Saturday, February 21, 2009

Graveyard Faith

I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

                        Ezekiel 37.2-3

Crime Scene

Ezekiel has a vision. God’s Spirit transports him to a desolate valley filled with bones—dry bones, casualties of battles fought or hardships suffered in the distant past. Survivors and witnesses of these crises didn’t stay behind to bury their dead. They fled immediately, leaving the site strewn with lost life to be picked clean by scavengers and rot in the open air. Years of exposure to the hot sun bleached the bones white. Whatever happened here was neither noble nor ennobling. Ezekiel doesn’t report seeing any kind of memorial. He doesn’t recognize the valley as an historically significant location. It’s a forgotten place filled with forgotten evidence of what appears to be intentionally forgotten trauma.

Over the years, I’ve conjured Ezekiel’s vision in various ways. As a kid, the valley was deep, dark, and spooky, a Halloween nightmare. As a film student drunk on movies, it evolved into a black-and-white panorama haunted by whistling winds, a ravishing image from a John Ford widescreen Western. These days, I see a “CSI” crime scene. I stand with Ezekiel in full daylight, mystified by how this graveyard came to be, by what apparently was some sort of holocaust—mass murder, suicide, or epidemic. Then, recalling the mystery’s solution, I’m jolted. I recognize these bones. I know why they’re here and what they represent.

Speak to the Bones

“Can these bones live?” the Spirit asks Ezekiel. Looking at vast neglect and absence of life, the prophet answers honestly: “Only You know.” One imagines the questions racing through Ezekiel’s mind. Do they need to live? Perhaps what killed them was too painful to consider resurrecting them to face its memory. Might it be better to let them rest in peace, buried with the past? Once they’re alive, what’s next? What can they do that living people can’t do? Ezekiel hasn’t a clue whose bones lay scattered before him. He’s without background and rationale for bringing them to life. Imagining his puzzlement, one also imagines the Spirit’s aware that he’s confused. Yet It doesn’t offer any answers—not yet.

The Spirit instructs Ezekiel to speak to the bones, saying, “Hear the word of the LORD! I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.” (Ezekiel 37.4-6) With that, Ezekiel’s confusion vanishes. He clearly understands he’s left the human state of logic to enter the divine realm of faith. As he speaks to the bones, he hears a rattling sound. They begin to reassemble, fastened by new cartilage and ligaments. Flesh covers their frames. Yet they remain a lifeless sea of corpses before Ezekiel orders them to breathe. They rally to their feet, standing before him like a huge army. Ezekiel still can’t positively identify them until the Spirit finally explains: “They’re people who say, ‘Our hope is gone; we’re cut off.’ Now give them God’s promise: ‘I’m going to open your graves and bring you up. Then you’ll know I’m the Lord. I’m going to put my Spirit in you and you will live. You’ll know I’ve done this by My word.’” (Ezekiel 37.11-12,14)

Crossing the Border

I recognize these bones because they’re mine. You recognize them, too. While Ezekiel’s vision occurs to reassure Israel during Babylonian captivity, it’s fair to say anyone who’s ever lived has bones in this graveyard. It’s filled with criminal evidence—broken dreams, severed relationships, shattered trust, and other savagery, conceivable and inconceivable. What happened here proved too traumatic to lay properly to rest. We took flight, vowing never to return, willing to leave pieces of us to the scavengers and elements. There’s a lost hope here, a ruined ideal there, and smatterings of wounded self-image everywhere. Returning to the scene crowds our minds with confusing questions. Yet God’s Spirit asks only one: Can these bones live?

That question is our password to transform graveyard grief into graveyard faith, crossing the border between natural thinking and unnatural belief. We stop talking about the bones and start speaking to them. Obeying God’s Spirit—in many cases, defying man’s wisdom about “cutting losses” and “getting closure”—we command these bones to live. It starts with a rattling, which can be unnerving to say the least. But, like Ezekiel, we keep speaking. Then, seeing the bones reconstituted but not fully revived may trigger violent flashbacks of their demise. But we keep speaking. We order them to breathe, to respond to the inspiration of God’s Spirit. Our memories may be too scarred to recognize our restored hopes and freedoms in their original, unharmed condition. We may be astonished at the number of them. That’s when God speaks, explaining what He’s done in us and through us. That’s when we know without a doubt that He is God. That’s when we know how powerful faith—graveyard faith—in His promises truly is.

