Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bread Alone

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

                        Matthew 4.4

First Things First

After Luke’s report of Jesus astounding the temple priests at 12, the Gospels fall silent concerning His youth and its influence on His ministry. We pick up His story when He leaves home at 30. It’s instructive to attend closely to Jesus’s priorities as His mission commences. He doesn’t come out and announce He’s ready to save the world. He puts first things first: discipleship and sacrifice.

He starts with baptism, which ends in dazzling fashion as God audibly confirms Jesus is His Son. But we can’t forget Jesus goes to the Jordan to become a disciple of John the Baptist. His initial instinct is to establish Himself as a follower. Only at John’s urging and God’s ratification does He skip this step. Another minister, then or now, would use such incomparable endorsements to draw a large following right away. Yet look at what Jesus does. He vanishes into the wilderness for 40 days, opting for solitude over social acclaim, prayer over preaching to thousands, fasting over feasts in His honor.

The Way to Prepare

John’s message was, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Jesus’s example teaches us the way to prepare. His wilderness experience opens with this: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4.1) Again, He’s following, electing to endure temptation to test His discipline and faith. He goes into the desert only knowing it leads to a face-off with the Tempter. The confrontation’s time and nature aren’t defined. Provisions for comfort aren’t included. Instead of doing what we’d most likely do—wait until trouble comes to ask God’s help, or give up before the test arrives—Jesus prepares Himself from Day One. He fasts and prays, sacrificing natural drives to strengthen spiritual impulses. For seven weeks, His sole sustenance comes from conversation with God. Although He surely struggles with loneliness, hunger, and confusion, each day bolsters His confidence He’s not alone, He will rise to the challenge, and His responses to temptation will be sound and clear.

Right Where It Hurts

The Tempter first goes for the gut. “If You’re God’s Son, turn these stones into bread.” And, actually, Jesus could have done so, much like He later turns a boy’s lunch into food for 5,000. But there’s a bigger point here: physical cravings are secondary to spiritual hunger. We can survive without satisfying mortal urges because our bodies aren’t made to last. Without God, however, our spirits fail. “Man doesn’t live on bread,” Jesus answers, “but on God’s word.” The Tempter parries two more strikes, trying to deceive Christ with Scripture and offering Him then entire world. Still, he never recovers from losing that first, decisive round.

When battling temptation, remember this. The Tempter is a fast talker but a slow learner. He still uses the same, tired approach. He first hits us right where it hurts, taunting us with cravings we can satisfy—creature comforts, sexual urges, personal ambitions, and so on. But if we’ve stayed in contact with God, we’ll be unflinching about our spiritual hunger’s priority over material desire. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” Romans 14.17 says. We can’t live on bread alone. Once we’re convinced of that, material temptations lose their luster.

Though He had power to turn stones into bread, Jesus resisted temptation to do so because material sustenance is secondary to spiritual survival.

(Tomorrow: Awaken the Dawn)

Postscript: Meet Les

Child of the Wind is by Les Chatwin, a regular reader here. Last October, Les introduced himself via email this way: “I am a 40-year-old Baptist pastor in Newcastle, Australia. I drive a taxi 4 nights a week and talk to people about God. On Tuesday, November 11, I begin ‘church' in a gay bar in the city.” His home church and family’s opposition to gay people leaves Les with very little moral or spiritual support. Furthermore, as a straight minister ordained in a Fundamentalist denomination, his inroads to the local gay community are limited. While he pursues his call to minister to GLBT people, he continues to support his wife and three children as a taxi driver.

Pause for a moment so all of this sinks in, then visit his blog to get to know Les, understand his challenges, and encourage him with supportive prayer and comments. Love and faith know no distance.

Child of the Wind

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Verdict

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

                        John 3.19 

Dousing the Light

I grew up in a rigid strain of Fundamentalism. Attached to our denomination’s Statement of Doctrine was a long list of restrictions, each with a parenthetical reference to one or two contextually stripped Scriptures. “Women shall refrain from cutting their hair,” for instance, cited 1 Corinthians 11.15: “If a woman has long hair, it is her glory. For long hair is given to her as a covering”—Paul’s teaching that prophetesses should set themselves apart from other women by covering their heads when ministering, just as prophets did. Evidently, no one in our church put all of this together. So our women spent hours and dollars many didn’t have on beauticians capable of spinning waist-length tresses into beehives.

