Friday, May 31, 2013

The Work of our Hands

Establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17).

The work of their hands is usually done with plastic shovels and buckets.

Just beyond the encroaching line of water that creeps over the sand after the wave’s crescendo, they labor. The work of their hands may be nothing more than a large mound of grainy mud. Sometimes their work has made something elaborate, an architectural wonder. The sand has been sculpted to make a mansion or a true castle. Quite often the work of their hands includes a moat that circles the structure.

The following morning vacationers will be up early to walk or jog on the beach. They will walk past the work sites from the day before and see how the tide came in overnight and eroded the work of those hands, those bucket-built worlds. The moats will be full of water. The mounds may still be noticeable but nearly worn away by the beating of waves. The mansions will be in utter disrepair, if left standing at all.

But the builders will return. Their moms and dads will stretch out on chairs and watch as young imaginations strike back at the tides and go to work again. The beach will be a canvas for their visions, an exhibit hall for the work of their hands.

We see this every summer. Sometimes what we see is a picture of what we live all year long.

The work of our hands may be done joyfully and well. But to what end? What becomes of the work we do? What kind of impact does it have? Psalm 90 ends with a peculiar prayer: “Establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.”

In his grace, God gives us work to do. All of us – whether or not we know it and believe it – have a vocation, a calling. God’s gift of work is his invitation to join what he is doing in this world, and no field of endeavor is omitted. God calls us to do the work – but Psalm 90 reminds us that it God who establishes it. To ignore this or to deny it is to live every day building sand castles, laboring to create things that are easily eroded and eventually undone.

As you go through this day, pray Psalm 90:17. Ask God to establish the work of your hands. The work, of course, is still yours to do. This prayer will not relieve you of the responsibility of giving your best effort to your work.

But the impact of what you do – the way you touch other lives and the way God uses the work that you do to bring about his own purposes – this is God’s alone to do. He will establish the work of your hands. He will make it matter in ways that you may never see and cannot begin to imagine.

The work you do today, you do with God. So take up your bucket and shovel knowing that he will establish what he has called you to do.

We give you thanks, O God, for the gift of work and for your call to live this day as co-laborers with you. Help us to do our work well. We give it to you, asking you to “establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.” Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Numbering . . . not Counting

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90: 12).

I’ve been numbering my days lately. Maybe you have too.

I’m not talking about something morbid or morose. The kind of numbering I’ve been doing, the kind that Psalm 90 speaks of, isn’t done with a calendar. It has little to do with counting or measuring time and more to do with entering into it, sensing how it moves and pondering what it means. That’s what I’ve been doing.

The school year ended last week. When it begins again both of my kids will be in high school. I can’t help but utter that familiar and clich├ęd question: “When did that happen?” I know very well when it happened. It happened while Marnie and I were just holding on through the demands of their infancy. It happened while we were being so intentional about getting them ready for their future.

With our gaze firmly fixed in one direction we easily miss all the things that are accumulating behind us. By the time we really notice them, they’re gone. We wonder how it happened and sense the inexorable movement of the years.

The Psalmist speaks of numbering our days within the context of prayer, a petition spoken to God. The request asks God to “teach us” to number our days. We don’t do this naturally. We need help. Day numbering is a learned behavior.

Usually the help we get comes to us as some kind of reminder that our days have a limit. The reminder may be as simple as a graduation or New Year’s Eve. Sometimes a tragedy forces us to number our days. Regardless of how or why, we need to be faced with the truth that our days do not stretch out before us in infinite supply. It doesn’t matter how well you eat and how often you work out. There’s a limit to our days. The hard part is facing the limit with courage and gratitude. This is how we number our days. It has little to do with counting.

Some refuse to number their days because it makes them fearful and anxious. Others refuse to number their days because they regard that kind of thing as depressing or sad. According to the Psalm, both of those reactions are mistaken. In the Psalm, numbering our days makes us neither anxious nor depressed. It makes us wise.

