Saturday, November 8, 2008

Make Some Noise

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

                        Psalm 100.1-2 (KJV)

Bottles and Bugles

If you drive through the American South this time of year, occasionally you’ll spot a tree with colorful bottles swallowing its recently bared limbs. As fable has it, the bottles lure encroaching evil spirits and trap them before they reach the house. When a breeze shakes the tree, they rattle to indicate they’ve snared an imp. When we usher in the New Year with millions of cosmopolitan New Yorkers, Times Square roars with blaring paper bugles—another fable. Medieval Europeans believed a surge of racket warded off last year’s evil to offer a fresh start. Before dismissing these traditions as artifacts of primitive cultures, it bears noting the Bible also endorses making noise. But its reasons have nothing in common with other noise-related fables.

Could Have, Wouldn’t Have

God tells Israel to march around Jericho for a week, adding trumpeters the last day. “When you hear a long blast on the trumpets, give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse,” He says. It does. (Joshua 6.5) The dedication of Solomon’s temple climaxes when the congregation raises its voice in praise; according to 2 Chronicles 5.13-14, a cloud descended “and the priests could not perform their service… for the glory of the LORD filled the temple.” In Acts 16, Paul and Silas pass time in jail, singing and praying aloud. A violent earthquake shakes the jail, its doors fly open, and everyone’s chains come loose. The jailer rushes to the scene. Seeing no one escaped, he converts to Christ on the spot.

Let’s grant it’s unlikely the noise caused these phenomena. More reasonable explanations actually clarify how God’s noise dynamic works. The question isn’t if these miracles could have happened in silence but what wouldn’t have happened had noise not preceded them. Would Israel have been prepared to take Jericho after its fortifications fell? Would worshippers have seen God’s glory? Would Paul and Silas have led the jailer to Christ? It’s possible—but not probable.

Pump Up the Volume

Psalm 100 encourages us to make a joyful noise. As the above accounts prove, when we fill the air with joy, we alter our environment. David sang, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16.11; NKJV) We believe God’s promise to be with us every step of the way. Because He’s there, joy—fullness of joy—is there too. Rain or shine, up or down, alone or in a crowd, whatever we face and wherever we are has no influence on the joy that enfolds us. We have presence of joy.

Joyful noise shows confidence in God outside of other emotions, fears, and doubts we wrestle with. There’s no better time to pump up the volume than when it seems most unrealistic and inappropriate for our circumstances. Facing walls we can’t climb, searching for God’s glory in our lives, or striving to break free of situations we’re locked into, we make some noise—sing, shout, speak, pray, praise, whatever comes naturally to us in times of joy. Joyful noise clears our minds. It clears our vision. It clears the air. It’s bigger than fable. It’s faith.



(Tomorrow: Time Management)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fox Hunting

Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.

                        Song of Solomon 2.15

On the Sly

When a fox appears, time comes to act alert. Its reputation for craftiness and stealth isn’t exaggerated. It survives on the sly. Unlike larger predators with staying power to overtake their victims, staying is the fox’s power. Once it locates a vulnerable target, it falls back and waits to catch its prey—or its protectors—off-guard. Its cunning depends on a potential victim assuming it need only be vigilant until the fox loses interest and moves on. It’s a fatal assumption. The fox is going nowhere. If it finds a ready supply of food, it repeatedly returns until its source is wiped out and nothing reliable can prevent it. It digs under fences. It steals past watchdogs. It follows no predictable pattern, striking one time by day, another by night. It vanishes for a while and then unexpectedly reappears. There’s only one way to thwart a fox—catch it and destroy it.

Neglected Vineyards

Foxes play a small, yet pivotal role in The Song of Solomon, an exchange of unabashedly erotic poems between a lover and his beloved. The couple’s robust passion and tenderness are breathtaking as they progress from courtship to sexual union. It’s particularly wonderful being privy to the beloved’s trepidation about being accepted and how quickly, unconditionally the lover reassures her. She writes, “Do not stare at me… because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected.” (Song of Solomon 1.6) In the next chapter, the lover replies, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.”

