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.