Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All Earth Sings

What is your favorite song? A classic hymn? A modern pop piece? An old Christmas carol? I'd personally be hard-pressed to name a single favorite, or even make a top ten list. A lifetime of church music, radio, and various concerts has permanently imprinted dozens of much-loved songs in my brain.

Virtually every culture includes song among its traditions. There's something about the blending of music and poetry that infiltrates both sides of the brain and sinks deep into heart and soul. And for all the worries about "angry songs" that stir listeners to rebellious attitudes and outright violence, spontaneous singing is still associated primarily with happiness.

Of all the ways we reflect God's image, our love of song may be the most profound. Zeph. 3:17 (NIV) says that God "rejoice[s] over" us "with singing," so our longing to give the same to Him only makes sense. The NIV uses the word "sing" and its close derivatives (sang/singing/song) over three hundred times, mostly in reference to worship. Metaphorically speaking at least, even Creation sings, and not just through birds; even "the mountains and hills will burst into song" (Is. 55:12) when we open ourselves to our Lord's voice.

If we allow ourselves to regard God's works with the awe He deserves, we may soon find ourselves singing along.

The robin sings in the morning,
Sings to welcome the coming day:
All earth sings to the God of sunrise,
Who chases the darkness away.

The river sings in the daytime,
Sings as swiftly along it flows:
All earth sings to the God of sunlight,
As, shining, the waterway glows.

The breezes sing in the evening,
Calling workers to come and rest:
All earth sings to the God of sunset,
Who stretched out the sky east to west.

The raindrops sing in the nighttime,
Lulling all into peaceful sleep:
All earth sings to the God of Heaven,
Who soothes us when darkness grows deep.

The bluebird sings in the sunlight,
And the owl calls out to the moon:
All earth sings through the day- and nighttime--
And calls us to join in its tune.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pass It on

Between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day yesterday, and the Presidential inauguration today, this might well be dubbed "National Leadership Week."

Most of us will never spearhead major reform movements or be elected President of the United States. Not all of us can be pastors, CEOs, or even heads of households. Are some of us then doomed to the label "always a follower, never a leader"?

Not necessarily. I believe that all of us are called to show leadership--defined as "the capacity or ability to offer guidance and direction"--from time to time. A leader can be the mother who demonstrates by example the value of frugality. A leader can be the bookstore clerk who recommends helpful titles to customers. A leader can be the lay Christian who introduces a friend to God (we even call it "leading people to Christ").

And a leader can be anyone who performs a tiny act of kindness. Besides being "led" into the realization that there are still thoughtful, caring people in the world, the recipient of such an act may be led to do the same for someone else. There are many versions, some true, of the story where someone helps out a stranger and departs with the words, "Don't worry about paying back the favor; just pass it on."

The kind stranger who disappears into the crowd may actually be a better leader than the state governor with legal authority over millions. People may obey the formal official solely out of fear, remaining thoroughly rebellious in spirit; but when people follow someone with no power to force them, they follow in their hearts as well as in their actions.

All who themselves follow the One Whose leadership was "gentle and humble in heart" (Mt. 11:29, NIV), should know how to lead others likewise.

She stood ahead of me in line--
The coffee shop was full for lunch--
Just one more face within the bunch,
Like any soul you'd pass by chance.

I hardly gave her any glance
As she departed--who knew where--
But then I heard the clerk declare,
"She paid her bill, and paid yours too.

She left this note to give to you."
These written words my eyes did see:
"Someone once did the same for me;
Please pass to someone else some time."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Help Someone Cry

One of my New Year's resolutions was to give more time to "A" priority tasks. For those of you who've never studied the art of organization, that refers to a system of ranking "things to do" by letter: "A" for extremely important, "B" for pretty important, "C" for not all that important, and--sometimes--"D" for "not worth doing until all the others are finished." A major irony of life is that "A" priority tasks--those we instinctively recognize as advancing the larger missions God made us for--are often the easiest to put off, while "C" and "D" tasks--vacuuming the floor six times a week, composing detailed responses to every e-mail--are very good at instilling a sense of obligation. Most people, when they first start taking time management seriously, find that their schedules need painful surgery to remove things that seem important but aren't.

All of which is leading up to this announcement: I have concluded that regardless of what business experts recommend, adding new blog entries three to five times a week is not among God's current "A" priorities for my life. So until further notice, installments are being cut back to once a week.

