Saturday, August 8, 2009

Vertically Challenged

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

                        Colossians 3.2

The “Cathedral” Dilemma

A friend and I were talking the other night about something I call the “Cathedral” dilemma, named for Crosby, Stills & Nash’s song about the stark contrasts between Christ’s teaching and Christians’ behavior. My friend confessed total faith in God, but he added, “I still have questions.” He went on for a few minutes about his difficulty in reconciling his faith with a lot of people and organizations professing the same beliefs. “Look at the people they’ve hurt, the wars they’ve started, and the power they’ve abused. How can that be?” The “Cathedral” lyrics capture this disillusionment at its height: “Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here! Too many people have lied in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call. So many people have died in the name of Christ that I can’t believe it all.” 

Tragically, the song can fire these salvos without qualification because a plethora of quantifiable evidence backs them up. The Church has become its own worst enemy by historically buckling under temptation to manipulate Christ’s truth for its purposes. “How can that be?” It’s fairly obvious. The Church is made of (and run by) people. It’s a holy place and God’s dwelling. But it’s also as vulnerable to sin as any other human institution and its dilemma over this won’t be resolved until Christ’s return. But each of us can resolve our personal “Cathedral” dilemmas here and now, simply by reorienting our perceptions.

Up, Not Out

We find the answer to retaining faith in the invisible despite visibly prevalent Christian dysfunction in Colossians 3.2: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” True and earnest believers look up, not out. They align their thoughts on the vertical axis of God’s love and grace. The horizontal axis—human accomplishment and failure—remains visibly real, yet its influence on their confidence in their Creator or the truth of His principles is non-existent. Vertically minded believers are attuned to God’s voice; they read His Word, meditate on His principles, and pray for His guidance in order to receive what He says specifically to them about their lives and circumstances. Horizontal clamor about entitlement and exclusion, right and wrong, values and vengeance swirls around vertically minded believers constantly. But it never gets to them.

Psalm 1.1-3 provides a superb portrait of the vertically minded believer: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” When we set our minds on things above, not on earthly things, we stand tall and strong. We lead productive, prosperous lives. The psalmist goes on to say this isn’t so for horizontally minded people. He compares them to chaff blowing across the landscape. They go where the wind takes them. That’s why they’re so regularly swept up by harmful attitudes and endeavors that bear no resemblance to Jesus’s teaching and example. Paul paints an indelible picture of horizontally minded individuals as “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4.14) Vertically minded believers stay put. Horizontally oriented ones flit and flounder.

On the Up and Up

We consciously decide to reorient our perceptions from horizontal to vertical, to define our faith by our trust in God rather than the travesties of His people. Blaming Him for their failures isn’t just or accurate. Neither is it practical. Withholding commitment to Christ because others do great harm in His name only stifles our spiritual growth. It doesn’t change anyone or anything else for the better. Has anyone ever stopped a holy war or ended religious bigotry by forsaking God? Because so much horizontal disobedience is on the loose gives us every reason to plant ourselves vertically. Because religious malpractice runs amok is why we stand firm in our faith. Those who say they want to believe but can’t for the suffering caused by other believers are foolish. Though they pose as victims of “organized religion,” they volunteer for its abuses. They allow what they resist to drive them from what they seek.

If only for its pragmatic merits, deciding to live uprightly should be a no-brainer. Why blow through life like chaff on the wind when we can grow strong and tall in our faith? Yet deciding and doing are radically different. The first comes easily. The second requires tremendous effort, because our inherited weakness for disobedience makes all of us vertically challenged. Onerous grudges and disappointments, sins of pride and stubbornness, and innumerable other burdens tug at us. This is why Colossians urges us to set our minds on things above. We anchor our confidence in God’s unconditional love and acceptance. As a late pastor always reminded us, we have to “know that you know that you know.” Hebrews 12.1-2 puts it like this: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles… Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Staying on the up and up means always and forever looking up.

Looking up keeps us vertically aligned.

(Tomorrow: Hallelu Yah)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Put Your Sword Away!

Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

                        John 18.11

Mossy and Out of Touch

Peter’s been on my mind lately—not the scruffy disciple or the bold Apostle, but the one in between, the Peter who joins Jesus for dinner on a Thursday evening that kicks off the worst weekend of his life. A plan is place and everything’s going accordingly. But it’s not Peter’s plan, nor one he’s privy to. This vexes him. He’s always been The Guy in Jesus’s ministry—the one who pays the bills, screens the appointments, and asks the questions. Christ calls him “The Rock,” for goodness sake, and when it seems Peter’s never been needed more, he doesn’t know how to help. At every juncture, his compulsion to do something gets him in trouble. The Rock looks a little mossy and out of touch right through here.

It starts over dinner, when Peter recoils from Jesus’s offer to wash his feet. His counteroffer to wash Jesus’s feet gets him told he doesn’t know what’s going on. Before leaving the table, it’s clear nothing can be the same. Judas storms out and Christ mentions He’s leaving them very soon. This is news to Peter. “Where are you going?” he asks. Jesus won’t tell, other than it’s nowhere Peter can go. He asks the Lord, “Why not? I’ll die for you.” In his mind, Jesus must be headed into danger He wants to keep from the disciples. “Really? You’d give your life for me?” Jesus asks. “Before sun-up you’ll deny even knowing me three times.”

Double Vision

What a wreck Peter is. Everything he suggests gets vetoed. He’s desperate to know what he can do; Jesus keeps telling him what he can’t do. After-dinner conversation goes on a long time. (John transcribes five chapters’ worth.) While Peter listens for answers, Jesus’s statements grow harder to decipher. By the time everyone repairs to Gethsemane for evening prayers, Peter’s beside himself. He feels shoved aside with no idea what’s next. Jesus indicates He’s taking a passive stance about His situation and the volatile cocktail of loyalty, confusion, and panic brewing in Peter creates double vision. His focus on obedience to Christ blurs into his impression no one’s in control. When he should let God’s plan run its course, he insists on inserting himself into the process. When he should be the epitome of trust and calm, he’s apprehensive and jumpy. When he should act and think soberly, his rash behavior looks drunk and disorderly.

Jesus parts company with the disciples to speak privately with His Father. Peter, who just an hour or two earlier begged to follow Jesus, doesn’t think to find a spot within earshot of Christ. He hangs back with the others. What happened to all that curiosity and concern? After Jesus prays, He returns to find Peter, like the others, sleeping like a rock. He directs His disappointment at Peter: “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26.40) Within minutes, the garden swarms with soldiers and officials looking for Jesus. As Jesus surrenders, Peter slowly wakes up to what’s taking place and decides to seize control. He draws his sword on a servant of the high priest and slices off the man’s ear. “Put your sword away!” Jesus scolds. “Don’t you know this is supposed to happen?” These are Jesus’s last words to Peter before He dies.

Lose Control

It’s easy to forget how we follow Jesus differs from how Peter followed Him in only one respect: Christ’s physical presence. On one level that’s an enormous difference, but on the level that counts it’s immaterial. How Jesus taught them to believe and behave is how He teaches us to believe and behave. And while having Christ in the flesh gave them uncommon advantage, we have an advantage they didn’t: we can learn from their mistakes. Peter’s frustration with unanswered questions, feeling shut out, and compulsive need to take control may be understandable, but they’re inexcusable. Hadn’t he followed Christ long enough to know he wasn’t in charge? Couldn’t he see he needed Jesus more than Jesus needed him? How could he mistake his compulsion to save Christ with his desire to serve Him?

We periodically enter benign, predictable situations—a Thursday evening dinner with friends, say—that lurch into life-changing events. We don’t understand what’s going on. We feel underappreciated and ignored. Anything we say is the wrong thing to say. In our confused panic, we ignore opportunities to understand things more clearly. Instead of positioning ourselves with earshot of what Jesus says, we hang back and doze off. When we come around, our worst fears stand before us. We draw weapons and slice into our problems, thinking it’s time to do something. But rash efforts to take control only contribute to the chaos. Christ commands us, “Put your sword away! Don’t you know this is supposed to happen?” We learn from Peter. We listen to Christ. We don’t take control for our sake. We lose control for His.

