Saturday, January 10, 2009

Guest Lists

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

                        Luke 14.13-14 

Party Etiquette

Jesus accepts a Sabbath invitation to dine with a prominent Pharisee and his friends. They think they’ve shrewdly lured Him into a situation where He’ll slip and breach Sabbath customs. They monitor His behavior very closely. He doesn’t trip over the Law—He stomps on it. He ignores the taboo against “working” when He heals a man and challenges His dinner companions to condemn Him for performing a miracle on the Lord’s Day. When no one responds, Jesus decides to teach these high-handed men a thing or two about party etiquette.

He notices the guests are crowded around the host, intentionally taking the most honorable seats at the table. When you’re invited to a celebration, He tells them, don’t presumptuously seat yourself in the place of honor. What if someone more important than you shows up? The host will have to ask you to move, which will embarrass you. Take the lowest seat and allow the host to ask you to move up. Then everyone will honor and respect you. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14.11)

Invitation Advice

Next, Jesus offers some sound advice about invitations. When you give a party, He says, don’t compose a guest list of friends, relatives, and rich acquaintances. If you invite them, they’ll probably return the favor and ask you to one of their parties. That’s all you’ll receive in reward for offering your hospitality first. If you open your home to outcasts—poor and sick people—you’ll be far better rewarded at a more prominent occasion, the final judgment. These unfortunate guests can’t repay you, but the One watching over them has unlimited means and your kindness won’t go unnoticed.

Life is a Banquet

Almost any gay man of a certain age—i.e., mine—can recite Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame credo in his sleep: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” In a sense, albeit with more delicacy and to greater purpose, that’s what Jesus is saying. Life is a banquet. It spreads its riches and delicacies before us, offering more love, joy, peace, and prosperity than any of us possibly can consume on our own. Its treasures are to be shared and its pleasures come when we invite others to our table or join someone else’s table. Good etiquette ensures we’ll get the most out of either experience.

When people invite us into their lives, there’s no need to jockey for position. We come humbly, counting the kindness and trust conveyed in their invitation as sufficient honor. We’re there for them; whatever place they give us is important. Humility obtains status. And, ironically, scrambling for status typically ends in humility—well, actually, humiliation. On the other side of the equation, when compiling our guest lists, we consider who will benefit most from what we’ve been given to share. If we give to get, limiting our guests to an “A-list” of people in a position to help us, that’s all we should expect to receive—a little boost along the way, quid pro quo. (And that’s not guaranteed.) But if we open our hearts and arms to outcasts and others in need, our kindness won’t go unnoticed. Our rewards will exceed expectations. “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality,” Romans 12.13 says. As followers of Christ, our guest lists are less notable for who’s on them than why they’re there.

It's not about who's on our guest list. It's why they're there.

(Tomorrow: Rest)

Postscript: Be Their Guests

Briefly, I must recommend two extraordinary blogs that I’ve recently added to my regular reading. The authors (both readers here) move me in profound ways.

I met Genevieve, author of The D Line, indirectly through Edrick, who featured articles by both of us in his bi-monthly GLBT magazine, The Epistle. Her piece, “A Light Shining Through Life’s Rough Seas,” drew a marvelous allegory of Christ as a lighthouse steering storm-tossed believers to safety. My eyes pooled up with joy and my heart leapt as I read this:

In my thirty-six plus years of salvation, God has never changed. He is the same person now when I met Him for the first time. Jesus has seen me through some rough seas. When I was struggling with my gender issues Jesus made it clear that this was part of his plan for my life. He accepted me as a transgender person and he accepts you.

Genevieve’s faith and love shine through her blog just as they did here. Her compassion for those who lack—or reject—understanding inspires and challenges us all. Her invitation to the banquet her life mustn’t be missed.

If you’ve not yet got to The Soaring Impulse via one of several S-F links, now’s your chance. Maithri Goonetilleke, a physician currently living in Melbourne, Australia, calls himself “just another young poet walking the broken road to freedom.” There’s no adequate way to describe Maithri’s blog, other than saying when you’re there, an exquisite calm washes over you. The gentleness of his spirit rises in every post, regardless of its specific content. The Soaring Impulse becomes amazingly real. And the conversations between him and his readers (which he calls “whispers”) are every bit as wonderful as the posts they concern. Treat your heart and soul to Maithri’s blissful feast.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Royal Law

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.