Confronting the remains of what we've lost crowds our minds with confusing questions. But God's Spirit restores clarity and stirs faith by asking just one.

(Tomorrow: And the Winner Is…)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Downsides of Dignity

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me.”

                        2 Kings 5.11

When Everything Changes

A lot of truth hangs in the cliché “Life is full of surprises.” Most of them are of a minor, “I-had-no-idea” variety calling for small adjustments. But every so often revelations or events come along to impact all we know and expect of life. Some are eagerly anticipated—finding a life partner, starting a family, or embarking on a career, for example. Some gradually announce themselves as we develop awareness and wherewithal to deal with them. Sexuality, identity, independence, and realizing the need for God are changes of this sort. Lastly, others blindside us with illness, separation, and similar realities we can’t alter yet irrevocably alter us. Positive or negative, they present tremendous risks demanding we respond without sacrificing our dignity. The story of Naaman, as told in 2 Kings 5, epitomizes conflicts we face when everything changes.

An International Incident

Naaman is a highly regarded, valiant soldier who’s risen in rank to command the army of the king of Aram. He’s prosperous and happily married. All of this changes when he contracts leprosy, the Biblical term for a range of maladies from psoriasis to modern-day leprosy. Apparently, Aramite society is better enlightened than its neighbors. Naaman lives and works as always, neither stigmatized nor isolated like Hebrew lepers. Still, his illness frustrates his effectiveness and his skin’s appearance challenges his dignity. Observing Naaman’s distress, an Israelite housemaid tells his wife, “If he went to our prophet, his sickness would be cured.”

After Naaman mentions this, the king urges him to go. He gives Naaman a letter of introduction to the king of Israel: “I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” This sends Israel’s king into a tailspin. “I’m not God,” he cries. “I can’t cure leprosy. He’s trying to pick a fight!” In the finest of melodramatic fashions, he rips his robe to shreds, making news that ripples across the land and reaches the prophet Elisha. He dispatches a message advising the king to settle down before things balloon into an international incident: “Send the man to me and he’ll know there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Too Far to Turn Back

So Naaman and his entourage remount their chariots for the long drive to confer with Elisha. They pull up to his house, expecting he’ll come to them as befits a foreign dignitary’s arrival. But the prophet sends instructions via messenger, saying Naaman’s skin will clear after he bathes seven times in the Jordan River. This does it for Naaman. He storms off in an angry tirade: “I thought he’d come out, say a prayer, wave his hand, and I’d be healed. No, he sends me to the filthy Jordan, when there are cleaner rivers to wash in.” Were Naaman alive now, he’d add, “Does he know who I am?” Elisha puts such a dent in Naaman’s dignity he’d rather live with his problem than follow the prophet’s orders. Miles he’s traveled, attention he’s drawn, people he’s involved—none of that matters next to his indignation. It never occurs to him he’s come too far to turn back.

Much in life hinges on how tenaciously we protect our dignity. Allowing people to run roughshod over our integrity, sense of self, and God-given rights depletes our self-confidence, stamina, and commitment to purpose. Yet there are downsides of dignity we should bear in mind. It’s acutely susceptible to false perceptions, often reading benign gestures as targeted contempt. We don’t know why Elisha doesn’t personally greet Naaman, but many possibilities exist beyond breaking protocol or disrespect. Dignity also tends to mistake insensitivity for insult. Granted, sending a messenger disregards all Naaman’s been through. But, given the politically volatile situation, it’s unlikely the prophet means to belittle him.

