Saturday, September 27, 2008

God's Approval Rating

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

                        2 Timothy 2.15

Irresponsible Rhetoric

Occasionally, I swing by gay discussion boards to check out new topics in their “Religion and Spirituality” sections. The subjects are fairly consistent: Is homosexuality a sin? Will I go to Hell? How can Christians discriminate against gays? (These same questions rest beneath the purpose and much of the content here.) Each board has a few stalwart contributors who reassure deeply wounded, impressionable readers that God loves and accepts us all. I’m always gratified by their caring responses. But I’m also appalled at the irresponsible rhetoric from obviously smart people who exploit anguish and confusion to push their own bitter agendas. Forget Christianity, they argue. The Bible’s a fairy tale (no pun intended). Don’t worry with Jesus—just be a nice person. Shame on them!

Do Your Best

Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to win God’s approval; work hard to correctly handle the truth.” As another Timothy with similar responsibilities, his advice rings in my ears. I’m forever aware how we handle God’s Word is just as important as what we present. That’s why closely studying the Scripture, rather than plucking out the odd verse here and there to support our views, cannot be overestimated.

“The word of God is living and active,” Hebrews 4.12 says. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” By reducing Scripture to case law we cite in self-defense, we lose its real purpose. It’s not there to help us change someone else’s mind. It’s there to change us, to help us earn God’s approval. Any time we use the Bible as a weapon on our adversaries, regardless how skillfully we wield it, its double edge swings back on us. It splays us open, exposing our ugly intentions, leaving us to our shame.

On the Job

As true followers of Christ, we must be on the job, primed and prepared to share His good news. At the same time, we always remember His truth has no effect if it’s incorrectly handled. In our sports-crazed culture, many Christians imagine God stays glued to our games, cheering “our side,” and keeping score on His celestial JumboTron. Only God and they know how they concocted such an idea. They of all people should remember He’s the victor in our story.

When Pharaoh pinned Israel against the sea, Moses told them, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14.4) And, oh boy, didn’t He do it! Winning Scriptural debates is a silly, inexcusable waste of the Word. Winning God’s approval, however, is serious business.

A lovely postcard found online...


...with an unfortunate story to tell.

(Tomorrow: Give What You’ve Got) 


Friday, September 26, 2008

Thirsty

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When I can I go and meet with God?

Psalm 42.1-2

Panting

What a lovely, bucolic image—a sturdy buck beside a babbling brook or Bambi spying his reflection in the stream while bluebirds twitter overhead! Now, clear your mind’s screen and read it again. This deer is thirsty. He’s panting for water, which indicates there’s none around. Whence his thirst? The Psalmist doesn’t say. Maybe he’s stranded far from home in dry badlands. Maybe he’s running for his life, too frightened to pause for a sip of water to sustain him. Maybe streams he once drank from are now polluted. Maybe his dire need results from his negligence. Whatever caused his thirst, seeing him in such distress doesn’t paint such a pretty picture after all.

Bad Company

“My soul pants for God,” the Psalmist says with a cry that pierces the heart: “How soon can I find Him?” Then, he explains why he’s thirsty. He’s severely, visibly depressed. He’s fallen in with bad company that ridicules him. “Where’s your God?” they say. And just why is he so sad, surrounded by cynics? He’s moved away from people of faith. “These things I remember,” he writes in verse 4. “I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God.”

What led him astray isn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t his doing. Perhaps his personality clashed with the others. Perhaps they condemned him as a sinner unfit for worship or misjudged his enthusiasm. Then again, it may have been entirely his fault. Possibly he grew arrogant in his own knowledge and lost his faith. Possibly he invested all his energy in earthly success or sought out the wrong crowd, thinking it more sophisticated than the one he knew. At any rate, he landed far from his Source of spiritual refreshment and survival. He had to return.

Drink Up

Anyone who’s ever wandered from God attests to two things. First, extreme thirst for His presence builds gradually. We experience dryness early on and only by ignoring it—or deluding ourselves it can be satisfied elsewhere—do we wind up panting for Him. Second, once we return we’re always amazed to find He never left us. The water we crave is, and was, right there, on tap by the gallon.

