Saturday, July 11, 2009

Crisis at Cana

“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied, “My time has not yet come.”

                        John 2.4

Our Living Example

We’re more apt to see Jesus as God than one of us. But one of His main purposes in taking on human flesh was to become human. The marvel of His sacrifice is seen in God’s lowering Himself to bear the sins of humanity. The wonder of His life, however, comes from His willingness to be born, to mature, and live an ordinary existence like ours. Philippians 2.8 explains it thusly: “[Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” As our living example, Jesus deals with situations we all deal with—family, friends, financial pressures, housing issues, social and religious obligations, prejudice, personal loss, emotional conflicts, etc. Indeed, Hebrews 4.15 tells us He was “tempted in every way, just as we are.”

We remember the wedding at Cana most notably as the occasion of His first miracle, when He turns water into wine—in other words, as a “God” moment. Yet the circumstances leading up to His feat also reveal a very human moment in His life—a turning point, actually. While running out of wine at a party hardly can be viewed as a crisis (it might even be a good thing, if the guests have been over-served), there is a crisis at Cana we can learn from.

Unanticipated Need

You know the story. Jesus and His disciples escort His mother to a wedding. Over the course of the festivities the wine stops flowing. This concerns Mary, most likely out of embarrassment for the hosts, who’ll be criticized for not sufficiently providing for their guests. She turns to her Son, telling Him, “They’ve run out of wine.” Today, of course, we’d volunteer to dash to the local liquor store and pick up a few bottles. In Jesus’s time, though, wine is a commodity, much like gold or fuel. It’s part of each household’s financial reserve and not readily available for purchase. This fact exacerbates the situation, because the hosts’ inadequate supply also exposes their lack of wealth. Mary wants Jesus to do something not to keep the party going, but to spare the kind people who invited them any undue humiliation. Their crisis leads to a personal crisis for Him.

“What am I supposed to do?” Jesus asks Mary. “You know my time hasn’t come yet.” I love this, because it suggests the intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary continues into His adulthood. He’s confided God’s plan for Him. She’s tracking the moment for Him to reveal His miraculous gifts. She knows her request is premature. But here we also see parental maturity in action. Mary’s aware not stepping in to show compassion for His hosts will be something her Son will regret. Adhering to a timeline takes second place behind ministering to unanticipated need. Despite Jesus’s reluctance, she instructs the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” She forces Jesus into a dilemma. Does He disrespect His mother in public—an added thing He’ll be ashamed of—or does He jump-start His ministry on His hosts’ behalf? He spies six 20-30 gallon jars ordinarily used for bathing and dishwashing. He orders the servants to fill them with water. When their contents are decanted, they’ve been transformed into fine wine. The guests are floored, the hosts proud, and both crises—theirs and Jesus’s—averted.

Ready or Not

So often we view Christian formation as a timetable akin to secular education. We regard spiritual development in gradual stages, thinking some expressions of faith are appropriate for us while others are too “advanced.” For example, we may be at a point where everyday kindness comes easily, but we’ve got much more growing to do before we can fully forgive deep-seated wrongs against us. This perspective is not wrong. In fact, it’s a wise approach to take, as some believers make the mistake of attempting too much, too soon. We’re counseled in 1 Peter 2.1, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Like my own mother often reminds new Christians, “Learn to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.”

During our growth, though, we also happen on unanticipated needs we feel inadequately mature to address. We find ourselves facing a crisis at Cana. Our initial response may echo Jesus’s. “What am I supposed to do? My time hasn’t come.” Yet not doing what we can risks regret for having done nothing at all. Ready or not, we respond by faith, knowing the impossible for us permits God to prove what’s possible for Him. Forget presentation. All Jesus had to work with were kitchen jars. The immediate need left no time to impress the guests with fancy packaging. The pivotal moment comes at the story’s end.: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (John 2.11) Cana crises can be intimidating. But if we rise to the need, God honors our willingness to serve. His glory is revealed in us, encouraging others to trust our witness.

