Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sing Praise to God, Who Made the Stars

Even in today's light-polluted cities, the stars still have power to make us feel small. Psalm 8:3-4 still puts it best: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" And David didn't even know that most of those stars are hundreds of times bigger than Earth and thousands of light years distant.

Even today, we try to scale down the universe to what our minds can grasp, routinely crafting science fiction that erases the difficulties of traveling faster than light and balancing the "time zones" of separate solar systems. Likewise, we frequently try to understand God by our own logic: "Why doesn't He do this/stop that/straighten these things out when any reasonable human being would if given the power?" Some people, having accepted that they can't figure God out, go to the opposite extreme and conclude He probably doesn't understand them either--or care to.

There's a Christmas fable about a man who couldn't see why God would become human until he saw a flock of birds blundering about in a snowstorm, and, unable to make them understand that shelter was nearby, found himself wishing he could become a bird and lead them there. Christmas is where we find the balance between our inability to comprehend God and His desire to have us know Him, between the Maker of vast space and the Father Who guards and guides our every step through this world.

This Advent, take time to think about the love and humility involved in God's own Incarnational step between two realities.

Sing praise to God, Who made the stars, Who rules the whole of space;
From farthest galaxy to Mars, He gives each part a place;
Down to this tiny world of ours, He holds them by His grace.

Sing praise to God, Who made the sea, the land, and all that flies;
The greatest whale, the smallest flea, He watches with His eyes;
He likewise watches you and me; and He is good and wise.

Sing praise to God, Who gives us breath, Who guards us every day,
Who will not let us live bereft, but seeks us when we stray,
Who loves us all from birth to death, and leads us in His way.

Sing praise to God, Who made all time, each moment and each year,
Who holds us by His Power divine, and calms our every fear: 
“I’m coming back,” He says, “for Mine, and I will dry each tear.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

New Every Morning

Unless you're a natural optimist and experienced achiever, the prospect of New Year's resolutions--or of "making a change" at any time of year--can start to feel like a cruel joke after age 35. "What's the use of trying again; I always fail" is a cry-of-the-heart for many who once had big dreams for building the perfect life but are now looking at their current lives in despair, thinking that if it were meant to be they'd surely have it right by now. While a toddler learning to walk will "try, try again" after a hundred or a thousand tumbles, adults are cursed with the knowledge that not everything is possible--and most of us are all too quick to turn that knowledge into the syllogism, "If something is impossible, I will fail when I try to do it. I failed when I tried to do this. Therefore, this is impossible." Instead of putting past mistakes behind us, we let them stand in front, blocking our view of future possibilities.

They are likely also blocking our view of the God of all possibility. It's not for nothing that the Bible tells us to "become like little children" and that God's eternal faithfulness is marked by mercies that are "new every morning." Probably the reason so many of us hate getting out of bed in the morning is that we have lost the ability to see the new day as truly new. We're sure that the day will only bring more of the same old miserable drudgery--and that belief quickly turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What little faith we have, refusing to look for new and better possibilities because we have no hope of finding any and see no point in putting ourselves to that kind of work.

Before you go to bed tonight, why not get out the concordance and look up all the times the Bible uses the word "new"? Pick four or five verses that speak of new life in God, meditate on them thoroughly, and pray that they will be on your mind when you awaken.

Then see if getting up tomorrow isn't a little easier. 

Lord, give me, just for today,
The strength to resist temptation,
Pure joy in my vocation,
A heart filled with satisfaction—
Be with me each step of the way:
Give me strength not to dread circumstances,
Nor to dwell on my own plans or actions,
But to take every moment that happens
As a gift from Your hand, I pray.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Moment by Moment

A lot of us wish that, when Paul said "in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28), he had included a schedule for that program! Some of us wait a lifetime to see things work out for our good; others fail to recognize the good until long after it arrives. Impatient souls that we are, we just want the pain and frustration to stop.

We should remember that "in all things" also means "constantly." God doesn't leave us to struggle on our own for years until the time comes for Him to do something; He is active in every moment of our lives, guiding our circumstances toward the end He sees from the beginning. When He seems silent, He is busy watching and listening and planning, protecting and shaping us in ways we may never understand this side of eternity.

Any psychologist will confirm that much of human frustration is due to an unwillingness to live life one moment at a time, bit by bit. Why should we be surprised that the all-wise God tends toward the slow-and-steady route? 

