Saturday, June 6, 2009

Taking Our Temperature

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!

                        Revelation 3.15 

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

You may have seen this week’s news about the Forbes Celebrity 100. Like other star-struck lists, it always raises a blip of interest. This year’s got a bit more play because Oprah Winfrey, who (evidently) has roosted atop the magazine’s roster of powerful pop figures, slipped a notch. Per Forbes’ calculus, Angelina Jolie has more clout these days. I skimmed the story for all of 30 seconds—twice as much time as it was worth—and then, at the end of the piece, I actually felt a slight pang to read Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Johnny Depp, and Tyra Banks fell from the list. While I’m aware these “Who’s Hot/Who’s Not” tallies hardly faze celebrities (if you’re famous enough to make the list, you’re too tough-skinned to take it seriously), it’s hard not to imagine JT and J-Lo, Johnny and Tyra weren’t a tiny bit stunned at being dropped. I certainly was. None of their careers is in trouble. In the last year all four have avoided public scandal and artistic embarrassment. Entertainers quip, “You’re only as good as your last show.” Evidently, that’s not enough for Forbes, because one way to lose your rank is not staying hot.


The Revelation must knock believers at Laodicea for a loop when they read they’re on the brink of getting dropped. Christ has instructed John to write this to them: “You’re not hot, you’re not cold, and I wish you were one or the other.” And He adds this not-so-subtle warning: “Because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3.16) What in the world have the Laodiceans done to deserve such a reprimand? According to the next verse, they’re self-satisfied and content to rest on past laurels. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing,” Jesus says. “But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” The Laodiceans aren’t working hard to stay hot.

The church at Laodicea stands in the shadows of more famous ones for which Paul’s epistles are named. Outside of this rebuke, we have little to go on regarding its character and evolution. What we know of Laodicea lends credence to the criticism leveled at it, however. It's a river city in Asia Minor (Turkey) prominently placed on trade routes. Its merchant-class populace enjoys comforts other townspeople only dream of. It rises as an art and learning center boasting one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Thus, it’s possible the church may be comparatively stable from the first, given the city’s absence of cultural conflicts and likelihood a predominance of Jewish converts quickly establishes the church’s doctrine and liturgy. If this is correct, The Revelation makes sense. The Laodiceans, like all churches, read circulating epistles—in fact, Paul tells the Colossians to exchange letters with them—and it’s not hard to imagine learning of others’ problems instills a sense of smugness in them.

Through the Motions

When the going gets good, going through the motions gets easy. This is the Laodiceans’ problem. They pull back from God’s refining fire. Impurities filter into their worship. Their value decreases. Self-sufficiency blinds them to their unsightly appearance. In verse 18 they’re told, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” Christ’s tone rings with condemnation similar to the “shape-up-or-ship-out” warnings issued by Old Testament prophets. Surely this resonates with the Laodiceans, the majority of whom embrace Jesus as their Messiah. The rapid-fire metaphors remind them how far they’ve slid back to former lives of complacency. Once their eyes clear and they see themselves, they don’t look so hot after all.

We may not care about celebrities, but God most certainly cares who’s hot or not among His people. Resting on laurels and assessing progress relative to others are dangerous habits to fall into. Fervor and commitment don’t automatically carry over from one day to the next. They must be renewed every morning and maintained minute by minute. We say this over and over here because it can never slip from mind: following Jesus is an unnatural lifestyle. It demands constant thought and belief. It defies all human instinct and logic. The moment we presume we can love God and our neighbors on autopilot is the moment we step away from the fire. The cooling process begins and the longer we go through the motions, the cooler we get. Each day starts with taking our temperature—testing the intensity of our resolve to please our Maker. If we’re edging toward tepidness, we rush back to the fire, asking God to remove any impure thoughts and habits impeding His expression through us. Malachi 3.2 says, “He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” A pleasing temperature and appearance before God will keep us from dropping off His “Who’s Hot” list.

Celebrity hot lists don't carry much weight with stars or most of us. But how hot we are in our fervor and commitment matter a great deal to God. 

