Saturday, August 9, 2008

Building Up Resistance

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

                        James 4.7

Plain Talk

You gotta love James. While not all agree, most scholars think he was a close relative of Jesus who later took charge of the Jerusalem church. Whoever James was, his epistle stands out from the others for its blunt force and candor. He calls it like he sees it and has no problem saying what he thinks. If you want plain talk about following Christ, James is your man. For instance, this verse comes after a scathing indictment of Early Church improprieties. James blasts them for quarreling, greed, wrong motives, self-gratification, worldly affections, and pride. He finishes with two directives: obey God and resist temptation.

Thrill Seekers

We’re all thrill seekers of a kind. Something (or someone) tempts us with an offer we know in our hearts we should refuse. It pushes the right buttons, makes the right promises, and dangles the right bait. We’re moving along, gaining ground in our Christian walk, and the next thing we know, temptation pops up out of nowhere. It’s against our better judgment to stop. Yet we do.

Having lost momentum, we take a few minutes to negotiate with ourselves. “I really shouldn’t” slips into “Maybe just this once,” quickly followed by “What harm could it do?” We may have a moment of clarity about what’s happening. We reluctantly walk away only to find we can’t shake it off quite so easily. That’s when “I deserve this” and “Nobody tells me what to do” come into play.

Forewarned is Forearmed

Serious temptation won’t go without a fight. It wants us many times more than we want it—making it hard to handle if we’re unprepared for it. That’s why we build up resistance as James instructs. How do we do that? Paul urges us to “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6.11) He gives us a checklist of things to wear: truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, and God’s word. In overcoming temptation, forewarned is forearmed.

If we resist it adamantly enough, temptation will leave us to prowl for easier targets. If you’ve hung around for last call, you know how this works. The analogy is not inapt. At best, temptation offers an exciting one-night stand—or maybe a brief fling. We want something more enduring and meaningful, however. True to form, James tells us how to find it in the very next verse: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”  It’s just that easy.

(Tomorrow: Preparing to Pray)

Personal Postscript: Tempted to Scream

This is the kind of stuff that makes me want to scream! I don't doubt the kind soul who hatched this tacky idea meant well--although I must question the motive behind giving God credit for the concept. What well-meaning Christian parents wouldn't spend a few bucks to put their tots in divinely inspired jammies? (Never mind that their little angels look eerily like Ku Klux Klan kids.) 

Setting fashion and taste aside, there's a bigger issue here--and it's too egregious to excuse. The armor of God is not sleep wear! It was originally designed for protection as we defend ourselves against temptation. It's meant to be worn at our most alert and vigilant. What are we saying to these young, impressionable minds

Let's do the math: armor is to PJ's as temptation is to... dreams!

Seeing how easily someone can take one of the most powerful, vital passages in the New Testament and falsify it for his/her senseless purposes or profit--to say nothing of foisting it on children--is it any wonder that gay Christians are misunderstood and mistreated by other believers? If I were a gambler, I'd put all my chips on this: the consumers this product targets and the intolerant Christians who target us are one and the same.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Caring Dos and Don'ts

Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

                        1 Peter 5.7 (New King James)

A Hard Lesson

My first real job was teaching in a Christian high school down the street from my best friend’s apartment. During the first year, horrible tragedy struck his family. His three-year-old daughter lay in critical condition. His wife was confined to a mental health facility. The spiraling bills kept him working to maintain their healthcare coverage. Despite unbearable grief and exhaustion, day in and day out, he drove himself to spend valuable time with his daughter and wife.

Being closest to him—in distance and spirit—I tended to his needs: laundry, housekeeping, cooking, etc. Soon the wear and tear started to show. One day, the principal dropped by my class. “I know you care for him and his family,” she said, “but you assumed this burden. Could you be doing too much on your own instead of trusting God’s grace for him?” She was spot-on. I had all but abandoned the young lives entrusted to me to compensate for losses that weren’t mine. My motives were solid, but my methods were shaky.