The Song supersedes its face value as vividly portrayed romance. With no mention of God, it presents a stunning allegory of His relationship with us. Like the beloved, many of us have been conditioned to feel ashamed and unworthy, darkened by days in vineyards we were forced to tend while our own vineyards fell into ruin. Little foxes snuck into our lives and steadily spoiled their fruitfulness. Yet we should listen to the Lover of our souls and shake off the hostility driving us to neglect our growth, trap destructive tendencies that eat at us, and destroy them. “Catch the little foxes for us,” God says. “Our vineyards are in bloom.”

Ours to Give

Very near the end of the Song, the beloved says, “My own vineyard is mine to give.” (Song of Solomon 8.11) Who and what we are—our lives—belong to us. We must tend to our own vineyards and see that they grow. We must be true to ourselves, regardless how many people try to lead us away from all we possess. Our lives are ours to give. When we offer them to God, we begin to blossom. He sees that we grow; He ensures the harvest. All He asks us to do is the fox hunting.

We all have little foxes—unhealthy attitudes and habits that catch us off-guard. We know they’re there. We know they’re not going away. We know they’ll strike the moment we turn our attention to matters other than our own. We know they’ll continue to strike until they consume everything they can. They must be caught and destroyed.


Little foxes wait patiently to strike the moment we turn our attention away from our vineyards.

(Tomorrow: Make Some Noise)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New and Improved

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

                        2 Corinthians 5.17

Extreme Makeovers and Touch-ups

Paul slips in this much-repeated gem about how Christ changes us as part of a far grander discussion: how Christ through us changes the world. Quoted independently, it’s easily misconstrued as a makeover—nothing about us remains the same. Many believers revel in, even poeticize, this concept. Indeed, a lot of us come to Christ in advanced states of brokenness, bruised and scarred by abuse, immodesty, and self-neglect. Over time, His love and power bind our wounds and heal our scars, and we’re not who we used to be. Yet it’s conceivable more of us than not come to Him in a less dire condition. In these cases, we experience something closer to a touch-up than an extreme makeover. If we take Paul’s statement by itself, we may feel slightly let down in how little changes once we decide to follow Jesus. A closer reading of chapter 5 reframes what he’s really talking about. And when we understand that, we’ll join our less fortunate brothers and sisters’ rejoicing, because what we learn certainly is something to shout about.


Paul begins with resurrection, reminding us the physical body is a mortal (i.e., vulnerable) “tent,” while the spiritual being aches for its true home, “a building from God… not built by human hands.” Our confidence, he says, rests in our eternal home. “We live by faith, not by sight” (v7). Knowing our earthly lives will be assessed to gain heavenly ones, “we make it our goal to please him” (v9). Increasingly aware of our ultimate responsibility to God, “we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to [you]… so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart” (v11-12). The love Jesus demonstrated on Calvary compels us to “regard no one from a worldly point of view,” Paul says (v16), because God recreated us and “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (v18).

The Great Do-Over

Let’s follow Paul’s logic: resurrection-recreation-reconciliation. What’s wrong with this? It’s in reverse! Verse 19 tells us, “God was reconciling the world the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Jesus’s sacrifice reeled the world back to Square One, to the Garden days, before Adam and Eve indulged their craving to decide right from wrong on their own and stuck all of us with a death penalty. According to Genesis 6.6, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” When one man, Noah, earned God’s favor, He scrubbed His first idea—obliterating the Earth and humankind by drowning—and chose a different method: giving Himself as an offering of reconciliation, recreating us one by one, and vacating our death sentence through resurrection.

Instead of deluging the world with water, God flooded it with His love, mercy, and grace. Our recreation in Christ amounts to something much more significant than a personal makeover. We're the crucial element in God's great do-over, leading players on the world stage. Everything we do, every life we touch, is part of His plan to restore the magnificence He fashioned out of darkness and dust. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5.20. Our Maker has redesigned us to be new and improved for one reason—to make His world new and improved, one recreated person at a time.