Moment by moment our Father is working,
Bringing new mercies the dawn of each day,
God our Provider, our perfect Sustainer—
Perfect His wisdom and flawless His way.
Oh, our beloved Lord! Holy forever,
Moment by moment He shapes and He guides,
Gives us all things for our joy and our pleasure,
All that we need and far more yet besides!

Moment by moment our Father is working,
Weaving our lives in a plan yet unseen;
God our great Master and perfect Protector,
Lord of all things that will be and have been.
Oh, our beloved Lord! Holy forever,
Moment by moment He shapes and He guides,
Working all things to our good and our blessing,
Giving redemption and more yet besides!

Moment by moment our Father is working,
Drawing all things to the ultimate End;
God our great King and eternal Sustainer,
Perfect Redeemer and Heavenly Friend!
Oh, our beloved Lord! Holy forever,
Moment by moment He shapes and He guides,
Making for us a great World that's eternal,
And endless Life where all goodness abides!

Friday, September 7, 2012

He Came for Us

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:5-11).

While Paul cites Christ as an example of humility for us to follow, the above verses are also worth contemplating in connection with what Christ has done for us. In fact, it pays to read the Bible as a whole with the mindset that appreciating God's work is even more important than learning what work He has for us. If you're anything like me, you have days when trying to live the Christian life feels like an exercise in misery. It's not that we'd rather be living in sin; it's just that the battle seems endless to the point of utter futility. Psychologists tell us that when human beings feel trapped in "treadmill" work--same monotonous duties day after day and no real sense of purpose or progress--they will resort to anything, even suicide, to escape. For those of us with perfectionist tendencies, the Christian walk often feels like that treadmill: however much progress we make, it's rarely fast, obvious, or anywhere close to the ideal; and we find ourselves constantly looking at the remaining distance in exhausted despair, feeling we haven't a chance anyway. Perfectionists are so addicted to "finishing" and "completeness" that we find it almost impossible to rest short of the goal, or to understand how Paul could say "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect... straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal" one minute and "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" the next. (Phil. 3:12-14; 4:11.)

The enslaving conviction that it's really up to us--the very thing Jesus endured humiliation and crucifixion to free us from--is an idea that dies so hard as to make literal crucifixion look like the quick chop of a guillotine. And avoiding the temptation by abstaining from work is rarely an option.

While actually breaking the temptation's power is the Holy Spirit's work, we can cooperate with Him by remembering that spiritual growth is slow-but-steady progress. And that God is patient and loving; having the end in mind, He doesn't expect us to get it right every time starting now.

And that Christ came to do the hardest work for our sakes--and will come again to finally free us from the burden of the curse.

He came for us:
Came from the matchless palaces of Heaven
To Earth's cold night, into a shabby stall;
The Son of God, the Hope of sins forgiven,
The Holy Lamb, the Precious Life of All:
He came for us.

He came for us:
Down from His timeless throne where angels worship
To human scorn, to die a cruel death,
To bear our pain, to dare a life of hardship,
To buy our freedom with His final breath:
He came for us.

He'll come for us:
Someday when this world's strife and toils are over,
When days of Earth have run their final course,
Our God, our Lord and ever-holy Savior
Will take us home to our eternal Source:
He'll come for us.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Follow Me

Among the first recorded words of Jesus are, "Follow Me." Follow Him, and He will make you a fisher of human souls. Follow Him, and He will show you true peace. Follow Him, and He will give you the riches of the Heavenly Kingdom.

"Follow," as used here, encompasses virtually every English meaning of the word: follow the path and don't wander off; stay behind the Leader and don't run ahead or lag far back; follow instructions and don't try to invent your own way. The original Greek also carries the sense of "accompany" or "assist." When we follow Jesus, we are more than His subjects; we are His companions, right-hand people, and friends. 

Many of us want to follow Him but wonder why the path never seems clear. Often it's because we have our stubborn minds made up to follow only at our own speed and on our own terms. While relatively few of us flatly refuse to obey clear instructions, many of us are all too willing to listen with half an ear if we suspect God may tell us anything we don't want to know. Or, conversely, we nag Him to provide instructions in detailed long-term format so we aren't distracted from the important work by the nuisance of keeping in constant touch with Him. We don't really want Jesus to be our Leader; we want Him to be our daily planner who organizes our own preferred duties, our front guard who goes before us while we choose path and pace.   

