Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lord, You Brought My Life to Being

This will be my last post of 2010, as I prepare for Christmas break. In early 2011 I hope to announce a new website where readers can purchase my book based on this blog, Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts. In the meantime, please e-mail all inquiries to


We all know that Advent is ideally a time of worshipful contemplation and of thanks to God for sending Jesus into the world and for all the Second Coming promises. And probably 90% of us continue to bog down each year in the swamp of "love it in theory but can't make it work in practice." Too much shopping, too much food, too many invitations, too many mailings--all of which we feel obligated to go through with even as the sum total leaves us exhausted and feeling guilty. Ultimately, we all have to face it: unless we're among the few for whom it's practical to move to a retreat center for three weeks, our special Advent time has to be carefully scheduled and usually comes out smaller than we'd hoped for.

Part of the problem may well be that our hopes are unreasonable. If you're anything like me, one thing you'd love to get for Christmas--or any time of the year--is a spiritual discipline program that works like piano lessons: clearly defined exercises, set hours, obvious signs of progress, and ultimately a mastery that ensures you never again have to struggle to learn more or do the right thing. I can now hear the real musicians chiding me for my overly idealized description of mastering the piano: "Obviously, she doesn't know about the monotony of practicing the same exercise over and over, the frustration of fearing you'll never master a difficult movement, the temptations to skip practice, the image of perfection that only recedes as you advance!" Okay, I admit that the "reach the peak and rest" dream is always an illusion, whether we're talking about the fine arts, education, or spiritual growth.

Ironic how quickly our noblest goals are tainted by laziness and the selfish desire for expediency. And ironic how quickly, after being saved, we forget all God gives us and start whining about what we still want. Most of us should have little trouble identifying with the Israelites in the wilderness, whose theme song quickly became, "How do we know God will continue providing for our needs--especially when what He provides isn't that great anyway?" We not only want what we want when we want it, we want it before we want it, as though even having to ask were more work than should be expected of us.

The real purpose of Advent is the same purpose that lay behind all the ancient Jewish festivals commanded by God, and that still lies behind their Christian counterparts today. That purpose is to take time to remember how great God is, how small we are, and how good He is to give us anything at all--let alone as much as He does. Especially since we constantly seem bent on doing everything possible to prove we deserve nothing but scolding and punishment.

That God still loves us and will do anything to supply our true needs, is the real gift.

Lord, You brought my life to being,
Gave me all the power I need
To perform Your works with purpose,
Praising You in every deed.
Still I greet each dawning morning
With a groan of inward dread:
“Only pain and stress await me;
Why should I desert my bed?”

Lord, through all that life has brought me
You have fed me by Your hand,
Led me safe through fiery struggles,
Silenced storms by Your command.
Still I test Your power and goodness:
Oh, how quickly I forget
All the wonders You have shown me,
All the needs that You have met!

Lord, You discipline Your children
With a Father’s love and care:
In each trial or pain that strikes me,
Your controlling hand is there.
Still I have despised Your chastening,
And my fleshly, selfish lust
Turns my thoughts to fretful pouting:
“What I want is always just!”

Lord, You know my human weakness;
I am but a fleeting wind
With a life that soon will perish,
Not to walk this earth again.
You, the One Who lives forever,
Weak and sinful though I be,
Share that endless life in mercy:
Lord, forgive, and set me free!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Looking Ahead

In 1994, B. J. Oropeza published the book 99 Reasons Why No One Knows When Christ Will Return. Some seventeen years later, most of the current-events references are out of date, nearly all the world leaders referred to are out of power, and the majority of dates that various groups predicted for the end of the world have passed. Which, of course, only supports Oropeza's point: the idea that "this is surely the generation of Christ's return because times can't get much worse" was never intended to be a central doctrine of the Christian faith.

Still, the "date-setter" crowd never seems to learn. An search for "end times prophecy" revealed over 750 currently available books on the topic; a Google search, 636,000 results. My own home town (Houston, TX), hosted a major "end times" conference earlier this year, at which time at least one prominent Christian radio station suspended a day of regular programming to discuss the topic. Never mind how many times believers have wrongly predicted the Second Coming (or how ridiculous they made the Church look in the process); this time things are different.

And, admittedly, the claim that "human technology now, for the first time, has power to destroy the whole world" has some validity. Still, that doesn't prove we will destroy the world in this decade, this generation, or this century. How many sociologists predicted that a nuclear war would take place before the year 2000?

I'm no sociologist, but I suspect many "end times" adherents are motivated less by love of Jesus than by love of their own comfort; they want God to end the world so they won't have to put up with it any longer, won't have to suffer directly if things do reach the point of catastrophe, won't have to consider that they may personally be supposed to put some effort (complete with inconveniences and dangers) into bringing about reform on a major scale. If God won't promise them long lives free of want and frustration, they want to at least trade their lives for Heaven as painlessly as possible.

John Ankerberg and John Weldon, referencing Oropeza in "Why Is It Wrong for Christians to Predict When Christ Will Return to Earth?," note that "We are living in the last days [defined as the whole time period between Pentecost and the Parousia] but... we cannot know how long these days will last.... the question is not so much whether we should be ready to meet God at such and such a date in the future, but are we ready to meet Him now?" And are we also ready to accept that, if Christ does not return in our lifetimes, things may well reach the point where we have to endure homelessness and persecution--even the complete collapse of the comfortable, safe, stable world Westerners have long taken for granted? Do we really appreciate the greater blessings God has for His people who suffer?

More than that, do we have the right attitude in looking forward to the eternal order that will come eventually: seeing it not simply as the end of our hardships, but as the ultimate consummation of the greatest good--the glory of God?

Looking forward to eternity in that spirit is the secret of joy in all circumstances. 

Whatever may come to discourage me,
There are two great truths I know:
I am nearer to Heaven than yesterday;
And, in Christ I am free to grow.
Let me not look too hard at how far I am
From perfection, as Christ compares,
Except insofar as it makes me meek,
And keeps humble my thoughts and prayers.

But, lest I decide that the walk's too long,
And thus lose the will to try,
Let me also look at the Heavenly crown
That is waiting for me on high.
Keep my eyes raised up from the rocky path
That I may have to climb between,
And fixed firm on God and the joys of Christ:
Keep my heart set on things unseen.

Since my Lord looks not on great earthly deeds,
But on who I am in Him,
Let me trust His grace for my daily walk:
He Who fills my cup to the brim
And Who walks with me all my earthly days.
He alone, when those days are done,
Will reveal what always He held in store
To make me what I shall become!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rush! Rush! Rush!

Next time someone asks, "How are you?," try replying, "Busy!" I'll bet a Starbucks latte that the response will be, "That's great!" Granted, having a job is generally a good thing; and having plenty to do is usually better than sitting idle and depressed. On the other hand, North America has no shortage of people who are seriously depressed—or physically ill—because the strain of their busyness caught up with them before they "caught up" with their work.

"What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?" asked the writer of Ecclesiastes. "All things are wearisome, more than one can say.... I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecc. 1:3, 8a, 14). The phrase "chasing after the wind" appears nine times in Ecclesiastes; seven of those times it is paired with the word "meaningless." That's an apt description of today's American dream: we always seem to be "chasing" something as elusive as the wind, and end up catching nothing we find meaningful. Worse, while in the wild the one being chased runs most frantically, in the "civilized" world the chasers are the ones afraid to slow down. And in the end, unceasing high speed can only lead to breakdown.

Martha in Luke 10:38-42 was dangerously close to breakdown when, "distracted by all the preparations that had to be made" (v. 40a), she unleashed a burst of frustration at Jesus for not assigning her sister assistant kitchen duty. Many of us, likewise, blame God for "giving us more work than we can handle" when in fact we have taken on burdens He never intended us to bear. As He said to Martha then, He says to us now, "You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one (Luke 10:41b-42a). Stop striving to fill every need you see; stop trying to do more than you can; put aside the idea that your value is in achievement. Sit down at My feet and listen to Me, and I will give you strength and guidance for the work I have for you."

