{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

How to Win Friends and Influence People…And Become More Christlike in the Process

how to win friends

A church member and good friend recently gave me a book that meant a great deal to him. He’s a very successful young business owner and I’m a pastor. He’s trying to grow in the area of discipleship and how it relates to his vocation and I’m trying to grow in the area of leadership. Since the two of us come from such different yet similar worlds, we’ve begun a relationship of giving each other meaningful books that we think might help the other person grow.

The first book he gave me to read was the classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie. This book was written over 75 years ago and still remains a classic among business people. I actually laughed when he gave it to me because I couldn’t believe out of all the books I’ve read in my life (and I’m a big reader) I had never picked this one up. He explained that whenever he opens a new franchise to his company and is training the management and sales people in how they do business, he always gives them a copy of this book. His hope was that it would also come to mean a great deal to me. And he was not wrong.

            Here’s the basic breakdown of the book:

How to Handle People

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. (It rarely helps the situation)
  2. Give honest sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

6 Ways to Help People Like You

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. (This is the secret to being a great conversationalist.)
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  6. Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.

How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. (Because even if you win, you aren’t going to get what you want.)
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. (A good way to start is to admit that you could be mistaken.)
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives. (Even if deep down they make the decision based on the baser ones. Everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.)
  11. Dramatize your ideas. (A picture and a story are worth a thousand words.)
  12. Throw down a challenge. (Do this when all else fails.)

How to Be an Effective Leader

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

But the best lesson of all is this: Carnegie writes, “If there’s any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to understand the other person’s point of view and to see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

This book reminded me that just because we say we’re disciples of Jesus Christ doesn’t make it so. We are always in need of grace and growth as we journey toward greater discipleship. And too often we so-called disciples are guilty of arrogance, closed-mindedness, being argumentative, and being generally haughty about our supposed claim of holiness. We do not listen to others with graciousness. We look for arguments because we think “taking a stand” means picking fights. And yes, we often place the value of our own holiness on how unholy we regard others.

I highly recommend Carnegie’s work for leaders – both pastors, DSs, and bishops, as well as leaders outside of the church. It is a work that reminds us how much success (and holiness) is dependent on a sense of humility and grace in dealing with others. It’s a must-read for all who dare to call themselves disciples.

So go online. Go to your local bookstore. Do it today. Buy this book and be reminded how important it is to “love our neighbor as our self.” Or you could always email me for my copy – just as long as you don’t mind it being filled with pen marks, underlines, and stars next to all of the lessons I learned from reading this work.

Humility — Society’s Missing Ingredient

Washing of the Feet by John August Swanson accessed 10/21/13 http://www.johnaugustswanson.com/default.cfm/PID=1.2.11

Washing of the Feet
by John August Swanson
accessed 10/21/13

I have wrestled for the last few days about how to write this column. I’ve toyed with the idea of using cute stories or creative rhetoric. I’ve dabbled with the thought of making the article one big story with a surprise twist at the end. But nothing came together.

You see, I can’t seem to write this column without coming back to a simple, straight-forward question: Where has our sense of humility gone?

We live in a world of self-promotion and market shares. It seems like we’ve lost the sense of what “common good” means when we’d rather win an argument than see someone else thrive. Worse yet, our “winning” must also include someone else “losing.” After all, what’s the fun of winning if someone doesn’t lose and feel that loss?

We could easily turn to Washington, D.C., for great examples of trying to win at the expense of others. But if we just use them as examples we miss the larger point — they didn’t get those jobs by themselves. They were elected by people like you and me. And they’re not uniquely entrenched in this idea of winning at all costs. We’re all guilty.

We all want to win arguments so “our side” can win at all costs. We all want to be right even if it means proving others to be wrong. We all want to surround ourselves with others who think, talk, believe and act just like us. And we all use those magic labels of “us” and “them” when we talk about the world.

