Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lifted to Draw

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

                        John 12.32 

Look and Live

A terrific old gospel song goes, “Look and live, my brother, live! Look to Jesus now and live. It’s recorded in His Word, hallelujah, that you only have to look and live.” The cited Bible record comes from Numbers 21. It starts with another of the Israelites’ faith lapses. They’ve been in the wilderness a while, ricocheting from crisis to victory, victory to crisis, with a lot of hiking in between. They’ve found a road to travel—a luxury indeed—except it crosses enemy territory of the Canaanites, who attack Israel and capture some of its people. The Israelites beseech God to allow them to overpower their adversaries, He does, and after they level the Canaanites’ towns, they quit the road for a desert detour. That’s when the complaints begin. If a movie were made of Israel’s wanderings, here's where filmgoers would whine, “Not again!” and head for the lobby.

It’s just like the bitter water, just like the manna and quail. God intervenes for His people, they rejoice, and then, when it’s time to walk by faith, they strike up the same old song: “Better a Slave in Egypt (Than Living Free Out Here)”. Since solving their problems doesn’t change their tune, God changes His. He shows them as bad as things are they can get worse. He sends venomous snakes their way and Israelites start dropping dead. They beg Moses to apologize to God for their thankless behavior, pleading with Him to remove the snakes. He instructs Moses to hoist a bronze serpent atop a pole. Snakebite victims who look at it will live. As always, God doesn’t fix the problem. He fixes His people. Numbers doesn’t say the snakes retreated. Had they, Israel might have stayed too long in one place. By enabling them to overcome the problem, they’re able to get their act together and move on.

Lowered for Lifting

Jesus refers to the bronze serpent in His discourse with Nicodemus. Methodically mounting His mission statement (John 3.16), He tells the Pharisee three things. 1) He came down from Heaven for a purpose. (v13) 2) He will fulfill it by being lifted “as Moses lifted up the snake.” (v14) 3) “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (v15) That sets the stage for the most glorious sentence Jesus ever spoke: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus’s outline is so succinctly clear it reads like four perfectly crafted PowerPoint bullets. It once again reveals God opting not to solve the problem—sin-stung death—to save His people instead. Jesus was lowered for lifting that we might look and live.

Mentioning Moses’s snake adds an oft-ignored elegance—a flawless rhyme—that brings humanity’s story full circle. Our struggles with sin began when a snake slithered into Eden and we lowered our sights to gaze at its deceitful promise. While the serpent didn’t lie, it didn’t tell the whole truth. As it predicted, the Knowledge Tree’s fruit opened our eyes to distinguish good from evil. But the serpent failed to explain we’re unequipped to process such complex knowledge. It didn’t warn us knowing what God knows isn’t thinking like God thinks. It didn’t alert us to the disobedience, legalism, strife, hatred, and violence stemming from knowledge God never meant us to have. Nor did it inform us we’d pay for knowledge we can’t use with what we could least afford to lose—our lives.

Flash forward to Christ’s reference to Moses. Like the Tempter, He too will assume a serpentine identity. Yet we find Him by raising our sights to see Him lifted. He doesn’t entice us with knowledge; He encourages us to stop knowing, start believing, and leave the thinking to God. That gets us back to the Garden, reconciling us to our Creator, restoring our innocence, and reviving the eternal life we were created to live. The symmetrical beauty of this plan deserves our highest praise and humblest gratitude.


The subject of Jesus’s lifting resurfaces in John 12, although He departs from the serpent analogy here, as what precedes it is so uniquely incontrovertible it’s unnecessary. A group of Greeks ask the disciples if they can see Jesus. Hearing this, Jesus declares, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (v23) He presages His burial and resurrection with a parable, saying an unplanted wheat kernel has no value until it’s buried. But once it’s planted, it springs to life and produces many new seeds. Anyone who follows Him will also surrender his/her life to be buried, reborn, and generate new seeds. Jesus candidly confesses the prospect of dying troubles Him, yet He acknowledges “for this very reason I came to this hour.” (v27) He calls on God to ratify this by glorifying His name. Immediately, a voice thunders, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (v28) The crowd knows what it heard but can’t ascertain how. Jesus explains, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.” (v30) And then He adds, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”