Not that setting priorities is simply a matter of choosing certain physical tasks over others. All masters of time management, be they Christians or otherwise, are sure of "life's purpose" and give top priority to whatever things further that end. Whatever a Christian's specific ministry, his or her "purpose" must be in accord with Jesus's words: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness... 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Mt. 6:33; 22:37-39, NIV).

Strangely, those of us who claim to love God often let "His work" interfere with loving our neighbors. A friend desperately needs an understanding ear--and we brush her off because we're late for church. A first-time volunteer proves a slow learner--and we get impatient with him for spoiling program efficiency. We turn our church work into just another bottom-line business.

Or, if we know we can't "make everything right," we do nothing. Many people, having suffered through traumatic illness, unjust scandal, or loss of loved ones, have had friends appear only after the dust has settled and say, "I wanted to be there for you, but I didn't know what to do!" It's cold comfort. Paul's advice in Rom. 12:15 is much better: "mourn with those who mourn." Don't feel you must solve your friends' problems; don't hand out unrequested advice; don't say "it's all for the best"; and definitely don't tell them how they could have avoided the tragedy in the first place. Just let them know, in action with minimum words, that you feel for them--that you feel with them.

Here as in many other aspects of life, children often understand the godly approach better than adults (see also previous blog entry), as did one little girl who came home half an hour late. She had been delayed, she explained, because a friend's favorite toy had been broken "and I had to stop and help her cry."

Even when a problem is fixable, anyone who is hurting deeply needs human feeling in the solution, not just a mechanical "there, it's all done" approach. Parents understand this when they apply not only antiseptic and bandage, but also a kiss, to small injuries.

And didn't Jesus Himself solve our sin problem through His own suffering?

"Amanda, why were you out so late?"
"Cindy’s dolly broke her eye."
"So you stopped to help Cindy fix it up?"
"No, I stopped to help her cry."

So many of us turn away from pain,
Feeling helpless to even try:
But if we can do nothing to fix things up,
We at least can help someone cry.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Between the Parent and the Child

How often do you scold one of your offspring for "acting like a child"? The next time you start to say that, stop and consider Jesus's words: "...unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 18:3-4, NIV).

That's not to say that all "childish" behavior is godly. When youngsters are told, "Don't be such a child!" it's often because they're whining with impatience, demanding what they want when they want it and wailing "You don't love me!" in the face of a firm "no." The Israelites in the wilderness frequently behaved the same way, and it stretched even God's patience. No, Jesus is definitely not saying we should "become like little children" in that sense.

But the reprimand "Don't be so childish" is also frequently heard when children aren't really doing anything bad: they're just shouting with delight when Dad wants quiet, chasing soap bubbles when Mom is worried about running late, or filling the air with wild hilarity which their parents consider a public embarrassment. Which is the more Christlike approach to life, really: the all-business, rush-rush, worry-about-what-everyone-thinks attitude that frequently characterizes adults; or the child's easy laughter, awe at the beauties of Creation, and total abandon to enjoying every moment? There are times the mature Christian must be serious and somber; but too many of us seem to think God commands that attitude all the time, whether it meets the needs of the moment or not.

"Thou shalt not be silly for the joy of it" is not one of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps, instead of constantly nagging our children to "grow up," we ourselves need to "grow down."

Between the parent and the child
Wide difference sows its seeds:
The child sees beautiful wildflowers
Where the parent sees only weeds.

Between the parent and the child
The contrast stands out strong:
The child loves watching the train go by;
Parents fume that the wait’s so long.

Between the parent and the child
Lie worlds of years grown dim:
But as our children will learn from us,
Let us learn all we can from them!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Truth Is Wisdom

Did you have any trouble getting the kids--or yourself--back to school after the holiday break?

"Why do I have to go to school?" is a wail heard in many households on weekday mornings. The assurance that "better education means a better job" has little impact on the average seven-year-old, to whom adulthood is an eternity away and the present issue of boredom-vs.-fun all too clear. Not that there's any shortage of students whining just as loudly at age seventeen--or of fifty-seven-year-olds wondering why there seems to be so much more boredom than fun in life.

