Tuesday, December 29, 2009

True Power

New Year's is three days away. Have you made your resolutions yet?

Or are you saying, "Why bother; no one keeps them anyway"?

Of course, "no one" is an exaggeration. Most of us know, or know of, people who set great goals (at or after New Year's) and consistently achieve them. Still, it's hard to find a definitive answer to the question of how many keep their resolutions for the long haul. As few as 2 or 3 percent, say some researchers; as many as 46 percent, insist others.

There are nonetheless things most experts agree on: Nearly half of U. S. citizens make resolutions each year. A majority let those resolutions die within six months. The primary reasons for failure are vague definitions of success, overly large expectations, and shallow commitment. Reward and accountability are effective motivators.

But even after acknowledging the value of accountability, few resolutions commentators, even Christian ones, ask the most important accountability question: Have you prayed about your resolutions and other goals? Have you sincerely asked God what He wants you to accomplish in 2010? Are you prepared to follow His instructions even if they lead to nothing obvious in terms of success?

I know as well as anyone that just asking, "God, what will You have me do?" rarely brings a quick and definitive answer. Often, even after days of prayer, we ultimately have to trust that our own best judgment coincides with God's intent for us--remembering that judgment must be fed with an understanding of Scriptural principles and a humility that would rather advance God's Kingdom than achieve our personal desires. It would be easier, certainly, if God simply handed us our daily orders in ways we couldn't misunderstand; and perhaps that's why He rarely does. One primary cause of goals remaining unmet is laziness not in our doing, but in our thinking. We don't mind working hard following explicit orders; we just want to be absolved of any responsibility beyond that. We do nothing because no one's told us to do anything, never mind that we aren't listening very consistently. Or we do the wrong thing and then protest that no one told us not to do it, while all along the warning was in the instructions we never read. Most people who go into business for themselves fail because rather than put out effort to learn what their "bosses" (their desired customers) want and to provide it, they sit back and wait for everyone to learn how wonderful they are.

As a Boss, God combines the best qualities of the "customer" and the traditional "employer." Unlike the typical supervisor, He challenges us to make real effort to learn what He wants--because one thing He wants is genuine loving followers, not just dutiful drones. But unlike the typical customer, He doesn't expect us to do all the work. Indeed, He gladly supplies us with the resources we need for whatever service He requests.

A good thing, too. Without His personal guidance and empowerment, even those resolutions we achieve leave us empty in the end.

People told you to trust in your strength alone:
"If you want it enough, and make up your mind,
If you fix on a goal and make it your own,
Then whatever you seek you will surely find."
And you never did think, as you went that way,
So assured of the might of your inner power,
There was something far more that you threw away,
That you crushed at your feet a far brighter flower.

You put trust in yourself to achieve your goal,
And you used your own judgment to plot the trail,
And had faith in your strength to fill every hole--
Now, you only have learned that success can fail.
You were spared all the pain of bleak tragedy,
And have left in your wake most successful years--
Yet, now looking at life, you can only see
You have nothing that lasts--all will end in tears.

God gave you all you have--all your gifts and strengths--
That you might do the works that He had prepared,
But you chose to put things toward your selfish lengths,
And what God might desire you but slightly cared.
And you did great deeds as seen by mortal eyes,
And you thought that you soon would achieve content;
But at last you can see--no fulfillment lies
On the path that you so had believed and went.

It is not too late to turn to things that last;
There is time to achieve the true best you can.
If you want to go far, whether slow or fast,
Turn your steps to the path of the Servant-Man
Who held all of the power in the universe,
But Who stooped low on earth, and for others' sake.
He Who broke all the power of sin's ancient curse
Will show paths of pure joy for your heart to take.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Not to Be Served

Are you looking forward to a merry Christmas? Or are you anticipating this Friday with some dread, expecting yet another round of cooking and dishwashing for thirty people, another day of listening to family squabbles and "this isn't what I wanted" whining--or worse, another lonely "holiday" isolated in a tiny apartment? Or are you one of those who half wishes the actual day would never come because it signals the imminent end of the music, the parties, and the extra time off?

Whatever one's personal reasons for not awaiting December 25 with unmitigated joy, they all begin with I: I want someone else to wait on me for a change; I want total freedom from stress; I want to be part of a tight-knit group; I want the fun to last forever. Many people let a selfish "I must have things exactly right" attitude ruin their holidays. Now, rest, peace, love, and even pleasure are legitimate desires up to a point--the point being when "I wish I had" becomes "I must have; I am too important not to have."

The irony of doing this at Christmas is that it flies straight in the face of Christ's example:

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:25, NIV).

"For even Christ did not please himself" (Rom. 15:3a).