Our compulsion to take control creates chaos. Losing control for Christ’s sake creates clarity. (Sadao Watanabe: Peter Cut Ear of Soldier; 1963)

(Tomorrow: Vertically Challenged)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

God Smiles

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.

                        Numbers 6.24-26 

The Prize of Belonging

Is there any feeling finer than delight in bringing an enormous smile to someone’s face? There are many as fine, but I’m not sure there’s one better. Giving joy repays joy. It’s a marvelous, hard-wired quid pro quo we’re intuitively aware of soon after birth. What’s more, cognizance of the smile’s ability to transfer joy isn’t limited to us. Many primates share smiles and some—Chimpanzees, most famously—exchange smiles with us. Turning this around, is there a feeling more dispiriting than what comes from eliciting a weak smile? It just clobbers us with condescension and slaps us with failure. Put bluntly, a weak smile makes us feel stupid, as though we’ve foolishly waded out beyond our depth, overestimating our ability to swim with the big fish.

A big smile rewards us with pleasure because it’s involuntary; it bypasses the conscious mind and connects being to being. A weak smile smarts because it’s voluntary, a cruel, personality-based ploy to intimidate. But there is one voluntary smile we treasure for its unmistakable pleasure and joy. There’s nothing weak or condescending about this smile because it’s volunteered in absolute strength and unmerited favor. Most of all, we cherish this smile because it conveys pride of ownership. It’s the ultimate prize of belonging.

Aaron’s Blessing

Numbers 6 largely concerns itself with establishing the Nazrites, a Hebrew monastic order of men and women who take vows of separation and abide by stringent personal standards. After God instructs Moses to announce the inception of the Nazrite community, He dictates a priestly blessing for all of His people: “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’” (Numbers 6.22-27) The benediction, often called “Aaron’s Blessing,” would lose none of its beauty had God bestowed it at any other time and place. In this context, however, it acquires stunning magnificence for God’s abrupt shift of attention from His selected few to His elected many.

As Moses goes on about God calling an elite class from the rank and file, what must most Israelites be thinking? Interest is probably high at first. But with each new restriction—no alcohol, no haircuts, no contact with dead bodies (including immediate family), and a finely detailed induction protocol—the recruit pool shrinks. It doesn’t take long before the chance to make God smile turns into perceiving the sting of His weak smile: We’re not good enough. He wants somebody else. Infinite wisdom alerts God to the sense of exclusion enveloping the congregation. So He issues an addendum to reassure all of His people they belong to Him. In verse 27, He tells Moses to relay Aaron’s Blessing to the priests “so they will put my name on the Israelites.” While a few opt to take the Nazrite name, God gives the whole of Israel His name. And here’s the final twist. Once He tells the Nazrites what He expects of them, He tells Israel what to expect of Him. What first seems like a weak, condescending smile bursts into beaming pride and acceptance. God smiles and Israel smiles back.

Ahead in the Long Run

God spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Nazrites—nearly 20:1 compared to Aaron’s Blessing—but Israel comes out ahead in long run. He repeatedly calls the Nazrites for consecration “to the LORD,” referring to Himself in the same way every time. In the blessing’s original Hebrew, though, He subtly changes inflection with each mention of His name, implying three distinct identities contained in one complete Being. Christian theologians avidly embrace this as a precursor to the Trinity: the Father (our Keeper), the Son (our Grace), and the Holy Spirit (our Peace). It’s a fascinating idea. But even so, I find the first half of each blessing all the more intriguing. God chooses to bless us; He voluntarily sees to our happiness. God makes His face shine; He voluntarily smiles at us. God turns toward us; He voluntarily comforts us.

Ephesians 1.3-4 reads: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Even considering how we begin to earn God’s blessings, make Him smile, or gain His attention already puts us behind. He’s way ahead of us. He has blessed us with every blessing. He chose us long, long ago—before the world was made. Because He selects some for special callings doesn’t mean the rest aren’t important. Because a few devote their lives to certain expectations doesn’t mean those who don’t aren’t worthy. None of us is better than the rest. As equals, we share equal responsibility to be holy and blameless in His sight. Denomination and dogma have nothing to do with identity. God has blessed us to put His name on us. We all belong to Him. For that reason alone, God smiles.

God smiles at us and we smile back. His smile is the ultimate prize of belonging.