(Tomorrow: The Light of Day)

Postscript: Weekend Gospel

Just Wanna Say – Israel Houghton and New Breed

Israel Houghton and New Breed resist categorization. They blend rock-solid gospel grooves and high-power pop to generate some of the most rousing praise and worship sounds currently wafting through gospel churches. This fairly recent hit bursts with fun and excitement, but it’s not as fluffy as it initially seems—or the video’s cutesy intro leads one to expect. The song gets into your system and days later you find yourself humming its hook: “I just wanna say I’m not afraid. I know that You are with me.” Take a few minutes and let that sink in.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Update: Online Bible Study

I'm so excited to pass along the log-in details for next week's online Straight-Friendly Bible studies. We will meet at a site that allows everyone to participate via toll-free telephone and/or live chat. As one who's easily flummoxed by technology, I believe this site to be the simplest, most reliable one I checked into.

Two sessions are scheduled for everyone's convenience: Thursday, June 11, at 7.45 PM CDT and Saturday, June 13, at 10.45 AM CDT. The first 15 minutes will be "gathering time" for anyone who's interested in visiting and getting to know each other better. The study will begin on the hour and run 60-90 minutes, depending on the time needed.

Here's how you access the site:
  • Go to
  • Type or paste in the Meeting ID.
  • Thursday, June 11's ID is 514-376-426; Saturday, June 13's ID is 559-197-122.
  • Click "Yes" or "Always" (or "Trust" on a Mac) if prompted to accept the download.
  • Follow additional personal ID prompts and you're in!
To add the conference call audio (or simply join by telephone):
  • US participants dial 1-800-445-7784; international callers dial 1-630-424-2331.
  • The passcode for both is 981-5123#.
A downloadable study guide is available here. The topic is, "Why Pray When You Can Worry?," an examination of the believer's ability to live worry-free even though life is never care-free.

I hope as many as possible can join--and invite friends and family, too. If you're fairly (75%) sure you'll be participating, I'd be so grateful to know in advance. Comment here or email me at Breaking bread together is one of the most enlivening, rewarding things believers can do together. See you there!

Fine Print Department
Here are the system requirements for the site:

To attend a meeting on a PC, the following is required:

  • Internet Explorer® 6.0 or newer, Mozilla® Firefox® 2.0 or newer (JavaScript™ and Java™ enabled)
  • Windows® 2000, XP, 2003 Server or Vista
  • Cable modem, DSL, or better Internet connection
  • Minimum of Pentium® class 1GHz CPU with 512 MB of RAM (recommended) (2 GB of RAM for Windows® Vista)
For Mac:

  • Safari™ 3.0 or newer, Firefox® 2.0 or newer (JavaScript™ and Java™ enabled)
  • Mac OS® X 10.4 (Tiger®) or newer
  • PowerPC G4/G5 or Intel processor (512 MB of RAM or better recommended)
  • Cable modem, DSL, or better Internet connection


No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.

                        Luke 5.36

Total Makeover

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” we read in 2 Corinthians 5.17. “The old has gone, the new has come!” This directly refutes how many people approach their walk with Jesus. They view it as an added dimension to lives they led prior to following Him when, in fact, it’s a total makeover. Since faith in Christ’s sacrifice and trust in God’s love and acceptance change the very fiber of our beings, the fabric of our life also changes. Old patterns lose their appeal. The new creatures we become don’t fit the shape of old lives we once led. Textures we found pleasing feel too rough and cuts we thought becoming no longer flatter.

Out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new makes many very uncomfortable. It’s not like their wardrobe was all that shabby to begin with. They’ve worked hard to acquire taste that reflects many of the same principles Jesus espouses, like mercy, kindness, justice, tolerance, and so on. “You mean I’ve got to throw all that away and start over?” they ask. Not necessarily. When Christ enters our life, much of our basic character remains, but the addition of finer qualities gives it new life. Thinking we can hang on to shoddier habits and outdated notions is how we go wrong. Authentic Christianity isn’t a badge of honor we stitch onto old attitudes and actions that could use some sprucing up. We purge those items completely to make room for newer, better ones. As Jesus explains in Luke 5.36, trying to repair worn-out aspects of our lives with new material—hiding lingering doubts beneath swatches of faith, for instance—ruins both. It won’t work.

