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.