Finally, defending dignity easily slides into protesting pride. What starts as guarding self-worth ends with demeaning others, often at our expense. In the heat of indignation we forget we’ve come too far to turn back. We toss off progress we’ve gained and hopes we harbor in exchange for asserting our importance at the moment. Naaman’s indignity nearly costs his cure. If his demand for respect is reasonable, his reaction isn’t. In the end, his men convince him to obey the prophet. He leaves the Jordan the seventh time with new skin and returns to Elisha with humble apologies. That’s the thing with dignity. It’s best served by humility, constant mindfulness that all we are is never all we can be. Once we accept that, dignity loses its fragility and downsides to become an enduring expression of self-confidence, faith in others, and faith in God.

Naaman's indignation at Elisha's perceived rudeness and instructions to bathe in Jordan's muddy water nearly cost him his healing.

(Tomorrow: Graveyard Faith)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stir It Up

I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

                        1 Timothy 1.6 (NKJV)

The Gift Within

Many ostracized believers abandoning traditions and communities that reject them run as far and fast from faith as they can. Anger and anguish drive them to cut themselves off from the things of God and all of His people. Sadly, this is a natural response. We often answer rejection by rejecting those who shun us, as William Congreve famously wrote in his 1697 poem, The Mourning Bride: “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d/Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” Scorn can launch anyone, male or female, into a lifetime of rage and fury. But there’s an added factor faith refugees seldom acknowledge or come to terms with. Many times, preachers, family members, or congregations who rejected them also led them to Christ and nurtured their faith.

I've heard dozens of alienated Christians, gay and straight, express their animosity toward “the Church” and “hypocrites” and “organized religion.” Beneath their hatred, though, there remains an undeniable tenderness, a longing to follow Jesus and please their Maker. The gift within, the faith-treasure deeply imbedded in them, can’t be lost, no matter how fast they run or how far they travel from those who injured them. This is true for all of us privileged to grow up in the company of Christian families and communities, whether or not they accept us now. At some point, they touched our lives in profoundly positive ways. They laid their hands on us, if you will, and imprinted God's gift forever in our hearts and minds. Because some of them later disappointed us or turned us away can’t tarnish or steal the gift within. It’s still there, will always be there, waiting for us to stir it up.

What’s Inside

Good or bad, we need to see fellow believers for what they really are—delivery personnel. They bring God’s gift to us. As with actual couriers, some handle the things of God with conscientious delicacy and discretion. Their sole concern is ensuring His message arrives intact and undamaged. Others treat godly matters with unnecessary roughness. By the time the gift reaches us, the parcel is so horribly mangled it looks nothing like what it contains. Finally, there are those who overstep their responsibilities. They take it upon themselves to decide who’s worthy to receive God’s gift. If we don’t meet their standards, they plaster a “Return to Sender” label on the gift and head back to the warehouse, withholding delivery. While there’s no excuse for mishandling God’s gift, too often we’re so outraged by its bungled delivery we forget what’s inside.

After exhorting Timothy to stir up the gift within, Paul describes its contents: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (1 Timothy 1.7 NKJV) Knowing what’s inside is important for two reasons. First, any gift packaged in fear or intending to instill fear does not come from God. We should refuse delivery immediately. 1 John 4.18 flatly says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” People who love us are just as likely as those who despise us to try to imbed fear in our beings. They may hope to scare us into conforming to their image of a Christian with threats and punishment. But we’re called to conform to Christ’s image, which is Perfect Love. If we live in fear, John says, we’re imperfect. We can't love. Thus, knowing what’s inside is most important for the second reason. It helps us reflect the image of Christ.

All Ours

Paul says we’ve received a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. It’s all ours, resting within us, waiting for us to stir it up. This is mighty stuff we’ve been given. And as Paul’s statement plainly suggests, it’s intended to countermand any impulses or impositions leading to fear. Despite objections by intolerant fellow believers or cynical non-believers, power to follow Jesus is in us. Despite wrongs we suffer, capacity to love is in us. Despite how crazy and confusing our circumstances get, ability to think clearly and confidently is in us. Everything we possibly need to accept God’s acceptance, reject others’ rejection, and live lives that please and glorify our Maker is in us. How competently or poorly the gift was delivered has no effect on its contents and our possession of it. We carry it always at the ready to overcome fear and all its side effects. We’ll never defeat fear by defying those who drop it at our doorstep. Only when we realize what’s inside us and stir it up will we triumph.

