Saturday, August 15, 2009

Stay On the Road

Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do no swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.

                        Proverbs 4.25-27 

Wondering and Wandering

Early in life we’re flooded with tales of pathfinders—Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and everyone’s favorite, Dorothy and her misfit band. The stories vary, but their morals remain the same: stay on the road. If you roam off or dilly-dally on the way, you’re headed for danger. This lesson dominates fairy tales because kids are naturally curious. It’s a trait passed down from Adam and Eve, whose need to know steered them directly out of Eden. Sticking to the path frustrates us; it’s so narrow, while the world it crosses seems so wide. Intriguing sights and sounds promise novel excitement and short cuts. In the end, however, they fizzle and run us in circles. Thus every pathfinder tale is really a cautionary fable about how wondering what’s off the path leads to wandering into trouble.

But my, what big eyes we have! The prospect of adventure blinds us to adversity and duress that come with leaving the path. That’s what Jesus means in Matthew 7.13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Finding Christ’s road is crucial. Then, once we’ve found it, it’s twice as crucial to stay on it. More people leave the beaten path than we suspect. When we impulsively lope into the backcountry, we discover it’s swarming with multitudes just as lost and confused as we are. There’s no benefit in wondering and wandering.

Fixed and Firm

Staying on the road requires focus and fortitude. Solomon counsels us to keep our sight fixed on what’s before us and limit our travels to paths where our footing is assured. Our path isn’t always smooth. We encounter bumps in the road that are no less challenging than hiking through thickets and vaulting canyons. We twist a few ankles, stumble over potholes, and sometimes fall flat on our faces. If that’s true, why not jump the curb for a walk on the wild side? Before taking that leap, let’s remember the difference isn’t on the ground. It’s on the horizon. We can see where we’re going as long as we stick to the road. “Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you,” Solomon says.

As with his legendary split-the-baby ruling, Solomon offers a suggestion that exposes the flaw in concluding there’s no difference in tripping down a rough road and over rugged terrain. When we meet bumpy, pocked stretches of road, he advises us to repair them. “Make level paths for your feet,” he says. Any civil engineer will confirm smoothing out buckles and filling in holes are much simpler than carving roads in the wilderness. Mending the road as we go keeps our footing secure. We iron out creases in relationships and refill spots where we’ve dug up dirt. Once the road is even again, we keep going, with our steps firm and our sense of progress restored.

Gaping and Gasping

During my time in Southern California, wildfire swept the Anaheim Hills near where I lived. For reasons that escape me now, I was on the far side of the fire and had to drive past it to get home. The firefighters threw all they had to prevent the blaze from leaping the 91 Freeway, where the homes stood more closely together and the population was denser. The highway patrol set up a roadblock several miles ahead of the fire’s location. Only drivers with licenses proving they lived on the other side were allowed to pass. When he learned I was one of them, the patrolman said, “Don’t slow down to look at the fire. Just keep driving. It’s safe for now, but if we get a gaper’s block we can’t guarantee anyone’s safety.”

That’s Solomon’s final message about staying on the road. “Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” The narrow road to Christ is forever safe. But it cuts through treacherous territory. If we allow surrounding evil to transfix us, our gaping and gasping will create bottlenecks that endanger others and us. Jesus leads. We follow. If we veer left or right, we lose sight of Him. We trip into harmful thoughts and behaviors. We risk harming others. Yes, it is a narrow road. It’s a hard road. It’s a straight road that doesn’t engage our curiosity like the territory it slices through. But it’s the right road, the best road, the safest road—a road worth staying on at all times and all costs.

Don’t swerve left or right. Keep going.

(Tomorrow: More to Do)

Postscript: S-F on FB

So I made the plunge, following so many of you brave souls into the whirlpool that is Facebook. My primary reason is right here—extending Straight-Friendly’s exposure to others looking for a safe, welcome place to explore our faith. If you’re a Facebook patron, I’d greatly appreciate your including the group on your page. They’ve got this viral networking thing down to a science. (Or is it an art?)

Here’s the link:

Straight-Friendly on FB

If we can help those looking for encouragement and faith find it, either here or via inclusive churches and blogs linked here, we should do it. I know S-F isn’t for everyone. But it’s for someone. Helping him/her find it will be a blessing to us all.

