Friday, December 16, 2011

C Is for Christmas

It's that time of year when you can no longer tell a sacred venue from a secular by its taste in music. "O Holy Night" pipes through urban shopping malls while church choirs sing "Jingle Bells." Many long-ubiquitous Christmas songs, such as Irving Berlin's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," were created by Jewish songwriters; and the very custom of extravagant celebrations around the time of the winter solstice (which most scholars believe was months removed from Christ's birth) is rooted in the pagan Saturnalia festivals of ancient Rome. 

Through the centuries, serious Christians have varied in their reactions to "the holiday season." Many have called it a selling out to materialism, secularism, even paganism. Even people with little use for Christianity grumble about the spend-a-fortune, wear-yourself-out, gain-twenty-pounds atmosphere that pervades the end of the year--then feel deprived or guilty if they skip any of it. Enjoying endlessly available pleasures in healthy moderation is a discipline that few ever master; doing completely without is comparatively easy.

With all that in mind, I've tried to keep a balance between festivity and reverence in this week's poem. Before you read it, and again after, pause for 3 to 5 minutes and think about how God does take pleasure in seeing us enjoy wholesome Christmas celebrations--when we truly enjoy them, without piling them on to the point where the joy burns out. Then think of how God loved us enough to send Christ from the glories of Heaven to the squalor of earth. (An example for those of us who think we're being incredibly generous by reserving five percent of our holiday budget for charity.)

Take time to nurture a meaningful Christmas in your heart.

C is for Christmas and all that it brings:
H is for Hymns that the Christmas choir sings,
R is for Ringing each jingling bell,
I is for (God with us) Immanuel,
S is for Stocking that's hung up with glee,
T is for Tinsel that gleams on the tree,
M is for Merry with parties and flair,
A is for Advent, a time to prepare,
S is for Savior, the King Who was born:

God bless us all, on this joyous Christmas morn!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Thorn in the Flesh

It was the strangest be-careful-what-you-ask-for story I remember hearing. A young woman came to her pastoral counselor complaining of an overwhelming feeling of spiritual oppression, of being constantly assaulted with fear, depression, and temptations to anger.

"Did you experiment with anything occult just before this started?" the counselor asked.

"Of course not! I was working hard with spiritual disciplines. I even prayed a special prayer for spiritual growth."

"What kind of growth, exactly, did you pray for?"

"Well"--she thought for a minute--"I wanted to be great in faith like St. Paul, so I asked God for a thorn in the flesh like his."

"Sounds as if you got it and found you asked for more than you could handle," the counselor told her. "A thorn in the flesh isn't something to treat casually. Remember, even Paul didn't want his."

She prayed that her "thorn" would be removed. And, unlike Paul, received a "yes" answer.

It's a rare person who becomes so eager for growth as to pray for suffering to nourish it. And an even rarer person who experiences the heights of vision that Paul notes led to the giving of his own "thorn" (2 Cor. 12:1-10). Nonetheless, all of us have parts of life--physical conditions, family background, talent or lack thereof--we consider "thorns in our flesh." Many of us are too casual for our own good, applying the term flippantly to relatively minor problems. But with others, "torment" seems too mild a word for what the thorn-bearer endures.

We don't know anything about Paul's own thorn (commentators have suggested everything from poor eyesight to active demonic oppression) except that it made his life miserable and that he nonetheless came to regard it as God's necessary instrument, even as a gift, for enabling him to accomplish God's work to a degree he never could have without. He might not have been so humble (or so rash) as to ask for suffering, but he learned to be grateful for it.

Christ wore a crown of thorns on His path to glory. Might not the "thorns" of our own lives be God's ingredients for forging the jewels in our own eternal crowns of righteousness?

Few of us are equal to great St. Paul
In our trials or in the works we do,
But one thing is common to nearly all:
We all have our thorns like the one he knew.

Some of us are sickly and yearn for health
That we might do great things to spread God's name;
But He may call us just to war in prayer,
That in the long run there be greater gain.

Some of us are timid and wish we could
Preach to crowds in public like Billy Graham;
But our own gift may be a written word
Which can go to places no speaker can.

And most of us pray for our thorns to go,
And some may vanish, but some will stay;
We must trust in God, Who alone can know
What things best will lead us along His way.

And when we all stand before His throne
And receive the crowns that are our rewards,
I believe among the jewels in those crowns
Will be some transformed from the sharpest thorns.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sure as the Tide

"Only fools are absolutely positive."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Absolutely positive!"

We laugh, but most of us do want certainty. Look at modern business contracts, virtually incomprehensible in their determination to cover every possible contingency. Look at all the merchandise marked "Satisfaction Guaranteed." Look at the malpractice lawsuits initiated over doctors' inability to cure the incurable.

And look at all the people, Christian and otherwise, who have worked out detailed maps for the end times and Second Coming--discouraged not a bit by the dismal track record of "prophets" in that area.

When it comes to seeking certainty, some people go far beyond the reasonable. In the most extreme cases, we get the homeowner who can't run to the store without checking twenty times to make sure every faucet is off and turning back halfway to the store to check again, the student who rewrites his class notes twenty times until they're completely typo- and smudge-free, and the person who spends half an hour washing her hands every time she touches anything that might conceivably carry germs. One noted psychology book, Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, carries the subtitle "A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with Uncertainty," acknowledging that the craving to be in control is at the heart of much of our misery--and also acknowledging that real certainty is impossible. If it were possible to prove things beyond a doubt, our society would be free of those who adamantly maintain that the moon landings were faked, the Holocaust was a hoax, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks were ordered by the U. S. government itself.

We can't even be 100 percent positive of God. Blasphemous? Not really. As noted Christian apologist Cliffe Knechtle has said, you can't even prove that your mother hasn't been waiting all these years for the right moment to poison you--and you can't prove, either, that God isn't a sociopath who faked the agony of the Crucifixion and will ultimately betray everyone's trust by casting them into hell. All we have to go on, with Mom or with God, is the word of the other and the evidence of past actions.

Which, given God's record, should be good enough. To date, the sun has risen every morning; and to date, those who trust  God have always received strength to carry on through hardship. Most of us outgrow the childishness of screaming "You don't love me!" when someone refuses to give us everything we want when we want it. We should outgrow this attitude with God also, lest we become like the Israelites in the wilderness who never stopped whining that God should supply everything before the desire even hit.

Those who are determined to doubt will always find an excuse. And ironically, those who are most determined to remove all uncertainty are also the likeliest to fall prey to the most irrational doubts. What we must do is admit that we cannot attain certainty by our own efforts--that only God has the omniscience to remove all uncertainty. Only then are we free to receive from Him the only real assurance there is:

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1).

Sure as the tide rolls to the shore,
God is our Strength forevermore.

Sure as the birds return in spring,
God gives our hearts a song to sing.

Sure as the sun goes down each night,
Jesus will be our lasting Light.

Sure as a river flows downstream,
He, in our hearts, is Hope's bright beam.

Sure as spring leaves sprout on a tree,
God's love will rule eternally.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Spiritual Astigmatism

Most eyeglass wearers can see at least some things reasonably well with the naked eye. Not so those with certain forms of astigmatism. Their eyes are unable to focus properly at any range; the whole world looks consistently blurry. 

Even those with 20/20 physical vision have some degree of spiritual astigmatism--an inability to see clearly what God really wants and what is the best path to take. The worst cases are those who firmly believe that their blurred view of right and wrong is in fact perfect vision, and are sure God is proud of them when they are as far from Him as they can be. The cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who had terrible vision and didn't even suspect it, was hilarious as he strolled along high ledges thinking they were sidewalks and couldn't understand why his soup was so thin when he tried to eat it with a fork he believed was a spoon; but there's nothing funny about "holy warriors" who look at women and children and see enemies of God fit only to be destroyed.