We are new and improved creatures charged with making a new and improved world.

(Tomorrow: Fox Hunting)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Plow Ahead

Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

                        Luke 9.62

No Turning Back

I just entered my teens in the early Seventies when the “Jesus Movement” swept the nation. It was a sanitized version of the Sixties’ peace movement—teens and college kids, guitars, buttons, posters, and so on. At Woodstock-like “Jesus rallies” all over America, thousands of kids gathered to sing folk hymns and hear celebrity Christians like Pat Boone and Dean Jones. The rallies ended with an invitation to those who hadn’t yet dedicated their lives to Christ. As they streamed forward, the rest of us sang, “I have decided to follow Jesus/No turning back, no turning back.” I think about all the young people who attended the rallies and I wonder how many of them didn’t turn back—how many of them really understood and honored the song’s words?

Deciding to Commit

Following Christ is more than a one-off decision. It’s deciding to commit our lives to His way, His purpose, and for His pleasure. Such a commitment puts uncommon demands on how we approach daily life. It reorders our priorities, asking we set aside personal comforts and considerations that others pursue or take for granted. It requires determination to do what’s right in the long run versus what seems best for the moment or easiest all-around. Christ’s path is straight, but it constantly intersects wider, smoother, and more popular routes. Deciding to commit to Him commits us to decide we’ll follow His example, rather than conform to the crowd.

Fit for Service

Luke 9.57-62 gives a fair indication of what following Christ involves. As Jesus and the disciples walk along a road, three different men volunteer to follow Him. He tells the first that he’ll have to sacrifice comforts of home. The second promises to rejoin Jesus after his father’s funeral. “Let the dead bury their dead,” Jesus says, referring to mortal affairs, “but you proclaim the kingdom of God.” The third man asks to say goodbye to his family first. Jesus’s response invites one to imagine Him stopping to look the man in the eye. “Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back isn’t fit for service in God’s kingdom,” He says.

Desires, obligations, and relationships hindering Christ’s purpose for our lives make us unfit for service. “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground,” Hosea 10.12 says. A lot of new ground has to be broken to sow righteousness and reap love’s benefits. And let’s be frank. Going with the flow and listening to others instead of hearing God’s voice make life easier. But living easy isn’t living better. If we desire the rewards of following Christ, we’ve got to let go of whatever holds us back to plow ahead.

A 1973 "Jesus rally." One wonders how many of the kids in this picture are still plowing ahead.

(Tomorrow: New and Improved)

Personal Postscript: So Have We Seen

As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD Almighty, in the city of our God: God makes her secure forever.

Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.

Like your name, O God, your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; your right hand is filled with righteousness.

Mount Zion rejoices, the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments.

Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation.

For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.

Psalm 48.8-14

Answered prayer. (Thank You.) 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At All Times

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

                        Proverbs 17.17

Winners and Losers

Barring any widespread anomalies, Americans will retire reasonably early tonight knowing who their next President will be. As always, the media won’t wait for sunrise to fan flames of rancor once an outcome seems assured. Winners will rest easy, vindicated in victory. Losers will lie down on hard pillows of bitterness and recrimination. It's been a grueling, polarizing ordeal for everyone, undoubtedly the most impassioned, divisive election of our lifetimes. The Founding Fathers would beam with pride at the personal sacrifices millions have made in this effort. They’d also counsel against assuming our animosities have ended. The people have spoken, but this was merely pre-work for the real work. There’s still much to discuss and a big job ahead.

Across the Street

While our leaders vow to “reach across the aisle” now that the contest is ended, it’s up to us—as Christians and Americans—to head across the street and mend torn feelings and respect between our neighbors and us. If ever we needed to love one another, it’s now. Our country stares down a highway of uncertainty. We have miles to go before we sleep comfortably, untroubled by unjust hardships, inequities, and paranoia born of leadership run amok. There’s no time to crow in victory or grumble in defeat. We have to override our differences now to move forward together. This goes double for the winners among us. Our fervent commitment to success must not fade. If anything it must intensify for everyone’s sake—even those mercilessly opposed to us, our politics, and our beliefs.