Peace, Tim

Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking Care

God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

                        1 Corinthians 12.24-25

The Great Equalizer

Long before Marx published The Communist Manifesto, Early Christians embraced its principles of equality and personal sacrifice for common good. Acts 2.45 reports, “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” The Apostles heartily advocated an equal opportunity policy that entitled anyone to God’s grace without regard to gender, ethnicity, or class. In Acts 10, Peter has an epiphany that removes any doubt “God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (v34-35) Paul writes in Galatians 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In a world run on the machinery of class, gender, and ethnic distinctions, such notions were viewed as a recipe for anarchy. Convincing believers to combine assets and ignore cultural advantages required deftness, because the Church was doing something no one ever attempted: taking care of its own without prejudice. Not until Marx would anyone try to replicate this structure. But Marx goofed by leveling societies to the ground—forcing upper classes join the peasant masses—while the Church flourished by getting it right. Rather than pull people down, Early Christians trusted God’s grace to lift the lowly and humble the proud to stand as equals. James 1.9-10 says, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted; but the rich, in that he is made low.” Paul supports this in 1 Corinthians 12, portraying God as The Great Equalizer. “He gives greater honor to the parts that lack it, so there should be no division in the body.”

Equal Concern

The Apostles promulgated believer equality for pragmatic reasons. Promoting philosophical ideals was less urgent than keeping far-flung believers unified in thought and practice. In their minds, equality wasn’t an objective. It was a vital necessity. Paul spells this out when he says God places greater status on lesser members to offset divisions hindering Christians' equal concern for each other. From the beginning, the Church was meant to be a safe, secure place where no one is beneath care or above concern. Its doors swing open to welcome anyone. Yet crossing its portals requires everyone to leave personal status outside. Stripped of social favor or stigmatization, wealth or poverty, education or ignorance, and dozens of other differentiators, believers are free to express and address needs they’d otherwise overlook.

This is what Romans 15.1 means by admonishing us: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” We never hold ourselves in such high regard we won’t help others struggling with issues we overcame long ago. We resist impulses to criticize believers whose behaviors don’t conform to ours, remembering Paul’s words in Romans 8.1: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We heed Jude’s counsel: “Dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith... Keep yourselves in God’s love…. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” (v20-23) Even the most repugnant, corrupt behavior merits mercy. God honors those who lack in our eyes. And He does it so we can care for them as equals, building up one another together. Mutual growth and concern are why God ordains equality.

Our Privilege

The Body of Christ doesn’t need us to protect it from harm or defend its integrity. That’s God’s job. The Church doesn’t need us to manage its mission or steer its direction. Its course is set, Christ is its Pilot, and it will sail where He leads, with or without us. Instead of taking care of the Church, we’ve been given the responsibility of taking care of each other. We are the Church. When we focus our concern on one another as equals, the Church’s needs are met. 

The newest, most naïve Christian and the most experienced, wisest one are no different. The highest prelate needs as much prayer and support as the lowliest parishioner. You may be far ahead of me in your Christian walk, yet there’s no shame in asking you to pause and help me catch up. You may be rich, famous, and powerful; I may be poor, invisible, and insignificant. But in Christ, we’re equals. When you turn to me, your advantages are inconsequential. I’m concerned for you as my brother or sister. When I turn to you, God’s grace compensates for my shortcomings. I can count on your concern for me. Nothing in the world, the Church, or our hearts should outweigh taking care of one another. It’s our privilege as equals.

Everyone is equal in the Body of Christ; we show equal concern for all.

(Tomorrow: Stay on the Road)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pep Talk

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

                        Joshua 1.9

The Substitute

I’m not a big fan of sports movies, but I love them. And why I’m not crazy about them is why I find them irresistible. They’re formulaic to a fault, yet the hokey set-up always ends with a thrilling finale that somehow rings true. They haul out one cliché after another as the team works its way to the Big Game. They take the field for the title they’ve dreamt of winning for years. With the game too close to call and the clock winding down, the star gets injured. The coach runs up to the substitute and says, “You’re going in, kid.” The sub panics. He’s played fewer games than anyone and now the team’s success falls on him. The coach launches into a pep talk as a 60-piece orchestra swells beneath. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Get out there and show ‘em!” The team rallies around and they run to the scrimmage line together. You know how it ends.

