Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Something More

This past weekend, Houston residents were blessed with what even a cynical soul like myself called perfect weather: two days without a cloud in sight; fresh air; low humidity; and temperatures ranging from slightly chilly to shirt-sleeve. If you ever visit this part of Texas, plan your trip for this time of the year, when outdoor conditions are at the peak of comfort and the birds and wildflowers at their most attractive.

Most of us experience, from time to time, the joy of a "perfect day." Depending on your own taste, that can mean anything from a drive in the country to a grand tour of downtown to a holiday dinner with extended family. However they come wrapped, all "perfect days" have certain things in common: they are unusually free of frustrations and annoyances; they make us forget to watch the clock; and the only regret they leave us with is that they didn't last forever.

Mixed, perhaps, with the regret that they are so rare. By the mere act of standing out, the "perfect" times in our lives are also one more proof of how imperfect the world is as a whole. Maybe that explains those moments when, in the middle of spectacularly beautiful or happy events, we feel sudden bursts of melancholy pain that seem to come unprovoked from nowhere. We can talk all we want about the advantages of less perfect times--they build character, they help us appreciate the good days all the more by contrast--but deep down, we all long for a "perfect day" we will never have to say goodbye to.

Eve gave up our first chance at that possibility when she allowed herself to be tempted into dissatisfaction even in the midst of perfection. We can be grateful that God loved us too much to let that first chance be the last:

"...the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:21-23, NIV). And of the rest of Creation.

Then, all who trust God will finally have that perfect day with no end.

There are few greater joys than a fresh spring day
When the sky is a cloudless blue,
When the air holds a mixture of warmth and chill
And the flowers and the leaves are new.
But if you pause and open your deepest soul
To the beauty of spring's full store,
You will sense a faint ache hidden in the joy,
And a longing for something more.

There are few greater joys than to share a love
With your family or with a friend,
Than to know there is someone you truly trust,
Someone on whom you can depend.
But if you pause and feel in your deepest heart
All that flows as two souls adore,
You will sense faint regret that you yet must part,
And a longing for something more.

All of earth's brightest days pass like setting suns;
And in any two souls that love,
One will die or change heart and so break the bond
At some time in the years that move.
But if you give your soul and your heart to God,
Then one day, on His Heavenly shore,
You will find in Him joy with no hint of ache:
He Himself is our Something More!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Through the Strength of Christ We Can Do All Things

Having talked in last week's blog about God's slow-and-steady approach to our spiritual growth, I feel it only fair to give some attention to our own role in the process. There are more than a few Christians who use "waiting on the Lord" as an excuse for ignoring His proddings. ("How can I be sure this impulse is from God? I won't move until He shows me an unmistakable sign--something like a burning bush." "If God wants me to confront this situation, let Him give me the courage first; I won't even start until my last trace of apprehension vanishes.") Instead of being willing to grow through doing, we claim to be no more intelligent than computers, incapable of action until the full software is installed.

That said, we often act less like real-world computers than like science-fiction ones who develop minds of their own and decide their programmers should be the ones taking orders. We pull "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13, NIV) out of its original context (which refers primarily to the strength to experience supernatural joy), and twist it to mean "I can accomplish anything I want if I just ask God to bless my plans." If those plans don't happen to coincide with God's, we sulk or whine or quit speaking to Him. How many chances to grow in Christ have been wasted because the person to whom the opportunity was offered wouldn't look past his or her own immediate wants?

It's true that God wants to do great things in us--and through us. And it's true that He gives us many of our dreams. But often we become so enamored of those dreams that we forget the God Who knows how and when the reality is best accomplished. Even the most spectacular, apparently-God-honoring work may leave God's will and blessing in the dust by becoming an end rather than a means. "Success" can actually be more dangerous than failure, because it's easy to take worldly success as the sole sign of God's approval--and then convince ourselves that as long as prosperity continues, anything we do is all right with God.

Perhaps that's why He allows relatively few of us to experience exceptional wealth and prominence. Better to do holy work quietly in the background than to found a major ministry that comes crashing down in scandal.

Through the strength of Christ we can do all things--
So the holy Scriptures assure us--
But our peace of mind quickly takes to wings
Unless He chooses "all things" for us.
For it's not for sake of our foolish pride
That God gives us strength for the battle,
But for the great Name of our Heavenly Guide,
Whom no earthly distress can rattle.