One or the Other

Entering new life in Christ calls for some hard decisions. Using Jesus’s metaphor, it’s like staring at faded, threadbare clothes we’ve held on to for years while holding an armful of vibrant, flawless ones we’ve been given. A lot of these new gifts are things we’ve always wanted yet could never find or afford—peace of mind, forgiveness, purpose, and hope for instance. We find room for them right away. Replacing old favorites with fresh alternatives becomes the problem. That’s when we realize it’s one or the other, because we don’t have space for both. Besides, the old stuff—dependencies, associations, petty vices, etc.—clashes with the new items we’ve received—freedom, fellowship, purity, and so forth.

Now we’ve got two “looks” going. They’re so radically different we’ll never get them to work together. Some of us try to find a clever compromise, imagining we can combine the old and new to come with a funky, retro/classic style that’s exclusively our own—Christianity by Tim, or Denise, or Jason. “Who does such a thing?” Jesus wonders. “Who rips apart a new garment to patch up an old one? All that does is destroy what’s new and make what’s wrong with the old one more obvious.” And there we have it. Believers look sharp. They don’t sport patches. They don’t affix crisp, timeless ideals to sad-sack, obsolete lifestyles. One of Isaiah’s long lists of Messianic prophecies includes the promise He will give us “a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61.3) Thinking we can stitch pieces of our praise-oriented new life to our sorry old nature is silly, Jesus says. They won’t match up. It’s one or the other.

Pulling Apart

Jesus’s live audience readily got His message for another reason, however. Living in pre-industrial times, they knew no two bolts of fabric were alike. Every piece of hand-loomed cloth had its own unique weave and surface tension. It was spun from flax and cotton that varied in quality from season to season. The concept of patching an old garment with new cloth was as ludicrous in their day as running a gas engine on diesel is in ours. Cutting patches from a new garment to repair an old one was, at best, a one-time fix. The moment the garment absorbed moisture or underwent stress the difference in how both fabrics responded resulted in them pulling apart. The patch wouldn’t hold.

The same principle applies when we attempt to repair flawed former habits and thoughts with bits and pieces of newly received faith. Circumstances and stress will inevitably pull them apart. Our belief will respond in direct contradiction to our logic. Our trust will remain taut while our doubt shrivels beneath it. The patch won’t hold. In His story of the lost son who wastes his inheritance on wild living and returns home, penniless and shabby, Jesus tells us the first thing the father says is “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.” (Luke 15.22) That’s exactly what happens to us. When we’ve had enough of our misguided ways and return to Christ, He dresses us in new clothes whose style and quality befits the new life He gives. What can’t be mended gets tossed out. What’s filthy and sad goes too. Patches are for poor people, and while we live humbly, new life in Christ grants us untold wealth. In 2 Corinthians 8.9 we’re reminded: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” There’s simply no reason to patch up old clothes, when God’s grace affords us the best there is.

We may think we can salvage old habits and ideas with patches of new life. We may even think our new "look" is smart. But the patches won't hold and the look doesn't flatter. 

(Tomorrow: Taking Our Temperature)

Thursday, June 4, 2009


We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

                        2 Thessalonians 3.11, 13 

Hard Work

Each summer we rent a cabaña at our building’s pool. It’s no big deal—a narrow room with a refrigerator, cabinets, and a bathroom—but we like it because it’s cheaper and more convenient than a weekend place out of town. Our building, one of the bigger high-rises in the city, is a vertical village; we have a few neighbors as close friends and otherwise maintain passing acquaintances with dozens of others we regularly bump into. During the summer, however, things get trickier because the pool turns into a closer-knit community where we spend a lot more time with other cabaña renters. Our number always includes a few with nothing to do, however—people on extended vacation, recently retired, etc. They’re lovely and outgoing at first. Then, as the season continues, they tend to compensate for weekday idleness with weekend updates of all we’ve missed. The guy in 14 won’t turn his music down. The couple in 22 had another spat. He drinks; she’s uppity; their teenagers are rude; and so on. After the busy bee buzzes off to light somewhere else, my partner often says, “He/she gets me tired.” By that he means shoveling out trash as soon as it comes in takes a lot of time and energy.