It runs counter to all instinct and habit. But it's the only way to receive the better things God has ready for us.

Rush! Rush! Rush!
Through life we hurry along:
The busy soul is the lucky one,
And the high achievers strong.
Rush! Rush! Rush!
Each pause is an enemy:
We must run faster to catch the day
When from stress we will be free.

Wait! Wait! Wait!
What, really, do we achieve
Through constant drive to accomplish more?
What blessings do we receive?
Wait! Wait! Wait!
Give thought to your deeper needs:
Might you gain the world and lose your soul
Through the press of earthly deeds?

Stop! Stop! Stop!
Give ear to the Lord's soft voice:
"Your true significance is in Me;
You can in My peace rejoice."
Stop! Stop! Stop!
Sit down at the Savior's feet,
For our strain and stress bears bitter fruit,
But God's Holy Fruit is sweet.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guilt or Grace?

The essence of what makes Christianity theologically unique is summed up in Eph. 2:8-10: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." All religions prod to good works, and many believe in a Higher Power that makes some allowances for human shortcomings; but Christianity alone teaches unequivocally that grace comes before good works—any good works.

That is, pure, Biblically-based Christianity teaches such. You'd never guess it from what's heard in many churches. "All God wants from us is obedience." "Every day millions of souls die without Christ—what are you doing about it?" "Your church is in desperate need of more financial contributions/teachers/blood donors." The causes behind such appeals may be valid, but the implication comes down to "it's your personal responsibility to meet all outstanding needs as you and your spiritual leaders see them, or God will be disappointed in you." Or, bluntly, it comes down to a guilt trip.

God does not send His people on guilt trips. Certainly He convicts of sin; but failure to personally meet every outstanding need is not sin. In fact, it may actually be sin to try, particularly when we are so busy relying on human judgment that we never bother to ask for God's guidance. What's really wrong with works-based religion is that it's human-based: humans decide everything that needs doing, humans do everything that needs doing. Humans thus take over God's privilege of running the world, and God becomes the insurance company that pays out our eternity in Heaven because we kept up the premiums during our lives. There's no grace involved, merely our rightful due.

To do our good works as God intended—motivated by gratitude rather than guilt, fully relying on His guidance alone, and with acknowledgment we are only giving Him His rightful due—is to experience divine grace to its fullest.

What is driving your devotion,
As you seek God's face?
What is your chief motivation?
Is it guiltor grace?

What propels you on your duties?
What's the goal you chase?
You are working in God's service,
But through guiltor grace?

Is He just your Lord and Master?
Is there any trace
Of delighting in His Friendship,
Trading guilt for grace?

He Who gave His life to save us,
King of time and space,
Longs to free us from guilt's burdens:
Praise Him for His grace!

Friday, November 12, 2010

What Kind of Love Is This?

The adage Jesus quotes in Mt. 5:43, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy," is actually not found in Old Testament law. More specifically, the first half is found but not the second. "Hate your enemy" must have been added by some rabbi who confused hatred of sin with hatred of sinners.

No question that the two are easy to confuse when the sinners are our enemies--those who deliberately sin directly against us, or against those we care about, or against the principles we believe in, or against our fellow Christians. Of course, sometimes those who sin against us are fellow Christians, or others we genuinely loved. There is no deeper wound than to consider someone a close friend, even to make a formal commitment of loyalty--and then to have that person not only selfishly and deliberately do something s/he knows will hurt us, but to respond to our pain with indifference or even mockery. Human nature reacts to such betrayal with either despair or extreme anger. The famous quip, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," was in its original version (by William Congreve) paired with the line "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned." How true. We can hate our friends-turned-enemies with a hatred that rivals the worst blood feuds of human history.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8b). Those of us well-versed in Scripture tend to read Rom. 5:6-11 and the Crucifixion accounts with a familiarity tainted by contempt, as if the Atonement were a simple matter of a rich friend's donating a bit of his wealth to pay a poorer friend's debt. Even if we appreciate the extreme physical agony involved in death by crucifixion, we often fail to consider the full depth of the compassion involved, given whom all this was for. It wasn't simply that the human race didn't deserve redemption; in a very real sense, we didn't even want it. The whole Bible--the whole of human history--is a record of people willingly accepting God's blessings but scorning His Lordship, and then whining "I deserve better!" whenever He fails to give us what we want when we want it. That's why "works religion" and "law-of-attraction prayer" are so popular even among Christians; they offer a God Who makes things easy for us, Who really lets us be the boss. They promise a Heaven that starts right now not only in closeness to God, but in complete freedom from want or disappointment. 

It wasn't just His sworn enemies who spat on Christ as He endured crucifixion. We, His own people, do it every time we get angry at God or ignore (or rationalize away) His commands. It was for us, too, that He prayed, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34a) from the Cross.

It's us for whose sins He still intercedes today, with a patience that surpasses human understanding. 

A simple thing enough, to love
The generous and kind—
The ones who smile and give and share,
And keep your needs in mind.
But who could love the selfish ones
With ever-tight-clenched fists?
To love the grasping, bitter soul—
What kind of love is this?

A simple thing enough, to love
The ones with love for you
The ones with whom you share your joy,
The loyal and the true.
But who could love the ones who scorn,
Who spit and curse and hiss?
To love the ones with hate for you—
What kind of love is this?

A simple thing enough, to love
The ones who feel your pain—
The ones who rush to comfort you
In times of grief and strain.
But who could love those spiteful ones
For whom your pain is bliss?
To love the ones who crush your heart—
What kind of love is this?

And we, who so refuse to love,
And turn away from right,
Who scorn the God Who gave us life
And choose the ways of night,
We are the ones who spat on Him,
Who broke His heart. Know this:
We hated Him—He died for us.
That kind of love... was His!

Friday, November 5, 2010

O, God of Love and Purest Grace

In many ways, material blessings are a spiritual disadvantage; it's easier to "long for the better country" of Heaven (cf. Heb. 11:13-16) when earth has little to offer. The person who has everything he needs in terms of health, family, money, and possessions may find himself in the position of the "rich young ruler" of Mt. 19:16-22--desperately wanting the riches of eternal life but clinging with even greater desperation to the riches of this life.

Had the ruler looked at what he would gain rather than at what he would be giving up, his decision might have been different. Likewise with us: too many Christians never advance beyond the lukewarm stage of commitment because they keep getting stalled by visions of what they have to lose. And forgetting that the day will come when they have to give it up anyway. When our works are tested by fire on the Day of Judgment (1 Cor. 3:11-15), there is going to be a lot of embarrassed squirming among believers who lived for worldly success and left themselves with nothing eternal to show for it.  

With that in mind, I encourage you to read today's poem as a prayer for Heavenly vision.

O, God of Love and purest Grace,
Who saves the soul from sin,
Guide us through all our earthly days;
Provide Your strength within.

O, God of Power and endless Might,
Whom none can ever thwart,
Fill us with will to choose the right,
That we may not fall short.

O, God of Joy and Source of Song,
Great Maker of all things,
Lift up our hearts our whole lives long,
As all Creation sings.

O, God of Peace and Source of Rest,
Come, guard Your children’s ways;
Convince our hearts Your way is best,
And help us sing Your praise.

O, God of Hope and Lord of Time,
Who brought the world to be,
Come, be our Strength, and we will shine
Through all eternity.

Katherine Swarts's poetry book Where Light Dawns, based on this blog, is now for sale at $10/copy. Send inquiries to, or, if you're in Houston on November 6, look for Katherine's booth at the Grace Presbyterian arts and crafts fair.

Friday, October 29, 2010

More Than Enough

Do you have everything you need?

Let me put that another way: do you get enough to eat; do you have a place to live; do you get adequate medical care; do you have enough clothes to wear something different every day for three days? If you have access to a computer to read this, chances are your answer to each of the above is "yes."