Jesus told the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.14) When we come back, not only does God quench our thirst. He pours His water into us, guaranteeing we’ll never go without again. Are you thirsty for God? Drink up! There’s always more where that came from.

We can find ourselves isolated from God for all sorts of reasons, some of our own doing, some not. But He's always closer than we think, ready to refresh our thirst for Him.

(Tomorrow: God’s Approval Rating)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

When the Spirit Prays

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.

                        Romans 8.26

What We Don’t Know

A lot of us have heard this old saw, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” I gravely doubt this, however, and likewise doubt anyone believing it knows the first thing about life. (The same goes for “Ignorance is bliss.”) What we don’t know can hurt us, leaving us unprepared, uninformed, and unequipped to assess our circumstances accurately. After all, not knowing is what’s mainly responsible for every “Gotcha!” that comes our way.

Lack of knowledge makes us vulnerable to temptation and gets us lost. Proverbs 14.12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” This happens by relying solely on our faculties to do what’s right. We simply don’t know enough about all the factors playing into our situation—the people, the timing, the environment, etc., that can jump the tracks without reason and warning, turning routine runs into calamitous collisions.

Choosing Not to Know

Now let’s add what we choose not to know and things get real interesting. We have all, to some extent, trained ourselves to stare reality in the face and not recognize it. In some cases, this is out-and-out denial—substituting a friendlier alternative for ugly truth. In others, it’s more like convenient omission; we edit out potential complications that might stymie our success. For example, I’m the world’s worst procrastinator. I know this. Yet somehow I prefer not knowing it. I pull more unnecessary all-nighters than anybody around—more than enough to teach me discipline in the future. But my issue isn’t learning to do better. It’s admitting I need to learn, a weakness I can’t (or choose not to) overcome.

The Blanks

Not knowing plus choosing not to know pocks our prayers with blanks, placing us at risk of asking for wrong solutions. If accurately positioning our requests were left to us, we’d have constant disasters on our hands, because prayer invokes a sacred, sacrosanct contract between God and us. In Psalm 95.15, He says: “He will call upon me, and I will answer him.” We hear this message from cover to cover. Taken at face value, given our imperfect prayers, our lives no doubt would become a tangle of answers we don’t need and can’t use.

Thankfully, Paul says, the Holy Spirit comes to the rescue, filling in the blanks to ensure our prayers get valuable results. When the Spirit prays for us, it intercedes. It takes up the slack, corrects the translation, and accounts for all we can’t and won’t acknowledge. We don’t understand precisely how it works, but—in this case, and only this one—what we don’t know actually helps us.


Without jumping into all the theological discrepancies, Tibetan Buddhists have the right idea. They hang out prayer flags symbolizing general requests, believing the wind (a Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit) will catch their prayers and deliver them promptly and properly. In other words, they too believe the Spirit prays for them.

(Tomorrow: Thirsty)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fertilizer Happens

Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing.

                        Joel 2.14

Pests

Joel proposes this in the middle of a grim prophecy. Israel is about to be attacked from all sides. An army of locusts is heading her way to devour everything in its wake. They’ll obscure the sun, thrusting Israel into relentless night. There’ll be no stopping them. They’ll create such an uproar they’ll sound like chariots rumbling over the land. Their path will turn Israel’s green gardens into a desert.

Of course, Joel is speaking metaphorically. Yet we all suffer locusts—swarming pests, intent on ruining everything that sustains us. Alone or in small groups, they’re harmless. As their number grows, though, they’re a fearsome threat. They block all light of truth. They raise such a fury no voice of reason is heard above their racket. They destroy hope and confidence, unconcerned and unconscious about the impoverished conditions caused by their onslaught. If none of this resonates, watch cable news or listen to talk radio. It’s all locusts, all the time.

Locust Behavior

There are several aspects of locust behavior we should know. Overcrowding leads to proliferation. Constant bumping into one another excites them to reproduce rapidly. So the more there are, the more there will be—for a while, at least. Eventually, however, their numbers grow too large to feed and they have nowhere left to go. They begin dying off by the thousands. Then something truly fascinating happens. Their rotting carcasses make excellent fertilizer! The country they destroyed springs back, richer, greener, and more productive than before the swarm’s attack.

