Saturday, October 11, 2008

Your Kingdom Come

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come…”

                        Matthew 6.9-10

The Kingdom of God

“The kingdom of God” is the foundational doctrine of Christ’s entire message. As a Jew preaching to predominately Jewish audiences, the concept of God’s kingdom—i.e., restoration of Israel through His Chosen One, the Messiah—held particular resonance and urgency. Their national history was stained with captivity, invasions, and subjugation by outside forces that honored neither their culture nor their faith. At the time of Jesus’s ministry, Rome bridled them with tight reins in the latest of what looked to be an endless series of indignities and abuses. They begged God for relief and raised dirges of despair to their temple rafters. “How long will the enemy mock you, O God?” they sang. “Will the foe revile your name forever?” (Psalm 74.10) So, when Christ preached the kingdom of God, His countrymen listened with great interest. What He said about it, though, offers terrific news for us all.

Seed Stories

Luke captures a pivotal moment in Jesus’s “kingdom” ministry. The Pharisees try to needle Him into predicting when God’s kingdom would come. They hope to lure Him into Messianic claims and then challenge His authority based on His failure to deliver Israel from Roman rule. The taunt is too bold and bald to fall for, however. In response, Jesus exposes their pettiness and conclusively redefines what “the kingdom of God” means. “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation,” He answers, “nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.20-21)

The kingdom is in us—what can that mean? Now it gets exciting. Jesus typically discussed God’s kingdom in parables, sometimes spinning several versions of one story. In Mark 4, for instance, He tells three “seed” stories. A farmer scatters seeds in various places but only those planted in good ground produce. Another farmer sows seed in rich soil and it grows by itself. In the third story, a miniscule mustard seed flourishes into the tallest plant in the garden. God’s kingdom is the seed. We are the soil. We invite God into our lives, His kingdom takes root, and it thrives in us.

Being Green

When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” what we’re really saying is, “We’re yours.” We yield to His purpose, asking Him to use us as good ground for His kingdom. As its roots deepen and it matures, His kingdom begins bearing fruit. It enriches our hearts, strengthens our spirits, and replenishes our minds. When His kingdom comes, everything about us grows. Being green is what God’s kingdom is all about.

God plants His kingdom in us and we grow as it grows.

(Tomorrow: Your Will Be Done)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hallowed Be Your Name

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

                        Matthew 6.9

The One True God

The main difference between ancient Israel and other nations was monotheism. While other peoples worshipped many gods, Jews served “the One True God.” Their awestruck reverence for Him extended to unworthiness to call His name. In order to write about Him, they struck the vowels: “Yahweh” became “YHWH.” This is why Old Testament translations render His name in all-caps (“LORD”), while some English-speaking Jewish sects spell it “G-d.”

Although they dared not speak it, God’s name was their greatest treasure. As heirs of His covenant to redeem them, they collectively identified with His name. He constantly reminded them through prophets that Israel was “called by My name,” assuring His commitment to its longevity and success. Unlike other cultures, whose gods reflected human frailties and temperaments, Israel’s God was unique unto Himself—all-powerful, all wise, and impervious to temptation or failure. He alone was holy, wholly without fault. As His people, it was essential for the Jews to prove this by living up to His name.


Thus, when Jesus instructs us to pray, “Hallowed be your name,” He’s teaching us to recognize two things at once: God is holy and we must be holy. Paul writes in Ephesians 4.24: “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Being holy, then, comes by perfecting God’s image and expression in us, emulating His qualities and characteristics, seeking His desires and pleasure above our own. This radically alters our approach to being holy from what we shouldn’t do to what must be done. Yes, holiness focuses on abstaining from unhealthy, unacceptable behavior. But it’s a means, not an end; it allows God to shine through us—that’s its purpose. The Hebrews writer says, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12.14) If we want others to see God in us, we can’t permit controversy and self-indulgence to block their view.

What’s in a Name?

So Juliet famously asked. It’s a compelling question coming from one so young. Yet Shakespeare devoted the rest of Romeo and Juliet to exposing its naivety. Juliet’s mistaking identification for identity precipitated enormous confusion and tragic outcomes. She was correct up to a point. Names don’t define us. But she missed this part: names distinguish us. They specifically identify us, setting us apart from everyone else. Then, once people become better acquainted with us, our names and identities merge, becoming associated with certain behaviors and expectations. When we fall short, they say, “That’s so unlike Mary/Michael!”

Isaiah 62.12 says, “They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.” The Lord’s Prayer reminds us God’s name is holy and worthy of reverence. But let’s remember His name also says much about us. Once deserted, He sought after us. He distinguished us as Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD. In praying, “Hallowed be your name,” we pledge our all to build lives worthy of His name.

