Thursday, December 31, 2009

In With the New

New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.” (Luke 5.38-39)
Uncommon Vintages
A June 2003 visit to Paris ended in several days of oppressive heat. Though Paris is many things, heat-friendly isn’t one of them. Its stone architecture, narrow backstreets, and inland location turn the city into an oven. So we spent our last days in air-conditioned museums and stores, when we’d rather have roamed outdoors. Back at home, French news reported the heat hadn’t lifted and Western Europe was in full-on crisis. Death tolls overwhelmed undertakers and forced families to place loved ones in makeshift morgues. Calamity also loomed for France’s vineyards. If conditions didn’t cool, one of Europe’s leading industries and economic drivers might actually die on the vine.

The heat hung on through August, causing nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone. It also reduced harvests by 15-20%. But a most interesting thing occurred. In some regions, scorching conditions improved the grapes. Critics hailed many of that year’s wines as exquisitely uncommon vintages. As older, highly reputed bottles gathered dust, 2003 wines flew off the shelves. Buyers happily paid more for typically cheaper labels. Lastly, while wines produced under more stable conditions tend to improve with age, atypical factors affecting the 2003 vintage raised suspicions it might degrade over time. Instead of waiting for an occasion to bring out a fine bottle, opening a 2003 wine turned into an occasion. Rarely has newness ranked so high among a wine’s qualities.

Utterly Innovative

Having grown up with Christian values, we're hard-pressed to appreciate how utterly innovative Christ’s message and methods were. Mark, writer of the first Gospel, hastens to drive this home in the first miracle he describes. Jesus is teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, where we’re told, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as teachers of the law.” (Mark 1.22) As He teaches, a man vexed by an unclean spirit interrupts Him. Jesus silences the man, who undergoes a seizure and the spirit flees. Mark writes in verse 27: “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!’” Mark ends by saying news of Jesus spread quickly.

Now, imagine Jesus walks into our church, stands in the pulpit, and preaches His doctrine of selfless, pure love. Would we not also be amazed? Suppose a disturbed individual jumps up to dispute Him and His reprimand triggers a fit that cleanses his/her heart of evil. Would we not be shocked? Lastly, consider the response of church officials. Would they not rush to discredit Him as a radical? That’s what happens to Jesus. But in Luke 5.38-39, He concedes His message isn’t conducive to traditionalism: “New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’” In matters of faith, experts and enthusiasts are often less astute than wine critics and connoisseurs. They aren’t as willing to allow uncommon factors can create a rare vintage vastly superior to the established standards.

Strength to Expand

Storing new wine in unused skins is necessary because the finishing process isn’t complete. Fermentation generates gasses that test the wineskins’ strength to expand. It creates new pressures that burst their seams. What’s more, drinking new wine before “its time” challenges people accustomed to flavors and nuances of older vintages. They believe old wine is better because that’s what they’re taught and all they know. In many ways, they’re no different than old wineskins. Processing traditional beliefs saps their strength to expand. The old wine tastes better because it’s safer and easier to digest. That Jesus’s critics adopt a similar distaste for His doctrine hardly surprises Him. Yet it’s important to realize He doesn’t use this analogy to criticize traditionalists. Indeed, His explanation softens our regard for them. Jesus raises the topic of new wine and wineskins to encourage us to be strong and open-minded enough to receive His doctrine—to develop palates for its new flavors and fortitude to withstand the pressures it creates within us as it matures.

More than ever, I’m convinced Christ is pouring new wine into our hearts. Believers trained to prefer vintages of condemnation and exclusion can’t stomach Christ’s doctrine of inclusion, while we who’ve developed a penchant for new wine struggle to accommodate it in skins weakened by previous faith processes. Pressures to judge pushes hard at our seams. Every believer must pray for strength to expand. In Romans 7.6, Paul explains, “By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” In Ezekiel 36.26, God speaks to our hardened attitudes: “I will give you a new heart and a put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” In the closing hours of 2009 and dawning moments of 2010, we ask God to finish this work in us. More than ever, need His new wine. We need to serve in the new way of the Spirit. We need soft hearts that expand with compassion and tolerance. More than ever, we need to proclaim, “Out with the old, in with the new.”

With prayers and hopes for a healthy and happy New Year to you all.

Christ's new wine tests our willingness to develop uncommon tastes and accommodate differing views.

(Next: Coming Soon)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


“Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Malachi 3.10)

What Lies Beyond What Is

We’ve been on a Liza kick lately. It started when Walt latched on to “Ring Them Bells,” a Kander and Ebb novelty about a girl who goes to Europe and discovers an opportunity that lurked under her nose all along. Walt’s one of those people who can play a song they love again and again. So, hoping to add some variety to his playlist, I dusted off the DVD Liza with a Z, a TV concert she filmed in the wake of her Cabaret triumph. It opens with “Yes,” another Kander-Ebb tune with a similar message that knocked me off my heels in spite of it pushing the kind of hard-sell, show-biz sunshine that normally gives me the willies. In this case, however, knowing Liza performs it at her peak adds conviction to its brazen optimism. As she belts, “What lies beyond ‘what is’ is not. So what? Say, ‘Yes!’” I’m a believer.

I was raised on the power of “yes,” though not in the same sense as Kander and Ebb’s song. Instead of being told I could do anything I set my mind to, my parents taught the only answer to “No, I can’t” is “Yes, God can.” So what if what lies beyond ‘what is’ is not? Saying “yes” turns a blind eye to impossibility and unleashes our Maker’s power. Romans 4.17 says God “calls things that are not as though they were.” Inability to detect anything beyond options we see has no bearing on His means and methods. When no viable solution exists, He creates one. All He needs from us is belief. When we say, “Yes, You can,” He proves it.

Faith and Surrender

Re-reading the above raises trepidation some may consider it nothing more than a religious twist on the same cockeyed notion that songwriters have served up for decades. In all honesty, it does ring them bells, and I spent most of my thirties hatching rationales in favor of this view. Drunk on self-confidence, I decided countermanding life’s “no’s” with divine “yeses” was beneath me. I was too sophisticated to believe God actually preferred to intervene in my impossibilities rather than trusting me to live with them. (Imagine that—God trusting me, not me trusting Him!) While I muddled along, however, I kept noticing people who knew no better than saying “yes” got out of trouble, not through it. Still, I wouldn’t accept it could possibly be so simple. I rifled through variations on the theme: happy coincidence, self-fulfilling prophecy, or cosmic beneficence—anything but faith and surrender.

Faith and surrender distinguish “Yes, God can” from “Yes, I/we can." When we turn our “no’s” into God’s “yeses,” we must sincerely believe He can do the impossible and let go so He will. We dismiss what we think in order to rely on what we know. That’s how it worked with me, anyway. In His amazing kindness and wisdom, God sent a raft of unbelievable opportunities and impossible situations my way. All at once, I faced the fact I was neither smart nor talented enough to seize chances I’d been given, let alone resolve crises I’d stumbled into. “What should I do?” eased into “I can’t possibly do it,” which left no alternative to confessing, “I can’t, but I know You can and believe You will.” Once I said, “Yes,” things began turning around. One Sunday morning, the choir hauled out an oldie I’d never been crazy about, “I Tried Him and I Know Him.” And in that moment I understood something I’d never put together: I tried Him because I know Him. I said, “Yes,” because “Yes” made total sense.