Where is the sense of humility that can temper our passions for issues and beliefs enough to see the God-given value of others even when they don’t agree with us?

The tough part about humility is that we tend to think it’s a sign of weakness. Being humble means you’re weak in your beliefs or you’re not passionate enough to take a stand. But I think about the people in my life who are the greatest examples of faith. They are not the ones who gripe about the opposing political party or the president. They are not the ones who demonize those who do not share their faith. They do not spend their time watching inflammatory commentary on cable news or commenting on Internet news sites.

No, these witnesses to the strength of faith are often quiet. They let their actions speak their faith and, when words are needed, they say them with gentleness. The people who have been the biggest influences on my faith are people who let humility and grace frame the ways they live and speak their faith because they know how to see God in others.

Ironically, these people would never, ever consider themselves people of great faith — that’s what makes their witness so powerful. Because, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

May we all learn the virtue of humility. May we all learn that there are more important things in life than being right. And may we all learn to let humility and grace shape the ways we live and speak with each other.

[This column originally ran in The Macon Telegraph on Oct. 12, 2013: http://www.macon.com/2013/10/12/2714280/there-is-virtue-in-humility.html#storylink=cpy]

Liturgy for Blessing of the Animals Service

Blessing of the AnimalsTomorrow marks the Feast Day of St. Francis. And to celebrate, many churches will hold a special Blessing of the Animals Service to honor St. Francis’ love for creation. Saturday morning we’ll hold our Blessing of the Animals service at Mulberry. This is one of my favorite events in the life of the church because it has the potential to do some things the normal church schedule cannot do:

  1. People engage with the church in a new way because they’re bringing their pets to church. Pets are members of our families and this is a special and unique way to celebrate the love of family.
  2. The church is connecting to people in a unique way. This is a wonderful opportunity to engage people outside of the routine of worship, studies, and committee meetings. This is an event with no strings attached — people come, celebrate, share in a blessing, and enjoy meeting each others’ pets. It’s important for the church to find intersections where faith and real life meet and this is a certainly one of those intersections.
  3. This is a great community event. Publicize this event in your community. This is a unique way to have people come to your church when they may not come on a Sunday morning. Maybe they’ll come back on Sunday — maybe not. Who cares about that. You’re offering the church as a place for the community and that’s vitally important.

Below is a simple liturgy I’ve prepared for the event. You’ll notice it’s short — Lord knows pets can get restless. Full services are great if you’re already doing them. But simple can work too. Maybe this is a service your church would like to try next year? If so, feel free to use and adapt this liturgy to best fit your context.

Litany of Thanks

Let us give thanks to God for the gifts so freely bestowed upon us.For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea;              

We thank you, Lord.

For the richness of the mountains, plains and rivers;               

We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women;               

We thank you, Lord.

For all creatures that breathe, and move, and have life;               

We thank you, Lord.

For the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers and trees;               

We thank you, Lord.

For the trust you have shown in giving into our care these, our pets;              

We thank you, Lord.

That each pet here may be treasured with care;               

We pray to you, Lord.

That we may love and honor all your works, O God;               

We pray to you, Lord.

May we continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation. Amen.

Old Tesament Reading         GENESIS 1:24-31

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. {25} God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. {26} Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” {27} So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. {28} God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” {29} God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. {30} And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. {31} God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

This is The Word of the Lord.

     Thanks be to God.


O Lord, we pause and give thanks for the memories of those pets we have lost.We pray for their owners who continue to mourn their loss.But most of all, we give thanks for their memoryand for the ways in which they enriched our lives. Amen.


Creator God,We give thanks that all things belong to you.We praise you for giving us the animals, birds and fish which fill your world.We give thanks for our pets that bring us joyand who help teach us the value of unconditional love.Grant that we may good caretakers for our petsthat they may also know the joy of unconditional love.May our shared lives together always bring joy to others as we live, serve,and love all of your creatures, both great and small;through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


“(Name) may you be blessed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May you and N. (the name of the “owner”) enjoy life together and find joy with the God who created you. Amen.”