Everything we need to succeed as followers of Christ--power, love, and sound thinking--is already in us. We simply have to stir it up.

(Tomorrow: Downsides of Dignity)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Foolish Spending

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

                        Isaiah 55.2

Cost Projections

As this economic crisis wears on, it’s increasingly impossible to decode all the expertise and terminology on the loose. When officials and pundits reel off complex explanations, all I hear is, we’re borrowing this to pay that. Our rainy day reserves dried up years ago, forcing us to chase lost money with phantom funds. As always when things go wrong, we’d rather hunt down villains than shoulder our share of responsibility. Yet the true culprit is widespread disregard for cost projections. From Senate halls to suburban malls, we funded buy-now-pay-later delusions of “now” with no thought of “later.” Well, later is now, and we’re paying a terrible price for inadequately projecting how exorbitant “later” would be.

Foolish spending is hardly a modern foible. In Luke 14.28-29, Jesus’s depiction of poor projection explains today’s crisis better than any economist: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him.” This is spiritual wisdom, of course, not financial advice. But hearing Him when the metaphor has never been more relevant invites us to audit our intangible assets—time, energy, focus, care, respect, and so on. Are we spending recklessly without projecting later costs? Will investments now offset later expenses? If we’re wasting our lives on instant gratification and shortsighted ambition, we’re wise to read the economy as a harbinger of future emotional and spiritual losses.

Caveat Emptor

In Isaiah 55.2, God issues a caveat emptor, cautioning us to think wisely and look closely before buying. “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” He asks. He gives each of us specific talents and potential for our nourishment and productivity. We might think of what we have as His contributions to a divine trust fund, of which we are primary beneficiaries. But we’re also executors of His trust. He puts us completely in charge of how, where, and with whom we spend its resources. His question, then, serves as sound, Fatherly guidance for future success and security.

God counsels us to outgrow spending our lives on things we desire and learn to evaluate whether what we’re actually buying into will provide the satisfaction we seek. Many things we yearn for—love, happiness, comfort, stability, etc.—are big-ticket items. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, none of them cheap. Before throwing everything we have into random pursuits, it’s smart to spend conservatively at the start. Let’s take everyone’s favorite, romantic love, as an example.

True love grows. It costs little at first and demands more as it increases. Yet impatience to get to “the good stuff” drives many to invest too much too soon, only to find they’ve lost a small fortune of themselves on an empty deal. Signs their expenditure will end in disappointment are plainly visible, but instead of stopping payment to look for better, healthier prospects, they pour even more of all they hold dear into a sort of stimulus package that still fails in the end. They do this over and over, slowly depleting their resources until they wind up settling for imitations of love—flattery, coexistence, and promiscuity being three of them. They’ve overspent on what isn’t bread and worked way too hard for what doesn’t satisfy. (This is how Mr./Ms. Right becomes Mr./Ms. Right Now.)

Giving vs. Spending

It’s essential we not confuse giving all we can with spending all we’ve got. There’s a big difference. We give freely to anyone in need. People who wrong us need our mercy, so we give it. People who despise us need our love, so we give it. People who are lonely, poor, troubled, and so forth need us to give everything we have for their comfort and welfare. Jesus repeatedly assures us when we give, what we give will return to us “pressed down, shaken together and running over.” (Luke 6.38) On the other hand, we spend to satisfy our needs and desires. There’s a different principle involved. It’s our responsibility, not God’s, to ensure the time, energy, and effort we spend pursuing things we most want from life is well spent. If what we buy for nourishment leaves us hungry and what we work for fails to satisfy, it’s likely we’re wasting precious resources better used elsewhere. As we’re seeing constantly these days, a lot of things that look and sound good now can later lead to our downfall. We are precious to God and His gifts are precious to us. He nurtures us with His utmost care. We must do the same with what we’ve received from Him.