We may not feel ready for what we’re asked to do, but God honors our willingness and reveals His glory in us. (Giusto de’ Manaboui: Marriage at Cana: 1376-78)

(Tomorrow: Stripes)

Friday, July 10, 2009

They Think We're Strange

They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.

                        1 Peter 4.4 

Cognitive Dissonance

"Cognitive dissonance” describes uneasiness caused by simultaneously conflicting ideas. Sometimes, it’s easily dismissed as baseless, as in hearing a person smeared with icing claim he hates cake. But more often it occurs when trying to process contradictory stereotypes. Arenas of faith are sites where cognitive dissonance regularly occurs, chiefly because they’re breeding grounds for stereotypes. They nurture—sometimes demand—conformity of those who ascribe to their beliefs. The believer who embraces his/her faith yet doesn’t fully conform to its dogma or politics triggers cognitive dissonance. Try these on for size: “liberal Fundamentalist,” “pro-choice Catholic,” “Baptist Darwinian,” “right-wing Unitarian,” “gay Christian.” The welding of two presumably opposed identities throws everyone, those within the given faith community as well as onlookers who typecast its members as “all of a kind.”

Generally, people handle cognitively dissonant professions of faith politely. After being startled, they may ask a question or two and move on. The lion’s share of opposition comes from those who adhere to one of the two identifiers. They tend to protest the believer’s claim as though it were an affront to their personal faith or way of life. “How can you say that?” is the most typical response from devout Christians and devoutly non-religious gay people when I say I’m a gay Christian. Their reactions make sense. Since Adam and Eve first tasted the difference between right and wrong, we’ve had to choose between them. We define our lives as much by what we find wrong in others as what’s right for us. Yet our integrity depends on withstanding pressure to conform to another’s lifestyle or beliefs and pleasing God, regardless how strange the path He leads us down may seem.


Integrity is top of mind in Peter’s first epistle. Written with unswerving pastoral authority, Peter’s letter, though rich in spiritual truth, is less a theological treatise than a “how-to” guide. It speaks frankly (if somewhat floridly) to situations all Christians face—practical holiness and domestic relationships, for instance. Throughout, it sounds one note: live with integrity. In chapter 4, it focuses on the believer’s challenge to forsake sin while remaining in the sinful environment he/she has always known. Peter starts by counseling us to identify wholly with Christ’s suffering to overcome sin, “because he who has suffered in the body is done with sin.” (1 Peter 4.1) 

Your past as non-believers taught you what they do, he says in verse 3, giving a few examples—“living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” Now that you’re done with all that, he says, those around you “think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.” Don’t worry about what they say, he advises. Leave them for God to judge. Instead, in verse 7, he reminds us to live every day as if it were the last: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” He proceeds to encourage us to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (v8) and to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (v9) Maintaining integrity with clear thinking and discipline enables us to pray for those who criticize us. We continue to love them, overlooking their faults, and we open our doors to them without complaint.

Working It Out

“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose,” we’re told in Philippians 2.12-13. Our Christian walk is an intensely personal conversation between Jesus and us. He alone knows the precise path we should follow. As our faith grows, every day finds us working it out to better please Him. For many of us, this entails breaking with several crowds—groups that promote unhealthy, fear-based beliefs as well as those indulging in destructive attitudes and practices. We can’t expect them to agree with us or leave us to find our way without a concerted effort to pull us back to their ideas and behaviors. But we’re done with that. It’s understandable that they think we’re strange. Many will scorn us. Many will press us to be “normal.” Many will avoid us entirely. God will deal with them. We must remain clear-headed, self-controlled, prayerful, loving, and hospitable. This probably won’t make them happy, but it pleases God. 

When we don’t conform to stereotypes and expectations, people think we’re strange. But our integrity depends entirely on what God thinks.