In getting to know God, we learn He often tests us so we can test Him. We see this in Malachi. The Jews have reassembled after 80 years of exile and foreign occupation. They scrape together what’s left of their assets to pay enormous reconstruction costs. With “no’s” at every turn, it takes all their resources just to keep going. In the process, devotion to God’s work and House wanes. So what does God do? He asks the impossible, demanding Israel sacrifice one-tenth of its income to restock Temple coffers. “Test me in this,” He says, “and see if I won’t bless you beyond your capacity to contain it.” Building Temple reserves while struggling to put roofs overhead and meals on tables doesn’t make sense. God has asked more than they can possibly do or afford. It takes time for Israel to forget saying, “No, we can’t,” and agree, “Yes, God can.” But when they conclude savvy and skepticism are merely fear in fancy dress, they take Him up on His offer. They test Him because they know Him. Just as He promises, prosperity and security are restored. What was impossible for Israel proved entirely possible for God.

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1.20. With a fresh year approaching, there’s no better time to know that we know God—to know tests that look like big fat “no’s” to us are really grand opportunities to test Him. He will prove there’s more than “is not” behind “what is.” There are promises we can trust and creative power we can’t see. Every promise God makes is an automatic “yes.” Our “yes” declares faith and surrender. We say, “Amen”—it is so. I pray 2010 becomes our Year of Yes, that we enter it with minds to trust God’s power and leave it having seen Him prove Himself with every test.

Having nothing left to say but “No” is the exact moment we should say, “Yes!”

(Next: In With the New)

Postscript: “Yes” and…

Minnelli’s optimistic booster and “I Tried Him and I Know Him” by Perfect Praise.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrow

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6.34)
Time in Mind
Christmas closes a marvelous period for me, when time feels suspended in wonder. Although Advent marks time more closely than other seasons, its days combine into something greater than their sum. Then December 26 dawns and New Year’s thoughts pounce. We’re back in the rude clutches of time, reflecting on this year’s missed opportunities, resolving to do better next year. We’ll lose weight. We’ll work harder. We’ll be more attentive. We’ll stop smoking. We’ll live more modestly. We’ve got five days to plan how to pull these resolutions off—five days to brace ourselves for big changes when January 1 rolls around.

By and large, it’s a hollow exercise, because we conjure our grandiose schemes in total darkness about what the future holds. We resolve to save more money and then our employers initiate company-wide pay cuts. Intentions to slim down get foiled by an illness that requires steroid treatment. An unpleasant encounter triggers the search an orphaned cigarette. Worries with car trouble steal attention from our partners, families, and neighbors. Time in mind and real time seldom cooperate. The tomorrows we anticipate rarely materialize. As Ecclesiastes 8.7 says, “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?”

Stuck in the Moment

When we’re kids, we fantasize about flying and disappearing, growing taller than trees and traveling through time. As we mature, we learn to accept our physical limitations. Yet we never outgrow our desire to master time. Something in us resists admitting we’re stuck in the moment—that today is all we have. We can improve our perception of time by thinking of today as yesterday’s tomorrow. When we compare what we expected to what we experience, we invariably see factors that never crossed our minds threw our plans off-kilter. They can be minor—the extra press of the snooze button that dominoes into a daylong frenzy. They can be so catastrophic they halt time, as happened on 9/11. They can also surprise us by turning out better than we hoped. In any case, life’s wrinkles remind us worrying (or dreaming) about time we’ve not yet reached wastes moments we have. Since that’s where we are, that’s where our primary focus must rest.

In Matthew 6, Jesus warns us not to get overwrought about future issues like what we’ll eat or wear, and He mentions such seemingly trivial matters because, in the final analysis, our hopes and fears basically distill into caring for ourselves. Instead of squandering moments we have on moments to come, Jesus tells us to take a lesson from Nature. Pointing to birds and flowers, He reminds us virtually all other earthly organisms live in the now. Untainted by ill-gotten, Godlike knowledge, they innately trust their Creator to provide for them as He wills. They instinctively place tomorrow in His hands, which is incredibly wise, as He alone knows what it holds. So, while we fret and fritter with our future, being stuck in the moment is all Nature knows. And that’s what Jesus—as both Creator and human—urges us to emulate as He says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (v34)

Too Smart to Live So Wisely

Nature also knows what occurs at any moment depends on God. It accepts its limitations and survives on its Maker’s mercy. Not us. We’re too smart to live so wisely. Assuming we know what’s best for us, we presume to engineer the future in our favor. Instead of piling up yesterdays obsessed with tomorrows, we’re better served by learning today’s lesson. Not everything that happens to us is for, about, or because of us. As inhabitants of God’s intricately constructed, infinitely balanced universe, there will be days when we gain at others’ expense; there will also be days we’re required to sacrifice for another’s survival. That’s why thinking we can shape the future for our benefit is folly. After Ecclesiastes 3.1’s profound declaration, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” chapter 7 expands on the principle: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.” (v14) If yesterday and today proved bigger than we are, why would we imagine tomorrow won’t be?

Jesus says being stuck in the moment relieves us of useless worry. Solomon counsels us to enjoy our blessings and use our trials to ponder our place in the world. Neither remotely suggests mortgaging our future for an aimless existence. Both emphatically stress God’s active role in our lives and teach us the wisdom in yielding our ambitions in order to achieve His purpose. In Jeremiah 29.11-13, we read, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” If we can only resolve abandoning inadequately conceived plans to concentrate on God’s all-knowing plan for our lives, we’ll enter 2010 fearing nothing and expecting everything.

We avoid wasting time on New Year's promises and worries about the future by resolving to concentrate more time on pursuing God's plan for us.

(Next: Yes)

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Reason, or Defying Criticism

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.17)
This day began like every other since the time of Moses. Jews (and Gentile worshipers of their God) arose and immediately undertook a complex cleansing ritual. Their wardrobe included several obligatory garments, some visible, some not. A series of prayers came next, followed by carefully observed etiquette for preparing and eating the first meal. After breakfast, men and boys went off to do what males were expected to do, while women and girls tended to their duties. Virtually everything they did adhered to an astringent set of edicts handed down centuries earlier to fugitive slaves

These rules, known as “The Law,” governed everything from social structure to legal contracts, from labor and healthcare to family and sexual relationships. Even mourning, burial, and inheritance were tightly regulated. Obeying The Law surpassed honoring tradition. Every edict (and there were hundreds) came directly from God under threat of severe punishment. Thus, a watchdog mentality besieged the Jews. Scholars and lawyers scrutinized everyone’s behavior and rallied to condemn anyone judged to be religiously incorrect. The Law was too intricate and invasive, however, which meant diligent conformity to its demands was hopeless. So this day, like every other, was consumed by fear of mistakes, fueled by fear of humiliation, and founded on terror of enraging God.