Our identification with God's name requires us to live worthy of its calling.

(Tomorrow: Your Kingdom Come)

Personal Postscript: New Life

Last week, I shared with you our grief over the loss of our beloved 14-year-old cat, Felix. The love you showered on Walt and me was amazing and your prayers for our comfort were most definitely answered. There's new life in our house. With great joy, I'm delighted to introduce Cody, our seven-week-old, peerlessly feisty, endlessly curious and affectionate kitten.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

In Heaven

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven…”

                        Matthew 6.9

The Land of Oz

When I was about six or so, my Sunday school teacher did her best to drive home how we should love and obey God so we can go to Heaven. Oh, what a magical picture she painted—everything all shiny and happy, full of wonderful people to visit with. She went around the room, asking whom we most wanted to see there. A lot of grandparents made the list and a few kids said, “Jesus.” (Give them gold stars!) My turn came and I said, “I want to see Dorothy and Toto.”

It was an honest answer. The Land of Oz was the only thing I knew fitting her description. Despite all I’ve learned, I'm still fighting that image of Heaven as an Art Deco wonderland with glistening Technicolor towers and a shrill welcome chorus singing, “You’re out of the dark, you’re out of the woods, you’re out of the night.” Yes, it’s foolish, yet all these years later I’ve not found a suitable replacement. If Heaven doesn’t look like Oz, what does it look like?

No Reference Point

Having no reference point frustrates our vision of Heaven. It’s like nothing we’ve ever known or seen. Attempting to describe it, Paul refers the Corinthians to Isaiah 64.4: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” I imagine his readers closing Isaiah and saying, “Well, that was no help!” 

“Hang on,” Paul says. We can’t picture Heaven in our minds, “but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit,” adding, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (1 Corinthians 2.10, 13) We can’t explain Heaven because we haven’t words or wisdom to adequately define it. Heaven is a spiritual truth, not the Emerald City or a sublime subdivision inhabited by haloed harpists and cloud jockeys. Here’s all we need to know about it: it’s true and it’s real, because God is true and real, and Heaven is His home.

Going to Heaven

Seeing Heaven as a spiritual reality—as opposed to a physical, post-physical, or metaphysical “state”—synchs up with what Jesus told the woman at the well: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.24) Acknowledging God dwells in Heaven ushers us into the reality of His presence. It removes us from human interference compromising our clarity. It sets the stage for intimate, truthful conversation and lifts natural boundaries to our faith. Most of all, it changes the flow. We go to Him first with our needs. Then He comes to us.

When we readjust our concept of Heaven in this way, it becomes more than a celestial afterlife resort. We go to Heaven every time we pray! When we recognize this, “Our Father in Heaven” gains fresh meaning. It’s not just a sacred “Hello.” It says, “I’m here because I need to talk to You.”

Heavenly, yes; Heaven, no.

(Tomorrow: Hallowed Be Your Name)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Our Father

This, then, is how you should pray: “’Our Father…’”

                        Matthew 6.9 

The Spirit of Adoption

In Romans 8.15, Paul writes: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'" What a startling comparison—slavery to fear and adoption by God—especially for the Romans, who understood slavery and adoption all too well. Reading this, they added an implicit layer that we may miss: class.

In ancient Rome, slaves of even the most beneficent masters lived in fear. They never were totally insulated from being wrongly accused by someone outside their household, traded off as part of a package deal, or cast into the streets for a minor infraction. Their status as slaves left them next to no legal recourse to correct their circumstances. Adoption was reasonably common, yet it was confined to class because it involved inheritance. It took tremendous courage for a master to adopt a slave because doing so vested his new son or daughter with privileges reserved to citizens of the state. When the Romans read Paul’s words, they were stunned and comforted by their meaning. The Spirit of adoption sealed them from danger and confirmed their rights to approach God in an informal, familiar, unafraid manner. Paul said, “Call Him ‘Abba’”—an Aramaic honorific roughly equivalent to “Dad.” Bottom line: by adopting us, God makes us all equal.


Later in his letter, Paul explained how God’s adoption process works: “You, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap of the olive root.” (Romans 11.17) This goes back to one of his great recurrent themes: inclusion. Metaphorically, Paul describes Israel as an olive tree and tells Roman/Gentile believers that they’ve been given the same access to God’s Spirit (the sap) as the Jews. It flows out of Him into us. It nourishes us, increasing our capability to yield fruit and securing our place among His people. It goes beyond being accepted: it alters our identity—our spiritual DNA, if you will. No longer slaves to fear and outcasts, we are truly one of God’s own.

