Saturday, December 20, 2008

Treasures of the Heart

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

                        Luke 2.19

Amid the Clamor

Luke’s Nativity narrative is far and away the most vivid account we have, so much so, it reads more like opera than history. His structural and descriptive talents serve him well as he moves from intensely private passages to sweeping events. One minute the stage is empty save one or two characters, the next it’s filled to capacity. Indeed, Luke encourages us to envision his story as opera by having his characters break into song. He actually composes arias for Mary and Zechariah, as well as an immortal angel chorus. Even when summarizing scenes, there’s music in the air. For example, he tells us the shepherds left the stable spreading the news of their experience and returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” (Luke 2.20)

Amid the clamor and excitement of the shepherds, Luke pauses for a gentle recitative as Mary ponders what’s taken place, gathering her memories as treasures of the heart. While the rest of Luke’s version is thrillingly dramatic in scale with the arrival of the King of kings, Mary’s quiet introspection strikes me as its finest moment. The sudden contrast of divine grandeur with human emotion is overwhelming. Yet I think Luke includes it for a reason beyond adding pathos. Mary’s example teaches us not to get so caught up in our personal dramas that we don’t step back to appreciate God’s faithfulness and handiwork in our lives.

Memory Matters

Psalm 77.11 reads, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” This comes in response to the Psalmist’s feeling isolated from God and inundated with trials. He struggles to find God in his circumstances, to lean confidently on His promise of unfailing love and mercy. But confusion and fear temporarily blind him to God’s presence. “Then I thought…” he writes, shifting his attention from current conditions to past triumphs when God intervened on behalf of His people in mighty, unexpected, and unprecedented ways.

Memory matters. If we become too captivated by living “in the moment” to remember God’s love and kindness for us yesterday, we risk losing assurance we need to overcome problems we face today. By the same token, memories that strengthen our courage won’t be available to us unless we take the time to store them in our hearts immediately after they happen, which is precisely what Mary did. One can’t help but imagine, as she stood at the foot of the cross 33 years later, her mind didn’t return to Bethlehem, where she witnessed God’s promises literally come to life. First-hand knowledge of His power then surely bolstered her faith that He would honor His promise to restore her Son’s life now.

Don’t Forget

David stressed the importance of remembering God’s goodness in Psalm 103.2: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” And what had God done for David? He attaches a long list that includes forgiveness, healing, redemption, love and compassion, satisfied desires, renewed vigor, and justice. These weren’t general attributes ascribed to God; they were actualities David recalled from his past. They were easily accessible because he’d treasured them up in his heart and consistently pondered them. God has done so many marvelous things for us it’s essential we don’t forget one of them. In the toss and tumble of everyday life, we must always remember to remember all His benefits.

We must remember to remember all the marvelous things God has done for us.

(Tomorrow: God With Us)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let's Go!

The shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

                        Luke 2.15

On the Move

For people traveling only in sandals and saddles, the Nativity’s characters cover a lot of ground. Before Jesus is born, Mary makes two treks to Judea, first to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem with Joseph. Meanwhile, the Magi cross the Arabian Peninsula in quest of the Christ child; they arrive after a layover in Jerusalem to meet with Herod. The night of Jesus’s birth, a shepherd band hikes into town. Eight days later, everyone’s on the move again. Mary and Joseph head for the temple in Jerusalem to present their baby to priests. The Wise Men return home by a different route. Then, warned in a dream of Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, Joseph packs up the family and relocates in Egypt. Weeks later, the Holy Family begins its long journey home to Nazareth. All told, the combined distance traveled by everyone totals well over a thousand miles.

Time and Place

There must have been a reason for so much movement in the scenario. Two possibilities spring to mind, both leading to one conclusion: those God selected to usher and greet His Son’s entrance were people of tremendous faith who acted on faith. First, they met the demands of their roles in timely fashion, at great personal expense and inconvenience. And timing was everything. Had the Magi, for example, waited for confirmation of Christ’s birth and His location, they would have reached Bethlehem after Joseph and Mary left for Jerusalem.

Second, much of the time they moved at God’s direction before knowing their final destination. All the shepherds knew was somewhere in Bethlehem, a Newborn lay bundled in cloth, cradled in a manger. How many of us would abandon everything we own to wander dark streets and alleys—especially in a town overrun with strangers—without better information? A lot of us would leave after work, once the day-shifters took over the flock, the roads were safer, and the townspeople could steer us to the right stable. Knowing no place in particular didn’t weaken the shepherds’ certainty they had no time to lose in getting there. “Let’s go!” they said to one another, and off they went.