(Tomorrow: Put Your Sword Away!)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let It Be

The God of peace be with you all. Amen.

                        Romans 15.33 


The Apostles didn’t always see eye-to-eye. The Acts of the Apostles and references to conflict in several epistles attest to this. Beyond their commitment to Christ, though, one of the finer qualities they shared was their irrepressible kindness as well-wishers. From Romans to Revelation, New Testament writers repeatedly, almost compulsively, bless their readers. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” or its variation appears over 25 times in letters from Paul, Peter, John, the Hebrews author, and John of Patmos. Other salutations wish readers peace, love, health, and prosperity.

We’d breeze by these phrases as letter-writing formalities were it not for two things. First, while most common in the epistles’ greetings and closing lines, they’re not confined to them. They often surface after dense passages or rushes of admonition. Second, “Amen” follows many of these expressions. Again, we’d view this as a convention if it weren’t for “Amen’s” meaning. Before our liturgies affixed it to recited creeds, transitions, and prayers, “Amen” held more weight. The Early Church enthusiastically adapted the Hebrew adverb “truly” as its imperative declaration, “Let it be.” Thus, “Amen” surpassed ritual utterance or, at the other end of the spectrum, boisterous approval. It turned wishes into prayers.

The “Amen” Tag

The “Amen” tag attached to “The God of peace be with you all,” adds gravity to Romans 15.33. Ending the letter’s general content in this way suggests Paul precisely chooses these words for this audience. Since he habitually closes every other letter with a blessing of grace, we’ve every reason to think there’s much more happening here than a prolific, avidly read writer applying a fresh touch. There is. Paul invokes the God of peace to abide with Roman believers—sealing it with “Amen”—because no congregation stands in greater want of peace than they. By the time his letter reaches the Romans, they’re entering their second decade of complete chaos. Going back to the beginning helps to grasp why Paul’s sign-off in Romans differs so markedly from his other letters.

Christianity rapidly takes root and thrives in Rome, starting in synagogues before reaching Gentile districts. Contrary to myth, Christians aren’t targeted for persecution due to conflicts with the pagan majority. Like any ethnically diverse city, Rome relies on cultural and religious tolerance to preserve order. Roman believers actually bring on their own suffering when heated debates about Christian entitlement kindle fierce public riots between Jewish and Gentile converts. Christian-on-Christian violence becomes so disruptive that Claudius deports Jewish Christians en masse in 49 AD to restore calm. With their opponents out of the picture, however, Gentile believers find they’ve wasted so much time arguing with fellow believers they’re not too sure what they believe or even what they’re supposed to believe.

Not yet having visited the Roman church, Paul writes them his most powerful, theologically astute letter on record. He returns to square one—where dissatisfaction with idolatry and licentiousness led them to Christ—and methodically guides them through the fundamentals: reconciliation with God through faith in Christ; Jews’ and non-Jews’ equal rights to grace and eternal life; freedom from religious conformity through personal accountability; spiritually renewed life via death to carnal desires; and the transformative nature of Christ’s love that enables us to love. Finally, before he segues to a lengthy roll call of personal recognition and greetings, Paul calls on God’s present peace to dwell with the Romans. Let it be, he prays. Amen.

Another Paul

Of course, most of us hear the phrase “let it be” and associate it with another Paul, the boyish-looking songwriter whose sensitivity to his times closely matches the Apostle’s. “Let It Be” and “The God peace be with you. Amen.” are two sides of the same record speaking to the same issue. McCartney says inspiration for his song came by way of his late mother’s visit in a dream. After acknowledging Paul’s distress over The Beatles’ mounting internal conflicts and power struggles, she told him, “It will be alright. Just let it be.” As with the Roman church, the band fell apart. Yet I somehow believe they were able to exit quietly without humiliating displays of animosity like the Roman church’s simply because Mary McCartney’s “Amen” reached the band much sooner than St. Paul’s got to Rome.

