Saturday, May 23, 2009


I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

                        Luke 24.49

Something’s Coming

West Side Story, the Sondheim-Bernstein breakthrough musical about urban gang life, kicks off in cool gear: “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.” There’s a tug of sadness beneath the bravado, however—a tang of wasted youth—that doesn’t lift until the next song, “Something’s Coming”. Tony, the Romeo figure, defies his limited circumstances in a burst of optimism: “Something’s coming. I don’t what it is, but it is going to be great. Around the corner or traveling down the river, come on, deliver to me!” As the disciples brace themselves for Christ’s momentary departure, they also face the prospect of becoming a group of rebels without a cause. But Jesus takes care to reorient their thinking. “Something’s coming,” He tells them in Luke 24.49.

Luke’s Gospel ends with the Ascension, recording Jesus’s final words as, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” In his sequel, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke repeats it as the vital bridge between Christ’s ministry and the formation of the Church, embellishing it slightly: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1.4-5) Clearly, Jesus is concerned the disciples will mistake His ascension as the period ending the last sentence of the story when, in fact, it’s a semicolon; there’s much more to tell. If they disband and resume their previous occupations, they’ll miss what’s about to happen. “Don’t go anywhere,” Jesus instructs them. “Stay here. Stay together. Something’s coming.”

A Power Source

Jesus has alluded to the Holy Spirit numerous times before this, yet the meaning of the promise apparently hasn’t stuck. His mentioning it here puzzles His followers. They assume His absence will be temporary and His directive to wait in Jerusalem for a few days indicates He’ll rejoin them soon to start a new phase in His ministry. “Is this when You’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask. (Acts 1.6) On this side of history, knowing what’s going to happen and why Jesus instructs the disciples to stay, their question sounds odd. At the time, though, it makes sense. Although Jesus has definitively triumphed over death, His resurrection hasn’t changed the political and religious landscape. Israel remains occupied by Roman forces. The legalists retain control of the Temple. His doctrine of love and forgiveness is more unpopular than ever. And the disciples are highly sensitized to their vulnerabilities as His associates.

Jesus’s reply to their question tips us off to the disciples’ anxieties. He tells them to leave the restoration of Israel to God, Who’ll take care of that in His own time. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This expands on the quote in Luke’s Gospel: “Stay… until you have been clothed with power from on high.” In His previous references to the Holy Spirit, Jesus calls It a Comforter, a Teacher, a Guide, and an Inspiration. But He explicitly describes It as a Power Source here to remedy His followers’ feelings of powerlessness. When the Holy Spirit comes, It will endow them with authority and strength to stand on their own, to take charge of Christ’s mission, to speak His message with boldness. Furthermore, they’ll spread the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” In essence, Jesus is saying this story is bigger than Israel—it’s global—and the power you’ll need to contribute to it will arrive in a matter of days.

Days of Promise

In anticipation of next Sunday’s Feast of Pentecost, when all of Christendom commemorates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we should regard this time as days of promise. Just as Advent focuses our thoughts on the miraculous gift of the Christ Child, the coming week affords us the opportunity to ponder the equally miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. Exploring various aspects of Its nature and details leading up to Its delivery will deeply richen our appreciation of how It applies to our lives.

First, we should note Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit as a promise from God the Father. It comes to us and remains with us by divine pledge. And second, It is given to clothe us in power. The Holy Spirit mitigates our weaknesses and fears, enabling us to represent Christ to the world. Having followed Jesus this far, walking with Him, learning from Him, mourning His death, and rejoicing in His resurrection, it’s essential we stay, waiting and receiving the Father’s promise of power. The story of Jesus doesn’t end with His ascension. New chapters get written every day. When we accept God’s gift of the Holy Spirit we become part His story and our responsibility exceeds restoring order within our boundaries. The Holy Spirit’s power changes us, enabling us to change the world.

Accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit makes us part of Christ’s story.

(Tomorrow: The God of Hope)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mean Mouths

My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.