If, as a child, you ever lost Mom in a public place, you have some idea of the results that attitude can serve up.

Of course, unlike that frantic mother, Jesus knows exactly where we are even when we're lost. He simply waits for us to call to Him, in sincerity and repentance, to show us the way back to the path. Often, we can't see His leading clearly because we don't yet feel lost enough to know the desperate earnestness of seeking Him wholeheartedly.

But as God told the Israelite exiles (in Jer. 29:13) who became lost when they stopped following Him: "You will seek me and find me [and My plan for you] when you seek me with all your heart."

He Who called His first disciples
Where the lake in sunlight basked,
Still does call us where we labor:
"Follow Me, and find your task."

He Who called the weak and weary
To a "load" that meant release,
Still is calling us to trust Him:
"Follow Me, and walk in peace."

He Who called the ones reluctant
To abandon earthly care,
Calls us still to full surrender:
"Follow Me to Heaven's share."

Lord, You led the way through suffering,
On through death, to life again:
May we find the faith to answer,
"We will follow to the end."

Friday, August 17, 2012

Clutter's Children

"The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep" (Ecc. 5:12).

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal" (Mt. 6:19).

"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.... [A] certain rich man... thought to himself... 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.' But God said to him, ‘You fool!'" (Lk. 12:16-17, 19-20).

Everyone knows about those who are rich, famous--and totally miserable. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that money can't buy happiness. And nearly everyone is secretly confident of being the exception to the rule.

But it's not only money and possessions that weigh us down with the stress of longing for more, with worry about what we might not get, with hostility toward others who might have designs on what's "ours." Perhaps even more people clutter their time with overload, fueled by longing for a sense of importance and success, and by fear of missing out. Shortage of adequate vacation time and bitter resentment of interruptions have driven many to hospitals or worse.

Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.... For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30). An irresistible offer--until we realize that our own self-imposed burdens have to be removed to make room for His. Give up our rights to control our own money? Preposterous! Trade work time for quiet time? The road to poverty! Yield up our carefully planned schedules? Why, that's unnatural!

It is unnatural to give up what we hold. As with the child who traps his hand in the candy jar by grabbing too big a fistful, instinct tells us to struggle and scream, to smash what imprisons us and "our" possessions, to find any alternative to letting go of a coveted thing that we finally have in our grasp. This instinct is the manifestation of what the Bible calls our "flesh"--that insidious, all-pervasive, "me first" aspect of human nature that infected our universal gene pool at the Fall.

God is waiting to restore our spiritual health. But don't blame the Doctor if you insist on writing your own alternative prescription. 

Clutter is the father of Anger:
With each moment a task assigned,
You will hate every interruption
For invading your precious time.

Clutter is the mother of Anguish:
With “to do” as an endless snare,
You will fret at each thing that stalls you
Till you sink into black despair.

Clutter is begetter of Illness:
When all life is a pile of “more,”
Endless effort dragging the burden
Strains your heart and health to the core.

Clutter is the bearer of Misery,
And of Pain and the Way of Death:
Yet it draws us all to its clutches
Almost from the first earthly breath.

Jesus is the Bearer of Burdens,
The Begetter of Hope and Peace:
Let Him cleanse your life of all clutter
And wash you in His sweet release!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Change Will Always Be a Battle

"Must I be carried to the skies / On flowery beds of ease?" wrote Isaac Watts in the eighteenth century. "Are there no foes for me to face? / Must I not stem the flood?" (Hymn, "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?")

Few of us, much as we may wish to grow as Christians, get particularly excited at the prospects in these lines--especially the implication of constant battle. And if outside wars are bad enough, the one in each human heart--the struggle to travel from where we know we are to where we wish we were--is so unrelenting and painful that it's not surprising many people surrender to semi-comfortable mediocrity. At least it's easy to live with.

Easy, but not fulfilling. God has bigger plans for each of us--plans too important to leave us to fight the battle alone. Praise Him that we have more than conscience and our own will power as "inside allies"--we have the Holy Spirit Who strengthens and comforts and guides us in the Truth. Most of us make the battle harder than it has to be, because we approach it with the wrong attitude. Spiritual growth is not an appendectomy where we can doze off and let someone else take care of everything, nor is it an exercise prescription where someone hands us detailed instructions and then leaves us to carry them out alone. It's physical therapy that only works if we keep our own muscles operating even as someone else provides constant instruction and support, a program where progress and results are re-evaluated and adjusted on a daily basis.