Those who “gain a heart of wisdom” are those who have also gained clarity about what life is for. To number our days is to recognize that every single day comes to us as a gift, and what we do with every day is determined by the giver. To number our days doesn’t diminish life, it enhances it.

What life events have taught you how to number your days? How will you live this one?

Teach us to number our days, O Lord, and make us wise in the learning. Guard us from the fear and sadness that grasps at time but fails to live. Make us bold and glad in our living, trusting you for every day, honoring you in the way we live. Grant us a heart of wisdom we pray, Amen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Way to Wake Up

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love . . . (Psalm 90:14).

A question: How did you wake up this morning?

The question can be answered in a couple of different ways. You may describe how you felt when you woke up. You may have been well rested or sluggish. You could have woken up sore from a previous day’s exercise. You could have woken up dreading the day or eager for what you have planned.

You could also answer the question by describing the means by which you woke up. You could have been brought to consciousness by someone gently shaking your shoulder or by the cry of a baby. You might have heard a neighbor’s dog barking. The sound of your phone or a text message might have abruptly ended your slumber. There are many different ways to wake up in the morning.

Perhaps the most common is the use of an alarm clock. They may be old fashioned clangers with big hand and little hand that tell the time; they may display bright digital numbers and wake you to traffic and weather reports or your favorite music. Upon reflection, what is most striking about alarm clocks is the very name of the device.

Webster’s New World Dictionary provides six definitions of the word “alarm.” Of the six, only one refers in a neutral way to the mechanical function of a clock, using words like “bell” or “buzzer.” The remaining five definitions are all variations of the word “fear.” To be alarmed is to be threatened. Alarm is the “fear caused by the sudden realization of danger.”

So many of us wake up alarmed . . . and we live that way through the entire day.

Even though not threatened by imminent trouble or harm, we often feel the weight of the day from our first conscious moments. Our minds race with uncertainties that have not been resolved. We anticipate interactions with difficult people. We feel ordinary and relentless pressures about money and parenting and not exercising enough. We wake up alarmed – or just as likely our inner alarm kept us from sleeping in the first place.

There is a line in Psalm 90 that is worth memorizing. It is a short prayer, a simple petition to be uttered at the beginning of the day, just as you wake up. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

This brief prayer reflects God’s will for you today. Wake up satisfied with his love. Even when the days holds difficult things for you, know that his love is steadfast and not fickle. God’s love is sufficient and will sustain you through whatever this day brings to you. Knowing this, you can live the day with joy and gladness.

As you go to bed tonight, go ahead and set your clock. But before you fall asleep pray Psalm 90:14. And when the clock goes off, do not be alarmed. Be satisfied with his steadfast love.

So back to the question: How did you wake up this morning?

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Grant it even now, in this day, through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hands in the Dirt

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).

Eustace Conway lives on 1000 acres of Appalachian wilderness in western North Carolina. He grows or hunts for his food and wears animal skin clothes. This isn’t the lore of history. This is all present tense. I discovered his story in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. One passage in particular caught my attention. Gilbert writes this about Conway:

It is his belief that we Americans, through our constant striving for convenience, are eradicating the raucous and edifying beauty of our true environment and replacing it with a safe but completely “faux” environment. . . We Americans have, in two short centuries, created a world of push-button, round-the-clock comfort for ourselves . . . but in replacing every challenge with a shortcut, we seem to have lost something, and Eustace isn’t the only person feeling that loss. We are an increasingly depressed and anxious people (The Last American Man, 14).

Conway is identifying what shapes the standard response of western Christians to suffering. In a world where comfort is the norm and goal of life, suffering means that something has gone terribly wrong. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs.

Unlike Eustace Conway, most of us do not live off the land. We do not hunt. We do not support our families with what we can grow and harvest. We do not get our hands in the dirt. Instead, we go to Costco or Kroger.

In the same way that we are removed from the land, our convenient push-button world also distances us from much of the world’s suffering population. The subtext of these daily reflections has been our mission in the world. We labor to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, trusting God for growth, joining him in the harvest. But how are we to do this if we never get our hands dirty?