While this is a trivial example, it goes to show trying to do what’s right can be exhausting, because the world is full of idlers who are happy to talk about everything yet content to do nothing at all. It’s easier—and safer—to watch other people make mistakes than trying to do what’s right. That’s really hard work, not only because it demands constant attention to prevent careless mistakes or being misunderstood. It also requires us to act without expectation of gratitude and asks us to monitor our motives to be sure we’re doing the right things for the right reasons.

And as for You

Idlers are easily spotted because they always look busy. If you observe them closely, though, what they’re up to never yields anything of its own. They’re not producers. They’re borrowers, taking something here and dropping it off over there. In 2 Thessalonians 3.11, Paul calls them out: “They’re not busy; they’re busybodies.” Yet many of us like having idlers around because they amuse us. We pride ourselves in never prying into other people’s affairs or spreading gossip, but we have no problem entertaining those who do. Idlers depend on our curiosity to make their way in the world. Take a moment to rifle through the company you keep and the idlers leap out of the list. They’re always guests, never hosts. They volunteer information, never service. They advise, never assist. They know everything about everyone else, but no one knows much about them. In the next verse, Paul takes them to task: “Such people we command… to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” In other words, quit mooching and start making.

Verse 13 takes us to task. “And as for you,” Paul writes, “never tire of doing what is right.” What’s interesting here is this portion of the letter isn’t really about us—it’s about busybodies. Still, Paul slips this in for a purpose. Indulging idlers gets us tired. It wastes our time and energy and pulls us away from doing what’s right. First, and most obvious, passive participation in gossip and meddling is participation nonetheless. It’s not right. But second, hanging out with idlers results in our falling into something far more invidious than idleness. We become slothful. Time and stamina to do what’s right evaporate right out from under us as we sit and listen to idle chitchat. Paul tells us how to manage idlers: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (v14-15) Association with idlers harms them, harms us, and harms others. It cheats people in need of love and concern we could offer if we spent less time hearing about their problems second-hand and more time doing what’s right—helping them, praying for them, and standing beside them.

A World on Idle

TV, the Web, and tabloids have exploited our tendency for idling to the point we now live in a culture of voyeurism. We’re so consumed with watching others we’re not getting anything done. A world on idle is a world in trouble. Helping others takes a lot of time and personal sacrifice. Because we’re surrounded by so many who mistake curiosity for concern and sympathy for support, it’s harder than ever to get over the hump and get busy doing what’s right. Yet Jesus says we’re obligated as His followers to go beyond merely meeting needs and/or demands of others: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5.40-42) That’s asking a lot, but doing what’s right always asks more than seems reasonable and always leads to giving more than we anticipate. Our world is overrun with tiresome people talking about problems they’ve seen and why they’re not fixed. Christ calls us to be tireless people who see problems and go out of our way to fix them.

Indulging tiresome idlers gets us tired. Christ calls us to be tireless. 

(Tomorrow: Patches)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Heavenly Places

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.

                        Ephesians 2.6

A Closer Look

Welcome to Gay Pride Month, a 30-day celebration that creeps in like a kitten and thunders out like a gorilla. Around the world, gay people and their allies spend the first three weeks at symposia, reading hours, and panel discussions the media conveniently ignore. When June ends with parades commemorating the ’69 Stonewall Riots that spawned the gay movement, though, cameras will take interest because pride celebrations make great TV. Who can resist sitting out a commercial break for a closer look at, say, burly jocks got up like Susan Boyle (my bet as this year’s new icon), nearly naked kids bouncing on floats, or a cadre of lesbian bikers? Mark my word: June 30’s coverage will tease these sorts of images for all they’re worth simply to glue viewers to their sets.