                        Daniel 6.22

When Bad People Happen Upon Good People

My brother joined our family when I was 18 months old. Despite my parents’ best efforts to prime me for this, stoking my excitement about a new brother or sister and so forth, I wasn’t the least bit happy when he finally showed up. The house flooded with people rushing to gush and coo over the baby, severely cutting into my attention. In a feat of infantile will and sleight, I bided my time until no one was watching. I toddled into the nursery and threw every ounce of strength I had against his bassinet. It crashed to the floor, tossing the defenseless baby across the room. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt, but that certainly wasn’t my intention.

Very early in life (though usually somewhat later than my brother) we learn people will dislike us for no reason. They’ll connive, attack, accuse, and challenge us without provocation. We first grasp this in the sandbox, on the playground, or anywhere else we bump into bullies. And the lesson repeats itself at every stage in life. A coworker sets traps. An in-law tells lies. A church member spreads gossip. Merely being who we are and living as we do puts us in the crosshairs of unhappy, insecure, and intolerant people. When bad people happen upon good people, their first inclination is to devise schemes to undermine them. Good people make bad people look bad, and when bad people look bad, they act bad. Good people steal thunder. Good people attract friends. Good people exemplify goodness. Good people get in bad people’s way.

The Set-Up

Daniel’s experience bears this out. He’s one of several young Jews in Babylonian exile handpicked for palace service. To get a sense of the sort of person he is, here are the job requirements: “young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve.” (Daniel 1.4) Daniel rapidly proves he’s the best of the best and climbs the palace ranks in record time. He guards his integrity fiercely and stands his ground in situations where weaker men would abandon their faith and compromise their character. God repeatedly rewards him, enabling him to outlast two corrupt kings. When the third, Darius, takes the throne, he appoints Daniel as one of three chief administrators. His prominence strafes his Babylonian colleagues. They hatch a clever plot: they’ll fix things so he’ll have to disavow his belief in God to save his job, which Daniel most definitely will not do.

The set-up goes like this. Daniel’s adversaries convince Darius to decree a 30-day devotion to him, declaring anyone who prays to any other god beside him will be tossed into a lion’s den. As expected, Daniel refuses to comply. Just before he enters the den, Darius—realizing the heinous thing he’s been duped into doing—says to him: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (Daniel 6.16) After a sleepless night, the king scurries to check on Daniel. “Did your God rescue you?” he calls. Daniel answers, “God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths.” Daniel is lifted out of the den and Darius throws the conspirators (along with their families) to the beasts. They’re devoured before they land on the den floor.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Like Daniel, we learn living with integrity and keeping our commitment to please our Maker will often create unwarranted conflicts with those willing to stop at nothing—and stoop to anything—to succeed. Hungry eyes and mean mouths surround us. Psalm 38.19 says, “Many are those who are my vigorous enemies; those who hate me without reason are numerous.” Descents into lion’s dens can’t be avoided, because the motives and mindsets behind these situations are beyond our control. When we find ourselves targeted for humiliation and harm, we need not worry about the outcome. We recall David’s words in Psalm 27.2: “When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.”

Instead of worrying about why we’re maligned and abused, in Matthew 5.11-12 Jesus encourages us to be happy: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” Our faith assures us of two things: God honors us when we honor Him. And when that sets us up for ridicule, criticism, and hateful comments, God shuts mean mouths.

God shuts mean mouths.

(Tomorrow: Stay)

Postscript: Weekend Gospel

Over and Over – The Thompson Community Singers

In Chicago, we call them “The Tommies”—far and away the best choir to come out of the city that gave birth to gospel. The Thompson Community Singers have been around for more than 40 years, constantly adapting their style and message to fit the times. This video is a delightful example of the irrepressible joy that pours out of everything they do. “Over and over and over, He keeps on blessing me,” they sing—and over and over and over, The Tommies have blessed audiences everywhere! Enjoy!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Within Reach

“’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”