It’s a story as old as the hills, certainly as old Joshua’s story. He’s a bright lieutenant who’s loyal to Moses. He and his buddy Caleb have done a little reconnaissance work, but not much more. The Israelites end their four-decade journey on a promontory overlooking the Promised Land. It’s been a tough fight and the outcome still isn’t assured. Then Moses dies. The first half of Joshua 1 reads like a coach’s pep talk to a substitute: “You’re going in, kid.” After God goes over the playbook with Joshua, He says something very close to “You can do it. I’ve got you.” He tells Joshua to be strong and courageous, play by the rules, and remember his training. He wraps up by assuring Joshua He wouldn’t send him in if He weren’t confident he could do the job. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” The Israelites rally around Joshua. “Be strong and courageous,” they say.

Not Much There

Every time I read this passage, I see Joshua listening with an absent stare as he searches inside for what he’ll need to lead Israel to victory. There’s not much there—no leadership experience, no familiarity with the plan, no military training, no history with the people. He’s not a prophet or deliverer or miracle worker like Moses. Having spent most of his life in the wilderness, he’s not acquainted with big towns like Jericho, the city he’s supposed to defeat. He’s taking charge of men twice his age with far more wisdom and exposure to God’s ways than he. There’s the matter of getting the people packed up and mobilized to cross a river that has no bridge. As he stares at his emptiness, his mind surely races with one question: “How am I going to do this?” That’s why it takes hearing the answer three times—twice from God and once from the people—before it sinks in. Be strong and courageous.

Strength and Courage

Honestly? If I were Joshua, the third time someone told me to be strong and courageous, I’d say, “You’re kidding, right?” Joshua listens closely to what God and the people are really saying. They know he doesn’t have it in him to pull this off. But he can be strong and courageous if he reaches out of his emptiness to embrace God’s surplus. Just before God first alerts him to this, He gives His solemn word to Joshua: “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so will I be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1.5) There’s a powerful little secret cached in the promise. Moses didn’t have what it takes either. He would have been powerless without God by his side.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us how little we’ll accomplish without God’s help. Jesus doesn’t mince words. In John 15.5, He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Psalm 124.1-4 begins with David saying, “If the LORD had not been on our side…” and reaching this conclusion: “The flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us.” In Psalm 27.1, he says, “The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (KJV) And Paul admonishes us, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6.10-11)

Great things and great victories happen when, like Moses, Joshua, and every other titan of faith, we stop looking for what we don’t have and stand on what we need. It’s not God’s habit to choose people based on their strength and courage. He uses those who realize they need to be strong and courageous. When God says, “I’m putting you in,” protesting we’re not strong enough or brave enough won’t change His mind. If anything, it proves we’re perfect for the job.

Movie pep talks are clichés, but God’s encouragement is true.

(Tomorrow: Taking Care) 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mud in Your Eye

He spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.

                        John 9.6

Enlightenment Through Mercy

The typical healing scenario in Christ’s ministry engulfs Him with ailing people competing for His attention. The cure of a man’s blindness in John 9 departs from this convention. From what we’re told, he’s evidently unaware Jesus is walking by. He doesn’t cry out for healing; in fact, we don’t hear one word from him at all. The most we learn is he’s congenitally blind, which appears to be common knowledge, because the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v2) Their question, not the man’s condition, stops Christ. It provides a teaching moment that coincidentally involves physical healing. Before the episode concludes, however, there’s no doubt Jesus also pauses to perform spiritual healing in His disciples.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answers. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (v3) Sin doesn’t enter this equation. It’s all about mercy, or more accurately, enlightenment through mercy. In verses 4 and 5, He explains, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” The disciples’ blindness stops Jesus. They’ve bought into benighted beliefs that people outside the norm are intrinsically sinful. “Not so,” Jesus says. “God creates anomalies to display His unconditional mercy.” The man’s physical and social disadvantages are designed so Jesus can use him to cure the disciples’ religious astigmatism. Once their eyes open, Jesus makes some mud, covers the man’s eyes, and sends him to rinse it off. The man instantly receives sight. What do the disciples see? Witnessing mercy for one presumed unworthy of it—from birth, no less—exposes their error. Christ’s light floods their eyes and they see the urgency of doing God’s work.

