Saturday, August 29, 2009


From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.

                        Isaiah 1.6

In memory of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy (1932-2009) 

Physical Health

My father suffers from severe gout. He has no grip in his right hand, which makes mundane tasks like driving, putting on shoes and socks, opening jars, and signing checks impossible. Recently, he wept while telling me how useless this condition causes him to feel. I flushed with rage because, unlike hundreds of truly debilitating diseases, gout has moved from the “treatable” to the “manageable” category of conditions. For over a year, a new product that restores full mobility to gout patients has been available. But my father’s healthcare providers won’t approve its “first-line” usage and none of his physicians will prescribe it. His insurers’ preferred alternative was discontinued due to his allergic reaction to the medication. Just yesterday, he finally found a physician willing to prescribe the new treatment. To access coverage, the doctor first had to prescribe the preferred drug. He told Dad to buy the pills, throw them away, come back in a month, and he’ll qualify for the new product. So my father needlessly lived in pain for a year, spent inordinate time finding a physician clever enough to thwart bureaucratic indifference, and is forced to flush money down the toilet to get help he needs.

This is the healthcare system so many people are fighting to preserve. I shudder to think what millions of Americans with far more grave conditions and far fewer means reckon with. I wonder how many lives end prematurely, how many homes are destroyed because our sick have no access to help. Despite the relative insignificance of my dad’s case, it proves the future of healthcare in this country is not a “rights issue”—it’s a moral dilemma. And, as a Christian, I can’t reconcile Christ’s command to love others as our ourselves with anything but demanding total healthcare access for all.

Spiritual Malaise

The first chapter of Isaiah makes one thing very clear: a physically ailing nation is a sign of its people’s spiritual malaise. Isaiah begins his prophecy by brutally indicting Israel for its neglect. In verse three, he quotes God’s statement to him: “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel doesn’t know, my people do not understand.” Isaiah continues the tirade: “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” (v4) The prophet and God alternate in accusations that Israel’s rebellion has led to neglecting the principles of God in exchange for ritualized worship. They’ve confused going to church with serving God. Consequently, sickness has infected them from head to toe. They’re wobbling. Yet their false piety has deceived them into believing they stand strong and righteous before their Maker. Not so.  “From the sole of your to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.” (v6) Finally, in exasperation, God tells them what must be done to regain His favor and reestablish sound standing in His sight. Forget all your fancy worship, He says. “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (v16-17)

A Christian Imperative

Healthcare reform isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a Christian imperative. Any true follower of Jesus must realize this. It’s not about taxes or “socialism” or how long it takes to get a doctor’s appointment. It’s about countless people left beaten and bloody along the wayside, like the wounded man in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan. As the man lay unconscious and helpless, a priest and a lawyer pass him without a second glance. It takes a Samaritan, a person deemed unworthy by the religious majority, to pick him, dress his wounds, and pay for his care. It shames me to say this, but our current healthcare debate is nothing more than the clamor of self-serving priests and lawyers who have no concern how many helpless and hopeless, oppressed and abandoned souls they step over. And they can blow as much smoke in our eyes as they’d like with scare tactics about “death panels” and subsidized abortions and personal freedoms. But if we’re in tune with God’s Word and sensitive to His Spirit, their smoke dissipates immediately. We see inexcusable infirmities and heinous neglect. We’re appalled by rank injustice and class-based hostility. We recognize why America’s wobbling closer and closer to moral collapse. We know what we must do to help her regain her stability.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors and enemies and tolerate their sin. But nowhere did He even slightly suggest our tolerance should carry over into blanket permission. The wrongs currently levied on the disenfranchised and underprivileged are not acceptable. This is not a matter of personal opinion. It’s a certainty of what’s right. Political affiliation or personal preference brooks no relevance in our decision to support or oppose the proposed healthcare initiative. As Christians, we have no choice. Just as God spoke to Israel in Isaiah’s day, He speaks to us: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” While our nation wobbles with unsoundness—suffering from head to toe with wounds and welts and open sores it has neglected to clean or bandage or soothe—we must stand firm in our commitment and convictions. When asked our views about healthcare reform, we must resolutely declare our support because our Christian obligation compels us to do so.