Led by the Spirit

Anxiety about being lost or unsure of our surroundings is part of our survival instinct. It’s natural. But, as the Christmas story proves, God doesn’t always accommodate our natural fears. He defines direction without directions and destiny rather than destination. Natural hesitance and uncertainty thwart God’s timing and intentions. Unnatural trust in His guidance—moving forward in faith before His plan’s specifics are revealed—leads to glorious discoveries akin to finding the Savior in a manger. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” Romans 8.14 says. When faith charts our course, not knowing our exact location in life or where we’re being led isn’t the same as being lost. An old proverb says, “Where God directs, God protects.” Instead of worrying about where we’re headed, as people of faith, we’re confident He’ll get us there safe and sound, on time and in time. So what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

Mary and Joseph's faith enabled them to move as God directed, despite not always knowing where He would lead.

(Tomorrow: Treasures of the Heart)

Personal Postscript: Christmas Travels

While I’m still running behind on my daily posts due to business travel last week, I’m aware that many of us are starting journeys to join friends and family to celebrate Christmas. I pray God’s protection as you travel and His joy and peace as you reunite with loved ones. (I also pray His help as I endeavor to get Straight-Friendly up to date!) 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

He Cares for You

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

                        Psalm 8.4

Lower than Angels

David asks this question after marveling at God’s majesty—His glory above the heavens and his handiwork set in the skies. Given the magnitude of these achievements, it baffles David that the Creator even pays attention to man, or cares for him. “You made him a little lower than the angels,” he observes, “and crowned him with glory and honor.” He’s dumbfounded that God entrusts man with creation. “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (v6). It is a mystery why God endowed us with the ability to master His domain. Yet the answer to why God cares for us surfaces in the mystery. The wellbeing of the world depends directly on our wellbeing. Had God given us the skill and intellect to preserve His world and left us on our own, the splendor He spoke into existence would have fallen to ruin. He’s mindful of us because He’s concerned about the totality of creation.

A Family Matter

The author of Hebrews reads Psalm 8, however, and sees more than patronage. He/she applies the “lower than the angels” status to Jesus, Who voluntarily became less than beings created solely for His worship and service. In other words, He honored us with His physical presence by disavowing honor due Him as God. When reading Psalm 8.4 on this side of Bethlehem and looking at the Baby Jesus, we should tremble. How could we possibly merit the selfless compassion and sacrifice that compelled the Most High God to reach so low? Why would we ever question the depth and breadth of His care for us?

“The one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2.11 tells us. Surely a plethora of alternatives existed to Christ’s becoming one of us to save all of us. Yet Hebrews explains why this was His method of choice. “He had to be made like his brothers in every way,” verse 17 says, to become a “faithful high priest” and atone for our sins. It wasn’t a task for angels or heavenly emissaries. It was a family matter. By willingly joining the family of man, Jesus willed our right to join the family of God. In this light, David’s explanation falls short. God’s care for us goes beyond preservation; its aim is restoration.


Because Jesus suffered temptation, verse 18 reasons, “He is able to help those who are being tempted.” For many of us, Christmas loses its luster to feelings of inadequacy, rejection, loneliness, and other negative emotions that mar its meaning. We deflect subtle digs about how we throw the family portrait off-kilter. We endure prying questions about our personal lives. We try to overcompensate for perceived deficits that don’t exist. In our attempts to escape embarrassment with our dignity intact, though, let’s look away from mishaps with others to celebrate the birth of our Brother. He lowered Himself to join the family. He permitted Himself to suffer temptation in order to help us when we’re tempted. If everyone around the tree ignores the reality of who you are, He’s mindful of you. If no one at the table thinks you deserve concern or respect, He cares for you. That’s what Christmas means. That’s what your celebration is about.

Christ lowered Himself to become our Brother. If no one else in our family is concerned, He's mindful and He cares for us.

(Tomorrow: Let’s Go!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

                        John 1.4, 5

Life = Light

Quite a bit of light gets thrown in the Advent/Christmas chronicle, all of it converging in a single Beam of divine illumination, Christ. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned,” Isaiah 9.2 says, predicting Jesus’s arrival on Earth and His ultimate victory over the grave. But we cheat ourselves by not delving into the Scriptural references to light and parsing its nuances, because Jesus isn’t the only luminary in the Nativity story. In the end, we also shine. And if we don’t recognize His coming illuminates us, we remain in darkness, like those John describes as having not understood His purpose and plan.

