Tuesday, April 28, 2009

According to Plan

Sometimes I think that too many Christian time management experts consider themselves time managers first and Christians second. In the past year, I have read at least two "how to plan your long-term schedule for maximum effectiveness" articles, written by believers, that failed to even touch on James 4:13-16: "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil" (NIV).

Or as Woody Allen put it, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." Although I doubt that God is actually laughing at me at the moment--at least not in a derogatory manner--I don't find it particularly funny that last night's thunderstorms flooded my apartment parking lot and left a two-inch puddle of water in my car, particularly since I had to interrupt today's carefully planned work schedule to bail it out and then arrange for professional water-damage treatment that wasn't in my budget. I do not have an especially good track record when it comes to joyfully accepting life's frustrations as God's means of building my spiritual maturity.

There's some comfort in knowing that God is never caught off guard and that nothing can spoil His plans. I just wish He would give me a few more details on His plans so I could structure my plans accordingly. There are times when I wonder if any kind of human-level planning falls into the category of "evil boasting," perhaps because I have always had an idolatry problem in that area. I loathe disappointment of any sort; and like the alcoholic who can't be trusted to take a single sip of wine, I tend to take even a small amount of prewritten scheduling and turn it into an obsessive drive, unable to stop for a rest or to accept that sometimes doing things "as planned" is impossible. I have trouble understanding--truly grasping from the heart--that God is more interested in molding me into the image of Christ than in seeing me accomplish the maximum level of obviously productive work. Even if that work is good and necessary and intended for His glory.

Actually, we ourselves, as Christians, are God's greatest work and the greatest testimony to His glory. Although I've frequently been one of those people who insist on learning everything the hard way, at least I rarely throw outright tantrums anymore over spoiled plans. Perhaps the most valuable lesson in this area comes from God's words in Is. 55:9: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

It's when we become so attached to our plans that we put our ways and thoughts above God's, that planning becomes evil boasting.

As our lives become mazes of schedules,
As we head off each "maybe" we can,
Let us not lose our eyes for God's guidance
In a drive for "according to plan."

Those who boast of their schemes for the future,
Who presume what will happen to scan,
Are those souls who are worshiping idols
In the form of "according to plan."

Only God knows the things that are coming;
There is no mortal woman or man
Who can see one short hour toward the future--
Things may not go according to plan.

But for those who trust Christ and His Spirit,
And the One through Whom all things began,
There need never be fear of the ending--
God is working according to plan!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If You Count the Things That You Do Not Have

Are you a natural positive thinker? If so, that in itself is a blessing worth counting. Just please don't look down on those of us who have to work harder at being happy.

Exactly what makes someone a perpetually cheerful soul or a gloom-and-doom pessimist is a question with no obvious or simple answer. Circumstances have relatively little to do with it; there are cheerful cancer patients and miserable socialites. Genetic and chemical makeup are definitely contributing factors; just as some people have natural talent for music or sports, others have natural talent for the sunny outlook. But like most lifestyle tendencies, optimism and pessimism are also heavily nurtured by habit. Feed the mind a steady habit of complaining and looking at the negative--and surround yourself with others who do the same--and soon you'll be hating your whole life as a matter of course.

Considering that the good things in most lives outweigh the bad on any careful examination, it's surprising how many people find it far easier to think negative than positive. Blame advertisers or news reporters if you like, but probably a spirit of dissatisfaction is one of the facts of fallen human nature. And probably nothing that feels so natural makes us so miserable--or accomplishes so little.

God's prescription for curing the gloomy-thinking syndrome? "Count your blessings," as the old song goes. As you go through the list, take time to thank God for each item. Then spend some time thanking and praising Him just for being what He is: kind, all-powerful, merciful, all-knowing, loving, Creator of all... Repeat every time you feel depressed, discouraged, or mad at the world.

When we practice looking at God rather than at circumstances, we better appreciate how much bigger He is than any problem.

If you count the things that you do not have,
You will count yourself ever poor,
Though your savings keep eighteen banks afloat
And gold knockers adorn your door.
For you are a small part of all the world,
So the sum of the things it holds
Always will be far more than what you can clasp,
Though your fate endless wealth unfolds.
So forget the things that you do not have;
Thank the Lord Who made sun and star
For the blessings and treasure He gives to you,
And rejoice in how rich you are!

If you only look at your pains and woes,
They will grow in your frightened mind
Into giants that bar your every path,
And give constant pursuit behind.
But it's not their physical size that counts
In their power to trouble your heart;
It's the size of the doubt that you hold within,
Which just swells once you let it start.
Turn your eyes away from your earthly pains;
Fix your gaze on the Lord of All;
And as you give praise to His glorious might,
You will see life's worst giants fall!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Day After Easter

Okay, so technically it's the second day after Easter--but maybe it's even more important now, after we've had all of Monday since the clothes were brand new and the ham and eggs freshly cooked, to remember that celebrating the Resurrection was never meant to be a once-a-year event. We joke about "holiday Christians" who appear at church only on Easter morning and Christmas Eve, but it's not really funny that so many professed believers find worship and fellowship worth no more time than that.