(Tomorrow: Crisis at Cana)

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

                        Acts 3.19

Better Balance

Guided by the best intentions—bringing others into the knowledge and grace of Christ—the fire-and-brimstone crowd has inadvertently created a dilemma. Its vitriolic attacks on wrongdoing and prophecies of doom have turned sin and judgment into taboo topics. This is particularly true for believers whose witness glories in God’s love and acceptance. Due to concerns about alienating those around us, our message and portrayal of Christ verge toward the Pollyanna: “Happy! Happy! Happy!” (My partner calls this “cheerleading for God.”) And, honestly, one approach can be just as tough to stomach as its alternative, because both are too much of a good thing.

Both should calibrate their messages for better balance. A condemning gospel diminishes the love that compelled God to sacrifice Himself for our eternal life. On the other hand, an inclusive gospel shouldn’t be misrepresented as “anything goes;” its essence is “everyone can.” Sin and repentance are central to both, as are mercy and forgiveness. In Acts 3.19, Peter strikes a perfect balance, one all believers should embrace and express. “Repent and turn to God,” he says, “so your sins will be erased and refreshment [or renewal] will come from the Lord.” He beautifully weaves condemning and inclusive gospels into one thread by trimming their excess. There’s no threat of punishment, neither is there a blindly enthusiastic “join-the-club” sentiment. Potential judgment and unconditional pardon are subtly balanced to present a gospel of refreshment. That’s good news for all, because no one is immune to the weariness of life. More than ever, it's a gospel we need.

Lost in the Stacks

Marvels of technology quickly lose their luster, turning into liabilities by burdening our lives with inconvenient conveniences. Nearly every gizmo touted to improve efficiency bogs us down. Connectivity via speed-dial, mouse-click, and send-button steals private time for rest and contemplation—the two components of renewal. And in the rare moments we do find to shut everything down, it’s close to impossible to shut everything out. Clearing our hearts and replenishing our spirits have become major projects. We’ve crammed them with more freight than they can bear and have no time to sort through what we think and feel.

Our overstuffed lives have desensitized us to sinful tendencies lost in the stacks of what we’re doing, should be doing, haven’t finished, haven’t started, prefer doing, can’t avoid, and won't do. If only we could sacrifice some doing time to sifting time, we’d uncover a wide variety of faults that weigh us down: anxieties, resentments, compromises, prejudices, neglect, etc. It’s an ugly list that goes on for days. Repentance—forsaking sin to accept forgiveness—efficiently thins the piles. It gives us room to breathe and time to reflect. It refreshes us. 

The Urge to Purge

Although technology now piles on clutter at unprecedented rates, accumulation has always been a problem for us. Our troubles started in the Garden, trying to fill our heads with more knowledge than we could manage. It’s been that way ever since. Thankfully, along with our pack-rat traits, God also endowed us with the urge to purge. Sin and folderol can only pile so high before we say, “Enough! Something’s got to go.” We find David, a cluttered life if there ever was one, at this place in Psalm 51, where he prays, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing a spirit, to sustain me.” (v10, 12) How wise of him to ask for a willing spirit! Without willingness, the urge to purge passes swiftly, pushed aside by the delusion lugging around unnecessary guilt and distraction is easier than thinning the piles. Willingness to repent is the first step to restoration of joy.

Should it surprise us purging unhealthy ideas and harmful impulses retrieves lost time? No gadget we’ll ever own or invent will match efficiencies gained by wiping out sin. Hours wasted on futile activities and vain pursuits we now spend taking Jesus up on His offer: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.28-30) This is Christ’s gospel of refreshment. He gives us rest. We trade our heavy burdens for the lightness of His. We extract ourselves from conveniences that complicate our lives and take on the easy yoke of His discipline. There’s more to the gospel than escaping wrath, more to it than accessing grace. The gospel restores. It renews. It refreshes.

More than ever, we need the gospel of refreshment.