Short-Term, Long-Term

Joel’s prophecy turns on this phenomenon. God vows to drive the swarm “into a parched and barren land… its stench will go up; its smell will rise… I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten… You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.”

When we feel besieged, stripped of all dignity and hope, it’s vital to know by faith that God will leave behind a blessing. Our short-term inconvenience is meant for our long-term improvement. What’s been taken from us will be repaid many times over. Our lives will be more productive. Our faith will thrive. Our confidence will grow deeper roots. These and many other blessings are why fertilizer happens.

(This post was inspired by a sermon of Bishop Randy White, Church Without Walls, Tampa, Florida.)

Fertilizer waiting to happen...

(Tomorrow: When the Spirit Prays)

Postscript: Mompriest & Company

Feminist Theology in an Age of Fear and Hope is an enormously rich blog I came upon via Here I Am Lord. It’s a product of the Women’s Ministry at the National Episcopal Church Center in New York and welcomes everyone to its conversation with this:

Here is a place for people of faith to ponder the various ways we know God in the world, and, in one another.

Its host, Mompriest, and numerous other writers offer a feast of faith. Its thoughtfully prepared meditations span subjects important to all believers, male and female. Much as Straight-Friendly’s content attempts to stress universal principles underlying its GLBT perspective, Mompriest & Company use a feminist prism to break forth the Bible’s full spectrum of meaning. Every post brings fresh insights and reinforces timeless truth. The writers there have a special gift for challenging the mind and soothing the spirit at the same time. Anyone seeking deeper knowledge of his/her faith should make Feminist Theology a regular habit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Don't Stop

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

                        Philippians 4.4-5

The Bright Side

One of my favorite “religious” movie moments comes at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. For anyone not familiar with this edging-toward-irreverent farce, Brian is about an unlucky guy born the same day and in the same neighborhood as Jesus. The two cross paths consistently and Brian haplessly falls in with a group of zealots that mistakes him for the Messiah. He’s arrested, crucified (for lousy Latin conjugations), his followers vanish, and the film closes with this little ditty—“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

It’s typical Python comic irony, iron clad and iron-fisted. Yet it’s also improbably correct for a movie indirectly based on the life and teachings of Jesus. (You can take the boys out of Anglicanism, but you can’t take Anglicanism out of the boys.) While He dealt with every imaginable kind of human sadness, Jesus consistently taught joy. “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete,” He says in John 16.24. And in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you’re persecuted and lied about because of Me, rejoice!” Or, in Pythonese, “Always look on the bright side.”

Joy and Gentleness

Paul picked up this theme in Philippians: Always rejoice. A lot of believers stop there, taking it as a sort of positive-thinking mantra, which one supposes it is. But Paul’s follow-up statement suggests there’s more to Christian optimism than meets the eye. Joy spawns gentleness. Our determination to practice joy (rather than experience it) blunts the edge of any hardship, criticism, and opposition that confronts us. This isn’t show-tune psychology—forget your troubles and just get happy. It’s a two-edged defense that shields us and exposes God’s presence in us. “The Lord is near,” Paul wrote. Our joy in this instructs that our best defense is no defense. We answer cruelty with kindness. Joy makes us gentle.

Withholding Consent

Christ’s promise of joy in John 16 comes at a difficult moment as He prepares the disciples for His death. In verse 22, He assures them: “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” On this side of the Resurrection, His promise becomes reality. No one can steal our joy—without our consent, that is. We make ourselves depressed, bitter, angry, and so on by allowing others to interrupt our joy. And when joy ceases, gentleness fades. We lash out, fight back, or roll over and play victim. God is no longer visible to those who need to see His power working in us. Any time someone tries to steal your joy, withhold consent. Don’t stop rejoicing. Make your gentleness evident. Your joy is essential—to you and everyone around you.

video

OK, maybe the song is more cynical than I remember, but it's got a great hook! Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"

(Tomorrow: Fertilizer Happens)

Monday, September 22, 2008

I Surrender!

