankful that He gives us so much?

Not for our own righteous living,
Not for good deeds we have done,
But in His own love and mercy,
God sets us free through His Son.

We, who dare think ourselves worthy,
We, who dare call ourselves good,
All are the filthiest sinners--
Not one has done as we should.

Helpless to be our own saviors,
Nor can we, working alone,
Grow into Christlike perfection:
All of our strength is His own.

Even in glories eternal,
Even when sin is no more,
All of our power will be from Him,
He Who our every fault bore.

Trust Him to keep you from sinning;
Trust Him to guide all your days;
Trust Him to hold you forever--
He Who alone earns the praise!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sticks and Stones

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me"--so goes the childhood response to taunts and name-calling. And the Bible would seem to agree: Prov. 26:2 (NIV) says, "Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest."

Yet in the light of everyday experience, the claim that "words can never hurt" seems almost a mockery. The emotional pain of craving approval and receiving abuse is bad enough; but try telling someone who was forced out of a promising career by the fallout from a jealous colleague's slander, or who was beaten unconscious by a mob stirred up by hate speech, that "words can't do you any harm."

Perhaps the childhood chant should go (even if it spoils the rhythm): "Words alone can never hurt me." Even then, there's the caveat "unless I let them." Which is very hard not to do. Human nature wants to be liked, respected, and admired by everyone, which is why many people will do almost anything--even things they know are wrong--to avoid being criticized. Like the first-century Jews who avoided following Jesus openly for fear of being ostracized (Jn. 12:42-43), most of us "love praise from men more than praise from God."

We would do great things for the Kingdom far more often if the only words we cared about hearing (even at the cost of literal sticks and stones or worse) were the Lord's words from Mt. 25:21 and 25:23:

"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"

Sticks and stones may break our bones:
Words have a strength that's stranger;
Though they may not draw spurting blood,
They bulge with hidden danger.
The human fear of "what folks think"
Can make a soul grow sour
Until the lust for mortal praise
Consumes each day and hour.

Sticks and stones broke many bones
Of those who spoke for Jesus,
Who stood against opinion's tide
Proclaiming love that frees us.
Those souls who walk the way of God
And live with humble spirit
Draw angry words, but yet are blessed:
They do God's Word and hear it.

Sticks and stones may break our bones,
Or words sting hard and cruel,
If we disdain all earthly praise
To seek the Heavenly Jewel.
But when we turn our ears to Christ--
Our Lord, the Word made living--
No human power can do us harm,
For God His strength is giving.

Those who seek to save their lives,
Or even reputations,
So often trade eternal praise
For earthly commendations.
But those who live for God alone,
Though all they love be broken,
Will gain the greatest prize of all
When Earth's last words are spoken.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


More than a week after returning from vacation (see last entry), I still haven't gotten completely back into the flow of regular work (if the way I approach self-employment can be said to be all that regular). Probably having four doctors' appointments last week (and one more to get through this Thursday) contributed to that. Even more significant, perhaps, is the onus of the mere phrase "work days." By all rights I should love my work: after all, I am a professional writer and the written word has been my great passion at least since I learned to read--which was at a far younger age than average, earlier than my conscious memory can reach. And my work offers flexible hours, a variety of projects and events, and the opportunity for learning--all of which I thrive on.

But I don't thrive on stress. And self-employment also brings the fear of failure, the agony of hoping the budget will stretch until the latest slow-paying client comes through, and the uncertainty of constantly looking for new work.

I shouldn't complain too much, though. There are plenty of people whose work is nothing but stress--who have never truly enjoyed a work day in their lives, who hate every aspect of their jobs. Some have ample reason to: their daily commutes take an hour each way through poky, honking, pollution-spewing traffic; their supervisors are bullies and their coworkers are schemers; and they are in the wrong professional fields altogether, having taken work totally contrary to their natural talents and interests simply because it was available or paid well. Many job-haters would be better off elsewhere, but human nature prefers being miserable in familiar surroundings to staking everything on a plunge into the unknown. So people grouse about their work all week and live only to escape into weekends and vacations.