                        James 2.1

Voluntary Blindness

In the 70’s, the country singer Ray Stephens released one of those corny “love-everybody” songs that regularly surfaced during the era. “Everything Is Beautiful” packed wall-to-wall platitudes—“We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair or the color of his skin,” etc. As a kid growing up in a tradition that placed a lot of credence in appearances, one phrase haunted me: “There is none so blind as they who will not see.” I’d never heard that proverb before. Stephens’s point was clear: those who can’t find beauty in our differences choose blindness voluntarily. That made great sense. How could anyone dismiss someone else as unchristian because he/she doesn’t fit a “Christian” profile? We see what we want to see, and that’s the surest way to see more or less than what’s really there.

Years later, the oldie spun out of my jukebox memory while reading James 2. It startled me, though, how James upholds the same principle from the opposite angle. He advocates voluntary blindness, pressing us to ignore differences altogether. Whether or not “everything is beautiful” is irrelevant, because beauty—or any other virtue—is a quality we assess, a comparative value defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is. It’s within our bounds to appreciate virtues of one and regret shortcomings of another. But James makes no bones about our having no grounds to prefer one person to another because we respect his/her attributes more favorably. It’s judging.

Seeing is Not Believing

James constrains us against favoritism as believers. For Christians, equality is neither a matter of politics nor a manner of politeness—it’s a mandate of faith. We believe God forgives and accepts us with the same justice and equanimity He offers everyone. When we prefer some to others, we reveal doubt we’re all fundamentally the same, namely, sinners redeemed (or able to be redeemed) by grace. Titus 3.5 reminds us, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” Grace comes without merit. It’s not a reward. It’s not recognition of how good we are. It’s a gift that anyone who believes in God’s mercy can claim. Therefore, viewing some as better—or, conversely, worse—than others implies entitlement no one has.

Seeing is not believing, if our eyes notice differences that refute the equality of all, the very equality our faith depends on. But, you say, it’s humanly impossible not to recognize differences, whether surface traits or behavioral ones. That’s true. Side by side, a homeless alcoholic and the Pope appear nothing alike. But faith in God’s equal compassion for both blinds us to the variables and focuses solely on the common feature: two humans in equal need of His grace. Anything else we choose to see or believe is a judgment and, regardless of how right or wrong we perceive them to be, it’s essential to see we’re wrong. James urges us, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2.12-13) Faith in God’s mercy means nothing if it doesn’t extend to to everyone. That’s what we see—that's all we see—because that’s what we believe.

Doing Right

In verses 8 and 9, James writes, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” When we view others differently, we love them differently. It’s easy to love people who look and act like us. That requires nothing. Honoring Christ’s commandment to love, however, demands voluntary blindness on more occasions that we expect.

This is a “royal law”—an edict given by our King. It is absolute and unavailable to personal interpretation. Obedience to this law is our first and only priority, leaving no justifiable rationale or extenuating circumstances to explain non-compliance. It demands mental, emotional, and spiritual commitment, which in turn demand readjusting perceptions. Diversity is an optical illusion. There are no good people and bad people. Some Christians aren’t better than others. No one is above us. No one is below us. We’re all the same. We have to see that. If we can’t, we need to look at our faith with fresh eyes—specifically, with our Father’s eyes.


Diversity is a beautiful, honorable quest in human affairs. But in matters of faith, it's an optical illusion.

(Tomorrow: Guest Lists)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Keep Faith Alive

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

                        James 2.26

What’s the Use?

Here is James’s third tolling of this concept in what became one of the more famous—and infamously controversial—of all epistolary passages. In verse 17, he writes, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Three verses on, he says it again: “Faith without deeds is dead.” As though he’s not yet convinced that he’s made a convincing case, he cites two Old Testament examples: Abraham, who prepared himself to prove his faith in deed by offering his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, and Rahab, a prostitute who risked her life to hide Hebrew spies who stole into Jericho on a reconnaissance mission. These legends are action figures, James says; their deeds testify to their faith.

He opens his argument with a rhetorical question—a technique that James, the most delightfully plainspoken New Testament writer, isn’t particularly comfortable with (which explains his subsequent expansion twice over). In verse 14, he asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Unlike Paul and the Hebrews author, James is less fascinated by what faith is or its theological centrality to following Jesus than its pragmatic value. “What’s the use of having faith if it doesn’t yield practical results?” he wonders.