(Tomorrow: Now)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Let's Agree

Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.

                        Matthew 18.19-20 

The Irony

These two verses constitute a fine example of what comes from taking Scripture out of context. I bet I’ve heard both preached, taught, and quoted over 1,000 times (no exaggeration). Yet I don’t recall ever hearing them discussed together, nor in light of their preceding verses. The New International Version combines Matthew 18.15-20 under the header “A Brother Who Sins Against You”. Every scholar and commentator I’ve researched follows suit. Thus, it makes sense to read verses 19 and 20 as Jesus’s guidelines for managing disagreements among believers. So why is 19 commonly used to advocate “agreeing in prayer” and 20 interpreted as Christ’s promise to be present when believers assemble for worship? The irony of reading both “agreement” scriptures in this fashion is neither reading agrees with Christ's intended meaning.

Jesus sets the context with a four-step process for resolving differences between people of faith. If a fellow believer wrongs us, we first handle it privately, “just between the two of you.” (v15) We don’t complain to the pastor or seek sympathy from other Christians. How wise this is. It spares both sides potential embarrassment and prevents the situation from affecting others. Second, if the offending person doesn’t come around, Jesus says to return for another talk, this time with one or two believers as unbiased observers. This adheres to Deuteronomy 19.15’s admonition that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 

Should that fail, Jesus gives a third alternative: “tell it to the church.” (v17) Now it’s time to bring the issue to the attention of the pastor and elders—not because they’ve got more clout, but because the matter has gone from a private disagreement to a congregational problem. Finally, if the person still ignores the misunderstanding he/she caused, Jesus instructs us to “treat him [or her] as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (v17) This sounds harsh, possibly even cynical, particularly coming from Jesus—until we read on to discover He’s not recommending we shun errant believers. And here again, the irony of extra-contextual interpretation rears up, because seldom is this next passage taught to convey its actual meaning.

Catch and Release

When most Christians read verse 18 and hear Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” their minds kick into search-and-destroy mode. What’s out of control in our lives that we’d like to bind? What’s tied up that we’d like to loose? Before we get too drunk on this carte blanche authority, though, it’s smart to slow down and consider why Jesus connects “binding and loosing” with believer-on-believer conflicts. It then becomes apparent He’s teaching us to neutralize harmful things fellow Christians do and say to us without their expressed consent. We catch their behavior before it spreads further. We release its influence on our minds and emotions.

With this, Jesus’s “pagan or tax collector” comment makes perfect sense. While both groups carried political credentials, their spiritual credibility was nil. Pagans held no sway on Jewish life because they didn’t honor the Law or believe in The One True God. Many tax collectors were Jews, but their loyalty to Caesar classified them as idolaters. In both cases, their opinions about all things spiritual held no water. That’s how Jesus encourages us to regard those who unrepentantly misuse or wrong us. To paraphrase the self-help guru, Wayne Dyer, what they think of us is none of our business.

Positive Consensus

Once He settles the correct approach to those who disagree with us, Jesus reinforces why it’s vital we agree. Verses 19 and 20 inform us it’s better to build consensus for good than mount campaigns against evil. Had Jesus never taught us this, common sense should have. Haven’t we learned by now the numbers game always favors the side that rouses fear and panic? Can’t we see since it’s easier to scare people than inspire them, the side for positive progress will never outnumber the negative crowd in face-offs? Verse 19 subverts this dynamic by reducing the consensus quota for good to two.