Such "escape" thinking is one reason many of us don't really find our "days of rest" very restful--at least not to the point where we wake up the next day refreshed and eager to get back to work. "I wish I could make this last forever and never have to go back to my stupid job" probably wasn't exactly the attitude God wanted to cultivate in His people by giving them every seventh day off (Ex. 20:8-11). The Sabbath was meant to keep us from wearing ourselves out with constant motion, yes; but it was also intended as a time of reduced distractions so we could have the opportunity of getting to know God better. And that includes coming to understand the individual purposes and work He has planned for each of us. (See Eph. 2:10.)

It's hard to enjoy rest to the fullest if we refuse to enjoy the "rest" of life at all.

God gave six days a week for work, and one in which to rest;
And He gave equal hours to each, but only one was blessed--
That seventh day He set aside to cut life's throbbing swell:
So work for Jesus, certainly; but rest for Him as well.

God gave the seventh day for rest, for worship, and for play
(Be careful not to work at fun, or that could spoil the day)--
True rest to soothe the heart and mind, to stop and feed the soul:
But, work or rest, do all for God; and trust Him with the whole.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Having recently returned from a week-and-a-half trip to North America's Pacific Northwest, I now have a week of medical appointments before I can seriously consider resuming a regular work schedule. Once we in the industrialized world pass age forty, it sometimes seems that we spend as much time in doctors' offices when healthy as when sick. The price tag of increased maturity is the need to actually start taking care of ourselves.

And not only in matters of physical well-being. One rite of passage escaped by few is the day when we can no longer take life for granted. Most of us have our first experiences in that area long before officially growing up. The three-year-old wails with disappointment on being told that Mom or Dad, who always seemed able to "take care of everything," cannot reverse the cancellation of a favorite television program; the eight-year-old broods in despair when a thunderstorm breaks just before a much-anticipated picnic. Other youngsters suffer far more shattering shocks: a friend dies of a rare illness; a parent announces "I won't be living here anymore" and disappears forever; or, worse, parents are divorcing and no one wants the kid. And though many people survive childhood and adolescence without experiencing such severe pain, for anyone who lives more than a decade or two the day almost inevitably comes when job loss, severe illness, betrayal, or the death of a loved one makes the emotional foundations of life tremble.

For other people, the shakeup comes so insidiously that it's hardly felt until it's over; the definition of "mid-life crisis" is waking up one morning and realizing that one has passed the age when a long-cherished dream has much chance of ever becoming reality. William Herbert Carruth (1859-1924) described in poetry the path of disillusionment that eats many lives bit by bit (the full text is under "Ghosts of Dreams" at http://theotherpages.org/poems/carruth1.html):

The heart of a child is unhaunted, it seems,
By ghosts of dreams that are dead....
The youth is no longer a youth, but a man,
When the first of his dreams is dead....
There's not much to do but to bury a man,
When the last of his dreams is dead.

Thank God that for His people the latter years of life need not be sacrificed in mourning what will never come to be. Not only does God have plans for us far greater than we ever imagined, but He will accept even those who wait until their physical lives are all but over to come to Him--and He will make something unfathomably beautiful out of what seemed the total waste of their lives. As Joel 2:25a (NIV) puts it, He "will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten."

The results won't always be obvious in this world. But with God, the real world is still to come.

To most children this life seems boundless
And real change is a distant dream,
And an innocence rules that endures until
The first loss cuts through joy's bright gleam.

When we're young, those we love surround us,
And we trust them us to guide us on;
And life's first sharp pain stabs into the heart
When someone whom we loved is gone.

As we grow into men and women,
Youth's bright hope makes the world seem grand,
Yet the joy still is marred as from time to time
Loved ones pass to an unseen land.

As the years of our lives move onward,
Muscles weaken and hairs grow gray,
And we grieve for more loss, and we know for sure
That we also must go some day.

When the innocent gleam of childhood
Has been dulled in our aging eyes,
Even in our joy lives a hint of pain
And the knowledge each earth-thing dies.

Once our much-loved elders have left us
And few friends of our youth remain,
We look in our own children's trusting eyes
And we weep for their coming pain.

