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.