Recovery and Release

After great success away from home, Jesus returns to Nazareth, where His family, friends, and neighbors pack out the synagogue to hear Him preach. He stands up and reads Isaiah’s prophetic summary of His ministry that includes proclaiming “recovery of sight for the blind [and] to release the oppressed.” (Matthew 4.18) The parallel cures of the disciples’ spiritual blindness and the man’s congenital limitations fulfill His promises of recovery and release. Scales of superstition, social prejudice, and false doctrine destroyed the disciple’s vision. Christ’s teaching enables them to recover their sight. But the blind man has never seen. He’s lived his entire life in darkness. Jesus releases him from oppressive darkness. The contrast in how Jesus ministers to both conditions is where the story acquires great beauty.

Jesus speaks light to the disciples much like God speaks light to darkness in Genesis. Just as God calls the light “day” and the darkness “night,” Jesus calls the light of His presence “day” and its absence “night.” And just as God divides day from night, Jesus divides those who live in His light and do God’s work from those who live in darkness and can’t work. Christ corrects the disciples’ vision by His word. But He creates the blind man’s vision by hand. Again, He mirrors God’s method for crafting humanity out of clay by creating sight out of mud. He then releases the man to rinse off the mud and see with new eyes. The disciples don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. They recover their sight the instant the enlightenment of Christ’s truth penetrates their hearts and minds.

One or the Other

Reading the story through this prism, we’re apt to project ourselves as one or the other—either disciples who’ve lost sight or people disadvantaged by blindness. If we’re honest, though, we’ll recognize it’s not an either/or situation. It’s both. We’ve been schooled by society, mass culture, and religion to make blind assumptions about others’ limitations. It’s our custom to feel our way through dark myths and superstitions that insist their inadequacies result from intrinsic wrong. We’ve lost sight of their potential to display God’s work in their lives. Yet Christ is speaking light to our blindness. Recovery of our vision comes by hearing His word.

We also relate to the blind man’s side of story. Simply coming into an unmerciful, fearful world saddles us with limitations and struggles. Before we outgrow the playground, we encounter others who make false assumptions about us by how we’re made—gender, ethnicity, and orientation—and where we’re placed. There will always be some who believe we deserve their scorn and prejudice because we’re born “wrong.” But we can’t forget we’re handmade and guided by God to display His work. Limitations become His opportunities. Blind struggles lead to moments when He puts mud in our eyes to enlighten others. It’s never pleasant but, like it or not, mud is His creative medium. When He releases us to rinse the mud away, as it lifts, oppressive darkness lifts also. We see with new sight.

Mud in our eyes creates new sight in us and enlightenment in others.

(Tomorrow: Pep Talk)

Personal Postscript: Quick Bit o’ Praise

As some of you know, my brother lost his position with a privately owned company last October. As time dragged on, he and his amazing wife and their two sons inched ever closer to inevitabilities no one wants to face—selling their home, switching schools, relocating far from family and friends, and so on. Yet through it all, not one complaint or doubt passed their lips. Our nephews, 11 and 16, were as sure and stoic as their parents. It was amazing to witness.

Last week, a position comparable to the one he lost opened up. His new employers worked with him so he and his family can remain in their present home and the boys’ schooling won’t be interrupted. As he told me how all things worked together for good—as Romans 8.28 promises—he recalled a chat with his pastor several months into his trial. “God’s taking you to school,” his pastor said. My brother answered, “I realize that. But I didn’t expect the curriculum to be so hard!” I rejoice to say he graduated with honors.