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

                        Matthew 16.25

Lost and Found

The financial term for recovered loss is “made whole.” This intrigues me, as it derives from a King James Version euphemism for healing. The hemorrhaging woman, for example, is “made whole” by touching Jesus’s cloak. The modern usage is altogether appropriate, since restoration is the overarching theme of Christ’s ministry. His parables constantly return to “lost and found”—the lost sheep, coin, pearl, etc. And in Luke 19.10, He defines His mission: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” He came to make us whole, to restore our lost hope and relationship with God. Then, in one of His many classic reversals, He tells us we’ll find what we’ve lost by losing what we have.

Taking Stock

It takes a few tries to bank that hairpin. Our first impulse focuses on the verbs: save/lose, lose/find. But it helps to consider what we must lose and what we’ll find. Although Jesus uses one word (“life”), He’s speaking of two things. This lost-and-found message isn’t retrieval. It’s replacement—the exchange of an obsolete, dysfunctional, selfish life for one that’s relevant, effective, and caring. What must be lost, then, are habits, attitudes, and fears that contradict His principles. (Notice the subtle insertion of “for me” on the lose/find side of the equation.) We like to say we “give our hearts to the Lord.” If only it were that simple, handing ourselves over to let Him sort out our mess! It’s not, though. Taking stock of our lives, discarding everything unsuitable for His use is our job.

What’s in Your Closet?

“Coming out” isn’t an exclusively gay rite. Our individuality requires all of us to leave some kind of closet. We all worry how others will respond when we muster the courage to be ourselves. In the process, we amass piles of prejudice, resentment, and disappointments—along with selfish desires, expectations, and beliefs. At first, they help solidify our resolve to live our own lives. But once they’ve served their purpose, we don’t toss them. We stash them away, just as we cram our actual closets with derelict appliances, funky clothes, and cheesy memorabilia. We can’t use them, don’t like them, are embarrassed by them, and need the space for better things. Still, we hold on to them in case

So what’s in your closet? We all need to take a realistic, pragmatic inventory of our closets, haul out everything that gets in our way, look at it one last time, say, “I surrender!” and throw it out, once and for all. That’s how we lose our lives and how we find them.

Clay Crosse: I Surrender All

(Tomorrow: Don’t Stop)

Postscript: Two Sisters

Just when I think I can’t possibly be more amazed at the extraordinary group of people who intersect at Straight-Friendly, someone else pops up and I’m bowled over once again. Among the more recent stunners are two new “sisters,” Tammy and Fran, each of them a knockout in her own unique way.

Tammy is a Web designer and the music minister at Oklahoma City’s Cathedral of Hope, a thriving community of faith with a predominantly gay membership. Not that it matters, but Tammy isn’t gay. After years of service in mainstream churches, she offered her talents to COH in response to God’s call to repent (her word) from the homophobic doctrine embraced by the congregations she served. Since then, she’s become a zealous champion of GLBT inclusion in her hometown and anywhere else she’s needed. Her story, spirit, and talents are truly remarkable, and you can discover them for yourself on her Website. To give you a little taste, though, here’s one of my favorite gems:

What’s most important to me isn’t a “movement” or a “church” or a group called “Christians”, what's most important to me is what God truly wants. What I’ve come to realize is it’s not more programs or more churches or more “Christians” who do everything right. He wants [an] authentic relationship with YOU, with ME. Period. Again, there’s no magic formula, God doesn’t care if you say the “right” words, do the “right” things, He cares that you reach out to Him and that you are REAL in your relationship with Him.

Amen, sister! There’s a lot more where that came from, at:

www.isaiah61psalmist.com

*****

If there’s a sharp, progressive, inclusive Christian blog or Website that Fran’s not hip to, give her half a second. While her blog, FranIam, isn’t limited to theology (her passion for social justice, politics, culture, and people runs just as hot), it’s tough to imagine there’s a foot of theological turf she’s not covered. FranIam reminds me of a cool off-campus spot where all the movers and shakers hang out. The eclectic personalities and subject matter one finds there are astonishing.

In one click on my scrollbar, I was whisked from a link to an article about the infamous Ms. Spears (“Britneytards, Unite!”) to a powerfully introspective post in which Fran ponders her decision to volunteer for the Obama campaign. This piece was headed by provocative quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Edith Wharton and closed with Gandhi’s timeless truth, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Finally, FranIam is an invaluable resource for anyone with far-reaching interests. Its blog roll is an embarrassment of riches and you’re sure to find yourself leaping around the Internet like a crazy person (as I did), exploring link after link. But you always come back to Fran, because her magnetism and energy are what holds this enthralling crowd together. Check her out! 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Going Overboard

Jonah ran away from the LORD.