Now, do you really need all those other things you wish you had? What defines "need" anyway? For that matter, how much is "enough"? John D. Rockefeller, who had more than most of us ever dare wish for, is credited with having answered, "Always a little bit more." He was in a position to know; he's said to have nearly killed himself--literally--worrying over whether this or that decision was a waste of a few dollars.

But it's not just over money or possessions that little voices in our heads can drive us to the intensive care unit with their constant nagging that "You don't have enough.... You don't have enough." Take it from someone who never seems to get rid of the habit of frantically running to catch up with life's tasks, trying to outrace the fear of not having enough time. And what about people who starve themselves to skeletons out of obsession with the idea they aren't thin enough to be good-looking?

Is there any escape from the fear of not having "enough"?

Jesus offers a--no, the--way out: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Mt. 6:33). "All these things" not necessarily meaning everything we want, but everything God knows we need. Like it or not, He may require us to give up--perhaps forever--some things we really wish we had. But only when we reach the point of being willing to say--and mean with all our hearts--"Lord, whatever You give me is enough for me," will we ever know true satisfaction.

Because, ultimately, God Himself is the only real "Enough."

Oh, the human life is a hectic life,
Filled with “doing” and “buying” days,
Filled with tasks and “things” and a thousand goals
That we chase in a thousand ways.
As we fill our hours with unending chores
And our houses with endless “stuff,”
Nothing seems to suit us or satisfy,
Though we have far more than enough!

It was so with peoples of ancient times,
It’s been so for uncounted years;
For since Adam’s sin cursed the land with thorns,
Human lusts bring no end of tears.
And it seems no different in luxury
Than on paths that are steep and rough;
We may sleep on dirt or on sheets of silk:
Nothing ever seems quite enough!

We were made to walk with the Lord of All;
When we choose our own ways instead
And cement our souls to more fleshly loves,
Fear of loss fills our hearts with dread.
Let yourself find rest in the God of Love;
Lose your cravings for earthly fluff:
We must seek His Kingdom and Him alone—
He alone is more than enough!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rocks and Water

The time-management speaker set two wide-mouthed glass jars on the podium and dumped jumbo marbles into one until they reached the top. "Is this jar full?" he asked his audience.

"Yes, it is," they replied.

"Are you sure?" He produced a bucket of sand and poured that in around the marbles until it reached the top of the jar. "You can see there was room for more. Is the jar full now?"

This time, the audience eyed him suspiciouslyand silently.  

"You're right, it still isn't full." The speaker picked up a pitcher of water and tilted that over the jar. The water poured in for several seconds, then began to trickle over the sides. "Now it's full. What can we learn from this?"

"No matter how full your life is," someone called, "you always can manage to squeeze in more than you think!"

"Are you sure?" The speaker turned to the second jar and tipped the pitcher again. In flowed the water, rising and rising until it hovered around the brim. "Is this jar full?"

A moment's nervous silence passed before someone ventured, "It probably is."

"You're right, and here's proof." The speaker dropped in a marble. Drips of water immediately escaped over the rim and trickled down the sides. "Now, what can we learn by considering both jars together?"

The room was quiet for a full minute. Finally, a hand shot up. "I know! If you don't put the big things into your life first, your life will get so full of little things that you'll end up with no room for the big ones!"

What do you put into your schedule first? Big things, such as prayer, Bible study, and serving your neighbors? Or little things such as household cleaning, television, and e-mail?

Try it both ways and see which leaves sufficient room for the other.

Fill a jar with rocks and pebbles, space will yet remain around;
If you pour in sand between them, room to hold a cup is found.

Fill a jar with sand and gravel, it’s still not quite full, you know:
Add a quarter cup of water, and it will not overflow.

Fill an empty jar with water, get it rising to the brim,
And it sloshes on the table when you drop a pebble in.

Fill your life with things important, and the basic tasks still fit;
Fill your life with mindless actions—and that’s all you’ll ever get.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Open the Book

The adage "familiarity breeds contempt" is perfectly illustrated through the privileges we take for granted. One generation suffers decades of struggle and abuse to win its people the right to vote; its great-grandchildren can't be bothered to go to the polls on election day. A young man from a poor rural country puts years of determination and sweat into getting a decent education; his wealthy North American counterpart lets Dad foot the bill for the best schools and then grumbles about being expected to study.

And in the United States, where freedom of religion is standard and Bibles are sold in every town, fewer than half of Christians read Scripture with any regularity, and over ninety percent admit there are passages they never have read at all.

It makes no sense to have a medical prescription filled and then leave the bottle on the shelf unopened. The wisdom in the Scriptures is God's prescription for defeating worry, healing emotional pain, and finding meaning. A daily dose will vastly improve the life of anyone who approaches it prayerfully and humbly.

May all of us learn to say with the Psalmist, "I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.... Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.... The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold"  (Ps. 119:16, 18, 72).

God’s Word holds the greatest of treasures
For those who take time just to look;
It breathes reassurance and wisdom—
But first we must open the Book!

The Bible holds purest refreshment
To fill up each soul’s inner cup,
A fountain of nourishing knowledge—
But first we must open it up!

If you leave the Scriptures unopened,
Its riches no more can abound
Than if you could read not a letter,
Or never a Bible had found.

So many of us, though called Christians,
Are keeping one foot in the night,
Too lazy to look into Scripture—
Our Bibles and hearts closed up tight!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Wind Blows North and the Wind Blows South

In the original Biblical languages, the words for "breath," "spirit," and "wind" are the same. Indeed, God's Spirit is likened to the wind several times in the Bible, the best-known example being John 3:8: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." The ancients lived in awe of the wind's power, and it was a short step to equating it with the power of gods. (See "Wind" in the Holman Bible Dictionary for additional insights.)

Even today, the wind often seems as mysterious as life itself. We have learned what causes wind, but we still can't see it. We can predict its behavior and effects to some degree, but only to some degree. We can harness some of its power, but we have no control over its strength or direction. And as any hurricane or tornado survivor knows, the wind can be one of God's best tools for reminding us how flimsy our delusions of grandeur are.

When God asked, "What is the way to... the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?" (Job 38:24), He wasn't giving a science quiz but reminding Job that human beings don't know enough to dictate how the world should be run. When a wind you don't like--literal or metaphorical--blows through your life and leaves a mess behind, it doesn't help to complain about the unfairness of it all.

What does help is remembering that the One Who does know where Earth's winds come from and where they go--Who, in fact, controls the whole process--is also big enough to direct the "tornadoes" in our lives for ultimate good.

The wind blows north and the wind blows south:
No one sees it or knows where it flies,
But we feel its full force
As it drives on its course;
And the leaves that it flails
And the clouds that it sails
Are as clear as the light to our eyes.

Our God moves swiftly to do great works:
No one sees Him or knows all His mind,
But the world He has made
All before us is laid;
And the strength that He weaves
In each heart that believes
Is as simple as asking to find.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Little Things

"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (Jn. 12:24).
Jesus spoke the above words in reference to His then-imminent crucifixion. A single seed of grain is a small thing; likewise, the Passion seemed at the time an insignificant event to the world at large. Shattering as it was to those close to the situation, thousands of "troublemakers" were subjected to the same sort of brutal execution in the first century. Nothing seemed all that exceptional about Jesus's death; it was His Resurrection that turned Christianity into a world-encompassing movement. Still, it didn't take His followers long to realize that the Crucifixion had tremendous significance of its own; without atonement for the sins of humanity, Jesus's coming back to life would have been a noteworthy miracle, but His people wouldn't have been much better off eternally for it.

Obviously, no other human being can redeem the world singlehandedly--and anyone who sincerely believed God had given him or her that assignment would quickly be referred to a doctor. Still, many Christians seem to think that only "major" accomplishments "count"; and too many of us turn bitter or develop inferiority complexes if God gives us only "small" assignments. "This woman wrote fifteen bestselling Christian books; I just enter visitor addresses into the church database." "That man is an internationally known preacher who's converted thousands; the only person I've ever led to Christ is my seven-year-old daughter." The complaint comes in a hundred forms, but its basis is always the assumption "God must not think much of me; He never gives me anything important to do." Or we may turn that attitude on others: "He's only the church janitor.... She's too disabled to do much for God.... How can anyone get into a real seminary with just an inner-city background?"