                        Acts 17.28

Strange Ideas

Paul’s travels bring him to Athens ahead of his companions, Silas and Timothy, giving him a few days to explore the town on his own. For a man of learning and fervor, freedom to roam the ancient world’s philosophical capitol must leave him breathless. He starts at the local synagogue, where he engages God-fearing Jews and Greeks. But his taste for exotic challenges soon lures him into other theological conversations. Although Paul and his beliefs are unknown quantities, he brazenly joins a discussion of Epicureans and Stoics, two sects that commonly view the gods as neutral beings, yet respond to this notion differently. The Epicureans take the gods’ remove as implicit sanction for mortals to enjoy pleasures in moderation. Stoics assume the gods’ neutrality evidences disinterest in human affairs and focus their philosophy on determinism—humankind’s responsibility for its own fate and wellbeing. (Apologies for these generalizations to learned students of Greek philosophy.)

Of course, divine disengagement is anathema to Paul. The whole of his faith rests on confidence in a God Who cares about each of us down the finest detail of our existence. When he opposes both sides on this basis, they join to dispute him as a babbler—until he persists in presenting his argument in logical terms. This piques everyone’s interest. They shuttle him off to the Areopagus, a council of wise men that convenes on the Hill of Ares, telling him, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (Acts 17.20) For a man who loves nothing better than sharing his faith and debunking superstitions, Paul takes this as an offer he can’t possibly refuse.

Explaining the “Unknown”

Acts notes as Paul wanders around Athens, he’s “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16). While her philosophers and leaders are curiously adept with theological ideas, the majority of her people remain in the throes of religious traditions and superstitions. Rather than leap into wrangling with complex concepts, Paul starts there: “I see that in every way you are religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” (v22-23) He follows this observation by announcing his topic—“Explaining the ‘Unknown’”.

The gods of Greco-Roman mythology appear and govern in an existing universe—meaning the Athenians hold the origins of the cosmos and life as imponderable mysteries. Not even Zeus possesses creative authority; he’s merely the “king of the gods.” Paul fills this gap by attributing all of creation to the Unknown God, endowing Him with total presence in the world. He “does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” (v24-25) Instead of refuting the Epicurean and Stoic ideas about shaping our present and future, Paul concentrates on our past. God created one man, he says, from whom He made all people; “he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” (v26) With this, the “unknown” becomes crystal clear. Every human shares a common heritage and exists by virtue of One God. “We all live in Him, move in Him, and have our being in Him,” Paul explains, supporting his claim by citing Greek poets’ assertion, “We are all His offspring.”

Reason Behind the Reasoning

Paul establishes God as the Single Source of everything, a cunning, superlative position to say the least, since his audience has no alternative myth to contradict his rationale. But he doesn’t advance this thought simply to outwit his learned listeners. There’s reason behind the reasoning. “God did this,” Paul says, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.” (v27) In summary, God creates each of us and places us exactly when and where He wants us to inhabit His world; at the same time, He completely inhabits our world, ever ready to be found when we seek Him.

God is—has always been and will always be—within reach. His presence in our lives is not something we conjure or imagine. His involvement in our situations isn’t something we invite or merit. He’s simply there, waiting for us to reach out for Him. In Psalm 139, David writes: “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. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” We can’t escape God’s presence. He’s constantly within reach, guiding us, holding us secure as we live in Him, move in Him, and are in Him. This fact surpasses understanding, yet it’s knowledge we must never lose or second-guess. Psalm 46.1 assures us, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Knowing that—believing that—is the bedrock of our faith. If we don’t know that, all our worship and service leaves us no better off than the Athenians—religious, but lost.

God inhabits our world to remain constantly within reach.

(Tomorrow: Mean Mouths)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Repost: Lake You

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.

                        Romans 15.1


We have a saying around here when one or the other, or one of our friends, falls into a “me” hole: “Sweetheart, you’re drowning in Lake You!”  We can’t recall where we heard it, but we like it. It’s such a terrifically queer thing to say. It always gets a laugh and knocks the wind out of the whine. And as writers, my partner and I relish its powerful imagery. It tells you what’s really going on.