If only you and I to agree to work for what’s right and just, Jesus says we are the majority. What we ask our Father to achieve through us will be done. When we come together in Christ’s name, He will be with us. Proverbs 21.1 declares, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” It’s not about God being on “our side.” It’s about agreeing to rely on His power and Christ's presence in us to change hearts. We do the praying and listening. He does the moving and shaking. Instead of disagreeing with those who oppose us, let’s agree with one another to do what’s right. Positive consensus works better for us. It makes better use of our time. It provides God a better platform to prove Who He is.

When no more than two of us agree to work for what’s right and just, God’s power and Christ’s presence makes us the majority.

(Tomorrow: Wobbling)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Conscience Cleanser

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

                        Hebrews 9.14

I Did It! I Did It! I Did It!

Every now and then I find myself with friends who swap parochial school horror stories. They begin with a line like “Sister Mary Theresa was so strict…” and escalate into “Can You Top This?” Somewhere in the process, they say, “Tim, you probably have no idea what we’re talking about.” That's my cue to tell them about Miss Johns, my first and second grade teacher at Chicago Christian Academy, a tiny school I attended prior to entering public school. Miss Johns wasn’t a nun, but she came as close as a lay teacher could get.

One day after recess, the janitor reported one of her boys flushed wads of tissue down the toilet. Miss Johns demanded the culprit identify himself. When none stepped forward, she said, “If you did this, you must confess your sin. The Bible says, ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’” Wheels began turning in every boy’s mind: Maybe I did it and don’t know it. She modified her threat. “If don’t admit it, you’re lying. You know what happens to liars? ‘All liars shall have their place in the lake of fire that never goes out!’” If we committed the crime or not, just in case, all hands flew into the air. “I did it!” “I did it!” “I did it!” Miss Johns lined us up for paddling, explaining she had to swat all of us to be sure the guilty one got punished. When she came to me, one of the girls volunteered, “Miss Johns, Timothy didn’t go to the bathroom.” In my panic about going to Hell, that fact completely escaped me. The teacher spun me around and asked if this was true. I nodded. “Saying you did it isn’t true, is it, Timothy?” No. “What’s the word for people who don’t tell the truth?” They’re liars. “And what happens to liars?” They go to Hell, I said. So I got spanked for lying, too.

Clean Through and Through

We all stumble into situations where assuming guilt for something we couldn’t possibly have done exerts pressure on our consciences—just in case. Perhaps if we’d done this, that wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps we’re unknowingly wrong. Perhaps we mean to do harm and pretend we don’t. Such thoughts paralyze us with fear and disable us from responding honestly to situations. They predispose us to guilt rather than confidence. Worst of all, taking blame for things beyond our control or responsibility results in self-deception. And—God bless Miss Johns—that’s really wrong. False admission of guilt may spring from honest motives. But it’s still false, a lie we tell others and ourselves. In Hebrews 9, we find an amazing message about how and why Christ frees us from guilt.

The chapter offers a revealing contrast between Judaism’s animal offerings and Christ’s sacrifice. Its chief point comes down to vastly different results each achieves. Verse 9 says, “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.” Animal sacrifices focused on making us outwardly acceptable to God as a means to reach Him in worship. But, according to verse 10, the blood of Christ surpasses appearances, cleansing “our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

Because many faith traditions leverage guilt as a control mechanism, it takes great effort to grasp the concept of Christ’s blood as a conscience cleanser. Too often we’re taught to feel guilty for Jesus’s crucifixion and told to apologize over and over for His death. To be sure, our sinfulness necessitated His sacrifice. Yet once we claim redemption through His blood, Hebrews says we’re clean through and through—inside and out. It’s a mistake to believe Jesus’s death burdens us with guilt. He shed His blood to cleanse our consciences so we’re free to serve, rather than merely worship, God. A clean conscience makes for a fearless Christian. Absence of guilt becomes presence of grace. Purity of heart purifies intentions. Outward appearances reflect inner realities. Our love for God and others flows without reservation. Worship and service become all of a piece.

