Wednesday, December 31, 2008

At Midnight

At midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

                        Acts 16.25 (KJV) 

Flattery We Don’t Need

Acts 16 finds Paul and his colleague, Silas, preaching in Philippi. Their early efforts yield terrific results. Lydia, a dye merchant from a nearby town, and her family are baptized and she offers to house the evangelists. But trouble soon follows from a young psychic whose masters exploit her for profit. She trails Paul and Silas, loudly declaring them “servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Paul immediately reasons, “This is flattery we don’t need.” Her occult powers belie her words and risk the public’s mistaking Paul and Silas as her associates. She keeps on until Paul finally rids her of the devious spirit behind her behavior. When it leaves, her gifts go with it. This infuriates her keepers, who drag the men before the town leaders, charging them as outsiders who’ve thrown the city into chaos. The Philippians—an insular, highly suspicious community of miners—join the attack. Paul and Silas are tossed in jail, where the jailer shackles them in an inner cell so they won’t escape. Then he goes home.

Not Allowed, Yet Aloud

Let’s overstate the obvious here. Paul and Silas do the young woman a great service in relieving her vexation. By silencing her disruptions and exposing the men who used her to bilk the town, they actually restore order. The injustice of her patrons’ accusations—and the locals’ ungrateful support—border on preposterous. The most Paul and Silas are guilty of is discerning the deceitful source of the psychic’s praise. But in places like Philippi—established and run on long-accepted conventions—change of any kind, even for the better, brought by outsiders isn’t allowed. It isn’t what they do. It’s who they are (or aren’t).

We see this. Paul and Silas feel it. Shoved into the darkest corner and forgot for the night, they’ve every right to complain and fear what tomorrow holds. Yet instead of bemoaning the town’s backwardness or shrinking into the shadows of fate, they grow bold. At midnight, they start praying and singing aloud so all the prisoners get the point their situation is beside the point. An earthquake shakes the jail, chains fall, cell doors fly open, prisoners walk out, and the jailer rushes to the scene. He’s so terrified the prisoners have fled and he’ll face negligence charges, he’s about to kill himself when Paul stops him. “We’re all here!” he says. The stunned jailer falls to his knees, asking, “What must I do to be saved?”

Universal Jurisdiction

The ignorance and antagonism leveled at Paul and Silas were so commonplace enduring hostility in return for kindness was a drumbeat in the apostles’ teaching and letters. The message is always the same: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3.9) Alas, things haven’t improved. When we follow Christ, it’s probable good we do will go unappreciated, our motives will be misunderstood, and powers that be will shove us into dark corners to forget about us. Sadly, many of us experience this most acutely from families, friends, and leaders also striving to follow Jesus. Like the Philippians, however, clinging to tradition and fear of outsiders goad them to conform to alarmists’ claims.

Paul and Silas teach us how to respond. They refrain from arguing their case in the court of public opinion. They know the local leaders’ authority is limited, while their Leader has universal jurisdiction. His final ruling supersedes all others and His ability to shake up earthly institutions can’t be counted out. We may not be allowed rights and considerations granted to the conformist majority, but neither can we allow ourselves the right to grumble about what we can’t control. When midnight comes, we disrupt darkness with prayer and praise. We ensure we’re heard. We make the point our present situation is beside the point. We serve a mighty big God. When He steps in, the ground rumbles, doors open, shackles loose, and people of every kind who’ve been buried from sight find they’re free.

Tonight, as we count down to midnight, let’s listen closely for the first tremors of groundbreaking change, fully expecting our God to move mightily in 2009.

Happy New Year!

At midnight, we disrupt darkness with prayer and praise.

(Tomorrow: The Year of the Lord’s Favor)

Postscript: A New Year’s Reflection

One of our regular readers, Rev. Harvey Carr, Interim Pastor of St. Luke’s Community Church—a vibrant, growing, inclusive congregation in Jacksonville, Florida—wrote the following reflection for his church’s weekly newsletter. It was just too good not to be shared.

Open Your Mind to God This New Year

 “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.” – Romans 14:23 (NKJV)

Each new year is an appointment to become an authentic optimist.

Each new day is justification for being enthusiastic about life again. Each dawning is God’s invitation to start over and build a new life, beginning with the present moment.

Each new week is an opportunity to make new and noble resolutions!  Every Monday morning you have a standing appointment to meet new opportunities!

What does it mean to have faith? Faith is opening your mind for God’s thoughts to flow in – “thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  And when God’s thoughts flow in, life will change, for you will have a dream.  You will see possibilities in the day – the week – the month – the year that is waiting to unfold.

Faith moves mountains.  The greatest power in the world is a positive idea.  And the most powerful positive idea is one that comes directly from God who created the world and broke sunshine through the black of night.

Today open your mind to think God’s thoughts.  Allow God to shape you into a new and different person – freed to experience positivity in your thinking.

Fill your mind with faith and positive ideas will follow.


Thank you, God, that I am being born again.  Your Holy Spirit is filling my mind with Your thoughts.  I am excited about today, and I’m excited about my future because of You! Amen.

Harvey, thanks so much for this. And God’s blessings on your life, church, and ministry in 2009 and years to come.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Abandoned? Never!

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.