Whether reading Romans or listening to The Beatles, “let it be” soothes our spirits and lifts our hopes. We hear the God of peace drawing us from selfish arguments, foolish conflicts, and dangerous pride. And to that we say, “Amen.” Any time we presume to speak for God—as both sides of the Roman conflict did—we inevitably fall into noisy disputes that embarrass and defeat us. Shouldn’t it strike us the least bit strange when we dare to tell others “what God says,” He always says they’re wrong and we’re right? How is it we’re not so comfortable filling His mouth with similarly condemning words for us? But more important than such bald-faced audacity, speaking for God pumps up the volume until we can’t hear Him. The moment we feel compelled to say what God says is the moment to stop saying anything and start listening closely. When we find ourselves in times of trouble, the God of peace comes to us, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”

There will be an answer. Let it be.

(Tomorrow: God Smiles)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Proof Without Pudding

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

                        Hebrews 11.1 (KJV)

Saying It Won’t Make It So

My late teens and early adulthood were spent in close companionship with my grandmother—a southern dame who had all the grace of a belle and the blunt force of a bulldozer. There was little she didn’t know, and because we were buddies as well as relatives, I felt a competitive urge to prove how much I knew. Problem was I didn’t know very much and Big Mama (yes, we really called her that) felt a moral obligation to tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about. “Saying it won’t make it so,” she’d tell me. Up north, we say, “The proof is in the pudding.” And my south-southwest friends in Missouri put it this way: “Show me." 

I recently checked the Straight-Friendly keyword frequency to be mildly surprised that “faith” tops the list by a large margin—more than “love,” “acceptance,” or other words more likely for a blog devoted to obeying Christ’s commands of unrestrained love for God and our unconditional love for our neighbors. Yet the surprise dissipated swiftly. Saying we love everyone, including our enemies, doesn’t make it so. Without showing we love them, people won’t credence what we say. Our proof is in the pudding. But in terms of our faith, presently and for as long as the our known world exists, there will be no pudding.

Lost on the Sea

No translation to date matches the King James Version’s rendering of Hebrews 11.1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The translation’s eloquence bedazzles us to accept its definition of faith in good faith without closing our eyes and opening our ears to see and listen to what it says. Faith functions in its own realm of intangible, invisible perception and persuasion. It’s substantiated by elusive hope and confirmed by ephemeral evidence. It unapologetically reaches past the now to embrace the next and disregards the empirical to accept the impossible. Faith inspires us to understand the insignificance of understanding. Knowing we don’t know and trusting we can’t—and might never—know are how we truly know. Because it ignores facts, faith becomes fact.

Indeed, faith swims so adamantly against everything we’re taught, learn, or can process attempting to describe its dynamics can drive us mad. But there’s a good reason for this. Our willful acquisition of knowledge in the Garden of Eden left us perpetually lost on the sea of “either/or.” Obey and live or rebel and die. Faith anchors on “all of the above.” Give, love, and forgive and you’ll be given, loved, and forgiven. In other words, faith rejects knowledge we don’t need for belief we can use. In the sixth verse of Hebrews 11 we read, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith returns knowledge we stole from God’s Garden to Him. It says, “Here’s the knowledge I thought I couldn’t live without. Let’s go back to when You knew best and I trusted You to do what’s best.” That pleases Him immensely.

What No Proof Proves

Every blue moon, I swing by secular GLBT discussion boards to check out their “Religion & Spirituality” forums, where I invariably bump into angry threads by snarling cynics. I typically ignore them. But one caught my eye and provoked me so I couldn’t let it stand unchallenged for hundreds of genuinely searching readers to see. The subject line read, “Prayer? Who Needs It?” and the poster opened with “scientific data” that allegedly proved prayers go unanswered. As I read the “facts,” I wasn’t at all shocked to find a significant percentage of the study’s subjects reported answers to prayer, which the investigators dismissed as coincidence or self-help. “Until we can prove prayer works,” the poster wrote, “there’s no reason to pray.” I wrote back, “Because we can’t prove prayer works is why we pray. If we knew how it works, we wouldn’t need it. Knowledge that deep and wide would enable us to perform miracles and find answers we pray for.” The poster fired back that my logic was interesting but flawed, to which I answered, “Logic has no relevance to prayer,” and left it at that.