I can’t pass this chance to offer praise and thanksgiving for God’s provision for Steve and his family. But Walt and I are also deeply grateful for the example of unwavering faith they set for us. I’m slightly older than Steve. But he’s the bigger brother by far.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Timeless Treasure, Temporal Clay

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

                        2 Corinthians 4.7

Body Battles

Walt and I live in Boystown, Chicago’s gay enclave. Walking within a mile’s radius of our place takes us past a dozen thriving gyms, many with big windows to ogle sweaty specimens running and climbing on state-of-the-art equipment. I sometimes slow down to observe them. Their bodies don’t intrigue me—they’re basically the same; I find their facial expressions far more interesting. They generally fall into three categories: anxiety, determination, or frustration. Rarely do I see any signs of pleasure or fun. Indeed, many of their grimaces and clenched jaws suggest a resemblance to soldiers under fire. They’re at war with their physiques, fighting onslaughts of time and gravity, beating back a barrage of mortal arrows riddling their frames and psyches.

Body battles are not unique to gay people, of course. One imagines straight gym junkies number considerably more, only because the straight-gay ratio is what it is. And though I confess I could do with a regularly scheduled skirmish myself, I find it disconcerting that so many seem obsessed with physical perfection while so few attend to total perfection. Jesus never told us to work on our bodies. But in Matthew 5.48, He did say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Paul does allude to physical fitness in 2 Corinthians 7.1, though it’s just half the story: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” Physical fitness plus spiritual fitness equals perfection. Zero body fat and six-pack abs don’t always reflect that. In fact, they often indicate inner turmoil, because many of us have been seduced into detesting how we’re made.

Talking Back to God

Keeping our bodies in shape is one thing. Reshaping them is another. Devoting hours to repetitive motion, depriving ourselves of nutrition, and mortgaging our futures for surgical sculpture convey an unhealthy desire to be someone other than who we are. We’ve turned from conforming to our God’s likeness to pursue manmade images. Whom are we trying to please? We say drastically altering our looks will make us happy. But the missing link—the part we won’t admit—is we’re searching for happiness in others’ eyes. We’ve succumbed to post-modern idolatry. Listen to Romans 1.24-25 and test the current craze for artificially enhanced attraction against it: “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Today, we carve idols from our bodies. And as we see far too often, we’re terrible idolmakers. We can’t stop tampering with our work, and before long, we’ve gone from beautiful to berserk.

Later on, Paul writes: “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9.20-21) Questioning why God shaped us as He did and allowing objectified ideals to destroy our self-image is tantamount to talking back to God. According to Psalm 139.14, each of us is “fearfully, wonderfully made.” We all fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces into a perfect reflection of God. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 12, God imbeds thorns in our flesh to increase our reliance on His grace. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties,” he says in verse 10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Inner Treasure

Since beauty exists in the eye of the beholder, its value fluctuates and its reliability fails. That’s why we call those obsessed with their outer appearance “vain”—it’s a waste of time. Total perfection can only exist within. It surfaces in attitudes and actions, not proportions and features. Its beauty is absolute and immeasurable; it surpasses human perception to portray God’s splendor, magnificence, and power. When we inwardly conform to His image and likeness, His transcendent beauty shines through us. Its value is eternally priceless.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.7. We possess a timeless treasure in temporal clay. We can chip away at our clay until we die. But when that day comes, the beauty we’ve worked so insanely to shape dies with it. Our inner treasure lives on. God houses His perfection in our mortal jars to prove what’s in us comes from Him, not us. That defines your beauty. It defines mine. We don’t need to look like anyone. It’s unnecessary to model our appearance on human ideals. We just have to shine.

We’re terrible idolmakers. We can’t stop tampering with ourselves until we’ve gone from beautiful to berserk.

(Tomorrow: Mud in Your Eye)

Monday, August 10, 2009

After They Leave

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

                        John 6.66-68

No Fooling Around

Several years ago, a large, inclusive congregation felt moved to sponsor a church shepherded by and devoted to GLBT believers. Two uncommonly talented, visionary women—spiritual and life partners—answered the call to lead the flock. After several months of fieldwork, during which two to three dozen core members met in their home, they opened the doors of a lovely, spacious sanctuary. A modest attendance of 50 or so came to the first service. Within a week’s time, though, word of a new “gay church” led by two dynamic women spread through the community. The next Sunday’s service was packed wall-to-wall. Yet as worship continued, a totally inappropriate “cruisy” atmosphere coalesced, leaving no doubt many had come seeking more than a refuge of faith.