Independence Day

But unlike any day before or since, this one will be forever remembered as humanity’s Independence Day. While her countrymen tiptoed around The Law as they scurried to enroll in a Roman census, an unwed mother went into labor. Shoved into a filthy stable—perhaps because no one would accommodate a maiden in her shameful condition, perhaps because The Law decreed childbirth unclean, and hence her imminent delivery disqualified her for better housing—she had only her loyal fiancé beside her. No midwife helped deliver her baby. No family women comforted her. There were just Mary and Joseph, two undoubtedly frightened young people, fighting to bring the miraculous Life inside her into the world. And when the Infant took His first breath, nothing would ever be the same. Freedom in its purest, truest sense was born that day—freedom from sin, fear, shame, and condemnation. Many years later, speaking to His followers, the Child would explain: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.31-32,36)

The Reason for Jesus

It’s nigh unto impossible to get to Christmas Day without bumping into a button, billboard, bumper sticker, or church marquee exclaiming “Jesus is the Reason for the season.” Trite though the slogan is, it’s obviously true. Yet it also falls short of capturing the real meaning of Christmas. To grasp that, we must ask: What is the reason for Jesus? “That’s easy,” we say, as we open our Bibles to John 3.16: “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, there it is in a nutshell—except that’s not quite all of it. In explaining Himself to Nicodemus, a legalistic scholar, Jesus feels compelled to reveal what His reason is not: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” In other words, Christ’s purpose goes further than providing eternal hope. He comes to restore present hope. By refusing to condemn, He lifts The Law’s burden so we can experience total freedom. Freedom to blunder, yes, but also freedom to trust, to repent, and to know we are forgiven and accepted.

Finally, then, Jesus frees us from the watchdog mentality that persists to this day, despite His constant opposition to its mindset and methods. This is a major theme of His ministry—not only in His determination to overturn condemnation, but also in His insistence we respond to it properly. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,” He says in Matthew 5.11-12. Defying criticism is firmly stitched into the reason for Jesus. We see it in Him. We see it in Mary and Joseph. We see it in anyone who is authentically free and filled with hope. In obedience to Him, we answer condemnation with rejoicing and gladness—in the words of the angels who announce His birth, with “good will to men.” I pray each of us celebrates this holiest of days for what it is: Independence Day. We are free indeed.

Wishing each of you a merry and most meaningful Christmas.

The Christ Child breathed His first breath and true freedom entered the world. Nothing would ever be the same again.

(Next: Yesterday's Tomorrow)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Defying Politics

Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2.12)
Their Savior, Too
Without the Magi, Christ's birth would play out as an inauspicious event featuring two young parents and a motley crew of shepherds. Despite their vigilant search for signs of the Messiah's appearance, the Nativity goes unnoticed by Bethlehem’s residents. That's because they don't anticipate a lowly entrance. They expect the coronation of a King, trumpeted by angelic heralds and brimming with majesty. The angels don’t come to town, though; their music fills the countryside. As for pomp and circumstance, well…

But how do locals miss the star? Living when people study celestial shifts like we watch market fluctuations, surely they notice a new light in the sky. Stellar activity is an important element of their faith. Daniel 6.27 directly links changes overhead with divine intervention: “He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.” The addition of a supernova to the sky must pique curiosity. Yet no one in Palestine evidently reads the new star as the Advent of Christ. Perhaps it draws little interest because the star rises in the east, hundreds of miles from Bethlehem, where astute astronomers and scholars put everything together. They caravan across the desert to greet Israel’s King, fully aware they’re defying convention. Israel is infamously insular and suspicious of pagans, which the Magi are. It’s likely they won’t be welcome to pay homage to the newborn Savior. Nonetheless, driven by conviction the star is given to them, they seize the opportunity to worship Christ as their Savior, too.

The Magi’s Miracle

Matthew implies the Magi presume the Jews have also observed the star, understood its significance, and identified its Messiah. Quite possibly, they anticipate word of The Christ’s birth will be widespread when they reach Palestine. This isn’t the case. So they proceed to Jerusalem, where they call on King Herod. If the news hasn’t been publicly released yet, he must know the Child’s location. Their inquiry catches the king by surprise. He quizzes the men about the star and realizing its importance, he urges them: “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2.8)
Herod misreads their their desire to meet the Christ Child as a politically ambitious effort to win Jerusalem's favor and respect. It's nothing of the sort.

While God’s people putter in darkness, oblivious to changes above them, the pagans look up for guidance. And that’s when the Magi’s miracle transpires. The star that illuminated their night and fixed itself in their hearts starts moving. Verse 9 says it “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Leading them step-by-step, it travels from Jerusalem’s palaces and temples, south-southwest over six hilly miles to rest over Jesus’s cradle. The issue of the Magi’s right to worship Christ is moot. Their star brings luminosity to His story, making them prophetic instruments: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60.2-3)

When the Magi kneel at the manger, their reverence is displayed in the rare gifts they present: gold, incense, and myrrh—an exotic ointment primarily used to preserve corpses, and hence a precursor to Christ’s sacrificial death. Had the Magi not heeded the star’s message and followed its lead, Mary and Joseph may not have had sufficient resources to escape Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus by murdering every infant born under His star. In a way, the Magi’s gifts become the newborn Savior’s salvation.

The Magi’s Mistake

On the other hand, seeking access to Jesus through political channels constitutes the Magi’s mistake. It indirectly threatens Him and puts them in a dicey situation. Herod waits for their report so he can undermine God’s plan. Jerusalem sits between them and home. Men of their stature and appearance can’t possibly pass through the city unnoticed. Meeting Jesus face-to-face relieves their anxieties about defying politics, however. A dream enlightens their understanding and strengthens their courage to go another way. And while their obedience to follow an alternative route doesn’t disable Herod from trying to stop God’s work, their decision delays his strike, buying time for Joseph and Mary to steal into Egypt to protect the Child.

John 1.11-12 reads, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” The Magi are the first in history to claim this right. It’s a right deeded to all—including anyone who’s been castigated as an outsider or pagan by “locals” who believe Christ is given exclusively to them. His star has risen in our lives, far though we may be from seats of power. It has fixed itself in our hearts and drawn us to Him. Many make the mistake of seeking access to Christ through political means, only to incite efforts to destroy God’s intention to accept all who receive Christ. If the Magi teach us anything, it’s the importance of defying politics to reach Christ. When we look up for guidance and follow His star, genuine believers will welcome us for the light and gifts we bring. The uniqueness of what we offer Christ and the wisdom in following our dreams for His sake can’t be undervalued. We are prophetic instruments, people of purpose, and vital to God’s plan.

His star is our star. It confirms He's our Savior, too, and guides us to worship Him.

