Saturday, September 13, 2008

Crowded Out

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong… do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.

                        Exodus 23.2 

More! More! More!

We can’t get enough for ourselves. The moment we sink into satisfaction, we rise to look for more. Once we go all the way, we want to go farther. After we say our piece, we keep talking and say too much. We don’t use half of what we have because we’re too busy amassing twice what we need. We should demand “Better! Better! Better!” Instead, we cry “More! More! More!”

We could blame this on basic greed and covetousness, but it’s not so simple. We’ve allowed marketing and media mavens to reduce us from unique individuals to demographic targets. They tell us because “smart people” like what they’re selling, we should, too. They convince us there’s no time to consider its value to us. Get it while it’s hot! They promise we can be trendsetters. The truth? We’re following along like everyone else.

Wrong Turns

Most trends are benign except for this—they lead us to believe we’re defined by what surrounds us rather than what’s in us. As kids, we construct identity by emulating others—“fitting in,” as they say. But how long must that take? “When I was a child,” Paul famously wrote, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13.11) Outgrowing childish conformity demands self-knowledge and strength to go with what’s right while the crowd gets bamboozled into wrong turns. It sounds awfully rudimentary. Yet if we know this, why are we often so easily convinced to follow? Isn’t it time we were “crowded out?”

Where Following Leads

By telling Israel “Don’t follow the crowd,” God addressed growing dissent and disbelief brought on by feeling lost in the wilderness. We read of their disobedience now and regard them with ridicule and condescension. That’s because we know the whole story. They didn’t. For example, they didn’t know how Moses’s climb to Sinai’s summit would end. From their perspective, Moses had vanished and left them at a standstill. Without a leader, they fell in step with the crowd—a very bad crowd, it turned out. It’s as true for us as it was for them. Losing sight of our Leader results in a loss of personal conviction. It encourages faith in false gods like success, security, popularity, etc.

Ultimately, God says, following the crowd can lead to injustice. Being “in” creates urgency to force others “out.” Conversely, if I live by my conscience and values, I’ll fight to the end for you to live by yours. Our shared respect takes precedence over our differences. I need you; you need me. But nobody needs the crowd.

Non-conformity isn't about standing out in the crowd; it's about withstanding urges that lead to disobedience and injustice.

(Tomorrow: Our High Priest)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Shake It Off!

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.

                        Matthew 10.14

Out and About

The most thrilling news we’ll ever receive is God loves and accepts us without hesitation. We may hesitate to accept this, though, because years of religious and cultural misinformation have primed us to think otherwise. Our initial reaction may be, “Can this possibly be true?” Many of us are so thoroughly steeped in believing the opposite, digesting this takes time—months, even years in some cases. When we work through it, unabashed elation overtakes us. We’ve got a great story and we’re dying to tell it.

We found Christ, believed we’d lost Him, went looking for Him, and found He never left. We’re like the woman Jesus describes in Luke 15. She mislaid a silver coin and turned her house upside-down until she located it. It was there all along. Then, coin firmly in hand, she called her friends and said, “Rejoice with me!” Once we’re out and about, however, we’re likely to meet people who won’t rejoice over our discovery because they refuse to believe it or simply don’t care. Before letting their disdain get to us, we should hear what Jesus says to do if this happens.

Move On

Jesus sent out the disciples with very specific instructions—whom to reach, what to say and do, what to pack, even how to behave as houseguests. But He also knew there was no guarantee they’d be well received and respected. “If you meet hostility or closed minds,” He said, “Shake the dust off your feet. Move on.” Shake off the dust? Was that a harsh gesture, the Bible’s equivalent of a flip-off? Almost, but not quite. Customarily, Jews passing through a pagan country took extra care not to bring anything back from it, including its dust. So Jesus basically told the disciples that those unwilling to welcome or listen to them were no better than heathens. Harsh, but it made sense. It still does.

Keep Clean

Some believe God loves us all, but He only embraces a few (namely, them). Others put no stock whatsoever in God or His love. How threatened they all must be when we proclaim His universal, unconditional acceptance! Out of fear and/or cynicism, they switch topics from God’s goodness to our error. That’s when it’s time to go. As we do, we leave their opinions right where we found them.

Negativity clings. That’s the sad fact hidden in Christ’s instruction. And good manners can sometimes corrupt God’s message. We gain nothing by indulging or debating those who want to soil our faith with condemnation and criticism. When we face opposition, we immediately shake it off. It may feel rude, but know it’s right.

We leave condemnation, criticism, and other forms of negativity right where we found them. Unlike these two, we shake the dust off our feet. (And, by the way, what could they possibly be doing, standing this way?)