As Stonewall’s 40th anniversary opens the movement’s fifth decade, one expects the media will provide more substantial chronicles of its advances, setbacks, and struggles. The time required for such retrospectives, however, will result in preaching to the choir, as disengaged and disdainful audiences will pass them by for glimpses of sensational parade footage. The “closer look” they get will be the same clichés the media’s hyped for 40 years, bringing disengaged and disdainful audiences no closer at all. They won’t get closer looks at PFLAG marchers, same-sex couples and families, or welcoming churches valiantly obeying Luke 14.23: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.” (More likely, they’ll see curbside clutches of misguided Christians waving “Go to Hell” placards like the cold, unlighted torches they are.)

Another Sunday

Once again, Tuesday reviews of Monday’s coverage will bring the same question: how can we raise our neighbors’ estimation of us if the media keep to the low road? The issues are too knotty to untangle. Freedom of expression twists around inaccurate, imbalanced representation. Defiance of rejection and drive for tolerance gnarl into crossed purposes. High-strung hijinks teasing homophobic clichés unravel into rope securing the very myths they taunt. While others continue picking apart the political and social strands lost in the jumble, gay believers are blessed with a better solution. Our witness of God’s love and acceptance lifts us above controversy, making every day a pride celebration. And while we embrace and honor the defiance displayed at Stonewall, we rejoice in another Sunday long before June 29, 1969. Our pride and confidence—our rights and victory—were established by the ultimate display of defiance, when Christ stepped out of His tomb to defeat sin and death forever.

God Pride

Believers challenged by minority status—not only orientation, ethnicity, gender, and class, but less discussed inhibitors like family, social, and professional standing—by all means should reverse the flow of prejudice by claiming its target as a source of pride. But we should also be cognizant our minority pride nests inside our majority status as one of billions created in our Maker’s likeness. Awareness we’re as we are and where we are because He willed it so entitles us to celebrate God pride. Realizing the enormous sacrifice He undertook to restore His pride in our making reframes our self-image in a fresh, powerful context. In Ephesians 2.6, Paul writes, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” That’s an image that definitely merits a closer look. Christ’s triumph over sin and death seats us with God in heavenly places, high above minority strife, above downcast stereotypes, above the short reach of fear-inflamed hatred.

God pride protects us to present His love to others. David—possibly the most hated, misjudged man in the Bible—says in Psalm 3.3: “You are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.” I urge all of us—gay and straight, female and male, from every ethnicity, class, profession, and background—to march through Gay Pride Month and every other month with heads lifted in God pride. It’s important for us and even more important for others. In verse 7, Paul explains God raises us to sit with Him to “show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Since the media can’t possibly capture God’s grace and kindness to us, our pride as His children is the only way others will ever get a close look at Him.

Annual celebrations of minority pride are nested inside God pride that all believers celebrate year-‘round.

(Tomorrow: Tireless)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Above All Else

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

                        Proverbs 4.23 

Ours and Ours Alone

By the time he’s wrapping up Proverbs 4, Solomon’s already advanced more wisdom than most other books contain in their entirety. He pauses at verse 20 to warn against gliding over his thoughts: “My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.” Don’t ignore them, he says. Keep them in your heart because they’re life and health. Mentioning the heart opens the door for some of the best advice ever offered about it. “Above all else, guard your heart,” he writes, “for it is the wellspring of life.”

Virtually everything else we possess—thoughts, emotions, and means—can be shared. But what we hold in our heart is ours and ours alone. The heart works like a private archive housing personal, unabridged versions of what we pass on to others. While we edit our conversations, feelings, and assets to present them to others in acceptable manners, all of what we think, feel, and own remains as-is in the depths of our heart. Only we know the entire story behind our beliefs and opinions. Our full range of passions can only be read in our hearts. And the true value of what we have—in total and by item—exclusively exists with us. We hide precious memories in our hearts and we bury horrible experiences there. Solomon counsels us to guard our hearts above all else for the obvious reason that leaving them open for anyone to meander through can jeopardize how well preserve our treasures and manage our miseries.