The astute observer puts this together and comes away with the crux of Christ’s mission. Emphasis shifts from lifting to drawing, moving the focus of John 3.16 from the plan (God loved and gave) to its purpose (the world, whosever believes, and eternal life). What prompts this? Greeks—non-Jews presumably ineligible for redemption—want to see Jesus. Unlike Nicodemus, who approaches Jesus privately under cover of night, the Greeks seek Him openly in broad daylight. Who they are, how and when they find Christ, tells Him the time has come for His burial and resurrection to scatter seeds of grace and mercy indiscriminately, ignoring religious or cultural taboos. And, before any disgruntled follower contradicts this, God confirms it. Jesus leaves Moses out because His scope has expanded beyond Israel. He will be lifted to draw everyone.

Questioning redemption is for all amounts to folly of the worst kind. Jesus declared it and God audibly voiced His approval. Thus, we’ve every reason to consider doctrines and traditions of exclusion blatant blasphemy. It’s not about changing who we are so we can see Jesus. It’s about seeing Jesus so He can change us. He doesn’t fix our problems so we can stay put. He fixes us to stop knowing and start believing we’ll get back to the Garden. It’s recorded in His Word—hallelujah!—that we only have to look and live.

Look and live.

(Tomorrow: Bewitched)

Postscript: Blogging Biz

First, an apology. I’m presently in my busiest season professionally, which soaks up time I’d rather spend on blogs written by and email exchanges with many of you who come here. Please—please—don’t mistake my infrequent drop-bys as anything more than what it is, a time crunch. I miss keeping up with what you’re doing and thinking more than you know. While I’m grateful God has blessed me with lots of work, I’m eager for the time when I can hang more closely with you. Meanwhile, I ask your patience and understanding. Given the current economy, it seems prudent to heed my dad’s advice “to make hay while the sun shines.”

Having said that, however, I want to encourage those with time to invest it visiting two very fine blogs by fellow readers here.

At The Three Legged Stool, James covers a wide range of topics devoted to his faith as a gay Episcopal believer. His posts are erudite, compassionate, relevant, and compelling. Impressive as all that is, what stands out most is the strong sense of community he’s established there. He lifts Christ and Christ draws. It’s a marvelous thing to see and experience.

To my mind, nobody blogging does a better job of debunking homophobic abuse of Scripture than Göran Koch-Schwane. This is Biblical scholarship at its very best. Göran, who lives in Sweden but writes in English, digs deep, tunneling through church history to uncover sources behind religion’s exclusion of gay Christians. He never crosses the line between authenticating our inclusion and politicizing it. His posts always provoke insight rather than incite provocation. Göran blesses us to see reasons why many traditions and fellow believers reject us are rooted in fear and intolerance best answered by love and forgiveness.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Come near to God and he will come near to you.

                        James 4.8 

Getting Close

My mom recently mentioned an innocent question I once asked that taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. I was four and my younger brother and I were playing, waiting for Mom to wrap up her afternoon prayer time. Now, my mother is what Pentecostals call a “prayer warrior.” When she goes to God, she’s not leaving before she covers everything she wants to discuss with Him. She says what she feels and feels what she says. Psalm 34.18 epitomizes her prayer life: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It’s not at all unusual for her to weep while seeking God’s guidance for herself and those whose burdens she carries.

A four-year-old can’t understand this, which is why I asked Mom why she cried when she prayed. She replied, “I cry because it helps me get close to God.” What does “get close to God” mean? She led me to the kitchen, picked up an ice cube with a pair of tongs, and turned on our stove’s front burner. “Watch carefully,” she said. At first, she held the ice away from the fire. Nothing happened. Then she inched it forward. The closer the ice got to the flame, the quicker it melted and the less there was until it disappeared. “Getting close to God means we get smaller and smaller so He can get bigger and bigger and help us with problems we can’t fix on our own,” she explained. “Sometimes these problems make us cry. But that’s okay, because when God hears us, He pulls us closer to help us better.”