"[Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil. 2:7a).

The One Who had every right to have things go His way chose instead to give up all special privileges and serve humanity to the fullest. Who are we to insist on always getting what we "deserve"?

More than that, serving others needn't be misery and drudgery. There's nothing Christian in the idea that duty demands we sacrifice the happiness that would be ours if we were at the top of the social status chain. Those who follow this line of thinking are unhappy not because they serve, but because they remain selfish, interested primarily in the future rewards they expect. (That's the attitude that refuses to welcome a prodigal because all it sees is someone else being handed what it slaved for.) But those motivated by love--who put others first for Christ's sake--are actually much happier than those who always get special privileges.

If we learn to let Christ fill us with His love and lead us in following His example, we can do better than a "merry Christmas." We can have a blessed Christmas--and the blessings can stay with us long after December 25.

In God's way, the mark of the leader
Is not the applause of the masses--
Is not being pampered and bowed to,
Nor turning each head as one passes;
The one who would lead with God's guiding
Must kneel at the feet of God's people,
Must do even lowly work gladly,
Not look for applause from the steeple.

For Jesus, the ultimate Leader,
Came not to receive earthly glory,
Nor wear golden crowns set with rubies--
Humility flows through His story.
His way was the way of the servant,
His path one of lowliest labor;
He was not ashamed of the common;
He looked not in scorn at His neighbor.

He lived all His life wrapped in weakness;
He died in deep humiliation;
And all of His suffering was for us--
Our freedom and our restoration.
Let us show our thanks in our service
To all for the sake of His Kingdom,
And humble ourselves before others,
That our simple meekness may win them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chasing the Wind

King Solomon is traditionally credited with having written the book of Ecclesiastes. Certainly much in the opening chapters fits with his life's story as recorded in the Bible: unmatched wealth and unmatched wisdom piling up and up. And though the histories in 1 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles say little outright about Solomon's attitude toward life, their record of his sliding away from dependence on God makes it easy to believe he eventually fell into the cynical, near-despairing thinking that permeates Ecclesiastes:

"When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun" (Ecc. 2:11).

Many a person who "stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God" (Lk. 12:21) has voiced a similar wail. The wind is impossible to catch and hold; likewise with lasting joy in life, if we insist on pursuing it according to our own designs. If, as is often said, the primary symptom of insanity is doing the same thing again and again in desperate hope that this time the results will be different, there is hardly a sane human being in the world's wealthier societies. We assume we'll be content for life once we get the income level or other achievement we have our eyes on; and when we prove ourselves wrong, we immediately react not by questioning the validity of the central premise, but by assuming we must not have set our material goals high enough! Like small children who literally spend their outdoor playtime running after the wind, we eventually collapse exhausted, but considerably less content than those youngsters who have the sense not to seriously expect to catch the wind--at least not to the point where they consider their lives ruined when they don't.

With most adults, the only difference between "just another work week" and the Christmas holidays is that our endless rush after status and material gain makes some minor changes in its outward manifestations. Instead of chasing public applause, we chase the status of giving or getting the most prestigious gifts; instead of working overtime all week for fear of missing a crucial step toward a promotion, we attend parties and concerts every night for fear of missing out on any enjoyment. Most of us are, if anything, more exhausted and "thank God that's over" on the morning of December 26 than on the typical Friday afternoon.

It doesn't have to be that way. But if we're serious about finding true fulfillment rather than just one fleeting pleasure after another--in the Christmas season or in life as a whole--we have to get out of the "windy rat race" altogether.

It's only once we stop running that our hearts slow down enough to let the Wind of the Spirit refresh them with true Life.

I thought that I knew what I wanted,
And so often I got it, too,
But with each step up, satisfaction, sought,
Only seemed to retreat from view.

I thought I knew what made me happy,
And I found it from time to time,
But brief pleasures passed till all life seemed bleak
As a song without beat or rhyme.

I thought joy came from achievement,
But no matter how much I did,
I raced on and on with no rest in sight,
And success seemed forever hid.

I crawled to the Lord bent and broken,
And I cried, "God, have mercy, please!"
He replied, "You have chased earthly dreams so long,
And ignored My own Truth that frees.

"But I still have much blessing to give you,
And true peace for your aching soul;
Come, take on My yoke and rest in My Word,
And let Me make your spirit whole."

All the pain I had built up in striving--
Oh, how treacherous this heart of sin!--
All the years I chased after fleeting dreams,
All regrets for what might have been,

All dissolved like a fog in the sunlight
In His love-glow more bright than day,
And His glorious Strength that renewed my heart,
Guiding me back into His way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Washed Clean

As a child, I wished I had been born in July rather than March, so I'd never have to go to school on my birthday. Dreams of having the world stop to honor the day of your coming are common in one's early years (while growing older actually seems like a good thing), so many a youngster considers a mid-December birth the worst thing that can happen to a person. Everyone is celebrating--but not birthdays.