(Next: The Reason, or Defying Criticism)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Defying Nature

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. (John 3.16)
Pure Love
In John 3.16, Jesus summarizes the rationale for His birth. His incarnation and mission are conceived by pure love. Believing this is the first rung in faith’s ladder. What’s more, faith in this negates discounting Christ’s virgin birth as naturally impossible or ancient myth. The prospect of human congress bringing Jesus to the world introduces happenstance He’s conceived for reasons beyond love—libidinal drive, marital obligation, or familial longevity, for example. Raising the odds Jesus is born of human intent acknowledges the chance there was never a plan for our redemption. It opens the door to theories that Jesus was no more than an extraordinary teacher and belief in His divinity evolved after the fact. The minute we credence anything other than pure love is responsible for Christ’s birth, our entire faith unravels.

Now let’s be reasonable. Is it not equally imaginable God’s strategy begins by endowing a naturally conceived infant with divine nature? Of course, it’s possible. In fact, the Christmas story lends credibility to not ruling it out. When Mary questions how can she be pregnant, the angel tells her, “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1.37) But God living in one of us is hugely different than God living with us, as us. The former includes margins of error the latter mitigates by defying nature from the get-go. And since defying nature is central to everything Jesus teaches, the Virgin Birth makes better sense. A second look at John 3.16 reveals why. Challenging us to accept Jesus as “His one and only Son,” conceived by pure love, enables our belief in God’s pure, absolute, and unconditional love for us. It’s the key to life.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Accepting the Virgin Birth daunts us in the same manner the Creation does. It asks us to ignore everything we know is empirically true in nature to believe it occurs as Biblical writers say. Rather than taking it at face value, many find it easier to disregard it as an ancient tall tale born of inferior knowledge. Yet this is no more legitimate than refuting proven facts to interpret Scripture literally. Each attitude exposes an all too human compulsion to exclude one for the other, when both are essential. They function on entirely different planes and achieve entirely different ends. Solomon realizes this, which is why he explicitly prays, “Give me wisdom and knowledge.” (1 Chronicles 1.10)

Knowledge explains how. It informs. In contrast, wisdom reveals why. It instructs. Each provides benefits we must seek and accept at no expense of the other. In terms of the Virgin Birth, whether we comprehend how it can be true has no bearing our capability to understand why it must be true. God sent His Son to live among us because He loves us. His plan is spawned by pure love. If we have to remove doubts about the Incarnation’s factuality to accept this, then that’s what we must do. In matters of faith, understanding why takes precedence over knowing how every time.

Innocence Incarnate

First John 4.14 and 16 makes the connection: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world… And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.” Defying our assumption that knowledge precedes understanding, the Virgin Birth asks us to understand pure love’s revelation in Christ’s birth in order to know the purity of God. As God Incarnate, Jesus becomes Innocence Incarnate. He is conceived, lives, and dies without sin specifically to restore our innocence and reconcile us to God. And once we understand this, we return to a place of innocence where we know and rely on God’s love instead of our wits. We stop reasoning and start believing.

It’s all there in John 3.16. God loved us so much—more than we’ll ever understand—that He conceived His one and only Son in love. Regardless if we comprehend it, because we believe it, eternal life is ours. Human nature opens a very short road paved by jaded knowledge that leads to a dead end. The pure love revealed in the Virgin Birth opens the endless opportunity to lead an unnatural life guided by faith. It teaches us the value of understanding more than we can know, rather than knowing more than we can understand.

When the angel informs Mary of her pregnancy, she asks, “How can this be?” We may ask the same question. Yet not knowing how it’s possible doesn’t preclude our understanding of why it must be.

(Next: Defying Politics)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Gift Worth Having

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full. (John 10.10)
Curses in Disguise
Some gifts backfire on their givers, as a hysterical video that made the rounds about this time last year shows. A clueless husband gives his wife a Thigh-Master for their anniversary. She immediately escorts him to a doghouse with a trap door that drops him into an underground sweatshop full of similarly inept husbands. Their only means of escape is convincing a stern, all-female parole board they’ve figured out why their gifts backfired. Other gifts backfire on their receivers. Many “gifts that keep on giving”—Fruit-of-the-Month subscriptions, for instance, or adorable bunnies—sometimes fit this bill. The initial delight fades, leaving a routine dilemma about what to do with cartons of perishables or a child who won’t clean his rabbit’s cage. The gift worth having must be something we truly want. The gift that keeps on giving must be something we can’t do without. Otherwise, we may discover these gifts are curses in disguise.

Unnecessary presents typically wind up stowed out of sight and mind. We can’t bring ourselves to toss them away and risk offending those who give them to us. But as the years wear on and the gifts pile up, they start taking. They steal space we could put to better use. They kill time and energy by forcing us to deal with them. And the longer we hang onto them, the more burdensome they become, gradually destroying our appreciation for the kind gestures behind them. Over time, “How thoughtful of them to give us an automated card shuffler” turns into “What made them think we’d ever use this?” It’s funny how gifts we don’t need ultimately become clutter we detest.

Gift and Giver
In their gospels and letters, the Apostles continually present Jesus as God’s Gift to humankind. This concept originates in Isaiah 9.6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” And Jesus ratifies it several times, most famously in John 3.16 (a verse we’ll delve into next time): “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son.” Yet while the concept holds firm, its construct proves surprisingly elastic. John and Paul in particular portray Jesus as a literal—i.e., physical—Gift, as well as the channel through which God’s grace and life are given. In 1 John 5.11, we read, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” while Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus in Romans 5.15 by saying, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

The dozens of variations on this idea coalesce into a unified theme: Jesus comes as Gift and Giver. He’s born specifically to provide the perfect Offering—a Gift of Love—for our redemption. “This is love,” 1 John 4.10 tells us, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” But in the span between His first breath in the manger and His last gasp on the cross, He teaches us to accept gifts God wants us to receive. No verse better summarizes the extent of what we can receive by and through Him than John 10.10: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus epitomizes the Gift worth having and the Gift that keeps on giving. We need Him and the full life He gives.

Opening Our Lives
With Advent cresting this weekend and Christmas approaching, we have a moment to remember embracing the Gift of Christ is nothing short of opening our lives to all of God’s gifts: love, grace, mercy, acceptance, strength, purpose, joy, healing, hope, confidence, peace, creativity, holiness, and innumerable other treasures. They’re not ours for the asking; God gives them to us without reservation. This has always been so, even before God sends Jesus to offer them in Person. Psalm 84.11 says, “The LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” And get this: even blamelessness is a gift. Paul writes, “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3.22) No matter how much righteousness we scramble together, we’ll never accumulate enough to merit God’s gifts. Titus 3.5 stresses, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” So great is God’s love, He bestows His righteousness on us for no other reason than entitling us to every other gift He wants us to have.