John equates life with light. The life Jesus brought into the world ignites light in us. In Him was power over darkness and death, which He willed to His followers as His agents of life. In ancient times—and even now—dark times are uncertain and fraught with peril; thieves and murderers steal through the shadows, destroying the good that is done by day. The life Christ gives not only mitigates darkness; it enables us to restore the losses suffered under cover of night. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” We are full of life, which means we are full of light.

Light = Life

The Eastern Star, the heavenly host illuminating the shepherds’ pasture, and angelic auras that startled Mary and Joseph out of their sleep pulsed with life. They were intended as more than spectacular stage effects or magical storybook touches. They pierced impenetrable darkness with truth that the nefarious hold of evil and deceit had been loosed, that the finality of death was no more. The next chapter in God’s creative epic was underway. And it began precisely as the last one started: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1.3) In the beginning, light brought life. Now, in this chapter, life brings light. In the first chapter, the disobedience of Adam and Eve resulted in unworthy knowledge that overshadowed the knowledge of God and plunged the world into darkness. The penalty for their sin was death. When Jesus came to live among us, His life reestablished the knowledge of God as our light and restored the gift of eternal life. John says, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (John 1.9) The magnitude of this miracle is incomprehensible, however. “The darkness has not understood it.”

This Little Light of Mine

Tradition holds that we give gifts at Christmas to emulate the generosity of the Magi, who offered exquisite presents to the Christ Child. If we held strictly to this concept, though, wouldn’t we bring symbolic offerings to the church, perhaps, as an act of worship? Exchanging gifts between us would seem most inappropriate. But it’s not. The giving of gifts in fact emulates God’s gift to us—the gift of life and light in His Son. Jesus gave His light to us and, in turn, commands us to give that light to others. “You are the light of the world,” He preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, which essentially serves as His followers’ manifesto. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.14, 16) When we give gifts at Christmas, we tangibly practice the behaviors and attitudes that Jesus instructs us to adopt every day of the year.

That little Sunday school ditty we loved as children, “This Little Light of Mine,” carries tremendous force we should actively apply as adults. We’ve been given light to shine into dark places, to warm and brighten dark spirits, and to illuminate dark circumstances. We’ve got enormous creative power that we can’t hold back for our own enlightenment and enjoyment. Jesus came to enable us to do what He did—to bring light to people and places bereft of hope, joy, and love. We can say, “Let there be light.” His life in us is the light of men. People won’t always understand it. We may have trouble comprehending it as well. But we know it works. Our presence is a present. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The light Jesus brought into the world is given to us so we can give it to others. We too can say, "Let there be light!"

(Tomorrow: He Cares for You)

Slight Delays

Hello, all. I know we're all coming into the holiday home stretch. I'm actually on the road trying to wrap up some "real work" before year's end. That's slowing down my ability to post as regularly as I'd like. But I hope to have some time this evening to catch up. Please bear with me! Thanks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Zealous God

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

                        Isaiah 9.7

Coup d’Etat

An interesting aspect of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies is how they approach “government.” In Isaiah 9.6, we hear “the government will be on his shoulders,” and verse 7 begins with: “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” Thinking of this during an Advent that coincides with America’s quadrennial “lame duck” period is especially compelling. Usually, the transition goes uneventfully, the former government lacking a mandate to implement new policies and the incoming one lacking authority to act. But hard times have generated intense interest in the President-elect’s plans and for the first time in memory, the US has two Presidents.

Isaiah describes the transition from earthly rule to Christ’s reign as more abrupt and final. What is will be no longer—not that there’s much to begin with. In verse 10, Israel’s enemies see “the bricks have fallen down… the fig trees have been felled.” When Christ takes the throne, Isaiah says, He will establish and uphold His kingdom with justice and righteousness. Americans look at shambles piled high by eight years of incompetence and greed, hoping against hope the new President can sort things out. Isaiah tells Israel Christ isn’t coming to clean up their mess; He’s clearing house—kicking everything to the curb—to begin all over again. It’s not new leadership, but a coup d’etat driven by a zealous God.