How We Should Pray

In this first post in a series on the Lord’s Prayer, I hope to challenge us to rethink it line by line. Too often, particularly in worship services, we say it ritualistically, half-mumbling through it with the rest of the crowd. But Jesus carefully chose every word, intending it more as a prayer template than a liturgical recitation. “This is how you should pray…”

Right from the start, there are a number of things to know and feel about “Our Father.” He has made us His own, freeing us from the bondage of fear. He has given us His name, entitling us to all He possesses. We come to Him not as a stern patriarch, but as a paternal, caring presence. We are all equal, none better or more favored than the other. Though once considered outsiders, He has grafted us into His family. His same Spirit flows through each of us, nurturing us and empowering our ability to produce. We share His DNA and a fundamental genetic resemblance to one another. Everything about us originates in Him, which is why we begin with Him when we pray.

Each of us is an olive branch, grafted into the same tree, flowing with Our Father's Spirit.

(Tomorrow: In Heaven)

Postscript: Flaming Queens

It was going to happen sooner or later and, frankly, I’m surprised three months passed before it did. Yesterday, Straight-Friendly was hit for the first time (that I know of, anyway) with a reader incapable of restraining himself from homophobic comments. Thankfully, he had the good grace to add his thoughts to a relatively older post, giving me hope that very few if any of you caught it. (Don’t bother looking; it’s already been deleted.)

What he wrote merits no attention. It was neither useful nor knowledgeable. In the spirit that Straight-Friendly encourages, though, I tried to answer his first comment candidly, carefully, and compassionately. Near the end, I added this:

Straight-Friendly is intended as a safe place where everyone can gather to share God's Word. It is not available for you or anyone else to flame or attempt to arouse controversy with condemning comments such as this. I have chosen not to screen comments prior to their publication in good faith that those who want to be confrontational will recognize the spirit and good intentions that govern here and will choose to take their anger and hatred somewhere else. However, for the sake of our readers, I am fully prepared to change this policy immediately should you or anyone like you abuse this privilege again.

His was response was most ungracious, more nonsensical than the first, and no doubt grievous to God’s Spirit. Its only effect is increasing my responsibility to protect us from future irresponsibility of this sort. I loathe having to do this, but all comments from here forward will be screened prior to publication. For an overwhelming majority of them, this will be no more than an inconvenient formality and, by no means, will any of them be edited, etc.

My greatest hope is that everyone continues to comment. I view this attack as one aimed at the gentle community that gathers here more than anything. I’ll just never understand what people like this gentleman believe they gain by spraying bile across gay-tolerant Christian sites. Are they so weak and disengaged from the world that they actually believe they achieve anything good by flaming queens?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

70 X 7

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

                        Matthew 18.21-22

On Sin’s Wrong Side

In all the clatter and turmoil stirred up by today’s religious legalists, it’s quite possible many of us are so conscious of being mislabeled as sinners we forget what to do when others sin against us. At our dysfunctional worst, we may truly believe we deserve the attitudes, actions, and violence leveled at us. At our disengaged best, we may take it on the chin, dismissing discrimination and ignorance as par for the course. Neither of these fulfills Christ’s law.

More is demanded of us than suffering or tolerance when we’re on sin’s wrong side. (Not that there's a right side to sin.) We have to reach into the depths of our souls and consciously forgive those who mistreat us. This goes for everyone—not only those we know personally, but strangers and public figures who target us with malignant ideas and strategies. And, as Jesus explained to Peter, we forgive those who sin against us again and again and again.

No Limits

Surely, if a person continues to wrong us, he/she reaches a point where we can say, “OK, that’s it—no more forgiveness for you!” If that makes sense to you, I’m sorry to tell you authentic followers of Christ don't set forgiveness quotas. And here’s why. There are no limits on God’s forgiveness. If there were, we’d all be in big trouble, as we rely on His grace and mercy on a minute-by-minute basis. Since we’re created in His image to express His love and power in the world, we’re expected to forgive others just like He forgives us. This concept is firmly stitched at the center of the prayer millions of us recite daily: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus followed His forgiveness statement with a great story. A servant owed his master a debt he couldn’t pay. The master planned to sell the servant’s family to make up the loss, but the servant pleaded for patience until he could repay it. Touched by his sincerity, the master forgave the debt entirely. Later, meeting someone who owed him, the servant wasn’t like his charitable master. He attacked the man and had him thrown in jail. News of this reached the master. Angry that the servant hadn’t offered his debtor the same mercy he received, the master withdrew his forgiveness and had his servant imprisoned. “If you don’t forgive from your heart,” Jesus said, “expect a similar fate.”

