Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thank You, Dear Lord

It's two days before Thanksgiving: what are you thankful for? A church acquaintance, volunteering at a ministry for the homeless, recently posed that very question to a group of clients who had as much excuse as anyone to insist there was absolutely nothing good in their lives. Still, a moment's thought revealed how much they still had: "Thank You, Lord, for my children." "Thank You, Lord, that I escaped a dangerous home situation." "Thank You, Lord, that I am still alive and healthy."

Many hospice workers and many missionaries to the poverty-stricken can tell similar stories. Sometimes it seems as if those who have little are more thankful than those who have much. Indeed, children of extremely wealthy families have a reputation for whining; high-powered executives are notorious for their high stress levels; and we "ordinary citizens" of materially blessed societies seem to have eyes only for the things we lack. I make no claims of immunity. At the moment, I am well along in the process of giving myself high blood pressure worrying about my blood pressure (leaving plenty of "anxiety room" for other health issues, along with financial fretting, business headaches, and fear of spoiled plans)--and full in the face of knowing better. To paraphrase St. Paul in Rom. 7:14-25, my mind and conscience know full well what my attitudes should be, but my emotions (and physiological functions) refuse to cooperate.

Is there any cure? As Paul implies, only the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit. God does, however, expect some cooperation on our part. Thinking frequently of "things above, not earthly things" (cf. Col. 3:2) is one of our responsibilities in the process. Being patient is another; rather than making instant major changes in us, God generally prefers to guide us slowly into deeper relationship with Him.

A third way to cooperate in our own sanctification is the simple thankfulness described above. Try it this week; instead of limiting "what I'm thankful for" to a one-sentence contribution at the Thanksgiving dinner table, expand your thankfulness over several days. Before every meal and before going to sleep, remember at least one thing in your life that you're thankful for.

And don't just "count your blessings." Say a direct "Thank You" to their Source.

Thank You, dear Lord, for the food You provide;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the needs You've supplied;
Thank You, dear Lord, for our gifts, and each skill:
May we use all, every day, as You will.

Thank You, dear Lord, for the lakes and the sea;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the birds that fly free;
Thank You, dear Lord, for the rainbows and stars:
All of the wonders in this world called ours.

Thank You, dear Lord, for our families and friends;
Thank You, dear Lord, for each joy Your love sends;
Thank You, dear Lord, for each hour that we live:
You give so freely--now teach us to give.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


My daily prayer for this week begins, "Lord, free me from the obsession of trying to stuff every task into a predetermined neat little time slot." I can get so fixated on "keeping the schedule" that I'd hesitate to leave my work if the room caught fire.

A more likely danger is that fretting over what should be done (and in what order) could lead to an ulcer or something worse. Insisting that everything be planned perfectly down to the last millisecond is the sort of thinking that nervous breakdowns are made of. Many of us make things worse by trying to fit in more than sober thinking tells us we can handle. But even for the world's top time managers, it's literally impossible to ensure that things will always go according to plan, that there will never be an unexpected power failure or phone call or flash flood. Only God is never surprised by a sudden need to make adjustments.

And here as everywhere, our fleshly appetites try to usurp His rights--and complain when He overrules us. We cling desperately to the delusion that we must be in control, that we must have that security.

The saddest part is that, in the process, we cheat ourselves out of the true security that comes with faith that God is in control.

All our lives we chase control:
Fixed within each human soul
Is the urge for mastery,
Drive to grasp the things we see
And desire. We fret and plan
For each tiny thing we can,
Thinking this will make us whole:
All our lives we chase control.

But this longing for control
In the fallen human soul
Still believes the ancient lie,
"Be as God; you shall not die."
No one can cheat death for long;
Nor is anyone so strong
Just to meet each earthly goal.
We are not in full control.

