Saturday, July 26, 2008

Happy Though Harmless

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Matthew 5.8

Hidden Agendas

I earn my living as freelance writer and creative director in marketing—a fiercely competitive field by any standard. Working with numerous agencies, I’m privy to information one firm would love to know about another. So when a “let’s-get-together” email or call pops up out of the blue, my first inclination is to wonder, “What’s behind this?” Shame on me! Have I got so corrupted and cynical that I automatically presume everyone I know is working off a hidden agenda?

My natural instinct to protect myself from betraying a confidence or being taken advantage of fosters unfounded fears and uncharitable thoughts. Its smog pollutes my heart. If my heart were purer, no doubt I’d clearly see God at work in these situations, whatever’s behind them or how they turn out. I realize we each battle different fears. For me, suspicion sits high on the list.

Snakes and Doves

Jesus advised us to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16) Our opinion of snakes typically falls into one of two camps. Either we’re fascinated or terrified of them, for many of the same reasons. Both sides agree they’re amazingly alert. Both also agree about doves. They’re impeccably clean and non-threatening. Hence we bathe with Dove soap and release bevies of them at Olympic ceremonies to symbolize peace.

So what is Jesus saying? “Stay alert and remain pure and harmless.” In today’s vernacular, “Don’t be naïve, but don’t get jaded, either.” This echoes His Beatitude lesson: “Harmless people are happy because they will recognize God in their lives.”

Hidden Realities

We purify our hearts by weeding out impure motives. We toss out every desire and ambition that puts our personal benefit over pleasing our Maker and loving others. We trust God to take care of us, to intervene for us, to protect us, and to bless us. These are hidden realities we treasure.

Since He’s got everything covered, what’s left to do? It’s a good question, although the answer may not sound so hot. He asks us to love and serve one another above and beyond ordinary expectations. That extra mile we like to talk about so much was Jesus’s idea. (Matthew 5.41) An impure heart asks, “What’s in it for me?” and, finding nothing, grows unhappier with every step. But a pure heart sees God’s presence all along the way. It’s a privilege, not an imposition—a harmless request. And that makes Him and us happy.

Another fun, fascinating "man in the street" interview: pure in heart.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Though Tried

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Matthew 5.7

Merciful God!

This idea of mercy suffers from inadequate airtime. It regularly surfaces without hanging around very long. Some of our liturgies give it a passing nod. (“Jesus have mercy. Lord have mercy.”) Yet for many it’s a baked-in part of the ritual, seldom receiving more than lip service. But mercy is important because it’s one of God’s most priceless gifts to us.

Without His mercy, where would we be? Surely as a species we’ve done enough damage to His world and each other to deserve His unbridled wrath. Surely as individuals we’ve crossed the line so many times that He has every right to disown us. Yet again and again the Bible makes a point of reminding us, “His mercy endures forever.” In other words, even at our worst we can’t match God at His best.

Less of Us Means More of Him

It’s foolish to believe He’s thrilled about it, yet He does it because He recognizes our weaknesses. He knows our beings often lose the struggle with our personalities; our intrinsic desire to please Him falls to our instinctive will to survive. How we must try His patience! Still, His mercy endures.

Jesus instructed us to be perfect, even as our Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.48) It’s a tall, realistically impossible order to fill. Jesus obviously knew this. Still, He set this goal before us to inspire us to get as close as we can to God’s divine nature. And in John 3.30, He explained how it works: “He must become greater; I must become less.” It’s altogether possible to overcome our personality conflicts with self-discipline and courage.

Endurance Tests

Now, let’s get back to mercy. One of the best indicators of how little there is of us and how much there is of Him is our score on mercy endurance tests. Nearly every day, we’re challenged to forgive a wrong, overlook a slight, or indulge a weakness. Many times it’s the same people making the same mistakes, exploiting our mercy to its breaking point. But, like our Father, we have to endure.

Though feeling used or frustrated by these trials, we see in others what God sees in us—struggle and failure. They may abuse our readiness to forgive. It might even mystify them. It’s no big secret for us, though. Showing mercy to others, repeatedly if necessary, positions us to obtain mercy. Given how much we need it ourselves, in even the worst cases, we stay happy though tried.

Knowing God's mercy teaches us how to extend it to others: "Your Mercy," Donnie McClurkin.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Happy Though Hungry

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matthew 5.6

A World Gone Wrong

It seems harder and harder to get through a day without bumping into a situation that’s blatantly wrong. We watch our leaders distort the truth to manipulate, even mislead, the masses. We observe colleagues in ethical breaches designed solely for their benefit. We witness family and neighbors’ callous disregard for others’ feelings and circumstances. In today’s world, the other guy is always to blame and we’re never at fault.