A hard fight? Yes. One we can win--in God's strength and not ours? You bet.

Change will always be a battle,
And the hardest change of all
Is that wrought in one's own spirit:
So it has been since the Fall.

Change will always be a battle;
Though resolve be firm and strong,
Still new ground is gained by inches,
And the struggle will be long.

Change will always be a battle
For mere mortals, weak and frail:
And against sin's lure so cunning,
Human strength can not prevail.

Change will always be a battle:
But those souls who walk in Christ
Find we have a great Commander,
And His strength will yet suffice.

Change will always be a battle,
But fear not: God's holy Son
Is the One Who fights it for us:
Through Him we shall overcome.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Blessed Be the Name of the Lord

The popular praise song "Blessed Be Your Name" was inspired partly by the 9/11 disaster and partly by Job 1:21b: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (New King James Version). Job spoke those words from what must have been a very similar emotional state to that of those reeling from 9/11; he, like the world of 2001, was swallowed in the shock and grief of nearly inconceivable tragedy.

The fall of the World Trade Center may be more than a decade past, but the world has found plenty of other disasters to serve up in the meantime, most recently on July 20 when a man gunned down over a dozen people at a Colorado theater. But tragedy needn't make the front pages to hit deep down: everyone who has lost a single loved one to a car wreck, a drive-by shooting, or a sudden heart attack has felt that agonizing blow to the spirit, that feeling that the world itself has had a violent burst of rage and lashed out blindly to destroy the innocent.

Who really feels like blessing God's name when the things "taken away" are no longer theoretical?

We cry out for answers, but perhaps none can be really satisfactory. As far as we know, Job never learned of the spiritual interactions behind his suffering--and even for of us who are privy to that part, the idea that God wanted to "prove a point" is not really a particularly good reason from the viewpoint of human logic. Yet the answer for us is the same as the answer Job ultimately found: to turn his eyes from his troubles to his God, to admit he had no right to argue with One so far above him, and to trust God to make everything right in the end.

That is the mindset that grants God the praise He deserves--and our hearts the peace He longs to give.

As we walk the days of our lifetimes,
May we each come to understand
That the good and the evil that meet us
All have passed through our Father's hand:
Not a thing that touches our pathways,
Be it windfall or tragedy,
Ever falls to the lot of God's children
Unless He allows it to be.

When your way seems brimming with blessings,
And your life filled with wealth and ease,
Give your thanks to the Lord, the great Giver,
Who allots things as He does please:
Do not think it is your own doing,
Nor to use for yourself alone,
But use wisely what God has allowed you,
To His praise and the power of His Throne.

When your life seems drowning in sorrows,
And each day brings another pain,
Still give praise to the Lord Who is Master,
And one day will make all things plain:
Do not moan over life's unfairness,
Nor grow angry and curse your fate,
But accept it as part of God's working;
His grace comes to all those who wait.

As we walk the days of our lifetimes,
Let us take all as from God's hand:
All the joys that we praise as His blessings,
All the pains we cannot understand,
All are shaping us in His image,
All are gifts from the Lord of Love,
Who is painting a beautiful picture
For the day we ascend above! 

Monday, July 9, 2012

When the Last Tear Is Cried

Ironic that, having written my last post on priorities and "not having enough time for anything," I followed that up by slipping into a nearly-three-months-long--and entirely unplanned--hiatus from blogging. I could blame an expanded job search and an overload of freelance assignments--or I could be honest and admit that an overload of nonessential reading, too much time on low-priority e-mail, and plain old "what's-the-use-nothing-ever-works-for-me-anyway" self-pity played at least as big a part.

Most of us have felt that "how did I manage to waste a whole week/month/year?" guilt sensation. For some, it's considerably more painful (and durable) than a moment of regret. Few things are sadder than someone who has become a (barely) living epitome of the old lines, "First, I was dying to finish school and get a real job. Then I was dying to get married. Then I was dying for my kids to grow up so we'd have some quiet around the house. Then I was dying for the day I could retire.... And now, I am dying, and I suddenly realize that I forgot to live." I believe that someone else has said regret fuels the flames of hell, and not only in the afterlife. The regrets of years lost are many people's worst demons: those little voices whispering constantly, "You blew your chance.... you wasted your life.... now it's too late to redeem yourself."