Can Churches Ask Too Much?

stressed family  “Will you be loyal to the church and uphold it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”

These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.

But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?

After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.

Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?

Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people  to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.

But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.

In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.

So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?

I think it could be.

For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?

Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?

Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.

“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”

Why Young People Are Going to Church and What Changes It Should Bring

young-adultsA lot has been written about why young people are not going to church. Whether it’s the nagging feelings of irrelevancy, the judgmental tone heard from church pulpits and Sunday School rooms, or the distrust in institutions as a whole, everyone seems to have a theory as to why young adults are the biggest demographic of “nones” (a new term labeling those who do not identify with any religious tradition). At some point, I think we can all agree that the constant barrage of “young people don’t go to church because it’s ____” posts run the risk of becoming counter-productive to the mission of helping people of all ages grow in their faith. Surely there’s more than just the story of young people quitting church?

You can imagine my delight to find a recent article by The Barna Group called, “5 Reasons Why Millennials Stay Connected to Church.” You see, I’m a young adult clergyperson and I know young people who are active in local churches. I know young people who never stopped being active in their local church. And I know young people who became active in the local church for the first time as an adult. Young people may not be darkening the doors of our churches in the numbers we might want, but they are coming and that combined with the reasons why some aren’t coming offers the Church some great insight on how to better connect with these people who are coming of age and trying to figure out how to connect faith to such a turbulent time of life.

So here are some insights I gleaned from the article and I hope you appreciate as well:

1. Life is Complicated and the Church Better Be Honest About It

“Millennials are rethinking most of the institutions that arbitrate life, from marriage and media, to government and church,” says Kinnaman, the author of You Lost Me and unChristian who has spent the last 20 months speaking nationally about the challenges facing today’s Millennials. “They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel. And life feels accelerated compared with 15 years ago—the ubiquity of information makes it harder for many to find meaning in institutions that feel out of step with the times. Millennials often describe church, for instance, as ‘not relevant’ or say that attending worship services ‘feels like a boring duty.’

“Furthermore, many young Americans say life seems complicated—that it’s hard to know how to live with the onslaught of information, worldviews and options they are faced with every day. One of the specific criticisms young adults frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.”

While I appreciate what “seeker-sensitive” church is, I hope this serves as a warning to churches who put all of their eggs in the basket of easily-accessible, “non-threatening” approaches to doing church — be very, very careful you’re not sacrificing depth and complexities in favor of whatever flavor of music you think people crave. A warmed-over version of Saturday night on Sunday morning does little to connect people to God and it does even less to address the complicated life situations and questions of young adults.

Ask the hard questions. Bring up the taboo topics and don’t be afraid to offer more questions than answers. Be honest. A faith marked by depth is one where we become comfortable in now knowing all of the answers. And for God’s sake, don’t package these topics as though people don’t live 6 days a week “in the world.” I know too many Christians who want to claim we’re apart of a subculture when, in fact, we’re as guilty of “sins of the world” as much or even more than others. And you don’t live your faith in the safety of church buildings or warm and fuzzy bible study groups. Church is always a coming in and going out. So we should approach complicated topics in the same way — questions come in and we send people out to live into what it means to be a Christian in light of those complicated questions. We will not connect with young people if all we teach about the culture is how to fear it — holistic faith means learning how to connect our faith to our life on a daily basis.

2. Live Your Faith — Vocational Discipleship

“A fourth way churches can deepen their connection with Millennials is to teach a more potent theology of vocation, or calling. Millennials who have remained active are three times more likely than dropouts to say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God’s calling (45% versus 17%). They are four times more likely to have learned at church “how the Bible applies to my field or career interests” (29% versus 7%). A similar gap exists when it came to receiving helpful input from a pastor about education (21% versus 5%), though going so far as offering a scholarship (5% versus 2%) was not particularly widespread.”