Yet as we mourn our earth-days' passing,
A new light burns more bright within,
As our love of this life slowly moves aside
For a vision beyond its end.

Like our childhood dreams returning,
But now brighter and far more pure,
We can see at last, with a wiser gaze,
The true world where joy will endure--

That great world that is truly boundless,
Where this life is a distant dream,
Where all live on forever young and strong
In the light of God's Heavenly gleam.

Those we love will once more surround us
When "goodbye" is a long-dead word,
When we regain more than we ever lost,
Where no sob of despair is heard.

When at last we are called to that Kingdom,
Those we leave will mourn as we part;
But they too will follow and join us all
In the place closest to God's heart!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Our Father God, the Lord of All

Another "lyrics for a traditional hymn tune" poem (see entry for July 28), this one inspired by the tune "Mit Freud­en Zart," to which is set the hymn "Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above." Discerning readers will notice that my poem also follows the "Trinity" pattern used in another famous hymn, "Come, Thou Almighty King." That is, each of the first three verses praises one Person of the Holy Trinity, while the final verse praises the "Three in One" ("One in Three" in the "Almighty King" hymn).

Our God is a highly multifaceted God, which is one reason we writers never run out of new ways to talk about Him. All-powerful yet gentle and compassionate; the Bringer of avenging justice yet the Pardoner who willingly took the punishment for human wrongdoing; the One Who brings thunder and earthquake and yet (Is. 42:3 and Mt. 12:20) will not break a bruised reed. Many people think that the Old Testament God is "all justice" and the New Testament God is "all mercy." Anyone who reads the entire Bible will quickly see the fallacy in this idea.

Let's not be too quick, however, to criticize those who assert it. A one-sided view of God is a temptation any of us can fall prey to. Some Christians emphasize persecution to an extent that can leave us wondering if it's a sin to get through a day without being spat on; other Christians torment the suffering by insisting that God wants every believer to be healthy and wealthy and that those who aren't have only their own sin or lack of faith to blame. Some Christians assert "God hates the sexually impure" to an extent that not only makes enemies of those who don't wish to reform but discourages those who do from seeking God's help; other Christians lay such emphasis on God's grace that they tempt us to think He doesn't really care if we sin (cf. Rom. 6:1-2). With all of us, the temptation abounds to focus on those verses of Scripture we personally find "convenient" and to ignore the rest.

What we should be ignoring is any suggestion that God is either easy to figure out or in automatic support of our every opinion.

Our Father God, the Lord of All, reigns high above Creation,
The Lord of time, the Lord of space, the God of every nation;
His power and might no human mind can ever probe, nor see behind
The ways of our Foundation.

Our Savior God, the Son of Man, is Lord of all things living,
The Lord of love, the Lord of peace, His mercy freely giving;
His heart is warm, His heart is kind; He urges us to seek and find,
And sing to Him thanksgiving.

Our Leader God, the Comforter, is Heaven’s own strength within us,
The Lord of strength, the Lord of hope, the Lord Who woos to win us;
His power comes forth like burning fire; and in His strength we never tire,
For He is living in us.

The Lord of Lords, the Three in One, deserves all awe and wonder:
He lit the stars that brighten space; His voice speaks in the thunder;
Yet still He stooped to raise us high; and we, in Him, will never die,
We whom His love live under.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Spot of Beauty

I don't follow the news much these days. I find it depressing and worrisome to be constantly reminded of what's going wrong in the world, and worse, of what else might go wrong. Perhaps those of you who pray for the world daily and specifically will criticize me, but I don't think every believer is emotionally equipped to be constantly on the front lines of that battle. Even in physical war, armies need quartermasters to handle the supplies, and chaplains to tend to spiritual needs, as well as fighting soldiers.

In or outside God's army, I know of many people who are positively addicted to the news. Few who spend much time in airports, restaurants, and similar venues will disagree that CNN is the most popular channel on televisions in public places. I doubt that many of the people staring at these screens are really praying about the tragedies depicted. More likely, the majority of viewers are feeding their fascination with disaster, or an addiction to information-gathering, or even a desperate search for reassurance that nothing awful will happen. I used to follow that last approach myself, but mostly I just found new excuses to worry.

