Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Do Your Lord's Work Every Day

The following poem started as a general inspirational piece titled "Stop and Do a Good Deed Every Day," and I was about to post it as such when I thought: Is it right to imply that one good deed a day is enough? And why should we always have to stop to do our good deeds? True, many opportunities to do good come in the form of interruptions; but to really follow in the steps of Christ, Who "went around doing good" (Acts 10:38), shouldn't we also be incorporating acts of loving service into our planned daily routines? In fact, shouldn't everything we do be motivated by the desire to accomplish God's work?

Japanese reformer Toyohiko Kagawa commented on Acts 10:38: "Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about." Yes, most of us are all too content to "go about" our regular routines and our own plans and to figure on working in some attention to God and others when it's convenient. Even if we feel guilty, we rationalize that we're doing the best we can under the circumstances. I am intimately familiar with the trap of structuring plans with full intention of using them for maximum effectiveness in God's Kingdom, then almost immediately sliding into worshiping the schedule and forgetting the One it was supposedly designed to serve. When you start berating yourself for taking 52 or 65 minutes on a task with an official "one hour" time slot, you know something's wrong with your priorities.

How did Jesus avoid this trap? The clue is in the last part of Acts 10:38: "God was with him." We can't really work for God until we're working with God. And though God is, technically, with us at all times, we aren't always fully with Him. We all have heard people say, "Are you with me?" to others who are physically present, but not paying attention to or comprehending what is being said. It takes conscious effort to get with God in the way Jesus did--taking long periods for prayer even while a thousand tasks are impatient for attention, becoming intimately familiar with the Scriptures.

Only then will God guide us to do those good works that (cf. Eph. 2:10) He has specifically prepared for us to do.

If you want to live long and be healthy,
If you want to find joy on the way--
If you want to know true satisfaction--
You must do your Lord’s work every day.

You may think you have no time for others:
"I have so much to do," you may say.
But if you would be free from frustration,
You must do your Lord’s work every day.

For our God gives a burden that’s easy,
But so many find only dismay
As they load up their lives with distractions:
You must do your Lord’s work every day.

So lay all of your time on the altar,
Take your first waking hours just to pray:
And your Lord, Who is wise and all-knowing,
Will help you do His work every day!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hear Us, Lord

It's the sort of catastrophe that even sporadic news-viewers like myself hear about within twenty-four hours. Unless you've been in solitary confinement for the past week, you, too, know the answer to the question, "What happened in Haiti on January 12?" The capital city virtually leveled by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Perhaps as many as 100,000 fatalities. At least 300,000 people left homeless. Relief attempts hampered by looting, by frustration expressed in violence, by poor organization, and by the sheer volume of damage. And the repeated observation that the country already had more than its fair share of problems in the political and economic categories.

Whether they make the international news or not, most people have had the experience of feeling that life has become nothing but one disaster after another. The sequence may last only a single day or continue for years; our problems may be genuine tragedies or mere frustrations; but nearly all of us occasionally want to scream, "God, I can't stand this world any longer; take me out of it before I give in to the temptation to do it myself!" At such moments, the Biblical plea for Christ's return, "Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20), becomes more a cry of despair than of hope.

While this may not be the most Christlike attitude, it's probably closer to what God wants of us than the shrug that dismisses everything as "God's will" or the corresponding fear that reacting with anger or tears is invariably sinful. Jesus Himself was a Man of deep emotion: letting His heart break for others' pain; mourning for those who had so hardened themselves that they would rather go to hell than choose God's will over their own; and (scholars agree this shows clearly in the original Greek of the New Testament) regularly mixing His compassion for the suffering with anger at how suffering permeated so much of God's world. That alone should make it obvious that God does not "will" the mess the world is in and that He certainly is not indifferent to its pain. Why He nonetheless lets the pain occur as frequently or continue as long as it does is a question no human being has the wisdom to answer. But it does give us cause to state with confidence that someday He will remedy it forever.

In the meantime, one trap we must watch out for is the tendency to make relief from our problems everyone's highest priority. While humanity retains enough unselfish compassion that the world rushes to help relieve a disaster on the level of the Haitian earthquake, within two months ninety-nine percent of us privileged types will have forgotten the island nation and gone back to whining, "Why me, Lord?" every time our computers crash or our cars stall. Jesus was never angry or sad at the world's problems because they interfered with His personal comfort--only because of the pain they caused others.

And He didn't just cry over others' pain; He always did something about it. While you and I can't raise the dead, perhaps can't even rebuild one home in Haiti, we do have direct access to the One Who "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (Eph. 3:20). Even if He doesn't promise to "fix everything" instantly, He does promise to do it ultimately.

And in the meantime, He promises to give full attention to our every prayer.

Our God is a God of pure love and peace,
Yet our world is engulfed in war,
And in violent acts born of desperate hate,
That mock all that our Lord stands for.
Hear us, Lord, as we cry for the end of strife,
And for all of earth’s wars to cease;
Work Your will in those hearts that wish others harm:
Let us see a new age of peace!

Our God is a God Who restores and heals,
Yet our world is engulfed in pain,
From the weeping of those at a loved one’s grave
To the bodies grown old with strain.
Hear us, Lord, as we cry for Your healing touch
On each body and hurting soul;
Bring new life, and give back what our hearts have lost:
Let the sick stand restored and whole!