Less for More

John the Baptist explains the same principle after his disciples grumble about Jesus attracting larger crowds. In response, John compares himself to the best man at a wedding. “The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” (John 3.29) John’s attitude shouldn’t surprise his disciples. When he baptized Jesus, he told them, “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1.30) Yet it apparently rankles them to see Jesus succeed so quickly and raises concerns about where they’ll land after John’s ministry fades. But, like it or not, John is eager to give Jesus full rein to fulfill His mission. “He must become greater; I must become less,” he says. Why didn’t his followers get this? Although the Bible doesn’t say, one suspects the closest they got to Jesus was witnessing His baptism from the riverbank. John looked God in the face and felt the warmth of His actual presence. With that, any preconceptions, ambitions, or expectations he had melted away. Having less of himself to contend with availed him to more of God’s wisdom and power.

A Reciprocal Arrangement

Our relationship with God is a reciprocal arrangement. In James’s words, when we come near to God, He comes near to us. How close He comes solely depends on how close we get to Him. If we want to narrow the distance between us, it’s up to us to step forward. On the other hand, if we’re content to remain where we are, we’ll remain as we are. He’ll most assuredly honor His promise to come to our aid when we need Him, but keeping God on call at a distance severely limits benefits we gain by establishing a close relationship with Him. We gain more from Him by losing more of us and we lose more of us by getting closer to Him.

It’s a mystery that’s not so hard to understand. God will always be with us. Psalm 46.1 says He’s an ever-present help in trouble. And Hebrews 13.5 reminds us He promised “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We can leave it at that, stay aloof, and He’ll still take good care of us. In doing so, however, we take lousy care of ourselves. We all lug around more baggage than we can carry. Our backs ache. We lose things. We’d move ahead much faster if there weren’t so much of us to deal with. When we come near to God and He reciprocates, we start dropping what we don’t need and can’t use to free up space for Him. He must become greater, so we become less.

The closer we get to God, the less needless baggage we carry. 

(Tomorrow: Lifted to Draw)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Paid in Advance

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

                        Romans 5.8

Everlasting Love

In Jeremiah 31.3, God declares, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” Jeremiah places this statement in the past or, in some translations, “from afar” as a gentle nudge for us to look over our shoulders and realize God has always loved us. Beyond being unconditional, God’s love is preemptive. He offered it long before we realized we needed it or knew how to request it. It’s forever there for the taking, given freely and willingly.

This secures our faith from any concerns about earning God’s love. And it relieves all worries that it can be withdrawn. A love so great defies human knowledge and understanding. Yet 1 John 5.8 gets us fairly close with three simple words: “God is love.” Because God supersedes all time and space, His love is eternal, invulnerable to changing circumstances and impossible to avoid. The sheer concept of God’s all-encompassing nature inspires David to sing, “You hem me in—behind and before… Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” (Psalm 139.5,7-8) Whether or not we love God has no bearing on His love for us. We are hemmed in by love, behind and before, as far as we can see in either direction. Therefore, if we know nothing else in this life, we know this: God loves us.

Further than Faith

Paul goes further than faith when describing God’s love. He cites bona fide evidence proving the reality of divine love: “God demonstrates his own love for us.” How does He do this? He juxtaposes history and redemption. “While we were still sinners,” he says, “Christ died for us.” In other words, proof of God’s love is anchored in our personal stories. Paul wants us to remember our lives prior to accepting God’s love and see we were loved long before that. Even at our lowest, most sinful moment, the love of God was a fact of life. While we were running up enormous charges of disobedience and ingratitude, our debt had already been paid in advance.