Constant Surprises

We model our relationship with God on those with one another. Human relationships, though, thrive on anticipating needs and responses. They place high value on stability, often at the expense of personal growth. Once we reach equilibrium, we resist rocking the boat. Yet avoiding change also destroys relationships, as one outgrows the other and moves on. The shift from stability to stasis, from expectation to assumption is so subtle it stuns the abandoned partner to hear the other feels bored or boxed in.

While seeking predictability adds risk in human affairs, it dooms our relationship with God. As Creativity Incarnate, nothing delights Him more than change. The Bible inevitably finds Him approaching age-old problems from innovative angles. Life with God is full of constant surprises and its stability rests in expecting the unexpected, predicting the unpredictable. That’s the crux of Isaiah’s message to us. When Christ comes, He overthrows the pride and prejudices governing our lives to set new standards for justice and righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5.17 says we’re new creatures—“the old has gone, the new has come!”

Perception Is Everything

 “See, I am doing a new thing!” God exclaims in Isaiah 43.19. “Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Perception, not predictability, is everything in terms of nurturing a stable experience with God. Recognition of what’s happening now prepares us for what’s ahead. If we concentrate on predicting His next steps—or, worse yet, His final say—we endanger the relationship. We expose our arrogance in presuming to speak for God. We expose our ignorance in thinking God will ever allow us to box Him in. And we expose ourselves to future grief by not mastering lessons He presently teaches us. Prediction implies controlling interests we clearly don’t have. Government rests on His shoulders. He’ll accomplish all He wants done and He’ll do it with zeal. Meanwhile, new things spring up all around us, all the time. They’re not to be missed.

Instead of predicting what God will do, we recognize what He's doing now.

(Tomorrow: Incomprehensible)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stuck with Straw

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

                        Luke 2.7

Unfit to Be Seen

Joseph and Mary have worked through their issues concerning her pregnancy. Mary’s family—especially her cousins, Elizabeth and Zechariah—fully support her. Joseph’s family is on-board, too, just as the angel promised. The couple has yet to marry, perhaps to offset potential confusion about the Christ Child’s paternity. Like all expectant parents, they mark the days remaining before Mary gives birth. Then Caesar decides to tally his empire and see who comes from where. Joseph’s trip to his hometown of Bethlehem falls exactly when the Baby’s due. He can’t leave Mary in Nazareth. Besides, as his wife-to-be, she legally must register with him. The couple sets out on its four-day journey.

The word “bedlam” derives from “Bethlehem” to evoke the chaotic overcrowding Mary and Joseph found on arrival. We envision bedlam because the Bible says they couldn’t get a hotel room. But let’s think this through. Why was housing a problem if Joseph had local relatives to put them up? Let’s run another scenario. They get to Bethlehem and, first thing, go to the census bureau. The registrar lists them as married, but Joseph corrects him, being honest and less wary of their circumstances after their families’ acceptance. The couple becomes the talk of the town. As they proceed to the home where Joseph assumes they’ll stay, they draw disapproving stares. His cousin explains he’ll be shamed if he hosts an unwed pregnant couple. Joseph tries a nearby inn, whose owner is more direct. They’re unfit to be seen in his fine establishment. Joseph pleads for Mary’s sake while smug guests eavesdrop. The innkeeper whispers, “There’s a barn out back where you can sleep provided no one knows you’re there.”

No Room

The Christ we carry inside us deserves the finest treatment, yet prejudice and self-righteousness often leave us stuck with straw. People we expect to welcome us as always turn us away. They tactfully appeal to our understanding that befriending us will cost them friends and respect. Others are less gracious. It’s less about them being seen with us as our being seen with them. We’re not worthy of their company. Then there are those who haven’t the heart to reject us outright or the nerve to embrace us openly. They’ll let us hang around, as long we stay out of sight. Every GLBT person has likely experienced all of these reactions, as well as numerous other variations. Lest we get caught up in misreading the Nativity as a metaphor for homophobia, however, we should view it as a parable for all believers. Sincere followers of Jesus quickly learn people and places once open to them quickly run out of room. If we think faith increases popularity and never offends, revisiting Bethlehem snaps us back to reality. And while it’s typical around this time of year to disdain the Holy Family’s inhospitable treatment, it’s also good to recall Jesus spent much of His life looking for somewhere to sleep. He informed one aspiring disciple that being shoved aside came with following Him: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8.20)

Seeing Stars

Talk like that didn’t help recruitment, but it was honest. Lousy accommodations and transient friendships were a way of life for Jesus, from His manger crib to His borrowed tomb. Though He deserved better, He didn’t resent doing with less, knowing He’d be vindicated in the end. Whether packed houses or patent hostility is why Jesus was born in a stable, you’ve got to love how the story ends. God responds to Joseph and Mary being tossed around by tossing a star through space to transform their dank, dismal surroundings into a warm, incandescent nursery. And if, just if, social stigmatization accounts for scuttling them out of sight, God ensures their significance to Him—and the Gift they brought into the world—won’t be ignored.