Here’s the great irony: in our pursuit of comfort, we actually lose what we most desperately need. We need to know the presence and power and trustworthiness of the God who created us. What we get instead is a world where we can manage for ourselves with enough technology, a well-balanced diet and regular exercise.

How can we begin to get inside the experience of those who know suffering, those for whom suffering is a daily reality? Maybe a step in the right direction would be to begin praying the Psalms of lament. These are well-established prayers of God’s suffering people. Find a Bible and spend some time this week reading Psalm 10, 12, 13, 20, 22, 27, 31.

As you do this, you will hear words that might not describe what you’re experiencing today. But you can be assured that there are others around the world speaking words like this every day. The prayers of lament allow us to be with them. Today you can step out of the safe reality you’re immersed in and enter the reality of those who suffer. Consider it a way to get your hands in the dirt.

Lord Jesus, I find it easy to pray for other Christians who suffer. I struggle to know how to pray with them. My world is so different from theirs in many ways. Teach me to pray with my suffering brothers and sisters, and lead me into a reality that transcends the comforts with which I am surrounded. Amen.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Matter of Timing

“He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Ecc. 11:4)

Our problem is not that we are not willing to do the work of sowing. Nor are we unwilling to put our hand to the harvest. What often keeps us from both is our desire for optimal conditions. It is, as we like to say, a matter of timing.

We wait for the right time to speak. We wait for the right time to apply and enroll. We wait for the right time to sell or buy. We wait for the right time to propose. We wait for the right time to start a family.

The writer of Ecclesiastes rightly observed that for everything there is a time and season. Timing cannot be ignored and we need to exercise discernment in the rhythms of life. But sometimes our concern with timing keeps us from doing anything at all.

We look at the wind and watch the clouds. You may be doing that today.

There are times when even our most confident actions are taken without the benefit of iron-clad certainty. If we’re waiting on perfect conditions, waiting until we have flawless knowledge of God’s will, we’ll never act. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes is telling us. If you watch the wind too closely you’ll never throw seed because you’re not sure where it might get blown. If you watch the clouds too closely you’ll never reap a harvest. Waiting on perfect conditions means you’ll be waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting.

When Jesus gave us words to pray he taught us to pray “thy will be done.” He did not teach us to pray “thy will be known.” Still, whenever we find ourselves seeking the will of God, we go about it as if the aim is knowledge. We focus more on our knowing than upon God’s doing.

We’re better off to simply pray as Jesus taught us to pray. Yes, we exercise careful discernment, we seek godly counsel, we patiently wrestle with the matter in prayer – but then we act; we take a step, choose a direction, all the while praying “thy will be done.”

If you’ve sensed a desire to do good in this world, perhaps it’s time to go ahead and do it. “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not which will prosper, this or that or whether both alike will be good” (Ecc. 11:6).

Father, grant me wisdom of good discernment and the willingness to go ahead and act. Do in my life today what you will to do, and use my life as a means of blessing where you’ve placed me. I offer my plans and decisions to you, trusting you to accomplish your purposes in me and through me. Amen.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Closet Door

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27).

We probably should have painted the wooden frame around my son’s closet door.

Our house was on the market and the best wisdom about ‘staging’ said that personal items needed to be out of sight so that potential buyers could envision the home as their own. That was all well and good when it came to pictures on the refrigerator. But there was no way I was painting the door frame of John’s closet.

We had moved into the house in 2002. My son had just turned four and my daughter was few months shy of her third birthday. Not long after moving in we had started marking their height on the inside of the closet door. Over the years the right side of the door frame had become a kind of journal, recording the passing of time and the growth of my two children.

Each time we made a new entry on our door frame journal we would celebrate the growth, making comparisons to the last entry. We treated every inch like a personal achievement, shamelessly bragging on the kids for something over which they had no control. And while I celebrated and bragged on the outside I was often surprised and even a little sobered by what I saw. We would make a new mark on the door and I would silently wonder, “When did that happen?”