                        Psalm 37.25

No Good Thing

Here’s the deal. If we live righteously before God and man, good things follow. Hang on a second. That’s not altogether correct. If we live righteously, every good thing God has for us follows. He ensures nothing gets overlooked. Psalm 84.11 insists, “No good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” Bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people. Only righteous people (not to be confused or categorized with self-righteous) receive every good thing, however. Bad things come their way, to be sure. Yet by virtue of their faith, the righteous can find goodness in the worst of their lot.

How is that? Romans 1.17 offers a succinct explanation: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Righteous people trust God’s word from first to last. They grapple with fears and emotions like everyone else. Yet they perceive them differently. Facts and feelings are immaterial; they prove nothing. As Hebrews 11.1 stresses, when we live righteously by faith, we find substance in hope and proof in unseen evidence. Ergo, no crisis is so severe it won’t yield benefits, no outcome so final it comes to naught. When we believe this, God rewards our faith, enabling us to discern every good thing concealed in what often looks and feels ineffably bad.

Never—Not Once

“I’ve been around a long time,” David writes in Psalm 37, “and never—not once—have I seen the righteous abandoned.” How ironic of him to say this, because his songs are riddled with “where’s God” moments. Psalm 22, for example, begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—the very words Jesus cries from the cross at his loneliest hour. Yet in the final analysis, David’s songs back up his claim. His feelings of dejection always give way to declarations of faith. So did Christ’s. His final utterance as a man is, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23.46) The situation is beyond His human ability to withstand and He places His entire trust in God. That’s why Paul says the gospel reveals righteousness by faith from first to last. And that’s why righteous people never find themselves truly abandoned: faith reaches God when no other options exist, when no mortal help can be found, when no one wants them around.

Children of Righteousness

David puts an intriguing addendum on his statement. Children of righteousness prosper. He strikes two chords in Psalm 37 that support his belief. The first immediately follows in verse 26: “They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be blessed.” Righteous people are givers. They know nothing they have came of their own doing and there’s always more where that came from. What they have may not be much, but as he says in verse 16, “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.” Faith taps into the endless supply of God’s blessings and believes no good thing will be withheld. But second, though often isolated, the righteous enjoy God’s protection. “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.” (v11-12) Children of righteousness grow up in a healthy, secure environment. They’re blessed materially and emotionally.

Whether or not we have biological children, as people of faith, we all assume parental roles. We bear and rear children of righteousness, who learn from our example and listen closely to what we say. If we model belief and generosity to those who look up to us, they will follow suit. This is especially crucial for those of us in the GLBT community, which all too often exalts role models that promote cynicism and selfishness. We’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity to live righteously, to offer a better alternative to self-gratification and fear of rejection. We have experienced the joy of never being abandoned. We have seen the benefits of giving. We can’t abandon our own or withhold every good thing we can offer. Our Father does this for us. We must do it for them.

PFLAG's current "Stay Close" campaign speaks volumes to GLBT families and friends. It also carries a message to people of faith, reminding us to stay close to our "children."

(Tomorrow: At Midnight)

Monday, December 29, 2008

God's Calendar

But do not forget one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

                        2 Peter 3.8

The Days of Our Lives

Years ago, my father underwent heart surgery. During his three-month recovery, he got hooked on “The Days of Our Lives”, a soap opera that opened with an hourglass over which its star, McDonald Carey, intoned, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Sometimes I’d watch it with Dad, who relished telling me all about Salem, a little town plagued by rare diseases and big scandals. My mind occasionally wanders back to those sweet hours together, pausing to listen again to the opening. At the time, I was too young to appreciate the gravity of the words. Now, with Dad in his late seventies and me pushing 50, they’re particularly poignant. Both our hourglasses are bottom-heavy. Every day is one less, not one more, meaning those we have left are truly dear.

Due Time

“The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength,” Moses says in Psalm 90.10. The period at the end of our sentence informs how we tell time, which totally differs from how God views it. Our calendar marches in regimented time—minutes, days, and years passing underfoot en route to a finite end. God’s infinite calendar flows in due time. It’s incredibly flexible and adjusted to each individual so its dates fall exactly when needed rather than expected. Since God’s time has no measure, it’s impossible to understand and often hard to accept. Watching the clock and counting days are futile when anticipating answers to prayer or divine intervention. After we turn things over to God, telling time becomes an act of faith. We align with His schedule, trusting Him to respond in due time—not a moment sooner or later.

Wait for It

Cries of urgency don’t move God. Habakkuk learns this after asking how long must Israel wait before He reveals His power against her foes. God replies, “The revelation awaits an appointed time... Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2.3) Awareness of our mortality spawns impatience, leading to worry that answers and guidance have been indefinitely postponed. God tells us what we ask of Him will come in due time. It’s already on the books and on the way. Though it linger, wait for it. In his second epistle, Peter counsels us not to forget God’s calendar. A day, a millennium—a year, a second—are one and the same to Him. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness,” he adds. (2 Peter 3.9) Procrastination to us is progress to Him, as every moment draws closer to the solution He’s placed in our future.

This time of year we get a little calendar crazed. We look at the previous 12 months to gauge our achievements and success. In some cases, we’re delighted by how far we’ve come. Others leave us crestfallen—this or that should have happened by now. Always remember our deadlines are artificial, the result of mortality. God’s calendar has no New Year’s Day and annual resolutions bear no relevance on His timing. We place far too much emphasis on dates and too little on faith. What we’ve asked for will certainly come and will not delay.

This means nothing to God, whose calendar flows in due time.

(Tomorrow: Abandoned? Never!)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Awaken the Dawn

I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.