(Tomorrow: They Think We’re Strange)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Enter Laughing

So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

                        Genesis 18.12 

Midlife Changes

The other morning I found myself transfixed by a little-known movie called Bigger Than Life (1956). James Mason plays a teacher diagnosed with arterial inflammation and given weeks to live. He consents to experimental treatment with cortisone, a new human steroid with miraculous powers. It helps his condition, but warps his mind. He becomes egomaniacal and scathingly abusive to his wife and young son. I couldn’t believe it—a 50’s film about ‘roid rage! As the picture went on, I detected Old Testament shades of Abraham I couldn’t pin down. Other than centering on husbands whose unexpected midlife changes turn their lives upside down, the stories had nothing in common. Then, at Bigger Than Life’s climax, the connection fixes itself. Without spoiling the end, it defines Mason’s character as an anti-Abraham, a modest man monstrously bent on destroying his family by a drug-induced God complex. While the film doesn’t exact retribution for this, it finishes on a tragic note. The ordeal changes his gentle wife into a suspicious, snappish mate. Afterward, my mind kept drifting to this woman, comparing her to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. While she faces realities of her husband’s protracted withdrawal and likelihood he’ll never return to himself, Sarah’s midlife change is so unrealistic, merely thinking about it makes her laugh.


Abraham’s faith and obedience afford him such towering presence it’s easy to forget Sarah’s an enthralling character in her own right. While his tale brims with adventure, disappointments riddle her story. She’s unable to bear children. Married into a family of restless men, she never settles in one place for very long. Early on, she joins Abraham as he, his father, and his nephew, Lot, leave home for Canaan, a rich and lovely land. Alas, that doesn’t work out. The father takes a liking to a community en route to Canaan and the couple ends up growing into middle-aged prosperity there. Then Abraham announces God’s sending them to Canaan, where he’ll father a nation to inherit the land. The wildest imagination can’t conceive Sarah greeting this with “That’s great, honey! When do we leave?”

Canaan amounts to one disappointment after another. With Lot tagging along, the couple futilely searches for a place to live. Famine drives them to Egypt, where Pharaoh, smitten with Sarah, kidnaps her and Abraham steals her back. Lot relocates near Sodom, gets in trouble with the king, risks his family’s safety, and loses his wife in a firestorm of wrath. One of Sarah’s maids bears Abraham’s son, humiliating her and creating problems in her marriage. Year after year, crisis after crisis, she must wonder, “How long can this drag on? Where’s this nation?” Yet despite the letdowns and dead ends, she stays true to Abraham, trusting him as he trusts God. So far, she’s not been asked to believe for herself. That changes when she overhears Abraham talking to three strangers in their garden. Unaware they’re divine messengers, she hears this: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” The notion is too nuts to entertain. She’s never been able to conceive and even if she had, she’s long past menopause. So Sarah laughs and puts it out of her mind—until she gets pregnant with Isaac.

Promises, Promises

We might chastise Sarah for giggling at God’s promise were it not for its whopping size and her integrity as a faithful wife. Having lived on promises for decades, it’s completely understandable another one—especially one so preposterously over-the-top about her—would trigger laughter. There are many colors in that laugh, though, a subtle mingling of incredulity, surprise, fatigue, absurdity, confusion, worry, and anxiety. Those last two aspects are particularly poignant, as they reflect Sarah’s care for Abraham. While she tries to dismiss the promise as beyond belief, she knows he accepts it full-bore. He’ll expect what she’s physically unable to do. After supporting him without pause, she’s been set up to let him down. Her laughter masks nervous questions she prefers not to ask: Why me? Why this? Why now? Why not sooner? She walks away before the messenger asks the one question worth considering: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18.14)

Can you feel Sarah? So often life feels strung out on promises, promises. What we most hope for falls beyond our grasp. Before we settle down to enjoy some stability, we’re swept up by unanticipated pursuits. We get captivated by new admirers and tugged away by old ones. People we take into our hearts repay us by falling into trouble or taunting our inadequacies. We’re faithful to a fault, yet the more we give, the more absurd expectations get. And when God shows up with a whopper, promising success where we’ve always failed, it sounds like more the same, tempting us to laugh and walk away. But we should hang around, because He has a question. Is there anything too hard for Me? Those are His promises we trust. His plan guides us. What’s inconceivable for us is laughable to Him. If God’s opening closed doors for us, why laugh and walk away, when we can enter laughing?