Jesus had similar problems with the respectable religious types of His day; God Incarnate was standing in front of them and they saw a despised heretic who was doing the opposite of what everyone knew God wanted. One can almost hear the sigh of frustration in His words: "In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them'" (Mt. 13:14-15). Once someone has made up his mind he doesn't need glasses, no amount of bumping into things or straining to read will convince him to wear them.

Some eye problems are more serious than astigmatism; people have literally gone blind from causes they never suspected were there until it was too late. That's why we're advised to have regular eye exams whether we "see" anything wrong or not. The spiritual equivalent is to "search the Scriptures" regularly and ask God to show us--ask Him in humble sincerity and total submission--how our lives and especially our attitudes measure up.

Anything less will eventually turn a sincere believer into a blind fool. 

Human hearts are dull of eye,
Lacking in the will to try
For a view beyond earth's things
To the glories Heaven brings.

Human hearts are slow to see
Visions of eternity;
While our Lord is near at hand,
Still we fail to understand.

Lord, my heart is dim in view;
I have failed to look to You
To fulfill my dreams and needs,
And I strive with earthly deeds.

Lord, forgive my faltering ways:
Give me strength to fix my gaze
On Your treasures kept for me:
Lord, please give me eyes to see!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Slowly, Slowly

Hurry is bad for your health. That's one of the few things all health experts agree on.

Everyone is always in a hurry. That's one thing virtually every American citizen agrees on.

If you're not hurrying, you're getting lazy and need to find more to do. That's another thing that modern Westerners agree on. At least our typical behavior says as much. Tell your average professional contact you've been "frantically busy" and chances are the answer will be, "That's great!" Stuffing all the accomplishment one can into life is worn like a badge of honor. We hate it; we acknowledge the health problems it creates; but we'd about as soon die as change.

Accomplishment, and the pride it feeds, is the god of modern America's unofficial state religion.

The real God makes somewhat different demands of us. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10a). "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me... and you will find rest for your souls" (Mt. 11:29). "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed" (Lk. 10:41b-42a).

Certain traditional cultures have a charming descriptive phrase for periodic rest breaks: "giving your soul a chance to catch up." Your soul--and the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit.

He will only change us when we stop rushing to force change in ourselves.

(For more on modern life's negative health impact, see the recent Newsweek article, "Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Happiness.")

Slowly, slowly, we are growing
Under God's all-knowing care;
Though we may see little progress,
Yet His work is always there.

Slowly, slowly, God is working
As He shapes each heart and soul;
Let us not become impatient;
In His time He makes us whole.

Slowly, slowly, we are moving
Toward the Land of joy and rest;
When we enter, we will clearly
Know God's speed is always best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sabbath Spirit

As the week starts to wind down, many of us are already anticipating the weekend. But what are we really anticipating? Time to enjoy our favorite hobbies? Time to surf the Internet? Time to get out of town for a day? Time to catch up on our chores? Time to sleep late?

Or... just "down time," period?

Or do we feel a bit guilty even entertaining that idea? For many of us, weekends are as frenetic as weeks, and Sundays no less than Saturdays. Many people arrive at church irritable over how the kids dawdled getting ready, apprehensive over doing good jobs as ushers or choir singers, and hoping the sermon won't cut into after-church time. Too many people with too many weeks of such attitudes, and you wind up with a congregation lacking in both joy and Christian love, full of plastic smiles and good behavior that hides aching hearts and judgmental spirits.

When God commanded His people to take every seventh day for a Sabbath, what He wanted was for them to pause the "hurry-scurry-flurry" of life long enough to discover the true joy of loving Him and each other with all our hearts. All too frequently, we instead make "worship day" either a dutiful requirement or an excuse to be equally busy with different things--and then squabble over who's right about what. Jesus regarded the legalistic Sabbath-keeping of His earthly days with sadness and anger; one can picture Him still shaking His head today because His people still don't "get it."

Loveless legalism and flippant disregard have their roots in the same problem: trying to define "how rest should work" solely by our own judgment. The Sabbath was intended as a day for us to get in tune with God's judgment, to take time to listen to Him and to absorb the teachings of the Spirit so we can learn to see things eternal as clearly as things temporal.

And to carry that sight into our daily work.

The dawning of the Lord's Day
Should bring us joy and peace:
Forgive us, God our Father,
When strivings do not cease,
And when we rush our worship
And squander what is best:
Give us a Sabbath Spirit,
That knows the way of rest!

The dawning of the Lord's Day
Should lift our hearts to praise:
Forgive us, God our Father,
When we choose selfish ways
And grumble over matters
Of prayers or music tone:
Give us a Sabbath Spirit,
That seeks Your will alone!

The dawning of the Lord's Day
Should bid us seek new heights:
Forgive us, God our Father,
When we chase selfish "rights,"
And help us yearn, wholehearted,
For all You hold in store:
Give us a Sabbath Spirit,
That craves to know You more!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Worship in the Times of Plenty

I'm no economist, but anyone not living on a remote island knows that these are hard times financially for more people than average. And I do know enough history to be convinced that one cause of economic downturns is the "get all you can while the getting's good" mentality that rises in times of prosperity.

While many people turn on God because their lives are miserable and He doesn't seem to be doing much about it, if anything we forget Him faster when we have little to complain about. When the Israelites first entered Canaan, God warned them that if they let their attention to the Law lapse, "...when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.... You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me'” (Dt. 8:12-14, 17). Which, of course, was exactly what happened.

Hard times or easy, we all have a tendency to slip into seeing God primarily as a means of getting what we want rather than as the One Who deserves all we have to give. Learning to truly worship is hard work.

But oh, how worth the effort when we are freed from slavery to our circumstances!

Worship in the times of plenty:
Though you seem to have it all,
Don't forget: God gives the blessing,
Makes abundance rise and fall.

Worship in the times of hardship:
Though your blessings seem but few,
God still gives His glorious riches
Every day with mercies new.

Worship God in health and sickness;
Worship Him in peace and pain:
He is worthy of all praises;
Even loss, in Him, is gain.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wait and Work

"Finding God's will" has never been my idea of a well-defined task. I seem to constantly drift toward one of two extremes: refusing to move for anything short of an audible voice from Heaven or taking the slightest inner twinge of interest as God's go-ahead signal. It must come from having a "student temperament" that loves learning on nearly any topic yet demands well-defined assignments before doing anything with that learning.

Christians who are surer of God's specific call on their lives often suffer a different problem: call it "crash and burn syndrome." Typically, it hits those who embark on a ministry with great promise; achieve one "great work" after another at first; then, when everyone least expects it, seem to drop overnight into severe depression, or, worse, sin. Usually, the warning signs were there, at least for the "victim"--loss of passion and interest; increasing discouragement and fatigue; and, worst of all, the gradual disappearance of time alone with God--but the active-motion life, the seeming urgency of keeping up with all that "needed" to be done "for God," had become so central to life that it eclipsed everything else. Even the need for paying direct attention to the God Whom all this was supposedly being done for.

I'm not the first to observe that our "work for God" often crowds out our love for Him. How would you feel about having a child who always chose "getting things done" over spending time with you, on the insistence that he only wanted to make you proud of him, to prove himself worthy of you? Wouldn't you say, "Sweetheart, you don't have to prove anything to me. I love you and just want to be with you"?

There's no question that God has tasks for us to do. But too few of us recognize the vital interrelation between doing His work and listening for His voice. 

God's good things come to those who wait--
Those trained in being still,
Who tune their minds to things of Christ,
And seek to learn His will.
God's good things come to those who work--
Those serving in His name,
Who seek His will above all else,
And feel the Spirit's flame.

To wait for God is still His work
When done with fervent prayer;
To work for God is still to wait,
As rush is never there.
To do His will as He commands--
To let Him set the pace--
Means work and rest are done for Him,
Each in its proper place.