                        Psalm 57.8-9

A New Morning

Day by day, I gain confidence we’re on the edge of a new morning in Church history and the life of God’s people. Believers of every stripe, from everywhere are coalescing into a committed, vocal movement for tolerance and acceptance of all Christians, straight or gay, left or right, male or female, etc. We’re reaching critical mass and I have no doubt we’ll soon become a force to be reckoned with. This is also true of society as a whole, which is unconsciously hewing to God’s will to exert pressure from without while we advocate change within. The beauty of this is equal push from both sides guarantees the Church’s walls will neither explode nor implode. They will stand in the end.

If the cliché about the darkest hour holds water—and I think it does—turmoil generated by pro-straight marriage initiatives very well could indicate a brighter sun hovers below the horizon. The outcry against such callous discrimination has commanded global attention and support from corners that ordinarily keep silent. While we revile the injustice of these propositions, we can’t give in to panic and alarm. God is in the works and He’s using the foolishness of men to confound their leaders. Situations like this are nothing new to Him. Time after time, He’s lifted His hand long enough for those alleging to speak and act in His name to go too far. And then He’s exposed their chicanery for what it was.

The Pits

David describes this in Psalm 57.6: “They spread a net for my feet—I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path—but they have fallen into it themselves.” He then adds a musical direction, “Selah,” which marks a pause for the congregation to consider what it’s just sung before going on. Here’s the thing about people who dig pits: they always make a big deal about what they’re doing. We can see what they’re up to from miles away and know to move around them when we get there. This typically frustrates them no end. Sooner or later infighting breaks out among them and they trip over their own snares. A former pastor of mine used to say, “If you dig one grave, you better dig two.”

A Coming-Out Party

Observing his tormentors’ self-destruction puts David in an exultant mood. “I will awaken the dawn,” he shouts. “I will praise God among the nations. I will sing among the people.” It’s a coming-out party and he’s hastening the day. Are we not seeing what David saw? The notoriety and disgust our adversaries intended to slather on us have affixed to them. We can stare from afar at the horizon for glimmers of sunrise. Or we can awaken the dawn by praising God openly and singing His glory among the people. We can come out of hiding to make our presence felt in houses of worship and communities of faith. Acts 2, often called the “birth chapter” of the Church, ends thusly: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Whether returning or coming in for the first time, we’re being added daily. It’s our time and responsibility to awaken the dawn.

A new day is breaking in the Church--let's awaken the dawn!

(Tomorrow: God’s Calendar)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bread Alone

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

                        Matthew 4.4

First Things First

After Luke’s report of Jesus astounding the temple priests at 12, the Gospels fall silent concerning His youth and its influence on His ministry. We pick up His story when He leaves home at 30. It’s instructive to attend closely to Jesus’s priorities as His mission commences. He doesn’t come out and announce He’s ready to save the world. He puts first things first: discipleship and sacrifice.

He starts with baptism, which ends in dazzling fashion as God audibly confirms Jesus is His Son. But we can’t forget Jesus goes to the Jordan to become a disciple of John the Baptist. His initial instinct is to establish Himself as a follower. Only at John’s urging and God’s ratification does He skip this step. Another minister, then or now, would use such incomparable endorsements to draw a large following right away. Yet look at what Jesus does. He vanishes into the wilderness for 40 days, opting for solitude over social acclaim, prayer over preaching to thousands, fasting over feasts in His honor.

The Way to Prepare

John’s message was, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Jesus’s example teaches us the way to prepare. His wilderness experience opens with this: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4.1) Again, He’s following, electing to endure temptation to test His discipline and faith. He goes into the desert only knowing it leads to a face-off with the Tempter. The confrontation’s time and nature aren’t defined. Provisions for comfort aren’t included. Instead of doing what we’d most likely do—wait until trouble comes to ask God’s help, or give up before the test arrives—Jesus prepares Himself from Day One. He fasts and prays, sacrificing natural drives to strengthen spiritual impulses. For seven weeks, His sole sustenance comes from conversation with God. Although He surely struggles with loneliness, hunger, and confusion, each day bolsters His confidence He’s not alone, He will rise to the challenge, and His responses to temptation will be sound and clear.

Right Where It Hurts

The Tempter first goes for the gut. “If You’re God’s Son, turn these stones into bread.” And, actually, Jesus could have done so, much like He later turns a boy’s lunch into food for 5,000. But there’s a bigger point here: physical cravings are secondary to spiritual hunger. We can survive without satisfying mortal urges because our bodies aren’t made to last. Without God, however, our spirits fail. “Man doesn’t live on bread,” Jesus answers, “but on God’s word.” The Tempter parries two more strikes, trying to deceive Christ with Scripture and offering Him then entire world. Still, he never recovers from losing that first, decisive round.

When battling temptation, remember this. The Tempter is a fast talker but a slow learner. He still uses the same, tired approach. He first hits us right where it hurts, taunting us with cravings we can satisfy—creature comforts, sexual urges, personal ambitions, and so on. But if we’ve stayed in contact with God, we’ll be unflinching about our spiritual hunger’s priority over material desire. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” Romans 14.17 says. We can’t live on bread alone. Once we’re convinced of that, material temptations lose their luster.

Though He had power to turn stones into bread, Jesus resisted temptation to do so because material sustenance is secondary to spiritual survival.