We can laugh at God’s promises because they're impossible for us or laugh because nothing's impossible for Him.

(Tomorrow: Refreshment)  

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Cursers, Haters, and Users

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

                        Matthew 5.44 (KJV) 

A Rogue’s Gallery

While early manuscripts of Matthew 5.44 simply read, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” later transcriptions present a rogue’s gallery of cursers, haters, and users. The King James Version opted for the amplified script, possibly since it spoke to the dynamics of its day. Nearly a century after Henry VIII broke with Rome, England continued reeling with change. Volatile controversies about the morality of divorce and remarriage, the monarch’s religious supremacy, the priest’s role in society, and so on assumed major significance in English lives, pitting brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Each side recklessly condemned the other to Hell, stoked angry fires of animosity, and conspired to strip its enemies of civil rights and social dignity. The expanded version no doubt resonated with King James readers, who by now had grown weary of the conflict (as had their opponents) and sorely needed guidance about responding to curses, hatred, and abuse.

And so it is today. We’re nearly a century into ceaseless tension between Christian conservatives and liberals, with one side fighting ferociously to preserve traditional values while the other fights with equal ferocity for reform in keeping with rapid social shifts. In just under 90 years, our culture has been obliged to absorb staggering changes. The list runs too long to enumerate here. But noting a handful of the issues dramatizes the rest: Darwinism, anti-discrimination, abortion, family structure, privacy, sexuality, and moral accountability. Those at both extremes of the divide stand guilty of curses, hatred, and mutually spiteful use to advance their agendas. As with Tudor England, it’s inevitably crept into private life. It’s personal. It matters. It’s exhausting. And it hurts.

The Easy Way Out

Injuries we inflict on one another invite us to take the easy way out—to play victim when the posture serves our purpose. Yet before displaying our wounds, let’s ask why Jesus corrects our responses to adversaries rather than their error. It’s not about them. It’s about us, and like so much of Christ’s teaching, its wisdom deftly emerges in what’s unsaid as well as spoken. Loving our enemies not only exemplifies His principles; it keeps us out of the rogue’s gallery. And let’s face it: whether aggressively confronting those who curse, hate, and use us, or trying to shame them with suffering they cause, we’re taking a roguish stance. It’s unbecoming to us and inconsistent with our Christian claim. Furthermore, Romans 3.1-8 debunks the fallacy that the ends justify the means, which most often is how we rationalize engaging hostility with hostility.

It’s déjà vu all over again. The argument boils down to the same accessibility issues we grapple with today. In the Church’s infancy, Jewish traditionalists dominate its ranks with many leaders preaching reconciliation through Christ as an exclusively Hebrew right. Paul, the champion of Gentile inclusion, vigorously discourages this doctrine. His letter to the Romans mainly assures them they’re equally welcome to God’s forgiveness and grace. Yet he sets up his teaching with a striking question: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (v1) His answer is firm: “[There’s] much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” (v2) For the sake of argument, he says, suppose their actions contradict their faith. Does that permit us to condemn them in like manner? “Certainly not!” Paul says in verse 6. “If that were so, how could God judge the world?” Condemning others for wrongfully condemning us ends in the same sin. Those believing it’s justifiable to “do evil that good may result” deserve condemnation, Paul concludes. (v8) What did Jesus say—minutes after teaching love for enemies, in fact? Oh, yes: “Judge not, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” (Matthew 7.1-2)

Transformed Victims

We who embrace Christ’s gospel of inclusion have either felt the vicious stings of cursers, haters, and users or grieved the agony they inflict. We’ve experienced and witnessed their lethal effects. Outraged compulsion to fight back is merited. It’s also misguided, bowing to a subordinate mindset of victimization and empowering evil with undue influence. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law,” we hear in 1 Corinthians 15.56. Merciless gestures and judgments intend to kill and destroy. “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” verse 57 proclaims.