Our Lord is never in a rush,
Nor is He ever late.
Our Father guides us step by step;
We work, and yet we wait.
Lord, let us never run ahead,
Nor drag our feet behind
The mission You have set for us,
Which through Your grace we find!

Thursday, September 29, 2011


My computer is several years old and has turned into a chronic slow loader--and the thoughts that frequently go through my head while a Web page drags its heels reaching "usability" stage aren't fit to publish in a Christian blog, or even a PG-rated secular one.

Many of us do little better when fellow human beings fail to give us what we want instantly. We fume when the waiter takes ten minutes to bring a second glass of water; rap on the counter instead of waiting for the sales clerk to glance our way; tell the customer service representative what we think of automated phone systems before getting into the original purpose of the call; blast the horn at drivers who stick to two miles below the speed limit; and, in our worst moments, actually scream, swear, and call names in public.   

Not that we give our own selves much special consideration in the "hurry up" area. Many workers spend sixty or seventy or even ninety hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year, pushing themselves to beat out the guy in the next cubicle as Most Productive Worker. When these workaholics finally go home, they still find so many chores that need doing that they barely take time to eat or sleep.

For others, the problem isn't so much the number of hours worked as the fact that those hours are spent on nothing but work. You've perhaps seen people like that at your own office. They're the ones whose necks seem frozen in eyes-on-the-computer position, who stay in their chairs until you wonder if they wear diapers to avoid restroom breaks; who eat lunch with one hand while continuing to work with the other; and who are scandalized if you interrupt them with the tiniest unrelated-to-business matter. They're afraid to let go of their work lest it get away from them.

Paradoxically, more than one study has found that those who take frequent breaks actually get more done in the long run. The need for pauses seems to be built into Creation, from flowers closing their petals at night to the human heart resting between beats. The human desire to accomplish more by avoiding rest is older than the Ten Commandments--why else would the Sabbath command be included?--but like everything contrary to God's commands, it goes against the natural order and carries its own punishment if we insist we know better.

Perhaps our craving for personal control rather than God-control is the real reason we hate slowness: we're jealous of God's ability to generate instant results in anything. We ought to be more concerned about emulating His wisdom to know when those results are most desirable.

And we can only acquire that by pausing regularly to listen to Him.

Tasks of life are never-ending;
When we never pause or rest
Till our work at last is "finished,"
All our days are filled with stress.

God in wisdom gave the Sabbath
For a time to pause each week
So our hearts could find refreshment,
So our souls His way could seek.

Even in our days of working,
Let us pause from time to time
So our hearts can hear His leading,
So our souls His way can find.

Those who rush to "do God service"
Often run so fast and far
That they seek to lead their Leader;
He may not be where they are!

Though His pace seems slow to follow,
Yet our Lord will not delay;
Let Him, in His perfect timing,
Make all things complete someday!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


A much-neglected Scripture passage is 1 Timothy 2:1-2: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." Americans have turned their traditional right to question "all those in authority" into a pandemic of brutal authority-bashing. No boss or teacher escapes backbiting; disrespect for parents is actively encouraged in many a therapist's office; and the worst examples among clergy, law officers, and politicians are held up as standard. As for the highest authority in the land--the current President of the United States, and at least the two immediately before him, have been plagued nonstop with "impeach him" cries and with accusations of being everything evil up to and including the Antichrist.

(No, I don't want to argue any of these men's actual faults or fitness for the presidency. St. Paul wrote the 1 Timothy lines during the imperial reign of Nero, who made the worst of U. S. presidents look like saints.)

No one in authority, it seems, gets credit for good intentions. No one gets acknowledgement for positive accomplishments. Too many Christians' idea of prayer for authority stops at "remove him from office" or "change his mind [to correspond to my notion of what's right]"--the same way most of us "pray for" our enemies, which says a lot about how we regard authority figures. If they give us what we want when we want it, we take it for granted; if they don't, we believe only the worst about them.

Small wonder, with such attitudes toward human authority, that we treat the ultimate Authority no better. Eve swallowed whole the implication that God's command was a selfish attempt to keep her from the best option; Cain got angry enough to kill when God urged him to "do what is right"; Jacob turned swindler because he doubted God would keep His "you will be the head of your family" promise; the Israelites in the wilderness whined "God hates us" at every problem and inconvenience--the list continues through the Bible, through history, and up to the present day. The problem is rooted not only in mistrust but in ingratitude: if we really appreciated what God has already done for us, we wouldn't find it so hard to believe He cares enough to continue giving His best. If we weren't so distracted by schemes to obtain a bite of the forbidden fruit, we could be wholeheartedly enjoying the beauties of the garden.

Life will never get better until our attitudes do.

God gave manna to His children
Every day for years and years--
And they whined about the menu
Till they ate the bread of tears.

God sent Jesus to redeem us
From the power of death and hell--
And we whine for ease and riches,
Making life an empty shell.

We demand mere earthly treasures,
And pursue our fleshly schemes--
While God longs to give us blessings
Far beyond our wildest dreams.

Put aside your thankless whining;
Seek the Lord with joy and praise--
Only then will true contentment
Shower upon you all your days.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rest for the Soul

Among "modern-world" Christians, one of the best-known--and least-followed--passages of Scripture is Jesus's words in Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Most of us are willing enough to "come to Him" for relief from our burdens--until we realize that He wants to take not only away the frustration of those burdens, but also the idols that frustration feeds on: our dependence on our dreams, earthly riches, and feelings of accomplishment. The actual dreams and riches may or may not have to go with the dependence, but we always fear they will--and that we'll lose a part of ourselves with them. The thought is terrifying to contemplate. As with the cancer patient who's been told it's her breast or her life, we suddenly start wondering if maybe the Physician was mistaken, or if we misunderstood what He said, or if just maybe we can cure ourselves with alternate treatment. Or even if we wouldn't rather die after all.

We were hoping to dictate at least some of our own terms. Instead we get the clear statement, "I can't help you unless you let Me take over completely." And as the full impact of that sinks in, it all but deafens us to His next words, "but what you receive in return will be so much better that you'll never miss what you give up." Even as we hear that assurance, we want to protest, "Yes, but then why can't You give me the better part first so I can let go of the old without feeling any pain at all?"

Perhaps because we could never realize the full joy of the better part without feeling the pain first. Rest is sweetest when exhaustion is genuine. 

I heard the Savior say,
“Come now to Me and rest:
Set aside your burdening load,
Learn from Me what way is best.”

I gave the Lord my load,
I took His yoke on me,
And I learned, that by His grace,
Weary hearts can be made free.

I heard the Savior say,
“You carry far too much;
Trade the load you bear for Mine,
And receive My gentle touch.”

I gave the Lord my load,
I put my trust in Him,
And I learned the humble heart
Soon is filled up to the brim.

I heard the Savior say,
“Friend, put your trust in Me:
I will give your soul true rest,
And will set your spirit free.”

I gave the Lord my load,
I took His own for mine,
And I found that new load light
In the power of Love Divine.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sensible Management

In affluent democracies Christians are often indistinguishable in lifestyle from non-Christians--not least when it comes to time management and personal organization. I have seen many articles written by Christians on these topics; virtually none even mention James 4:13-16 ("Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil"). Nor do any of the other "God alone ultimately determines how things will work out" scriptures get more than passing mention.

Not that I think a "truly Christian" approach is all that simple. Since God rarely sees fit to hand us minute-by-minute schedules for use of our time, we often feel forced into the secular "master your own hours" approach, lest doing "nothing" for extended periods costs us our chances of earning a living. Few are so closely tied to God as to always be sure what He wants from us--and we don't really wish to join those who won't get dressed in the morning without first praying "what color underwear should I put on today?"

