A Tale of Two Poems

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When I was a kid, I hated poetry. Too obscure, and too much obsession with rhyming, I thought. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one with no poets pining behind the pine trees.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see poetry’s value. Good poetry is about life, the stuff of universal human experience, but distilled into concrete, specific moments. It is a window into the human heart: what do we believe, feel, long for, fear, crave?

Take, for instance, the most universal of all human experiences: death. What is it like to face death, to know it’s coming next just as surely as an appointment on your calendar? And what does that experience say about what we’re made of, who we really are? Here’s one approach from the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Don’t speed read it! (Hint: “speed” and “poetry” are words that go together as well as, say, ketchup and peanut butter.) Read it carefully. Let its message bring you up short. You can summarize this poem’s approach to death in one word: defiance. It’s raw; there are no filters on the poet’s words. Master. Captain. Unafraid. Isn’t this one hard-boiled, extreme expression of Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his one way”?

There’s another way, however. Consider the poem Even Such is Time by Sir Walter Raleigh:

Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust.
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust!

If Invictus is defiant, Even Such Is Time is dependent. It’s about the same human experience, but Raleigh stands – we might say, kneels – on a totally different viewpoint. The sorrow of death is vividly portrayed – remember, Scripture calls it the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) – but rather than despair or defiance, this poem leads to confidence. Earth, grave, and dust do not have the last word. That right belongs to the God who raises the dead.

Two poems. Two diametrically opposed viewpoints. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is only about the end of life. Every human trial, every human struggle, ultimately contains either defiance or dependence at its core. Does God exist for me (whatever gods may be?) Or do I exist for God, whatever the story of my days may be? That is the essence of the moral drama we wake up to each morning. That is the drama you are living out even now. Defiance or dependence. Unbelief or faith. Pride or humility. Which will it be? Perhaps, we might even say:

Two roads diverged ‘neath a cross of wood…

Photo by Lydur Skulason

The Secret To Rejoicing In Every Situation

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Puritan pastor Matthew Henry was once robbed by thieves. This is what he recorded in his journal:

“Let me be thankful first because I was never robbed before; second, although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, and not someone else.”

How could Matthew Henry rejoice after being hijacked? Because he didn’t derive his joy from his circumstances, but he took joy in the God of his salvation.

Paul and Silas freed a slave girl from a spirit of divination that had kept her in bondage for a long time. Deprived of their cash cow, her owners dragged Paul and Silas before the local magistrates and riled up a mob who proceeded to give Paul and Silas a fine Philippian pounding. Then they tossed them into prison, in the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks.

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…(Acts 16:22-25)

Paul and Silas are chained up in a filthy Philippian prison and they’re singing!

I’ve never been stripped, beaten, thrown into prison and fastened in stocks. But if I were, I don’t know if my first inclination would be to sing “I Just Want to Thank You.” That’s not usually the first thought that comes to my mind when the kids put a dent in the car or the back porch ceiling starts leaking.

The reason Paul and Silas could worship in the blockhouse was because they didn’t derive their joy from their circumstances, but took joy in the God of their salvation.

For believers in Christ, the source of our joy is Jesus himself. He’s our fountain of life, our chosen portion, our beautiful inheritance. He’s our meat and drink. And he never changes, no matter how much our circumstances fluctuate. I once flew from Pittsburgh to Toronto. It was overcast and snowing in Pittsburgh, but when the plane rose above the clouds, the sun was blazing in all its glory. When we descended in Toronto it was grey and snowing again. I had a flash of revelation (that’s right folks, it had never dawned on me until that very moment) – no matter what it’s like “down here” in our circumstances, God is still shining like the sun above the clouds. He’s blazing with goodness and kindness and power and love for us. He hasn’t changed any more than the sun changes when it’s raining.

So where does your joy come from? Does it come from your spouse or your children? Does it come from having a nice home or good job? Do you derive your joy from your health or possessions? What if you should lose them all? Would you be able to rejoice?

If you have not yet called upon the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from your sins, and give you eternal life, I urge you to do so right now. If you do know Jesus, be glad and sing praises, no matter what’s happening “down here” in your life. Rejoice in the God of your salvation.

 

5 Things Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean

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Over the years I’ve counseled some individuals who’ve been horribly sinned against.

At times I did a really poor job of helping them navigate their pain and the process of working toward forgiveness. Forgiving others is clearly commanded by God, and deep down most believers want to, but it isn’t always easy, and lots of questions arise. Questions like, when I forgive must I feel like forgiving? If I forgive you does it mean end of discussion and I can’t talk about my hurt feelings? Does it mean everything’s automatically back to the way it was before you sinned against me? There are whole books written on the subject but here are a few things that forgiveness doesn’t mean.  I hope they are helpful.

The command to forgive doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that we must forgive quickly. When we are sinned against it can be devastating, life-shattering, disillusioning, disorienting. Some sins are easy to forgive, but others can take a long time, much prayer, and much help from God. When someone’s reeling in pain, the first thing they need is our compassion and sympathy, not a quick encouragement to forgive. That will probably be part of the process of helping someone, but not the first step. I regret that at times in the past I was incredibly insensitive to some people’s pain and way too quick to suggest that they meet with those who’d sinned against them and grant forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we will feel like forgiving. Forgiveness is a decision of the will to absorb the pain or consequences caused by someone’s sin and not require them to repay. If you borrow my car and wreck it, someone’s got to pay to fix it, you or me. If I “forgive” you, I make a costly decision to absorb the cost of your failure, just as Jesus absorbed the cost of our sins and paid for them on the cross. So it can be very painful to forgive someone. So the command to forgive doesn’t mean we will “feel forgiving” when we make this decision. And it doesn’t mean that we won’t experience pain for a long time after we forgive.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must immediately trust someone. Forgiveness is instantaneous; trust is earned over time. If a drunkard comes to church and turns to Christ, God forgives him immediately, but he shouldn’t become a leader the next day. If someone asks our forgiveness for hurting us, we can forgive them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve changed. It’s not wrong to want to see a track record of change before trusting someone again, even if we’ve forgiven them.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean end of discussion. How many of us husbands have said to our wives “I said I was sorry. So why do we have to keep talking about it?” Even when we forgive, it can be really important for the one sinned against to share how the offender hurt or affected them. We need to realize the consequences of our sins. Often we need to consider all that led up to our sin – how we got there in the first place – in order to prevent future sin.