We don’t fall into Lake You—we dive in head first. Why? It scratches our itch for attention. It dramatizes our dilemma. Sometimes it actually indicates feelings of helplessness. Whatever drives us, we’re fully aware of it when we take the leap. As Romans says, it pleases us. However, jumping in Lake You distances us from people we look to for help. We increase the difficulty of our rescue when we plunge into the very fears and anxieties we want out of.

Weak Swimmers

It’s essential to clarify the difference between drowning in self-indulgence and sinking in despair. We all know weak swimmers—earnest people without the stamina and wisdom to swim against the tide or avoid getting in over their heads. They don’t go under voluntarily. They’re tossed overboard by winds of rejection, physical and psychological violence, and religious hostility. Deadly currents suck them into whirlpools of peer pressure, self-gratification, and substance abuse. They’re miles from the self-contained Lake You—lost on the vast seas of life with its forces and predators, feeling tiny and isolated.

Unnatural Law

This should be expected according to the laws of nature. Only the strong survive. Even Jesus conceded such things happen. In Mark 14.7 He says, “The poor you will always have with you.” But He didn’t say, “Live with it.” In fact, He immediately added, “Help them.” This is what Paul tells the Romans. We strive for strength for our benefit, but also for weaker people in our lives—even those who endanger us by stirring up tempests of hatred and damnation.

Our success is gauged by how well we protect the safety and survival of others. Not all want to be saved, of course; the deep is full of self-righteous, disoriented people preferring spiritual suicide before admitting they’re lost at sea. We still open our arms to them, hoping they’ll reconsider the consequences. And what of those in true distress, calling for anyone to come to their aid? We have to reach them right away. In either case, we can’t swim out to a single soul in real jeopardy if we’re the preoccupied writer, producer, director, and star of Drowning in Lake You.

We don't fall into Lake You. We dive in head first.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Repost: Caring Do's and Don'ts

Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

                        1 Peter 5.7 (New King James) 

A Hard Lesson

My first real job was teaching in a Christian high school down the street from my best friend’s apartment. During my first year, horrible tragedy struck his family. His three-year-old daughter lay in critical condition. His wife was confined to a mental health facility. The spiraling bills kept him working to maintain their healthcare coverage. Despite unbearable grief and exhaustion, day in and day out, he drove himself to spend valuable time with his daughter and wife.

Being closest to him—in distance and spirit—I tended to his needs: laundry, housekeeping, cooking, etc. Soon the wear and tear started to show. One day, the principal dropped by my class. “I know you care for him and his family,” she said, “but you assumed this burden. Could you be doing too much on your own instead of trusting God’s grace for him?” She was spot-on. I had all but abandoned the young lives entrusted to me to compensate for losses that weren’t mine. My motives were solid, but my methods were shaky.

Do What You Can

As Christians, our love should know no bounds and bear no conditions. But as humans, we also recognize our ability to care has pragmatic limits. Before diving into someone else’s troubles, we should assess its costs on lives we’re already accountable for (including our own). They can’t go untended.

Don’t Count on People

Perhaps worse than not caring is caring on purpose—thinking if we help others, we can count on them when we’re in trouble. That won’t always happen. We offer care not expecting its return, knowing help is always available to us. In Psalm 46.1, we hear “God is an ever-present help in trouble.” We depend on that.

Do the Right Thing

We call people who help others hurt themselves enablers, contributors to the problem. Romans 14.16 advises, “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” We can’t always steer others we love from harmful behaviors. Yet we’re not genuinely caring for them if we tacitly endorse their actions with indulgence. Encouraging what’s right means discouraging what’s wrong.

Don’t Work Solo

Caring often feels like lonely work. But keep in mind we’re never alone. As Peter reminds us, Jesus cares for us. Caring is really a two-step process that puts us in the middle. When we help carry someone else’s burdens, we don’t hang onto them (as I did). We cast them on Christ. The finest way to care for others is letting Christ care for them through us.

We must love our neighbors---and we owe it them and us to do it wisely.