Do First Things First

In Revelation 2, God expresses admiration for the Ephesian church's deeds, hard work, and perseverance. "Yet I hold this against you," He says. "You have forsaken your first love. Repent and do the things you did at first." Before diving into someone else’s troubles, we should assess its costsCertain people and responsibilities have been placed in our care. They can't go untended while we lavish care on others.

Don’t Count on People

Perhaps worse than not caring is caring on purpose—thinking if we help others, we can count on them when we’re in trouble. That won’t always happen. We offer care expecting nothing in return, knowing help is always available to us. In Psalm 46.1, we hear “God is an ever-present help in trouble.” Count on that.

Do the Right Thing

We call people who permit others to hurt themselves enablers, contributors to the problem. Romans 14.16 advises, “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” We can’t always steer those we love from harmful behaviors. Yet we’re not caring if we tacitly endorse their actions with indulgence. Encouraging what’s right regularly means discouraging what’s wrong.

Don’t Work Solo

Caring often feels like lonely work. But keep in mind we’re never alone. As Peter reminds us, Jesus cares for us. Care is really a three-person process that puts us in the middle. When we pick up someone else’s burdens, we don’t hang onto them (as I did). We cast them on Christ. The finest way to care for others is introducing Christ to them and their problems.

(Tomorrow: Resisting Temptation)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

So How Tall Are You?

Who of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?

Matthew 6.27 (NIV alternate translation)

Worry Warts

What causes us to worry? Factors we can’t control. Outcomes we can’t predict. People we can’t change. Inevitabilities we can’t escape. Indeed, we can list all our worries under one umbrella: things beyond our reach. They may dramatically affect our lives one way or another. Until the moment of impact arrives, though, fretting about attitudes and developments outside our influence wastes energy better used where we can make a difference.

We call overly anxious people worry worts. Yet we can also compare worries to warts. They spring up, unannounced, often overnight, in inconvenient places. Their sudden intrusion and ugliness win them disproportionate attention. Unless we nip them in the bud, they grow, reproduce, and spread. Like warts, worries are viral.

The Evil Twin

Worry is the evil twin of care. On first impression, they look identical. Our acquaintance with both of them—their dispositions, habits, and habitats—helps us distinguish worry from care. Care is guided by eagerness to help. It’s remarkably efficient and undemanding. It gravitates toward areas where it’s most needed and welcome. By contrast, worry promotes helplessness. Its methods are futile, its cravings constant. It seeks out situations where it has nothing to contribute and makes things complicated and inhospitable.  We need not trick ourselves into mistaking one for the other. We’re aware of their differences. Therefore, we’re fully capable of caring more and worrying less.

Why Pray?

During times of high anxiety, my mom always says, “Why pray when you can worry?” As often as I’ve heard it, it’s like a splash of cold water every time. If I prefer to worry, I’m free to stare at mounting issues like the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights. But if I genuinely care, I talk it over with God. Since He covers all space and time, He’s already there, in the middle of dilemmas I can’t access, speaking to hearts and minds I can’t reach.

Jesus said worrying doesn’t make us taller. We think it raises our profile, proving we really care. In fact, worry diminishes us. It inflates our challenges and deflates our confidence. There’s plenty to worry with: families that don’t understand or accept us, strangers who hate us, Christians who disown us, systems that discriminate against us—and those are just the big-ticket items. If we truly desire to stand tall as followers of Christ, though, we shouldn’t worry about anything. So how tall are you?

One worries; the other doesn't.

(Tomorrow: Caring Dos and Don’ts)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Give It Up!

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.

Hebrews 13.15

Praise Genres

One might say basically there are two genres of praise: the big-time crowd pleaser, abundant praise, and the not-quite-so-popular sacrificial praise. Both express adoration and thanksgiving to our Maker. After that, however, little else connects them. Furthermore, grasping their variations explains their disparate popularity. Abundant praise rises in appreciation for what God has already done and means in our lives. We generate sacrificial praise in anticipation of what He can and will do with and for us. One responds; the other projects.


Sacrificial praise: projecting God's providence instead of surrendering to our problems.