Through our faith in God we can haul great loads,
If our work is indeed at His giving,
But our feet will fail on the smoothest roads
Unless we stay on His track for living.
And it's not the fact that we see a need
That proves His wish for us to go to it,
For He alone chooses the one for each deed
And assigns to the doer to do it.

If you seek Christ's strength to accomplish much,
But demand the full privilege of choosing;
If you plead for the Spirit's holy touch,
But as only a thing for your using;
If you plan alone what you'd have God bless--
Then your work will fail all the faster.
So when you in prayer future dreams address,
Don't forget Who is always the Master!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Down the Long Road

When life got frustrating, my father used to quip, "I know God won't let my troubles get worse than I can cope with [cf. 1 Cor. 10:13]; I just wish He didn't have so much confidence in me."

True to heritage, I frequently say the same thing--often directly to God. Then I feel guilty because the majority of my prayers resemble "complaining psalms" more than thanksgiving or praise. (Sometimes I wonder if God allows me to be tempted to bad moods so often because that's the only time I give Him much attention!) My fortieth birthday is tomorrow--but at the rate I'm going, I'll need another forty years to achieve much maturity beyond the physical.

Keeping us waiting is such a typical way of working for God--and so contrary to human logic. It's relatively easy to understand (in principle at least) how delay in receiving material blessings builds Christian character by developing patience, maturity, and faith. What's harder to figure out is why prayer for those qualities themselves is usually the slowest to be answered. Is it beyond even God's power to give us "patience right now"? Why is our own willingness for instant and total change rarely enough? Doesn't God care about the bad decisions we make, the damage we inflict on ourselves, the pain we cause others, as we make our way along the "slow and steady" path?

Maybe He cares even more about our willingness to stay on that path. As a top-level member of the "everything is all about results" club, I'm only gradually (there's that concept again) coming to understand that with God, the journey itself counts for plenty. Small wonder, perhaps, that we have trouble understanding that in an era when long-distance train and even car travel has been all but crowded out in favor of making better time by air--never mind that the latter makes for a generally grumpy atmosphere with its long security checks, delayed flights, crowded quarters, and you've-seen-one-shopping-mall-you've-seen-them-all airports. Yes, ground-level travel has its own boredom headaches--as any parent who has driven a carload of children across five states can attest--but it also offers more interesting scenery, more freedom of movement and/or choice, and more opportunities for bonding with fellow travelers.

Therein may lie the clue to why our spiritual journeys are so long and hard. That may in fact be the only way to build true, deep bonds with our neighbors--and with our God.

Which is really "what it's all about."

My God must have considerably
A greater depth of faith in me
Than I myself hope to attain--
What other way can I explain
(Considering He gave His Word
That every prayer is always heard
And no temptation brings us down)
The stress within me and around?

Not that my problems are so great
That I can at my worst relate
To some that others have to bear--
Still, hard knocks greet me everywhere.
Some say small doses of "tough breaks"
Build up our strength for deeper aches--
There's little comfort there for me:
I'd rather pass on both, you see!

And yet I know, through every trial,
Or every plodding, weary mile,
My God will walk along with me,
And slowly turn my heart to see
Life's not about pure "happiness,"
Nor living free from strain and stress,
Nor even quick maturity--
But all about my God with me!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There's a Hill outside of the City

I woke this morning to the radio news announcing a survey: "Are you praying to God to get you through these tough economic times?"--and this wasn't a religious station, either. When "tough times" are the subject of every conversation, the words "prayer" and "God" are mentioned considerably more often than when times are good.

Not everyone, of course, turns to God for help in hard circumstances. Some people prefer to shut their eyes and pretend nothing is really wrong, that "things are bound to work out somehow [without my having to help by changing anything in my own life]." Some people slide into depression and convince themselves that everything is hopeless anyway; others sulk because life isn't giving them what they think they deserve. And so many adopt the "borrowed trouble" tactic--a fearful obsession with what might happen, a loan that exacts horrendous interest rates physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually--that worrying sometimes seems to be America's national pastime.