In my experience we have a bad habit in the Church. Whenever someone says they feel called to something, too often we want to send them down a track toward ordained ministry. We’ve created this great divide that clergy are super Christians because we’ve heard God call us. The people in the pews are the unfortunate ones who don’t know what the voice of God sounds like because if they did, they would be clergy. Obviously this is hyperbole, but you get my drift.

By virtue of our baptism, we are all called into ministry. As clergy, part of my calling is to help others live out their calling in unique ways. But we’re called by God in one way or another. If you want to connect with young people, find ways to talk about calling in real and practical ways. Challenge people to discern where God might be calling them. Lord knows we need more conversations about how life is more than just the paycheck you earn or the bills you pay. Young people are especially searching for meaning as they embark on what will become the rest of their adulthood. What better time to teach about God’s unique calling in our lives!

3. Connect People With God

“Finally, more than a mere community club helping youth cross the threshold of adulthood, church communities can help Millennials generate a lasting faith by facilitating a deeper sense of intimacy with God. For example, Millennials who remain active are more likely than those who dropped out to say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant (68% versus 25%). Additionally, actives are much more likely to believe the Bible contains wisdom for living a meaningful life (65% versus 17%).”

Before we worry about paying our bills, filling our buildings, and surviving for another generation, we need to remember the basic task of the Church — connecting people with God. And yes, this comes even before “making disciples.” I always tell people, if young people show up at your church the odds are they’re looking for something, a connection of some sorts. They’re a minority and most of their friends are probably at home on Sunday mornings. It’s not the norm for young people to come to church. So when they do, what are we doing to connect them with the great and wonderful mystery of God? And second, how are we helping them take that connection into their daily lives so that Sunday morning is more than just a spiritual Xanax?

Kinnaman explains, “In part, it is a failure of not connecting Jesus and the Bible to the other outcomes identified in this research—relational, missional, vocational and cultural discernment. In other words, the version of ‘Jesus in a vacuum’ that is often packaged for young people doesn’t last long compared to faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life.”

The article is really good. All church leaders should read it. Heck, Christians of all ages should read it. Young people are coming to church while many are not. And we have a lot to learn from both groups. More than we might even care to admit.

Debt and Questions About Digital Giving

debt and givingIt seems like everything is moving into the digital world these days. The Internet has quickly become a world unto itself where we can share the highlights of our life, purchase gifts, and do a day’s worth of work all from the comfort of our favorite spot on the couch. Online banking, which was once a little-trusted novelty, has now become the norm for keeping track of purchases and paying bills.

So it only makes sense that the church consider ways to offer digital means for giving. After all, what church could afford to say they’re taking in so much money through traditional measures that they don’t need to worry with this new way of giving?

Insightful articles have been written and even published on this site encouraging churches to make the leap into the digital age when it comes to giving. I strongly encourage an article by Shane Raynor from April 2012 for starters.

I’ll even echo much of what the experts say about giving patterns in the 21st Century: I don’t carry cash; I pay all but two of my bills online (those two bills are local companies who refuse to get into the digital age); and I prefer electronic banking.

If churches want to keep up with the ways people manage their money, then they must consider digital methods for giving.

But this article is not another in the long stream of articles encouraging churches to offer digital giving opportunities. This article is intended to offer some questions we should ask before we implement digital giving as a norm in our churches.

What methods of giving should you encourage when considering digital giving?

Do you offer debit card-only giving or do you allow people to use credit cards as well? This may sound like a no-brainer but it’s much more complex than we might think.

A CNNMoney article says the average American household with at least one credit card has over $15,000 in credit card debt (in 2012). The average interest rate runs in the mid-to-high teens at any given moment. Those are staggering figures. Credit card debt should already carry with it ethical concerns for Christians considering the biblical admonitions against charging interest to debt (see Exod. 22:25 for example).