Still, living most of our lives as if God didn't exist is no answer. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." Our problem here, I think, is that we take it to mean, "If you just 'pray right,' you need never be uncertain about where to place your foot for the next step, and you'll never hit a dead end." More likely it means, "If you make consistent effort to stay humble before God and accept that He has full control over what happens, be sure He will keep you from wandering far outside His plan for your life." Which is not quite the same as total freedom from confusing circumstances, or even the occasional serious misstep. Even hikers who know exactly where they are can sprain ankles.

It takes humility to admit this, but humility is key to effective Christian living. Once you start assuming you know best, you've taken a dangerous step toward assuming you don't need God.

You may be the heart of frugality
And save nickels and dimes every day;
But if you never give anything to God,
Then you might as well throw it away.

You may be a star in your use of time
And put all the best work in your hours;
But if you have no time for the work of God,
All your deeds are as weeds in the flowers.

You may be a planner of highest skill
And may never fall short of a goal;
But if there is no place in your days for God,
You are taking a chance with your soul.

Put aside every doubt that God is Lord
And the Master of all of your time,
That He holds the whole claim to each thing we use;
Nothing really is yours or is mine.

So give to Him the first of all you earn,
And surrender each hour to His will,
And hand Him full control of your destiny--
And with blessings your life He will fill!

Friday, July 15, 2011

If You Have Not Love

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

"Love" has multiple and often casual meanings in English: we know that loving chocolate and loving our children hardly comprise identical feelings, yet we use the same word for both. When St. Paul wrote the verses above, however, Greek was the world language; and the Greeks had different words for "love" of things and pleasures, for sexual love, for family love, for friendship love--and for the sacrificial, selfless love called agape, the ideal Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 and the hardest of ideals to attain. Without it, moral purity, sacrificial giving, even Christian ministry are all worthless in the eyes of God.

Shocking words, those. Is Paul saying that self-centered motives on the part of a preacher invalidate the salvation of everyone led to Christ by his ministry? Hardly: God can use even outright evil to accomplish much good. The "worthlessness" of loveless work lies in what it fails to accomplish for the worker himself. The Christian who truly loves God treasures quiet time for its own sake, joyful in the privilege of being with the One he loves; the works-oriented Christian sees quiet time as a means of getting marching orders, or, often, support for his own plans. The lover lets the challenges of his work draw him further into dependence on God; the worker trusts in his own strength to accomplish things. Perhaps most telling of all, the lover cares little about worldly success or appreciation, but finds all the reward he could hope for in His Lord's pleasure. The worker sees success and appreciation as indicators of God's pleasure, which is a no-win situation for his own spiritual growth. If he gets the rewards he feels he deserves, he lets pride eclipse his gratitude; if he doesn't get them, he grows bitter against God.

Do you love God the way you love those human beings you are closest to--through constant attention, eagerness to please, and complete faith in His good nature? And are you willing to let Him help you love the rest of humanity in that way?

If you give ten percent to the church each week,
But your heart remains cold and proud,
You may draw applause from the world at large--
But our God rarely goes with the crowd.

If you sing in the choir twenty days a month
With a voice like an angel's tone,
But then look unmoved on another's pain,
All God hears is the hurting one's moan.

If you know to the names of Kedar and Put
Every word that the Scriptures said,
But you close your eyes to the world's great needs,
Then your spiritual worth's all but dead.

It is not through our works, though they be great deeds,
We find favor within God's eyes,
But by means of love, fed by humble hearts,
Through the Spirit Who makes Christians wise.

Friday, July 1, 2011

You Can't Figure God Out

I got back from a two-week vacation three days ago, and already have regressed to frantic-and-frazzled mode. If whoever wrote "make time for God and He will make time for whatever else you need to do" intended it as a promise that your daily schedule will always fall neatly into place if you begin the day with a quiet time--all I can say is, I'm living proof that promise isn't from God. Clutter and interruptions are such a tenacious problem that I wonder if there's a demon specially trained in use of those weapons who's assigned to destroy my effectiveness. Regardless of the root cause, I've yet to see the miraculous relief of pressure others have reported on surrendering their schedules to the Lord's will.

"Life happens" even to the top pros at prayer, planning, and positive thinking; and anyone who doubts that is simply enjoying a long period of what we thoughtlessly call "luck." Then there are those who are going through the exact opposite and have reached the point of giving up hope it will ever end. "Lucky" or "unlucky," we all tend to assume that the way our lives have been for a while is the status quo. Be careful: God loves to shake up "normality" when we least expect it!

One thing God is not is "logical"--a good thing, too, or He might give us the eternal separation from Him that we deserve. But it's tough to appreciate that when all our logic says we deserve better than what we're getting--when we work hard and still can't make ends meet, when we take care of ourselves and still get sick, when we ask God what He would have us do and receive no discernible answer. There comes a point (often many times in one life) where all we can do is effectively throw up our hands, admit God knows best, and cast ourselves on His Word: "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5b).

God's Word also says, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Rom. 11:33). How will we respond to these qualities: with annoyance--or adoration?

We can trace out the paths of the planets,
We can look into human genes,
We can study a thousand cultures
And discern what each custom means;
We can travel through deserts and oceans
And can find beyond any doubt
Many hundreds of laws for nature:
But we never will figure God out.

We may judge Him by our human logic,
Say we know what He plans to do,
But our Lord has no end of surprises,
And with Him every day is new.
Good behavior will never oblige Him,
And it does no one good to pout,
Nor to question a thing He is doing:
Logic just cannot figure Him out!

All we know is those things He has told us:
That He ever is kind and wise;
That He watches our days and our actions
And the things never seen by our eyes.
When your whole life seems hopeless, still trust Him;
He still knows what it's all about.
It's not knowledge, but faith, that will guide you
On the path our Lord has figured out!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Is It That You Fear?

What are you most afraid of? Polls of the "most common fears" have varied results, but invariably public speaking or some other chance to make a fool of oneself ranks high on the list. Many people are terrified of innocuous creatures ranging from cats to cockroaches. Other contenders for the lead-phobia spot include things that can be life-threatening but rarely are, such as heights, flying, and storms.

All these fears have one thing in common: they make little sense. They almost never involve immediate danger; they occupy the mind to a degree all out of proportion to any real threat. (Many more people die in cars than on planes; far more people are afraid of flying than of driving.) And when actual danger does threaten--well, the phrase "paralyzed with fear" is no mere metaphor, and a paralyzed person is hardly in a position to help himself out of trouble.

It's hardly a new problem; the phrase "don't be afraid" occurs some 89 times in the Bible. One verse that perhaps gets less attention than it deserves is Mt. 10:28: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Not that we are to treat fear of God as we generally treat fear of earthly things: going through life never quite free of the dread that God will cast us into hell. (As some legalists in fact do.) To fear God properly is to fear disappointing Him, to fear being out of His will, to fear trying to take control of life ourselves--which is the true motive behind most earthly fears. (Maybe that's the real reason so many people would rather drive than fly; at least in your car you maintain some control.) Those of us who were blessed with loving and wise parents understand some of this instinctively; we were a little afraid of them because they seemed so powerful and couldn't be bullied or manipulated, and yet we knew that they would never really do anything to hurt us, would in fact protect us from danger.

As more than one person has put it, "Fear God and you need fear nothing else."

You lose yourself in action
To flee some unknown dread;
You pile up earthly treasures
Against the "times ahead";
You fret of wars and rumors
And endless things you hear:
Oh, foolish, trembling mortal,
What is it that you fear?

You look for "anti-aging"
To stem the flow of time;
You lock your doors and bolt them
To hide yourself from crime;
You draw away from strangers
Lest they hold motives drear:
O, god of self-protection,
What is it that you fear?

Your prayers themselves are haunted
By endless trembling doubt;
You beg for what you're craving--
Will God bring it about??--
You plead for certain outcomes
And doubt they will appear:
Then God speaks to you, softly:
"What is it that you fear?

