Friday, May 13, 2011

Finishing the Job

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138.8)

Always More

A favorite family legend features my late Great-Uncle Grady, who was one of those all-around good guys always eager to help. A drunken driver had just murdered my Uncle Cyrus—a young father and aspiring physician in his mid-20s—and, in typical Southern fashion, our entire clan converged on my grandparents’ home. With the immediate family too devastated to attend to the arrangements, those once- and twice-removed valiantly stepped in. After finishing a long list of errands, Grady walked through the door and before he caught his breath, three or four aunts met him with a fresh list of things to do. Grady sighed, “I can’t get anywhere for going someplace!”

Our faith often feels like that, doesn’t it? Following Christ presents us with a daunting To-Do list: lessons to learn, principles to live by, behaviors to modify, promises to trust, people to love, and so on. Just when we think we’ve got somewhere, we discover there’s more to do. We need to discipline our emotions better, become more attentive in our prayer lives, grow in our knowledge of the faith, etc. There’s always more. We can expect frustration and fatigue—days when, like Grady, we sigh, “I can’t get anywhere for going someplace!” But before we make the mistake of thinking we’ve fallen short, we should remember this reaction is common to all believers.

The epistles are peppered with encouragement to remain patient, committed, and tireless. Galatians 6.9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” In Hebrews 12.1-2 we read, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Paul prefaces his letter to the Colossians by praying they will grow “in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” (Colossians 1.10-11) So while we sigh, we can’t allow weariness and impatience to overtake us. We are getting there. We are growing. And here’s a little secret we should always bear in mind. (Did I say “little”? It’s huge!) If we stick with it, we will achieve spiritual maturity because responsibility for our growth is not ours alone. Simply put, when we do our share, God finishes the job.

The Miracle of Our Making

By definition, faith in our Creator necessitates rejecting randomness. Everything about us—our making, movements, and moments—results from divine design. I am a gay male living in Chicago in 2011 because God willed it so. All that implies in terms of my beliefs, aspirations, relationships, and responsibilities is imbedded in God’s plan for my life. The same is true for you. Every aspect of your life—who you are, where you are, and when you are—is by divine intention. The miracle of our making is that God subverts ridiculously random biological and biographical odds to shape each of us specifically as God desires, for reasons only God can fully comprehend. Faith in God’s infinite wisdom and power precludes attributing anything to coincidence, accident, fate, or luck (good and bad).

Psalm 139.16 captures this splendidly: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This truth puts to rest all questions about who we are, how we’re made, and why we’re made as we are. The shape and existence of every human is ordered by God’s sovereign decision. It’s that basic. As we fret over whether or not God creates gay people, if God means for some to be rich and others poor, and how can a loving God allow suffering, we delay asking the one question within reach: can we embrace divine purpose in our lives and trust God to fulfill it?

Psalm 139, cited above, is David’s masterpiece on the miracle of our making. It’s impossible to overstress its value to every believer—especially those subjected to attacks against the sanctity of their creation. We should know 139 inside and out, internalizing its conviction that God makes us with purpose. Yet the prayer that accompanies its soaring confidence appears at the end of the previous psalm: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138.8) In addition to shaking all doubt that God created us with purpose, we must also place uncompromised trust in God to fulfill it. When our stamina falters and endurance runs low, we turn to God’s steadfast, eternal love. It becomes our sole source of certainty. Because God loves us, God is actively engaged in our lives.

As we submit to divine purpose—whether or not we recognize what it is—God faithfully, diligently works with us to ensure it will be fully accomplished. This principle is constantly reinforced in Scripture. Philippians 2.13: “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Ephesians 1.11: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with purpose of his will.” Romans 8.28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The discipleship to-do list is much more than a set of high-flown ideals. We approach our tasks as pragmatic techniques enabling God’s purpose. “Do not forsake the work of your hands,” we pray. We do our part and leave finishing the job to God.

Hope and a Future

Finally, we cannot sacrifice confidence in God’s purpose, nor our trust it will be fulfilled, to doubters and third-party opinions. What anyone else believes or thinks has no bearing on what we know. In Jeremiah 29, God instructs the prophet to write a letter to Jews living in Babylonian exile, urging them to build houses, plant gardens, and start families—to keep growing, living with purpose despite their status as outsiders. Such unorthodox behavior undoubtedly will raise objections among traditionalists, which is why the letter cautions, “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you,” dismissing their opinions as reactionary dreams. “They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them.” (v8-9) The real deal becomes clear in verse 11: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

God created us to have hope and a future. With that truth secure in our hearts, we echo Paul’s certainty in Philippians 1.6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” When we’re faithful to God’s purpose, God honors our trust and finishes the job.

We start by following Christ and doing the work of discipleship. God finishes the job and fulfills the purpose for our creation.


Sherry Peyton said...

Today's responsorial phrase was "what response can I make to the Lord for all he has done for me?"
I have been pondering that all day.

Psalm 139 is heads above my favorite psalm. I never tire of it. It is the most comforting and reminds me so much of Job's talk with God in part.

Indeed, all we can do is try to do the best we can each day where we are with what we are given. I trust that it is enough. Or as my husband says, by grace, I have the opportunity to try to do better tomorrow than I did today.

Thank you so much Tim for this reflection...I love the remark...I can't get anywhere for going someplace." It says it all.

Tim said...

Psalm 139 is my all-time favorite, too, Sherry. Beyond its lyrical beauty, I love how it models the best way to conduct our ongoing "but what about" dialogues with God. It epitomizes You-know-what-I-can't-possibly-understand trust. (And I'd never connected it with Job before, but you're absolutely right; the echoes are loud and clear.)

I found the psalm as a teenager, when out of the blue a wise youth pastor--who became a beloved friend--told me, "The Bible says you're fearfully and wonderfully made. Did you know that?" I didn't. He told me to look it up and read the whole chapter. He also knew what I was first coming to suspect about my orientation and I'm eternally grateful that he pointed me to 139. It became, and remains, my touchstone when the integrity of my making is called into question.

Ironically--though probably not, as these things are all-of-a-piece--the same minister habitually used the phrase you refer to as the call to stewardship before the offertory. Usually he'd add something like, "These gifts we offer are only a small fraction of what we render to God for all the benefits we receive. In giving, let us offer God our minds, bodies, and souls."

A tall order, indeed. Yet, as you say, we do our best every day, learning as we go, with our hearts set on doing better tomorrow.

Thank you for your thoughts, Sherry. You've taken me back to a very sweet place in my past, lifting my spirit more than you'll ever know!

Blessings always,