We'd do well to remember Someone who was only a carpenter, had a hick-town background, and, once upon a time, didn't seem very important to the higher-ups. He may be doing great eternal works through the "little" deeds of the church janitor; He wants to do great things through all of us.

Drips and drops of water,
Falling from the sky,
Grow to floods and oceans
As the hours pass by.

Little, ticking seconds,
Passing by ignored,
Grow to hours so quickly,
Soon a squandered horde.

Little acts--of kindness
Or of selfish greed--
Set whole lives' directions,
Written in each deed.

Do not scorn things tiny,
Nor despise the small:
They may grow to great things,
Touching each and all.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It's Not What Acts on You

If anything makes me my own worst enemy, it's the habit of trying to do more than I can--and then blaming mechanical failures and outside interruptions for my frazzled spirit. If the "happenings" of life would just go bother someone else for a while, I'd be able to read two books a day, get a dozen high-income projects done each month, and have plenty of time left for long prayer sessions. Instead, other people are always messing things up for me by answering the messages I leave them and wiring traffic lights to turn red.

Blaming other people--or God, or circumstances--for one's irritability does often seem to be a national sport. One could argue that some people have a right to blame others for screwing them up: abused children become abusive parents because that's the only example they ever saw; poor kids become criminals because society never gave them a chance at anything better.

Then along comes someone who suffered all those disadvantages and still managed to make something of him- or herself. Such people are frequently least appreciated by "their own"--"Too good for us now, are you?"--probably because their very existence invalidates the "everyone who's had a rough life has a right to go around doing nothing but displaying anger at the world" argument. If overcoming disadvantage by hard work really caught on, everyone might have to start working hard to rise above circumstances. Blaming circumstances is so much easier.

St. Paul, never one to take the easy way out, would have had little patience with the idea that bad circumstances justify bad attitude. Having put up with years of persecution, a long period of imprisonment on spurious charges, and the interruption of his long-awaited trip to Rome by a storm at sea that ended in shipwreck--and now in another prison cell awaiting a trial of uncertain outcome--he could write, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:12-13).

Paul's secret should be our secret too. Rather than letting tough or annoying circumstances make us bitter, we must learn to let God give us strength so He can use our circumstances to make us better.

The snow grows soft and the clay grows hard
In the heat of the very same sun:
It's not outside force that defines the results,
But that on which the force is done.

One heart grows soft and another hard,
Though their trials seem to be just the same:
It's not "happenings" that make you who you are,
But the attitude that you claim.

God sends His strength to all those who ask,
And no matter what else He may send,
There can be no excuse to grow cold and hard,
If you truly can call Him Friend.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Burnout Prevention

For me, the manifestation of workaholism isn't finding excuses to skip days off; it's finding excuses to skip breaks during work days. Often the days immediately before days off are the worst. The sooner I finish everything on today's To Do list, the sooner I can start the weekend. The less I have to roll over to Monday, the less I'll have on my mind to interfere with my enjoying Saturday and Sunday.

Except that my mind may have long passed the point of being able to turn off constant preoccupation with "what I have to do next."

It's some comfort to know I have plenty of company. Well-established custom says, "Finish all your work [perhaps a whole life's worth] first, and then you can rest." Many a person who lives by that principle eventually winds up taking a longer rest than he'd planned on--after his physical functions go on strike to protest the constant wear and tear.

We often forget that God gave the Sabbath commandment--not to mention the human body's built-in fatigue indicators--for our benefit, that He meant days off to be genuine times of rest (not just a switch from office work to household chores), that He does want us to "stop work in the middle of something" if that's what our bodies and spirits need. One difference between the Jewish Torah's concept of God and that of contemporary Mesopotamian mythology was that the latter's gods were serious taskmasters; they kept people on earth primarily because humans' daily work furnished religious sacrifices that saved the gods the trouble of preparing their own food. Sad to say, many modern Christians live as if our own God were like that: caring only about what we can do for Him and prone to get irritable if we take time off without a very good excuse.

And while we strive to please Him through our work, He pleads, ignored, for us to stop and get to know Him.

If you feel you're drowning in work, work, work,
Yet seem never to get much done,
You may be hard at work on the wrong "good things"--
Or at too much work on the right one!
God instructed us, yes, to do His work,
But He also gave His command
That we take some regular time for rest,
Just to rest in the palm of His hand.

So take time to work, and take time to pray,
And take time just for fun as well,
And see to your health, and see to your sleep,
And the family with which you dwell,
And your friends in the church, and those outside:
But remember these things above
All the rest--give heed to the Word of God,
And receive and display His love!

It may be, when your earthly days are done,
And you enter the golden gate,
That your Lord's "Well done" for the life you lived
Will depend upon nothing "great,"
Nor on how many hours you prayed or served
As compared to time on "the rest"--
For whenever your heart is fixed on Him,
What you do at that hour is best!

Friday, September 10, 2010

God's Soldiers

I personally don't like to hear talk about how immoral and anti-Christian the world is becoming. I don't deny that many of the criticisms are valid or that a personal unwillingness of mine to face up to uncomfortable truths may be involved. But what stirs at least as much discomfort on my part is that the typical Christian social reformer rarely mentions loving one's enemies, let alone turning the other cheek or watching for one's own blind spots. Some attack the opposition with a viciousness that makes counteraccusations of hate speech all too understandable. One wonders if the campaign to bring the Bible back into public schools would allow for a history class pointing out that serious Christians once used the Scriptures to argue for slavery and segregation.

People still quote the Bible out of context to justify themselves--and more than one person has noted that of the seven deadly sins, anger is the one we try to justify most often. Now, anger isn't sinful if it involves indignation against true evil; it is a sin when based on a belief that we're too important to be subject to inconvenience. An appointment is fifteen minutes late? How dare he mess up your schedule! Someone contradicts you with a sneer? How dare she put you down! Can't find the job you want? It becomes all too easy to listen to malcontents who claim the economy would be perfect without those foreigners in the market--or that employers are just prejudiced against Christians.

While nothing in the Bible forbids taking a blatant injustice to court (but note Paul's admonition in 1 Cor. 6:1-8 that Christian-to-Christian disputes are best settled within the church) or fighting off a direct attack, a careful reading of the Scriptures would indicate that in the interest of love and compassion for one's fellow humans, counterattack should be a last resort.

For too many Christians, it's the first.

We live in a world of violence,
Where the answer to every blow
Is to strike back, and even harder:
"That's the only language they know."

We see nations fighting each other;
They all claim to stand for what's right:
Though they kill and drop bombs at random,
It's all justified in their sight.

People lash out against mistreatment--
Which may be in their minds alone--
And claim crushing the last oppressor
Is where seeds of true peace are sown.

And hate is not only directed
To the stranger or foreign foe:
It can grow in our hearts toward a brother
Or toward anyone we may know.

But it brings neither peace nor justice
Just to "punish the ones who sin,"
For we all have hearts tainted with evil--
The dividing line runs within.

And if we strike back, when wounded,
Only at the offenders we see,
We forgot it is non-human forces
Who are truly the enemy.

Let us not shun our Lord's own teaching
That submission is our true strength,
And that true peace begins within us,
Where true change can take place at length.

We as Christians are Heaven's soldiers,
And our swords are forged strong through prayer,
For true victory over evil
Has its only beginning there.

Let us put aside selfish anger
And the urge to despise and hate,
So we all can grow strong as warriors
In a cause that is pure and great,

Living lives based in humble mercy
And in eagerness to forgive,
Standing firm against Satan's army
As we live as our Lord would live.