Often not even the Birthday we're supposed to be celebrating. Those of us who complain about "politically correct" thinking that prefers to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" often do no better than anyone else. We get caught up in shopping, decorating, cooking, eating, dreaming of "what we'll get," and rushing about to event after event until even a worship service seems like just one more obligation. Once, Christians contemplated Jesus's coming for four weeks and then celebrated for twelve days. Now, we celebrate for what seems like twelve weeks (judging from the amount of time store decorations are up) and contemplate for perhaps four hours.

One movement dedicated to bucking that trend is Advent Conspiracy, which invites participants to put Christ back in Christmas not by bemoaning "commercialization" nor simply by singing "Silent Night" rather than "Jingle Bells," but by actively practicing the values Christ stood for--worship, simplicity, generosity, and love--and by spending our money and time not on our own pleasures, but on serving the least of God's people. The Conspiracy's motto is "Christmas can (still) change the world," which was, after all, the purpose of Christ's coming. He never intended to make anyone's life one long vacation; He wants to introduce us to the deeper joy of living in God's service through all circumstances.

Although most people wait until December 26 and the imminent new year to think seriously about how life could change for the better, why shouldn't we as Christians start during Advent? This week's poem was inspired by a classic sometimes called "The New Leaf," which focuses on how God wipes out our mistakes and enables us to start fresh.

After all, the celebration of Christmas shouldn't stop with remembering the manger. The manger has no real meaning without full appreciation of the Cross and the empty tomb.

He came in from play at the end of the day,
Dirty with grime.
"I'm sorry, Mother, I meant to stay clean;
I forget every time."
I scrubbed his arms till the mud was gone,
Then found clean clothes for him to put on:
"Now that you look neat,
Let's sit down and eat."

I knelt down to pray at the end of the day,
Dirty with sin.
"I'm sorry, Father, I meant to stay clean;
I forgot You again."
He doused my soul in His grace so free,
And clothed me fresh in new purity:
"Now that you are able,
Come sit at My table."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The God of Promise

The first week of Advent is a good time to contemplate the promises of God, not only because Advent represents a period of "looking forward to," but because the whole story of Jesus--past, present, and future--is permeated with the concept of promise. We remember the fulfilled promises of His birth and Resurrection; we look forward to the end of time with His promised coming in glory; we rely daily on His promises to be with us always and strengthen us through every trial. No wonder that Paul wrote, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Cor. 1:20a, NIV, emphasis added).

Sadly, many of us twist the Scriptures to convince ourselves God has promised to give us everything we want--and on our own schedules. Many former Bible-believers have stopped speaking to God because He failed to deliver what they were counting on. "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John 14:14) does not mean we can pray, "Lord, please let me win a million dollars in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes; In Jesus's name, Amen" and then go out and charge $500,000 on our credit cards since we'll soon have the money to pay it off. The Biblical--and sometimes contemporary--records of miraculous healings do not mean that every Christian is guaranteed to live, strong and vigorous, for a century or more. And the idea that "if God doesn't give you what you ask for, the only explanation is that you're doing something to hold Him back" has absolutely no Scriptural basis. A surprising number of Christians, far too wise to grant every craving their small children express, seem to consider their own judgment of "what's best for me" to be infallible.

Not that the devout of the first century did any better. The Jews of Jesus's time fully believed God's promise to send a Savior Who would free His people from oppression and set up a new Kingdom of peace and security. What they did wrong was to assume that freedom and security could mean nothing other than immediate relief from all earthly hardships. Nor was it only the enemies of Christ who made that mistake. Even at the very end of Jesus's earthly ministry, with the Resurrection an accomplished fact, some of His closest followers were still thinking in terms of "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6b). Like them, we become mentally fixated on our desires of the moment. We also forget how many times we have gotten what we wanted most--only to realize that we would have been better off without it.

Thank God that in the end, none of His promises will disappoint us.

We promise things lightly and forget them quickly,
The sacred word of honor grown rare.
We need a few lessons in keeping a promise;
Our word should be more than a breath of air.

The Lord is our great Example;
He has never broken His word.
He has made many promises to us--
Have you heard?

He promised to come as our Savior;
He promised of guilt we'd be rid;
He promised to die and to rise again--
And He did!

He promised to be with us always;
He promised to give strength to us;
He promised to lead us in paths of life--
And He does!

He promised to take us to Heaven;
He promised God's plan to fulfill;
He promised to come back to earth someday--
And He will!