God alone is in control,
He Who makes the oceans roll,
He Who lit each fiery sun,
He Who has for everyone
Better things than those we chase,
If we quit this frantic race.
"Know the Lord" should be our goal;
Rest, and let Him take control.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't Fret if God Made You Lowly

Although we all agree in theory that "beauty is only skin deep," that seems to be deep enough for most of society. More than one research study has confirmed what the less attractive suspected all along--people who fit cultural ideas of "good-looking" get more promotions at work, better service in public, and more prospective friends and dates. "Beautiful people" also get away with more misbehavior--up to a point, that is. Some actions are so ugly that even Miss America would be ostracized for engaging in them.

Not all such actions are those which society calls blatantly evil. One thing that can quickly kill people's admiration for the prettiest of us is a perennial scowl combined with a snarling, complaining attitude. Conversely, those who are always cheerful and smiling tend to be seen as "attractive" even when they share few physical attributes with the typical fashion model. Perhaps it's not physical "beauty" per se that we admire, but the aura of confidence that typically grows from receiving regular positive attention. Or, more likely, the aura of unselfishness that grows along with happiness as someone learns to count blessings and share them with others.

In any case, the Bible is in full agreement that "charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting" (Prov. 31:30, NIV). Peter wrote that "beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes" (1 Pet. 3:3). Even Jesus was described as having "no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). From the beginning of His ministry, He identified with and reached out to the unattractive and undesirable.

Besides healing the obviously ill, Jesus also "healed" ugliness, and still does. He rarely changes our physical features, but He gives us those attributes that make anyone more beautiful: thankfulness, happiness, and concern for others rather than ourselves. "[The] inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit... is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Pet. 3:4). And often enough, even in the sight of the easily-distracted-by-glitter world.

As Proverbs 31:30 puts it after noting that physical beauty is untrustworthy and temporary: "a woman [or man] who fears the LORD is [always] to be praised."

Black oil does more for more people
Than diamonds or gleaming gold;
A chicken's more use than a peacock
To humans, if truth be told;
Collectors of trash, if absent,
Are missed sooner than CEO's:
So don't fret if God made you lowly--
It's through such that His best work grows!

Monday, November 2, 2009

As the Tree Stretches Toward the Heavens

Although we saw some heavy rains last week, Houston has now entered another period of glorious fall weather. As of Monday morning, I've hardly seen a cloud in three days.

In all their aspects—from the beautiful to the frightening to the inconspicuous to the delicate—those things without human makers stand among the best evidence of God's existence. Even in our overly urbanized society, we see enough of the sun and the rain, the flowers and the grass, the birds and the insects to confirm Paul's words in Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV): "what may be known about God is plain... because God has made it plain to [us]. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" for denying God's existence.

Not that they haven't tried. After all, a chance "big bang" and the blind processes of random selection are far less likely to make inconvenient demands on us than might a God with a mind and heart. If there is no personal God, we are free to do as we please—though we're quick enough to complain when, as Paul goes on to describe in Rom. 1:29-31, the effects of everyone else doing as he or she pleases start to look seriously ugly.

Others of us fail to give God the glory for Creation simply because we're "too busy" to pay attention to it. One much-quoted "prose poem" sometimes called "Letter from a Friend" (click here to read it) poignantly describes how much pain it must cause our Lord when we go about preoccupied with our human concerns, giving not a thought to the beauty with which He constantly surrounds us.

The Bible contains many references to Creation praising its Maker (see, for example, Ps. 69:34, Is. 55:12, and Lk. 19:40). May we who belong to Christ never be put to shame by trees and rocks.

As the tree stretches toward the heavens,
Pointing ever up toward the sky,
Let us lift up our hands in worship;
Let us give praise to God on High.

As the swallow soars through the heavens,
Swift and graceful as summer's wind,
Let us let our hearts soar in worship
Of the Lord on Whom we depend.

As the stars shine on in the heavens,
Glowing lovely and pure and bright,
Let us each be a sign of worship,
To show all of our world God's light.