The tiny Baby in a cow-crib is so much more than a Sacrifice destined for the altar. He’s Life—new life, eternal life, and full life. He’s the Gift worth having, the Gift that keeps on giving. Thus, Christmas transcends celebrating Christ’s birth; it’s the celebration of our lives. We experience it at its fullest by enlarging our worship to include gratefully accepting all He came to give. When Jesus arrived, everything we’ll ever want or need came with Him. If anything’s absent from our lives, it’s not because God decides we can’t have it. It’s because we haven't yet opened our lives to receive everything He gives.

Jesus came into the world as Gift and Giver, which transforms Christmas from a celebration of His birth into the celebration of the fullness of life we experience by receiving all of God's gifts.

(Next: Defying Nature)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Quiet Man

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1.24-25)
The Strong, Silent Type

“Strength calls unto strength” the proverb goes. Having been privileged to be part of a family of extraordinarily strong women (on both sides), I can attest to this, as I’ve also been blessed to grow up around amazingly strong men. Both sexes in our clan assert their strengths in what you might call classic Southern style. The women are more demonstrative, talkative, and imaginative—always organizing things, starting projects, getting involved, etc., which tends to catapult them into leadership positions. The men exhibit their strengths in quieter, complementary ways that support their wives, mothers, and daughters. They embody “the strong, silent type.” The outsider naïvely assumes our men play secondary roles, when nothing is further from the truth. Within our ranks, it’s no secret men and women share equal responsibility for leadership, and nothing happens without mutual consent.

Heritage surely colors my image of Joseph. Yet there’s no arguing he indeed is the strong, silent type. His strength leaps out of the story. Here’s a young, self-employed man from a good family, the Biblical equivalent of “Mayflower bluebloods” that can trace its genes back to Abraham. Joseph’s parents arrange his marriage to a local young woman. Everything’s going along as planned, when the rug gets yanked from beneath them. She gets pregnant through none of her doing. Acting as though nothing’s wrong is not an option. Joseph can rush into marriage, which effectively casts him as the child’s father and ruins his and Mary’s reputations. Or he can cancel their engagement, discreetly sending her away to deal with the baby and shame on her own. Loathsome as the second choice is, it’s the better of the two. Then a new wrinkle appears in their situation. An angel, perhaps the same one that visits Mary, tells Joseph to stand by her and consummate their marriage after she delivers. Such a tactic invites huge risk and demands enormous strength. But that’s what Joseph decides to do.

The Only Word

Many voices filter through the Christmas story—Mary’s, several angels’, Elizabeth’s, Zechariah’s, Herod’s, the Wise Men’s, and the shepherds’—but not one statement comes directly from Joseph. We don’t know what he says to his angel. We’re not privy to his conversations with Mary or his family. Everyone else talks; Joseph listens. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t reveal feelings or thoughts. All we know about him emerges in what he does. As the single unquoted person in the story, he’s definitely its most intriguing character. Furthermore, since we live in an age severely lacking spousal and paternal models, not hearing Joseph explicitly convey his inner thoughts and emotions is unfortunate.

Now brace yourself for the most delectable irony of all time. While the Gospels fail to record Joseph word-for-word, he becomes history’s most oft-quoted individual. In the half-second needed to ponder that, a thousand people (at least) spoke the only word ever attributed to him. After the Christ Child is born, Matthew 1.25 says Joseph “gave him the name Jesus.” The moment Joseph names the Baby he provides the world its most precious—and most abused—word. Billions around the world say “Jesus” daily, many of them several times a day. Some utter it in reverence. Others use it casually. Still others spit it in anger and frustration. But as the first human to say it, had Joseph not called Mary’s Son “Jesus,” we’d be no more likely to call that name than any other.

Preferences Aside

Joseph might have gained prominence by actually choosing Jesus’s name. But as the Baby isn’t his, he has no paternal naming rights. The angel gives Joseph Jesus’s name in advance. A weaker, less astute man would bristle at being told what to name the Child, resenting it as one more thankless task in an overall thankless job. Not Joseph. He sets his preferences aside to support Mary and follow God’s direction. Thus, on that frigid night, in that dim and gamy stable, when Joseph says, “Jesus,” the only word attributed to him forever shatters darkness and radiates warmth.

There’s a wealth of knowledge to glean from the Quiet Man. Listening, trusting, and obeying are far more important than speaking. Seeking God’s will is nobler than looking for recognition. Setting personal preferences aside to support those selected for more substantial duties is an equal honor and responsibility. What we say, not how much of it, is the measure of our character. Courage and leadership are revealed in our willingness to accept what we don’t understand as well as in our persistence when logic insists we give up. One word, two syllables—Jesus—is all we have from Joseph. Yet when he says that, he says it all.

Nothing Joseph ever said is directly quoted in Scripture, yet the one word we know he spoke makes him the most frequently quoted human in history.

(Next: The Gift Worth Having)

Postscript: The Women in Jesus's Past

Claire, over at A Seat at the Table, just posted a lovely supplement to the list of Joseph's ancestors that opens Matthew's account. Today's post originally contained a comment about his taking the time to list 42 generations of men, from Abraham to Joseph, which technically doesn't matter since Jesus has no biological father. [Matthew uses the list prove Jesus is "the seed of David, the seed of Abraham" {v1.1), but his rationale is a little sketchy given the Virgin Birth.]

I cut my comments for length and clarity's sake, but also with regret. We have no history of Mary's ancestry, which is truly unfortunate. However, when I saw Claire's post of "A Genealogy of Jesus Christ" compiled by Anne Patrick Ware of the Women's Liturgy Group of New York, I realized this is as close as we can get to recognizing the powerful influence the women in Jesus's past surely had on His life. It's a lovely piece of work--something worth reflecting on during this Advent season. (Thanks, Claire!)

A Genealogy of Jesus Christ

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam,
the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon
and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiahim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehiachinm
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiaj.
Then the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is therefore:
fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation
to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Compiled by Ann Patrick Ware
of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York

PS: If you've not yet got over to Claire's place, you must! It's a warm, wonderful, and inspiring oasis of calm in the midst the Web's chaos.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Travel Advisory

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. (Isaiah 43.1-2)
Just the Two of Us
I was a college sophomore when family friends invited me to tag along on a trip to see relatives in Cupertino, California—about an hour south of San Francisco. As I’d not yet come out at home, I concealed my delirium about visiting gay Mecca for the first time. Once we arrived, it seemed clear we’d eventually get there, but our hosts were in no hurry to pile us into their van and head north. So, while patiently biding my time, I hatched a huge crush on their son, Brian, a straight surfer type in his mid-20’s with an unassumingly seductive swagger. San Francisco soon took a back seat to anything he suggested, even the altogether unappealing notion “the guys” should go deep-sea fishing early one morning.

