Tuesday, February 23, 2010

If Your Goal Is to Seek First God's Kingdom

Two Christmases ago, my Houston church made the front page of the city paper after asking members to volunteer for our first "see what you can do for God's Kingdom with $100" project. More specifically, for each participant to design a project suitable to his or her perceived calling. It worked so well that we're now in the middle of our second such project; my contribution to that one will be to self-publish a collection of poems chosen specifically for their value in encouraging the depressed and discouraged.

There's a certain encouragement-to-the-discouraged value in "find your ministry" projects themselves, as they acknowledge that you can make a contribution to the Kingdom even if your gift isn't teaching, building, fundraising, or one of the handful of other items where churches always seem to have obvious needs to meet. Likewise in the world of full-time employment. Without belittling the hundreds of people who become professional ministers of the Gospel out of genuine love for God and sensitivity to His calling, it's only fair to note that dozens more were pressured to enter preaching or missions against their own better judgment, and--whether they said "yes," or said "no" and felt guilty about it--are miserable as a result. Taking the "find a need and fill it" approach without regard to whether you are actually qualified to fill it is asking for trouble; God has ways of using us all to maximum effectiveness in whatever work He has gifted us for.

There's no question that we are all called to "seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness" (Mt. 6:33). We should also be seeking--diligently and persistently--the specific best ways each of us can advance the Kingdom and God's glory.

And at times, that best way involves doing nothing--except being still and letting Him shape our hearts and minds.

If your goal is to seek first God's Kingdom,
There's no worthier aim on this earth:
But don't think that is done just through missions
That lead wandering souls straight to new birth,
Or in building of churches of thousands.
If these things just can't work out for you,
God has still made you for His own purpose--
You're a part of our Lord's Kingdom, too!

By all means, give your wealth and your labor,
Set your neighbor's needs over your own,
And keep praying with faith and with fervor;
But accept your Lord's burden alone.
Neither guilt, nor prestige, nor mere duty,
Is the way: God delights in your love.
Seek His way both in labor and leisure;
Seek His guidance and power from above!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There Are Christians Who Always Think in Terms of...

In this age of multiculturalism and often excessive tolerance, the idea that "Western society is getting more hostile to Christianity every year" is practically a creed in many churches. It may be true; but it isn't quite the exclusive oppression many think it is. Practically every special-interest group, irrespective of religious or moral convictions, now regularly claims that their worst enemies run the media and government and that "everyone is tolerated--except us."

How much of this is legitimate reaction to genuine injustices--and how much is simply a manifestation of the truth that anyone determined to find something to complain about will eventually succeed? As individuals, how can we know when to openly protest, when to turn the other cheek, and when to give others the benefit of the doubt?

A good place to start would be to put away any assumptions that we (and the ways "our own" "always did things") must automatically be right. Godly humility based in love for the world can accept that even its enemies--even those so influenced by evil that they consider violence a legitimate way to make a point--may occasionally have some valid criticism. Or may actually be God's way of getting His point across. Are we really such "good Christians no one has a right to hurt" if we emulate the Israelites of Jeremiah 7:1-11--making gods of our own comfort and pleasure, ignoring the harm our pursuit of such may do others, and insisting throughout that God is on our side because we go to church regularly? (See also the much-quoted "$3 Worth of God," by Wilbur Rees.)

A serious reading of the Bible, especially the prophets and Gospels, might lead us to the uncomfortable conclusion that the sin God personally finds most abhorrent isn't sexual misbehavior, or violence, or even bigotry.

It's a sense of smug self-satisfaction in His presumed most loyal followers.

There are Christians who always think in terms
Of "my country right or wrong,"
Who ignore the oppressed and bask in wealth,
And are proud to be counted among the strong.
But Christ came as a Servant and not a chief,
And was counted among the poor:
So, you rich, beware: it may be your Lord
Who is constantly knocking upon your door!

There are Christians who always think in terms
Of "it's us against power's hand,"
Who fight battles and wars at every turn
And are proud to think of it as "taking a stand."
But Christ came in respect and humility,
And preached love for our enemies:
So, you fighters, think: it may be your Lord
Who is saying, "But there are logs in your eyes!"

As Christ's servants, we should know when to fight
And know when to respect the rules:
Yet so quickly we slide to human "sense,"
Till we find ourselves standing among the fools.
If we wish to truly walk in His steps
And to touch the world with His Word,
Let us keep our hearts in humility
And forever aware He alone is Lord!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Time Rushes On

In our hectic society where workaholism is worn like a badge of honor, the phrase "killing time" evokes fewer positive connotations than it once did. Still, it's surprisingly easy to achieve the best--er, worst--of both worlds. Few could dispute that when priorities are out of balance, keeping busy and wasting time can go together like computer monitors and pixels. Conversely, it's possible to be seemingly idle and still be making good use of one's time; most Christians understand that rest and prayer are vital components of the life that best accomplishes God's will. Sadly, this is perhaps the area where Christians most ignore what they know in favor of living like the rest of the world.