In my case, the most problematic by-law was, “Members shall abstain from movie theaters and other ungodly amusements.” Since this taboo obviously had no literal Scripture to back it, it used 1 John 2.15: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world”—a one-size-fits-all license for legalistic overkill if ever there was one. Now, I was a huge movie buff who’d seen more movies on TV than anyone I knew by the time I was old enough (and bold enough) to challenge this teaching. When I cornered my Aunt Pearl about it, her exasperation led to John 3.19. “You ought not be in movie houses because they’re dark inside,” she said. “If you love darkness, you’re doing evil.” In her sincerity she didn’t realize she was dousing the light of Scripture to uphold a dogma born in dark ignorance.

Something for Everyone

It’s true. The Bible’s complexity and range of topics hold something for everyone. Anyone can isolate a verse here or a phrase there that supports what he/she believes and does—from hate crimes to hairstyles. But faith is not founded on the Bible; it rests in Christ and it’s by Him we assess the validity of our beliefs and actions. Would Jesus have cared about the length of a lady’s hair? Absolutely not, according to Paul, later writing to the same people who read his admonition about covered heads: “You are looking only on the surface of things. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.” (2 Corinthians 10.7)

Throwing Shade

The Word isn’t given to pinpoint surface faults in others; it’s a tool revealing the Light so we remain confident we’re following Christ. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,” 1 John 1.7 says. Scripture is given to unify us in fellowship, not divide us in controversy, to promote justice, not propagate judgment. Any time we pick it apart to defend our prejudices and vanity we prove how poorly we grasp its true purpose. Regardless how correct our judgment may be, the verdict goes against us because our motives are unjust.

When we misappropriate the Word to criticize others, we abuse our privilege to handle it. Throwing shade with Scripture exposes what’s in our hearts—a love of darkness and evildoing. The Bible often confirms errors in others and us. But no matter how well we know and understand it, it provides us no right to condemn anyone. Nor, for that matter, should we pay heed to those seeking to do likewise. The Bible doesn’t prove our points. Its points are what we must prove.


Our judgment of what the Bible says may be correct, but if we use Scripture to condemn others, our case falls apart because our motives are unjust.

(Tomorrow: Bread Alone)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why Christmas

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whosoever believes in him is not condemned.

                        John 3.16-18

No Additional Discussion Necessary

Merry Christmas to all “whosoevers" of every gender, ethnicity, and orientation!

(Tomorrow: The Verdict)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good and Perfect Gifts

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

                        James 1.17

Giver’s Remorse

There’s a howlingly funny bit in John Waters’ tasteless camp classic, Female Trouble. It’s Christmas morning and Dawn Davenport (played by the 300-pound drag legend, Divine) thunders downstairs to tear into her presents. She burrows through the pile to retrieve what is obviously a shoebox and claws into the wrapping to lay hands on her most anticipated gift. Her giddiness sours into rage when she opens the box. “What are these?” she bellows. “These aren’t the right kind! I told you cha-cha heels—black ones!” Her father protests, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” But Dawn hears none of it. She flies into a flailing rampage, spewing obscenities, knocking down the tree and her mother with it. As she storms into the street in her teddy and fuzzy slippers, her flabbergasted dad pleads, “Not on Christmas! Not on Christmas!”

I’ll go out on a limb and guess none of us has witnessed a display of Christmas ingratitude remotely like Dawn’s—at least, I hope not. But I also imagine we’ve lived through an awkward moment or two when our gift received weak, perhaps feigned, enthusiasm. When it comes to feeling inadequate, few emotions beat giver’s remorse. Disappointment descends with a thud. We’re disappointed the recipient isn’t pleased. More than that, though, we’re disappointed we didn’t come up with something better or misjudged how good the gift was.

Just What We Need

Every gift God gives, James says, is good and perfect. Yet His ability to give us the best and flawless judgment of His gifts’ value don’t always spare Him from giver’s remorse. Often we’re like Dawn Davenport—so determined to get what we want we throw a tantrum when we’re given just what we need. “This isn’t what I asked for!” we cry. Sometimes we’re so angry when God provides something other than what our vain ambitions crave we head for the door to get as far as we can from Him. Not only is this rank ingratitude, it’s ridiculously naïve. “Don’t be deceived,” James warns prior to reminding us of God’s infallibility to give only good and perfect things. He defines goodness and perfection, so they’re what He gives. His gifts never vary in quality either, as no variance exists in Him. “He doesn’t change like shifting shadows.” If we’re displeased with God’s gifts, it’s time to identify how we’ve changed, what’s different about our desires and ambitions, and where we lost our way.