The good news, and the fact most of us fail to grasp, is that we don't have to redeem our own mistakes--indeed, young or old, we never could. As Christians, we who are quite willing to accept the concept of atonement for blatant sins and for our general sinfulness condition find it hard to believe that God's power to redeem extends to the good things we were too lazy or fearful to do when the opportunity stood open. No, God never rewinds the clock so we can do things again differently; but if we yield fully to Him now, regardless of how much earthly time we have left, we will be surprised at how much He yet has for us to do.

Someday, "God himself will... wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:3-4). Surely the tears and pain He wipes away will include those regrets for things done and left undone.

And surely one of the things to pass away forever will be the wasting of time.

When the last tear is cried,
And the last sun is set,
And this old world is gone,
God will be with us yet.

When all earth's work is ceased,
And no more left to do,
When the stars lose their shine,
God will make all things new.

When time comes to an end,
And earth's hours cease to be,
We shall be strong and new,
And in God ever free.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Time Enough

Time management is not my strongest suit. If I cared to apply to the Guinness Book of World Records, I'd stand a good chance of earning a listing for "impossibly cluttered calendars and resultant frustration levels."

Not that I don't understand--in theory--the concept of prioritizing your list, doing the most important things first, and being willing to live without the rest. The trouble is that the only real priority my natural mindset believes in is "missing out on nothing"--which can make it pretty tough to hit the point of satisfaction when the world keeps bombarding you with new ideas, suggestions, and requests.

Is it just me, or does the whole concept of "things to do" mutate once you graduate from college--from a footpath into a flash flood, from an orderly grade-by-grade, test-by-test progression into a thousand square miles of tasks scattered at random and stretching far beyond what the eye can see?

Perhaps it's time to look with new eyes at the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:33: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." On first reading this in context, "all these things" we are tempted to fret about seems to refer only to material needs. But might it also refer to our time--that much-valued treasure that everyone moans about being short on, that we seem to chase at more consistently frantic pace than anything else, that we worry and fret about and become obsessed with "saving" and try to store like spare food in granaries?

Those of us who "never have enough time for anything"--even "God's work"--may need to consider whether we're trying to do everything on our own schedule instead of His.

Higher, higher, ever higher,
Do the goals we seek retreat;
Farther, farther, ever farther,
Back we fall from lists complete;
Faster, faster, ever faster,
Come life's struggles, tasks, and fuss:
Will we never reach the day of
Having time enough for us?

Listen, brother; listen, sister--

All of time is in God's hands;
Nothing that this world can muster
Can delay His holy plans.
Never is He in a hurry,
Never is He running late:
Time enough He gives His children
For the things He counts as great!

Slow your pace and cease your hurry:

Pause and take the time to hear
How He wants to set your schedule;
He will make your focus clear.
We will never find the time for
All the world's unending "stuff,"
But to seek God's blessed Kingdom,
There is always time enough!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pieces of the Puzzle

You probably know about the "yellow ribbon" loop worn to indicate support for soldiers and others in dangerous situations away from home. Perhaps you also know about the "red ribbon" loop for AIDS and the "pink ribbon" loop for breast cancer. What you may not know is that there is a whole rainbow of "awareness ribbons" representing support for every cause imaginable. A navy ribbon symbolizes human trafficking; an orange ribbon leukemia; a silver ribbon mental illness. (Among other things. Most colors have been appropriated by multiple causes; see Wikipedia for an extensive list.)

Particularly intriguing is the "puzzle ribbon" for autism, which comprises a pattern of assorted bright colors shaped like interlocked jigsaw puzzle pieces. According to the Autism Society, "The puzzle pattern reflects the mystery and complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope—hope that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and appropriate treatments, people with autism will lead fuller, more complete lives."

Perhaps the "puzzle ribbon" should also signify the fallen human condition. In a sense, all of us have autism: not merely unwilling, but literally unable, to see past our own immediate desires and form an accurate picture of reality. Most jigsaw puzzle pieces, by themselves, show no more visible "picture" than does a quick paint smear from a brush touched to the palette at random: likewise with the individual events of our lives. Absorbed in each event as it happens, we frequently moan that life makes no sense.

Praise God, He gives us the brightness of hope through Jesus Christ, weaving our fragmented lives into a beautiful picture that we will ultimately see clearly. 