Then our love may win others over
Without force that is fueled by rage,
And the way of our Christ spread outward
Till the day God turns earth's last page!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Place for Everyone

Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. I read that book so long ago I can’t remember one specific thing it said, but the title sums up a concept that has gained much favor: People wouldn’t be made with specific inclinations if they weren’t meant to earn their daily bread through those inclinations. Attractive as the idea is, and sensible as it seems in light of the Christian concept that God fits each of us for specific purposes, I’m somewhat cynical. To insist “your ministry and your daily labor should always be one and the same” is to disavow the example of St. Paul, who considered himself first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel and yet specifically chose not to make his financial living that way. (See 2 Thess. 3:7–10.) And with the exceptions of natural entrepreneurs and those blessed with skills in heavy demand, those of us who do (only) what we love rarely see money following all that closely. At least not in sufficient amounts to immediately and permanently absolve us from working at anything else.

Personally, not only do I have trouble selling my writing skills for more than a few hundred dollars, it often seems I can’t even give them away. My church has never found more than occasional use for my articles and poetry; the same goes for other volunteer-minded nonprofits I know. Even this blog and my other online writing have drawn limited attention.

There are people with far greater cause to moan “There’s no place for me in this world.” The ex-convict whose search for honest work is stymied by public distrust; the quadriplegic who literally can’t lift a finger unassisted; the inner-city resident who daily hears “the world won’t ever let us rise above poverty”; the person whose autism-afflicted brain can only comprehend the larger world through extensive mental calculations—these are the ones who rarely think about what they’d most enjoy working at.
Any work would be welcome if they could be accepted as honest and competent—which often seems a hopeless dream.

We can be grateful that God doesn’t limit citizenship in His Kingdom to those who are “useful” in terms of physical strength, charisma, brains, or even spectacular testimony. Indeed, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). That’s not to say He has no use for the more obviously “capable,” just that when someone in
any category of capability is fully surrendered to His will, He can achieve far more of eternal value through that person than through anyone depending on his or her own abilities. This also may explain why, instead of handing us detailed assignments, He so often seems to let us navigate by trial and error. While we think in terms of “getting things done,” God thinks in terms of getting us done—the work we complete for His Kingdom is far less precious to Him than the work He will complete in us. And only He knows the exact combinations of time, struggle, and success that will ultimately make each of us all we can be.

What’s important for each of us to know is that, whatever this world thinks of us, we fully “belong” in God’s society.

Every piece in a puzzle will have its spot,
Every part in machinery will have its slot,
Every creature in nature will have its place,
Every tint in the spectrum will have its space.
And each soul that belongs to the House of Christ,
Those He freed from their sin at an awesome price,
Has a place in His Body and Holy Nation,
The true home of each soul who has found salvation.
All empowered from above,
Joined together by love,
Every one will belong,
All in service made strong,
Through eternity part of His new Creation.

And God’s work will be done through His strength in all,
Every soul who has come to His holy call.
Let not one cast an eye of contempt or scorn
On another in Christ who has been reborn,
Nor sit idle and say “But my gifts are few.”
God has work for us all—yes, for even you.
Give no thought to your past or your earthly station,
But look up to the Lord of our great salvation.
We are drawn from each race,
From each climate and place,
And God uses each one,
Closes all He begun,
Till earth’s work all is done at the Consummation.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

God Knows Best

More time than usual has passed between posts, because an electrical storm last Monday “fried” my cable connection and has left my online work dependent on the wireless services of public venues. Annoying, to say the least. I rarely work offsite; I can live very well without the bother of unplugging and reattaching a half dozen cords, the strain of packing around a ten-pound laptop on a stiff back, the hum of public activity intruding on my concentration, and the inherent hassles of either the coffee shop (with its sense of obligation to spend money I don’t have on caffeine I don’t need) or the library (with its increasingly limited hours).

“Limited hours” may be the greatest bugaboo. However much lip service we give to the Scriptural commands to “wait on the Lord” and “be still,” the conviction that it’s productivity that counts remains fixed in our minds. There’s a Christian song with a chorus something like, “It’s not in trying, but in trusting,/It’s not in running, but in resting,/It’s not in planning, but in praying,/That we find the strength of the Lord.” Biblically sound, but who really lives as if we believe it? If you’re anything like me, even prayer easily becomes a performance issue: how many hours a day, with what ratio of praise to requests, should one pray to achieve a Spirit-filled life?

Wayne Jacobsen, author of
He Loves Me!: Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection and coeditor of bestselling Christian novel The Shack, tells of a time he was invited to serve a brief interim pastorate: “We’ve heard that you really emphasize God’s grace and the cross,” the church elders told him.

“That’s true,” he replied, “but before you decide that’s what you want, I’d like you to answer two questions. First, how much of what gets done at your church, gets done because someone would feel guilty about not doing it?”

The elders exchanged glances, chuckled, and replied, “About ninety percent!”

“So, are you prepared to accept that if your congregation fully understands God’s grace, ninety percent of what’s currently getting done at your church may stop?”

Dead silence.

Most Christians harbor the same fear as those elders: that if we give too much attention to God Himself, if we allow ourselves to trust that He will not be angry if we stop striving to do all we can, we will end up getting nothing done. Serving out of love rather than duty, let alone believing that the former is ultimately the route of greater accomplishment, has always been a stumbling block for human nature. It didn’t take long for the “striving trap” to infect even the Church; St. Paul wrote Galatians, perhaps chronologically the first book of the New Testament, largely to battle that enemy. It didn’t come close to winning the war.

Perhaps the real reason we get angry with God for not preventing our problems is that problems interrupt our work and interfere with our striving. My online difficulties started just when I thought I might finally have an effective priority-based work schedule, and I’ve had enough similar experiences to convince me it’s more than coincidence—that some angel or demon has an ongoing assignment to strike at my weakest point, my aversion to interruptions and disappointment, whenever I seem on the edge of a significant reduction in those annoyances.

To some degree, everyone’s most hated troubles have to do with the failure of human striving, whether to get to an appointment on time or to “positive-think” oneself into a life where everything always goes “right.” All our bitterness at our failures, all our frustration over glitches and roadblocks, has its roots in the idea that God is either punishing us for something He won’t show us how to remedy, or doesn’t care about our happiness at all.

The apex of spiritual maturity is neither always doing the right thing, nor the absence of grief or anger in any circumstance, nor understanding the “whys” of it all. It’s trusting that
God understands the “whys”—and that He will make full use of all circumstances to finish the good work He began in us.

This life will bring its troubles
And unexpected pain;
Some days are bright with sunshine,
But some are full of rain;
Whatever roads we travel,
As we face every test,
Let us remember always:
In all things, God knows best.

God gives the perfect balance
Of happiness and tears;
He marks our mortal limits
And sets each lifetime’s years;
Though we seek wealth and wellness—
It seems the obvious guess
That these are good things for us—
Remember: God knows best.

One may grow strong through hardship
Or through prosperity;
And I can judge no other
By God’s best plan for me.
But when, in realms eternal,
Our souls at last find rest,
We all shall sing in chorus,
“Praise God: He knew the best!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Our Once and Future Joy

"I can't say this for sure," notes author/journalist Laura Fraser in "My So-Called Genius" (MORE Magazine, May 2008), "but I'd bet it was a formerly precocious person who coined the term midlife crisis." Fraser's article reflects on the emotional side of her transition from a top academic achiever to an accomplished-but-not-world-famous fortysomething--and on the disappointment that awaits many child prodigies when they learn high potential doesn't equal effortless and spectacular success. Or even high self-esteem.

Of course, you don't have to be a former high school valedictorian to experience a midlife crisis. Many of us spend the first half of our lives figuring we have "plenty of time" to accomplish our dreams--and the second half figuring we've already blown the chance. That's the kind of thinking that leads to an obsession with the "good old days." It can also lead to embarrassing moments if we haven't yet outlived those who remember us as kids; have you ever complained to your mother that life was so much better when you were twenty-one and been told, "The letters you wrote home from college during those days didn't give the impression you found things all that great"? As often as not, the "worst time of our lives" is the one we're living through at this moment.

Regardless, God didn't put us on earth to waste the present living in the past or the future. More than that, He is the only One with a truly accurate picture of all three--and the only One Who brings meaning to any of them. The Scriptures don't call Him the One "who was, and is, and is to come" (Rev. 4:8) for nothing.