(Tomorrow: Lake You)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Repost: Christ in You

God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

                        Colossians 1.27 

It’s a Mystery

The great gospel singer Andrae Crouch wrote a beautifully simple, honest song that captured the central mystery of Christianity: "I don’t know why Jesus loved me/I don’t know why He cared/I don’t know why He sacrificed His life/Oh, but I’m glad, so glad He did." It splendidly summarizes Titus 3.5: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” And it answers Isaiah’s despondency about our unworthiness: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64.6)

The possibility of God’s acceptance comes only through our impossibility to merit it. It’s a conundrum that can’t be logically explained or solved. It can only be embraced by faith. After we internalize it, we shouldn’t be surprised if others can’t comprehend or appreciate it. It’s hardly shocking when we encounter those who have no earthly idea why anyone—especially Jesus—wants to love us, or why they’re most definitely not glad about our assurance that He does.

Alienated Attitudes

Paul told the Colossians, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds, as shown by your evil behavior.” (Colossians 1.21) When the subject of behavior arises, ostracized believers tend to get defensive. Being told they didn’t act like “acceptable” Christians was what drove them away to begin with. But look carefully at what Paul said and an entirely different picture emerges. Unworthy behavior is a product, not a cause, of rejection. And here’s the mystery’s most stunning twist: wrongdoing directly results from choosing to adopt alienated attitudes. “You were enemies in your minds,” Paul wrote, “so you started acting out.”

The Ripple Effect

Overcoming alienation is vital for our own spiritual growth and profoundly changes our lives. But its impact reaches farther, setting off a ripple effect in others’ lives. Listen to Philippians 2.5-7: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who… made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” In service to others, we step out of ourselves, Christ moves in, and the mystery comes alive. When people who once dismissed us as unacceptable see Christ in us, they witness His power in action. It proves He can and will use anyone who follows Him, providing hope that they too may experience His glory. It’s no longer a mystery. Now it’s a miracle.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags. When Christ enters our lives, we're transformed by His righteousness. It's a mystery--and a miracle.

(Tomorrow: Caring Do's and Don'ts)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Repost: Crowded Out

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong… do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.

                        Exodus 23.2

More! More! More!

We can’t get enough for ourselves. The moment we sink into satisfaction, we rise to look for more. Once we go all the way, we want to go farther. After we say our piece, we keep talking and say too much. We don’t use half of what we have because we’re too busy amassing twice what we need. We should demand “Better! Better! Better!” Instead, we cry “More! More! More!” We could blame this on basic greed and covetousness, but it’s not so simple. We’ve allowed marketing and media mavens to reduce us from unique individuals to demographic targets. They tell us because “smart people” like what they’re selling, we should, too. They convince us there’s no time to consider its value to us. Get it while it’s hot! They promise we can be trendsetters. The truth? We’re following along like everyone else.

Wrong Turns

Most trends are benign except for this—they lead us to be defined by what surrounds us rather than what’s in us. As kids, we construct identity by emulating the behaviors of others—“fitting in,” as they say. But how long must that take? “When I was a child,” Paul famously wrote, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13.11) Outgrowing childish conformity demands self-knowledge and strength to go with what’s right while the crowd gets bamboozled into wrong turns. It sounds awfully rudimentary. Yet if we know this, why are we so easily convinced to follow the crowd? Isn’t it time we were “crowded out?”

Where Following Leads

By telling Israel “Don’t follow the crowd,” God addressed growing dissent and disbelief brought on by them feeling lost in the wilderness. We read of their disobedience now and regard them with ridicule and condescension. That’s because we know the whole story. They didn’t. For example, they didn’t know how Moses’s climb to Sinai’s summit would end. From their perspective, Moses had vanished and left them at a standstill. Without a leader, they fell in step with the crowd—a very bad crowd, it turned out. It’s as true for us as it was for them. Losing sight of our Leader results in a loss of personal conviction. It encourages faith in false gods like success, security, popularity, etc.

Ultimately, God says, following the crowd can lead to injustice. Being “in” creates urgency to force others “out.” Conversely, if I live by my conscience and values, I’ll fight to the end for you to live by yours. Our shared respect takes precedence over our differences. I need you; you need me. But nobody needs the crowd.

We rise above crowd mentality to do what's just and right. 

(Tomorrow: Christ in You)