(Tomorrow: Crowded Out)

Postscript: Bold Compromise and Delving Deeper

Unholy Boldness

Prior to launching Straight-Friendly, I spoke with several bloggers and regular blog readers about its objectives and the format I had in mind. Nearly all of them stressed brevity—keeping each day’s post down to a paragraph or two. Yet condensing the content of S-F’s posts inevitably would defeat their purpose. The most suitable compromise seemed to be bolding key words and phrases for scanners, while expanding the content in keeping with its demands for more traditional readers. 

Lately, however, I’ve got numerous emails saying the boldface technique is distracting and actually works against the copy. I completely agree and, as you’ve probably noticed, have eliminated it. Unless I hear otherwise, the posts will be bold-free hereon out. 

Here I Am Lord: A Blog You Should Visit

Almost daily, I finish a post wishing space would allow me to delve more deeply into the content. But S-F’s purpose is inspiration, not instruction. Thankfully, there are other blogs and sites whose primary focus is exegesis--i.e., exploring the context and meaning of the text in detail. Sherry, whom Straight-Friendly proudly claims as a regular reader, is the author of one, called “Here I Am Lord”.

Currently, she’s looking at the Gospel of Mark, verse by verse, as well as featuring posts from other blogs (including S-F) that she finds interesting. Her analysis is consistently exciting and insightful—particularly for those of us who find in-depth exploration of scripture a bottomless well of fascination. If you’re searching for an online Bible study resource, “Here I Am Lord” is sure to meet your needs. Give it a look.

Here I Am Lord

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Counting Days

Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

                        Psalm 90.12

No Promises

Seven years ago, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and sleep in. Then—naturally—around 8:15 Central Time, the phone rang. I rolled over, only half-listening to the message. It was my favorite aunt. How sweet of her, I thought, and how typical of her to be the first call saying “Happy birthday!” But without hearing her exact words, I sensed something dreadful in her voice. I lunged for the phone just as she said, “Please, please pick up so I know you’re not in New York!” Before answering, I told my partner to turn on the TV. And there it was.

We spoke less than a minute, hurrying off the phone in hopes of comprehending what we were seeing. Meanwhile, my partner, a TV news writer, threw on some clothes and rushed to work, six hours before his day normally begins. The networks suddenly lurched to Washington and something apparently happened in Pennsylvania, but those details weren’t yet clear. Through the windows of our highrise apartment, the sky queued with planes waiting to land at O’Hare Airport. In next to no time, they vanished. The streets quickly fell still. No one jogged or cycled along Lake Michigan. Whoever wanted America’s attention fully succeeded in getting it.

I called my aunt after it seemed the worst had passed. In a lame jab at levity, I moaned, “Well, this pretty much ruins my birthdays.” She didn’t laugh. “Son,” she said—I’ve always loved her calling me that—“no matter when this happened, it would fall on somebody’s birthday. Why not yours?” Next, she added, “There’s no promise you’ll live to see another birthday. Instead of complaining about what you won’t have, be grateful for the time you’ve been given and make the most of what you’ve got.” No gift I'll ever receive will be more precious to me than those two sentences.

Teach Us… Establish Us…

Psalm 90 is a prayer attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Knowing all he experienced—the extreme highs and lows of his life—helps explain its perplexing juxtaposition of God’s anger and our fragility. There’s much to say about it, more than enough to draw from it. Singling these things out, however, criminally diminishes the force it achieves as all of a piece. It speaks for itself.

In a slight departure from the usual format, I invite you to read Psalm 90 with me, in gratefulness for the time we’ve been given, searching our hearts about what we’re presently doing with what we’ve got. And I especially ask my brothers and sisters in the States to internalize this prayer during this hour of opportunity to turn our nation back toward justice, mercy, and humility.

Psalm 90

A prayer of Moses the man of God.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”

For a thousand years in your sight are a like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.

The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.

Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.

May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.

Let it be so.


Teach us to number our days.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who's Zooming Who?

And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

                        Luke 1.46 (New King James)

Big Praise

When we speak of magnifying the Lord, we ordinarily mean praising Him. In fact, most contemporary renderings of Mary’s song substitute “magnifies” with a “praise” synonym. But something gets lost in translation by downgrading Mary’s adulation to common praise. Her song comes at the biggest moment of her life—indeed, the biggest moment in human history. It demands big praise.

Having just learned she will give birth to God’s Son, Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, who prophetically confirms the angel’s news. The Bible leaves Mary’s age unnoted, but let’s assume she was a teenager, given the customs of her day. The awesome responsibility she faced would cause anyone twice her years to faint with fear. Not Mary—she breaks into song! “God has never felt greater, His favor never more real, and His power never so evident in my life.” Her soul rises in faith and magnifies the Lord.