Debt is real and churches have a theological obligation to not encourage the incurring of more debt. This doesn’t even address the gray area created in giving through credit—is it really giving of ourselves to give money that we don’t have? So if you’re looking to set up digital giving, you should ask some hard questions about the idea of asking people to give via credit cards.

Many churches who offer digital giving only accept debit cards. This is a purposeful decision on the part of churches to say that while digital giving is accepted, not every means of giving is encouraged. Deciding on a “debit only” system is something churches should talk about before encouraging digital giving. It’s not for everyone but it should certainly be a part of the conversation.

What else should you consider when setting up digital giving?

Before you invest in new kiosks and software, you should also consider some other additions to your church life. Namely, plan to offer small group studies about money and debt management. I personally think this is an absolute necessity for churches whether you’re considering digital giving or not. Churches have an obligation to help people live into the wholeness of life God offers, and that wholeness can all too quickly get lost under a mountain of personal debt. Further, if churches want to encourage digital giving as a means of taking in more revenue, then we better offer a wholistic approach to managing money lest we become just another life-draining source of debt.

Some ideas for curriculum to offer include:

Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity by Adam Hamilton

  • The title gives away the premise — in a consumption society, we need to learn when enough is enough. Adam offers some great biblical insight and Wesleyan theological perspective to some very practical material on managing money and growing in generosity.

Financial Peace University

  • This one is very popular in local churches. It’s the Dave Ramsey program and it stresses very practical ways to address issues of debt and financial management.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher

  • This book is a great resource for pastors, leaders, and anyone who works with church finances. It addresses the issue of trust between givers and organizations and offers some practical guidance for churches to become better at managing the gifts they receive while also doing a better job of capturing the imagination of the givers.

A friend recently told me, “digital giving is the new frontier for church stewardship and we better wake up to that reality.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. But let’s boldly discover this new frontier with some caution and integrity. Jesus’ promise for abundant living and the coming of the kingdom means so much more than just taking in bigger weekly offerings.

[This article was originally published on Ministry Matters on Sept. 9, 2013]

No, You Are Not a Self-made Person (A short reflection on Psalm 139)

Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

If there has ever been a biblical text that destroys the cultural idea of being a “self-made person,” this is it. The Psalmist reminds us that before we were rational human beings, capable of making our own choices and declaring our own rights and privileges, a Mystery greater than us has “searched and known” us. This Mystery knows when we rise and go to bed. It knows our words and thoughts even before we utter them. And contrary to Ayn Rand and others who would say that our independence and freedom is where we find power, we are told that the power of God’s grace hems us in, from behind and before, and that grace lays its hand upon us — knowledge that is much too great to fully understand.

When I think of the day my daughter was born, the words of this psalm come to mind. I remember the almost paralyzing feeling of standing before a miracle that I knew I was only a passive witness to. I had no credit to claim, only a gift to receive and a miracle to behold. The little hands and feet. The tiny chest rising up and down with each breath. Words cannot begin to form the praise that rises from our souls. You know without anyone having to say a word that you are in the presence of something “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

The words of this psalm also come to mind when I think about standing next to the bed of a dying person. There is a real beauty often hidden in death. When we come to die, we find ourselves totally vulnerable. All that we’ve “earned” or accumulated in life is stripped away. And all that is left is our humanness — dirt, and salt, and water — exposed but pure and real. If we’re lucky, in between the moments of grief and sadness we can find glimmers of grace — light shining through the broken shards of human clay — and it’s beautiful. And we cling to the power of the words, “I come to the end — I am still with you.” Those words have the power breathe life into the most wonderful and the most terrible of moments.

We are human. And with that comes the potential to do great things. We can split atoms and splice genes. We can go to the moon and we can destroy all of creation 10x over. But there is a grace in knowing that despite all of that potential, our “unformed substance” was beheld before we were even aware. Our frail frames were not hidden from the One that created us in the depths of mystery. And, probably best of all, there is no darkness that can overpower the light of the Source of Light.

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