Inside and Out

The ancients viewed each individual as the sum of three parts: mind, soul, and heart. The mind generates conscious thought, operating as the articulator of abstract sensibilities. The soul expresses them emotionally. But mind and soul serve the impulses of the heart, as all thought and expression originate there. Consequently, the heart is also where motives reside. We might think of it this way: the mind considers “what,” the soul handles “how,” but “why” lives solely in the heart. Therefore, when Solomon tells us to guard our hearts as wellsprings of life, he’s not just talking about protecting their contents from reckless misuse. He also means we must closely monitor motives filtering into them, staying vigilant to what’s happening with our hearts, inside and out.

Without constant care, our hearts fall prey to every imaginable influence. Unhealthy motives seep into its walls before we know it. Exposing our hearts to cynicism, for example, introduces them to outside fears that drive destructive thoughts and behaviors. Lifting the shield against forces promoting excess triggers self-indulgence, addiction, promiscuity, greed, and various other gratifications that ultimately cost far more than we can afford. A heart subjected to idle gossip or malicious suggestions will acclimate to motives based on lies and suspicion. And so on. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) Does it not follow that where our heart is—the company it keeps and environments it frequents—will inevitably decide what we treasure? “Guarding our hearts” includes its contents and its perimeter.

A Terrible Thing to Neglect

I’ve always admired the Negro College Fund’s tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In light of Solomon’s wisdom, believers should adopt a similar one: “A heart is a terrible thing to neglect.” So how do we avoid that? In verses 24-27, he offers a few vital tips. Resist perverse and corrupt conversation. Focus ahead. Choose only sure and firm paths. Swerve neither left nor right onto “alternative routes” that end in evil. While the contents of our hearts are ours and ours alone, they can’t be concealed.

First, God sees everything we hide there. According to 1 Samuel 16.7, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” When we’re misjudged, that’s an excellent promise—God knows what’s really going on and our confidence in that allows us to deflect baseless or skewed criticism. But when we attempt to present a false image of ourselves to Him, it’s smart to remember He looks into the depths of our being and knows the whole story. We’ll never fool Him and, as it turns out, we’ll seldom fool others. Jesus says, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6.45) Sooner or later, we tell on ourselves. If we want to stand in good stead with our Maker and others, above all else we must guard our hearts.

We protect our hearts from those who might misuse its contents, motives that might lead us astray, and unhealthy influences.

(Tomorrow: Heavenly Places)

Monday, June 1, 2009


The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

                        Genesis 2.7


And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

                        John 20.22


Last week The Sundance Channel ran an enthralling documentary with the abstract-expressionist painter, Agnes Martin (1912-2004). At the tender age of 86 when it was shot, she quickly dispenses with questions about her technique to discuss inspiration’s role in her work. While Martin offers no Christian claim—one senses a heavy leaning toward New Age mysticism in her parlance—it’s evident she associates inspiration with unnatural faith, which she positions as the polar opposite of intellectualism, or what we call “natural logic.” Her opinions of why an inspired life is superior to intellectual existence can’t be argued, as they’re always backed by sage pragmatism. Martin admits she paints with her “back to the world,” ignoring its notions of achieving success to receive inspiration as it comes. In a comment (also featured in the clip below), she says: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for… And after I have it, I make up my mind that I’m not going to interfere.”

Martin’s endorsement of vacancy stunned me into a deeper understanding of why modern believers find it so challenging to “live by faith, not by sight,” as Paul defines Christian discipleship in 2 Corinthians 5.7. From the moment we enter the world, our human intellect declares war on the divine inspiration—the very breath of God—that gives us life. Beings He creates to obey His will join battle with personalities we create to will earthly survival. Genesis 3.7 explains once Adam and Eve ate the Knowledge Tree’s fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” Immediately after our first breath replicates the miracle of creation, the tragedy of transgression repeats itself. We open our eyes and realize we’re vulnerable. We start learning, filling our heads with facts and concepts. Inspiration loses ground to intellect. Trust gives way to doubt. But we weren’t created to see. God made us to be. As Martin so beautifully puts it, we vacate our minds to be what He inspires us to be, and we discipline our thoughts not to interfere. We live by faith, not by sight.