The day came and we reached Half Moon Bay to find conditions too rough for sailing. Things looked to end better than I hoped after we decided to eat at a seaside café and then go to San Francisco. Alas, as we finished, the skipper announced the expedition was back on. “It’s still rough,” she said, “15-to-18 foot swells farther out. But we’ll manage.” By the time we dropped anchor, I’d spewed breakfast and most of my guts into the sea. To the amusement of the older men, I spent the first half of the day flat of my back, too sick and humiliated to budge. Brian sensed how ashamed and afraid I felt, though. He knelt beside me and said, “Let’s get you back on your feet. We can’t let this beat you.” Once I felt stable enough to stand, he gave me some invaluable advice. “Don’t look at the waves. If you focus on the horizon, the waves won’t bother you.” He added, “Don’t worry about the other guys. We’ll go to the other side, just the two of us.” That should have set my heart racing. But wanting him had left my mind entirely. I needed him, and he was there. While dozens of similarly benign crushes are lost to time, the care he showed me that day made him unforgettable.

Belonging to God

I always think of Brian when reading Isaiah 43.1-2. It’s an old favorite, because it declares God’s constant concern and presence with us in the worst situations. Nature can rise up against you, it says, but you have nothing to fear. I’m with you. “I have redeemed you; I’ve summoned you by name; you are Mine.” Since that fishing trip stands as my most awful encounter with Nature, the experience resurfaces when I read this. Brian’s advice echoes in my head: “Look to the horizon. Don’t worry about anyone else. It’s just the two of us.”

I should have passed on the fishing trip. After I heard it would be rough going, I should have hung back on shore. But hidden desires drove me ahead. I had no inkling my harmless pursuit would turn into a sickening, humiliating episode. Since then, I’ve observed most plans fueled by concealed motives end on stormy seas. Usually, we’d never wander into these situations on our own. Yet if they include desirable people, we can’t say no. Then, should the weather turn nasty, we’re often reliant on the very people we want to impress. What’s more, we’re not always as fortunate as I was. Many people we find alluring aren’t as intrigued by us. We may be so far below their radar they don’t notice we need help. Feeling lost and alone in a storm is one of the scariest feelings there is.

That’s why recognizing God in every situation is so vital. Even when foolish ideas ship us out to sea, He stays with us. He doesn’t do this for our sake alone. Our safety concerns Him because we belong to Him. He invested His all to redeem us and called us by name. When situations we venture into turn ugly, everyone else may ridicule and abandon us. It’s just we two—God and us. But since One of us is God, we have every confidence He’ll help us to our feet and stabilize our focus by looking beyond our surroundings. Belonging to God keeps us secure.

We Survive

The Isaiah passage also brings to mind a favorite story found in all three synoptic Gospels. In this case, the disciples hit stormy waters because Jesus sends them there. In fact, rather than sailing off in hopes of excitement, they’re trying to escape it. After preaching for hours, Jesus asks the disciples to sail away from the crowd and find somewhere to rest. He falls asleep as they push off and doesn’t stir when a deadly tempest arises. They wake Him, asking, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4.38) It’s a silly question purely on a natural level. Why would seasoned sailors expect a carpenter to know what to do? But it’s still crazier from a spiritual angle. What causes them to think Jesus doesn’t care for them? He stands up, commands the storm to cease, and challenges the men: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v40) Didn’t He call them? Aren’t they His? How can any situation make them insecure if He’s with them?

Our faith journey carries a travel advisory: bad weather ahead. Sooner or later, we meet tumultuous, threatening conditions. Vanity and selfishness lead to some of our troubles. Others we encounter by obeying Christ’s commands. Either way, however, we survive. Not because we deserve to or we’re smart enough to make it on our own. We outlast our storms because we belong to God. We have no reason to fear or feel insecure. Our safety is His concern.

Whether hidden desires plunge us into stormy seas or we encounter them while following Christ, we have nothing to fear. He’s with us. Our safety is His concern.

(Next: The Quiet Man)

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)
A Deep Breath
The 40-day period between the resurrection and ascension intrigues me. The Gospels and Acts report several interactions between Jesus and His disciples, but we don’t observe Him doing much beyond issuing last-minute instructions. While Paul asserts one of these encounters involves 500 people (1 Corinthians 15.6), neither the Gospels nor Acts chronicle it. He spends His final days on Earth behind the scenes, preparing His closest followers to continue His ministry after He leaves. And there’s no record anywhere of a major public appearance where He announces He’s risen to life to the masses. This strikes us as a bit surprising, since Christianity hinges on faith in Jesus’s resurrection. We might think He’d seize every chance to be seen by as many as possible—until it occurs to us if His resurrection were a verifiable fact, faith would be irrelevant. Jesus stays out of the public eye because His mission centers on ending our reliance on what we know by requiring us to trust what God says. “Whoever believes shall have eternal life,” He says in John 3.16.

Instead of an historically definitive event, the pivotal moment comes in John 20.21-22: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He uses a fairly innocuous gesture to transfer power to the disciples. He inspires them exactly as God first inspired humanity. With one breath, He fills them with His presence, His gifts, nature, and authority. Jesus explains they’re receiving the Holy Spirit—the Comforter Who, as He promised, “will guide you into all truth.” (John 16.13) Yet note why He breathes the Holy Spirit into them: “I am sending you.” The Spirit’s comfort and counsel aren’t only for the disciples’ edification. Henceforth, they carry It with them wherever they go and express It in calm assurance conveyed in their demeanor and words. They’re now able to bring Christ’s presence to any situation and change the atmosphere around it with no more than a deep breath.

A Most Unusual Message

When God directs Isaiah to “comfort My people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” He’s invoking the prophet’s capacity to bring solace and clarity to Israel’s turmoil. Repeatedly God has pressed His people to obey and repeatedly they’ve failed. By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, their stubbornness has pummeled them with sorrow. They’re punch-drunk, exhausted, and despondent as they see their hope, like Jerusalem itself, lay in ruins. In times past, prophets predicted doom and destruction if Israel didn’t mend its ways. But God calls Isaiah to restore the nation’s faith and ease its worries. He commands the prophet to proclaim their hardships are ending, their sins are forgiven, and He’s repaying their repentance twice over with His love and mercy. This is a most unusual message delivered by a most unusual prophet who views his responsibilities in a most unusual manner.

Isaiah describes his mission this way: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (61.1) His compassion is so remarkable Jesus quotes him verbatim to define His ministry in Luke 4.18. And He essentially condenses it when He breathes on the disciples. He endows them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world to preach, to heal, to liberate people in distress. “Comfort my people; speak tenderly to them,” God tells Isaiah. Jesus vests the disciples with the Comforter so they can do the same.

We too have drawn the breath of Christ into our beings. We’ve also received the Holy Spirit and been sent into the world. We too can provide solace and clarity to troubled lives. Because the Comforter dwells in us, we have the capacity to make Its presence felt in every situation we enter. The confidence expressed in our behavior and the words we speak—words carried on inspired breath—have the ability to change the atmosphere around us. Yet if we limit our perceptions of what the Spirit within us can do and how we manifest Its power to our problems alone, we negate Jesus’s purpose for giving It to us.