Still, the news does have its bright spots: the sweepstakes winner who was living on a scanty Social Security check and yet gave every penny of her prize to those needier than herself; the youth counseling program credited with increasing high school graduation in its inner-city neighborhood by ten percent; the discovery of a new treatment for a long-feared disease. People aren't fascinated only by disaster and pain. They need regular doses of compassion and beauty as well.

As Christians we should be providing them with many of those doses. Jesus calls His followers to be lights displaying God's beauty to the world (see Mt. 5:14-16). And, just as stars are brightest on the darkest nights, often those spiritual lights shine the most beautifully where the world seems the most hopeless.

You may feel that your capabilities are small and that your light will never get brighter than a barely visible magnitude 6 star. But even the faintest star is a blazing sun at close range.

In a garden filled with weeds,
In a garden long untended,
One green shoot stood out alone,
In the days when winter ended.

In a spot sown by the wind,
In a spot so long neglected,
That one shoot grew straight and tall,
Like life’s beauty resurrected.

In a patch of tangled thorns,
Which no human hand had molded,
One white bud sprang from that shoot,
One white flower its bloom unfolded.

In that corner of neglect,
In that corner long forgotten,
Where it seemed all life was bleak,
Where it seemed all growth was rotten,

Sprang one pure and lovely bloom:
Though no human eye observed it,
Yet its beauty shone the more—
No competing rose obscured it.

So may we, within a world
Where love’s strength seems often feeble,
Be the lights that shine for hope,
Candles in our Lord's cathedral.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Our God, Who Is One

Having already contributed several poems to my home church's quarterly newsletter, I recently gave the following selection to the music ministry with the suggestion it be sung to the tune "Lyons" (best known among traditional-hymn lovers as the tune used for "O Worship the King").

"Pure worship" songs are relatively rare these days. We thank God for His blessings; we even praise Him for what He has done for us; but we forget to praise Him solely for Who He is. The danger here is that we may be tempted to start thinking it's all about us. If we neglect to keep up the habit of pure praise when times are "good," it will be harder to remember that God is good when we hit those periods where everything seems to go wrong.

When God suddenly seems to toss aside all we expect of Him--when everything happening around us seems to contradict the idea that a good God even exists--do we decide we must have been self-deluded to ever trust Him? Or do we hang on to the solid Truth that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28, NIV)? The answer may depend on whether we were in the habit of looking at the "big picture"--God is all-knowing, God sees all things from beginning to end, God is so far above us that we can't hope to understand everything He does--or of thinking of His goodness and provision solely in relation to things we like to see happen. In the latter case, we may set ourselves up as accomplices in the murder of our own faith.

Granted, it's hard for the best of us to remember--really remember from our hearts--that God is still pure and caring and all-powerful when our lives are engulfed in tragedy. The book of Job is worth studying here. When the reverent and God-fearing Job was struck by disaster, his initial reaction was "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.... Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 1:20; 2:10); but as his pain dragged on and his friends tormented him with accusations of bringing it on himself, his attitude began to dissolve into "why me?" complaining. Then, in chapters 38-41, God steps in to remind Job Who is in charge of the universe and how weak humans are in comparison. Although Job doesn't learn why he went through all he did, he does come to know God in a new way--which is ultimately enough.

God is not worthy of worship only because He gives us things that make us happy. He is worthy of worship because He is God.

Our God, Who is One, yet Three, for all time,
Is greater by far than grasp of the mind.
The One Who is worthy, Revealer of all,
Is building a Kingdom that never will fall.

He brought forth the world from out of the void;
He sent forth the Flood that cleaned and destroyed.
He chose His own people and gave them His Word;
He led them and fed them, and His voice was heard.

He spoke words that warned; He spoke words that healed,
That pardoned and judged, that blazed and revealed.
And when all seemed hopeless and lost in the night,
He sent the true Word to bring mortals His light.

He walked on this earth; He reached out in love;
He suffered and died to lift us above.
He came from the tomb--He was stronger than death--
Then sent forth fresh power by the wind of His breath.