And finally, forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences for sin. If I foolishly max out my credit card, then confess my sin, God will forgive me, but I’ll still have to pay off my debt, which might take years. When we forgive someone, we are saying, “Lord, please don’t condemn them for this sin. Please don’t give them what their sin deserves, just as you have not given me what my sins deserve.” But there may still be consequences – even life-long consequences – even when God forgives them of the guilt of their sin.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgive. At other times it feels like an impossible task. Very often, Jesus commands us to do the impossible, like love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (LK 6:27). We can’t do these impossible things on our own, but if God commands them, he will give us the grace to obey him if we ask for it.

A Great Question to Promote Humility and Thankfulness

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The Corinthian church had some pride issues. Many were “puffed up” and arrogant, even looking down on Paul who had delivered the gospel to them. Paul gave them a great reminder to help them stay humble. It’s a good one for us. As Paul asked the Corinthians a question, we can ask ourselves the same question. Here’s what he asked:

What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 1 CO 4:7

What do you have that you did not receive?

Think about it. All we have – every single thing – is ultimately a gift from God. We didn’t earn it, we didn’t deserve it; God just blessed us with it.

You may say, “I have worked hard for all I have. I worked my way through college, paid for my own tuition, studied hard, and when I got a job I worked harder than anyone else to advance in my company. That’s how I have these things. I earned them.”

Oh yeah? I think you may be forgetting just a few small things. Like the fact that God placed you in this country where a good education is possible. God gave you your intelligence. If you were raised in a stable family it’s because God put you there. Your diligence is a gift from God. God’s blessing makes opportunities for businesses and individuals to make money. Your sound mind, your intelligence, your talents, your health, your education, your job, your income, your house, your car – you name it – if you have it, it is because you have received it.

And what about spiritual things? How is it that you know the gospel? Because somebody else told you. How do you know anything about God? Because you received it from somebody else. Why do you even have a Bible? Because others wrote down God’s word, preserved it, copied it, developed printing presses, published it, and eventually it wound up in your hands – as a gift. All our spiritual knowledge – anything and everything we know about God – all a gift. Our salvation, our adoption as sons, our spiritual gifts, our joy, our confidence, our hope, our experience of God’s love – ALL undeserved gifts and blessings from God.

What do you have that you did not receive? Answer: Nothing. All we have – every spiritual gift and every material blessing – we have received as undeserved blessings from God. This should humble us. This should make us exceedingly thankful. We should breathe thanksgiving to our heavenly Father all day long.

What do you have that you did not receive?

Blessed To Not Be Blessed

Winning the lottery is like throwing Miracle-Gro on your character defects
–Quote from a TV show on the lottery.

Sometimes we’re blessed to not be blessed.

What I mean by “not to be blessed” is not blessed in the way we think we should be.  Or the way we want to be.  God is so wise that sometimes he withholds blessings from us because he knows we couldn’t handle them.  That we’d forget him.  That we’d fall too much in love with this world.  That we’d ruin ourselves.  That it would throw Miracle-Gro on our character defects.

Psalm 84:11 says God doesn’t withhold blessing from his children:

No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.

God withholds NO good thing from those he loves.  So if God does withhold something from us, we can know that it must not be a good thing for us.  We might think it would be a good thing, but we need to trust God’s wisdom.  He knows what we’re made of and what would tempt or ruin us.  He knows that winning American Idol wouldn’t be good for most of us.  Lots of money wouldn’t be a good thing for most of us.  Too much honor and adulation wouldn’t do most of us good either.  Agur, author of part of Proverbs says:

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
(Proverbs 30:8-9)

I’ve got to admit, it’s hard to pray this prayer.  I can easily pray “Don’t give me poverty,” but I don’t add the second part, “or riches.”  Because I think riches would be good.  I want more than just needful food.  I want to feast on steak and cake and cookies.  Agur says it’s just as dangerous to be rich as it is to be poor.  He says if we’re poor we can be tempted to steal, which profanes God’s name.  But when we’re rich we can be tempted to deny God and say “Who is the Lord?”  If have everything, you can think you don’t need God.

Sometimes God uses sickness or poverty to “hem us in” – to keep us back from harmful things we’d pursue if we were healthy enough or rich enough.

If God isn’t pouring out on you the “good” we think you should have – whether it be wealth, a wife, a husband, a child, a job, a break, health, a home, whatever – it might be that if you had it, it might not be for your good.  God is out for your best, which is to know him, and be conformed to his likeness.  So seek to be content to have Christ alone.  If we have him we have the infinite riches of God.  We have all the good God can give us.  If God hasn’t given us something we’ve asked for, we can seek him for it, but then let us trust his wise providence.  He’ll give it to us if it’s really good for us.  He’ll withhold it if it’s not.

God will prune us.  He’ll cut off branches that don’t bear fruit.  But he won’t throw Miracle-Gro on the weeds in our hearts.

And that’s something to praise him for.