At some time or other, we all end up in Bedlam, surrounded by chaos and crowds incapable of overcoming their own fears and hatred to believe God’s given us gifts for their benefit. Deserving better doesn’t excuse resentment at doing with less. As Proverbs 18.16 tells us, “A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.” When we’re stuck with straw, instead of looking at how we’ve been mistreated, let's start seeing stars.


Some think we're unfit to be seen and try to hide us from view, but God's light will shine on us in the end.

(Tomorrow: A Zealous God)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Before Birth

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.

                        Jeremiah 1.5

A Natural Fact

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex—Woody Allen's bawdy satire of an early 70’s “how-to” bestseller—ends by splendidly sending up human reproductivity from the inside out. The bespectacled Allen joins other spermatozoa on a jump seat, waiting to leap into the future, as it were. Being Woody, he’s racked with anxiety as he looks at the other stronger swimmers and rules out completing his mission. It’s puerile and silly, but were I cursed with teaching sex ed, I’d run the clip on the first day, open the floor for any questions, and end by announcing every class thereafter will be spent in study hall. No biology text ever explained reproduction more effectively.

Because conception is a natural fact, we classify it under “science,” which literally means “knowledge.” Knowing how, though, sheds no light on understanding why. Science sidesteps this by retrofitting Darwin’s theory to the start of life. There’s nothing wrong with that—as long as we allow that our Creator has chosen to employ a random system for predefined reasons. Think of it this way. Science regards conception as the stepping off point of natural selection, the launch of traits and characteristics that affect survival. Faith sees it as the culmination of divine election, the result of what God decides to do.

Infinitely Aware

Each of us is a fact before becoming a fetus. “I knew you before you were conceived,” God told Jeremiah. “I endowed you with singular distinction before you entered the world.” We could take this to mean that Jeremiah was unique were it not for how often the Bible confirms it in other cases, most notably with Jesus. This is a regular topic here, typically discussed in context with confidence that God creates us—and therefore accepts us—as we are for His own reasons and purpose. But there’s another side not to be overlooked or undervalued.

How long and how well God knows us defy comparison with anyone, including us, because He supersedes time and intelligence. He’s infinitely—rather than intimately—aware of us in detail the likes of which we can’t imagine. It’s there that He loves and cares for us. Jesus explained this in astonishing terms for His time: “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10.30) On this side of nuclear medicine and the Human Genome Project, He would say, “Even your atomic sub-matter is accounted for.”


It’s illuminating to note that Jesus’s “hair-count” statement arises in a discussion about social and religious bigots who “will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues” (v17). Don’t fear the wrath of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul, He teaches in verse 28. Instead, be concerned about pleasing the One Who can destroy body and soul. Then, to avoid provoking the very response He warns against, He notes God misses nothing and nothing happens without His consent. Even sparrows, Jesus says, the cheapest sacrifices on the market, don’t escape His purview. Nor does one hair on your head. “So don’t be afraid; you’re worth more than many sparrows” (v31).

Our Maker’s unsurpassed knowledge—His eternal, bottomless catalogue of our individual biological and biographical data—precludes any notion He doesn’t understand us, can’t relate to us, or won’t attend to our needs, even those we’re taught to consider illegitimate and inappropriate to lay before Him. His microcosmic interest in us obtains cosmic significance that dwarfs any challenge we confront. Before we were conceived, He knew us. Before we were born, He set us apart. We’re different by design. Those who view us otherwise—as accidents of nature or products of nurture—belittle our Creator. Their darkness is not to be feared in light of God’s brilliant creativity and care.

A human genome sequence: breakthrough knowledge for us doesn't remotely scratch the surface of God's infinite awareness of how and why we're made.

(Tomorrow: Stuck with Straw)