Brothers/Sisters Against Adversity

 “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity,” Solomon said. Facing mounting difficulties, it’s time we restore friendships, joining as brothers and sisters against common adversity. Again, here’s Solomon: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18.24)  Friendship, unlike elections, isn’t about numbers. It’s about authenticity. Followers of Christ are primed for this effort. Obedience to His law insists we meet this challenge by stepping aside to express God’s abundant, unconditional love. Because we don’t find certain people or their opinions agreeable doesn’t absolve our responsibility to stick close to them, to expand our horizons to consider their good as well as ours. Many currently suffering battle fatigue may question this or doubt it’s possible. But if the friendship principle weren’t crucial to our happiness and success, if it weren’t truly within our grasp, why does God’s Word teach it?

Ostracized believers are particularly qualified for this job. We know how it feels to be turned away by an empowered majority. We know the anger, resentment, and doubts produced by rejection. We know the indelible influence of people who dare to love and accept us as their own, despite our differences. We know what true friendship is and its power to change long-held thoughts and behaviors. More than ever, the time comes for others to benefit from all we know.

In the election's aftermath, as politicians vow to "reach across the aisle," we as believers should head across the street to restore torn friendships with the other side.

(Tomorrow: Plow Ahead)  

Monday, November 3, 2008

Stumbling Toward Triumph

As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

                        Luke 23.26

Too Heavy to Handle

The Passion builds a series of mounting humiliations, each more horribly inhumane than those before it. Yet of all the scorn and agony Jesus endured, none captures the poignant nature of His suffering more than when He stumbles beneath the weight of the cross. The Gospels don’t report this; they simply say the Roman guard randomly selected a stranger—a country peasant who inadvertently crossed paths with Christ—to bear His cross. But tradition holds that Simon was recruited after the brutality of Christ’s torture drained His physical strength and His cross proved too heavy to handle. There’s a good reason why we assume this and venerate these episodes (three times in The Stations of the Cross). When we see Jesus stumble, it’s the only instance we have of His utter helplessness, our sole glimpse of the Savior’s reliance on another’s mercy, and our best sight of Him at His most humanly frail. Therefore, it’s when we most closely identify with Him—and, perhaps, when He most closely identified with us.

The Human Precedent

Christ’s buckling beneath His cross set a human precedent. If He stumbled while handling pressures levied upon Him—rejection, derision, and abuse—we shouldn’t be alarmed when we stumble. Let’s put ourselves in Christ’s position for a moment. Here He was, God Incarnate, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He’d just spent the longest night of His life being ridiculed and taunted to prove Himself. Now, here He was, dragging His death along an uphill road flanked on either side by angry people. Many of them once loved Him, supported Him, and looked to Him for help, only to yield to political and religious fear-mongers when He needed them most. The instant the cross slipped and He stumbled into the dirt, no doubt their mockery reached a new crescendo. What must He have thought? How must He have felt? But what did He do?

Where the Road Leads

Stripped of all dignity, obviously too weak to carry His own cross, Jesus pulled Himself up and kept walking. His physical suffering to this point—the lashes, beatings, and thorny crown—surely resulted in sufficient internal and external bleeding to kill any man. His mental state surely teetered toward longing for death. When He stumbled, He could have abandoned His mission, curled up, and died in the road. But He staggered ahead, fixing His sights on where the road led. In all His pain and confusion, He never stopped believing what looked and felt like His inevitable destruction would end in inexplicable victory.

When we stumble, we can’t allow weakness to destroy us. We muster the little mental, emotional, and physical strength we have to pick ourselves up and keep moving ahead. We may stagger, we may reel, but we push forward. The defeat planned for us will look final. Our enemies will cackle to themselves, confident that they’ve got rid of us once and for all. Let them laugh, mock, and ridicule us to their hearts’ content. We know where the road leads. We may not look so steady and assured, but we’re stumbling toward triumph. We’re following Jesus and because He ended in triumph, we’ll get there as well—no matter how many times we fall.


