Saturday, December 28, 2013

Last Post

I regret to inform you that yesterday's post will be the last one at New Songs from the Heart. Starting January 2014, I am discontinuing that series to concentrate on my primary blog, Strength for the Weary, which focuses on Biblical encouragement for those with special "joy challenges." You can sign up by way of the above link, for semimonthly words of hope--and the occasional poem.

 Thank you all!

-Katherine Swarts

Friday, December 27, 2013

Merry, Merry Christmas

Before you say your final goodbye to this year's Christmas season, read this month's poem--and sing your favorite carols one last time--to help that spirit of peace and joy sink in a little deeper for 2014.

Merry, merry Christmas:
The season of good cheer,
The time of joy and laughter,
The high point of the year.
Merry, merry Christmas:
May music fill your heart,
And beauty fill your vision,
To set your life apart.

Merry, merry Christmas:
Do not forget that night
When Heaven's love broke through darkness
And shone God's holy light.
Merry, merry Christmas:
May all Christ's peace and grace
Reach out beyond the season
And all your life embrace!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Human Beings Are Not "Doings"

Perhaps the clearest proof of universal human irrationality is that every thinking person has an answer to the question, "What is one thing you know better than to do, and routinely do anyway?" My own answer is one given by many a busy American: Trying to finish all the "tasks" I can, as fast as I can, at the expense of both immediate self-pacing and a focus on tasks of long-term value. More than one Christian author has made his or her name with a book about this syndrome: look up Joanna Weaver, Richard A. Swenson, or Bill Hybels and "Too Busy Not to Pray," for starters.

How near-impossible is it for the average well-meaning Christian to overcome the idea that, for all God loves us in our imperfection, His actual pleasure with us depends on how much we do? We tend to assume that God's opinion of us is identical with our opinions of ourselves; and, ironically enough, those who do the most are often the least satisfied with what they accomplish. Like the anorexic dieter living by the motto "I'll know when I've lost enough weight because all my problems will disappear," the workaholic may be adamantly convinced she's not doing "enough" when she's already gone far beyond healthy limits. 

And the workaholic "doing all this for God" is all too often deafened to Jesus saying, as He said to Martha centuries ago: "You're wearing yourself out with worry, trying to respond to every perceived need, angry at everyone else for not making your self-inflicted burdens easier. I don't want your achievements; I want your attention." Our inclination to assume we instantly recognize what "must" be done--without consulting God first--is a quick path to overload and all the attendant frustration.

As the famous quote says, "We are human beings, not human doings." In the coming Advent season, take some time to just BE--to be quiet, to be relaxed and at peace, to be alone with God.

God created human beings
That in Him we might rejoice,
Yet we live as human “doings,”
Far too rushed to hear His voice.
Brother, sister, cease your striving,
Put aside your frantic rush;
Pause and hear your Master speaking
In the still small voice of hush.

God created human beings
First to share His perfect love,
Yet we live as human “doings,”
Minds below and not above.
Brother, sister, stop and realize
Mere “achievement” counts for naught;
Not your works, but adoration
Is the offering God will want.

Human beings are not “doings”;
God is not a lord of tasks;
No, He wants to walk beside us,
And our love is all He asks.
For our Master’s yoke is gentle,
And His heart is kind and true;
When you give your heart to Jesus,
He will show you what to do!

Friday, October 25, 2013

He Sees All

George Orwell's infamous line "Big Brother Is Watching You" is feeling uncomfortably real these days to millions of citizens in supposed democracies. Edward Snowden became the name on everyone's lips after he told the public that the U. S. National Security Agency makes a habit of watching its people's phone-call and Internet-use records; since he fled the country to escape espionage charges, rumors about smartphone tappings and routine surveillance continue to multiply. No doubt many such rumors are urban legends and conspiracy theories, but the government freely admits to keeping a wide eye on who calls whom and accesses what--measures it defends as essential to protecting the country against terrorist attacks.

Whatever your personal opinion there, most people are more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of anyone listening to what they say, keeping records on what they read, knowing where they go when, or--if it were humanly possible--overhearing their thoughts. We all do, say, and think things we're afraid others would use against us, even things we're ashamed of even as we enjoy them. What others don't know won't hurt them or us, and we'd prefer to keep it that way.

Of course, the secret behaviors of human lives were never really as secret as we like to think. Someone is watching all of us--more constantly and thoroughly than any earthly government ever could, down to our deepest thoughts. "The LORD looks at the heart," says 1 Samuel 16:7. "From his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth," adds Psalm 33:14. Most people, even many Christians, are uncomfortable enough with these facts that we routinely ignore or deny them. We appreciate the idea of God watching out for our interests and always being ready to listen to us, but the thought that He knows everything we do and may also have an interest in changing our plans for ourselves is another matter entirely.