Back to Basics

This truth is so fundamental we often overlook it when someone challenges our faith in God’s acceptance. Instead of getting drawn into debates about who is and isn’t worthy to follow Christ, it’s best to get back to basics. God loves us with an everlasting love. He has always loved us and always will. He has drawn us to Him with loving-kindness, embracing us with mercy and grace. He makes us worthy. He demonstrates His own love—a love like no other—by paying our debts of sin in advance through His Son’s death on the cross. The transaction is private and personal, shared only between God and each of us individually. Since we owe Him everything, we owe no one else an explanation or justification of who we are or why we believe. The deal is done. The contract is sealed. All costs and considerations were more than adequately covered before the world began.

... because God makes me worthy.

(Tomorrow: Closer)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

                        Philippians 2.8

Dust and Ash

The inauguration of Lent with its distinctive rite of penance, the public confession of personal frailty symbolized by the imprint of ash, could not be more fitting as the opening act in Christendom’s most somber season. In the majority of our churches, ashes are administered with this sobering reminder of the penalty God imposed on humanity after Adam and Eve’s disobedience: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” On this level, Ash Wednesday is a reckoning with mortality, an acceptance of the fatal compulsion to sin we inherited and cannot escape. Recognizing sin and death inherently exist in us by no means strands us without hope, however. To the contrary, it orients us to anticipate Lent’s closing act—the sacrifice that forever erased the blots manifested on our brows today.

If that were the totality of what this ritual represents, though, today would be called Dust Wednesday and our foreheads smeared with dirt. The ash limns the occasion with a second meaning we often glance over. Today, we wear the residue of incinerated fronds left over from last year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Suppose we take a moment to fully absorb what that signifies. We distribute palms to commemorate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of a long, eventful week that concluded with His brutal murder and His mangled corpse tossed in a borrowed tomb. But how it started gave no indication it would end so horribly. The palms carpeting His arrival symbolized the die-hard adoration of followers who, by Thursday, so thoroughly reversed their opinion of Him they joined the outcry for His execution. Our ashes, then, represent abandoned worship and spineless conformity. These tendencies also dwell in us and they too require repentance.


A believer need not observe Ash Wednesday to comprehend the shocking truths revealed in its ritual. Yet with or without a smudged cross, another amazing realization also sinks in. The shame this day reveals afresh to us was, is, and will always be obvious to Christ. He not only sees it. He knows it. And He knew it long before the donkey he rode into Jerusalem first stepped on a palm frond. He knew our sin, our doomed condition, our fickle emotions, and our cowardice inside and out. Philippians says He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—not just death, but punishment by death for crimes against the establishment and crimes against God that He never committed. His impunity didn’t make the transgressions He chose to carry in the flesh nailed to the cross any less real. Even the craven treachery and indifference that hung Him there weighed heavily on His shoulders and constricted His ability to breathe. Neither humility nor its extreme, humiliation, adequately describes the shame and agony He experienced of His own accord. By comparison, whatever feelings we derive from a light dusting of ashes—from mild embarrassment to contrite sorrow—can’t begin to replicate the emotional devastation that accompanied His physical torment.

To Live

Jesus humbled Himself to die, despite blanket immunity to the power of sin and death. Because we are not immune to sin and death, we in turn must humble ourselves to live. That’s repentance in a nutshell. It’s not “being sorry” or “feeling guilty.” It’s lowering ourselves to embrace the truth that without Christ, we have no means or hope of restoration to our original state of innocence. Our best will never be good enough to earn our reprieve. Titus 3.5 says, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Without the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus, we will never amount to more than a handful of dust and our finest accomplishments will eventually turn to ashes. Humbling ourselves in repentance changes all that. James 4.10 promises, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” We become obedient, kneeling in old ashes of humility to rise in new life.

At our best, this is all we are and will ever be unless we humble ourselves in repentance.

(Tomorrow: Paid in Advance)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Prayer and Fasting

This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.

                        Mark 9.29

What’s the Secret?

