Thursday, July 12, 2012

What shall I return to the Lord?

Psalm 116:12-19 (NIV)

What shall I return to the Lord
   for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
   and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
   in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
   is the death of his faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
   I serve you just as my mother did;
   you have freed me from my chains.

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
   and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
   in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord —
   in your midst, Jerusalem.
Some days I have a rock solid idea of what I plan to write about. Other days I come to the scripture passages with my mind a completely blank slate. Today was a blank slate day. And while I expected to find inspiration in the teachings of Jesus from Matthew or good commentary on the Christian life from a letter Paul, I instead came across this Psalm. Instead of giving me inspiration for what to write, it posed a question that more or less cuts straight to my core: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?”

I don’t think of it as bragging to say the Lord has been very good to me. If you’ve been reading these posts all along, you know I’m rather fond of counting my blessings, or, if you favor a strictly secular approach, simply not taking the good things in life for granted. I may take this to something of an extreme (for example, I’m fond of reminding people that for as great as Abraham Lincoln was, he had to make do with chamber pots, candles and sweating out those remarkably hot Washington, D.C., summers without the benefit of air conditioning), but even without going to those lengths in search of gratitude, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to consider health, security and a loving family to be goodness from the Lord. So what am I going to do about it?

I’m a very big fan of the modern praise song “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman, which I sort of consider a thematic descendant of “It Is Well With My Soul” because the general message is to consistently praise the Lord, in good times and bad. The line from that song that comes to mind in light of this Psalm is the lead-in to the chorus: “Every blessing you pour out I’ll turn back to praise.” The Psalmist, of course, goes into a bit more deeper in answering his own question.

At the risk of simply regurgitating recurring themes, I try very hard to look at the job of parenting as one of my best opportunities to fulfill my vows to God in the presence of everyone. While the heavy lifting of parenting is done in the privacy of the home, or at least within private moments, the sentiment holds. And for me, this notion of trying my best to be a good dad goes beyond “God wants me to be a good father.” Digging a bit deeper, it requires an understanding of the God-given privilege and responsibility of parenthood.

And again, though it’s a theme I’ve brought up a few times this bears repeating: knowing well people who yearn to love but cannot find a spouse, or spouses who yearn for children but cannot be parents, drives home the idea of our children as blessings. It doesn’t always keep me from getting angry when no one will get in the freaking bathtub at the end of the night, but there’s no sense in being anything but frank about the realities of parenthood. It is incredibly, monumentally difficult, and it only gets harder when you set high expectations. As a Twitter friend wrote earlier this week, “It’s tough, grueling work, especially if you really want to do your best.”

But we keep trying to do our best because our children deserve our best, because we promised our spouse to give our best, because our God demands our best. As with any human endeavor, we’ll never be perfect. Even our best will not always be good enough. But we keep trying, hour after hour, day after day. We can’t just go through the average day and be happy with an average effort. We have to keep asking, “Am I doing my best?” And, thanks to this Psalm, I have a new perspective from which to approach the matter: The Lord has been good to me. Am I responding in kind, or am I taking these blessings for granted?

Blending these big-picture issues with the small-scale ups and downs of everyday parenting is something of a mixed bag. For every time I find myself pausing and praying in the heat of the moment there’s at least two more where I act without thinking, only to immediately regret what I’ve said or done. For every blog post about some grand ideal there’s a moment of reflection where I wonder if I have any idea what I’m doing with my life and second-guessing years of decisions.

My hope is to spend more and more of my quiet, peaceful moments (which, as you imagine, are not exactly abundant) focusing myself in the right direction, so that when I’m more engaged in the business of actually living the lessons learned are manifested in me almost unintentionally. Obviously it’s very intentional, but the idea is for these concepts to surface in the moment, any moment, without me having to count to ten and think about my next move.

Another approach to this psalm is to look at the idea of “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord” and then examine what exactly those vows are… but it is late and I’ve written a lot thus far. Maybe next time Psalm 116 comes up in the rotation. For now, I am thankful for a new question to ask myself, and I plan to ask it often.

A prayer for July 12:

Lord, I want to be your servant. You have freed me from my chains, and there is so much goodness in my life that comes from you. I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on your name, and I will do my best to fulfill my vows to you. I promise to do my best with my children, and to always remember they are a gift from you and that you have trusted me with a great responsibility. Please help me as I walk this parenting path; light the way that I may follow as you lead. Thank you so much for everything. Amen.

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