The irony is that we think we are avoiding unpleasant things God would inflict on us, when in fact we are rejecting His desire to give us far better things than we could obtain on our own. David had a much better attitude--he didn't fight the fact of God's all-seeing eye, he embraced it. "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down ... You hem me in--behind and before ... Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?" (Psalm 139:1-3, 5, 7). But this is a blessing and not a curse: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me ... I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. ... How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!" (Psalm 139:6, 14, 17).

How precious it should be to all of us, knowing that the all-powerful God has us constantly on His mind. He is not watching us because He's afraid we'll get out of His control. He has His eye on us so He can constantly give us the help and support we need.

God watches from Heaven, the place of His throne,
He looks on Earth's people to make them His own.
He sees all that happens, He knows all we do:
Friend, are you embracing His knowledge of you?

God looks at the heart of each mortal that lives;
He chastens and comforts, He prompts and forgives.
He sees all we're thinking, He knows all we know:
Friend, will you allow Him within you to grow?

God searches and knows us, He hems us around;
Wherever we turn, there His presence is found.
Some seek to escape Him, some yield to His way;
Friend, will you surrender and claim Him today?

God's heart is as kind as His knowledge is vast;
He gives us a future, redeeming the past.
He holds awesome blessings He yearns to impart.
Friend, taste, and rejoice in His all-knowing heart!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Today Is the Day That Our Lord Has Made

"This is the day which the LORD has made," says the Bible (Ps. 118:24, NASB). "Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Reading the whole of Psalm 118 reveals that the context of this famous quote is the celebration of victory after a hard-fought battle. Probably the reason so many of us are reluctant to celebrate each day as God's gift is that all we look at are the battles. If we take the psalm as a guide to daily living, its recommended approach is: start the morning with praise and thanksgiving; then ask God confidently for help and support in the day's coming struggles; and you will be able to fight those struggles "in the name of the LORD" and end the day thanking Him for the great things He has done for and through you.  

True joy does not mean merely savoring the easy blessings. It means trusting that God is in control and that the best possible blessings are on their way. 

Today is the day that our Lord has made:
Let us fill up our hearts with His joy;
He has made us all new by the power of His love,
Bringing peace that no foe can destroy.

Today is the day that our Lord has made:
Let us all of His blessings review;
He has filled up our lives with the gifts of His love,
And each morning His mercies are new.

Today is the day that our Lord has made:
Let us ever rejoice in His love;
Not the woes of this world, nor the demons of hell,
Can keep back His great gifts from above.

Today is the day that our Lord has made:
Let us stand in His strength and rejoice:
He's preparing a place, in a Day yet to come,
For all souls that give ear to His voice.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Road Home

The concept of our true home gets much space in the New Testament. The prodigal welcomed home with open arms; the promise of Jesus to "prepare a place for" us in God's House; the many reassurances of Heaven and being with the Lord forever--all of this brings a warm stirring in the heart. If it feels so good to be welcomed to our earthly homes with a warm embrace and a hot meal, how much greater must be what we have to look forward to in our eternal Home!

I don't generally have much fondness for the practice of singing only part of a song or printing only part of a poem, but the original of this one (as journaled some years back) was 40 eighteen-syllable lines, and even I have enough rationality to occasionally see limits to the practice of including "everything." This edited version is taken from the end couplets of the first four stanzas and the whole of the last stanza.

There are city roads on the way to work, with small patience to face delay;
But when all is done, the best road's the one that leads home at the end of day.
There are interstates stretching on and on, with no end to the "came" and "went";
But all said and done, the best road's the one that leads home when your trip is spent.
There are country roads made for Sunday drives and for time with your loved ones dear;
But when all is said, the best road ahead leads you home when the night draws near.
You may drive a pickup or limousine, or your car may be caked with rust;
But whatever kind, the best roads they find are the ones that lead home at dusk.

You hear many speak of the "road of life," paved with fate or with what may be,
Its "wrong turns" we make, and its "one-way streets," and the "U-turns" that some will see.
You may be born rich, you may be born poor--things may turn to the "good" or "bad";
But the Road of Life is a path for all, whether happy or grim or sad.
But our Driver's path was the steepest one, and He carried the greatest load,
And He came for more than to pave our way--He Himself is the One True Road.
Oh, the roads of life ever turn and twist, full of detours that seem to roam:
But when life is past, the best road at last is the one to our one real Home.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Praise the Lord in the Highest Heavens

Having been negligent lately in "praising the Lord at all times," I think this is a good month to let praise speak for itself.