In Him is the wisdom to learn from the past. In Him is the strength to thrive in the present. And in Him is all hope for the future--not simply in time but through the timelessness of eternity.

Look to the future—remember the past—
Look into both for the things that will last.
Sweet are the memories of good times now done;
Sweet is the vision of things yet to come.

Look to the past for the lessons that guide;
Look to the future, where they’ll be applied.
Praise for the wisdom a lifetime has brought;
Praise for the insights of days yet unsought.

Open the Scriptures and look to the Word,
Wisdom far sweeter than ever was heard.
Praise all the things God has done for His own,
Praise for His planning of things yet unknown.

He Who was shaping the earth as it grew—
He is the One Who will make all things new.
He Who came once to free mortals from sin—
He is the One Who is coming again.

He Who stood by us through all that has been—
He is the One Who will reign without end.
Seek out His blessing for all that will last:
Look to the future, remember the past.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Master of Camouflage

"Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes.... Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (Eph. 6:11; 1 Pet. 5:8).

Anyone who lives with a cat knows that members of the feline tribe don't approach their prey openly. Rather, they sneak up soundlessly, every move patiently calculated, eyes fixed firm on the target, until they judge themselves close enough to deliver the killing blow in one quick leap. Often, they maintain a literal low profile, particularly useful if you're a lion and your preferred habitat is grassland where much of the cover is shorter than you are.

The "roaring lion" who is the devil uses similar tactics. He doesn't show his real self openly, and he saves most of his roaring for boasting about his kills. When scheming to deliver a crippling blow to someone's spiritual health, he's more likely to purr, speaking soothingly about how this really isn't sinful and would be so wonderful. He watches his targets carefully, keeping an eye on how they react to certain situations and what they aren't paying attention to. Carefully he maneuvers his victim into position, covering his true nature with whatever innocuous-looking aspect of the environment he can hide behind--then when danger is least suspected, he makes the fatal suggestion that leads his prey to fall hard and leaves everyone stunned, wondering what happened.

Also like the natural predator, which selects its victims based on the perceived ease of overpowering them, the devil has an eye for those souls most vulnerable to temptation. Ironically, these are often the ones who seem strongest to human eyes: the wealthy executive, the high-profile superstar, even the Christian worker who seems to be accomplishing great things for God. The devil knows that the more "successful" we become in human terms, the easier we find it to start relying on our own abilities rather than God's supernatural power--and human nature being what it is, there's no guarantee of an exception when those abilities are used for strictly "Christian" work. The megachurch pastor who commits adultery with an attractive young counselee may well have started with the purest of intentions, but brushed off warnings about the temptations of being alone with her because he was sure he was above such carnal thoughts. He put his spiritual armor in the closet months before because he didn't think he needed it any longer, and he learned the hard way that his flesh was still vulnerable.

We're all equally helpless against the devil when we have only our own strength to rely on. Just as a gazelle must eat daily if it's to keep up its strength to escape lions, we have to replenish our spiritual defenses daily through prayer and Scripture.

"But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:57).

The devil is a master when
It comes to craft and art,
For he can paint the blackest sin
To lure the purest heart.

The devil is a master of
Deceit and subtle change,
And he can take the truest love
And twist it for his gain.

The devil is a master who
Perverts each thing that's good:
Beware, or he may work on you
Like craftsmen carving wood.

The only way to dodge the plans
This master thief can weave:
Find strength in Christ, the Son of Man,
Who saves all who believe.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Here's another item from the "Christian books I've recently read" department: Jean Fleming's Between Walden and the Whirlwind is for the busy Christian who's fed up with not being able to get her life in order. Not because the book solves your organization problems once and for all (how many books, Christian and secular alike, have made that claim?), but because it helps you come to peace with disorganization. More specifically, it emphasizes accepting that the ultimate order of life is in God's hands alone, and that our best planning skills--or intentions--can't earn us the right to grab the controls.

"Jesus has not asked me to have it all together," writes the author. "Here on earth no one arrives. All Christians are en route.... Even after we get God's direction for our life... we sometimes end up living out God's will to the wrong audience [ashamed to admit, even to fellow Christians, that God has called us only to "humble" tasks].... In our ardor to serve, we often overlook a critical truth: The servant doesn't choose his task. Our concept of serving God may be doing what we would like to do--for God. We tell God what we'll do for Him, and what we won't do; where we'll go for Him, and where we won't go. We even tell Him what mustn't interfere with our plans to serve Him" (1985 hardback edition, pp. 17, 31, 88).

Can you say "Ouch!"?

However obviously a task seems to be "God's work," God will not be pleased if it is done in a prideful spirit. This doesn't apply only to the "showy piety" Jesus condemns in Mt. 6; it includes deliberate or thoughtless disregard for seeking God's will in our decisions. How many times do we rationalize something just has to be God's will for us because we want it so much? ("I've realized my first marriage was really against God's will, so the only Christian thing to do is end it and be united with the person God wanted me to marry in the first place.") Some of us even presume to tell others what God's will is for them: "I don't care if you prayed about it with fasting for three weeks, dear; I'm your mother, and I know God couldn't possibly want you to take a dangerous job like that." "You have to marry me; God told me we're meant to be together, even if He didn't tell you." But true servanthood is being willing to accept God's will as He reveals it, not to try to change it to fit our wishes or our logic.

Where would we be now if Jesus had convinced Himself the Cross was not God's will?

Lord, I would like so much
To do great things for You:
But may "greatness" not overwhelm my power
To stay humble through and through.

Lord, I have glorious plans;
My heart is full of dreams;
But may they come true only if their glow
Never blinds to Your Truth's gleams.

Lord, minds so quickly stray
When they have pride to chase;
If I turn away, please do trip me up,
Lest I fail in faith's great race.

Lord, I still long to stand
With those who can achieve:
But please never let me achieve those things
That would weaken my belief.

Lord, all my days are Yours:
May what I gain and do
Never be so great as to tempt to pride,
Or distract my eyes from You.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Among my recent reading, I nominate for "most immediately significant" Chapter Nine ("The One Thing Needed") of Mark Buchanan's book Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever. In it, pastor Buchanan describes a session with a counselee whose feelings beautifully echo my own of late: "Don’t take this too seriously [but] I just would rather not have to live anymore.... I’ve been waiting for a long time for something, anything, to change [for the better]. But nothing ever happens.... It’s like God doesn’t notice me. I don’t rate His attention."

God, I work hard. I'm committed to advancing Your Kingdom through the talents You gave me. I try to make time every day for prayer and worship. So how come I haven't had a drop of income in two months; and how come You let me stay so uncertain as to whether that's because of anything I'm doing or not doing? And how come You won't heal my depressive and perfectionistic tendencies that are just making things worse?

Buchanan relates such periods in our lives to Matthew 11:2-6 and notes, "Blessed is the man who doesn’t fall away on account of the One who does all this for others, but who sometimes leaves you–you!–in your prison, with death just outside the door. For me, one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that too often I witness firsthand the lopsidedness of divine miracles." For those of us who pray about our problems for months or years without seeing anything discernible happening, hearing about the wonders God has wrought in others' lives doesn't always encourage; it may just tempt us to thoughts of "He cares about everyone but me." Why does He instantly answer a prayer about a relatively insignificant problem with a "yes," and seem deaf to "an entire church fasting and praying for forty-eight hours" for someone whose illness is not only terminal but strikes with agonizing pain in the prime of life? Why is it that two equally dedicated believers in seemingly identical situations can pray for relief, and one gets a "yes" answer and the other a "no"?

Then there was the man who prayed for healing of a potentially serious health problem and saw a minor one healed instead: "I guess God just wanted to show me He was able." I don't see how he could have taken it so well; to me, it would have been like asking for rent money to avoid eviction and having someone open a vault bulging with bills--and toss me a penny.