Resume the Position

James continues: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” (v18) “The word of truth” clearly refers to Jesus, Who began His valedictory lesson to the disciples by telling Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) The birth of Christ we celebrate tonight and tomorrow was God’s delivery channel to give us birth. His birthday is our birthday. And like Him, we have been born to resume the position at the forefront of all creation. Through Jesus, God has given us the means, truth, and life to lead others to Him. It’s the first gift He gives us, our first birthday gift. It’s as good and perfect as anything we’ll ever receive. We should accept it, treasure it, and—especially at this time of gift giving—thank Him for it with all of our heart.

May we all have a blessed, joyous, and peaceful Christmas as we celebrate God's best, most perfect Gift!

(Tomorrow: Why Christmas)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The First of Millions

To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

                        John 1.12-13

Acceptance for Acceptance

Since we abhor—and many of us are victims of—religious rejection, we tend to think of “acceptance” from our side of the counter. By faith, we know God accepts everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, or orientation. We’re correct to believe this according to Acts 10.34-35, where an epiphany leads Peter to shed his bigotry against Gentiles. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right,” he says. Yet if we look at his confession, we find he is not suggesting Jesus’s death and resurrection purchased blanket acceptance for one and all.

God’s love comes without condition—it’s universal. His acceptance does not. It carries requirements and while they have nothing to do with those mentioned above, they exist nonetheless. Peter says God accepts everyone who honors and obeys Him. John asserts the same thing but puts it differently. He says God’s acceptance hinges on our acceptance of Christ. It’s quid pro quo, acceptance for acceptance. Rejecting Jesus won’t diminish His love. But until we receive Him, we’re ineligible for the rights and benefits of His acceptance.

Unrecognized and Unwelcome

John prefaces his statement with this: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 10.11-12) Unfortunate though it was, Jesus’s rejection was pivotal to His mission and happened precisely to plan. Pondering this for a moment unearths a number of truths that lock together. As our surrogate, it was essential for Jesus to endure hatred, intolerance, and the sorrow of feeling unrecognized and unwelcome. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” Isaiah 53.6 says. He became like us in every way to become the perfect sacrifice for all sin. He also became like us, so we could be like Him. Thus, it’s truly magnificent that His acceptance of us is predicated by our acceptance of Him. How many of us realized we were actually emulating Jesus the moment we consciously accepted Him as our Savior? Yet that’s exactly what happened. When we decide to follow Christ we are following Christ. That’s amazing in and of itself—but there’s more to come.

God’s Children

Social rejection wasn’t Jesus’s problem. Indeed, the Gospels stress He was extremely popular, possibly even famous, constantly surrounded by crowds and hangers-on. Still, His high profile and being thronged—even the power of His words and deeds—didn’t convince the authorities, pundits, and the masses kowtowing to them He was God’s Son. That’s what Isaiah means by “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” It’s why, in God’s quid pro quo acceptance, those who accept Jesus as His Son are granted equal rights as His children. When we receive Christ, a birth occurs in us no less spectacular or phenomenal than His. John says it’s the same thing—God brings another son or daughter into the world without human assistance.

Jesus was the first of millions conceived by the Holy Spirit. You’re one; I’m one; everyone who accepts and believes in Christ is one. No one can change that, despite how many desperately try. That night long ago, when a virgin wrapped her tiny Son in rags and cradled Him in hay, a process began that continues to this day. We accept Christ. He accepts us and offers us the right to be God’s children. We accept His offer and claim our inheritance through Him. It’s so beautifully simple that, as a minister I greatly admire says, “You’d have to hire someone to help you misunderstand it.”

Anyone who accepts Christ and believes in Him is accepted--and given the right join millions who are born of God.

(Tomorrow: Good and Perfect Gifts)

Postscript: Subscription Update

To those of you who subscribe to Straight-Friendly, I apologize for the irregularities you've experienced receiving new posts in your email. Somehow, I screwed up the feed--ask me not how, but know I'm such a techno-numbskull it's no surprise. I believe it's been corrected now and will immediately send out the posts that went missing. If you experience further delays, please let me know ASAP. (And Merry Christmas, everybody!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Joy to All

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
                        Luke 2.10

The Joy Principle

After detailing the events of the Last Supper, John provides a riveting three-chapter (14-16) transcript of the conversation following Judas’s abrupt departure. Jesus alone realizes this is His last chance as an earthly man to speak privately with His disciples and His words read as a staggering sequel—a bookend, if you will—to the Sermon on the Mount. While the core message of self-sacrificial love remains, the content is much denser and the tone more urgent. Almost precisely at the discussion’s midpoint, Jesus says, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15.10-11) He concludes this passage with, “This is my command: Love each other.” (v17) In essence, then, we experience complete joy by abiding in Christ’s love. We remain in His love by obeying Him. We obey by loving one another. Total love, total joy—that’s the principle in a nutshell. They’re directly proportional: love for all brings joy to all and joy for all brings love to all.