None of these approaches necessarily ignore God completely--it's easy enough to spiritualize any of them, to assume that "God never lets churchgoers get sick or lose their money" or to live in fear that God's ideas of what we need might not match our own. And it's as easy to get disgusted with God as with blind luck. The world is full of people who have adopted the slogan, "If God exists, He must not care about us too much, or He never would let so many horrible things happen."

Ironically, the ultimate proof that God does care lies in the most horrible thing He ever let happen--in something He in fact planned for. When circumstances tempt us to doubt that God loves us, it's time to take our eyes off those circumstances--off ourselves and our own expectations and "wants"--and look again at the Cross of Christ. Not as a pretty ornament or a sanitized picture in a Bible storybook, but in all its blood and dirt, all its sweat and agony and humiliation. That was what God was willing to go through so we could have, for ultimate eternity, something far better than the health and wealth we crave on earth.

When we remember that, just let us try to complain about our own temporary problems.

There's a hill outside of the city,
There's three crosses upon that hill,
There's a Man hanging on the center cross
And He knows this is all God's will.

There's nails through His wrists and His ankles,
There's a crown of thorns on His head,
There's tears in His eyes of love and pain
And as thick as His blood they are shed.

There's a woman crying beneath Him,
There's a man with a tortured soul,
There's a crowd that watches in fear and awe
As the terrible drama unfolds.

There's a cry of death from the hilltop,
There's a shadow over the land,
There's a victory won through that defeat
That so few can understand.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Search for Peace

One of the most famous "end times" sermons is the one preached by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 24 (also Mark 13). If its words, "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars... Nation will rise against nation" (Mt. 24:6-7), sound like something you might hear on CNN today, that only proves that not much has changed in two thousand years. "Wars and rumors of wars" filled the newspapers thirty, forty, and a hundred years ago; "nation rose against nation" long before the World Wars of the twentieth century; and many a medieval or Roman peasant lived most of his life knowing that he might be called to battle any day. While we tend to think of the "end times" as encompassing only the last few years before Christ's return to earth, most of this passage could easily apply to the whole period of time from His earthly ministry to the present--not to mention to most of history before the Christian era, and presumably to however many years or centuries remain until Christ's actual return.

War is only the largest-scale manifestation of the violent tendencies in every person. Idealists frequently blame war on corrupt government, but power doesn't really corrupt so much as it fertilizes already-existing corrupt tendencies. For every Hitler there are a thousand people who might well do as much damage if placed at the head of a major nation. Whenever we harbor secret bigotries, blame others for our problems, or wish bad luck on anyone who seems to be standing between us and what we want, we are nurturing hatred within ourselves--a hatred that, if left unchecked, may well eventually manifest itself in physical violence or at least in open sympathy with those who commit it. (Remember the civil-rights era, when many an officer of the law beat an unarmed, peaceful demonstrator until blood flowed--and many a presumably respectable, law-abiding citizen stood by, cheering on the violence?)

Nearly everyone who participates in such violence believes that "once we get rid of these troublemakers, we'll have peace." But even if we manage to crush our "enemies" beyond recovery, we soon find that we still feel anything but peaceful. The natural tendency then is to start looking for someone new to blame, instead of doing what we should have done in the first place--admitting that the real problem is with us, our pride and selfishness and insistence on always having our way. It doesn't always manifest itself in violence against others. Many people who wouldn't have the heart to kick a stray dog commit serious violence against their own physical and emotional health, with their constant worrying that something will "go wrong" and their fretting and fuming when it does. These are usually the people who moan, "I just can't find peace of mind!"

The reason most of us can't find peace is that we're looking for it in physical circumstances. The Bible is clear on where real peace is found:

"...the fruit of the Spirit is... peace" (Gal. 5:22).

"[Christ] himself is our peace" (Eph. 2:14).

The world is ugly and violent,
With nations all fighting each other,
And we cry for peace
And for wars to cease
And a day where each man is our brother.

Our lives fill with "wars" of our making,
With quarrel and squabbling and brawl,
And for "peace" we plead--
Whining, "Lord, I need
For my way to be followed by all!"

Our souls churn with battle within us,
Against our own hate-feeding lust,
And we often fail,
When the fights assail,
To seek help from the One we can trust.

Yes, around and within is violence,
But our Lord is the Way of Peace:
When we turn to Him,
We find joys that brim
And pure blessings that never decrease!