Having no tangible or visible proof for faith proves why we must believe. If we could quantify faith and dissect its functionality, faith’s power would be defunct. Faith isn't given to us so we can ask for what we know we can get. It’s ours so we can hope for what we’re told can’t possibly happen. It confirms what no human logic or scientific data will substantiate. It makes absolutely no sense because in every way it’s superior to our logic, comprehension, and imagination. Faith doesn’t need pudding. Big Mama was right. Saying it don’t make it so. But believing it surely can.

If you're looking for empirical proof that faith works, you won't find it--not here or anywhere else.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Help from the Hills

I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

                        Psalm 121.1-2

Valley So Low

Valleys look most beautiful from distant heights. The land is lush and green. Lakes glisten. Peace abides. But if you’re in the valley, you’re less aware of it than what surrounds it. Hills are steeper than they seem. Mountains cast long shadows. You’re isolated from the world and reminded how small you are. That’s why “Birmingham Jail”—the folk song about a lonely inmate—opens with “Down in the valley, valley so low.” It’s why David sings, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23.4) It’s why we call hard trials deep valleys and crises valleys of decision. Valleys are far less benign and bucolic as they appear from afar.

Mountaintop life sounds far more appealing. With the world’s beauty spread out before us, we’d spot trouble coming from every horizon. We’d watch rising problems lose their footing and fall away. Life would be as good as it gets were it not for one fact. We’re not built for summits and they’re not built for us. The air is too thin, weather too harsh, and nothing that sustains us exists at their altitudes. So we climb mountains, pause to enjoy the panorama, and look ahead. Then down we go, regretting our descent from great heights when we should rejoice in it as the first step toward ascending another mountain. And we should also remember even the most adaptable valleys aren’t adoptable. Valleys are for crossing, not staying. Whether it’s sunny and serene or darkly disturbing, the valley holds danger. We’re less aware of this since science has improved valley safety a thousand fold. But the ancients knew well the constant threats of valley life, and they wrote about them often and at length.

Pleasingly Unpleasant

Literally and metaphorically, biblical writers describe valleys as pleasingly unpleasant places to land. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, when political instability and turf wars turn Israel into a vagabond nation, security and comfort it initially finds in valleys are quickly replaced by vulnerability and anxiety. The mountains hem them in and open them to surprise attack. Being cut off from adjacent plains leaves them unprepared for rapidly multiplying insect swarms that regularly sweep the valley. Rainy season sends torrents of hillside mud, while flooded rivers and lakes with no overflow outlet drown the crops. Dry seasons are worse, as the valley has no access to outside water sources. Famine becomes a cyclical event. Eventually, Israel leaves the valley’s sour promises and prevalent dangers behind to go mountain climbing.

Head for the Hills

The moment we grow weary of defeat and turn from living in valleys to crossing them, mountains that menaced us with fearful worry become pinnacles of hope. Because they’re humanly inhospitable, God reserves them for His habitat. In Psalm 24.3-4, we read, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.” Pleasing God by trusting Him above all else propels our climb. And while scaling earthly heights for sport pits the climber against the mountain, spiritual climbs work on a completely opposite premise. The mountain is our ally, a holy place where God keeps close tabs on our safety and success. Psalm 121.1-3 says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber.”

We linger too long in valleys of defeat, thinking we’ll never muster the strength and courage to climb out. Instead of looking at the hills, look to them. That’s where God is. He sends help from the hills to lift us over them. He guides and guards our steps. The valley low’s life is lonely and cold with God feeling so high and removed from us. When we’ve had enough of it and decide to head for the hills, His presence on the hills means we won’t climb them alone.

Valleys look lovely and peaceful from afar, but they’re dangerous places made for crossing, not dwelling.

(Tomorrow: Proof Without Pudding)

Sunday, August 2, 2009


I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

                        Acts 26.14

Speaking Greek

Paul’s on trial in Caesarea, the coastal province he often passes through, answering earlier charges brought by former religious allies. For two years, he's sat in prison awaiting a verdict from the governor, who recently left office without rendering one. When the new governor, Festus, arrives, here come Paul’s enemies, asking his trial be moved to Jerusalem. (They plan to murder him en route.) Festus denies the request. After Paul’s accusers cite a list of religious infractions, Festus sees they have no legal case. He offers a trial in Jerusalem to throw them a bone. In return, Paul throws a curve. He invokes his right of appeal to Caesar. Festus binds him over for the next ship to Rome.