Good News

Love and joy are so interdependent in Jesus’s teaching they’re virtually synonymous. What's more, this relationship didn't evolve as His ministry matured. It was there from the first, in the angel’s declaration to the shepherds on the night of His birth. In breaking the “good news of great joy… for all the people,” he simultaneously launched Christ’s gospel of love. The headline, of course, is “Today a Savior has been born to you.” Below that banner, though, is the whole story. Profound misery and sadness produced by sin would be remedied by love. Joy had come to the world at last and it would last because the Newborn Savior would redeem and endow us with everlasting love.

Looking Love in the Face

Later, in his first epistle, John alludes to Christ’s joy principle: “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it… so that you also may have fellowship with us… We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1.2-4) The compulsion to tell the good news of Christ’s love is common in those who see Him. Looking Love in the face generates unrestrained joy. It implores us to draw others into fellowship—in other words, to love unconditionally—since joy grows fuller by giving, rather than receiving. Luke writes: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2.17-18) They couldn’t help themselves—keeping what they’d seen a secret would have killed their joy.

In the next few days, as we hustle to put finishing touches on our holiday, I pray we’ll carve out a quiet moment away from the Christmas claptrap to see the Christ Child, to allow the Life to appear, to look Love in the face. I pray we’ll experience a renewed rush of joy that turns festivity into fellowship, tradition into transcendence. Seeing Jesus in His Newborn glory drives love for all and brings joy to all. It changes us. It changes others. It changes everything.

Looking at Love. [Gerard von Honthorst: Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)]

(Tomorrow: The First of Millions)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

God With Us

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.”

                        Matthew 1.23

A Moral Quandary

Matthew cites this prophecy (Isaiah 7.14) in a context that believers who feel pushed to the social and religious outskirts will find most interesting. Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy puts Joseph in an awkward situation. He’s indirectly been handed the awesome task of protecting the mother of humanity’s Redeemer. His familiarity with Isaiah’s prediction that Christ will be born of a virgin allays any knee-jerk suspicions about Mary’s chastity and credibility. Yet Joseph’s Scriptural knowledge likewise places him in a moral quandary.

Judaic law sentences women like Mary to death. (Deuteronomy 22.23-24) Once Mary’s condition forces her “out,” religious hysteria will rise against her. Her defense—based on faith in God’s promise—will shrivel under the glare of Bible literalists who value conformity over belief. As a product of his environment, it’s difficult for Joseph to shake lingering unease about what’s right. Trapped by faith on one side, religion on the other, he decides to resolve the issue with discretion. Matthew 1.19 says, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Today, we call people who adopt his out-of-sight, out-of-mind compromise “closeted.”


Although Joseph’s case is unique, his turmoil is not. Many of us deal with anguish about what our situations require—standing on God’s promise of acceptance or buckling to religion’s threats of rejection. In other cases, we confront ideologies of a pagan culture that scoffs at anyone whose faith defies its success and pleasure principles. We see this in 1 Kings 18, where Israel has fallen into idolatry and, as a result, hard times. The prophet Elijah challenges them. “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” Whether, like Joseph, we’re at odds with our religious upbringing or, like Elijah, at odds with our community, our dilemma is the same: faith versus conformity. Wavering between two opinions isn’t an option. Faith is the only way to go. Any doubt of that vanishes when we watch God step into Joseph’s crisis to turn his thinking around.

Immanuel Heirs

Satisfied with his compromise, Joseph goes to bed. But he remains troubled about how to maneuver his plan. Sparing Mary’s humiliation—as well as her and her Son’s lives—won’t spare him explaining things to his family. He can’t hide the truth from them forever. An angel visits Joseph’s dreams, telling him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what’s conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1.20) The crux of God’s message to Joseph is this: “Take courage in what you know is true instead of worrying about what you’re told is right.” And here Matthew underscores the truth of the matter with Isaiah’s prophecy. Mary carries the living presence of God—Immanuel, “God with us.”

Romans 8.17 says we’re “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” meaning we inherit the “Immanuel” family name. We embody God’s presence. He’s with us now and always. Hebrews 13.5-6 invokes His promise as our source of courage: “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” Joseph awoke to a new plan based on the courage of his convictions and nothing thereafter lived up to his prior fears. His family embraced Mary. She and her Baby met no harm. Joseph suffered no backlash for standing beside her. Waking to know God is with us frees us of compromise. As Immanuel heirs, two traits define us: undying faith in our Father and unyielding resistance to fear.


Joseph went to sleep with one plan, but after an angel visited his dreams, he woke up to another.

(Tomorrow: Joy for All)