Praise the Lord in the highest heavens;
Praise Him, stars of the midnight sky;
Praise Him, moon and each circling planet;
Praise Him, angels who serve on high.

Praise the Lord from the deepest ocean;
Praise Him, beasts of the field and wood;
Every creature, now bow before Him;
Praise the Lord, Who made all things good.

Praise the Lord from your inmost being,
Every soul of the human race;
Give your thanks and your adoration
To the God of all power and grace.

Praise the Lord and rejoice before Him;
Praise the One Whom our souls adore;
Praise Him, praise Him; yes, praise Him always,
For all time and forevermore.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Letting Go

Recently, my online cable provider announced that it has "upgraded" its system and every customer will need a new modem to stay compatible. I think I've already been through four modems in eight years. No technical service considers itself effective unless it regularly subjects its users to the inconvenience of buying new equipment, learning new systems, or spending eight hours a month downloading new software.  

I don't like change or interruptions. Be it the unplanned need to visit a customer service line, the heart-wrenching shakeup of a death in the family, or anything in between, whatever spoils my well-laid and taken-for-granted expectations also tends to spoil my day. Not to mention my joy ("Why does it always happen to ME?!!"), my hopeful attitude ("I KNOW it'll ALWAYS happen to me"), my love for neighbor ("I could kill that manufacturer for not making a permanently foolproof product"), and my love for God ("Can't He see I'm 'tested out' already???!!!").

A distaste for change also tends to spoil our effectiveness in responding to God's leading. As if to emphasize the pervasiveness of this issue, the story of the "rich young ruler" appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Here was a man with a problem many of us share: He wanted the full joy of the deepest relationship with God, but not at the price of giving up the predictable, comfortable lifestyle he was used to. And his decision to hold on to what he had was made not with a "that's an easy choice" shrug, but with an aching heart. He wanted both; he was desperate to find a way to have both; but if that option were impossible, the "tried and true" seemed the more comfortable misery.   

Contrast the attitude in Jim Elliot's famous quote, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." Or as St. Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 4:18: "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (NIV 2011). Whether we are willing to face the fact or not, ultimately everything material will be taken from us (or we from it). The only real question is: are we going to keep all we can of the temporary and settle for the smallest spiritual rewards here and in Heaven; or are we willing to say wholeheartedly to God, "Everything I have is really on loan from You; I will use it or give it as You choose, not as I choose"?

Are we willing to leave the "safety" of the boat and experience the joy of walking on the water?

Letting go is never easy:
All our lives we grasp and cling
With our hearts to shining trinkets,
Clutching every dazzling thing.
How we long to know contentment!
How we fear the pain of loss!
We forget, we dread admitting,
"Keeping" comes at painful cost.

From the weight of all our hoardings,
Letting go can bring release;
From the pain of ceaseless fretting,
Letting go will give us peace.
From our cravings' heavy burden,
Letting go will set us free:
God has better things awaiting--
Drop your trinkets now and see!

God will let us go our own ways,
Let us break His heart with pain,
While His arms are open, waiting,
Till we turn to Him again.
All your "holding" is mere clinging
To a cliff of sliding sands:
Friend, release your fear of falling:
Drop into your Father's hands!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Eve of Anticipation

Following on the last post's First Coming/Second Coming theme--and in honor of my local Christian assistance ministry's Holiday in May food drive--I give you another "Christmas beyond the season" poem today. Let us learn to watch for Christ's return as eagerly as small children anticipate opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Tomorrow will be Christmas; every child's eyes are shining,
Shining bright with dreams of a day of gifts and joy,
Waiting for the dawning of a love-filled celebration,
Happiest time of year for any wide-eyed girl or boy.

Let us, likewise, look ahead with vision ever shining,
Shining bright with dreams of eternal peace and joy,
Waiting for the dawning of an endless Celebration,
Happiness and peace that nothing ever can destroy.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Come, Lord Jesus

Someone has said in regard to Christ's Second Coming: "Pray as if it will be tomorrow, work as if it will not be for a thousand years." The properly balanced attitude can be a struggle to achieve; most of us know Christians who live primarily for the best of this world, and others so obsessed with "the end being near" that they are incapable of seeing any hope in the current situation.