For several years, I worked for one of the nation’s leading pediatric neurologists. Repeatedly, I observed shattering blows of unmitigated sorrow. Yet just as often, I witnessed triumphs of dogged determination in parents who wouldn’t rest until their children received the best available treatment. The story of the father who brings his tormented son to Christ always floods my mind with memories hundreds of similarly desperate moms and dads who kicked down doors of inadequacy, indifference, and stigmatization for their children’s sakes. This father’s insistence was no different.

The boy’s symptoms suggest severe autism with epileptic complications. He’s “possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” The father comes to Jesus after His disciples fail to cure his son. This vexes the Lord. He reprimands the disciples for their unbelief and calls for the child. The boy immediately seizes, not uncommon for epileptic children thrust into stressful situations. The father pleads, “If You can do anything, please help us.” “’If You can’?” Jesus replies. “Everything is possible if you believe.” Without hesitation, the father exclaims, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus commands the disease to release the child, after which His disciples ask, “Why couldn’t we do that? What’s the secret?” Jesus says matter-of-factly, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.”

Proper Treatment

Not every problem can be remedied by good intentions, optimism, and abiding faith. These virtues sustain us through momentary crises of fear and doubt. But in addition to fleeting trials and temptations, we also struggle with any number of seemingly insurmountable weaknesses and challenges we must rid ourselves of once and for all to lead healthy, productive lives. Troubles of this kind can only be corrected by proper treatment, namely, prayer and fasting.

Prayer and fasting aren’t a protocol of last resort. They’re a commitment to thoughts and behaviors that subordinate natural logic and craving to unnatural belief and discipline. Prayer forces our worries through the prism of faith in God’s love and power. It bridles our minds to expect improvement. When we pray, we step back and give God the leading role in our circumstances to move in our behalf. Prayer accounts for His ability “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3.20) Then, when we couple prayer with fasting, we bring faith to life.

What a great disservice we do ourselves by categorizing fasting as an impractical practice! Fasting, whether selective sacrifice of a specific appetite or full-fledged abstinence from food and drink, enables us to experience short-term victories while God’s will comes to fruition in the long run. It strengthens our faith and determination. If, for example, I commit to a three-day fast, each meal I let pass is a triumph. One becomes two, two becomes three, and so on, until disciplining my mind and body outweighs humoring my doubts and desires. Fasting fortifies skills I transfer to other areas in my life—especially those needing self-discipline, problems that can only be corrected by (that’s right) prayer and fasting. Therefore, fasting transforms sacrifice into obedience by teaching me to activate my faith step-by-step rather than accept my weakness as an ongoing condition.

A Lasting Cure

In his first epistle, John advises, “Everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2.16) If we possess anything we can’t imagine living without, we love it too much. It occupies space that belongs to God and weakens us. It crowds out faith and compromises our spiritual health. Directly or indirectly, it feeds problems that torment us. Prayer and fasting reduce the overvalued possession to its proper, manageable size. The clarity and discipline we gain restore our priorities to their rightful order. John goes on: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (v17) Prayer and fasting result in a lasting cure for chronic ailments. They heal workings of our mind that trigger pathological behaviors just as restoration of the boy’s neurological function cured his autism and epilepsy.

We all have issues we can’t allow to linger indefinitely. They trouble our minds too severely, seize us with behaviors we can’t control, and distress those who love us. When our plates are full of lingering problems, the most effective way to clear them for good is by literally emptying our plates. As we enter the Lenten season, I strongly urge each of us to consider aspects of our lives in need of permanent healing. Instead of sacrificing an insignificant “guilty pleasure,” we can make the most of this period of self-denial by opening our minds to meaningful prayer and disciplined fasting.

Clearing our plates of lingering problems starts by literally emptying our plates. 

(Tomorrow: Humbled)

To Come...

Hello all,

Traveling for business and unable to get today's post up until later this evening. However, between now and then, if you missed this, here's Dustin Lance Black's extraordinary acceptance speech for Milk. What Mr. Black said and what we talk about here are one and the same. Thank God for Dustin Black!

(Because the Academy is so protective of its material, in all likelihood, this link will come down fairly soon. If it's no longer available here, a quick Google search is bound to find it somewhere else. H/T to Annette for helping track this down!)