It doesn't help that many Christians who do get the more obvious blessings let it blind them to the reality of "lopsidedness." Hearing "God healed me when I prayed, so He'd heal you if you just prayed enough" is not comforting to someone who's already praying as best she feels able. Neither, for that matter, is hearing someone list how much worse she's lived through and conclude "...and you don't see me feeling sorry for myself," never considering that the ability to be happy in adverse circumstances might also be a blessing that God bestows in unequal degrees. No, I don't deny that self-pity is a sinful attitude; I just deny that all Spirit-filled Christians find it equally easy to put aside.

So what comfort is there for the believer who, by extreme circumstances or by temperament, finds himself in the "Lord, where's my miracle?" situation?

Quoting again from Buchanan's Things Unseen:"We hope in Christ not just because He feeds us, or heals us, or routs our enemies. Indeed, sometimes he doesn’t do any of that... No, we hope in Christ because of who He is, because He has the words of eternal life, and because anyone 'who feeds on this bread will live forever' [Jn. 6:58]. Because the world–and all its bread and all its fish and all its jewels and all its wonders and all its everything–is not enough." Because the physical healings and material provisions we pray for will eventually pass away with this life, and "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19). "We can hope in Christ, but if that hope is only for the here and the now, if it is strictly earth-bound, we are in the deepest sense hopeless.... Life doesn’t justify living. Only eternity does. And Jesus alone grants that."

Our impatient natures hate waiting for Him to grant us the full blessings of eternity, which is why our "light and momentary troubles" (2 Cor. 4:17) seem anything but. Especially when we realize that nothing we can do will definitely guarantee God will perform at the speed and in the way we prefer. Still, He doesn't really leave us without compensation during our waiting periods; He always gives us Himself, and though we don't always feel comforted, He is still "the God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3). We don't really know how much worse things would be without Him there protecting us.

With that thought, I'd like to close with a poem emphasizing God as our protection.

When food and clothing are uncertain,
When every paycheck is in doubt,
God is a shelter from despairing;
He will provide and bring you out.

When all the world seems set against you,
When foes are strong and friends are few,
God is a shelter from all scheming,
And He is Friend enough for you.

When tragedy has numbed your senses,
When deep depression grips your heart,
God is a shelter from the darkness,
And He will bring a brand new start.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Overload Syndrome

It's frequently said that Americans don't get (or take) enough vacation time, that we've forgotten what it's like to just relax. Even forcing ourselves to leave the workplace often doesn't help. I've just finished a three-week "break" and feel as stressed as ever--that time "off" included a family funeral; two crowded airplane flights; too much sightseeing in too little time; a doctor's appointment; a badly timed project deadline made worse by a shortage of research sources (that project is still unfinished, and prayers are appreciated); and, worst of all, a never-ending flood of e-mails (most of them pure junk) and a mailbox that won't let me ignore it four days before it fills up and starts rejecting new messages.

One survey reported that half of U. S. executives skip their vacations entirely to "get caught up on increased workloads." Probably the majority of the other half spend their "vacations" telecommuting. There's no place to hide from bosses or clients anymore; even on cruise ships and wilderness hikes, we see people discussing mergers by cell phone or pounding away at laptop computers. (You can always tell those who are conversing or Web surfing for business from those who are doing it for pleasure; the former are the ones whose fingers and lips move at hyperspeed and who have upward bends in their brows instead of their mouths.)

And all our attempts to "catch up" with the success we're chasing only seem to prove the quote from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

The place we really want to "get to" is the point where all stress and worry disappears; and human logic says that will be our reward when we finish all our responsibilities. Sad to say, human logic is part of fallen human nature. If we prefer Scripture as an example for our thinking, we can only expect to reach that cherished point of pure rest when ready to depart for Heaven (e. g., Paul in 2 Tim. 4:6-8); and yet, it would be not only unhealthy but sinful to refuse to stop until then. When Jesus made His famous offer, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30), He didn't say, "You'll never have to work again" or "You'll never be tempted to stress again." He offers rest on His terms: the freedom to take breaks before everything is finished; the freedom to do His work rather than being enslaved by the demands of the world or our own lusts and pride. The bad news, to human thinking, is that we have to give up our presumed right to do and get what we want. Say "yes" to God's offer, and you may learn the hard way that His definition of "rest" doesn't always extend to the physical, and that "every decent person is entitled to a long and happy life" is not one of His inviolable rules.

Still, most people who do accept His offer say they wouldn't have chosen differently for anything.

My mind is a whirl of confusion;
My brain jumps from thought into thought.
My life has a million priorities--
With all of them coming to naught.

My brain always dwells in the future:
Try get it to work on one task!
There's so much that I could be doing,
So much that this world has to ask.

I'd love to get everything finished
Within the brief span of a day,
Then sit back and rest for a lifetime--
If only the world worked that way!

The books and the chores and the travel,
Each option that's under the sun:
Of all of the times to be born in,
Lord, why this insane, cluttered one?

But wait: I can hear His voice speaking:
"The stressful life only was new
When Adam was cast from the Garden;
Sin's weight passed from him down to you.

"Each life has its burdens and clutter;
Remember, it never was meant
For this world to be your soul's mansion,
Or make you completely content.

"Your true home is waiting in Heaven;
But even today, I give rest
If you will let Me take your burden
And set you the chores that are best.

"My task is the one that is easy;
My load is the one that is light.
So cast out this world's expectations
And find in Me purest delight!"

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A God of Second Chances

Most Christians struggle with at least one "sin issue" that, at least occasionally, tempts us to think, "I know God can redeem anything--but maybe what I did is the exception to the rule." It doesn't matter whether it's a single heinous act we never would have thought ourselves capable of, a long pre-conversion record of being as antithetical to Christianity as a person can get, or some issue of attitude that keeps getting the best of us despite our efforts and prayers: in our moments of discouragement we seriously wonder if we've managed to out-sin God's grace. In some ways the "minor" problems--the worry habit, the bad temper, the prayerlessness--are worse torment than the obvious physical sins; the latter are, at least, easier to never do again! We get tired of accepting repeated apologies for the "same old thing," so it's natural to wonder if God also thinks in terms of "if she really wanted to change, she'd have done it by now."

The difference is that God knows when we're really sorry, as opposed to just saying so in the hope of staying out of trouble. Moreover, He fully understands our weaknesses and ignorance, what we literally can't help, what we aren't yet mature enough to manage--and His full understanding is what enables Him to be compassionate and forgiving toward us. (See Psalm 103:8-14.)

When it comes to long-term change, most of us have trouble understanding the boundaries of our own responsibility and at what point we should "let go and let God." Maybe it's humanly impossible to understand; every Bible scholar knows about the paradox that you can't choose God's way unless He calls you, and yet He holds you responsible for refusing His way. Two things can be stated with certainty, though:

1. God doesn't expect us to instantly eradicate our own tendencies toward sin--or to wipe out our sin's consequences--by our own willpower.

2. God would always rather receive back a sinner than punish one.

We serve a God of second chances:
However deep our sin may be,
We cannot sink beneath His mercy;
He ever longs to set us free.

We serve a God of second chances:
However far our souls may fall,
He reaches down to lift us upward,
And longs to pardon each and all.

We serve a God of second chances:
However black our hearts may grow,
He longs to heal us with His cleansing,
And change that “black” to “white as snow.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

God Is the Faithful One

1 Corinthians 13 is commonly known as the "love chapter," and rightly so. More than half the chapter focuses on how only love can give accomplishment true value, on what love looks like, and on how "the greatest of [all good and lasting things] is love" (v. 13:13b).

Still, verses 8-12 and their focus on things to come deserve some attention. The main point here is how we are growing into perfect knowledge of God and will one day experience the joy of an eternal relationship with Him, where our own sin and failure will no longer blur the view. Paul was hardly rambling when he used one final characteristic in the description of love--it "never fails" (v. 8a)--to transition into this section. God is Love; therefore, God never fails or gives up; therefore, He will continue to guide us through all the imperfections of this life until He has completed the task of making us fit to live fully in His presence. We needn't be discouraged because we only "know in part" (v. 9a) or afraid because we can't hold onto the temporal things of this world; God ever remains our one sure Anchor, the Faithful One Who gives us hope and Whose love never fails or weakens.