The following day, Agrippa, Palestine's king, visits Festus. Hearing about the case, he asks to meet Paul. It’s likely Agrippa knows Paul and almost certain Paul knows Agrippa, whose education steeped him in Hellenic culture. When they meet, Paul introduces himself as a former Pharisee, saying any Jew will vouch for this. Since sectarian clashes are old news to Agrippa, though, Paul highlights an interesting facet of his conversion. On the way to root out Christians in Damascus, a bright light floors him and his companions. A voice calls in Aramaic—the local tongue—asking him to explain his behavior. The voice (Christ’s) quotes a proverb made famous by Aeschylus and Euripides: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Greek wisdom lodged in a Jewish vision piques Agrippa’s attention. The king ends their conversation totally convinced of Paul’s innocence, if not his God.

Senseless Resistance

Given the king’s sophistication, witnesses in the story, and Paul’s integrity, it’s facetious to imagine he adds the proverb for effect. We’re smarter, I think, to assume Christ quotes the Greeks. This raises pertinent questions: what does “kicking against the goads” signify and why does Paul stress hearing it in Aramaic? (He speaks and writes Greek fluently.) Examining the quote reveals some enlightening nuances.

In predominately rural societies like Palestine, goads were common objects—lengthy rods to prod stalled plough oxen. When a farmer nudged his ox’s hindquarters, it often kicked back. Urban cultures like Rome and Athens that prized learning above labor reconceived the goad as a metaphor for a teacher’s authority. A know-it-all student rebelling against his master wasted everyone’s time. Intellectual superiority gave the teacher the upper hand and the student’s senseless resistance only made it harder for him. By quoting the Greek proverb in Aramaic, Jesus combines the rural and urban implications to show Paul (then Saul) a few unpleasant things about himself.

The Aramaic/rural context says Paul thinks he’s gaining when he’s actually stalled. There’s groundbreaking work for him to do. Paul’s anti-Christian campaign amounts to bovine hostility and the proverb suggests he’s felt God prodding him to move for a while. Being compared to a dumb ox stuns him. The Greek/urban angle accuses him of rebellion. Once proudly known as a top student of the renowned teacher, Gamaliel, Paul now hears he’s a lousy learner. And here’s the final rub. After vaunting his mastery of the Law as authority to punish Christians as heretics, Christ uses the proverb to disabuse this idea. He, not Paul, has the upper hand. Until Paul submits to His authority, things will go hard. Kickfighting the Christians hurts him more than them.

God’s Prod

Each of us is where we are when we are for a reason. Everything we learn and experience prepares us for what we’re created to achieve. Passions we nurture lead to purpose we fulfill. Disciplines we develop hone skills we use. Suffering builds character we need. Knowledge we gather enhances understanding we gain. Nothing—good or bad—is ever lost. Like Paul, noble intentions may lead us astray. We may believe we’re progressing when we’re really at a standstill. Realizing life’s purpose calls for keen sensitivity to God’s prod. When we sense urgency to break new ground, we should move as He directs. Trusting our knowledge instead of His guidance ends up proving how little we know. Kickfighting is senseless and self-defeating; He has the upper hand.

As it turns out, Paul’s rigorous learning and aggressive nature were pointless. They got him no farther than the Damascus road. But they weren’t useless. His intelligence and tenacity ideally suited him to break new ground. His command of the Law equipped him to refute its obsolete doctrines. His facility with ideas enabled him to explain Christ’s revolutionary concepts of unconditional love, unmerited favor, and unlimited faith. His far-flung efforts to stop the Church’s growth exposed him to every ethnicity, class, and belief, priming him to bring the gospel to Gentiles far and wide. After defending Jewish exclusivity with great boldness, he became an equally bold advocate of Christian inclusion. Everything Paul did wrong poised him to do right. His problem wasn’t incapability. It was unresponsiveness. We’re no different. When we sense God’s prod to move forward, we should ask, “Why kick against the goads when we can plow ahead?”

God prods us forward to break new ground.

(Tomorrow: Help from the Hills)