Who of us hasn’t been on the wrong side of the blame game? At some time or another, we’ve all felt the sting of being falsely accused or stereotyped or cornered into tolerating unacceptable behaviors and attitudes. If we protest too strongly, we’re either tagged as troublemakers or warned to wise up. “That’s how the world works,” we’re told. Maybe it is. But that’s not how we work.

The Righteous Appetite

As sincere followers of Christ, our first priority is His commandment to love God fully and our neighbors as ourselves. This places us in an awkward position when we encounter wrongdoing. Before leaping in to correct the situation, we consider what’s behind it. Almost always, we find the behavior is driven by fear. While that doesn’t justify it, it explains it and gives us no option other than offering love to those whose actions are grossly unlovable.

This makes no sense to the natural mind, but a mind tuned to Christ’s unnatural logic realizes it’s the best, the only, response. Unfortunately, it does nothing to satisfy our deep-seated appetite for righteousness. It leaves us hungry and thirsty. Forced to do without on purpose makes it close to impossible to feel happy about putting Jesus’s principles into practice.

Dinner Is Served

Even so, we can be happy. We can’t forget that righteous people live by faith. We replace what we think and see now with what we already know to expect in the future. Jesus assures us the craving created by wrongs against others and, particularly, us will be filled. Justice will be served.

Psalm 23 says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… my cup overflows.” Dinnertime is coming, with more than enough to go around. Always bear in mind that our Host isn’t keen on early-bird specials. He specializes in banquets and takes His time putting them together. As we wait patiently for what He’s prepared, we can surely remain happy though hungry!

You think this is something? Wait until you sit down at Christ's table!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Happy Though Modest

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5.5

Pride vs. Arrogance

A magnet on our refrigerator brags, “I’m in good company!” It’s encompassed by a dazzling roster of GLBT figures—Socrates, Michelangelo, Gertrude Stein, Renee Richards, Ellen DeGeneres, et al. Scanning the names, it’s easy to take pride in our community’s accomplishments and contributions to the world. It reinforces our importance and reminds us that we can never let prejudice and hatred to block our potential.

At the same time, we should remain aware an exceedingly short distance divides pride from arrogance. Our achievements, collectively or individually, may be notable. But they by no means entitle us to special status and undue rewards. Equality is what we’re after: the same acceptance and recognition afforded to the straight majority—no more and, most importantly, no less. If we take Jesus’s teaching to heart, modesty is the best policy for earthly success.

The Long Haul

Modest believers, He said, are happy because they’ll inherit the earth in the end. Short-term popularity doesn’t interest them. Instant gratification doesn’t tempt them. They’re unfazed by fleeting praise. Even should such things come their way, they check their egos and avoid getting sidetracked by good fortune. Likewise, if their efforts go unnoticed, they don’t give up. They’re in it for the long haul—and they’ve got a sure-fire strategy to get them there.

It turns out Jesus divulged His plan for modest success minutes after promising it. In Matthew 6, He told His followers to refrain from showing off and stop worrying about earthly things when we should focus on pleasing God:

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.33)

The Ultimate Windfall

We gain nothing (and risk everything) when we strive to impress others, including us. If we fail, we set ourselves up for unhappy disappointment. It’s worse yet if we do, because we’re drawn into a vortex of always trying to top our latest hit. Relentless pressure makes us miserable and saps energy we should devote to seeking godliness.

Modesty puts us at the right angle to look beyond temporary success and see the ultimate windfall. When God’s pleasure with us matters most, everything else looks minor by comparison. We’re happy whether we win or lose now, knowing that, if we stay modest, we’ll win everything in the end.

We'll inherit more than a free trip back to Kansas if we can be happy though modest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Happy Though Sad

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5.4

Blues in the Night

Grief will visit us periodically. Its shadows will reappear unexpectedly, sometimes throwing us in darkest night. Alone and unable to see, we cry for what we’ve lost or never had: our lover’s touch, our family’s warmth, our friends’ laughter, and so on. The emptiness is so overwhelming we think we’ll never recover.

Even in our times of deepest sadness, though, David reminds us that God’s “favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30.5) Sorrow comes and goes, but God’s favor endures day after day, year after year. He smiles on us always, even when we’re bereft of any natural joy. Our constant happiness depends on this truth.

Alone, Not Abandoned

As Jesus told His disciples He soon would be taken from them, their hearts sank. They’d been with Him for only three years. In that short time, their lives changed radically. They witnessed miracles beyond all human comprehension. They learned things that opened their minds to a future of unlimited possibilities. Now they heard that it was suddenly ending. They had every reason to feel depressed.

Don’t be troubled by this,” Jesus assured them. “I won’t leave you comfortless, like orphans. I will come to you.” He understood how we feel when grief strikes—like orphans, abandoned and unprotected. Loved ones try to console us, but their words ring hollow. How can they possibly know what we’re feeling? When we put our complete faith in Christ, loneliness and despair become opportunities for companionship and comfort. His promise to come to us lifts our spirits in hopeful anticipation.