"My perfect love and wisdom
Hold endless wealth for you;
In all life's tests and troubles
My strength will bring you through;
Forget your earthly wishes,
Desires you hold too dear:
Far better things are coming
When it is Me you fear!"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Life Is Confusion

Do a Google search for the phrase "life doesn't make sense," and odds are you'll get some 838,000 results. (I did.) Specifically, life makes little sense when judged by our best reasoning and instincts. It seems that well-laid plans should run smoothly, that people who work hard for dreams should achieve them, that evil should be stopped before it has the chance to do real damage, and that people should keep their health at least for the first thirty-five years of life.

Probably the majority of times, things do happen that way. But when they don't, everyone notices. A woman who followed all the rules of diet and exercise is stricken with terminal cancer at age twenty-nine. A drunk driver collides with an inner-city student who finally achieved the first college scholarship in his family a week earlier--the young man who worked so hard for a better future dies, and the driver whose thoughtlessness caused the tragedy isn't even scratched. Two families, next-door neighbors who to all appearances are equally law-abiding and decent, both pray for protection in a storm--a tornado rips down the street, swerves away from one family's house, and levels the other's.

It's not fair--which is usually what "Life doesn't make sense" means. No one talks about the "senselessness" of a hardworking but poverty-level teacher's suddenly inheriting $2 million willed by a fifth cousin to "my nearest living relative who can be located in six months"--though the odds against it are probably greater than those against the teacher's falling victim to a drive-by shooter. Regardless, the "life doesn't make sense" argument is also a key point of the "Is there a God or isn't there?" question. If there isn't a God, life really is senseless--but then how do you explain the human instinct that says life should make sense? If there is a God, why doesn't He add a little more "sense" to life?

There's a clue in Isaiah 55:8: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the LORD." In other words, it's not only possible that things will happen that make sense to God but not to us--it's inevitable. Truthfully, the very existence of another common phrase, "for your own good," proves that we do understand "higher ways" sometimes must prevail. Your cat can't understand why he needs a rabies shot; a three-year-old can't really comprehend why eating a whole bottle of flavored aspirin is a bad idea; and a high school student is incapable of fully accepting that he isn't ready to vote, drink beer, or leave town for an unchaperoned weekend.

Our understanding is considerably farther below God's than a cat's is below a human being's. Pets and small children rarely hold it against us for long when we do something for their own good. Let's try to be as wise in accepting God's will for our lives.

Life is confusion, life is hard;
Circumstance has no reason or rhyme;
If you search for details of what makes life tick,
Reason falls on its face every time.

Life is confusion, life is tough;
And no matter how hard you may try,
Things will always occur far beyond human power
To find reasons for "whether" and "why."

Life is confusion, life is hard;
But there is deeper purpose behind,
And someday we will see, in a world yet to come,
That all made perfect sense in God's mind.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Just to Sit in God's Presence

It's estimated that 47 million adults in the United States--and as many as 40 percent of children--suffer from sleep deprivation. Overcrowded schedules that get people up early and keep them up late are usually blamed, but that's only part of the story. It's quite possible to spend eight or even nine hours in bed every night and still be sleep-deprived, and it's also possible to have only a few hours of literal sleep and still be adequately rested. A body that never rests, physically or emotionally, while conscious will have a harder time falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting the most out of sleep.

Many people's idea of "rest" is blacking out from utter exhaustion. That's not a Biblical definition. When God gave the command to rest from work one day a week, He didn't say that the day was to be spent in bed. It's quite likely He hoped His people would keep the same number of actual waking hours as on work days, which is what modern medical experts recommend for optimal health, despite the tradition of "sleeping late on Sundays." The sort of rest that was to be observed on the Sabbath involved learning to love God and others better: worshiping, enjoying nature, watching the world go by, light meals and pleasant talk with friends.

It's sad that Judeo-Christian history has repeatedly twisted God's rest time into a long list of "don't do this, don't do that." It's even sadder that we fail to do any resting of the above kind except on our days off, if then. Like Martha, we try so hard to please the Lord through what we do for Him that we can't hear Him urging us to just sit and talk with Him for a while--and we even scold our sisters and brothers for being "lazy" when they decide to take in a little quiet time while there's still work to be done.

It's wonderful if we go to church every Sunday (and to bed every night); but if we have no personal time with God during the week, chances are we'll be in no condition to give Him our attention during the service. It takes considerably less than "seven days without God" to make "one weak."

There's time in this world for labor,
And time in this world for fun:
But just to sit in God's presence
Is a gift like no other one.

Make space in your heart for Scripture,
Make space in your heart for creeds:
But just to savor God's presence
Will supply a great host of needs.

To go to your prayer in duty
Is better than not at all:
But oh, how endlessly sweeter
To respond in love to His call!

Friday, May 6, 2011

On Toward the Goal

St. Paul wrote, "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12b-14).

Paul knew something of ancient sporting events, which included distance races from which our modern marathon is descended. Every marathon has its share of dropouts. Some fall due to injury. Some tire prematurely because they try to run all out rather than pacing themselves. A few get called out to tend to emergencies. Some just quit because they decide it's too hard. And some, sad to say, turn aside to more attractive things on the sidelines.

They all have their counterparts in the spiritual race of life. Many a Christian has burnt out from ignoring God's command to rest regularly, or has fallen prey to the lures of this world. Then there are those who drag their feet and grumble, "No one told me it would be this much work." As Jerry Bridges noted (in Trusting God Even When Life Hurts), the marathon isn't really an adequate metaphor: "The Christian life could better be described as an obstacle course of marathon length." At least real-life marathons are run over smooth ground, without continued training after the race starts, without an enemy constantly waiting the chance to trip us.

Nonetheless, those who persevere in the Christian race will finish. A clue for those seeking encouragement when the going gets tough is found in Paul's words above: "Straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal." In other words, keep your eyes on the Heavenly vision.

Those who have the reward in clear focus waste little time bemoaning the distance between.

We are not yet made perfect, though growing;
We are not yet completely made whole;
But, as Christ made us His and works in us,
Let us press ever on toward the goal.

We have things in our past that are shameful,
But Christ’s blood cleans the filthiest soul:
So, forgetting what now lies behind us,
Let us press ever on toward the goal.

We grow tired time to time, and discouraged,
But all things still are in God’s control:
So, renewed in our faith and thus strengthened,
Let us press ever on toward the goal.

Our reward will be waiting in Heaven,
Where all things are completely made whole:
So, with eyes on the One Who has called us,
Let us press ever on toward the goal!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Lord Is Master of All Time

"Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is" (Eph. 5:15-17).

If you never have enough time to do all that needs doingwell, consider yourself normal. Oh, we know, intellectually at least, that God never assigns a task without supplying the resourcesincluding the timeto complete it. We nonetheless find it annoying that He rarely includes a To Do list and day-by-day schedule with the assignment. Often we're considerably less than certain even of the assignments themselves: Is God's leading really expressing itself in that emotional tug? In someone else's direct appeal? In the fact that a project matches our talents?  

Much of our uncertainty is due to ignoring Proverbs 3:5-6 and "leaning on our own understanding," which after all seems a lot more accessible than God's leading. Let's face it, praying for guidance can be hard work. God wants us to know Him, not simply obey Him; if He let us report for duty just long enough to pick up the day's assignments, His work in this world might be accomplished faster and more efficiently by human standards, but His work in us—particularly drawing us close to Himwould be stunted.

Often, we complicate things further by drawing up our own To Do lists and asking God what else we should do, rather than coming with a blank slate and a willingness to put aside everything He can't use. A quick morning prayer for sufficient hours to finish all you "have to" do doesn't work. (I've tried it.)

More than one Bible scholar has noted that "God is never in a hurry." We're tempted to grumble, "He can afford not to be; He has all the time in the world." But more particularly, He owns itand He knows just how much of it to let us use.