Christ transforms victims into victors. Approaching enemies from victory’s vantage enables us to return blessings for curses, goodness for hatred, and prayer for ill use. Similar to Paul’s charity for his opponents, we respect traditions and beliefs that lead many astray. Our charity goes as far as extending to souls whose inner rage and despair drive them to violence and cruelty. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10.10) Fighting evil with evil, even for a good cause, is a losing proposition, a victim’s ploy. It’s inexcusable. Especially since victory through Christ privileges us to answer deadly attacks with fullness of life.

Loving our enemies is a privilege that benefits us.

(Tomorrow: Enter Laughing)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Parallel Paths

Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

                        Mark 8.35

On Loan

A big part of my family’s Southern heritage was love of gospel quartets. From time to time, a church would host an all-night “singing,” a showcase of well-known quartets that went on into the wee hours. “Until Then,” a standard in every repertoire, was one of my favorite tunes, even though I was far too young to understand it fully. It spoke of life’s fleeting succession of trials and tests “until the day God calls [us] home.” Over the years, chunks of the lyrics have vanished. Yet one phrase bobs up any time I get too focused on possessions and security. “The things of earth will dim and lose their value,” the song says. “If we recall, they’re borrowed for a while.” It hits me like a ton of bricks. All I have now or ever will have is on loan. It will come. It will go. Its value will rise and fall. But it’s only “mine” for the moment, borrowed for a while. When I’m gone, my holdings and savings will be loaned to someone else.

Fears of Losing

This frame of thought becomes essential to understand one of Jesus’s most intimidating challenges. And the situation it arises out of confirms it comes from His impatience with fears of losing what we have. Jesus asks the disciples Who they think He is. After they hem and haw, He puts the question to Peter, who answers, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8.29) With that, Jesus plainly details what He’s facing—hardships, rejection, execution, and resurrection. Peter, perhaps still heady from his confession, pulls Jesus aside and takes Him to task. We’re not privy to their conversation, but it’s safe to assume Peter asks if the Lord knows what He’s saying, something like “These people have invested a lot of trust in You. Now You say the authorities are going to target and kill You? Where will that leave them? They’ve got homes and families and futures to consider.” Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (v33)

Jesus calls a crowd to join them and issues this mandate: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life [or, “soul”] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (v34-35) Before anyone presses for further explanation, He asks two questions that capture His meaning. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (v36-37) Now, let’s step into Peter’s sandals. We’ve just confessed Jesus is the Christ—God Incarnate, Creator and Ruler of all things. The matter takes a sudden turn, shifting Jesus’s question from how much we can give to what’s ours to give. Our material possessions, plans, and hopes already belong to Him. Nothing we “own” is really ours. Either we place our trust in borrowed goods at the expense of the only thing we brought into and will take out of the world—our souls—or we surrender misplaced confidence in what’s not ours to begin with to secure what is. Jesus isn’t telling us to put our homes on the market, have a yard sale, and hit the road as roving disciples. He’s saying we should get our minds off temporary things of men and concentrate on eternal things of God.


He tells a story in Luke 12 that gets to the crux of this issue. A rich farmer has a phenomenally successful harvest. He looks at his silos, sees they’re inadequate to store his crops, and decides to tear them down to build bigger ones. Once that’s done, he’ll be set for years to come. He says, “I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” (v19) Before he can even call an architect, however, his “until then” moment arrives. God calls, saying, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v20) Jesus wraps up His parable by cautioning us not to worry about sustaining our natural lives or protecting our physical bodies. “God will take care of you just as He takes care of the rest of nature,” He says. Instead, we should invest in our soul’s welfare, amassing “a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v33-34)

Every believer’s life travels parallel paths. One follows natural progress. We live and learn and work hard to grow and prosper. The other follows Christ’s unnatural ways. We look beyond the literal to see the real. We trust what He's promised rather than mistake what we've borrowed as something we’ve earned. And though we prosper, we don’t place pride and security in earthly treasures loaned to us. We know these things are temporary and the trail leading to them comes to a halt. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” Proverbs 14.12 says, “but in the end it leads to death.” The soul’s path is the endless road. In Psalm 139.24, David beseeches God to “see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” That’s the path we want to travel. That’s the one that guides us to lose what’s not ours to begin with to save what will stay with us forever.