Joy Will Come

Jesus taught us to be happy even though we feel sad, because we’re confident that joy will come. All believers should plant this promise in their hearts to reap its benefits in times of need. But it’s especially vital for GLBT Christians to cherish this truth.

Embracing our identity as God intended often demands sacrificing long-held comforts. Family and friends may turn away. Understanding may evaporate. Celebration dissolves into mourning. As people of faith, we can’t allow any of this to affect our happiness. Christ gave His word that we will be comforted. That’s worth more than anything we’ve ever lost or will ever have.

If you're dealing with sadness, take a minute and watch the sun rise bring new joy!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Happy Though Needy

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5.3

Spiritual Poverty

Genesis tells us that God breathed His own life into us and we became living beings. We call His life in us “spirit”—our direct connection to God’s divine nature. Our spirit expresses His presence in the world. It flows with His passions. It embodies His love. And above all else, it yearns to do His will.

Matters of heart and mind—what we feel and think—stand apart from spiritual concerns. Yet they habitually compromise our spirit’s health and prosperity. Distress breeds doubt. Pride brings presumption. Rejection bears resistance. And so on. These conflicts result in spiritual weakness and depletion. Our spirits would thrive if we could fix things so hurt and harm never knocked on our doors. But we can’t. Consequently, we sometimes find we’re poor in spirit.

Out of Sight

People may sneer at our confidence in God’s acceptance. They may question our rights to follow Christ. They may revile our determination to please our Maker by embracing our sexual orientation. These and countless other challenges tax our spirit to the limit.

These are surface issues, based on how others view us. They look real, but they’re not. Our reality lives inside, safely out of sight, protected from public scrutiny. When life seems to suck the life out of us, we stop focusing on our thoughts and emotions. We start trusting what we know. And we know in our spirit that we possess the kingdom of heaven.

Humility Boosts

Controversies about who can or can’t follow Jesus basically boil down to personality conflicts over status. Understandably, if unfortunately, Christians who ostracize fellow believers are driven by a need to claim superior rank in God’s kingdom. This attitude didn’t sit well with Jesus. Taking a young child in His arms, He said:

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18.4)

When others demean us, they contribute to our success by keeping us humble. They remind us that we’re powerless on our own, that our best defense is no defense. Humility boosts our spirits. It elevates our place in God’s kingdom. That’s why we can weather every imaginable adversity. That’s why we can remain happy though needy.

Interesting "man in the street" interviewer asks random people what they think this Beatitude means...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Happy People

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

Matthew 5.1-2

Lesson 1: Be Happy

We get our first good look at how and what Jesus taught in Matthew 5. He established His ministry through miracles (e.g., turning water to wine) and demonstrations (His baptism). Reports of these extraordinary events spread like wildfire. In no time, a crowd gathered wherever we went. Instead of pandering to the public’s desire to witness more wonders, however, the time came to pause and clue them in on what the hubbub really was about.

Jesus sat down and started to teach His followers. And where did He begin? He kicked things off with a lesson about happiness. In nine statements—commonly called The Beatitudes—Jesus gave us secrets for living happy, productive lives. According to Jesus, the happiest people were normally thought to be the most miserable—weak, sorrowful, timid, wronged, conciliatory, persecuted, insulted, and discriminated against. Furthermore, He boldly promised that those associated with Him would join misery’s company and then encouraged them to get excited about it!

Unnatural Logic and Instincts

Jesus called these unfortunate souls “blessed.” We hear this and immediately strike up the harps and angelic choirs. But to Jesus’s listeners, it meant something much less grand. First off, their God wasn’t generally associated with the blessing business. He blessed them, of course, but He also threatened harsh punishment if they didn’t obey. Naturally, their terror of divine retribution drained the “blessing” concept of nearly all its godly features. When they heard Jesus’s “blessed” list, it meant “happy.”

What He said defied all natural logic and instincts. No doubt, that much was enough for some to leave Jesus to His own crazy notions—and the crazies willing to stick around to hear more of His nonsense. (Unfortunately, there are many like them even today, despite the fact that His words survive centuries later.) Among the “crazies” who did stay, no doubt many held on to discover where Jesus was going with all this. His message puzzled them.

Breaking the Code

The Beatitudes mystery continues for anyone who tries to comprehend it with a natural mind. If we look at Jesus’s lesson through eyes of faith, though, it becomes crystal clear. The Beatitudes depict the believer’s code of behavior. When we break it down, we find Christ’s keys to happiness. Over the next week or so, we’ll explore them one by one. And we’ll soon see that being happy comes down to choice rather than circumstances. As followers of Christ, we can decide we’re happy people who lead unnaturally full and happy lives.

R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" captures much of The Beatitudes' spirit and message...