Looking for a Home

Hebrews’ anonymous writer takes a fascinating route to get to the topic of sacrificial praise. He/she compares Christ to a lowly animal sacrifice. His blood was our sacrament of atonement, but His body was destroyed beyond Jerusalem’s walls, like carcasses the priest burned outside the temple gate. Next comes a magnificent idea: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13.13-14)

In one fell swoop, Hebrews depicts Jesus and His followers as outsiders, unjustly—yet voluntarily—disgraced by religious legalists as expendable and unworthy, people to be isolated and dealt with out of sight. “But that’s OK,” the writer insists. “We don't dwell in the present; we move toward the future.”

Lip Product

Like so much else in our walk with Christ, faith is fundamental to sacrificial praise. Hebrews defines it as the product of lips that confess God’s name. It doesn’t bubble with the excitement of “Thank You, Lord” or ring with awe like “How Great Thou Art”. But once you get the hang of it, sacrificial praise is every bit—possibly more—thrilling and awesome.

Praising God before He meets our needs exercises our faith and establishes His sovereign control. Try this: make a short list of things you'd rather not praise God about. Then shower Him with worship, sacrificing doubts, fears, and common sense to confess your faith in His love and power. Don’t bemoan the now, glory in the next. When your "praise party" ends, you'll sense a definite shift in your perspective. Excuse the cheesy euphemism, but when we give it up for God, He gladly welcomes our sacrifice of praiseplus the problems and anxieties attached to it. 

Quite possibly the greatest "sacrificial praise" anthem--ever.
"Total Praise" by Richard Smallwood & Vision.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Silence = Death

I was sick and you looked after me.

                        Matthew 25.36

Surprise! Surprise!

Jesus makes this statement as part of a provocative picture of Judgment Day. He says He’ll identify everyone and divide them as a shepherd does: sheep go right and goats go left. In this scenario, He welcomes the sheep into heaven by reviewing their compassion, hospitality, and generosity.  It takes them by surprise. When did they do all this? Loving their neighbors had become first nature to them; they never gave it a second thought.

But their surprise pales in comparison to the goats on His left. He turns to them and recites the same list, only in their case He says they failed to do these things. This outrages them and they become defensive. “Lord,” they protest, “we always helped you!” They quickly discover serving God means nothing if we fail to serve others. “By neglecting the least of these, you neglected me,” He replies before sending them away.

In Attendance

This story came to mind with early reports from Mexico City, where 22,000 people are gathered for the 17th annual World AIDS Conference. Scientists, healthcare workers, activists, advocates, ministers, and other concerned global citizens are there in attendance on behalf of the least. And, whatever religious beliefs they do or don’t have, our faith assures us their sacrifices and care won’t go unnoticed or unrewarded.

This pernicious virus continues to stalk the weakest, most vulnerable victims it can find. It exploits fear rooted in ignorance, superstition, and discrimination. This turns our attention to sub-Saharan Africa, where over 22 million people are infected. But no culture is safe from unfounded fright. Just this week, two news items prove this: China refuses to lift its ban on HIV-positive tourists for the upcoming Olympics and the Centers for Disease Control increased its previously announced US infection rate by 40 percent. In America, AIDS persists by coercing silence and shame from its victims and denial from society at large.

Disease and Dis-ease

As gay people, we’ve got used to living with AIDS. Some of us actually embrace it. We abandon any effort to protect others or us, mistaking recklessness for defiance. And we defy anyone to tell us what to do with our bodies and our lives. Whether or not we’re actually spreading disease, we’re undoubtedly spawning dis-ease. Accepting AIDS as a fact of life and then ignoring it is a deadly proposition. Anyone should understand the alarm and discomfort this causes.

By all means, GLBT Christians must attend to the sick. With AIDS, however, we should enlarge our scope of those we look after. While we extend ourselves to the physically ill, we can’t overlook the spiritually weak. If we choose to “understand” our brothers and sisters who endanger themselves and others and don’t try to steer them gently to safety, we’re like the goats in Jesus’s story. We neglect them and Him. People may love us for being polite, but are we really loving them? Might we be killing them with kindness? It’s as true now as it was almost 30 years ago: Silence = Death.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Glow in the Dark

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness.