No doubt some such people don't really believe at all; there are those who, though they state outright that it's ridiculous to believe anyone could rise from the dead, continue to attend church on Easter because their families always did it that way. Many other people believe in the Resurrection as a fact of history, yet treat it merely as interesting trivia. Probably the latter are more offensive to God than those who laugh at the whole idea; Scripture's most virulent scoldings are reserved for self-satisfied "religious" types. The NIV uses the word "lukewarm" only once--directed in Rev. 3:16 at church members who lived in blissful ignorance of their failings--and Jesus's reaction (paraphrased) is, "You make Me want to throw up!"

Who could call such a statement unreasonable, considering all He did to give us the best that Heaven could offer? And not just in paying the penalty of our sin for us. Certainly that was infinitely more than we had any right to expect, and required courage and compassion beyond our power to imagine; yet, if that were all He had meant to accomplish, He might have gone straight to Heaven from the Cross. His returning bodily from the grave offered final proof He had conquered death; but I believe its purpose went further than that. By showing Himself revived and revitalized, He was saying to His followers, "As I received new life after death, so I mean for you to receive new power to live in Me after your death to sin. You no longer have to be slaves to old habits, lost in apathy and hopelessness." We can experience eternal life now--not just after physical death--if we are willing to live in constant awareness of Christ's Resurrection. But we need to refresh that awareness far more often than annually.

If you're determined not to believe in the Resurrection, it's silly to go to church even on Easter. If you do believe, it's even more ridiculous to stay home the rest of the year.

The day after Easter,
The eggs all found,
The ham eaten up,
The flowers taken down,
The baskets now emptied,
Church services through,
Will you still remember
What Christ did for you?

The day after Easter,
When your new clothes
Have been broken in
Down to your shoes' toes,
And the fresh-cut lilies
Are starting to fade,
Will you still remember
The price our Lord paid?

No more than forgiveness
Or love or tear
Can just sit and wait
To act once a year--
No more than our sinning
Can stall from taint's grime--
Can true belief's worship
Be saved "till it's time."

The day after Easter,
And all our days,
Let us walk with God
In prayer and in praise:
The spirit of Easter,
In lives made brand new,
And our thanks to Jesus,
Must flow the year through!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Where Will You Go for Him?

Easter weekend begins in two days with Maundy Thursday. First comes the night of solemn remembrance, then the day of agony, and finally the morning of joy.

How many of these emotions will we really feel?

Will we come to church on Easter just to "go through the motions," reserving our real enthusiasm for the big meal afterwards? Will we grumble if it rains this Sunday and the only available parking spaces are four blocks from the church? Will we act as if God owes us a perfect day as a reward for showing up?

Many people do all of the above. Not all that surprising, considering that they act the same way on "ordinary" Sundays--and through the rest of the week. From the attitudes of many Christians, one would think that Jesus had said, "I have come that you might live free of trouble, and have all the possessions you want." (What He really said was, "I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full. [But] in this world you will have trouble" [John 10:10; 16:33, NIV]). Although few of us would dare state outright, "I owe God nothing, and He owes me everything," our everyday lives say clearly that we believe as much.

Part of the problem is our difficulty with focusing our attention where it belongs. We pat ourselves on the back for being law-abiding citizens and forget how much evil lurks within us. We wear crucifixes as jewelry and never give a thought to the cruelty and agony of that death. And we recite John 3:16 by rote without once considering how unbelievable, how utterly unreasonable, it is that God should love the likes of us even a little, let alone to the extent of enduring what He did--and that His love should continue even though the majority of us respond with appalling ingratitude. That includes those of us who said "yes" to His offer of salvation but whose favorite daily prayer is, "What have You done for me lately?"

If we truly appreciated what He has in fact done for us, we would be more than ready to do anything for Him.

He stumbled down that fateful road
And up that looming hill,
And bore that heavy wooden beam,
All of His own free will,
Among a jeering, cruel crowd
And to a fate so grim:
He went the road of death for you--
Where will you go for Him?

And though a whip had ripped His back
Until His blood ran red,
Though nails had pierced His hands and feet,
And thorns had pierced His head,
And though His throat burned raw with thirst--
Pain wracked His every limb--
He gave His very life for you--
What will you give for Him?

There was no power in all of hell
To stop Love's perfect plan;
There was no power in death itself
To hold the Sinless Man.
When evil's might had done its worst
And brightest hopes burned dim,
He rose up from the dead for you--
Will you rise up for Him?