(Tomorrow: Awaken the Dawn)

Postscript: Meet Les

Child of the Wind is by Les Chatwin, a regular reader here. Last October, Les introduced himself via email this way: “I am a 40-year-old Baptist pastor in Newcastle, Australia. I drive a taxi 4 nights a week and talk to people about God. On Tuesday, November 11, I begin ‘church' in a gay bar in the city.” His home church and family’s opposition to gay people leaves Les with very little moral or spiritual support. Furthermore, as a straight minister ordained in a Fundamentalist denomination, his inroads to the local gay community are limited. While he pursues his call to minister to GLBT people, he continues to support his wife and three children as a taxi driver.

Pause for a moment so all of this sinks in, then visit his blog to get to know Les, understand his challenges, and encourage him with supportive prayer and comments. Love and faith know no distance.

Child of the Wind

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Verdict

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

                        John 3.19 

Dousing the Light

I grew up in a rigid strain of Fundamentalism. Attached to our denomination’s Statement of Doctrine was a long list of restrictions, each with a parenthetical reference to one or two contextually stripped Scriptures. “Women shall refrain from cutting their hair,” for instance, cited 1 Corinthians 11.15: “If a woman has long hair, it is her glory. For long hair is given to her as a covering”—Paul’s teaching that prophetesses should set themselves apart from other women by covering their heads when ministering, just as prophets did. Evidently, no one in our church put all of this together. So our women spent hours and dollars many didn’t have on beauticians capable of spinning waist-length tresses into beehives.

In my case, the most problematic by-law was, “Members shall abstain from movie theaters and other ungodly amusements.” Since this taboo obviously had no literal Scripture to back it, it used 1 John 2.15: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world”—a one-size-fits-all license for legalistic overkill if ever there was one. Now, I was a huge movie buff who’d seen more movies on TV than anyone I knew by the time I was old enough (and bold enough) to challenge this teaching. When I cornered my Aunt Pearl about it, her exasperation led to John 3.19. “You ought not be in movie houses because they’re dark inside,” she said. “If you love darkness, you’re doing evil.” In her sincerity she didn’t realize she was dousing the light of Scripture to uphold a dogma born in dark ignorance.

Something for Everyone

It’s true. The Bible’s complexity and range of topics hold something for everyone. Anyone can isolate a verse here or a phrase there that supports what he/she believes and does—from hate crimes to hairstyles. But faith is not founded on the Bible; it rests in Christ and it’s by Him we assess the validity of our beliefs and actions. Would Jesus have cared about the length of a lady’s hair? Absolutely not, according to Paul, later writing to the same people who read his admonition about covered heads: “You are looking only on the surface of things. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.” (2 Corinthians 10.7)

Throwing Shade

The Word isn’t given to pinpoint surface faults in others; it’s a tool revealing the Light so we remain confident we’re following Christ. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,” 1 John 1.7 says. Scripture is given to unify us in fellowship, not divide us in controversy, to promote justice, not propagate judgment. Any time we pick it apart to defend our prejudices and vanity we prove how poorly we grasp its true purpose. Regardless how correct our judgment may be, the verdict goes against us because our motives are unjust.

When we misappropriate the Word to criticize others, we abuse our privilege to handle it. Throwing shade with Scripture exposes what’s in our hearts—a love of darkness and evildoing. The Bible often confirms errors in others and us. But no matter how well we know and understand it, it provides us no right to condemn anyone. Nor, for that matter, should we pay heed to those seeking to do likewise. The Bible doesn’t prove our points. Its points are what we must prove.


Our judgment of what the Bible says may be correct, but if we use Scripture to condemn others, our case falls apart because our motives are unjust.

(Tomorrow: Bread Alone)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why Christmas

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whosoever believes in him is not condemned.

                        John 3.16-18

No Additional Discussion Necessary

Merry Christmas to all “whosoevers" of every gender, ethnicity, and orientation!

(Tomorrow: The Verdict)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good and Perfect Gifts

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

                        James 1.17

Giver’s Remorse

There’s a howlingly funny bit in John Waters’ tasteless camp classic, Female Trouble. It’s Christmas morning and Dawn Davenport (played by the 300-pound drag legend, Divine) thunders downstairs to tear into her presents. She burrows through the pile to retrieve what is obviously a shoebox and claws into the wrapping to lay hands on her most anticipated gift. Her giddiness sours into rage when she opens the box. “What are these?” she bellows. “These aren’t the right kind! I told you cha-cha heels—black ones!” Her father protests, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” But Dawn hears none of it. She flies into a flailing rampage, spewing obscenities, knocking down the tree and her mother with it. As she storms into the street in her teddy and fuzzy slippers, her flabbergasted dad pleads, “Not on Christmas! Not on Christmas!”

I’ll go out on a limb and guess none of us has witnessed a display of Christmas ingratitude remotely like Dawn’s—at least, I hope not. But I also imagine we’ve lived through an awkward moment or two when our gift received weak, perhaps feigned, enthusiasm. When it comes to feeling inadequate, few emotions beat giver’s remorse. Disappointment descends with a thud. We’re disappointed the recipient isn’t pleased. More than that, though, we’re disappointed we didn’t come up with something better or misjudged how good the gift was.