He still sends His strength to all who believe,
With pardon and peace for those who receive.
His Presence within us, we do glorious things
Through gifts that the Spirit of Holiness brings.

The day soon will come--the time’s drawing near--
When He will return and drive out all fear.
His Kingdom, eternal, forever will stand,
And we will reign with Him in His glorious land.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The online dictionary at answers.com defines "wilderness" as "an unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition," especially when barren or empty or covered with dense vegetation; or as "something characterized by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion." Although the word is not without positive connotations in our ecosystem-conscious era--North America even maintains official "wilderness areas" where no development or motorized vehicles are permitted--many people still equate physical emptiness with bewilderment, peril, and other unpleasant I-am-not-in-control-here feelings.

Small wonder that before quick contact with and transportation back to "civilization" was an option, the majority of humanity regarded "wilderness" as an enemy to be either avoided completely or "tamed" out of existence. Answers.com notes that the word itself was probably derived from the Old English for "wild beast"--it's not hard to conclude that our ancestors considered the wilderness unfit for any other sort of inhabitant. Even today, few people would seriously consider living in any "wilderness" long-term.

Among the exceptions were many Biblical characters. Some were "exiled" to the desert under God's discipline; the Israelites of Moses's time are the classic example. In Numbers 14, having just completed their first long walk through the wilderness and on the verge of receiving the best God had promised them, they balked because it looked too hard to lay hold of. Worse, they effectively called God a liar by implying He had no intention of delivering on His promises. As punishment, God sentenced them to spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness they were afraid to step out of.

The majority of Biblical wilderness experiences, though, had more positive outcomes. Moses and David both grew more attuned to God's voice through years of shepherding in the wilds. Elijah received a fresh dose of encouragement and a new vision of God after a forty-day walk through the desert (1 Kings 19). And who can forget the forty days, commemorated in the Christian practice of Lent, that Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing spiritually for His ministry?

Probably few believers today are called to spend six weeks or more in open country with absolutely no human contact. (Probably even among Biblical believers, relatively few were actually called to such sojourns--there are no records of long solitary "wilderness experiences" in the lives of Abraham, Samuel, Jeremiah, or Peter, to name just a few Scriptural "greats.") But the real lesson is that the solitude humans often dread--isolation not only from other people, but from everyday conveniences and distractions--can be one of God's best tools in our spiritual growth. Anyone serious about spiritual disciplines knows the necessity of occasionally, albeit temporarily, giving up something we normally take for granted--from a day's worth of meals to an hour of television to some of our church activities--so we can give God our undivided attention and come to further understand that He is sufficient for all our true needs. In this sense, even a single afternoon of fasting and prayer is a "wilderness" of sorts.

As Michael Card's song "In the Wilderness" puts it, God's all-sufficient grace is the "painful purpose"--and "painful promise"--"of the wilderness."

Out from the city bustle, busy and rushed all day--
Out from the workday's hustle, and out from the world of play--
Out from life's ease and comfort--out from the world of wealth--
God calls His children to step out and nourish their spiritual health.

Out to the desert places, where little lives or grows,
Free from most human faces, and where little water flows,
God calls His children to Him: "Come to the wilds and see
New things that I wish to show you; and find your refreshment in Me."

Free from the world's distractions, free from life's wealth and ease,
Free from all squabbling factions, we find in our God new peace.
Here, as we wait in patience, He fills the heart and soul,
Shows us His grace all-sufficient, and brings our minds under control.

Fear not to wait in hunger; He is our Living Bread.
Waste not a thought to wonder about the rough path you tread.
Look on your Master only; worship and wait in awe,
And He then will grant you the vision the saints of the wilderness saw!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Step Aside a Little While

Finally, the hectic schedule I've been on since May is showing signs of slowing. At least for a few weeks. I don't hold any delusions that I'll be able to move permanently into a twenty-hours-a-week, eight-months-a-year work schedule any time soon--nor would it be wise to seriously hope for that, considering the Biblical injunctions against laziness and the fact that when I was in elementary school, it took somewhere around ten weeks to get totally bored with summer vacation.