When time came for one of the ministers to deliver the sermon, she surprised everyone by departing from the bulletin’s text. In fact, she left Scripture altogether and based her message on Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” She gently laid out the church’s vision and mission. “This sanctuary is not and will never be a site for socializing,” she told her audience. “It’s a base station for spiritual development and social change.” Then she shocked everyone. Instead of welcoming new members to the church, she asked those seeking anything beyond Christian growth to leave. And she waited. They trickled out slowly at first, then more quickly, leaving less than 100 behind. Today, every seat is filled with believers of every ethnicity, class, and orientation. Its reputation is well known in the GLBT community as well as the local, predominately straight community it sits in. When it comes to following Jesus and serving others, these people don’t fool around.

Spiritual Hunger

As unorthodox as the minister’s actions seem, she was well within her pastoral rights and had Scriptural precedent for thinning the herd. In John 6, Jesus does a very similar thing. He’s preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, where a large crowd of would-be disciples has gathered in hopes he’ll repeat His miracle of multiplying a few loaves of bread to feed them all. Jesus challenges them on this: “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (v26-27) They ask how they can receive this bread, thinking it’s a special kind of wonder bread they can physically taste and digest.

Hearing that Jesus is referring to Himself as the Bread of Life sent from God, encouraging them to abandon their natural desires and satisfy their spiritual hunger, they start to grumble. They came to eat, not to swallow a lot of abstract principles. “This is hard teaching,” they complain. “Who can accept it?” (v60) Jesus doesn’t soften His stance. “Does this offend you?” He asks. (v61) “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” John tells us Jesus knew who in the crowd didn’t believe and would turn away. He essentially invites them to leave, saying in verse 65, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” With that, they file out in droves. After they leave, Jesus asks His core group, the original 12, “Do you want to go too?” Speaking for the rest, Peter answers, “Where could we go? You have the words of eternal life.” They get it. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no fooling around.

Discipleship’s Appeal

Many, many people respond to discipleship’s appeal without knowing or acknowledging it demands tremendous self-discipline and scrutiny. It denies natural appetites to satisfy spiritual hunger. Unfortunately, natural desires often account for why some decide to follow Christ. They’re not looking for life-changing truth or miracles that nurture their spirits. They rally around Jesus for loaves and fishes to feed personality-driven cravings. They flock to Him for quick, easy answers to long-term, difficult problems. They mistake sanctuaries for social clubs and use involvement in ministry as a means to validate their power and popularity. They give to get. And then, when their personal agendas and God’s plan collide, they start grumbling and eventually move on. As true believers, we’ll see this happen over and over. After they leave, it’s important to reaffirm our reasons for staying with Jesus, because herd mentality can be remarkably persuasive. It often takes great courage to tell friends who say, “Let’s go,” “No thank you. I’m going to stick around.”

We stay because Jesus has the words of eternal life. Other teachers and philosophies have merit, yet He is our Bread of Life. He feeds our beings’ hunger to know God, to live in renewed relationship with Him, and to fulfill His purpose for creating us as we are. No other teacher equals Jesus, simply because none ever died to defeat death and redeem our right to everlasting life. Nowhere else do we find greater emphasis on God’s unconditional love and acceptance, or greater evidence of their reality, than we see in Christ. People will come and go. Some will flirt with faith for years, returning and leaving repeatedly. Widespread hardship and popular trends will bloat the ranks and once the truth of discipleship’s demands become apparent, the tide will recede. But if we’re following Jesus out of authentic spiritual hunger, we’ll remain behind after they leave. He is our Bread. His truth sustains us. His words speak life to our souls.

Others may leave in droves, but if we’re truly hungry for the Bread of Life, we’ll stay.

(Tomorrow: Timeless Treasure, Temporal Clay)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hallelu Yah!

Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.