When we invest what God's given us in pursuit of our needs and desires, we project future costs to determine if it's worth the price. 

(Tomorrow: Stir It Up)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Say the Word

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

                        Matthew 8.8

Most Unusual

This episode in Christ’s ministry puts all concerned in a delicate spot. Jesus has just preached the Sermon on the Mount and, as expected, when He’s finished, the crowd follows Him. People are eager to hear more from Him and perhaps watch Him in action. Their curiosity is soon sated when He cures a leper. There’s hardly any controversy here outside of Christ’s unbiased approach. Without a moment’s thought, He touches the leper, ignoring a huge, fear-based social and religious taboo. In comparison with what’s next, though, His gesture is tame.

Jesus barely sets foot in Capernaum when a Roman centurion seeks Him out. This is big. Although Matthew provides little color commentary, no doubt the crowd tenses as it parts to clear a path to Christ. Will Jesus get arrested? That’s usually the case when Jewish preachers draw vast crowds and surely by now news from the hillside has reached town. But why would a centurion come—without a soldier detail—to take Him into custody? This is most unusual. All eyes and ears fasten on the two men, straining to find out what’s going on.

Shattering Taboos

The centurion’s come to Christ with a personal matter. A servant of his is gravely ill. Hearing this, the crowd upgrades its take from most unusual to truly bizarre. They’re also suspicious. If living under occupation has taught them anything, it’s a Roman never asks favors of a Jew. In fact, Rome never asks, period; it demands. Jesus must recognize He’s in danger here. Yet before the centurion even asks for help, He volunteers to go heal the servant. The crowd takes an enormous gulp. Taboos are shattering on all sides. The Roman defies norms by bringing his private problem to Jesus. Jesus risks everything—His reputation, credibility, popularity, and worst of all, His Messianic claim—by offering to help the centurion. This makes no sense. Why would a pagan expect healing from God? And why would Jesus intervene for an oppressor of God’s people?

Right about here, one imagines hard-nosed political and religious people breaking off in disgust, muttering, “We’ve seen enough. This guy opposes everything we stand for. He’s not from God.” And they’re right. Jesus isn’t from God—He is God, which elevates Him above human understanding and expectation. It’s too bad they leave so soon, though, because they need to see how all this wraps up and hear what Jesus says as much as—probably more than—the rest of the crowd.

Astonishing Faith

The centurion declines Christ’s offer! “I don’t deserve such kindness,” he tells Jesus. “Just say the word and I know my servant will recover.” The officer’s response is an astute awareness of Jesus’s authority based on experience. The centurion explains, “I know how things work. I answer to a higher authority, who gives me power to command soldiers and servants at will.” He implicitly confesses absolute trust in Jesus’s claim as The Christ and His God-given power. Such astonishing faith prompts Jesus to tell the crowd, “I’ve not seen anything like it in Israel. I promise you, unlikely people from every corner of the globe will enter heaven, simply because they exhibit this kind of faith.” He says to the Roman, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” (Matthew 8.13)

It’s no coincidence the first two miracles following the Sermon on the Mount smash deep-seated myths about whom God accepts and who can believe. God ordained these unprecedented acts of mercy to establish ground rules for the New Order His Son proclaimed. We can yank up every obscure scripture we can find to support exclusion of anyone who behaves unlike us. But they all wither in the love, tolerance, and willingness Jesus displays here and consistently throughout His ministry. In John 6.37-38, He confirms His welcome to all in no uncertain terms: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

With utmost love and respect for those who disagree, Christ’s words and actions only lead to one conclusion. As the embodiment of His ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection, the Church is not a boy’s club, an organization of cloned sheep, or an honor society. It’s a thriving organism ingeniously, even defiantly comprised of unlikely parts that, in any other arrangement, could neither fit nor function as a whole. That’s the miracle of it. Any believer who, unlike the centurion, permits taboos to keep him/her from Jesus has stopped believing. It’s when we ignore nay-saying conformists that our faith astonishes Him and He rewards us. We don’t need others’ approval. All we need is for Jesus to just say the word.