See you later tonight. Happy Mardi Gras!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Better Than Sacrifice

To obey is better than sacrifice.
1 Samuel 15.22

Impressing God

God creates every individual uniquely for His pleasure. In other words, we’re born and we live to please Him. As often as we fail at this, we’re just as likely to overdo it—to set our hearts and minds to impress God rather than please Him. It’s as if we’ve not yet got out of grade school. We fall back into pre-adolescent, “teacher’s pet” pursuits, which is nowhere we want to be. And here’s why. When we throw all our energy into impressing God, what we’re really doing is drawing attention back to us. The question changes from, “Are You pleased with me?” to, “Aren’t You glad I’m so”—fill in the blank—“loving, giving, holy, smart, humble, patient, and so on.” Impressing God is folly for a number of reasons. First, it simply can’t be done, which means (second) we’re foolish to try. This leads to the third reason; when we try to impress God, we abandon His plan for ours. Ergo, trying to impress God typically results in what most displeases Him: disobedience.

How Better Ideas Go Bad
Not long after Samuel anoints Saul as Israel’s first monarch, God gives the warrior-king some very specific orders. He’s to lead an army against the idolatrous Amalekites and slay every living thing in their possession: them, their families, and their livestock. Saul and his men do as commanded—up to a point, that is. They rout the Amalekites so handily it almost seems too easy. Instead of praising God as they go for delivering their enemies into their hands, Saul & Company come up with a better idea. They’ll kill everyone except the Amalekite king and they’ll slaughter all the animals except the finest ones. Those they’ll bring home and offer in praise for their great victory. In their scheme, the enemy king and livestock become trophies they can hold up to God, so He’ll be impressed with their fine work and their fancy sacrifices of thanksgiving.

Well, God sees this and pulls Samuel aside, informing him, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Samuel 15.11) This news robs Samuel’s sleep. The next morning he goes looking for Saul. When he finds him, the king says, “I’ve carried out the LORD’s instructions,” to which the prophet answers, “Really? Then, what’s with all the sheep-bleating and cow-mooing I hear?” Saul explains he’s come up with a new plan, an improvement on God’s original orders that will certainly impress Him. That’s all Samuel needs to hear to understand why Saul displeased God and why he needs to reel in the overachieving king. “Listen,” the prophet says, “you’re not making sense. Think this through with me so you’ll see how better ideas go bad. How can you impress God with a big sacrifice when you weren’t supposed to have what you’re sacrificing to begin with? How is that a sacrifice? And why would it impress God, since your sacrifice was gained through disobedience?” Saul’s big plans and ego get smaller by the second. Samuel seals his chastening with a statement for all seasons and all times: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”


When works of art come to auction, their authenticity is verified by provenance—documents that trace their ownership back to their creators. Without provenance bidders can’t be sure their Rembrandts and Cezannes and Picassos are real. The paintings may be lovely and aesthetically impressive, but they’re not worth very much. Offers to give a museum a Renoir that lacks verified provenance will most likely be rebuffed and might get the donor into big trouble as an attempt to defraud the museum for tax purposes.

In the same way, many things we enjoy in life also come without provenance. We can’t prove where they originated or why they’re valuable to anyone other than us. Some of what we’ve gained over the years has come about by our trying to impress God rather than obey him. Today and tomorrow, as we consider what our Lenten sacrifices should be and why, let’s evaluate them for provenance and motive. How did they come to mean so much to us? What is their true value? And are we forgetting to obey in order to impress? Sacrifice is important. Indeed, it’s essential. But it’s also susceptible to showing off for others and God. That’s why basic obedience is better. It always seeks to please God rather than impress Him.

Sacrifices meant to impress mean nothing if tainted by disobedience.

(Tomorrow: Prayer and Fasting)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the Winner Is...

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.