Nonetheless, we all need our time off. Even those who love their careers to the point of bounding eagerly out of bed on Monday mornings have times when they want to forget they ever heard of work. Four seventy-hour weeks in a row, fifteen clients simultaneously deciding they need rush jobs on eighteen hours' notice, or ten straight work days where Murphy's Law seems to have become a coworker could burn anyone out. As often as not, it's not the actual work that causes the stress so much as the constant reminders of everything else that has to be done after the work of the moment is finished. If you're anything like me, those reminders don't need the physical interruptions of an incoming e-mail or ringing phone; your multi-tasking brain comes with a special "don't forget this or that" beeper that goes off every five minutes. It's not enough to avoid worrying about tomorrow (cf. Mt. 6:34); things quickly get to the point where one's sanity is tested by thinking half an hour ahead!

One reason many of us have so much trouble relaxing on our time "off" is that we let this high-tension mentality permeate our brains to the point we never really leave our work behind. I don't mean just that we physically carry work with us everywhere, or urge the office to call us for every loosely defined emergency; the worst part is the "baggage" we carry in our minds. We think constantly about what we'll do next week back at the office; we worry about the work that's piling up in our absence; we turn every casual conversation into a discussion of our career plans. Or we just transfer the most stressful of our work habits to our leisure time: we try to squeeze in all the activities we can, we feel guilty about relaxing, and we fume and fuss when things go wrong. Patricia Fry's article, "Your Vacation for Body, Mind, and Spirit," offers an interesting take on how our minds often stay in high gear even during vacation--and on what to do about it.

The best approach, of course, is the Biblical one of focusing our full attention on God. Most commentators agree that the Mosaic commands to take days, weeks, and years off from work (e.g., Ex. 20:8-11; 23:14-16; Lev. 25:1-7), while they certainly included the concepts of straight rest and of play, had a strong "spend more time getting to know your God" element. The Hebrew phrase translated "be still" in Ps. 46:10, which is paired with that idea of knowing God, carries the sense of total relaxation, even surrender--the implication being that we must stop struggling with worldly cares before we can fully savor God for everything He is.

God does command time off partly because He cares about our physical and emotional health. But even more than that, He wants to give us a lasting closeness to Himself that can only be nurtured through regular time away from everyday bustle.

In this world of rush and noise,
Filled with glittering, gaudy toys,
Where the strivings never cease,
How can anyone know peace?
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
Turn to Him a willing ear:
Listen now His voice to hear.

In this world where deadlines loom,
Crowding out each second's room,
"Hurry, hurry" is the rule;
All this rush can be so cruel.
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
He commanded Sabbath rest,
He Who knows which path is best.

In this world of endless strain,
Driven by the lust for gain,
And the siren song of greed,
What is it we really need?
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
Let your worries on Him fall:
He will be your All in All.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Do Not Forget

How many times a day do you say, or hear, "I forgot"? If your estimate has two or even three figures, or if you groaned at the very question--you're probably a typical hardworking American. It sometimes seems that for every megabyte of memory increase in the average computer's brain, the average human brain loses two. Someone somewhere is no doubt trying to blame this seeming increase in dementia on pollutants dumped into our drinking water; but a far more likely explanation is that we allow the world to dump too much information into our brains and too many responsibilities onto our shoulders. When you have 100,000 things to remember, it's hard not to forget some of it.

Many of us aren't even trying to remember things--we rely on our books, computers, and Day Planners to do that. It usually works, providing we don't forget the planner itself. Ask the businessman who loses the time, place, and contact information for that vital appointment it took him eight months to secure; or, worse, who forgot to check his calendar before agreeing to that appointment and now finds he had already reserved that time slot for his most important--and impatient--client. We tend to find out at the worst possible moments the folly of putting too much faith in material aids.

Speaking of misplaced faith: how many of us are making an effort to remember the really important things? My church's last pastor had the habit of telling the congregation, "You don't know the books of the Bible but you know this or that news or pop culture trivia item." I fumed whenever he said that because I was always the exception who knew the former but not the latter--but sadly, the accusation, or its close relative "you don't know ten Scripture verses by heart," would be valid with many a believer. It's sad because another reason why we forget things is that we really don't consider them worth the effort of remembering.