Human nature hates to wait, particularly when that waiting comes with no set timetable. The instinctive reaction is to impose our own schedule, to force things prematurely, to convince ourselves that what we want is what must be. When efforts in that direction prove futile, we may fall into despair and decide that giving up altogether hurts less than a constant diet of "maybe today ... maybe not." There are people who have lost faith completely, even become atheists, after Christ failed one too many times to show up when expected. The less drastically inclined simply figure, "Well, He'll come when He's ready," and stop thinking about it at all.

Natural as that reaction is, it's not biblical. The New Testament has much to say about eagerly awaiting Christ's return, even speeding it with our good deeds and prayers. Let us work to build our anticipation of that better time to come, but let us not become impatient. We all know from our lesser "waitings"--to reach the front of the line, to receive test results, to get a job offer or marriage proposal or royalty payment--that a "will you hurry up" attitude kills the joy of receiving when the longed-for thing finally arrives.

But a "well worth waiting for" attitude will make our eventual joy all the sweeter.

Come, Lord Jesus, to our world,
Under Bethlehem skies unfurled,
As the angels come to sing,
"Glory to the infant King,"
Christ and Savior of us all.
Let God's peace upon us fall,
For the Lord of Hope is born
On this blessed, holy morn.

Come, Lord Jesus, to our world:
We await the skies unfurled
On the day God's choir will sing
Victory of the glorious King,
Christ and Savior of us all.
Let God's peace upon us fall,
Every day fresh hope reborn,
Waiting for that coming Morn.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Christian, Look to Your Duty

It's been said before: Work is not a punishment for the Fall, only the drudgery part is. And no job is completely immune to drudgery. The average person is bewildered when professional entertainers show annoyance at requests for impromptu performances on social occasions--how could anyone want a break from a job that's obviously such pure pleasure?

Conversely, most of us have met the occasional person who seems to find tremendous joy in a "rote" job: the tollbooth operator who beams as he waves to each passing driver during a gray rush hour, the data entry clerk who hums happily at her computer while everyone else displays the grim faces of put-upon drones. Where do such attitudes come from? One clue is found in a statement from a cleaning lady at a church, who cheerfully told an interviewer, "I do all my work for the Lord." St. Paul said as much centuries earlier: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (Col. 3:23). Ecclesiastes (9:10a) expresses the same concept as "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might"--a useful reminder that good workers look for what needs doing, instead of waiting to be told what to do.

If you read the Colossians verse in context, you'll also find that Paul originally addressed it to slaves--which gives the lie to the idea that one can only be happy in a job of his own choosing. (You might reread the Genesis story of Joseph as an example of someone who epitomized the best of working well without wasting time in bitterness over unwanted circumstances.) This is not, of course, to say that "taking whatever's available" is always the best choice--just that we have no right to demand God, our real Boss, let us write our own "job descriptions." (I speak as someone who tried far too long to adapt the work market to her own leanings instead of the other way around, and is now in the position of starting the whole vocation-planning process over from square one.) What's important is that we follow His leadings in finding work and do it to serve Him--not our own desires for income, enjoyment, or status.

If we serve Him diligently in little things, He will soon enough give us bigger things to do.

Look to your duty:
God's holy beauty
Shines through your toil:
God gives us gifting,
Talents for lifting
Souls from earth's soil.

Look to your duty:
There can be beauty
In lowest task:
Work for God's glory:
Show His great story
To all who ask.

Look to your duty:
Look to God's beauty,
Labor with prayer:
Give Him your praises:
Joyful work raises
The Name we bear.

Look to your duty:
Eternal beauty
Waits for its day:
Look for your Savior:
His coming favor
Will not delay.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Beatitudes

If you have a Sunday school background, you probably remember reciting the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit... those who mourn... the meek... those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... the merciful... the pure in heart... the peacemakers... those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." 

What does it all mean, really? Is it simply a beautiful poem, or a genuine recipe for everyday life? How can one relate the seemingly nebulous blessings it offers--to be called children of God, to be comforted, to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven--to our daily needs?

Small wonder that the Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount, which as a whole has been described as human logic stood on its head. Those who display the seemingly natural desire to have their good works appreciated are called hypocrites; those who save up for the future are scolded for lack of faith and for ignoring Heavenly treasures. And Jesus repeatedly announces, "You have heard it said [based on God's own commandments, no less]... But I say to you." 

How can any human being ever live up to standards like that?

None can--under our own power. The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is not to impress us with some unattainable ideal, but to impress us with our need for the Holy Spirit's strength within. Only in His strength can we work our way toward God's ideals; He Himself is the "rock" referenced in Mt. 7:24-27, the Foundation on which a God-centered life is built.

Consider that as you read this poetic paraphrase of the Beatitudes.

When you know that you have nothing,
When your souls are free of pride,
Then you are God's Kingdom children,
And for you He will provide.