                        2 Timothy 4.6-8

Winners and Losers

For most Christians, today marks the last Sunday in Ordinary Time before Lent. For the film industry, however, it’s the most extraordinary Sunday of all—the day when awards season culminates with the Oscars. While the rest of us prepare for worship, in Los Angeles people are preoccupied with the moment when someone cracks open an envelope and says, “And the winner is…” Actually, these days, they say, “And the Oscar goes to…”—a weak stab at political correctness suggesting it’s improper to label non-winning nominees “losers,” as if La-La Land were a sandbox full of easily offended children, which it probably is. But when Monday morning rolls around, the chatter will be about winners and losers. Some careers will surge to new heights. Others will be left hoping their day will come.

Casual Oscar observers take consolation its quest for the best is confounded by popularity, sentimentality, and campaign ads. For example, this year’s finest performance in any category comes from Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, an unforgettable yet little-seen deportation drama that shouldn’t be missed. He won’t win. In all likelihood, Mickey Rourke’s comeback stint in The Wrestler or Sean Penn’s “courageous” impersonation of gay activist Harvey Milk will carry the day. Both are notable, but neither is “the best,” again indicating how superfluous factors slant the Academy’s judgment. In 2 Timothy, Paul writes of another awards ceremony. This competition has no casual observers. Its Judge is immune to factors beyond actual performance. He has no sentimental favorites. We’re all nominated. And Paul succinctly lays out criteria to ensure each of us will win when our day comes.

Fighting, Finishing, and Faith

While scholars dispute the authorship of 2 Timothy—which, along with 1 Timothy and Titus (collectively, “the pastoral epistles”), didn’t surface until the second century—those attributing it to Paul believe he wrote it during his final Roman imprisonment. The letter reads as a valedictory, a personal farewell to his most devoted colleague. Either facing execution or banishment to Spain (these details are also fuzzy), Paul assures Timothy he’s at peace with his fate. “The time has come for my departure,” he says (2 Timothy 4.6), going on to reflect, “I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and I’ve kept the faith.” Whether or not Paul wrote these lines, they ring true for a believer whose long journey with Christ ends with a frank distillation of where following Jesus finally leads.

Paul’s character flaws readily secure his title as the least likable apostle. He’s combative, impetuous, tactless, closed-minded, dismissive, self-confident, condescending, and shamefully chauvinistic. More than anything, he’s fiercely competitive. He shoves his way to the top ranks of leadership and mows down opposition to his apostolic claim without having known Jesus in the flesh as a technicality. Yet Paul’s one-sentence autobiography reveals he’s ultimately convinced it’s not about winning or losing, but fighting and finishing. He says he’s fought “the good fight,” staying true to Christ’s teaching and example, outlasting inner struggles and outer adversity. And he never gave up, despite doubt, fatigue, missteps, pitfalls, and setbacks on the way. Most important, it’s about faith—holding to unnatural hope in defiance of naturally logical contradictions. In honor of his performance, Paul expects to receive a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.”

That Day

As people of faith, we emulate Paul by setting our sights beyond winning or losing momentary skirmishes and sprints. Confrontations enticing us to prove we’re right—especially those challenging our right to follow Jesus—are “bad fights” we must resist. We have nothing to prove, because we’re driven by beliefs and values we can’t logically explain or defend. We fight “the good fight.” There’s no need to enter races fraudulently offering God’s acceptance at the finish. Christ won God’s love and mercy for us on Calvary. Why waste energy trying to qualify for a prize we already possess? We don’t worry about winning the race. We finish it.

All contests—from Oscars to religious debates—are subject to superfluous factors. Ecclesiastes 9.11 says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Consequently, like Paul, we fight and finish in hope of “that day,” when God, our eternally just and wise Judge, will reward our belief. We keep the faith. That alone decides if we win in the end. Hebrews 11.6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” As we fight to the finish, we put our trust in two things. God is and God rewards. If we believe that, we can’t possibly lose.

While Oscar nominees sit on pins and needles as someone opens an envelope, we fight the good fight and finish the race with confidence our performance will be justly rewarded.

(Tomorrow: Better Than Sacrifice)