When we develop ears for His leading, we may find that every hour spent listening for it shaves two hours of rush off our schedules.

The Lord is Master of all time, the Maker of each hour;
He sets our days by His design, and guards them by His power.
God knows each month each person has; none take Him by surprise;
Each year to come, each week now past, lies open to His eyes.

Let those who moan their lack of time take thought to know the truth:
God plans our work by His design, for senior and for youth.
No fault of His that we may pile our lists with extra tasks;
So stop your rush; be still a while; learn what He really asks.

The Lord is Master of all time; on Him all things depend;
And someday soon, in His design, all earthly time shall end.
So do not fear, do not be bored, but work and watch and pray;
He keeps for us a great reward, a never-ending day!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Born Again

"Jesus replied, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God [without being] born again'" (John 3:3).

The phrase "born-again Christian" has taken on a pejorative sense today, evoking images of holier-than-thou types who don't drink, dance, or have fun--and who threaten those who do with fire and brimstone. That is definitely not what Jesus had in mind when He spoke the words above.

And if we believe those same words, "born-again Christian" is a tautology; no one can be a real Christian without being born again. Christians as well as non-Christians frequently seem to have the idea that "born-again" Christians are a separate breed, more vocal and in-your-face than the average churchgoer, never missing an opportunity to advertise their beliefs at full volume. That image has likely been helped along as much by the "pew warmer" as by the "turn or burn" street preacher; it can be hard to find Christians who let their faith quietly show through their daily lives. Many, believers, nervous about being lumped with the born-again stereotype, overcompensate by treating their faith like a dark secret. That wasn't what Jesus had in mind either, He Who said "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:14-16). 

Not every lighthouse has a foghorn. But every lighthouse has a light.

Born again, born again,
Freed from the birthright-curse of sin:
Lord, all my thanks to You I give;
You gave Your life so I might live.

Born again, born again,
Thoroughly washed, now clean within:
Lord, now my voice to You I raise,
Swelling with gratitude and praise.

Born again, born again,
Looking for Heaven to come; till then,
Lord, may I serve You every day,
Walking forever in Your way.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Family Squabbles

If you're a parent of multiple children, chances are that some days you can't believe the ridiculous things they fight over. A cheap plastic toy. Who got the biggest cookie. Who cleared the table last time. How can anyone be so immature as to think such things worth spoiling family harmony over?

If you've ever gotten involved in settling the estate of someone who left a vaguely worded will--or none at all--chances are you couldn't believe the ridiculous things his heirs fought over. A cheap wristwatch. Who deserves a thousand dollars more. Who really did the most for the deceased. How can anyone be so immature as to think such things worth ruining family relationships over?

If you've ever been a bystander in a church split, chances are you couldn't believe the ridiculous things people fought over. Accusations of closet Satanism and counteraccusations of Pharisaism fly over differing tastes in music. Thirty-year members storm out the door over gym renovation budgets. The color of choir robes becomes a matter worthy of the Inquisition.
How can anyone be so spiritually immature as to think such things more important than Jesus's clear command in John 13:34-35: "Love one another.... [so that] everyone will know that you are my disciples"?

Some love the ancient hymns so proud and grand,
But some would rather sing a newer song.
The first say "pop" is of the cheapest brand;
The second say "outdated words" are wrong.
Some want their Bible texts like normal speech;
Some say we should go back and use King James.
While one calls "slang and such" a major breach,
One says that "thee" and "thou" are foreign names.
Some wouldn't touch a "drink" at point of gun;
Some say the Eucharist is best with wine.
Some think that dance and cards are harmless fun;
Some say our character is on the line.
And while we all proclaim our ways are right,
And scorn our brothers with "Heretic!" jeers, 
Our Lord, Who longs that we in love unite,
Looks down upon it all--and sheds His tears.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Trouble with Systems

I apologize for the long break since the last post. Call it sick leave: my stress levels, rarely comfortable, have hit near-record highs over the past few weeks. Posts may well continue to be sporadic for some time.

What really hurts is that just as God seems to be developing in me a solid sense of my long-term calling--"to write Christ's comfort to the stressed, depressed, and hard-pressed"--He also seems to have decided I need more experience as one of them. No sooner is one anxiety relieved than another asserts itself; and no matter what I do (including prayer) in terms of time management, there's never enough margin in a day to keep me from getting frazzled.

All too easily, time management mutates from a tool to aid in God's work into a substitute god; if you're anything like me, dropping an item from the schedule can feel like surgery without anesthetic. We think we have everything laid out and under control--and then "life happens." It hurts to admit we judged poorly in scheduling something; it hurts to cut our forward momentum and turn onto a new path; and it hurts to give up something we'd been counting on.

Such happenings are, of course, God's tools for reminding us only He can be counted on. Sometimes we want to scream at Him for letting us go in the wrong direction in the first place, particularly if it was a good direction in itself. It seems that not only would our lives be easier, but God's work would get done more efficiently, if He were a bit more specific in His guidance. But He evidently has more important ends in mind--ends we can't see from our human perspective.

So is it wrong to make plans and schedules? Of course not. What's wrong is to become addicted to them--so fixated that the God of the still small voice can't get our attention without shouting.

Every book and every website--
So it seems this hurried day--
Knows the "secret" to resolving
All life's struggles and dismay.

If you use this planning system;
If you pray this acronym;
If you think along these guidelines,
You will never stress again.

Are you sure? Just look at Scripture:
Mood swings plagued the Psalmists too,
And the prophets knew frustration,
And apostles failed like you.

Even Jesus, Who was perfect,
Had His days of stress and strain--
That He might be fully human,
And might truly know our pain.

Peace of mind is won through struggle;
Growing pains may last for years;
God is never in a hurry.
All our setbacks, all our tears,

Are His tools to make us stronger,
Shaping us to go His way.
Trust His hand and wait in patience;
Bear your burden every day.

In the end, when all is finished,
When we reach God's perfect rest,
We will see how trials and struggles
Made us His and made us blessed!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Only God Is Perfect

There are people who constantly belittle themselves and respond to every compliment by stressing their flaws. And there are people who seem so sure of their infallibility that they take personal offense at the tiniest correction. It's hard to say which type is more annoying.

Most of us are one or the other to some degree--even as we relate to God. Many people claim to be praying for forgiveness when they're effectively trying to explain to God why what they did wasn't that bad; many others fall into "I'm totally worthless for doing this so much and I don't know why You would ever think of forgiving me" groveling. Either way, it comes back to expecting ourselves to be naturally perfect--a quality found in God alone.

Don't try to convince God you're infallible nor expect Him to hate you because you aren't. It is possible to be humble and still remember He has compassion on our weaknesses.

You who hate yourselves for failing,
Sure each stumble means disgrace,
Know that only God is perfect,
And compassion fills His face.

You who hate the least correction,
Sure you stand above the crowd,
Know that only God is perfect,
And He surely shames the proud.

Know that only God is perfect.
Great or small may be your sins--
Come to Him in humble weakness,
And learn where true strength begins.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Out of Our Control

Many religions preach that everyone is, quite literally, a potential god, or at least part of a God that is defined as the sum total of all that exists. While the idea that we are the real God's equals is anathema to orthodox Christianity, many sincere Christians imply almost as much: "You'd be healed if you just trusted God enough." "God would never let my plans fail, not when I'm doing His work." This is risky thinking not only because it implies we know as much as the Lord, but because it puts us in danger of completely losing faith in Him when--as happens to all of us occasionally--He fails to "deliver" what we expected.