                        Psalm 149.1

Party Praise

In Hebrew, Psalm 149 begins with hallelu Yah, a phrase that operates on three levels—as poetic praise, a call to worship, and a quasi-musical direction. It sets the tone for the lyrics following it. Hallelu Yah has been accepted “as is” in dozens of languages and is generally interpreted as a catch phrase for “Praise the Lord.” In English, “hallelujah” is marvelously scalable, from the grandeur of Handel’s chorus to the reverence of quiet hymns to a passing exhalation of gratitude. (Who hasn’t breathed a quick “hallelujah” for a green light when running late?) Strictly speaking, we’re taking wide liberties with hallelu Yah when we apply it to any and all occasions for praise. Yet the intent and instruction imbedded in the phrase encourages freedom to praise God with gusto. Any time we rejoice by saying or singing “hallelujah” we’re doing as it directs.

Hallelu Yah is a compound combining hallel (“joyous praise”) with Yah (“Creator”). In Judaism, “The Hallel” refers to a song cycle in Psalms 113-118, which is chanted joyfully at morning prayers during high festivals. Psalm 113.3-4 declares, “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised. The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.” In other words, everywhere we look—from the heights of victory to the depths of despair—we find reasons to rejoice. While English translators cast hallelu Yah as “Praise the LORD,” using the all-caps setting to indicate Yahweh (“the One True God”) Yah is actually a derivative channeling praise specifically to our Maker. Hallelu Yah celebrates God as our Source. It springs from our honor to be created in His image. Thus, when the psalmist opens with hallelu Yah, he/she indicates the song should be sung without restraint—boisterously, even, as we boast in God. Hallelu Yah is party praise, the cacophony of a family that dearly loves its Father.

Improvised Praise

The composer of Psalm 149 follows the injunction for buoyant praise with this: “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.” The spirit of hallelu Yah inspires improvised praise—extemporaneous expressions of gratitude and glory for who we are, being made as we are, and Who made us as we are. The next verse reads, “Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King.” Hallelu Yah bursts with pride, not in anything we’ve done or for how we’re seen by others, but because we belong to God. We take pride in Him as our Maker and King. Take a moment to think about that. See yourself standing with millions of other brothers and sisters, rejoicing together in the light and strength of your Creator. Let everything else fall away—the struggles, disappointments, misunderstandings, and misperceptions—so all that’s left is the pure, innocent being He fashioned by hand and breathed to life. Now, tell God how it feels to be His and His alone. That’s what hallelu Yah is.

“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp,” verse 3 says, with the next saying, “For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.” The Christian praise spectrum is astonishingly vast, from silently contemplative to raucously demonstrative. Yet variances in outward behavior don’t reflect the commonly held exuberance that hallelu Yah enjoins. Whether we shout it impulsively, join worshipers in choral response, or whisper it silently, our reasons for saying it—and the intensity with which we feel it—are uniquely our own. Our hearts dance to music we create in a spontaneous flow of emotion. It delights us and it delights God.

A New Song

By its nature, every time we sing hallelu Yah we sing a new song. God is forever creating novel things in and through us. As a dear friend constantly reminds me, “He’s the God of the new and the now.” Who we were when we sang hallelu Yah yesterday is not who we are when we sing it today. We awoke this morning to fresh mercies. We opened our eyes to untapped possibilities. We walked further in our faith, grew deeper in our understanding, and acquired greater confidence from our experiences since we last rejoiced. The strength we gained from yesterday’s trials lifts our spirits in praise for today’s tests.

Our Maker never stops making us, shaping us, refining us to more clearly reflect His likeness. Because nothing ever gets old and stagnant in His hands, our praise never grows old. Today, as we join the assembly of the saints, we may have sung the same hymns a hundred times. We may have heard the same readings all our lives. We may have participated in the same worship rituals for years. But we’re not the same. Because we’re new, every hallelu Yah is new. In 2 Corinthians 5.17 we read: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This is not, as many presume, a one-time transformation. It’s a constant process, often as painful as it is glorious. But through our changes, we’re reborn into more perfect and pleasing reflections of our Maker. What was new yesterday is old today. It’s gone and the new has come. Hallelu Yah! Sing to the Lord a new song! Enjoy this Lord’s Day!

Every time we say or sing hallelu Yah, it’s a new song rising from our triumphs and sufferings. K.D. Lang splendidly taps the joy and pain of Leonard Cohen’s magnificent “Hallelujah.”

(Tomorrow: After They Leave)