When your hearts are truly breaking
From the world's and your own sin,
Then God's comfort rests upon you
As His Spirit works within.

When you're free of proud ambition
And complaints about your lot,
God will keep the whole world for you,
More than you had ever sought.

When you crave God's righteous blessing
Over any thing of earth,
He will shower His grace upon you,
Gift of matchless, priceless worth.

When your heart is kind and caring
For the world of human needs,
God extends His hand in mercy,
And your life He richly feeds.

When your heart is pure and righteous,
And you live to do God's will,
He will show His own Self to you,
And your longings He'll fulfill.

When you seek God's peace and justice
For the world as for a friend,
You will be His blessed children,
And your joy will never end.

When you take a stand for Jesus
In the face of taunts and pain,
God will keep great riches for you,
And your earthly loss be gain.

Friday, February 1, 2013

What You've Got

If you had eight million dollars, how much of it would you give to God?

Ten percent? Twenty-five percent? As much as fifty percent?

Good for you.

Do you have eight million dollars?

I didn't think so.

But... how much are you giving of whatever you do have? That same fifty percent?

Well, how about twenty-five percent? 

Are you at least giving the traditional ten percent?

If you are, you may be shocked at what the average American is giving to good causes of any sort: barely more than two percent of his income. And as usual, the average American Christian tends to be hard to distinguish from his secular counterpart here.  

We can rationalize to the end of the world that ten percent of our income is hardly anything anyway, that we can barely make ends meet as it is, that if God wants more from us He should give us more.

But remember that in the parable of the talents, the servant who failed to invest his money got no leniency on the grounds that he had started with less than the others.

And remember Paul's words from 2 Corinthians 8:1-5: "And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will."

Those Macedonian Christians, who had every human justification for pleading they "couldn't afford" to give, were not only willing to do so; they considered it a privilege not to be missed. The key to that attitude is near the end of the passage: "They gave themselves first to the Lord." Yes, they started by willingly offering the one thing everyone has and no one can fully lose without his consent: their very selves. Once that was done, the willingness to give up lesser things came easily.

How much of yourself are you giving to God? Two percent? Ten percent?

Even ninety-nine percent isn't enough. He can't do everything He wants to do in your life until He has the full one hundred percent.

It's not what you could give in service,
If you had a million or two,
So much as the things you're now doing
With all that's been given to you.

It's not what you could say for Jesus,
If you had the platform of fame,
So much as the things you're now saying
And doing each day in His name.

When called to account for your lifetime,
Will you answer, full of excuse,
"Well, I had the greatest intentions,
But God gave me little to use"?

He's given you all that is needed,
Right now this immediate day,
For whatever work He's assigned you--
Are you walking now in His way?

For if you neglect what He's given,
What sense lies in wishing for more?
The Lord is a generous Giver,
Who holds endless riches in store,

But keeps them reserved for the wisest,
Who realize that small things will grow,
When used in His ways and His service,
To things far more grand than you know!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Waking or Sleeping

You may know the classic hymn, "Be Thou My Vision"--the one with the first verse that ends, "Thou my  best Thought, by day or by night,/Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light." St. Paul expressed roughly the same thought in one of the most succinct verses in Scripture--1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray continually." 

Truly, is God the dominant Subject in your mind--to the point where even your dreams are full of godly thoughts?

I for one have a long way to go toward that ideal. When tempted to fretting and other sins of thought, nine times out of ten I either give them full indulgence or retreat into irrelevant daydreams, rather than redirecting my mind toward the Source of all comfort. The former is the old natural-feeling approach, after all; and who, being already stressed out, wants to expend yet more energy working on new thought habits? 

All the more reason not to wait for a crisis before laying the foundation of a consistent-prayer reflex.

Many have found it a good starting point to focus on God for the last waking hour of each day; instead of watching the news before bed, they gave that time over to Bible reading, quiet music, and prayer. They subsequently reported sleeping better--and finding their minds more readily tuned to God as the next day began.

Why not try sleeping on God tonight and see if you don't wake in awareness of Him tomorrow?

Lord, this day draws to an end:
Let my mind cease from its churning
And from each concern still burning--
Free my sleep from toss-and-turning;
Let me rest in You, my Friend.

Lord, the morning breaks anew:
Waking thoughts my mind are filling--
Let them not bring dread and chilling,
But let me in joy rise willing,
Freshly eager to serve You.

Lord, through night and daylight hour,
Through each day this world is turning,
Tune my ears to You in yearning:
Let my heart be always learning,
Ever strengthened by Your power.