Are you capable of looking directly at the thing you fear most and saying, "If this should ever be Your will for me, Lord, I will accept it with joy even if I don't understand it"? If the idea makes you shudder, don't feel too guilty; I don't claim to be particularly confident in that area either. Perhaps thinking too much about what God might ask us to give up isn't that good an idea to begin with; it has a way of feeding worry instead of dissipating it. If we regularly got our minds off earthly things, and concentrated on God and God alone, we might find it easier to fall so completely in love with Him that we could say with St. Paul, "I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage" (Phil. 3:8). Incidentally, Paul's dismissing his earthly gains as "garbage" is even more radical than it sounds in translation; the original Greek word is a coarse term for "excrement."

Not that Paul's primary goal was--or that anyone's primary goal should be--hating earthly things for the sake of hating them. His purpose was to stress how much more God is worth than "all [other] things [combined]"--something few of us find easy to accept. All our goals, our dreams, our attempts to control our own lives are manifestations of the idea that we know what we must have. And since there is no absolute guarantee we'll be able to hold onto anything, most of us are ruled to some degree by the fear of loss.

The only way out is to surrender completely to fear of the Lord: a terrifying leap into what seems like utter blackness, a complete loss of control.

Which, of course, is the point. The only people who know true security are those who trust God--rather than themselves--to control every aspect of life.

There are those who would have us believe
Fate is held in our hands alone—
“What you think is what you will achieve”—
That you sit on your own life’s throne.
“All it takes is the power of a thought.”
“All you need is within your soul.”
But in truth, that can all come to naught:
Things can spin out of our control!

Illness even can come to the fit;
Even healthy eaters die young;
And some positive thinkers are hit
By disasters that life has sprung.
Yes, however well-laid are your plans
And however firm-set your goal,
Things may slip away out of your hands,
Life may go out of your control!

Friend, the God Who can do everything
Shakes His head at our human pride:
“Come and taste of the life that I bring;
Set your human-based plans aside.
For the ones who place all in My care
Are the ones who are truly whole.
I relieve all the burdens you bear,
If you just let Me take control!”

Like the poetry on this blog? Inquire at about purchasing the book ($10/copy) Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Look in the Mirror

A 2010 book published by BBS/PublicAffairs (author: Francis Wheen) bore the title Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia. One wonders if that "Golden Age" really ended a generation ago. You can still hardly turn on the news or visit an e-zine without encountering something along the lines of "20 Signs of Possible Terrorist Activity," "15 Signs of Drastic Climate Change," or "7 Warning Signs of Cancer." And, of course, the rumor that the world as we know it has less than two years to live, not unlike that Christian favorite, "Reasons Christ's Return Must Happen in Our Lifetimes." (Or as another recent book put it, "10 Prophetic Signs That We Are the Terminal Generation" [Can America Survive? by John Hagee].) 

Too much of this sort of talk can leave anyone convinced that everything from our next-door neighbors to the forces of nature is out to get us in the worst possible way. What may wind up getting us first is the strain of living in fear. Small wonder that the Mayo Clinic advises hypochondriacs, "Don't spend hours researching health information or looking up vague symptoms.... Skip disease-of-the-week stories.... Resist the urge to continually monitor your pulse or other vital signs or to check your body for signs of disease." Those inclined to paranoia have a habit of zeroing in on the worst possible options; once they hear that one symptom of kidney damage is severe back pain, the slightest ache in that region feels "severe." 

Part of the problem is that there's hardly a sign of serious trouble--at least in the abbreviated descriptions found on most "what to watch out for" lists--that something harmless can't mimic. If we took too literally the admonitions to "see a doctor immediately if you notice these symptoms," many of us would spend 90% of our time--and money--at clinics.

But why are even Christians--who should be living in the confident attitude of Heb. 13:6--so easily caught up in the idea that "something awful is bound to happen if you let your guard down for a second"?

Like it or not, the answer is usually that we're harboring the attitude, "I know I could never cope with this or that, and I don't have faith God will keep it from happening." We really shouldn't have that sort of "faith," which usually travels at high risk of being wrecked on the rocks of disappointment. With few exceptions, God doesn't promise believers any specific material forms of security--however desperately we want them.

But there's another tripwire in the attitude above: the word I. "I could never cope"--the truth is that no, you couldn't. The fallacy is assuming that the responsibility is yours to begin with. God never tells us to have faith in ourselves, any more than in material circumstances. He calls us to have faith in Him, to believe that He can handle anything--and that, through His strength rather than ours, we can as well.

There's a reason why the aforequoted Book of Hebrews (in 13:5) also links trust in God's constant support to the refusal to trust in things. Everything except God is highly fallible.

Even us.

If you feel blue and discouraged,
If life seems too hard to take,
Don't blame it on circumstances:
They may be ones you helped make!

If everything seems against you,
If life just looks gray and grim,
Don't blame what's called "luck" for your trials;
Consider your thoughts toward them.

Some say we control our own lives
By the power of how we care,
But don't think you can set things right
Just by whining they aren't fair.

If your life's too much to handle,
And you feel about to crack,
Consider it's not God, but you,
Who laid that weight on your back.

If you know just how things should go,
And will brook no change of plan,
Remember just one God exists,
And you can't know all He can.

It's human to take things easy,
It's human to crave control,
But you can't win by playing God:
You must let Him set the goal.

If you feel blue and discouraged,
If life just looks gray and grim,
You may just be neglecting God:
Stop, and give it all to Him!

Friday, February 4, 2011

It Is Written

Despite the seniority of the spoken word (God, after all, used it to create the world), and its universality (as opposed to the limited reach of literacy), the written word has greater authority on its side. Once you put something in writing, especially above your signature, it's no longer easy to pretend you never said it. Which is why, long before e-mail, people were advised not to send an emotionally charged letter without first cooling down enough to reread it objectively. And why movie producer Samuel Goldwyn is said to have quipped, "A verbal contract is not worth the paper it's written on."

In the Bible (NIV 2011), the phrase "it is written" occurs 72 times, 63 in the New Testament and most often to explain how the work of Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures. The best-known use of the phrase, however, is when Jesus uses it to refute Satan's temptations: "It is written: 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Mt. 4:4, 7, 10.) Christ's followers are well-advised to follow His example when tempted; the devil is a match for any human argument, but recoils from the Word of God.

It's worth noting, though, that not every Biblical reference to "writing" means literal writing with pen and ink. In Jer. 31:33, God declares that when His people's sin in ignoring the original Law is fully punished, when it comes time for the New Covenant under which His people will truly know Him, "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." Hebrews 8:10 later quotes the verse, noting shortly after (v. 13) that the materially written covenant was made "obsolete" by the death of Christ. Not that the written Scriptures are any less valuable, just that by themselves they no more benefit the reader spiritually than reading a carpentry manual will drive one nail into a house's framework. And in truth, many "Bible-believing Christians" have the Bible in their heads but not in their hearts, using it as a club to batter "godlessness" without feeling a drop of God's compassion for those trapped in sin. Some even look down on fellow believers who, for whatever reason, read and memorize Scripture less often.

Thank God that we don't have to know the whole Bible by heart before He accepts us. He can write His real law on any heart regardless of literacy, intelligence, or memory skills.

It is written in the heavens,
In each star that decks the night;
It is written in the flowers,
Hued in endless colors bright;
It is written through Creation,
In each wonder we behold:
"God Almighty is eternal,
And His works are manifold."

It is written in the Scriptures,
Penned by saints who knew God's voice;
It is written by the Prophets,
Those who see Him and rejoice;
It is written in the Gospels,
Words from those who saw God's power:
"God Almighty is our Father,
And He keeps us every hour."

It is written on the spirits
Of the ones who know the Lord;
It is written in the actions
Of the ones who hear His Word;
It is written in our worship--
Let us now our voices raise--
"God Eternal rules among us:
All Creation, sing His praise!"