The centurion’s faith ignores taboos and astonishes Christ.

(Tomorrow: Foolish Spending)

Monday, February 16, 2009

A New Tune

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

                        Psalm 40.1,3

Monday Mourning

So, thinking about this psalm and planning to post something about it today, I searched the iTunes store for a happy hit about Monday. Surely, I thought, some artist’s recorded one. None turned up at glance. The bona fide hits were all downers—“Rainy Days and Mondays”, “Stormy Monday”, “Blue Monday”, “Manic Monday”, etc. Hang on, I thought. There’s “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas & The Papas. “Monday morning, it was all I hoped it would be.” Then I fast-forwarded to the refrain: “Every other day of the week is fine. But whenever Monday comes, you can find me crying all of the time.”

Apparently, optimistic Monday songs don’t sell, which says more about us than the music business. It’s locked in our heads that Monday means returning to drudgery, back on the wheel like gerbils running furiously to nowhere. And that’s where Monday mourning takes us—nowhere. But I wonder if we begin the week singing a new tune, will it end in better places? We can greet Monday as either a return to the pits or a fresh start. Psalm 40 says a new beginning and a new song go hand-in-hand, which suggests changing our tune changes a lot of things.

On Hold and In Holes

David opens with two frustrations common to work and life. He’s stuck, indefinitely on hold and bogged down in uncertainty. “I waited patiently,” he recalls in verse 1 and the second places him in a “slimy pit” of “mud and mire.” Surely we can relate. When we need answers, nothing’s worse than hanging on the line as a recording assures us we’re “important.” And when we need to get something resolved, nothing’s more disheartening than feeling sunk in a slippery hole, unseen and unable to get a grip. On the job, both scenarios unnerve us by eating up time. In life, the implications are more serious. We suspect our prayers and problems aren’t gaining God’s attention. We start thinking we’re insignificant to Him, and doubting our importance slides into doubting His omnipotence. In other words, losing faith in ourselves—in who we are, how we’re made, and why—is the first step to losing faith in our Maker.

Although David claims he waited patiently, it’s tough to imagine he escaped fears and exasperations that plague all of us when we fall into filthy pits and worry we’re in too deep for anyone, including God, to hear our cries for help. Skipping the ugly details in retrospect might in fact indicate David’s desperate sense of dislocation, giving us just enough to know things were bad without reliving the whole ordeal. He’s all about cutting to the happy ending—or, more accurately, the fresh beginning that starts when God comes on the line, as it were, and goes to work. With one sweep, He lifts David out of the pit and puts him on rock to stand firmly and unafraid. Then, having raised him so prominently, God gives David a new song. His tune changes from “Monday, Monday” to “Beautiful Day.”

Coming Unglued

As David bursts into song, he realizes what God does for him is nothing compared to what He’s doing through him. He lifts David and changes his tune for others’ sake. Now that he’s up on this rock, singing his heart out, “many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 40.3b) When God raises us and gives us a new song, “a hymn of praise,” He’s looking for more than glory out of our mouths. He also expects to receive glory out of our lives. The witness is in the singer, not the song. Our new tune sparks interest, particularly from those aware of how long we’ve waited and how stuck we’ve been.

That’s why coming unglued is absolutely necessary. The muck and mire that bogged us down and proved too slick to climb become things of the past. When God sweeps us up to be seen and heard for His glory, no force holding us—no thought, habit, or desire—can withstand the power of His hand. Yet we’ll stay stuck if we’re content to sing the blues and too fondly familiar with our slimy surroundings to trust Him to change our situation and tune. Only after we’re lifted and singing a new song will we fully recognize how low we sank and how sorry we sounded. Then, once we’re placed where others notice we’re making a fresh start and singing a fresh song, we see why we had to wait for God. Before releasing a new tune, He always takes the time He needs to assemble an appreciative audience.

When we fall into a muddy hole, God raises us to sing a new tune so others will see and hear what He’s done.