Luke 11.34

The Eyes Have It

After deciding to follow Christ, we become His light. In Matthew 5.14, He told us, “You are the light of the world.” The transformative power of faith ignites new passions and desires in us. They illuminate our lives and bring clarity to our circumstances. In turn, how brightly we shine depends entirely on how clearly we see. According to Jesus, our capacity to see what’s good enables our incandescence. If we maintain a negative, gloomy outlook, we bring very little light to our situations. But if we view the world through optimistic, hopeful eyes, we shine. The light we emit dispels the darkness around us.

Star Power

We call the best, most charismatic among us stars because they glow in the dark. They view the world and what they have to give it in unique ways. The recent Jolie-Pitt twins’ “photo op” provides a superb example. Fully aware the tabloids would pay a fortune for snapshots of their infants, these superstars ingeniously took control of the situation. Instead of hiding from the paparazzi, they boldly shined new light on the deal. They redirected millions that would have otherwise lined a photographer’s pockets to help needy people.

They knew this would stir controversy. But they looked beyond their short-term comfort to envision long-term benefits. Rather than mount an ineffective defense to protect their privacy, they proactively defused an unfavorable outcome. They showed the respect and concern for others that they desired for themselves. They refused to be victims, recognizing they had the power to change the game. No doubt many stars will follow their lead, and millions around the world will be blessed as a result. It was a brilliant strategy.

Shine! Shine! Shine!

We have the same potential to seize control of looming darkness by radiating God’s light. This happens when we focus on possibilities for goodness. If we only concentrate on what’s wrong, our sight grows dim as our inner light fails. But if we view our dismal surroundings through eyes of faith, our light grows stronger and our prospects turn brighter.

When we shine hope into the dark hopeless corners of our lives, the impossible becomes inevitable. As Romans 5.5 says: “Hope does not disappoint, because God has poured out his love into our hearts.” As true believers, we govern our lives by unnatural principles. “What you see is what you get” doesn’t apply. In our world, what we see is what we give.

What we see determines how much light we possess to overcome darkness we face.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bread and Wine

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

                        1 Corinthians 11.26

Remembering the Price

Today being the first Sunday in August, many congregations will pause for the Lord’s Supper. Coupled with worshipers who celebrate Communion weekly, it’s likely more Christians will think about Christ’s sacrifice today than any other Sunday this month. The bread reminds us of His body, broken and tortured, splayed between Heaven and Earth on the altar of the cross. The cup recognizes the life poured out in His blood.

Jesus was assassinated—railroaded by a conspiracy to convict and execute Him on false charges. Yet, in the final analysis, the punishment fit the crime because Christ took it on Himself to pay the penalty for humankind’s lawlessness. Having cheapened what God gave us with selfishness, irresponsibility, and disobedience, it cost Jesus’s life to restore our lives to their original value. With Communion, we remember the enormous price Christ offered to reestablish our relationship with God.

The Great Leveler

It’s essential that the horror and brutality of the crucifixion not eclipse the eternal truth of its reality. In atoning for everyone at once, Jesus forever struck down the notion that any one of us is better than the other. Before this, the Law exacted specific prices for specific behaviors; the weight of the sin determined the sacrifice needed for forgiveness. Calvary became the great leveler. It confirmed our equality is based on fallibility—and, consequently, each of us has equal access to God’s grace.

All have sinned,” Romans 3.23 tells us. If, in my arrogance and ignorance (one being impossible without the other), I’m convinced God accepts me but rejects you because your sins are worse than mine, I urgently need to take a good look at the cross. There I discover no price difference for transgressions. Jesus paid for both of our sins with one sacrifice.

Once and For All

In 1 Corinthians 7.23, we read, “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” The Lord’s Supper, then, becomes a proclamation of liberty. As we share the bread and wine, let’s personalize their meaning. They bought our freedom from manmade opinions and fears. They purchased our future as followers of Christ. And they secured our inheritance to God’s grace and acceptance. The cross made all of this possible, literally once and for all. The work is done. No one is excluded. No further comment or action is required.