Like the poetry on this blog? Inquire at about purchasing the book ($10/copy) Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Thy Will Be Done

Even in the twenty-first century, a few Scripture passages are still famous in their King James translations. One of these is the Lord's Prayer: "...Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done." And another is Jesus's Gethsemane prayer: "Not My will but Thine be done." There is a shining example of practicing what one preaches. Anyone can say to God, "Do whatever You think is best" when we have little obvious to lose either way; anyone can counsel someone else to accept a difficult situation as "God's will"; but the real test of spiritual strength comes when, facing situations we would do anything to get out of, we sense God saying, "Go through with it." Are we able then to sincerely say, "However much I dread this, Lord, Your will takes precedence over mine"?

For too many of us, the answer is "no" in situations far less serious than imminent crucifixion. Even serious Christians can fall under the influence of a society that preaches "you get what you want by thinking positive" and detests slow progress and delayed gratification. We often pray in the manner of whining children and selfish sweethearts: "If You really loved me You'd give me what I wanted when I wanted it!" Alas, our God is a God of tough love, and not someone who can be bullied or manipulated. He gives us things for our own good, whether we like it or not.

The more mature among us eventually learn, if not exactly to like our struggles, to face them with the attitude of Jesus: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Heb. 12:2). Once we develop a strong confidence in what God has waiting for us, we can finally say "Your will, not mine, be done" and mean it--not because God's will is always easy to live with, but because we appreciate that "our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Cor. 4:17).

A vision like that makes even crucifixion worth enduring.

Lord, my soul is stubborn,
Always longing for
Things to make me "happy,"
Health, and wealth, and more.
Lord, Your Word has told me
Joy will come through trial:
Free my heart from grumbling
At each "second mile."

Lord, my heart is selfish:
All it wants is ease
And a life of constant
"Doing as I please."
Lord, Your Word has told me,
"Be a slave to all."
Make my spirit humble,
Lest I slip and fall.

Lord, my mind is prideful,
Longing for a day
Praise and fame and glory
All will line my way.
Lord, Your Word has told me,
"Be the humble one."
Take my will and mold it;
May Your will be done.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Perfect Day

A frequently heard suggestion for "living right" is to start each morning by saying out loud, "This is going to be a wonderful day." Not bad advice, really, unless you demand that "wonderful" include every tiny aspect of said day. Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can get surly even about inarguably good things, if they don't fit our prewritten "scripts." ("What's the big idea serving gourmet cheesecake when I had my heart set on a chocolate chip cookie?")

Probably a better saying for Christians to start their days with is the Bible verse "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps. 118:24, NIV, 1984 edition). But many of those to whom this verse is familiar have probably never read it in context. Psalm 118 as a whole is no idyllic pastoral meditation, but sets a scene of "anguish," hard battles, and severe "chastening." The writer rejoices because God delivered him out of trouble, even from near death. He never complains because God didn't stop things from going that far.

There's someone from whom those inclined to grumble over traffic jams could take a lesson.

Do you hope this will be a perfect day?
Has there ever been such a thing?
Does not every day in this fallen world
At least one disappointment bring?
Are you tempted to find some tiny flaw
And to let it ruin all the rest
Of your day? Do you curse the smallest pain
For disturbing your "perfect" quest?

Even Christ Himself, when He walked on earth,
Knew frustration and stress and strain, 
And He did not come to remove all such,
But to show us where loss is gain.
When we walk with Him, He will give us strength
To be faithful, and watch and pray,
Till we all stand pure, at the end of time,
In our God's endless, perfect Day!

Friday, January 14, 2011

When He Came

Some readers, on seeing the opening verse of today's poem, may wonder if it was intended to post before Christmas, not three weeks after. Or you may feel a bit chided if, like some of my neighbors, you haven't yet taken down all your decorations. However much we talk in December about "keeping the spirit of Christmas all year," few of us really seem interested in Christ-in-the-manger by January. Which would be a minor problem except that for many, the story of Jesus stops at the manger. As one Advent writer put it, even Christians tend to prefer the cute baby to the "bossy, grown-up Jesus."

We shouldn't forget that the concept of Advent was created to encourage not only the remembering of Christ's first coming, but the looking forward to His return--and that's an attitude that can come naturally in any season. Now, I don't endorse the obsession with an imminent Parousia (if indeed it is imminent) that consumes many believers to the point that their whole concept of "God's work" seems to be harping on the sorry state of this world. But probably as many go to the opposite extreme and live for worldly success while treating God only as a source of material blessing. What He wants is for us to work hard under His guidance to make this world more like His future Kingdom, while maintaining a humble yet eager awareness that only He will bring it in fullness and permanence.

That's the way Jesus Himself lived--making the Kingdom a present as well as a future reality.

No proper rooms were free that night; no lodging could be found
Except among the animals; few people gathered round
That peasant woman as her Baby took first earthly breath,
And cried, as newborn infants do, within this world of death.
And just a few, among the lowest in the land’s esteem,
Would know the coming of their Lord, would see their God’s light gleam.
There was no wealth, no great renown, no trace of mortal fame,
Upon that night that touched the world with starlight when He came.

No hope, it seemed, could yet remain when that dread day was past
When, hanging bloody on a Cross, the Master breathed His last.
For human hearts crave earthly might, and dream of crown and throne:
Who would have thought the Lord of All could die in pain, alone?
And just a few, in coming days, despite the empty grave,
Had eyes to see the Risen One, to realize all He gave.
Although His power would shake the city through the Spirit’s flame,
The quiet dawn was little stirred when from the tomb He came.

Still mocking God and all His ways is this world as a whole,
This world that worships human pomp and scorns the humble soul.
Still mortal hearts crave wealth and power from their first earthly breath,
And still the helpless mourn and weep within this world of death.
But, someday soon, the day will come when Heaven shall open wide,
And from the heights there shall descend our Lord, the Glorified.
However many years we wait, as daughters and as sons,
We know all pain will melt away forever when He comes.

Friday, January 7, 2011

O, Master of Heaven

Welcome to New Songs from the Heart 2011!

My last (pre-Christmas) post talked about how we sabotage the true spirit of Advent by wishing for a quick ride to our "ideal" image. Perhaps I also should have noted a deeper source of the problem; we set that ideal (and its timeline) by our own judgment, and try to reach it by our own strength. If this is a stumbling block at Advent, it's all the more so in early January. Just about everyone, Christian or not, starts each year determined to get all the bugs out of her life by next December--then, typically, lets the resolve die of neglect by February. Most New Year's Resolutions lists are motivated by an optimism that, if not exactly blind, could certainly use a strong pair of glasses. If exchanging old habits for new ones was a hard struggle in 2010, why should the coming of 2011 make it any easier?

New year or no, we still live in the same old world. And we aren't going to make it--or ourselves--any different.

Am I saying everything is hopeless? Not at all. I'm saying that we forget Who really does the work of making the world--and us--new. That we too easily get impatient because He refuses to work according to our orders. That our resolutions and plans fail because we make them without consulting Him, or try to achieve them without acknowledging our dependence on His strength. He is the One Who will "make everything new" (see Rev. 21:1-5)--in His time.

Since much of our frustration stems from forgetting God is in charge of everything, today's poem takes a look at Him in a wide variety of aspects: Trinity, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier--and ultimate Consummator and Ruler.

O, Master of Heaven, Creator of all,
Who brought forth the world by the sound of Your call,
It was Your command that made everything grow:
Your power is far greater than mortal can know.

O, Christ, Blessed Savior, Redeemer of all,
What joy leaps within us when we hear Your call!
It was for our sins that Your life-blood did flow:
Your love is far greater than mortal can know.

O, Marvelous Spirit, Enlightener of all,
While You dwell within us we never can fall.
You’re working to make us as pure as the snow,
With wisdom far greater than mortal can know.

O, Lord of all being, great Ruler of all,
We long for the day of Your summoning call.
With time passed away, still Your rule on will go:
And we’ll see Your face, and pure joy we will know.