We’ve received a most unusual message that must be delivered in a most unusual way. Our faith in Christ’s resurrection convinces us of His power to restore life. We’ve experienced it in our own lives. Thus, there are no lost causes and no one is beyond redemption. It’s our privilege to comfort God’s people—to assure them He has their problems in hand, He’s forgiven them, and He will repay the costs of their mistakes twice over. Though much of their anxiety results from stubborn disregard for God, others, and themselves, we honor our calling to comfort them by resisting urges to confront or condemn them. “Brutal honesty” is an oxymoron; since it justifies wounding someone’s spirit as a method of healing, it’s patently dishonest. It’s best we leave that sort of “comfort” to self-deluded haters and old-school prophets. We provide comfort in a manner that pleases our Maker and reflects the Comforter’s presence in us—in a word, tenderly.

We neither confront nor condemn. We comfort.

(Next: Travel Advisory)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

For the Least

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me. (Matthew 25.40)

Who Qualifies?

My partner’s been without work for six months. Thankfully, we’re able to get along on one income, which has given him time to explore new fields and apply previously untapped talents to volunteer projects. At the same time, managing his benefits is a full-time job. He spends hours every day navigating the unemployment morass. A missed deadline or unplaced call can mean lengthy conversations and paperwork to get back in the system. On top of that, an ongoing condition also entitles him to health subsidies that require extra vigilance. If one agency drops the ball, another agency drops Walt. Almost daily, he’s on the phone, explaining why he qualifies for this or that type of assistance. “I’ve never felt so insignificant,” he said recently. “You have no idea how demeaning it is to have to convince someone your needs matter.” I asked if people he deals with are brusque or inattentive. “No,” he replied. “They’re very kind. But someone’s bound to fall through the cracks. I have to make sure it’s not me.”

I imagine most of us already know Matthew 25's story about letting people fall through the cracks. Actually, it’s not a story at all. It’s a plainly worded warning dressed up as a parable. Jesus tells it in the future tense and sets it on Judgment Day. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, the King assigns people to one of two groups. He places those who’ve helped anyone in need on His right; those who’ve parceled out compassion and generosity on a case-by-case basis stand to His left. He welcomes those on His right; those to His left are dismissed. Jesus doesn’t use the story to provoke fear of damnation as a means of promoting love. As 1 John 4.18 explains, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Jesus knows this. His story’s purpose focuses on one question: Who qualifies for our mercy and kindness? “Everyone” is His definitive reply.

Beneath Contempt

“Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers, you did for me,” the King insists, much to the amazement of the right-hand crowd. Equal regard for all was so deeply instilled in them, they stopped worrying about who did or didn’t merit compassion. Meanwhile, the left-hand crowd was appalled—outraged, actually. Selectively deciding who deserved their attention seemed like the logical thing to do. Why waste their efforts on people unworthy of them? “In rejecting the least, you reject Me,” the King insists. Had they read 1 John 4.20, they would have acted differently. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Because the people Jesus mentions are hungry, homeless, without clothing, sick, and imprisoned—i.e., safely qualified for modern benevolence—we tend to interpret “the least” to mean “overlooked.” But His listeners heard something radically different. Their culture viewed anyone stranded in such conditions beneath contempt. These people were viewed as spreaders of disease, disturbers of the peace, and leeches on the system. If Jesus told the story today, He’d revise His list to include racists and homophobes, abusive parents and spouses, liars and cheats, and others we consider too hateful to merit attention, love, and forgiveness. He’d also alter the King’s comment to read, “Whatever you did for the worst, you did for Me.”

For Him

None of us is spared the likelihood someone will behave toward us in unthinkably horrible ways. People will heed their cruelest impulses at our expense. They’ll hate us without reason and plot our destruction to satisfy dark urges. They’ll exhibit no concern about suffering they inflict or scars they leave on us. Regarding those who harm us as profoundly needy people takes some doing, in part because they create enormous deficits in our own lives. And even if we get that far, we’ve not yet reached the place Christ expects us to be—accepting them as they are and loving them with the same compassion and understanding we desire. How can we love the worst? How can we honestly pray for their welfare? How can we find it in ourselves to care about their needs?

Jesus’s story answers these questions, too. When loving the worst costs more than we can give, we rely on our determination to love God at all costs. We do it for Him. He’s supremely qualified for our love and attention. We take John’s words to heart. Allowing love for anyone, including the worst of the worst, to fall through the cracks takes love of God with it. Choosing whom we will or won’t—can or can’t—love chooses not to love God at all. In Matthew 5.44-45, Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Connecting that with the Judgment Day scenario pulls everything together. The King doesn’t separate the crowd because of what they do. He divided them according to who they are. His true sons and daughters made the leap, clearing personal hurdles to love the worst in eagerness to love Him. The impostors looked before they leapt. Withholding their best from the worst landed them in the worst of all possible circumstances. Moral of the story: loving God to the best of our ability will often require us to make a leap, to look at the worst as our gateway to loving the Best.

We don't pick and choose who qualifies for our love. Loving those who harm us will require us to look past them and love them for God's sake.

(Next: Comfort)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make the Most

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5.15-16) 

Times Like These

An old gospel number says, “In times like these we need a Savior. In times like these we need an Anchor.” The song’s popularity peaked in the late 60’s, which most definitely were “times like these.” The world was a crazy quilt of war zones; rage and discontent erupted at dining room tables, on campuses, in city streets, and every other conceivable spot. We who lived through those days can’t shake the sense we’re in “times like these” once again. But this round feels oddly different. Hostilities similar to those reflected in 60’s media are now the stuff of media itself. Average citizens sit at a safe remove, watching rabble-rousers do the work instead personally engaging in the struggle to reconcile our current issues. This might be viewed as an improvement; riots, fires, and looting that plagued any good-sized city 40 years ago are no more. But it’s also a shame, because our perspectives on equal rights, healthcare, war, etc. now cost nothing. We’ve confused passive poses with impassioned involvement, and given how comfortable we’ve got with our laissez-faire attitude, it’s possible we've lost all concern about resolving our differences.

The tragedy of this stalemate plays out in lives wounded by crossfire. In all the talk about Wall Street and Main Street, nobody’s noticed the real drama unfolding on the side streets, where things actually slip and slide. The people there need an anchor. Since pundits avoid putting human faces on stats they bandy about, very few have figured out we can’t wait for “change to happen.” People everywhere need help now. Judging from history, the economy eventually will dig itself out. Opposition to social justice will wear itself down. Left unchecked, the healthcare crisis will escalate to the point it can’t be feasibly ignored. The war will end. Yet while “we” may rebound, thousands upon thousands will not without immediate help. Times like these call for people smart and caring enough to abandon cheap controversy for higher purpose.

Our World Needs Us

Our world needs us. At this stage, every one of us crosses paths with others currently struggling—people without jobs or shelter, homes with bare cupboards, disowned children coping with rejection, war-torn families facing a holiday with one less at the table, a senior sacrificing meals to afford medication. They and others like them live in constant fear and torment each of us can ease at very little, if any, personal expense or effort. Alertness to their circumstances opens new opportunities for our love and concern. Ephesians 5.15-16 admonishes: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” In the context of this discussion, “careful” means more than “cautious;” it implies earnest introspection about our response to situations we can improve. Knowing we possess the ability to lift up others and not doing so is foolish. Making the most of every opportunity is wise.

