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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When That Day Comes

Except for the unfortunate few who are stricken early in life by major illness, most of us don't really take our mortality seriously before our mid-thirties. Teenagers and college students, especially, have a reputation for behavior that seems to dare death to come and get them. Even most twentysomething career folks brush off suggestions of estate planning or disability insurance with, "Oh, there's no rush."

Then one day we realize that our aches and pains have become frequent and persistent, that staying up past midnight is no longer easy, that our teeth can no longer tear open plastic packages without complaining, and that our eyes tire faster than they used to. We used to take it for granted that bed rest and medicine would make any illness go away quickly; now, every mole, discoloration, or lump carries the specter of possible months of treatment with no guarantee. Middle age is here, and it seems that the only way to go is downhill. The temptation to either retreat into depression or revert to second childhood can become overwhelming.

People do not like being reminded that someday they are going to die. Human nature fears the unknown, and the other side of death is life's biggest unknown.

Even most Christians have moments of wondering whether they can really trust God's promise of a better world beyond. Many of these moments occur at a loved one's funeral, particularly if death was unexpected. And to some degree it usually is; even with terminal illness, we can't stop hoping for a miracle cure or at least for one more day/week/month/year. When the pain of separation is at its keenest, "do not... grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13, NIV), seems an empty cliche.

Someone else's death can indeed be more painful than one's own. Many a person lies on the edge of eternity assuring his or her weeping loved ones, "Don't cry; we'll see each other again soon enough." It rarely stops the tears immediately. Months later, though, the memory can be a comfort.

Looking back at the verse from 1 Thessalonians, we see that it does not say, "Thou shalt not grieve." Although there are Christians who would have us believe that any sorrow indicates a lack of faith and is thus sinful, even Jesus cried at a friend's death--even though He was about to personally remedy that problem! Let us give ourselves permission to cry, yes; but let us never let the loss dominate our lives from that point on. If we let years pass and continue to tell ourselves daily that we can never be happy again, we are guilty of a form of idolatry--as in any attempt to tell God that we know better than He what we must have.

God does not break our hearts sadistically, nor permanently. As the old quote goes, "Those who live in the Lord never see each other for the last time."

When that day comes
When God calls me from this world to depart,
Though you shed tears,
Though I may leave behind your broken heart,

Let all your tears
Be tempered by the knowledge that one day
We'll meet again
In that bright world that knows no sorrow nor decay--

We'll meet again;
So let that knowledge cheer you, and the thought
Of God's own hand,
The Lord Who our eternal lives has bought.

Within God's hand,
Eternal peace and joy is ours at last;
The day shall come
When in His land we shall forget all pains of past.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Starting with Noah's flood, forty-day time periods seem to have special significance in the Bible. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all are recorded in Scripture as having spent "forty days" in fasting and solitude; and their examples have inspired thousands of Christians since to choose the same time frame for periods of growing closer to God.

Beginning last month and ending this morning, I recently tried a self-designed "40 days" program of my own. It was nothing particularly intense, certainly not comparable to spending the whole time in the wilderness without food or water or human contact; it simply involved taking an hour a day for meditating to worship music. Nonetheless, I couldn't even exercise that degree of self-discipline with much consistency; as far as I could tell, my mind was wandering as far at the end of the period as the beginning, and I was making as little effort (and feeling as little desire) to fight it as ever. Rather than feeling significantly closer to God for the experience, I feel a heavy sense of "you'll never change" discouragement.

I suppose I was hoping for a "quantum leap" (the literal meaning of which, ironically enough, is a large movement only on the atomic scale) that would change me from a compulsive fretter into the epitome of constant serenity and joy. Looking at myself honestly, I have to admit that my desire to develop these Christlike qualities is highly tainted, motivated at least as much by just hating to feel miserable as by genuine love for God. I suffer (in more ways than one) from what the Bible calls double-mindedness or trying to serve two masters: I want to be close to God, but at the same time am constantly worrying that He'll make me revise my plans or abandon my favorite pastimes. James 1:5-8 describes the "double-minded" as constantly swayed by circumstances, unstable in everything they do, and hardly able to receive what God wants to give them: that's me all right.

Part of the problem is that city life in the Internet age carries more mental distractions than any other setting the human race has ever lived in. Everywhere we turn, something or someone reminds us of books not yet read, projects not yet started, possessions not yet acquired, honors not yet achieved, things we never knew before. The typical high school sophomore's brain today is probably crammed with a hundred times as much information as the typical fifteenth-century person came into contact with in sixty years. It's hard to be single-minded when a world of input is constantly tugging at your mind from all sides.

Would I have done better on the "40-day program" had I spent it in a country cottage without phone or Internet access? I don't know--and on my current budget and schedule, it would hardly have been feasible to try. In any case, it takes more than just physical withdrawal from worldly concerns to ensure spiritual growth. Some people have tried to "get away from the whole world" physically and have failed because they carried too much of the world inside themselves, or kept counting the days to their return. Others have managed to achieve a surprising level of inner peace even as they physically remained in the same hectic world as the rest of us, or even in prisons or refugee camps with little chance of escape.

If nothing else, I have come to a somewhat better understanding of my human limitations and of God's patience with them. Most of us think of ourselves as not exactly perfect, but as pretty good nonetheless--until we start trying to really change. Ironically, it's the best among us--the most spiritually mature--who most willingly admit that "nothing good lives in me" (Rom. 7:18, NIV, emphasis added). The closer we get to God, the more we appreciate how utterly worthless we are in ourselves and how gracious He is even to put up with us. The more we realize this, the more humble and worshipful--the more joyful and peaceful--we become.