Just What We Need

Every gift God gives, James says, is good and perfect. Yet His ability to give us the best and flawless judgment of His gifts’ value don’t always spare Him from giver’s remorse. Often we’re like Dawn Davenport—so determined to get what we want we throw a tantrum when we’re given just what we need. “This isn’t what I asked for!” we cry. Sometimes we’re so angry when God provides something other than what our vain ambitions crave we head for the door to get as far as we can from Him. Not only is this rank ingratitude, it’s ridiculously naïve. “Don’t be deceived,” James warns prior to reminding us of God’s infallibility to give only good and perfect things. He defines goodness and perfection, so they’re what He gives. His gifts never vary in quality either, as no variance exists in Him. “He doesn’t change like shifting shadows.” If we’re displeased with God’s gifts, it’s time to identify how we’ve changed, what’s different about our desires and ambitions, and where we lost our way.

Resume the Position

James continues: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” (v18) “The word of truth” clearly refers to Jesus, Who began His valedictory lesson to the disciples by telling Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) The birth of Christ we celebrate tonight and tomorrow was God’s delivery channel to give us birth. His birthday is our birthday. And like Him, we have been born to resume the position at the forefront of all creation. Through Jesus, God has given us the means, truth, and life to lead others to Him. It’s the first gift He gives us, our first birthday gift. It’s as good and perfect as anything we’ll ever receive. We should accept it, treasure it, and—especially at this time of gift giving—thank Him for it with all of our heart.

May we all have a blessed, joyous, and peaceful Christmas as we celebrate God's best, most perfect Gift!

(Tomorrow: Why Christmas)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The First of Millions

To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

                        John 1.12-13

Acceptance for Acceptance

Since we abhor—and many of us are victims of—religious rejection, we tend to think of “acceptance” from our side of the counter. By faith, we know God accepts everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, or orientation. We’re correct to believe this according to Acts 10.34-35, where an epiphany leads Peter to shed his bigotry against Gentiles. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right,” he says. Yet if we look at his confession, we find he is not suggesting Jesus’s death and resurrection purchased blanket acceptance for one and all.

God’s love comes without condition—it’s universal. His acceptance does not. It carries requirements and while they have nothing to do with those mentioned above, they exist nonetheless. Peter says God accepts everyone who honors and obeys Him. John asserts the same thing but puts it differently. He says God’s acceptance hinges on our acceptance of Christ. It’s quid pro quo, acceptance for acceptance. Rejecting Jesus won’t diminish His love. But until we receive Him, we’re ineligible for the rights and benefits of His acceptance.

Unrecognized and Unwelcome

John prefaces his statement with this: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 10.11-12) Unfortunate though it was, Jesus’s rejection was pivotal to His mission and happened precisely to plan. Pondering this for a moment unearths a number of truths that lock together. As our surrogate, it was essential for Jesus to endure hatred, intolerance, and the sorrow of feeling unrecognized and unwelcome. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” Isaiah 53.6 says. He became like us in every way to become the perfect sacrifice for all sin. He also became like us, so we could be like Him. Thus, it’s truly magnificent that His acceptance of us is predicated by our acceptance of Him. How many of us realized we were actually emulating Jesus the moment we consciously accepted Him as our Savior? Yet that’s exactly what happened. When we decide to follow Christ we are following Christ. That’s amazing in and of itself—but there’s more to come.

God’s Children

Social rejection wasn’t Jesus’s problem. Indeed, the Gospels stress He was extremely popular, possibly even famous, constantly surrounded by crowds and hangers-on. Still, His high profile and being thronged—even the power of His words and deeds—didn’t convince the authorities, pundits, and the masses kowtowing to them He was God’s Son. That’s what Isaiah means by “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” It’s why, in God’s quid pro quo acceptance, those who accept Jesus as His Son are granted equal rights as His children. When we receive Christ, a birth occurs in us no less spectacular or phenomenal than His. John says it’s the same thing—God brings another son or daughter into the world without human assistance.

Jesus was the first of millions conceived by the Holy Spirit. You’re one; I’m one; everyone who accepts and believes in Christ is one. No one can change that, despite how many desperately try. That night long ago, when a virgin wrapped her tiny Son in rags and cradled Him in hay, a process began that continues to this day. We accept Christ. He accepts us and offers us the right to be God’s children. We accept His offer and claim our inheritance through Him. It’s so beautifully simple that, as a minister I greatly admire says, “You’d have to hire someone to help you misunderstand it.”

Anyone who accepts Christ and believes in Him is accepted--and given the right join millions who are born of God.

(Tomorrow: Good and Perfect Gifts)

Postscript: Subscription Update

To those of you who subscribe to Straight-Friendly, I apologize for the irregularities you've experienced receiving new posts in your email. Somehow, I screwed up the feed--ask me not how, but know I'm such a techno-numbskull it's no surprise. I believe it's been corrected now and will immediately send out the posts that went missing. If you experience further delays, please let me know ASAP. (And Merry Christmas, everybody!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Joy to All

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
                        Luke 2.10

The Joy Principle

After detailing the events of the Last Supper, John provides a riveting three-chapter (14-16) transcript of the conversation following Judas’s abrupt departure. Jesus alone realizes this is His last chance as an earthly man to speak privately with His disciples and His words read as a staggering sequel—a bookend, if you will—to the Sermon on the Mount. While the core message of self-sacrificial love remains, the content is much denser and the tone more urgent. Almost precisely at the discussion’s midpoint, Jesus says, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15.10-11) He concludes this passage with, “This is my command: Love each other.” (v17) In essence, then, we experience complete joy by abiding in Christ’s love. We remain in His love by obeying Him. We obey by loving one another. Total love, total joy—that’s the principle in a nutshell. They’re directly proportional: love for all brings joy to all and joy for all brings love to all.