Surrender and Thrust

The etymology of “forgive” tells the whole story. It’s derived from an Old English phrase meaning, “complete surrender.” In a fascinating parallel, the original Greek word suggests more than merely extending mercy to someone who’s wronged us; it’s closer to thrusting mercy upon them. Putting them together presents an illuminating idea. Forgiveness happens in two steps. First, we totally release ourselves from the pain and shame of hurts and false accusations. Then, we force our mercy to clothe those who sin against us. We no longer see them as sinners; we look at them just as God looks as us—forgiven and guilt-free.

In the parallel universe of Hallmark cards and I-heart-you posters, we hear that forgiveness leads to healing. I’m not so sure about that. Many of us have suffered or may yet suffer evil that leaves us with harrowing memories and scars us for life. What forgiveness does do, however, is alleviate the pain. It emulates God’s nature, lifting us out of our human constraints to live above the hurt. There’s no reason to carry the sins levied against us. Let’s rise above them. Our debtors may never fully appreciate the forgiveness we give. But we can’t allow that to prevent us from reaping its benefits.

This Public Service Announcement opposing California's Proposition 8 (denying same-sex marriages) has been making the rounds. Still, its magnificent rendering of 1 Corinthian 13 helps remind us to forgive.

(Tomorrow: Our Father)

Monday, October 6, 2008


Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

                        Luke 15.4

“Sinners” Welcome

The parable of the lost sheep answered Jesus’s critics. He stopped to teach and Luke reports that tax collectors and “sinners” gathered to hear Him. Much like now, tax collectors were despised in Jesus’s day. Their unpopularity went beyond general disdain, however. As local agents of Caesar and willing parties to the Roman occupation, they were hated as traitors and low lives—in other words, the wrong people to be seen with. “Sinners” were no better. The New International Version frames Luke’s original word with quotes to underscore its specific meaning. They had been excommunicated from the temple and were viewed as unredeemable pariahs, the worst of the worst.

Wherever Jesus went, He drew these sorts of people, never expressing the least discomfort in their company. This drove the religious right crazy. On this occasion, before He even began, the Pharisees and legalists complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus could have ignored their mutters to teach those who really wanted to listen. After all, the holier-than-thou types nagging Him had also scandalized many in His audience; their opinion held little or no weight with the outcasts. Still, Jesus set His message aside to address His detractors. It was more urgent for Him to straighten them out than speak to the sinners. Interesting.

Why Heaven Rejoices

No doubt by design, the critics put Jesus in an awkward spot. Defending Himself would require defending the crowd—which would set fire to a wasps’ nest of theological debate—or trick Him into condemning them. From where the Pharisees sat, it was a win-win. But Jesus took a sharp turn that left them speechless and gave the world one of His most powerful parables. Having set the story up, with the shepherd leaving his 99 sheep to recover the lost one, He said that after it was found, the shepherd invites his neighbors to celebrate with him. “In the same way,” Jesus told them, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Being educated men, the Pharisees most likely understood the story’s subtext, which must have bruising to hear. Doing what’s right makes us happy; it keeps us safe, fed, and free of worry. On the other hand, restoring us to our rightful place in His love is what makes God happy and why heaven rejoices.

You’re the One

You’re why Christ came to Earth—He was looking for you. You’re the one He sought to reclaim to His care. You set off shouts of joy when you returned to the fold. You belong to Him. You’re entitled to live and grow in His pasture, just like any other sheep. You’re no less worthy of His attention and protection than anyone else. You’re blessed with the same opportunity to follow where He leads. He numbers you among His prize possessions and without you, His flock is incomplete. You’re the one. I’m the one. We’re the one. He welcomes all of us to gather around Him, regardless of how we’re viewed by others in His fold. Finding each of us brings Him great happiness. Heaven rejoices. So should we.

Anonymous (ca 1490): Jesus and the Pharisees

(Tomorrow: Seventy X Seven)

Postscript: Observances and Awards

Today marks a milestone for Straight-Friendly—100 posts. When I started, I had no expectation of what it would require, or any idea how fulfilling it would be. I probably check the Straight-Friendly traffic a half-dozen times a day to see who’s dropped by. Yesterday, we topped 1,000 visits, which may seem insignificant to many of you established bloggers, but it’s astounding to me. This could never have happened so soon without the endorsements and links many of you have seeded around the Internet. I'm so grateful for all you've done and pray God blesses all of you above your highest hopes.

You’ve taught me much about how this blogosphere thing works. (I still don’t know how to italicize quotes and phrases in my comment responses, though…) The Internet really is a net, a woven-together community of vibrant minds and spirits promoting each other’s causes and endeavors.