Strewn before the eyes in fragments--
Few make sense when viewed alone--
Each a different splotch of color,
Void of meaning in its tone.
Yet, with patient, careful working,
Slow but certain, wholeness grows,
Till, each piece at last positioned,
Then the final picture shows.

Human lives are ever splintered:
Things that happen, on their own,
Often splotched with pain and heartache,
Make small sense when viewed alone.
Yet, be patient with God's working,
As His purpose slowly grows,
Till your life, all things completed,
His eternal meaning shows!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Peace and Rest

This Lent, my home church is doing a sermon series on "Decisive Moments in the Life of Christ," which began last Sunday with "Birth" and used the text for the Annunciation. Therefore, this week's poem, which was written during Advent 2010, serves as a nod to my favorite fellowship as well as a reminder of what should be the spirit of Lent--slowing down a bit and giving God time to speak to us.

Though sometimes I wish it, few of us have the option of going into the wilderness for forty days as Jesus did. But we can declare a "wilderness time" of sorts in our daily life. I recently read an article, "A Desert Time or a Dry Season?," that cast beautiful light on what a Christian's "desert time" should be--not the desolation and deprivation most of us picture, but "a time of refreshing, a quiet season, a time that I came to know the still small voice of the Lord, and to recognize His voice from the voice of man and my own voice." If we can't get away physically from our ordinary lives, we at least can make a special effort to put aside most of the nonessentials, to cry out to God from the depths of our hearts, to seek out that special and sacred "prayer place" that may be waiting quietly to be discovered within easy walking distance. We can take extra prayer time for the express purpose of asking God to teach us to thirst for His Word and His presence above all material concerns.

As many a Southwesterner will testify, the desert can be a place of beauty as well as of mystery, awe, and--perhaps most important of all--peace and silence. It is in the wilderness that we find God's rest.

Life moves at a frantic pace,
Everything a speeding race;
Pounding hearts fill every chest:
Where can we find peace and rest?

In the world of Roman days,
Life, as now, had fretful ways:
Few did let their strivings cease
When the angels sang of peace.

Christ was born to bring us love,
Flowing pure from Heaven above:
Wise men traveling pathways west
Saw in Him true peace and rest.

From the Manger to the Cross,
Christ walked earth to seek the lost.
Now, as then, the eye that sees
Knows He is our Rest and Peace.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Not for Wealth and Not for Pleasure

Profound truths can be found in unusual places. In his 1975 book The Dictionary of Misinformation--the sort of thing usually shelved with the trivia--Tom Burnam notes under "Predestination" that "a belief in predestination is among the noblest of doctrines. For it places the emphasis not on goodness as a lever to ensure some future paradise, but as valuable for its own sake. To live the good life without regard to what's in it for you comes close to the ultimate in altruism."

Few are noble enough to be that altruistic--even on the material plane. We resist with all our might any evidence against the idea that God owes us some earthly paradise for being good. At the extreme is the "health and wealth gospel," which believes that adequate piety ensures freedom from any real problems. If you've met up with a health-and-wealth preacher during any of the low moments of life, you know something of how Job must have felt when his friends were badgering him to agree he deserved his hardships.

It's not that God doesn't want to give us the best. It's just that we fail to appreciate that the Best is God Himself, and all else is immaterial. Even Christians can fall prey to the idea that it's better to have fun for a while before surrendering completely to God's will--as though the best happiness and God's will were compatible only in Heaven. More "what's in it for me" thinking.

What's in it for us is the sort of joy that could never be found in wealth and pleasure alone--starting not in the afterlife but anytime we're willing to take it. But since God is the essence of such joy, setting human terms for it is more than selfish.

It's literally impossible.

Not for wealth and not for pleasure,
Not for ease as our reward,
Not for any earthly treasure,
Do we serve our holy Lord:
He Who came and walked among us,
For our sake He suffered all,
Set aside all Heaven's glories
To redeem us from the Fall.

For our sake He lived as nothing:
For Him, will we do the same?
For our sake He cruelly suffered;
For Him, will we bear all shame?
He gave all for us, so, likewise,
May we give our all for Him:
He has greater gifts than riches,
And will fill us to the brim!

Friday, February 17, 2012

I Know Not What the Future Holds

Do you check the weather forecast every morning? And watch the long-range forecast with a nervous eye if you're planning a Saturday outing?

Do you pay serious attention to what climatologists, sociologists, eschatologists, and other futurologists say we can expect in the next decade? 