Good News

Love and joy are so interdependent in Jesus’s teaching they’re virtually synonymous. What's more, this relationship didn't evolve as His ministry matured. It was there from the first, in the angel’s declaration to the shepherds on the night of His birth. In breaking the “good news of great joy… for all the people,” he simultaneously launched Christ’s gospel of love. The headline, of course, is “Today a Savior has been born to you.” Below that banner, though, is the whole story. Profound misery and sadness produced by sin would be remedied by love. Joy had come to the world at last and it would last because the Newborn Savior would redeem and endow us with everlasting love.

Looking Love in the Face

Later, in his first epistle, John alludes to Christ’s joy principle: “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it… so that you also may have fellowship with us… We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1.2-4) The compulsion to tell the good news of Christ’s love is common in those who see Him. Looking Love in the face generates unrestrained joy. It implores us to draw others into fellowship—in other words, to love unconditionally—since joy grows fuller by giving, rather than receiving. Luke writes: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2.17-18) They couldn’t help themselves—keeping what they’d seen a secret would have killed their joy.

In the next few days, as we hustle to put finishing touches on our holiday, I pray we’ll carve out a quiet moment away from the Christmas claptrap to see the Christ Child, to allow the Life to appear, to look Love in the face. I pray we’ll experience a renewed rush of joy that turns festivity into fellowship, tradition into transcendence. Seeing Jesus in His Newborn glory drives love for all and brings joy to all. It changes us. It changes others. It changes everything.

Looking at Love. [Gerard von Honthorst: Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)]

(Tomorrow: The First of Millions)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

God With Us

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.”

                        Matthew 1.23

A Moral Quandary

Matthew cites this prophecy (Isaiah 7.14) in a context that believers who feel pushed to the social and religious outskirts will find most interesting. Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy puts Joseph in an awkward situation. He’s indirectly been handed the awesome task of protecting the mother of humanity’s Redeemer. His familiarity with Isaiah’s prediction that Christ will be born of a virgin allays any knee-jerk suspicions about Mary’s chastity and credibility. Yet Joseph’s Scriptural knowledge likewise places him in a moral quandary.

Judaic law sentences women like Mary to death. (Deuteronomy 22.23-24) Once Mary’s condition forces her “out,” religious hysteria will rise against her. Her defense—based on faith in God’s promise—will shrivel under the glare of Bible literalists who value conformity over belief. As a product of his environment, it’s difficult for Joseph to shake lingering unease about what’s right. Trapped by faith on one side, religion on the other, he decides to resolve the issue with discretion. Matthew 1.19 says, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Today, we call people who adopt his out-of-sight, out-of-mind compromise “closeted.”


Although Joseph’s case is unique, his turmoil is not. Many of us deal with anguish about what our situations require—standing on God’s promise of acceptance or buckling to religion’s threats of rejection. In other cases, we confront ideologies of a pagan culture that scoffs at anyone whose faith defies its success and pleasure principles. We see this in 1 Kings 18, where Israel has fallen into idolatry and, as a result, hard times. The prophet Elijah challenges them. “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” Whether, like Joseph, we’re at odds with our religious upbringing or, like Elijah, at odds with our community, our dilemma is the same: faith versus conformity. Wavering between two opinions isn’t an option. Faith is the only way to go. Any doubt of that vanishes when we watch God step into Joseph’s crisis to turn his thinking around.

Immanuel Heirs

Satisfied with his compromise, Joseph goes to bed. But he remains troubled about how to maneuver his plan. Sparing Mary’s humiliation—as well as her and her Son’s lives—won’t spare him explaining things to his family. He can’t hide the truth from them forever. An angel visits Joseph’s dreams, telling him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what’s conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1.20) The crux of God’s message to Joseph is this: “Take courage in what you know is true instead of worrying about what you’re told is right.” And here Matthew underscores the truth of the matter with Isaiah’s prophecy. Mary carries the living presence of God—Immanuel, “God with us.”

Romans 8.17 says we’re “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” meaning we inherit the “Immanuel” family name. We embody God’s presence. He’s with us now and always. Hebrews 13.5-6 invokes His promise as our source of courage: “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” Joseph awoke to a new plan based on the courage of his convictions and nothing thereafter lived up to his prior fears. His family embraced Mary. She and her Baby met no harm. Joseph suffered no backlash for standing beside her. Waking to know God is with us frees us of compromise. As Immanuel heirs, two traits define us: undying faith in our Father and unyielding resistance to fear.


Joseph went to sleep with one plan, but after an angel visited his dreams, he woke up to another.

(Tomorrow: Joy for All)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Treasures of the Heart

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

                        Luke 2.19

Amid the Clamor

Luke’s Nativity narrative is far and away the most vivid account we have, so much so, it reads more like opera than history. His structural and descriptive talents serve him well as he moves from intensely private passages to sweeping events. One minute the stage is empty save one or two characters, the next it’s filled to capacity. Indeed, Luke encourages us to envision his story as opera by having his characters break into song. He actually composes arias for Mary and Zechariah, as well as an immortal angel chorus. Even when summarizing scenes, there’s music in the air. For example, he tells us the shepherds left the stable spreading the news of their experience and returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” (Luke 2.20)

Amid the clamor and excitement of the shepherds, Luke pauses for a gentle recitative as Mary ponders what’s taken place, gathering her memories as treasures of the heart. While the rest of Luke’s version is thrillingly dramatic in scale with the arrival of the King of kings, Mary’s quiet introspection strikes me as its finest moment. The sudden contrast of divine grandeur with human emotion is overwhelming. Yet I think Luke includes it for a reason beyond adding pathos. Mary’s example teaches us not to get so caught up in our personal dramas that we don’t step back to appreciate God’s faithfulness and handiwork in our lives.