Reason and Results

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8. And Hebrews 11.6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” After James looks at this, he asks, “And?” There’s more to the story than faith as far as he’s concerned. Believing in Christ is the crucial first step, yet where does faith lead? Faith for him enables us to think and act differently, more effectively, and more righteously than anyone driven by human logic or moral conscience. He agrees faith is the definitive attribute dividing Christians from Jews and pagans. It’s the key to receiving God’s grace and forgiveness as gifts rather than benefits based on ritualized sacrifices and religious conformity. Yet faith alone doesn't cut it.

Hebrews 10.20 called faith “a new and living way.” James, ever the realist, states what others merely imply. Once we activate belief in Jesus as God’s Son and our Redeemer, it’s essential to keep faith alive. While creeds and confessions of faith have their place, they’re not enough for him. Professed belief focuses on us—we believe. Practiced belief, though, emphasizes faith; it gives faith a reason and verifies its power with results. And James’s experience as one of Jesus’s disciples (as well as His blood relative) irrevocably authorizes him to insist that faith is both meaningless and unsustainable without action.


Paul and (presumably) the Hebrews writer came after the fact; they were both second-generation Christians. James was there all along to hear first-hand as Jesus constantly linked faith and works. In the Sermon on the Mount, He stressed people will “see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16) He told His followers in John 13.35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” His final instructions before the Ascension included, “These signs will accompany those who believe,” after which He itemized behaviors that evidence faith: overcoming evil, new conversation, protection from physical dangers, and healing. James recognized that proof of faith relies entirely on what faith produces. If faith isn’t yielding positive results—God’s glory, love, and remedies to sin—it’s not a living thing. It’s dead, useless.

Signs—good works, love, etc.—can exist without faith. Faith—unshakable belief in Christ’s atonement—can originate without considering its practical purposes. But neither accomplishes its intentions without the other. “Suppose you see someone in need,” James suggests in verses 15 and 16. “If you say, ‘I wish you well,’ without doing something to help, what good is it?” When we encounter people who have need of our compassion and assistance, we offer them in faith. We do this not prove we have faith, but to prove what faith can do. That’s why it’s tantamount that we keep faith alive. Without it, the best we can do is do what we can and hope for the best. With faith, however, we do our best and believe God will finish what we start for His glory.

James’s teaching on faith and deeds comes directly behind another, equally provocative lesson on favoritism. When we look into that tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll come away with new understanding of how prejudice and intolerance defeat good deed and ultimately kill faith.

This simple diagram captures James's teaching entirely. Grace triggers faith. Faith triggers deeds. Deeds keep faith alive, and therefore sustain our salvation.

(Tomorrow: The Royal Law)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hang On...

Traveling on business today... Will catch up with everyone tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nothing to Brag About

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

                        Ephesians 2.8-9

Breaking It Down

After wrapping up my college studies mid-winter, some family friends offered an open-ended invitation to “decompress” in their Orange County, California home. I barely adjusted to the climate change when bizarre events—straight out of “90210” or “The OC”—led to my first job as a Christian high school English teacher. My predecessor, it seems, had more interest in his female students than their mastery of language and literature. It fell my lot to get a group of surfers and mallrats up to speed. Seeing their reading skills barely exceeded simple sentences, we put the lit books down and picked up grammar, starting with sentence diagrams. I left Ephesians 2.8-9 on the chalkboard as our holy grail. “When better than half of you can diagram this, we’ll move on,” I said. Honestly, I couldn’t begin to untangle Paul’s grammatical snarl all these years later. (If anyone feels so inclined, email it and I’ll post it with pleasure.) Yet the primary reason I chose this over other convoluted verses remains. The best way to fully appreciate Ephesians 2.8-9 is breaking it down, phrase by phrase.

Saved by Grace

“You’ve been saved by grace” is the core message. In classic fashion, however, Paul introduces complexity with two tenses: present (“it is”) and past (“you have been saved”). That’s not so hard. Grace is. Day in and day out, it exists for anyone to access God’s forgiveness and acceptance now like we did in the past. Hang on, though. Both phrases are passive, focusing on a shared object—you. Paul wants us to stop and marvel at two incontrovertible truths. God’s grace is ours for the taking, freely, without qualification. And salvation is more for our benefit than His pleasure. We need His grace and forgiveness more than He needs us. When we come to Christ, or lead others to Him, we do God no favors. He opens His favor to us. Our best interests please Him. Our happiness makes Him happy. The generosity of this overwhelms and humbles us. It is too marvelous to overlook—a given we never minimize as a given. In Romans 6.1-2, Paul writes: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” The prevalence of God’s grace belies its rare value. It and the salvation it affords must not be cheaply regarded as disposable things. Grace is. But we have been saved. We hold salvation most dear, protecting and prizing it day after day, rather than whimsically tossing it off when it’s convenient (or inconvenient, in some cases), since there’s always more where that came from.