                        Jonah 1.3

Who, How, What… and Where

I’m completely convinced we’re created by God as we are. Our beings—what we bring to the world, i.e., gender, ethnicity, and sexuality—are what He gives us to work with. We fashion personalities: attitudes, behaviors, and values to promote our wellbeing. But there’s more to us than who we are (being), how we are (personality), and what we achieve (success). God made us for two specific reasons: to embody His presence and bring Him pleasure. Where we are impacts our ability to do both.

Even in this age of data, demographics, and projections, it’s hard to fathom the infinite details involved in our making. Knowing exactly where He wanted us to be, God accounted for every person, situation, and challenge we’d meet. He shaped each of us uniquely for those things, placing us where we are as His expression and for His honor. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: God has a singular plan for every one of us. The question is how well do we map our lives to His plan?

On the Run

We can’t always be certain we’re in the right place, doing the right thing. But there are times when we're fully aware of where God wants us to be and what He expects us to do. Contention ensues between His plan and ours. If both move in synch, it’s no problem. It’s when we avoid the people and places He leads us to that we head for trouble. Ask Jonah. He knows.

God told Jonah to minister in Nineveh, a wicked, inhospitable city. Instead, he bought a ticket to Tarshish, a friendlier port. It may have needed his ministry, too. But he didn’t set sail for that. Jonah was on the run, trying to escape God’s plan. Relieved at dodging the Nineveh job, he napped. He awoke to terrified cries at a storm that rose so abruptly and inexplicably it had to be an act of God. Something or someone had gone seriously wrong. Initially, he said nothing, hoping to ride out the storm. It continued to batter the ship and he came clean. “Throw me overboard,” he told the sailors, “and you’ll be spared.”

Environmental Disturbances

Some of us currently—or may one day—find we’re off God’s map. We’re not lost. We’re there by choice, ignoring His call to serve unpleasant people and places. By being out of place, however, we disturb the environment. Like Jonah, we’re probably oblivious to this. We curl up and doze off, thinking we’re safe. But our plan will eventually stir up trouble, not only endangering us but also those around us. Sooner or later, we'll have to deal with the fact that we've chosen a destination located nowhere in God's plan.

Are we where God created us to be? If so, let’s accomplish all He’s given us to do. But if we’re on the run—if we’re not where He needs us and we know it—perhaps it’s time to consider going overboard. It’s a frightening idea, leaping out of our comfort zones into seas of uncertainty. Yet, as Jonah’s story bears out, once we’re back on God’s map, amazing things happen.

Running away from where God wants us to be only leads to trouble--for us and those around us.

(Tomorrow: I Surrender!)

Postscript: Places to Be

Thankfully, understanding God’s plan and discovering our place in His world isn’t left solely to us. He’s provided able assistance through people whose knowledge, experience, and encouragement help keep us on course. In Ephesians 4.11-13, Paul wrote, God “gave some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature.” (How’s that for a run-on sentence?)

We need compassionate leaders to build our confidence and set examples for us to follow. We need the company of other believers we can fellowship with and reach out to in moments of weakness and distress. We need places to be who we are, as honest individuals and followers of Jesus. As people often categorized under “alternative lifestyle,” we need a healthy alternative to the many unhealthy alternatives relentlessly beckoning us away from God’s map.

I’m happy to add two new “alternatives” to the Straight-Friendly “Gay-Friendly Churches” list. The emails I’ve exchanged with their pastors this past week leave no doubt that they’re passionately committed to inclusion and guide their people with great care and understanding. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Expressions Community Fellowship, Oklahoma City, OK

The United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

Finally, if you attend or visit any of the churches listed here, it would be nice to hear from you. When you get a moment, send an email describing what your church is like, what you’ve experienced, learned, and gained from it, etc. From time to time, I’ll share comments I receive with the Straight-Friendly readers. (Note: please include a sentence explicitly giving your permission to be quoted publicly.)

Thanks. I eagerly look forward to hearing from you.

Tim

straight.friendly@yahoo.com