Growth is peculiar in that way. Even when expect it and know it’s happening, we don’t actually see it. We marvel as if it happened overnight. We know better. It was and is happening all the time, but it eludes our gaze. We live day to day unaware.

We eventually sold the house. I’m assuming the new owner painted the frame around that closet door. My son is now 15 and my daughter turns 14 this week. Marking their height inside the frame of a closet door stopped being fun a long time ago. But the growth hasn’t stopped, although now we see it in different ways. Growth these days can’t always be marked with a pencil.

In Jesus’ short parable about the growing seed, the earth produces growth, night and day, whether the farmer is wide awake or sound asleep. The seed sprouts and grows, the farmer “knows not how.” The growth of God’s kingdom, like the growth of a child or the emergence of a crop, is imperceptible. We know it’s happening, but knowledge is not awareness. We don’t see it. We can’t pull up a chair and watch it. God does this work in our sleeping and waking. We know not how.

Nevertheless, from time to time it’s good to put a mark on the door frame and see what God has done. In the image of the parable, we need to celebrate “the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” The sprout reminds us that growth may be imperceptible but it is not invisible.

How do you mark the work of the Spirit in your own life?

We give you thanks, O God, for the unseen ways you are at work around us and within us. Help us to be patient as you do your work in this world. Make us confident in the promise of a coming harvest. And as you will, grant us grace that we might see a sign of your faithfulness, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Planting Season

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed” (Mark 4:3).

Two weekends ago was ‘planting season’ around our house.

We made our way to our local do-it-yourself mega store where everything we needed was arranged under a large greenhouse type attachment at one end of the building. It’s all right there: gloves and garden tools alongside bags of mulch, fertilizer, and even soil. Yes, sometimes urbanites who yearn to get their hands in the dirt have to go to a store and purchase the dirt.

And then, of course, there are plants. Rows and rows of cinderblock and ply-wood tables full of plants. My job was to navigate the flatbed cart while my wife selected what would go in the ground. Our planting season seems a little bit like cheating. What we ‘plant’ is already visible and growing. We brought home various flowers housed in small plastic cubes as well a few other large plants in plastic buckets. I would dig a hole and Marnie would pull the plant from its plastic home, roots and all. After a short while the yard looked different.

There is something immediately gratifying about placing a small plant in the ground. Of course, there is no guarantee that the plant itself will thrive, but for a short while the labor of planting is rewarded. You can see difference your work makes.

Not so with seed. A seed is buried in the earth. Something is anticipated but not seen. With seeds, those who plant must labor and wait. After the work and the waiting there emerges the slightest sign of life, a sprig of something green. A sprout.

When Jesus wanted to explain to people how God’s active presence in the world works, he often used the image of seed. “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.” This was a word picture that everyone could understand. While most of us don’t farm, we can understand it too. Seeds do now just what they did back then – and they provided Jesus a favorite image for describing the Kingdom of God, or the work of God in the world.

For the next couple of weeks we’ll be thinking about seed. Our daily reflections will aimed at training us to see God’s work in the world around us. More than that, we’ll be looking for ways to sow the seeds of God’s presence in the very places where we live and work.

What is true of God’s work in the world is true of your own life. Like seed pressed into the hiddenness of the earth, God is at work in ways that you cannot see right now. The Spirit’s work is unseen, but steady. Growth is not usually something you can feel. You won’t find evidence of life by constantly checking on the seed. Instead you engage in the repeated daily labors of tending to what has been planted. Soon the sprout of life appears.

These daily reflections are simply a tool for the work of cultivating what God wants to do in and around you. It’s planting season. Be diligent and patient – and look for the sprout.

Gracious God, we sometimes live through seasons in which our souls seem dormant and lifeless. Help us in the coming days to cultivate the soil of our heart so that we might be your people in the world, sowing seeds of your grace wherever we might be. Remind us that you are at work in unseen but steady ways, even as we go through this day, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.