That Bible that not enough Christians know much of talks a lot about the risks of forgetting what God has done for us. There are few worse signs of base ingratitude--and few more effective killers of hope.

"Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God" (Dt. 8:11, NIV).

Do not forget, in times of plenty,
All that you have is from the Lord,
Or you will fall to pride, turn idle,
And come to lose your best reward.

Do not forget, in times of hunger,
One does not live by bread alone,
But by God's Word and all He teaches,
And that He loves you as His own.

Do not forget, in times of boredom,
Blessings God brings are new each day;
Do not forget, when all seems frantic,
God will give time for rest and play.

Do not forget, through all your lifetime,
Whatever comes, God cares for you;
He, past this life, has great things waiting
For all who served Him pure and true.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Come Worship the Lord

If God offered me a choice of any prayer request to be granted instantly, it would be that my mind be permanently freed from "fuming and fretting, worry and hurry." For me, that would be a greater miracle than the healing of an incurable cancer.

The worry-and-fret habit is something of a cancer in itself: it starts small and grows slowly; it's easy to ignore for a while despite warning signs; but if left unchecked, it becomes an all-pervasive nightmare slowly eating away health, energy, even life itself--and when we finally admit that something has to be done, it's nearly always a long, agonizing struggle to get rid of it. Because not only is instant healing as rare as it is wonderful, it almost always comes after the suffering has gone on for a while.

The "worry cancer" has another thing in common with its medical counterpart: when we develop such a problem, it's often largely our own fault. Those who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day are more likely to get lung cancer. Those who stuff themselves with junk food to the point of obesity are more likely to get cancer in their digestive systems. And those who constantly tell themselves "I can't live without this.... I couldn't live with that" are extremely likely to develop the fear-filled mind that is at the root of all fretful and frantic behavior. This is one "illness" that always includes an element of real sin; every worry is based to some degree in the fear of life's not going our way, which is really idolatry--the placing of our own desires at the top of the priority list and the refusal to believe that God can and will do what is best for us. (See Mt. 6:25-34.)

I'm not unsympathetic with those who, whether through natural temperament or the temptations of unusually painful or stressful lives, are more prone than others to develop the worry habit--I have a redwood-sized log in my own eye there. I have, however, learned enough to know that our eyes are a big part of the problem. Remember that, immediately before the "do not worry" passage referenced above, comes the one about not hoarding earthly treasures, about not trying to serve worldly masters along with God--and about focusing our spiritual eyes to let in light rather than darkness? Because the truth is that it's impossible to worry if we are really looking at God and His attributes--His love, power, beauty, and majesty--but most of us prefer the narrow, close-up focus on our immediate circumstances.

The best cure for worry is to spend more time, not only asking God for help, but praising Him for what He is and thanking Him for the things He has done and the things He has promised. Which is why I have devoted this week's poem to worship and adoration.

Come worship the Lord, and give Him your praise--
The Master of time; the Maker of days.
He had no beginning; He will have no end;
And all living things on His nurture depend.

Come worship the Lord, Who stretched out the skies,
Who made every thing that walks, swims, or flies.
He laid out the ocean; He brought forth the land;
And every green thing draws its growth from His hand.

Come worship the Lord, Who leads us in love:
Outlasting all time, He reigns from above.
Earth's empires, though mighty, will pass with the years;
But God's Heavenly Rule outlasts all mortal spheres.

Come worship the Lord, Who sits above all
As King on a throne that never can fall.
Though all lesser powers stand opposed to His reign,
His Power over all shall one day be made plain.

Come worship the Lord, and bow to His rule;
Do not scorn His power and stand with the fool,
Nor serve Him unwillingly, bitter with dread;
But choose Him in love and proclaim Him as Head.

Come worship the Lord: for all of His might,
His touch is so soft, His pressure so light.
Our God is no tyrant abusing His power;
No, He plans our lives with great blessings to shower.

Come worship the Lord; rejoice in His love:
Delight in the peace He sends from above.
When His Kingdom comes, at the end of all days,
At last we shall know the full joy of His praise.