What would you give for infallible knowledge of the right place to be at the right time?

Human craving to know the future is near-universal--and sometimes dangerous. One man left a good marriage for one that proved miserable because an astrologer had told him he was destined to meet his true soul mate after his first marriage. A woman came to her pastor in hysterics, begging for help with a compulsion to commit suicide on what a fortuneteller had predicted would be the last day her life was any use. 

One sometimes wonders if Christian fascination with predicting the imminent end of the world is any better. Some people read the Bible like the prophecies of Nostradamus, searching for every possible parallel between what the text says and what happens in the real world, then announcing that this will surely happen next. The many failed prophecies in that regard can't be doing God's reputation much good.

Even in Christian dress, the desire to know the future is closely tied to the craving to control the future, to "be like God." Which is probably why the Bible has nothing good to say about fortunetelling and divination--and why Jesus said no one can know the time of the end, a quote that many sincere Christians go through extreme semantic contortions to explain away. We want the comfort of being certain that our earthly struggles will end soon, preferably before they have a chance to get extreme. We want to be assured in no uncertain terms that we will not only go to Heaven, but have a pretty good time along the way. We don't want to admit that God alone knows what will happen--and rarely sees fit to give us much detail. We don't want to let go, concentrate on whatever work He has for us at the moment, and let Him take care of the future.

How much more content we would be if we left the worry and responsibility to Him!

What years of coming future hold,
I have no eyes to see:
But He Who holds those coming years
Is also holding me.

With God to watch my every step,
I have no use for fear:
I’ll walk with joy the path of faith,
And trust that He is near.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Easter Spirit

I love the writing of Mary Southerland, "The Stress-Buster and Women's Ministry Motivator," for her anecdotes, humor, and Scriptural insight that regularly seem to have my own particular struggles in mind. Three days ago, she noted in a blog post, "January is often referred to as the 'blue' month. The blahs attack and a strange sense of discontentment fills our hearts and minds. A local radio host recently explained that since the holidays are over, there is a void or a vacuum left that causes those blues.... Something is definitely missing but I don’t think it has as much to do with the Christmas holidays as with the way we live the rest of the year. Christmas is not a season.... Christmas is a way of life. Every day should find us still and quiet before the manger as we celebrate the birth, life, death and resurrection of our coming Lord and King, Jesus Christ."

With the beginning of Lent less than a month away, it's good to note that what's true for Christmas should be all the more true for Easter. Many people, even non-Christians, have urged "keeping the Christmas spirit all year round," but surprisingly few ever raise the concept of an "Easter spirit" outside of Holy Week. (One notable exception is the song "Every Morning Is Easter Morning," published 1967 in The Avery and Marsh Songbook.) And yet, without Easter, Christmas would have little to distinguish it as a celebration from the birthday of Martin Luther King or George Washington. Many great people have made sufficient impression on the world that their birthdays--or death days--are officially commemorated; but only One has returned from the dead with the authority to offer eternal life to anyone who accepts it.

It's interesting that in the early centuries of Christianity, the birth of Jesus received scant attention--two of the Gospels don't even mention it, and Epistle references are few and terse--while the Crucifixion and Resurrection were emphasized at every opportunity. Easter was and is what makes Christianity unique and wonderful as a religion: who else recognizes a God Who is powerful enough to conquer even death, holy enough to be completely free of selfishness and pride, and generous enough to suffer for the very people who treat Him with contempt and offer them all anyone could ever dream of without asking them to contribute a thing to the payment?

So what does an Easter spirit look like? Reflective of this God in humility and generosity. Immensely grateful for what He has done. Confident that we can do nothing on our own and everything through Him. The epitome of Paul's command in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." 

Surely it is also His will that we celebrate Easter all year.

The Power that raised Christ from the dead
Is the Holy Spirit in you:
Do not fear your weakness, but trust His strength
To direct each thing you do.

The Power that lit that Easter morn
Is the Light that glows in your heart:
Do not fear the darkness inside your soul,
For the Lord never will depart.

The Spirit Who brought new hope to life
Is the Source of all hope to be:
Trust with courage and patience His work in you,
Though you may not have eyes to see.

That first Easter Day of rebirth and joy
Still can live in your soul today:
Let it lead you on to eternal realms,
And God's grace ever light your way.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Count Your Blessings, Not Your Troubles

I confess that I lifted today's title from a principles list in Dale Carnegie's classic work, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Mostly because I could hardly say it any better--and because the contrast points up a major struggle in my own life. Counting troubles is so much easier.

