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!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Somewhere Beyond

Not only is death the enemy of humanity in general (1 Cor. 15:26), but many of us go through periods where it seems to hold a personal grudge against us. Recently, I've gotten to the point I dread answering phone calls from relatives: half a dozen of my parents' old friends, plus three family members, have passed on since 2006; and as many relatives again are struggling with serious health problems, at least one potentially terminal. For all that, I suspect that many people--faced with the senseless murder of a child, or a vehicle crash that took an entire family in one blow--would willingly trade places with me.

Many people react to death by wanting to die themselves; loss of a loved one is a frequent motive for suicide. Others don't need that much of an excuse. The ultimate escape can start to look attractive for the most trivial reasons; more than one suicide note has said something to the effect of "I can't take all this stress anymore" or "I failed and I can't live with it." Psychology Today reported in 2005 that perfectionists have a high suicide rate because "They think that if life isn't perfect, then it's worthless. Get rid of it." One mark of perfectionism is the feeling that we can get everything under control if only we try hard enough, and that if life is a disappointment in any way, we must be guilty of the sin of sloth and have to do penance by trying harder. (I can state from personal experience that it's even possible to be a perfectionist about getting rid of perfectionism; if you laughed at that without also being tempted to cry, I envy you your lack of perfectionism!) Since we aren't God, we're trying to do the impossible and will eventually break under the strain.

The craving and striving for perfection, whether in ourselves, others, or life in general, will invariably disappoint us because this world hasn't been perfect since the day of the forbidden fruit. We tend to see God's promising Adam and Eve lifelong hardship in return for that snack (Gen. 3:16-19) as pure punishment; but perhaps it was also an act of mercy. Had they continued to live in comfort once their souls were tainted with sin, they might never have returned to God because life might not have seemed so bad without Him. It's the prodigal who's been reduced to living in the pig pen, not the playboy who still has money nor the dutiful son still at home, who realizes the full depths of the wages of sin and can finally experience the Father's embrace of love.

The ultimate experience of that embrace, of course, waits for the life beyond this one where things finally will be invariably, unspoilably perfect. Though we may not yet believe that with all our hearts, it's far greater consolation in pain than is feeling guilty because we can't "fix things" ourselves.

Somewhere beyond the sky above there is a Heavenly land
In which our loved ones gone before have found eternal peace;
And someday when our years are done, we'll go to be with them
In that bright world beyond our world when pain will finally cease.

Somewhere beyond this world of time there is a Heavenly land
Where all who dwell are ever strong and beautiful and young;
And someday when our bodies end their work, they'll be remade
In that bright world beyond our world where all the blessed come.

Somewhere beyond this world of toil there is a Heavenly land
Where all the work is purest joy through service to our Lord;
And someday when we rest at last, we'll worship Him alone
In that bright world beyond our world where endless grace is poured.