Peace and Purpose

Catching the Martin film over Pentecost weekend jogged my memory of the Bible’s second instance of divine inspiration. In John 20, despite Mary Magdalene’s news of Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples stay hunkered down behind locked doors, still trembling in fear of the hostile crowd that crucified their Master. It’s evening, hours after Mary’s tomb-side encounter, yet nothing has inspired faith in her report or courage to venture out and find Jesus. On the plus side, however, the disciples haven’t the slightest idea about what to do next. Their vacancy provides the perfect opportunity for inspiration. Jesus comes to them, unhindered by their padlocks. “Peace be with you!” He says, repeating it after He shows them His wounded hands and side and adding, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then, John writes, Jesus breathes on them, commanding them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” He literally inspires them.

Combining the Genesis story of God’s breath of life with John’s account of Jesus’s breath of the Holy Spirit opens a fascinating insight about inspiration. God’s breath inspires us to be and live; Jesus’s breath inspires us to believe. Circumstances beyond their control force the disciples to turn their backs to the world, disabling their natural logic and priming their unnatural faith. Prior to breathing on them, Jesus does one final sweep, as it were, to clear any lingering intellectual anxiety and indecisiveness. He speaks peace and purpose to their minds. “Stop worrying,” He says, “and start believing. If you believe the Father sent Me, believe I am sending you.” Knowing they’ll never drive back the onslaught of natural logic unaided, Jesus’s breath presages the filling of the Holy Spirit. It occupies the disciples, leaving no room for interference.

The Inspired Life

We experience, enjoy, and reap the benefits of the inspired life by shifting our focus from survival to being, trusting rather than seeing. We turn our backs to the world, rejecting its fears and logic in favor of embracing God’s peace and purpose. In 2 Timothy 1.7, we read: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” The inspiration of the Holy Spirit gives us power to evict fear, replace it with love, and discipline ourselves against negative reasoning that interferes with what God inspires us to do.

Following our minds limits us to what we visibly perceive; it feeds a survival mentality keyed to view everything as a potential threat. It’s a lousy way to go, though, because it hangs us up trying to figure out what’s really happening and leads nowhere God created us to be. Although Agnes Martin brilliantly clarifies “inspiration” in the abstract, she echoes concrete wisdom Solomon captured thousands of years ago: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3.5-6) God’s breath inspires us to acknowledge Him in every way. The breath of Christ inspires us to trust Him in lieu of understanding. God’s direction always looks hard and often turns out harder than it looks. But after Jesus speaks peace and purpose to our minds, we press on by faith, knowing if He sends us we’ll never go wrong.

Listen carefully to Agnes Martin’s approach to painting and you’ll hear an inspiring metaphor for faith. (Apologies for the poor sound/image synchronization—it’s the best clip I could find.)

(Tomorrow: Above All Else)

Postscript: Online Bible Study

Well, as they say, the people have spoken and the votes for when best to hold an online Bible study are (as they also say) too close to call. Thus, it makes the most sense to accommodate both sides. While I finalize the details of the host site, mark your calendars for either—or both—of these dates: Thursday, June 11, at 8 PM CDT and Saturday, June 13, at 11 AM CDT. Within the week, I’ll publish the site location and other pertinent information. By next week I hope to complete a brief study guide for those interested in thinking about the topic, reading the selected texts, etc., in advance.

Thanks to everyone who either voted or emailed their preferences. Your enthusiasm ensures this will be an exciting venture we’re sure to enjoy together.

Finally, of course, you’re all welcome to participate, whether or not you voted in the poll. The more the merrier! (As they say…)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Together in One Place

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.

Acts 2.1

The Season of Gladness

In Judaic tradition, the Feast of Pentecost is the last in a 50-day cycle of harvest celebrations. “The Festival of Weeks,” as it’s known, begins with the barley festival that concludes Passover and ends with Pentecost’s wheat festival (wheat being the last grain to ripen). The Torah prescribes several protocols for observing Pentecost, from altar dances to offering loaves of wheat bread. But the binding principle among them is Israel’s joy in having its own farmland. Leviticus 23.11 slates Pentecost for the day after the seventh Sabbath (i.e., Sunday) following Passover and occasions extra joy as the first day since Passover when Jews are permitted to add yeast to their bread. Hence, the Festival of Weeks’ gradual build-up to fully enjoying the fruits of harvest earns its popular title, “The Season of Gladness.”