And the more we come to understand that forty days of prayer and fasting, while wonderful in its place, is not a prescription to "solve all our emotional problems for good." Truly learning to "be still and know... God" (Ps. 46:10) takes a lifetime.

We spend all our lives chasing shadows
With names like Success and Complete,
Tormented by windstorms of fretting
And fleeing from fear of defeat.
Our schedules are flurries of "must-dos"
All jostling for head of the line;
We scramble to pick up the pieces
And weep for the ones we can't find.
Our goals are the breaths that we gasp for;
Our tasks nag like dust in the eye;
And still the whole world spins around us
Till it just seems hopeless to try.

But we are our own worst tormentors:
We, who are unwilling to rest
Until we have "finished" our "duties,"
Until we achieve all the "best."
God whispers, "Stop striving, and know Me;
Come, sit by My side for a while;
Let Me give a weight you can carry;
Please, open your eyes to My smile.
Stop fretting for life's worldly treasures;
Your greatest reward is in Me."
My friend, He has peace and rest for us,
If we are just willing to see!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Seven Days of Creation

How's the weather where you are? Here in Houston, Texas, U. S. A., it's already feeling uncomfortably hot and sultry, notwithstanding that the official first day of summer is nearly two weeks away. In some parts of the world, it's nowhere close to summer, but in the chills of late autumn. Some people, no doubt, are dealing with drenching rains as I write this. And for others, early June means perfect outdoor weather: bright sunshine, fresh air, and temperatures just right for sitting in the park all day.

Human nature seems to carry an innate "get outside" urge. Weeks of rain or snow are major sources of restlessness and unpleasant moods. Every employer and teacher knows that keeping minds on inside work is far harder when gorgeous weather coincides with weekdays. And it's no secret that serious social problems and lack of green space frequently occur together in urban areas. Many commentators now recommend "nature therapy" of some sort to help cure physical and social ills.

It's not so surprising that something in us prefers the open outdoors to walled-in rooms, however luxurious the closed spaces may be within. Mere humans create the buildings; God Himself created the natural world. Our longing to "get close to nature" is really just another manifestation of our craving to fill the "God-shaped vacuum" within. Although technological and educational advances have improved life in many ways--including protecting us from some of the less pleasant aspects of a fallen Creation--we have also killed part of many human souls by shutting people away in worlds paved with concrete instead of wildflowers, lit with streetlights instead of stars.

Therein--more than in any dishonor to God from the way we interpret "days" in Genesis 1:1-2:3--lies the real spiritual danger in worshiping science.

On the first day of Creation our God made the light;
So let us all sing praises to His brilliant might.

On the next day of Creation our God made the sky;
So let us lift our praises to Him Who reigns high.

On the third day of Creation our God made the trees;
So let us all be fruitful for Him we must please.

On the fourth day of Creation our God made the sun;
So let us all burn bright for the All-Glorious One.

On the fifth day of Creation our God made the birds;
So let our mouths all open to fly forth His words.

On the sixth day of Creation our God made our race;
So let us love each other by power of His grace.

On the last day of Creation our God took His rest;
So let us rest within Him, to show we are blessed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Day of Perfect Rest

As those of you who read last week's blog may have gathered, May was an extremely stressful month for me. Not all the stress was from negative happenings--a good bit came from an overdose of new work assignments and possibilities--but even "good stress" takes its toll on the mind and body. Yet many people seem convinced that stress is 100 percent beneficial. Tell professional contacts you've been really busy, and they respond, "That's great!" without even asking what exactly you're doing or whether it's been hard on you. Tell the average hardworking U. S. citizen you might seriously consider a full month's vacation (which is still considered normal in parts of Europe), and you get a disbelieving "how can anyone be so lazy?" look. A Google search for the phrase "rest is a four-letter word" turned up more than 250 results. Most of them decrying the attitude, as do quite a few voices in the wilderness these days, but they seem to have little overall effect on the idea that working ourselves to death is a virtue.

To be fair, the Bible commands periodic rest and condemns laziness. Human judgment is as flawed here as anywhere else, so left to ourselves we quickly slide to one extreme or the other. Even carefully measuring the ideal balance between work and rest, and setting our schedules accordingly, doesn't always help: we play with Web surfing and idle chatter during our "work" time; we allow striving and fretting to interfere with our "leisure" time; and we grumble when "worship" time doesn't begin and end precisely on schedule. Even if such fleshly attitudes are under control, the world and the devil can still invade our rest time with interruptions and unpleasant circumstances. We may wonder why God doesn't always reward our best intentions by protecting us from such things.

While there's no easy answer to that question, we have to remember that the perfect life, where work and rest are always in balance, will come only after we leave this world--and that getting too close to peace and happiness here is often the first step toward spiritual backsliding. The more any earthly thing seems to satisfy all our needs, the greater is the danger of turning that thing into an emotional idol.

Our restless moments here can actually be God's most effective tools for keeping our eyes looking toward the world to come.

We have in this lifetime our trials and troubles,
We have in this lifetime temptation and test,
We have in this lifetime our strivings and struggles,
Till the day of perfect rest.

The Lord gave us nighttime for sleeping and slumber,
And each week the Sabbath, the day that He blessed;
But even in such can come cares in large number,
Till the day of perfect rest.

Among all the weight of a lifetime's distractions,
Among all the hard times that on us can press,
The best that we have is faint hints and small fractions
Of the day of perfect rest.

Oh, heart! cease your strivings and look to your Master,
The One Who has promised relief in distress:
Your true, perfect freedom draws near ever faster,
In the day of perfect rest.

Oh, Lord! for Your day of revealing we're yearning,
That day when You finally will bring all Your best,
Where peace will be endless and pain unreturning:
Come, and bring Your perfect rest!