Friday, February 19, 2010


Yesterday night at a rehearsal, the director was apologizing because she was going to be away during one of our routine performances. She had recruited a highly-skilled director to fill in for her, but she said she still felt a bit guilty for missing one of our performances. "Don't feel guilty," my stand partner piped up. "Guilt is just a waste of energy." I looked up at her as she said it, struck by the brilliance of that simple statement. Guilt is just a waste of energy.

The feeling of guilt exists for a reason. It's a warning mechanism designed to get our attention when we might be going astray, but it is not really a useful long-term activity. I think of guilt a bit like a fire alarm. When a fire alarm goes off, we assess the situation to see if the building is really on fire or if it's just a false alarm. Once we've decided which it is, we turn the alarm off. There's no point in letting it sound on and on. Likewise, guilt is supposed to spur us into making an assessment of our conduct. Once that assessment is made, the guilt has served its purpose and continuing to foster it becomes counterproductive.

Sometimes guilt is a false alarm, as in the case of my director. She had no reason to worry about us because she had provided an excellent substitute who would see us through the performance just fine. As my stand partner so sagely pointed out, guilt would only taint her trip and wouldn't help us at all. She needed to simply turn the guilt off instead of wasting her energy on it because the decision she had made was fine. At other times, there really is a fire, so to speak. Once we realize that we're doing something wrong, however, feeling guilty about it no longer helps. The only thing that will help is for us to take some sort of action to deal with the problem. Just sitting around and wallowing in guilt will neither correct the situation nor bring us forgiveness. Guilt is intended to produce some sort of reaction, so it shouldn't be an end product in and of itself.

Guilt does not help us pay for our sins. The only way to deal with sin is to repent and be forgiven. Repentance frees us from our guilt and restores our relationship with God. If we never move past the guilt, then we never get to the forgiveness and restoration. Punishing ourselves for our faults doesn't help anyone. When we allow ourselves to be healed, then we are able to once more become productive servants of God. We can't help anyone—ourselves or others—when we're trapped in guilt.

Therefore, when I feel guilty, I need to pay attention to what my conscience is telling me, evaluate the information, and make a decision. I don't want to hang in limbo with the fire alarm going off forever. I want to take action and resolve the situation. I don't want to be wasting my God-given energy on endless guilt.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My Life Is Not a Popularity Contest

God created me to serve and love Him and to serve and love my neighbors, not to be popular. While it's true that sometimes people are well-liked for being kind and truthful, sometimes they aren't. Jesus' own popularity took wild swings. When he was healing sick people, he was beloved by many, but when he was preaching repentance and exposing hypocrisy, he was targeted and ridiculed. Eventually, of course, Jesus was crucified by the very people he loved and served. Still, this unpopularity did not mean that Jesus' mission was a failure. He did exactly what God meant for him to do, and the people's displeasure with some aspects of Jesus' ministry does not mean that he was ineffective. Sometimes, like Jesus, I have to be willing to risk unpopularity in order to live as a true servant of God.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we aren't doing our work correctly if we're well-liked. Treating others with love and respect generally means that at least some people will have a passing fondness for us. Ultimately, our Christian lives will win us both fans and critics. Some people will love us for our kindness and others will dislike us for our bold declaration of uncomfortable truths. Neither that love nor that dislike should fuel our actions, however. We must be willing to live our lives independently of what our neighbors think. We should not be generous only to be respected nor should we start quarrels just to prove to God that we put His opinion before our neighbor's. There is nothing for a Christian to gain by being either popular or despised. The only thing that matters is serving God with faithfulness and reaching out to others in love.

In fact, many aspects of our popularity (or lack thereof) have little or no bearing on our core mission of serving God and loving others. When we focus on our true lives as children of God, the social issues that sometimes seem terribly important become inconsequential. Sometimes I worry that people find me unattractive of unimpressive, but does that really inhibit my ability to show them kindness? I get frustrated when people I love don't prioritize me in their lives, but God will love me whether anyone else does or not. I feel hurt when some people don't like or respect me enough to benefit from the gifts I have to offer, but I know that there are plenty of people who will accept the blessings I share. I don't need to be well-liked or even appreciated by other people in order to do the good works God has given me to do. I have God's love to fuel my efforts, and that is sufficient regardless of how anyone else feels about me.

It's a good thing that I'm not a Christian because I want to be popular, because living a Christian life probably isn't going to affect my popularity much either way. Some people will react positively to my Christian values, and some people will be turned off by them. Some people won't care one way or the other about me or what I do. I'm not choosing a Christian life because I care what others think. I endeavor to make my choices based on what God thinks. At the end of my life, I will be face to face with God and it won't matter anymore how many people thought I was smart, beautiful, and talented any more than it will matter who judged me fat, lackluster, or naive. Only God's opinion—His judgment and especially His love—will make a difference on my personal Day of Reckoning. There won't be an audience vote when that day comes, so I don't really need to worry about my popularity one way or the other.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes and Dust

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent. Lent is supposed to be about refocusing ourselves on the most important things in our lives—God's mercy and our call to serve Him. When God sent Adam and Eve out of Eden after the Fall, He reminded them that without Him they are nothing. He created them from dust, and when they died their bodies would once more return to the dust. (Genesis 3:19) They were only living beings because God made it so—without Him, they were nothing but dust. This is true for me too, and I will be reminded of it today when the ashes are imposed on my forehead.

So often my attention is dominated by the ashes and dust in my life—my job, my finances, my house, my transitory problems, even my body. Why don't I spend more time focusing on eternal things like God, my relationship with Him, my soul, and the souls around me? It's so hard to concentrate on invisible eternal things when the transitory physical aspects of my life are so obvious. I can't see God or souls. I can't touch or smell salvation. But I can feel my growling stomach and the cold wind on my skin, and I can read the numbers on my monthly bills. Still, I know that all the things I see and touch in this world are only real for today. Someday all of it will be ashes and dust. Only God and His beloved children will outlast it.