This background gives us a vivid picture of what’s going on in Jerusalem when 120 followers of Jesus gather in a second-story room to pray and wait for the Holy Spirit. Like the Passover holiday, the city is jammed with foreigners bringing wheat offerings to the Temple. In contrast to Passover’s solemnity, the streets hum with excitement. Fifty days of subsisting on flat bread are finished; much like Christians’ high spirits on Easter—their rapture in its celebration of life and conclusion of Lent—Pentecost stirs Jews in profoundly emotional ways. Yet when this particular day of Pentecost comes, we don’t find Christ’s followers spread out, busily preparing for celebrations or milling among the masses. They’re together in one place, joined in expectancy. They don’t know when the Holy Spirit will come, how It will be manifested, or what it will do. All they know is Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until It comes, and they’re not leaving without It. By day’s end, their questions will be answered, the Church will be born, and they’ll harvest an astonishing 3,000 new believers, with more joining them every day thereafter. After 50 days of “flat” activity, they plunge into a Season of Gladness that has yet to end.

All Tongues for All People

The believers sit quietly, fending off street noise and other distractions as they pray and meditate. Then, suddenly, according to Acts 2.2, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” What appears to be fire falls and separates into individual flames that rest on each of them. They’re filled with the Holy Spirit, which enables them to speak in languages other than their native tongues. The explosion in the Upper Room halts the hubbub below. Like villagers rushing to a fire, crowds hurtle from every quarter to see what’s happened.

Luke’s account includes a detailed census of the observers’ nationalities, listing people from every corner of the known world—Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As they wedge themselves into the room, they’re astounded to hear this group of Galileans speaking in their diverse languages. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” they exclaim in Acts 2.11, asking one another what this means. In predictable fashion, some onlookers jeer at the believers, lamely trying to mask their lack of comprehension: “They’re drunk!” That’s when Peter, who just 50 days ago was too timid to admit knowing Jesus, boldly rises to the occasion. “They’re not drunk,” he tells them. “What you’re looking at is Joel’s prophecy: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’” (Acts 2.15-17) By empowering the believers to witness God’s wonders in all tongues, the Holy Spirit demonstrates Its availability to all people.

Unity Through Diversity

Today, Christians of every stripe commemorate Pentecost in a variety of ways. Roman Catholics and “high-church” Protestants vest their clergy and altars in vivid red symbolizing the fire that fell in the Upper Room. Evangelical believers rejoice in the birth of the Church and the power to witness. Pentecostals glory in the gift of tongues and other miraculous signs. And next week, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters will celebrate the Trinity in a ritual of hymns and readings. The wide spectrum of worship could not be more appropriate. If the Holy Spirit’s descent teaches us anything, it’s unity through diversity. God pours out His Spirit on all people. It rests on and speaks to each one personally, in language he/she understands. That by itself constitutes a miracle, though hardly the half of it, because the unique flame that lights each life comes from one Fire. The distinctive words we speak and messages we hear witness one Spirit.

We shouldn’t be surprised or troubled when others observe the Holy Spirit’s manifestation in us and jeer. Their cynicism only reveals inability to understand. Peter ends his Pentecost sermon with this: “The promise for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39) And whom does God call? In John 3.16, Jesus settles the issue of who can receive God’s grace once and for all: “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.” Whoever—that’s you, that’s me, that’s anyone with faith to trust God’s promise of reconciliation. He gives His Spirit to all people. It won’t be confined by manmade preconditions to receive this amazing gift. Wherever and whoever we are, whatever we believe, and however we worship, the Holy Spirit brings all of us back to the Upper Room. Its power holds us together in one place, plunged into an eternal Season of Gladness.

The Holy Spirit rests on and speaks to each of us individually, yet It unites us by Its power.

(Tomorrow: Inspiration)