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love" (v. 13:13a). And God is the epitome of all three.

God is the Faithful One, steadfast forever,
He never changes nor fails to provide;
Though all the pains of this world may assault us,
We need not fear, for He stands by our side.

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!

God is the Lord of Hope, and He has promised
Greater things for us than we dare to dream;
He is preparing our home in the Heavens,
Safe for eternity in His Light’s gleam.

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!

God is the Loving One, He Who redeemed us:
He Who gave all, He Who suffered alone,
Willingly paid with His life for our freedom,
And He will never abandon His own!

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


How would you react if, while you were reading a familiar passage of Scripture, God's voice suddenly boomed from Heaven to ask how you were living up to those words? I've seen two versions of a skit where this happens on every line of the Lord's Prayer; not surprisingly, the person praying tried unsuccessfully to dodge "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors!"

Another "problem phrase" was one most Christians pray with unthinking enthusiasm under "normal" circumstances: "Thy Kingdom come." Do we want God's perfect world, forever free of hatred, pollution, and death--and an extra-large serving of foretaste on earth? Definitely! Are we prepared to accept that God's response to that request may be an assignment to get to work building the Kingdom? Most of us get a bit nervous here. We're like kids who beg Mom to fix their favorite dish but don't want to set the table, preferring to lie back and watch TV until called to indulge their pleasures.

Edmund Burke is credited with having said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." As much as with deliberately malicious people, that applies with the general evils inherent in our world--and with the evil-vs.-good battle inside each of us. It's not that God couldn't make the world perfect without our help, but that it would be inherently contradictory for Him to make us perfect without our free-will cooperation. And the world can never be perfect while its inhabitants are morally imperfect--however much we want to believe that all we need is to be free of effort, hardship, and want.

Obviously, we can't be completely free of any of the above, or of the evil in our own natures, in this life. But neither does God want us to sit idly by and wait for Him to bring in the final Kingdom.

We'll enjoy it--and the trip there--all the more if we work while we wait.

Somewhere beyond the frenzied crowd,
Some place where noise is not so loud,
Where air is fresh and skies are clear,
And nature close throughout the year,
With nights so black a thousand stars
Are seen with Jupiter and Mars,
And winters tinged with silvery ice—
I call that earthly Paradise.

The place where dreams for all come true,
Where all do what they’re made to do,
Where each finds joy in daily tasks,
Help comes to everyone who asks,
And no one’s made to feel alone,
And each one has a loving Home,
None need reminders to be nice—
Will come someday, in Paradise.

But such a place, within this world
Where stress and hate and pain are hurled,
Still seems at best a lovely dream—
And yet, as sure as sunshine's gleam,
Such things will yet one day come true:
And God wants all who dream to do,
Not simply wish nor give advice.
Awaiting future Paradise.

Let's work for what we'll someday see,
For God has tasks for you and me.
So smile today at someone new;
Pick up some trash not left by you;
Put others' needs before your own;
Console the one who sits alone;
Stand for the right at any price—
Show every day God's Paradise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If I Could Live a Thousand Years

Futurist Ray Kurzweil co-authored a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Among other things, he recommended taking 250 nutritional-supplement pills a day, getting weekly purges at an alternative-medicine clinic, avoiding the use of cell phones, and completely eliminating sugar from the diet--all in the name of living indefinitely longer.

One reviewer's comment: "I can see how it might seem a lot longer!"

Living 100+ years in excellent health always sounds like a good deal until someone brings up the price tag of increased inconvenience, possible discomfort, or giving up your favorite pleasures. Most people would rather dream the impossible dream of a pill they could take every night to reset their health to "perfect," leaving their days free to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, there are those who live pretty much like that, who get everything they want, who have yet to suffer any unpleasant consequences--and yet are bored with life to the point of being suicidal. Ultimately, everyone needs a better reason to live than simply being afraid to die.

Enter Jesus and His offer of John 10:10b: "I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full." Not necessarily life in the sense of more and healthier years on earth, nor only life in the sense of eternal existence in Heaven; but life in the sense of being everything we were meant to be, of enjoying with unmixed gratitude every good thing we have, of taking delight in the most mundane of duties because we see eternal purpose behind them. Above all, life in the sense of being free to love God and others with all that is in us. There are those who seem to have been already blessed to have fully learned this secret of living life to the full, who are always bursting with joy and passion, who seem impossible to discourage by any dire prediction or adverse circumstance.

For most people, even sincere Christians, it's an uphill battle to reach that point. Many of us may never come close this side of Heaven. But it should encourage us to know what we have to look forward to.

If I could live a thousand years
And drink of every dream on earth,
Completely free of mortal fears
Through every moment from my birth,
If I had all the pleasure-things
That earthly days could ever give--
Yet never knew the joy God brings,
I never would be blessed to live.

If I knew that tomorrow's sun
Would rise to find my soul had passed
To other realms beyond this one,
If my last hours were flying fast,
If but one day remained for me--
Would I have strength to stand the test?
Would I rejoice to be set free,
With faith that I had served God's best?

Lord, I may live a hundred years
Or see Your face this very day;
I cannot tell how many tears
And joys remain; I only pray
That what I show to You might be,
Once I leave earth forevermore,
A life that served not only me,
But showed the way to Heaven's door.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Blessed Life

The Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12) have been described as a passage that turns all conventional thinking on its head. J. B. Phillips, author of Your God Is Too Small, probably said it best when he wrote a widely quoted "converse version" featuring such aphorisms as "Happy are they who complain, for they get their own way in the end." (For those interested in reading the whole list, a Google search for the above phrase will turn up several postings.) Indeed, some Bible scholars have claimed that Jesus intended this description of the "blessed life" only as a theoretical view of the ideal, so antithetical does it seem to what it takes to survive in this world.

If perhaps some of those scholars let their interpretive skills be tainted by an "anything to avoid admitting this could apply to me" attitude, few of us could blame them for it without being found with logs in our own eyes. And it's not always a desire to continue in comfortable selfishness that makes us want to dodge passages like this one. For some of us, it's the fear of failure, of taking on a task too big to handle. And the fear is hardly unfounded. To consistently practice humility, mercy, and the pursuit of God's peace and justice is something that is, quite literally, humanly impossible.

But actually, that's the point. The qualities Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23, which show obvious similarities to the Beatitudes, are called the "fruit of the Spirit," not the "fruit of human effort." In both passages, the underlying idea is not striving to achieve the ideal on our own power, but being willing to cooperate as God remakes us in His image. It's rarely as quick or obvious as we'd like; frequently, it's seriously painful. Jesus said that "a house divided against itself will fall" (Lk. 11:17); and frankly, a serious desire to become Christlike turns the human heart into a house divided: impatient to achieve patience, looking for God's will less from love of Him than from hope our lives will become easier at least emotionally, constantly fighting what we have to go through for our own good, living as perennial bundles of mixed motives. And fall we do, frequently and hard. Often so hard we can't get up on our own.

The Hebrew for "he restores my soul" in Psalm 23:3 can also be roughly translated as "He sets me upright." Yes, just as God is the true Power enabling us to grow in the blessed life, He is the one Who lifts us up and keeps us going when we feel we've reached the point where it's impossible to continue.

He will bring us safely to the land of eternal blessing.

Blessed is every humble soul:
Heaven is their lifelong goal.

Blessed are all the ones who weep:
God will make their comfort deep.

Blessed are all the meek of heart:
Endless wealth will be their part.

Blessed are those who crave the right:
God will make their joy so bright.

Blessed are those whose hearts are kind:
God's own mercy they will find.

Blessed are those whose hearts are pure:
By God's grace they will endure.

Blessed are those who strive for peace:
In God's family they increase.

Blessed are those abused when good:
God rewards their servanthood.

Blessed are all who love God's ways:
He will shower them with His praise!