Many a parent and teacher can testify that it's the bratty children who get attention, while the quiet, well-behaved ones are taken for granted unless their performance proves exceptionally good. Life's circumstances are little different. When things go smoothly, we take it as no more than our due; when circumstances impede our wants, we can think of nothing else. We're like the Israelites in the wilderness who set up a wail when the water supply ran short and complained that their daily diet was too monotonous, rarely thanking God for His miraculous provision or trusting that He would keep it up.

Trusting God: therein lies the key issue. If we truly believe He loves us and has our best interests at heart, we should have little trouble seeing the many good things in our lives; if we think in terms of "I know what's best for me and I have a right to it," everything that interferes with that ideal is the enemy. To whatever degree you believe that good thoughts attract good things and bad thoughts bad, the biggest roadblocks to our happiness are the ones we build through our own "I want what I want and I absolutely refuse to accept anything else" attitudes. Because very few people come close to getting everything they want.

Even those who do tend to find it considerably less satisfying than generally assumed. Selfishness is a sure path to misery; it's just not what we were made for. We were created, as the old catechism goes, "to glorify God [not ourselves] and to enjoy him [not our own ideas of perfect circumstances] forever."

And when we focus on Him, blessings become far clearer as well.

Count your blessings, not your troubles:
If you look at wants and lacks,
Misery will fall upon you
As a battered vessel cracks.
If you look at God's abundance
And you let Him fill your life,
Joy will come to rule your spirit
And your happiness will thrive.

Count your blessings, not your troubles:
God gives special gifts to each
As His wisdom sees is fitting:
Do not for another's reach.
Joy in what is yours, and use it
In God's grace to serve your Lord,
Do His work, and praise His glory--
You will find your sure reward!

Friday, January 13, 2012


Due to a heavily loaded schedule, there will be little commentary accompanying this week's poem on "Clutter." I hope that the irony as well as the poem gives readers a few chuckles.

My home is a jumble of clutter
From all of the things bought in greed:
Each day I waste time spent in searching
For things that I actually need.

My days are a jumble of clutter
From all of the things I must do:
I never find time just for sitting,
And prayers last a second or two.

My mind is a jumble of clutter
From all of the things pushing in:
I think God may want to speak with me—
I can’t seem to hear through the din!

My life is a jumble of clutter:
I know I need time, Lord, with You,
But, please, can’t You wait till I’m finished?
There’s just always so much to do!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Christian Life Is a Journey

Broken any New Year's resolutions yet?

By my purely unscientific estimate, the average life of a resolution--at any time of year--is approximately two weeks. Changing for the better always seems like a good idea until we remember there's work involved. In fact, there's fair reason to theorize that the famous Law of Attraction has a corollary called the Law of Initial Repulsion: he who makes up his mind to change for the better can count on being hit hard with a period of trials taunting him to prove he's serious about it. The world, the flesh, and the devil, who pretty much left us alone while we coasted on our old sinful habits, are suddenly fighting us with every temptation and frustration at their disposal.

Why doesn't God stop them? we want to scream. Maybe because He loves us too much to leave us to the spiritual flabbiness that would result from taking the easy way. Much as human nature wishes otherwise, you can't run a marathon without training, learn the piano without practicing scales, or win a war without struggling to gain ground. And you can't walk a real Christian walk--which, never forget, goes in an upward direction--without climbing some tough sections of trail.

If you're in the middle of a tough section right now, feeling that this is a terrible reward for trying to walk God's way and no incentive for continuing, don't quit just yet. Consider the principle epitomized in the famous piece "Footprints in the Sand": When times are hard, God walks with us. When times are really hard, He carries us.

He is bringing us to a destination that is more than worth the hardest trip.

The Christian life is a journey, and the path is steep and slow;
While we may glimpse the destination, a thick fog clouds our way below.
We who long for a mileage marker, for a map that shows every turn,
Rarely grasp the Lord's deeper purpose: as we struggle, so thus we learn.

The Christian life is a journey, and the road is rarely clear:
Let us, therefore, walk in assurance that our Father still holds us dear.
Let us look to the things eternal and the One Who walks by our side;
For we need not fear losing the pathway, for its Builder will be our Guide!