Windows

As we listen to Mary, we see God in His fullest glory as our Creator, Redeemer, and Champion. His work in her reveals His potential in us. Unique though Mary’s situation was, we are like her in this respect: our souls are God’s windows. It’s through them that others observe Who He is and what He does. How He’s seen, though, depends on us. Our ability—and willingness—to magnify Him directly affects His portrayal in our lives.

The soul is a mysterious thing. It exists without a trace of physical evidence. We know it’s there because Genesis says God breathed into us and we became “living souls.” They’re His expressive presence in us and to the world. Jesus told us to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul. We might think of this as three rooms in one house. Motives reside in the heart. Thoughts occupy the mind. Emotions live in the soul. Motives and thoughts reveal us. But the faith revealed in our emotions decides the size and clarity of the God we display.

The Size Issue

Risking metaphorical overkill, emotions work like a zoom control. The happier we are to trust God, the bigger, clearer He looks. If despair and uncertainty color our feelings, we enlarge ourselves; He grows smaller, dimmer. The size issue comes down to who’s zooming who? “He must be greater; I must be less,” Jesus said, echoing Job: “Remember, you magnify His work for men to see.” Finally, David found that when faith-driven emotion enlarges God’s presence, the results are too wonderful not to be shared. “Magnify the Lord with me!” he wrote. It’s an offer we can’t refuse.

Our souls are the windows through which God is seen. Our emotions determine how greatly He's magnified.

(Tomorrow: Counting Days)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mercy Song

I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.

                        Psalm 89.1 (King James Version)

Universal Mercy Day

We’re hanging with King James today because we’re celebrating God’s mercies toward us and the occasion calls for poetry. So what’s the occasion? It’s Universal Mercy of the Lord Day. Before some of us get all Googly and jump off to check if such a day really exists, we should clarify this fact. Every day is Universal Mercy of the Lord Day. By merely waking to a virgin dawn we witness God’s mercies and that alone is reason to rejoice.

Lamentations 3.22-23 declares, “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” When the alarm opens our eyes to life’s realities, before anything else, we focus on four cardinal truths: God’s mercy sustains us. His love won’t fail. He replenishes both of them on a daily basis. And He never forgets, forsakes, or falls short of His promises. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” Jesus said. (Matthew 6.34) But if we greet every day as a celebration of life, love, newness, and faith—cramming the calendar with Universal Mercy Days—what our hearts hold will always overpower what the day holds.

The Song Never Ends

“Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul wrote, “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5.18-19) Song comes naturally to all humans, voicing our full spectrum of emotions. Subscribers to Christ’s unnatural lifestyle, however, carry a different tune. We sing “The Mercy Song,” attributing our blessings to mercy and recasting our woes in anthems of faith. When Psalm 89's composer vowed to sing “The Mercy Song” forever, it wasn’t poetic overkill. With fresh mercy falling daily, the song never ends. How essential is this to know? The Bible rings out “His mercy endureth forever” 41 times. Scriptural numerologists identify “40” with tribulation: the 40-day flood, Israel’s 40-year trek, Jesus’s 40-day desert war with Satan, etc. Mercy always goes one better, standing intact and unchallenged after trouble falls apart.

Make Some Noise

The Psalmist’s pledge exceeded humming to himself or bellowing in the privacy of the shower. Once he began singing “The Mercy Song,” he wanted to make it known. It’s the ultimate tune. It plays constantly in our heads and flows out of us. God arranged the song like that on purpose. If His endless mercy can’t be contained, neither should its song. When at last we grasp its enormous, powerful message, we’ll stop singing “The Mercy Song” to ourselves. Love for God and our neighbors will compel us to make some noise.

video

"His Mercy Endureth Forever": The West Angeles COGIC Mass Choir (with a little congregational noise-making at the end).

(Tomorrow: Who’s Zooming Who?)

Personal Postscript: The Rev

Rev. Fred Anderson is a retired minister and regular "Straight-Friendly" reader. He's also one of the liveliest bloggers I know. If something's afoot--in politics, religion, the culture at large--Fred's on top of it, speaking his mind and asking all the right questions. There's no doubt where he stands on the issues he raises or why he's concerned. But lest I paint his blog too seriously, I should also add it's threaded with a fine sense of humor and gentle irreverence.

A few minutes a day on his blog is like going to coffee with a smart, great friend. There's no telling what's on his mind at any given moment. But once you get there, it's sure to be thought-provoking, informative, or funny--sometimes all three. So pour a fresh cup of Joe, spend some time with The Rev, and, by all means, chime in on the discussion.

The Rev's Rumbles

Monday, September 8, 2008

Healing

I am the LORD, who heals you.