Memory Matters

Psalm 77.11 reads, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” This comes in response to the Psalmist’s feeling isolated from God and inundated with trials. He struggles to find God in his circumstances, to lean confidently on His promise of unfailing love and mercy. But confusion and fear temporarily blind him to God’s presence. “Then I thought…” he writes, shifting his attention from current conditions to past triumphs when God intervened on behalf of His people in mighty, unexpected, and unprecedented ways.

Memory matters. If we become too captivated by living “in the moment” to remember God’s love and kindness for us yesterday, we risk losing assurance we need to overcome problems we face today. By the same token, memories that strengthen our courage won’t be available to us unless we take the time to store them in our hearts immediately after they happen, which is precisely what Mary did. One can’t help but imagine, as she stood at the foot of the cross 33 years later, her mind didn’t return to Bethlehem, where she witnessed God’s promises literally come to life. First-hand knowledge of His power then surely bolstered her faith that He would honor His promise to restore her Son’s life now.

Don’t Forget

David stressed the importance of remembering God’s goodness in Psalm 103.2: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” And what had God done for David? He attaches a long list that includes forgiveness, healing, redemption, love and compassion, satisfied desires, renewed vigor, and justice. These weren’t general attributes ascribed to God; they were actualities David recalled from his past. They were easily accessible because he’d treasured them up in his heart and consistently pondered them. God has done so many marvelous things for us it’s essential we don’t forget one of them. In the toss and tumble of everyday life, we must always remember to remember all His benefits.

We must remember to remember all the marvelous things God has done for us.

(Tomorrow: God With Us)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let's Go!

The shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

                        Luke 2.15

On the Move

For people traveling only in sandals and saddles, the Nativity’s characters cover a lot of ground. Before Jesus is born, Mary makes two treks to Judea, first to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem with Joseph. Meanwhile, the Magi cross the Arabian Peninsula in quest of the Christ child; they arrive after a layover in Jerusalem to meet with Herod. The night of Jesus’s birth, a shepherd band hikes into town. Eight days later, everyone’s on the move again. Mary and Joseph head for the temple in Jerusalem to present their baby to priests. The Wise Men return home by a different route. Then, warned in a dream of Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, Joseph packs up the family and relocates in Egypt. Weeks later, the Holy Family begins its long journey home to Nazareth. All told, the combined distance traveled by everyone totals well over a thousand miles.

Time and Place

There must have been a reason for so much movement in the scenario. Two possibilities spring to mind, both leading to one conclusion: those God selected to usher and greet His Son’s entrance were people of tremendous faith who acted on faith. First, they met the demands of their roles in timely fashion, at great personal expense and inconvenience. And timing was everything. Had the Magi, for example, waited for confirmation of Christ’s birth and His location, they would have reached Bethlehem after Joseph and Mary left for Jerusalem.

Second, much of the time they moved at God’s direction before knowing their final destination. All the shepherds knew was somewhere in Bethlehem, a Newborn lay bundled in cloth, cradled in a manger. How many of us would abandon everything we own to wander dark streets and alleys—especially in a town overrun with strangers—without better information? A lot of us would leave after work, once the day-shifters took over the flock, the roads were safer, and the townspeople could steer us to the right stable. Knowing no place in particular didn’t weaken the shepherds’ certainty they had no time to lose in getting there. “Let’s go!” they said to one another, and off they went.

Led by the Spirit

Anxiety about being lost or unsure of our surroundings is part of our survival instinct. It’s natural. But, as the Christmas story proves, God doesn’t always accommodate our natural fears. He defines direction without directions and destiny rather than destination. Natural hesitance and uncertainty thwart God’s timing and intentions. Unnatural trust in His guidance—moving forward in faith before His plan’s specifics are revealed—leads to glorious discoveries akin to finding the Savior in a manger. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” Romans 8.14 says. When faith charts our course, not knowing our exact location in life or where we’re being led isn’t the same as being lost. An old proverb says, “Where God directs, God protects.” Instead of worrying about where we’re headed, as people of faith, we’re confident He’ll get us there safe and sound, on time and in time. So what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

Mary and Joseph's faith enabled them to move as God directed, despite not always knowing where He would lead.

(Tomorrow: Treasures of the Heart)

Personal Postscript: Christmas Travels

While I’m still running behind on my daily posts due to business travel last week, I’m aware that many of us are starting journeys to join friends and family to celebrate Christmas. I pray God’s protection as you travel and His joy and peace as you reunite with loved ones. (I also pray His help as I endeavor to get Straight-Friendly up to date!) 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

He Cares for You

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

                        Psalm 8.4

Lower than Angels

David asks this question after marveling at God’s majesty—His glory above the heavens and his handiwork set in the skies. Given the magnitude of these achievements, it baffles David that the Creator even pays attention to man, or cares for him. “You made him a little lower than the angels,” he observes, “and crowned him with glory and honor.” He’s dumbfounded that God entrusts man with creation. “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (v6). It is a mystery why God endowed us with the ability to master His domain. Yet the answer to why God cares for us surfaces in the mystery. The wellbeing of the world depends directly on our wellbeing. Had God given us the skill and intellect to preserve His world and left us on our own, the splendor He spoke into existence would have fallen to ruin. He’s mindful of us because He’s concerned about the totality of creation.