Our God is a God Who does only good,
Yet, as long as this world shall be,
Still the forces of evil will work their way,
Till Christ comes to set all things free.
Hear us, Lord, as we cry for Your day to come,
Your return to make all things new:
And till that day arrives, give us strength to stand,
And to hold to Your Word so true!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You Could Easier Gather a Thousand Feathers

It was an outdoor worship service at a mountain amphitheater, and despite a strong wind, everyone was glad to be in the fresh air and sunshine. The pastor had just concluded his sermon.

"Now, one final lesson." He picked up a large canvas bag, stepped to the edge of the cliff, and untied the bag. "Watch carefully."

He turned his back to the wind and, with a quick flip of his wrists, upended the bag. Out flew hundreds of feathers, swirling every which way into the gale, sailing out over the valley and river toward the hills beyond.

The pastor turned to his congregation. "Who will volunteer to retrieve all the feathers?"

Shaking heads, incredulous laughs. Someone called out, "Who'd be crazy enough to think they could?"

"Careless words," the pastor explained, "are like those feathers. Once you let out a cruel remark or a thoughtless accusation, you lose all control over where the words go. They fly faster and farther than the wind; they pierce deep into hearts; and if they ruin someone's life or reputation, God will hold you responsible for unleashing them."

We all have times we want to tell someone exactly what we think of the whole industry he works for, to call someone a worthless idiot for spilling tea on six hours of our work, to get back for coming in second by implying that the first-place finisher did something unethical. Usually we don't really intend to harm anyone; we just want to relieve our hurt feelings and reassure ourselves that we are still the most important people alive. And we never think as we walk away, satisfied with our venting, that constant verbal abuse from others like ourselves may be tearing a service clerk apart inside, or that people have resorted to suicide to escape vicious slander that started with tiny rumors.

St. Paul knew all too well how it felt to be on the receiving end of ugly words. It's likely that when he wrote, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5), he considered the sinful talk those pretensions and thoughts would lead to if unchecked. At least one modern writer has illustrated the "take thoughts captive" concept, specifically as it applies to speech, by noting parallels to calf roping at a rodeo. Just as the object of the rodeo event is to lasso and tie down the animal before it gets from the chute to the exit gate, we need to head off all better-left-unsaid thoughts between the brain and the mouth. And just as the calf roper needs quick reaction time and fast reflexes to succeed in the contest, we need the power of the Holy Spirit, cultivated through prayer and deliberate right thoughts, to develop the internal reflexes for stopping careless talk before it starts.

If that sounds "too hard," compare it to the difficulty of picking up hundreds of feathers scattered far and wide. And ask yourself what price regret.

You could easier gather a thousand feathers,
Flung free to the wind and blown out north and south,
Than undo the effects of a word untethered,
Flung out to the world once you open your mouth.

You could easier scoop up the water's ripples,
Or hold the sea's waves in the crook of your arm,
Than call halt to the flurry of gossip's whispers
That start with snide words, though you meant no real harm.

You could easier snatch from the clouds the thunder,
Than undo the hurt that a few words can wreak.
It is better by far to avoid the blunder--
So keep thoughtless words locked inside of your cheek!

Monday, January 4, 2010


"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is nowhere more true than in the area of human teamwork. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 gives several examples of why "two are better than one": help and comfort close at hand; strength in numbers; greater overall achievement. Paul expands on the theme in 1 Corinthians 12, emphasizing that our talents and gifts come directly from God and that He intends them all to function as a unit for maximum effectiveness. No one is to be scorned by others with flashier talents; no one is to feel sorry for himself or excuse himself from working because "I really can't do anything important"; no one is to be ignored or shut out or denied full opportunity to make a contribution.

Sadly, the membership rolls of most churches are filled with people whose participation consists entirely of showing up for services, if that. It's not always the "pew warmer's" own fault. Many a church pleads almost weekly for more Sunday school teachers and choir members, while a sanctuary of talented painters and bakers and accountants sits feeling guilty because they can't do what's most wanted. Often they're pressured into trying anyway, rarely producing anything better than mediocre square-peg-in-round-hole results--and even more "I'm no use to this church" guilt feelings. Meanwhile, those who speak up on what they'd really like to do often receive little more encouragement than "Well, we'll let you know if anything comes up."

Perhaps the typical church staff needs a new position: Director of Ministry Placement.

Still, it's worth remembering that the Bible never says everyone's primary field of service has to touch every member of a large congregation or community. Not only does the Ecclesiastes passage speak of very small groups, but Jesus Himself affirmed the power of the tiniest prayer ministry: "If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Mt. 18:19-20). Furthermore, in Paul's time most individual congregations included no more than a few dozen people. And when God decided that the first human being needed the company of his own kind, He made only one additional person (Gen. 2:18-24).

But let's never forget that God does endorse some human companionship for everyone, whether in the form of one best friend or a close-knit extended family of forty. The idea that "I have God so I can get along fine without anyone else" has no Biblical warrant.

God could personally and directly provide us with all the verbal encouragement, advice, and reassurance we need. But I guess He knew we also needed equals we could encourage, advise, and reassure.

An army of one will quickly fall
To the smallest opposing force;
A soldier needs allies within the fight,
Who will help him to stay the course.

A traveler alone will quickly chill
When the day turns to frigid night;
Far better with friends who give warmth and strength,
Who stay by till the first dawn's light.

A single thin thread will quickly snap
At a tug from the weakest hand;
But bundles of thread will resist the pull,
When they're wove to a stronger strand.

The enemy strikes the weakest point,
So no Christian must stand alone.
We all have right place in the Lord's design;
His church needs every living stone!