(Tomorrow: Say the Word)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Yours Always

Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

                        2 Timothy 1.3 

A Virtual Church

With every day, I’m more convinced that God is using the Internet in unparalleled ways. He’s gathering Christians from every corner of the world, every walk of life, and every tradition of faith to coalesce into a new kind church—a virtual church that takes His Body back to the days of the Early Church. It’s a church without borders, without and within. It’s unfettered by titles and hierarchy, immune to history, and unconstrained by dogma. It’s peopled by earnest believers coming together for no other purpose than expressing the love of Christ, learning how to please Him better, and sharing an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and experience for our mutual benefit. We are that church.

Like the first believers, who met and shared their faith privately while also observing temple rites, we find one another daily even as we continue to serve our local congregations. And like the Early Church, we meet primarily through the written word, exhorting each other and delving into the Scriptures, always—always—searching for knowledge and wisdom we activate in daily life. Being physically removed from one another is a blessing in disguise, because “out here” we connect being-to-being rather than person-to-person, unburdened by traits and tics that often lead to conflict. While others exploit Internet access and anonymity to stoke controversy, indulge hidden desires, and satisfy material cravings, we carve out harbors of faith and care. We are a lively, impassioned crowd. We honor bold individualism with tolerance and respect. If we disagree, we never reject; if we doubt, we never disengage. As a result, God’s Spirit continues to add to our number every day. It’s a truly amazing phenomenon to behold—a sort of Acts of the Apostles Redux—and it’s incumbent on all of us, as “early adopters,” to follow the Early Church’s example, as well as do our all to avoid pitfalls that tripped it up.

A Virtuous Church

We strive to be a virtuous church, following guidance given in Jude 20: “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” We build each other up in faith and sustain our community in God’s love. The advantages of virtual community can also compromise capacity to increase in virtue, however. Without the vital leap of faith that transforms screen names and comments into lives and needs, we risk becoming a collective of individuals rather than a thriving body of believers.

I’m not advocating an alternative movement to pull us away from chosen traditions of faith and worship. We need to belong and contribute to a local body of believers. We need fellowship with Christians in physical proximity to us. We need pastoral guidance and care. Yet, through the Internet, God gives us a priceless gift—an invitation to find kindred spirits who share our fervor for His truth and ways. Having discovered so many wonderful fellow believers, we mustn’t forsake upholding one another in prayer, encouraging one another in faith, and enfolding one another in love. We are not numbers on a hit counter or identities adrift in cyberspace. We are unique reflections of God housed in flesh, each with unique needs and potential. We embrace each other in obedience to Christ’s “new command” in John 13.34: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Constantly Remember

Numerous times in various places, Paul repeats his message to Timothy: “I constantly remember you in my prayers.” In 1 Thessalonians 5.17, he instructs us to “pray continually.” And Acts 12.5 tells us that after Peter was imprisoned, “prayer was made without ceasing of the church for him.” (KJV) We can do no less for each other. Blogging creates an unprecedented opportunity for people to open their hearts and minds to strangers—who quickly become friends. But, as believers, this relatively new medium also expands our responsibilities vis-à-vis Galatians 6.2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What’s more, we enlarge our commitment to pray for one another to include silent, unseen visitors who don’t blog or comment, yet gather with us. In many cases, they need our prayer and support most of all. Enormous challenges and profound longings have brought them to us. We’ll never know their names or what drives them to seek us out. But God knows and our prayers for them will be answered.

While Sharing the Peace, my former church in LA sings a song called “I Need You to Survive.” When I’m able to return for worship or the song crosses my mind, I’m always moved by its simple candor: “I need you. You need me. We’re all a part of God’s body… You are important to me. I need you to survive.” We’re part of One Body—joined by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4.5) We need one another to survive. On this Lord’s Day, in addition to attending our regular worship, I invite all who gather here to virtually Share the Peace as a reminder to constantly remember one another. Because of Christ’s love and mercy, I am yours always. I need you to survive.

We need to constantly remember one another in prayer. We need one another to survive.

(Tomorrow: A New Tune)