Not long ago, I experienced this when Missy, of Missy’s Big Fish Stories, listed Straight-Friendly among her five choices for the Brillante Weblog Award. The way this award works is that each blogger who receives it passes it along to five of his/her favorites. There are no rules or criteria. Missy’s kindness overwhelmed me; but it also triggered a conundrum: whom do I pass my five awards on to? Many of my first choices already got the award and I imagined others I wanted to honor would have theirs soon. Then there was the issue of choosing some at the expense of others. That would never do.

So, to celebrate 100 posts and 1,000 visitors, I’ve come up with a plan—not as great as I’d like, but one that helps approach this in a manageable way. I’m opting to limit my “regular” choices to two, use another two to highlight new blogs I recently discovered, and send the fifth to an old favorite that reflects gay secular sensibilities. Here goes:

  1. Here I Am Lord

Sherry’s gentle sensibility and probing inquiries into Scripture are always inspiring and fascinating, making me wish I had more time to spend relishing everything she offers.

  1. The Rev’s Rumbles

Fred’s drive and passion are simply magnificent. I never fail to find something hot there, which usually fires me up to write an overlong comment that I’m sure tries his patience. (I do this on Sherry’s blog, too.)

  1. A Christian Voice for GLBT Rights

This blog is new to me, written by an ordained (straight) Independent Catholic priest, Rev. Dr. Jerry S. Maneker. His coverage of the theological and political challenges facing the GLBT community is superb, clear, and unapologetically frank.

  1. I’m Christian. I’m Gay. Deal With It!

The second newbie on the list, this could be the twin brother of Straight-Friendly. Written by Spirit & Flesh, an anonymous gay Lutheran pastor, it also features devotional and personal reflections, and mirrors many of the ideas expressed here. S&F is someone you should know.

  1. Famous Like Me

Donnie has been at this for over three years now and it’s been a consistent joy—sassy, sarcastic, and just edgy enough to appreciate the thoughtful contrast of the occasional serious post. It’s definitely a PG-13 kind of spot, spiked with occasional profanity and discreet homoerotic images (no nudity). But what I love most is “Monday Mug Shots,” a devilish combo of handsome guys who’ve run afoul of the law and a few scofflaws who've plainly run afoul of common sense, fashion, taste, or (to quote Ms. Palin) "all of the above." FLM won't be for all of us, but I couldn’t resist including it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

For All People

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”

                        Isaiah 56.3

Diversity Declassified

I make my living as a corporate communications consultant, focusing almost exclusively on sales force initiatives. When discussing tactics like video or print materials with clients, diversity inevitably pops up. Their aim is to reflect a widely heterogeneous organization, which seems admirable if not always accurate. Still, these meetings leave me uneasy. The process contradicts the outcome: it works overtime to portray non-discrimination by highlighting differences it claims to ignore. I get what they’re trying to do, of course. The only way to foster blindness to our differences is increasing their visibility until they’re no longer distinctive. But it frustrates me we’ve not yet arrived where “diversity” is declassified and redefined as any group of individuals rather than a formulaic mix of surface traits. We’ve yet to realize individuality is the only characteristic we all share.

Out of the Margins

In Isaiah 56, God assembles a people from many nationalities and backgrounds, unified in devotion to Him. The Scripture says they’re bound to Him; they love and serve the Lord and hold fast to His promise. What stands out most about these people—foreigners and eunuchs—is their faithfulness and fervor despite marginalization by the religious majority. Judaic law clung to Israel’s exclusive title as “God’s people,” excluded foreigners from worship, and forbade eunuchs from entering the temple (Deuteronomy 23.1). Yet here God calls these ostracized individuals out of the margins to stand among His people with full access to His presence. “These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer,” He says, “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56.7)

People, Not Policy

It’s possible to misread this as a sort of revised diversity agenda—God’s plan to fill His house with a potpourri reflecting an increasingly diverse populace. If we look closely, though, we discover that people, not policy, drive His decision. The invitation rewards the outcasts’ determination to love and serve Him, whether or not the mainstream confirmed their right to do so. They didn’t wait for anyone’s approval; they didn’t need it. Solid faith in God’s acceptance was sufficient.

Isaiah tells the foreigners, “Don’t say you’ll be excluded,” and advises the eunuchs against saying, “I’m of no use.” Were he with us today, he might put it like this: “Reject rejection and stop putting yourself down! God loves you, He wants you, and He needs you.” He desires His house to be a welcome, safe place for all people—including me, including you.


Well, at least he's half-right...

(Tomorrow: 99+1)