Our lives travel parallel paths, one finite and one eternal.

(Tomorrow: Cursers, Haters, and Users)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Spiritual Healthcare

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

                        Proverbs 17.22 

Who’s In Charge?

How do you feel? Are you the master of your emotions, or are they running the show? These are questions we should ask ourselves often, because who’s in charge of our feelings is directly responsible for our mental, spiritual, and—often—physical health. Feelings are like TV color controls. Everything we see and learn streams through their filters. If our emotions run “hot,” the picture becomes too vivid and pulls each detail into the foreground. If they run “cold,” everything recedes and we grow indifferent. None of what we see is accurate or trustworthy.

We recently popped in Burn Before Reading, the Coen Brothers’ throwaway comedy, unaware our DVD player had gone on the fritz. Barely into the first scene, I said, “What’s with the pink-and-green production design?” We assumed it was another of the Brothers’ eccentric touches. A half-hour later, Walt said, “I still don’t get the color scheme.” We spent the rest of the picture hatching theories. It ended and I said, “Well, that made no sense.” Not until learning the player’s color was off did we realize we wasted 96 minutes in search of meaning that wasn’t there. The same thing happens when our emotions take charge. They corrupt vision, raise meaningless questions, alter perceptions, and waste time. So who’s in charge? How do you feel?

Facing the Day

Everyone on any given day has reasons for not feeling so hot. If everything’s going well—and, really, how often does everything run in optimal condition?—we still carry past regrets and future anxieties. Facing the day takes heart, because much of what transpires during the day rests outside our control. A perfect morning is no guarantee of a glorious evening. In John 16.33, Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” The King James Version translates “take heart” as “be of good cheer,” a phrase Christ uses several other times to assure the disciples He’s with them. “Be of good cheer,” He says in Matthew 14.27. “It is I; be not afraid.”

Thus, when we hear Solomon advise, “A cheerful heart is good medicine,” we understand he’s not talking about cockeyed optimism. He’s speaking about confidence, a relentless rejection of fear based on knowing we are not alone. Whether we rise to a day looming with trouble or we wake in paradise that collapses into living hell by day’s end—or if it ends as splendidly as it began—with a cheerful heart in charge of our emotions, we can rest knowing, good or bad, the One Who triumphed over the world remains beside us.


Like all matters of faith, this is far easier to say than accept, let alone practice. Spiritual healthcare requires the same discipline we apply to maintaining physical health. Just as we comply with doctor’s orders taking our medicine, watching our diet, and exercising as he/she instructs, we should conscientiously comply with Proverbs’ direction. We nurture a cheerful heart by guarding our thoughts. Philippians 4.8 offers comprehensive counsel about how we should think: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” In the verses prior to this prescription, we’re told to rejoice always, be gentle, and avoid anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and with thanks, make our requests known to God. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (v7)

How we feel is how we think. If we allow our emotions to govern us, we’ll lead erratic, storm-tossed lives that rob us of persistent joy. They leave us out there, flapping in the wind on our own. They crush us until we’re dried out and lifeless. But if we’re compliant and follow the directions we’ve been given, we’ll remain of good cheer. Fearful symptoms will fade. Loneliness will be a thing of the past. They say laughter is the best medicine, but it isn’t always appropriate or even possible. A cheerful heart, however, always works and is never out of order. That's how we feel.

A daily dose of right thoughts will maintain a cheerful heart.

(Tomorrow: Parallel Paths)