'Tis the Season

'Tis the season when churches and charities fire up their brigades so those lacking means will not be denied holiday joy. The nobility of these efforts cannot be exaggerated. But there’s also an underside to them we seldom acknowledge. They encourage us to think supporting their causes is “doing our part,” when in fact we’re only enabling them to the make the most of their opportunities. In a way, it’s no different than believing agreement with certain media figures’ opinions constitutes active engagement. Most assuredly, we should support charitable efforts. But writing checks, tossing canned goods in hampers, donating toys, and dropping loose change in a red bucket can't excuse us from actively addressing visible needs around us. “Making the most of every opportunity,” Ephesians says, “because the days are evil.”

Confining our compassion for the needy to contributions shortchanges them and us. It’s a surrogate arrangement—giving by proxy—and, at best, all we stand to gain from it is a fleeting reward quantified by faceless statistics: x families had Christmas dinner, y children opened anonymously donated presents. And let’s be honest: the good we accomplish in absentia evaporates from mind before the decorations and leftovers disappear. We make the most of every opportunity by approaching people whom we know are in need, welcoming outsiders to our tables, marshalling neighbors and family members’ assistance, and so on. In times like these, weary, embattled souls need to know help is on the way and it’s coming from we who genuinely know and care about them.

There’s an even greater benefit gained by all when we make the most of our opportunities. Active giving puts legs on our concern. It imbeds faces and names in our thoughts and prayers. We find ourselves regularly checking on them, asking to do more. By making Christmas a time of discovery, searching for opportunities to make the most of our giving, its spirit and meaning thrive year-‘round. 'Tis the season that never ends.

We possess the ability to bring love, joy, hope, and peace to struggling people we personally know. We should make the most of every opportunity to do so.

(Next: For the Least)

Personal Postscript: Impish Interference

This past week found me recalling an old lady I once attended church with. Whenever she hit one of those maddening stretches where minor problems pile up and become hopelessly entangled, she’d say, “The devil sure is busy.” Though I’m reluctant to give him any credence, it seems like he’s sure been busy around here. We experienced a couple power outages in our apartment building, the last of which sent a surge through the phone lines that fried my modem cables and reconfigured the entire system. Since last Wednesday, I’ve been lost in a sea of connectivity challenges that have interfered with my posting schedule. I’m very close to being fully up and running, and apologize for the delays. Barring any further impish interference, we should be back to normal.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sweet Scroll

Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. (Ezekiel 3.3)

Nothing Like It Looks
Blogger informs me this is Straight-Friendly’s 500th post. While that includes reposts and updates, the lion’s share is comprised of original reflections that, until the recent pullback to three per week, appeared daily. Had I known what a new post each day would ultimately demand, I’d have dismissed the idea out-of-hand. Yet this milestone reminds me how much I would have lost by not setting such an ambitious pace. The daily obligation to deliver something hopefully worth reading and useful necessitated digging ever deeper and wider into God’s Word. Since my youth, I’ve tried to devote time each day to reading and/or meditating on Scripture. This experience, which I admit was driven by stubbornness to keep up as much as anything, turned into something else entirely. For the past 18 months, I’ve feasted on God’s Word, finding flavors and textures I’ve never tasted. With more conviction than ever I can testify: God’s Word is sweet.

Ezekiel also learns this, albeit in a less rigorous, time-consuming manner that, well frankly, makes me a little envious. He’s swept into a trance, where he surveys the vast beauty of God’s creatures and beholds the Creator’s glory. He falls facedown as a voice calls him to speak to Israel—which at the moment appears to be in a sorry state. “Do not be afraid of them or their words,” the voice says in Ezekiel 2.6. “Do not be afraid though briers and thorns are all around you, and you live among scorpions.” The calling ends with the voice offering Ezekiel a scroll, commanding him to eat it. “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe,” he reports in verse 9. Ezekiel stands up, opens his mouth, and discovers the parchment tastes nothing like it looks. “It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth,” he writes.

Trapped Between the Lines
As Ezekiel finds out—and something I’ve come to recognize—the sweetness of God’s Word is often trapped between the lines. The riches and rareness of its flavor aren’t always evident at a cursory glance. To experience its full taste, we go beyond looking at it and look into it, searching for pockets of honey, where God’s love and grace hide beneath harsh judgments and reactions to our weakness and disobedience. It’s entirely possible to read the Bible, observing how God deals with us—from the Garden eviction in Genesis to the bloody vengeance described in The Revelation—and come away with a bitter taste in our mouths. That’s because we’ve only skimmed the surface. When we open it up, however, and open our minds to what it’s actually depicting, its amazing sweetness springs to the surface.

The undiscriminating eye sees exactly what Ezekiel does at first glance: pages spread thick with lament, mourning, and woe. But reading the Bible has a completely opposite effect when we discipline ourselves to look beyond what happens to see why God speaks and behaves as He does. Even in the most brutal, seemingly merciless instances—e.g., the Flood, or the savage torture and execution of Christ—we detect the sweetness of God’s undying love and determination to restore our relationship with Him. The extraordinary lengths He goes to and the enormous risks He takes to return our attention to Him fill us with awe.

The Good Parts
It’s a good guess the majority of Bible readers fall somewhere between the skimmers and the searchers. Like people who stick with what they liked as kids and avoid unfamiliar or challenging flavors, they spend their lives ignoring much of God’s Word to get to “the good parts.” And it’s likely “the good parts” are indeed the best parts—passages where God’s love and grace are easily found and absorbed. But there are liabilities to confining our exposure to what suits our tastes. First, we stunt our growth by not gaining insights and strength only found in tougher portions that bury their sweetness. Second, we’re left to rely on others’ opinions regarding unfamiliar passages. This is especially true for gay believers who continue to trust people who rip scriptures out of context to condemn and discourage them. If they explored the texts for themselves, they could be following Christ in full confidence. Finally, a limited diet—no matter how sweet it is—will eventually turn bland. Believers who restrict their tastes to what they already like return less frequently the table. Their hunger to know more of God withers under the misconception all His Word offers is more of the same.

When Ezekiel is given the scroll, he’s told, “Eat this scroll and fill your stomach with it.” In other words, he’s instructed to eat everything—much like parents tell finicky children to stop picking at their food and clean their plates. Had he combed through the scroll for its most tasty or digestible nibbles, he never would have known its full sweetness. Nor would he have been strengthened for the opposition he was due to face as he obeyed God’s call. We need God’s Word, all of it, to know God in His fullness and sweetness. Only by delving beneath its sometimes harsh, off-putting surface can we discover the sweet scroll it truly is.

Skimming the surface or skipping to "the good parts" hides the sweetness trapped between the lines of God's Word.

(Next: Making the Most)