                        Exodus 15.26

Bitter Water

This word from God came soon after His most astounding deliverance of Israel: the parting of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s army. After watching their enemies drown, Moses and his sister, Miriam, threw an impromptu dance party on the shore. Alas, we know parties can’t last forever. Moses moved his people into the desert, where they roamed for three days without water. When they found an oasis, it only provided bitter water. Nobody was dancing now.

Here’s the Deal

Naturally, they were afraid. They had no map to the next watering hole. Their God had just tormented Egypt with plagues, killed its heirs, and vacated its throne and barracks. Turning back clearly wasn’t an option, yet no one knew what lay ahead. So here they were: in the middle of nowhere, following a man who didn’t want to lead them to begin with (and who was tongue-tied, to boot), with a God Who—from what they’d seen a few days ago—had a bad temper.

Unnaturally, Moses trusted the Lord for help. God showed him a piece of wood and when Moses tossed it in the pool, the water was fit to drink. While they lapped it up, God told His people, “Here’s the deal. If you listen carefully to Me and do as I say, you have no cause for worry. The diseases of Egypt won’t come your way because I’m the One Who heals you.”

Divine Healthcare

Following Jesus doesn’t spare us from life’s foul tastes. When bitter surprises threaten our stability and survival, however, it most definitely offers divine healthcare. Our God is a healer. If we wander into places that make us sick, afraid, or weak, we need to reach for his promise.

Don’t confuse healing with miracles; they’re not the same. Miracles defy logic. Healing relies on it. John connected the dots: “I pray that you may enjoy good health… even as your soul is getting along well.” (3 John 1.2) Attentiveness and obedience make healing happen. When we stray from that, our bodies and souls become susceptible to disease. It may take getting sick of being sick, but eventually we figure it out: healing from God starts with hearing from God.

Our healing rises when listen, trust, and obey God's voice.

(Tomorrow: The Mercy Song)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Place to Pray

I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place…. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.

                        Jeremiah 29.10, 12

Coming to Us

These promises bracket God’s plan to end Israel’s exile in Babylon discussed in yesterday’s post. We saw the impact our restoration can have where we worship and live. Now we see personal benefits we gain from coming home.

It begins with God’s return to us. This means He sees where we are. He knows many of us are cut off from our faith. He recognizes compromises we make because of this. Some of us hide in plain sight—“in” to our natural and church families and “out” to friends. Others trade “religion” for “spirituality,” living as believers stripped of our Christian identities. Still others adapt to the customs and attitudes of our new home; godly things we loved before we were rejected become quaint memories faded in a blur of pain. But wherever we are, God is coming to us.

The Land We Loved

He wants to bring us back to the land we loved. Yes, there was much unhappiness there, particularly if people we trusted turned against us. But faith is a bigger part of us than our sexuality, because it transcends labels and categories to speak to the center of our being. It’s our expression of the infinite love God invested in creating us as He did—male, female, gay, straight, black, white, brown, etc. Indeed, faith is the constant that binds our being. That’s why we yearn for it. Try as we might to suppress our ache to resume walking with Christ, it will never fully leave us. Without Him, we’re incomplete.

Psalm 137 opens with this: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Compared to the hardscrabble life the Jews left, Babylon must have looked like paradise—at first. Yet after they got acclimated to the environment, they found something missing beneath the style and sophistication and power. Sheer physics, not shared faith, held Babylon together. They sank into the mossy banks of the Tigris and Euphrates and sobbed.

Coming to Him

On completion of God’s plan to return Israel to its homeland, it resumed coming to Him in prayer and He began answering. What? This wasn’t true in Babylon? Of course, it was. The difference was in what Israel requested. As outcasts, other problems seemed less significant than getting home. Then, once they returned where people trusted God in everything, their prayers changed and God’s grace grew more evident. We need God in every area of our lives. We’ve experienced His presence all around us. He has come to fulfill His promise to bring us back to a place to pray--a place where we'll find answers. Let’s trust Him to finish His plan. Let's go home!

video 

"Celebrate Me Home"

(Tomorrow: Healing)

Postscript: New Places to Pray

Israel didn’t pack up at once and go home en masse. Its return was gradual. We’re seeing the same phenomenon as God’s plan for GLBT believers takes effect. We're coming back one by one and in pairs. 

Being God, He’s working on both sides of the equation—dealing with us to summon the courage and commitment to make the journey as He encourages pastors and congregations to welcome our homecoming.

The more of us who make our way home, the easier it will be for others to find their way.

This week, three additional churches join the “Gay-Friendly Church” roster. Nothing pleases me more than listing these new places to pray.  I urge those of you who live nearby and seek a welcoming church family to begin your search with them.

Bridgeport United Church of Christ, Portland, OR

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Lansdale, PA

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Minneapolis, MN

May God richly reward the pastors and people of these churches for their obedience and compassion!