And not that their complaints don't, on close analysis, make some sense. Why do so many people spend their school years giving maximum effort to work they hate, so they can get "better jobs" and spend the next forty years giving maximum effort to more work they hate? Just for the sake of money and success? There's never been a salary that couldn't be outspent, never a success that protected against misery. The saying "money can't buy happiness" was probably coined for the benefit of those who drive themselves to hospital beds trying to earn enough to make every problem go away.

Such people are also living proof of another certainty: education can't produce wisdom. Many a former valedictorian has chalked up half a dozen failed marriages, run a thriving business into bankruptcy, made a courtroom's worth of enemies, or literally killed himself by doing things any tenth grader should know better than to do. Conversely, many people become wise with almost no education outside the School of Experience. True wisdom is sound judgment with a strong ethical component: frugality, empathy, humility. Such things (especially the likelihood of someone's applying them in real life) are nearly impossible to measure with written exams.

But while most wisdom isn't acquired by formal education, it shares with good education the characteristic of not being quickly or easily gained. Wisdom grows slowly within those who on one hand listen to sound instruction, and on the other pay attention to sometimes painful experience. Is it worth it? Prov. 4:7 (NIV) says, "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding."

Why is it worth it? Because "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Prov. 9:10). God is the source of all true Wisdom, which is ultimately the knowledge and understanding of His Truth.

Only those who are wise in what matters can truly appreciate the joy of knowing Him.

Truth is wisdom, pure and bright,
Shining with God's holy Light,
Lighting up each mortal way,
Guarding those whose feet might stray.

God's pure Wisdom cannot lie;
Nothing false is found on high.
When He speaks, as One Who knows,
In each listener wisdom grows.

He Who said, "I am the Truth,"
Walked in wisdom from His youth.
Seek you wisdom? Hear His call;
Seek His Kingdom first of all.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sunday Christians

Happy New Year and welcome back!

Today, many Christians celebrate Epiphany, which commemorates the Wise Men's visit to the Christ Child or (to Eastern Christian churches) the baptism of Jesus. Either way, the word "Epiphany" comes from the Greek word for "make obvious," and the day marks an early revelation of Jesus's Messiahship to the larger world.

Especially since it occurs about at the time for New Year's resolutions, Epiphany is a good day to reflect on how well we manifest Jesus to the world. Are we living faithful, Christlike lives: lives that refuse to surrender integrity for the sake of earthly success; that overflow with compassion even for our enemies; that shine with joy even when circumstances give us no shortage of obvious excuses to fret and fume? When non-Christians look at us, will their first impression be, "These people know something worth finding out"?

Too often, it isn't. Society has no shortage of professing Christians who go to church on Sunday and live as materialistically as everyone else for the rest of the week; who sing "Joy to the World" at Christmas but wear perpetual expressions of misery in everyday life; who can quote John 3:16 verbatim but spew hate at the world. While it's tempting, and sometimes valid, to chalk up outside criticism of Christianity to "stubborn refusal to accept Christ's exclusive claims," the sad truth is that many accusations of hypocrisy are solidly grounded. Even most nonbelievers know that love was at the core of Jesus's teachings; yet all too many have been verbally abused, or snubbed when they most needed understanding, because their religions or lifestyles or past sins spelled "untouchable" to Jesus's professed followers. Sadder yet, some Christians treat other Christians no better. Many people have left their churches, even turned their backs on God, because they were mocked for their incompetencies or shunned for their failures.

Granted that we must not compromise when it comes to actual wrong, neither must we forget that God wants us to hate sin, not people. It was, after all, the super-religious, ultra-pure class who despised Jesus for loving the sinners they felt so superior to.

Being the light of the world means more than not being afraid to tell people we're Christians. It means more than exposing the wicked deeds of darkness. It requires that we make obvious, in our actions no less than our words, that there is a positive alternative.

There are many who "follow Jesus"
Every week in the church at prayer,
But, when busy at work on Monday,
Will give hardly a thought to Him there.

There are many who pray each morning
Because that's how it's always been,
But who treat it as mindless duty,
And can't wait till they get to "Amen."

There are many who claim they're Christians
If it feeds their own self-respect
To regard themselves "better people"--
But, when Scripture convicts, they object.

Are you merely a lukewarm Christian,
Or do you seek, in all life's tasks,
To be truly on fire for Jesus,
Set to do anything that He asks?