Faith, Not Works

Once he sets us straight about grace and salvation, Paul tacks on a cleverly nested pair of modifying statements and a sobering coda. Grace and salvation come through faith, not works. We claim them simply by believing they’re available. Nothing we do—or can do—entitles us to either one. And here’s why: the price of both surpasses our means. This is essential for us to understand and accept, particularly we who have been misled to think we don’t conform to God’s acceptance standards. There are no standards because if there were, no one could attain them. Those who teach we have to give or give up anything to gain grace and salvation have things turned around. Look at Paul’s interjection. God is the Giver; we are the recipients. Faith enables us to accept acceptance. No prior qualification is necessary and no tangible proof is available. Hence, the key to prizing grace and salvation is protecting our faith in them from unfounded doubt.

When others try to convince us we’re unworthy of grace or unfit for salvation, we listen politely while dismissing their words. Their argument lacks Scriptural truth. At the same time, we don’t defend ourselves with counterclaims. Because grace is a gift and salvation can’t be earned, there’s nothing to brag about. All we have is faith—belief substantiated by hope backed with invisible evidence. Since we can’t prove God’s grace or our salvation, boasting is downright silly, almost as silly as attempting to explain why God gives them to us in the first place. Challenges to our faith end with meek thank-you’s, immediately followed by soaring gratitude to God for His marvelous gifts to us.

If not Dylan's finest album, it's most definitely his greatest album cover.

(Tomorrow: Keep Faith Alive)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Integrity and Seduction

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

                        Genesis 39.6-7

The Burden of Beauty

When we entrust our lives to God’s care, He transforms the ugliness others heap on us into radiant beauty. But here’s the rub: perhaps to spare our aptitude for vanity, He doesn’t spare us the burden of beauty. Being attractive to others—if not always physically, certainly on an emotional and personal level—carries costs and liabilities. It targets us for undesirable offers and attention. It requires us to be always cautious, constantly aware, and extremely prudent in delicate, uncomfortable situations. Joseph is the perfect case study for learning how to manage seduction without compromising integrity.

Joseph far outranks his 11 brothers as his father’s favorite. He’s a dreamer who captures Jacob’s heart and as a result, receives lavish gifts of affection, the dearest being a fancy coat. His brothers can’t stand him. They sell him to slave traders and strip him of his coat, which they soak in goat’s blood to back up their story that a wild animal killed him. Joseph—scrawny, downcast, and poorly dressed—arrives in Egypt, where he’s sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But Genesis 39.2 tells us, “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered.” He grows stronger, more strapping by the day and climbs the ranks of Potiphar’s household until he’s in charge of its daily management while his master comes and goes on business.

The Desperate Housewife

Here the story enters familiar territory, later explored by everything from Lady Chatterly’s Lover to “Desperate Housewives”. Potiphar’s wife, bored and lonely during her husband’s prolonged absences, starts noticing what a fine man Joseph’s become. He’s a servant, purchased to answer her beck and call. So she beckons him to bed. He politely, yet firmly, declines. “My master has entrusted the entire house to my care,” Joseph explains, “except for you. How could I dishonor his trust and sin against God?” But this desperate housewife has no interest in Joseph’s welfare. She’s relentless. Finally, she catches him alone in the house and boldly pulls at his cloak. That’s all she gets, though. Joseph dashes away before she gets a tighter grip on him.

The Price of Integrity

Escaping trouble often invites trouble, as Joseph finds out. (Now we’re in To Kill a Mockingbird and “CSI” country.) Potiphar’s wife cries, “Rape!” and presents Joseph’s cloak as evidence of his assault. The husband returns, sees the cloak, believes the story, and has Joseph arrested. A young man disowned by his brothers and stranded without any rights in a foreign land, Joseph surely estimates the price of integrity to be greater than anticipated. He probably deals with regret, too. It was common for servants’ duties to include their masters’ personal pleasure; in many cultures, it was expected. He must ask himself, “Joseph, when will you learn? After all your hard work and honorable behavior, you’re right back where you started—stripped of your coat and your freedom.” Yet what looks like reversion to us sets up a classic reversal from God. (Nobody loves surprise endings better than He.) God had bigger plans for Joseph. After all was said and done, each apparent setback was really a quantum leap forward.