I can try to take care of my physical needs and stay alive as long as possible. I can choose to live as the animals do, focusing on my own survival and thinking nothing of eternity. I can resign myself to being no more than dust, an insignificant creature who lives an insignificant life and then dies. Without God, that is what my life would be like. All I would have left is the transitory parts of my existence, the ashes and dust. But I can be so much more than that, and that's why I need Lent to remind me how much I need God. Yes, like Adam and Eve I was formed from dust and my body will return to dust when I die, but through the power of God I am also a living being with a soul and a place in God's eternal family. A part of me is a shining ray of light that no temporary body can fully contain. That, not this body and this Earthly life, is God's true gift to me.
Ash Wednesday is about facing the truth, and that can be difficult. It's hard to look at so many seemingly important aspects of my life and see ashes and dust. It's humbling to realize that the projects to which I devote so much of my effort aren't really very important in the long run. It can be frustrating to accept that I am, on my own, a helpless creature powerless to make any real difference in the world. But the truth also sets us free. By seeings the ashes and dust for what they are, I can also see the true brilliance of God's light and more fully embrace it. I can make a new commitment to ask God to elevate me above the ashes and dust and to give my existence true meaning. I can seek God's love and mercy more fervently and make renewed commitments to use my gifts to make a lasting difference. After all, I am ashes and dust, but I am also a radiant child of God.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


"I can't change."

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

"A leopard can't change its spots."

"He was born that way and he'll die that way."

In 2008, Barack Obama ran under the campaign slogan "Change we can believe in." This was a powerful statement because all too often we don't believe in change. Politicians tell us that they're going to change our country for the better, but we're skeptical. We've seen the games that politicians play and we don't expect them to improve their conduct or the way they do business. As a general rule, when it comes to politics most of us don't expect substantive change.

This attitude of resignation can lead us to feel rather jaded. When we don't expect people to change, we start to resent them for being the way they are. We begin to dismiss them as the lowest versions of themselves and don't even really give them a chance to change. We do nothing to encourage transformation, and we lose all hope that things can be different. The truth is that we live in a tragic world that is engulfed in sin. And yet, with the help of God, change is possible.

God gives each of us the opportunity to transform over time into the best possible versions of ourselves. With the help of God, bad habits can be broken, addictions can be cured, and attitudes can be reversed. There is hope for every hopeless case. Therefore, instead of giving up on ourselves and each other, we must strive for the change that God has promised. Through the mercy of Christ, each of us can become a new creation. Let us eagerly seek that mercy and strive for that transformation. Let us see the potential that God sees, that God created in each one of us. Change is possible but only because God makes it so.

Sometimes I feel trapped by my shortcomings and I wonder if I'll be broken forever. Sometimes I shut myself away from people who have hurt me because I don't trust them to learn from the mistakes of the past. Sometimes I stop hoping that the people I love can embrace the beautiful futures I want for them. Sometimes I am tempted to believe that we are all trapped in our ruts and that we can't change. But I am wrong, thanks be to God. Instead of wallowing in my personal pitfalls, I must reach out for God and allow Him to transform my life. Instead of giving up on the people around me, I need to pray for them and encourage them. Instead of shutting myself off from the risk of "repeat offenders" I need to make myself vulnerable enough to be part of God's blessing in their lives.

Change is possible, but if I cannot hope for it, I shut myself off from it. God works in the hearts of the willing, so I must open myself to God and lovingly help others to do the same. It's not over, so why should we resign ourselves? God can overcome even the things that seem inevitable, and there is no life so broken or stalled that God cannot work change in it. The world may inspire cynicism, but God really does represent change I can believe in.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blessed Be the Name of the Lord

Blessed be your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where the streams of abundance flow
Blessed be your name

Blessed be your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be your name

Every blessing you pour out,
I turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say...

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your glorious name
(lyrics from "Blessed Be Your Name" by Tree 63)

A lot of people say they love God until their lives are turned upside down. Then they start to wonder where God is and if He really cares about them. Sometimes they get angry with God for letting terrible things happen and for holding back the blessings they long for. When life is good we praise God, but when life is difficult they quarrel with Him. "My God, why have you forsaken me?" they cry. They may even start to doubt whether God is the good and loving being they believe Him to be. Sometimes I am one of those people.

Yet, when things go wrong and our relationship with God becomes strained, is it really God who's the problem? Did God ever promise us that nothing painful would ever happen to us? No. What He promised is that He would take care of us and bring us through all tribulation into the promised land. So why is our trust in God so threatened when the road gets a little bumpy? Do we not trust Him to keep His promise? Do we expect God to cut and run as some of our human friends might? Do we suspect God of having ulterior motives other than our welfare as so many of our human leaders do? We must remember that God is God. He is not corruptible like people, and He does not place the same importance on the events in our lives as we do. Some things that seem all-encompassing to us are only tiny blips to God. He knows that we will get through these transitory troubles, and He's focused on the long-term health of our eternal souls. God is committed to making sure we make it through, so we need to trust Him.

We are lucky to have a relationship with our benevolent creator. Whether times are good or bad, God is with us, and that's an incredible thing. God loves us and is poised to ultimately rescue us from whatever trouble may befall us. So whether we are in peace or turbulence, our help is in the name of the Lord. I can think of nothing more wonderful than that. 

Blessed be God when I am happy, and blessed be God when I am suffering. He is the same God no matter what happens in this transitory world, and His promises to me don't change. Instead of wallowing in my hardships, I must remember how lucky I am to have God with me. Because of Him, these trials can't do me lasting harm. They may even teach me how to appreciate God more.

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