A Family Matter

The author of Hebrews reads Psalm 8, however, and sees more than patronage. He/she applies the “lower than the angels” status to Jesus, Who voluntarily became less than beings created solely for His worship and service. In other words, He honored us with His physical presence by disavowing honor due Him as God. When reading Psalm 8.4 on this side of Bethlehem and looking at the Baby Jesus, we should tremble. How could we possibly merit the selfless compassion and sacrifice that compelled the Most High God to reach so low? Why would we ever question the depth and breadth of His care for us?

“The one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2.11 tells us. Surely a plethora of alternatives existed to Christ’s becoming one of us to save all of us. Yet Hebrews explains why this was His method of choice. “He had to be made like his brothers in every way,” verse 17 says, to become a “faithful high priest” and atone for our sins. It wasn’t a task for angels or heavenly emissaries. It was a family matter. By willingly joining the family of man, Jesus willed our right to join the family of God. In this light, David’s explanation falls short. God’s care for us goes beyond preservation; its aim is restoration.


Because Jesus suffered temptation, verse 18 reasons, “He is able to help those who are being tempted.” For many of us, Christmas loses its luster to feelings of inadequacy, rejection, loneliness, and other negative emotions that mar its meaning. We deflect subtle digs about how we throw the family portrait off-kilter. We endure prying questions about our personal lives. We try to overcompensate for perceived deficits that don’t exist. In our attempts to escape embarrassment with our dignity intact, though, let’s look away from mishaps with others to celebrate the birth of our Brother. He lowered Himself to join the family. He permitted Himself to suffer temptation in order to help us when we’re tempted. If everyone around the tree ignores the reality of who you are, He’s mindful of you. If no one at the table thinks you deserve concern or respect, He cares for you. That’s what Christmas means. That’s what your celebration is about.

Christ lowered Himself to become our Brother. If no one else in our family is concerned, He's mindful and He cares for us.

(Tomorrow: Let’s Go!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

                        John 1.4, 5

Life = Light

Quite a bit of light gets thrown in the Advent/Christmas chronicle, all of it converging in a single Beam of divine illumination, Christ. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned,” Isaiah 9.2 says, predicting Jesus’s arrival on Earth and His ultimate victory over the grave. But we cheat ourselves by not delving into the Scriptural references to light and parsing its nuances, because Jesus isn’t the only luminary in the Nativity story. In the end, we also shine. And if we don’t recognize His coming illuminates us, we remain in darkness, like those John describes as having not understood His purpose and plan.

John equates life with light. The life Jesus brought into the world ignites light in us. In Him was power over darkness and death, which He willed to His followers as His agents of life. In ancient times—and even now—dark times are uncertain and fraught with peril; thieves and murderers steal through the shadows, destroying the good that is done by day. The life Christ gives not only mitigates darkness; it enables us to restore the losses suffered under cover of night. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” We are full of life, which means we are full of light.

Light = Life

The Eastern Star, the heavenly host illuminating the shepherds’ pasture, and angelic auras that startled Mary and Joseph out of their sleep pulsed with life. They were intended as more than spectacular stage effects or magical storybook touches. They pierced impenetrable darkness with truth that the nefarious hold of evil and deceit had been loosed, that the finality of death was no more. The next chapter in God’s creative epic was underway. And it began precisely as the last one started: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1.3) In the beginning, light brought life. Now, in this chapter, life brings light. In the first chapter, the disobedience of Adam and Eve resulted in unworthy knowledge that overshadowed the knowledge of God and plunged the world into darkness. The penalty for their sin was death. When Jesus came to live among us, His life reestablished the knowledge of God as our light and restored the gift of eternal life. John says, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (John 1.9) The magnitude of this miracle is incomprehensible, however. “The darkness has not understood it.”

This Little Light of Mine

Tradition holds that we give gifts at Christmas to emulate the generosity of the Magi, who offered exquisite presents to the Christ Child. If we held strictly to this concept, though, wouldn’t we bring symbolic offerings to the church, perhaps, as an act of worship? Exchanging gifts between us would seem most inappropriate. But it’s not. The giving of gifts in fact emulates God’s gift to us—the gift of life and light in His Son. Jesus gave His light to us and, in turn, commands us to give that light to others. “You are the light of the world,” He preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, which essentially serves as His followers’ manifesto. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.14, 16) When we give gifts at Christmas, we tangibly practice the behaviors and attitudes that Jesus instructs us to adopt every day of the year.

That little Sunday school ditty we loved as children, “This Little Light of Mine,” carries tremendous force we should actively apply as adults. We’ve been given light to shine into dark places, to warm and brighten dark spirits, and to illuminate dark circumstances. We’ve got enormous creative power that we can’t hold back for our own enlightenment and enjoyment. Jesus came to enable us to do what He did—to bring light to people and places bereft of hope, joy, and love. We can say, “Let there be light.” His life in us is the light of men. People won’t always understand it. We may have trouble comprehending it as well. But we know it works. Our presence is a present. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The light Jesus brought into the world is given to us so we can give it to others. We too can say, "Let there be light!"

(Tomorrow: He Cares for You)