Our Father’s favor doesn’t sit well with others. They strip our pride, deceive those we love with lies, and sell us off without caring where we land. Then, as we grow in God’s grace and knowledge, our beauty attracts untoward attention. People of every sort tender seductions of every kind to compromise our integrity. Some insist, using our desire to serve as a lever. When we resist, it often looks like we’re back where we started. We can’t ever sacrifice our integrity and resolve, however. They’re very rare and vital to God’s plan. He will raise us to receive respect of the highest order. Joseph ended up second only to Pharaoh. Potiphar and his wife served him. His brothers, impoverished from famine, begged him for mercy and kindness. How’s that for a surprise ending?

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (Tintoretto: 1555)

(Tomorrow: Nothing to Brag About)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Beyond Knowledge

[I pray that you] know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

                        Ephesians 3.19 

Rooted and Established

Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians with a magnificent benediction. He prays God will strengthen their inner beings, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 3.17) Second, he asks God to enable them—as people “rooted and established in love”—to recognize “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (v17-18) He wants them to understand as fully as possible that their faith and relationship with Christ are grounded in a love like no other. It knows no bounds, rises to unreachable heights, and is impenetrably deep. It reaches everyone, everywhere, on every level.

Christ’s love is a force unto itself. If we think of it on a human scale, we severely diminish our awareness of what it means to be rooted and established in such a love. Human love focuses attention on the object of affection and, depending on whom that is, determines how and how much of it should be parceled out. Suppose we do master the skill of loving everyone as Jesus taught, human comprehension of love will still encourage us to love some more than others. Our love for some will be strong enough to support genuine forgiveness. By caring so deeply for them, we can accept their flaws and failures. In other cases, though, forgiveness is more like dispensation—a pardon granted in conscious obedience to Christ’s commandments rather than a personal expression of love. Either way, we do our best and because human love has its limits, it’s the best we can do. Not so with Christ’s love. Its vastness covers all time and space, meeting each of us where we are and encompassing all of our shortcomings in its embrace. Being rooted and established in this great love permits it to flow into us and through us, making it possible for us to exceed the boundaries of human love and express Christ’s love—unconditionally, uniformly, and unsparingly.

Filled to the Measure

Paul says we can know this love, even though its scope and nature are beyond knowledge. In other words, having experienced Christ’s love for ourselves, we know its power despite not completely knowing how it works. It’s a phenomenon that defies logical explanation. Yet its behavior and impact are readily observed. We’ve witnessed the amazing effects of Christ’s love in our own lives: the startling realization that we are loved, the peaceful assurance we are forgiven, and the untrammeled confidence we are accepted. We don’t know why Christ loves us, given our miserable circumstances and tendencies. But He’s proven His love to us repeatedly by His grace and mercy. According to Paul, knowing Christ’s love is sufficient for us to be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Understanding it isn’t required.

Love Changes Everything

Knowing this love changes everything. First, it changes us by altering how we see ourselves. Christ’s immodestly enormous love for us and our unworthiness of it offset anyone else’s assessment that we’re unlovable or unworthy. No one we’ll ever meet in life will love us like Jesus does. Love from others is to be treasured and protected. But it’s nothing in comparison to Christ’s love. At the other end of the spectrum, love others withdraw or withhold from us is troubling and regrettable. But its loss is miniscule on balance with the love we’ve been given.

Second, knowing Christ’s love changes how we love. When we bump into the boundaries of human love, we tap into the fullness of God in us—we access His special, bottomless reserve. We cease trying to stretch our love past its limited supply so His love flows freely through us. We get out of the way and let Him be. The crucifixion provides a prime instance of this. Suspended in unbearable physical and emotional agony, Jesus looks on the mob of turncoat followers and has no human capacity for love. He shows His love for them by turning to God. “Father, forgive them,” He says. He sets His personal feelings aside to rely solely on God’s mercy and grace. We know Christ’s love. We possess His ability to love. When our love fails, we don’t expend unneeded energy to justify why that is. We step aside so Christ’s love flows. We don’t understand it. We just know it.


Christ's love is a force unto itself, a phenomenon not like any kind of human love. When our love fails, we tap into His love's power.

(Tomorrow: Integrity and Seduction)