It's been said that few people die wishing they'd spent more time at the office--the obvious implication being that most people sacrifice the building of relationships on the altar of making money. But there's more to wise use of time than that. The employee who balks at working late in a one-time emergency because he'd be late for a Friday night party, the stay-at-home mom who chastises her twenty-five-year-old for moving out because she knows of no use for her life beyond caring for him, and the model family man who never thinks about building a relationship with God are all as skewed in their priorities as the executive who effectively lives at the office. And everyone with skewed priorities has the same core problem: thinking in terms of "what I want" rather than "what God wants of me." Surprisingly few people take to heart the truth that God's will deserves top place on our priority lists; even most of His sincere followers complain about "not having time to do everything," failing to realize that it isn't God who asks people to do more than they're capable of.

Someday we all will run out of earthly time. When we stand before God for our final pre-Heaven examinations, how many of us will be able to say, as Jesus could, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do" (John 17:4)? And for those forced to admit to completing considerably less, what kind of excuse will it be to say, "Well, at the time, it seemed more important to complete what I and other human beings gave me to do"?

Time rushes on:
We grow older, not younger;
Time rushes on:
Autumn gives way to frost;
Time rushes on,
And the tears of a lifetime
Never can bring back
The days we have lost.

Time rushes on:
Live each day to the fullest;
See to the work
God has set for your tasks;
Never say, "Wait,"
For His timing is perfect;
He knows the best time
For each thing He asks.

Time rushes on:
Soon life's time will be over;
Dozens of years
All will come to their end;
See to God's work,
So, when you stand before Him,
You may rejoice in
His "Well done, My friend!"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Set Free

Freedom is a much-misunderstood concept, which is likely why so few of us feel we really have it. To many, freedom is the right to get what we want and do as we please. Though we rarely admit it, we think this sort of freedom should be exclusive to us, since the alternatives--either everyone doing exactly as he or she pleases or our having to constantly think about how our actions affect others' freedom--are less than compatible with the perennially pleasant and comfortable lives we envision as indicating we are truly free.

Others would be satisfied to be free from one particular responsibility: "I'm sorry I ever married her." "I'd take any job that gets me away from my kids for a few hours a day." "Why did I sign that contract?" "I'm worn out from taking care of my dad; it seems like he's going to drag out his last years forever."

Then there are those of us who would rather not be selfish but have issues we can hardly be blamed for desiring freedom from. Many are desperate to be free of sickness, family abuse, or poverty. Many are depressed or emotionally disturbed, living in feelings of perennial misery they can't really explain but would give anything to be free of. Most of us have had the experience of desiring freedom from guilt: guilt over resenting our legitimate responsibilities; guilt over having any personal desires of our own; guilt over things now past but still regretted.

And of course, most of us suffer to some degree from compulsions we can't seem to get free of. No matter how often we vow to quit drinking, to control our tempers, to cancel the pity parties once and for all, the desire always comes back, driving us, like a slavemaster driving harvesters to work with a whip, to the action we simultaneously despise and love.

Therein lurks the true reason behind all lack of freedom: there's something out of alignment within us, something that takes pleasure in what our consciences deplore, something that keeps us convinced--in the face of common sense and experience--that this time it'll work, this time the satisfaction will last, this time our running from responsibility will bring us to true freedom. Christian theology calls this misalignment original sin. It has its roots in the original sin--the day Adam and Eve chose freedom to do as they wanted and thus poisoned their freedom to do as God wanted, the only real freedom there is because it comes from the only One wise enough to know what brings true happiness.

This is the sort of freedom Jesus promised when He said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.... everyone who sins is a slave to sin.... [But] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:31-32, 34, 36). Many Christians--often through no fault of their own--never find freedom in this life from persecution, from physical limitations, even from strong emotional tendencies toward the most persistent of their sins. But the freedom Jesus refers to here encompasses even more than the total relief we will find from all this in God's final Kingdom; it means the first taste of freedom now, freedom to begin to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, freedom to see doing the right thing become gradually more natural, freedom to experience the first tastes of the pure joy that will someday be full reality.

Jesus bought our freedom at a cost. Will you give up your "what I want" ideas of freedom to Him and allow Him to show you a greater freedom than you can imagine?

Set free, set free,
Free from death’s sentence pronounced on me!
Christ paid that price so that I could be
Set free, set free!

Set free, set free,
Free from the sin that had driven me!
Christ gave His life so that I could be
Set free, set free!

Set free, set free,
Free from the guilt that weighed down on me!
Christ was raised up so that I could be
Set free, set free!

Set free, set free,
Free from the trials of life I’ll be!
Christ, my great Lord, soon will call for me:
Set free, set free!