Stumbling toward triumph.

(Tomorrow: At All Times)

Personal Postscript: Fellow Americans

Having got to know—and genuinely love—so many of Straight-Friendly’s regular readers, it seems superfluous to urge every American who comes here to vote tomorrow. We know what’s at stake, just as we know this election’s outcome very well could represent a major turning point in our nation—a return to the values and policies that once made us great, a chance to put eight years of fear, discrimination, inhumanity, and war-mongering behind us and pick up where we left off. There’s a lot of undoing to get done, a lot of healing that needs to happen—both inside our borders and around the world. Tomorrow blesses us with an opportunity to begin the process.

Amid the tension and excitement, let’s not forget to pray. More than ever, we need God’s Spirit to speak to the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. Let’s ask Him to bolster their confidence to choose what’s right, to clear their minds of the negativity and lies meant to manipulate them, and to inspire their courage to consider their neighbors above themselves.

Especially in states with same-sex marriage bans on their ballots, let’s pray God will make Himself known in every polling place. May His presence rise between religiously fueled bigotry and its influence over sincere believers who truly desire to please Him. May He embolden them to ignore the crafty deceptions aimed at them and honor Him by speaking truth to power.

In 2 Chronicles 7.14, God gives us a thrilling promise:

If my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Change that matters starts with prayer.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Come Together

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.

                        Hebrews 10.24-25

Objective: Encouragement

Imagine you’re a TV news reporter or documentary filmmaker conducting “man in the street” interviews, randomly asking passers-by, “Do you attend church?” To those who say, “Yes,” you ask why. Your ears ring with predictable answers: “Because I love God.” “Because it’s a good thing to do.” “I was raised to go to church.” “I want to learn more about God.” “I’m teaching my children to do what’s right.” “It makes me happy.” “Because my parents make me do it.” And so on.

These replies are good inasmuch as they promote exposure to godly knowledge and experiences. Yet none captures why the Bible says to assemble regularly. Hebrews teaches we come together for one purpose: to spur one another toward love and good deeds. If we shift our concept of habitual worship, making this its central theme, we view church in a surprisingly new light. What we expect of it and what it expects of us are radically altered. Other reasons take a back seat to the church’s main objective: encouragement.

Remember, We’re Members

Paul urges the Corinthians to see the church as diverse members of a single organism. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12.12) When parts go missing, the church ceases to function as a whole. The same happens when they get out of joint, assuming the same role. “If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If it were an ear, how could it smell?” Paul asks, confirming the church’s cross-functionality. “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”

It’s time to remember we’re members and without us, the body can never attain full potential. Yes, parts of it insist we’re not needed or useful—congregations and denominations are full of them. Yet their opinions directly contradict God’s Word. Paul insists every believer belongs, contributes something, and qualifies for service. The eye can’t tell the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t tell the feet, “I don’t need you!” “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” (1 Corinthians 12.22-23) Surely, we can, and must, take Paul’s word above contemporary, fear-based bigotry and dogma.

Doing Our Part

In another brilliant discourse on the church, Paul says every member has specific talents and responsibilities “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, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4.12-13) His “works of service” squares perfectly with Hebrews’ “love and good deeds.” When we turn our minds from what the church isn’t doing for us to doing our part for the church, there’s no good reason to stay away and an outstanding one to be there. Unless we’re there, the church won’t achieve unity. It will never mature into fullness in Christ.

“Then,” Paul says, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (4.14) Do we really get this? Withdrawing from church causes the very thing that keeps us away. We fall for deceitful schemes, when we should hold our ground to help fellow believers—and us—grow up. Hebrews emphatically says not to give up coming together, as others do. No doubt, at church we find invaluable encouragement to love and serve our neighbors. But let’s never forget the church needs us to come to it as much as we need to go to church.

Paul teaches the church is one body we are its members. Reaching its full potential in Christ depends on each of us playing the part we've been given. The church needs us as much as we need it.

(Tomorrow: Stumbling Toward Triumph)