Cancel the Trip

In John 3.16, Jesus defines His role as our conduit for faith: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” He didn’t die so we could travel roads of guilt and shame. Hebrews refers to such guilt trips as “acts that lead to death.” Christ died to remove the weight of guilt completely and lift us to new life here and unending life to come. In Acts 24.15-16, Paul says, “I have the same hope in God… that there will be resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” Maintaining a clear conscience sustains our hope in God. But it’s also imperative we keep our consciences clean from the pollution of false guilt.

Those who question our faith in Christ steer us toward guilt. Many do so out of genuine love and concern. When anyone uses guilt to force us down their path of faith, we cancel the trip. True believers don’t focus on external appearances. They look to Calvary. The cleansing power of Christ’s blood transcends surface spot removal; it permeates our minds, dissolving stains of guilt and doubt. His death bought much more than conformity to acceptable standards. It purchased guilt-free consciences so we can go beyond reaching God to serving Him.

Too many of us are guilty of accepting false guilt. Christ’s blood is a conscience cleanser that frees us to serve God and others guilt-free.

(Tomorrow: Let’s Agree)

Postscript: 10,000!

With total praise and thanksgiving to God, I'm amazed and humbled to report "Straight-Friendly" received its 10,000th visitor at 6:59 CDT today. When this journey began early last summer, I never imagined it would reach this point. God is so good to us. And I'm so grateful to each of you who've played such a vital role in helping S-F cross this threshold. May God reward each of you for your kindness and encouragement. May we continue to hold one another up in faith and love.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Blessings of joy and peace to you all!


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shear Seduction

Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the LORD had left him.

                        Judges 16.20

Playing Games

If Samson were a star in Hollywood’s golden era, he’d have been called a “hot-blooded male”—more of a sinewy, quick-witted Burt Lancaster sort than the heavy-lidded, he-man Victor Mature played in Samson and Delilah. Lancaster’s athleticism made the world easily negotiable for his characters. Although men liked him for his unprepossessing superiority, intimidation also tinged their respect. (Get this guy mad and he’ll put a real hurt on you.) But men weren’t Lancaster’s problem. He made a career of sexy, smart guys who fell for the wrong types: sly minxes, frustrated wives, and bitter spinsters. Often at his enemies’ instigation, they viewed him as a mountain. Realizing they’d never conquer him, they toppled him. Many a picture ended with Lancaster crushed to bits. This is Samson’s story.

Samson is a Nazrite, part of a sect that practices sexual and alcoholic abstinence and bans haircuts. By his teens, he’s exceedingly bright and strong. He kills a lion bare-handedly. He ties torches to 300 foxes and sets them loose to burn up enemy fields. He wields a donkey’s jawbone to destroy 1,000 men. When a prostitute catches his eye, her city locks him outside its gates; he rips them off their hinges. But Samson’s wit and prowess also foster weakness for playing games. He taunts adversaries with clever riddles about his strength. His fondness for the ladies puts him at a disadvantage. His enemies send them to tease the answers out of Samson. The first time, his parents save him by annulling his marriage to a Philistine. The next time, he’s not so lucky. When Delilah shows up, he meets his match.

Playing to Win

Delilah’s perfect for Samson. She likes games, too. The couple’s pillow talk revolves around Delilah using her wiles to trick Samson into disclosing the source of his strength. He parlays her curiosity into a series of kinky games. He’s too caught up in naughty pursuits to perceive Delilah’s playing a different game. And she’s playing to win fabulous prize money the Philistines offer for Samson’s secret. After he says he’ll be weak as water if Delilah ties him up with seven bowstrings, she hides his enemies in their room, trusses him up, and, pretending to play his game, yells, “Look out, Samson! Here come the Philistines!” He snaps the bowstrings like twine. Delilah pouts. “You lied to me!” she says. “Now, tell me your secret for real.” Samson suggests another tie-me-up scenario. The same thing happens; she pouts some more.

At this point, Samson’s really into these mild S&M games. He dreams up a third scene edging uncomfortably close to his true secret. If Delilah weaves his hair into unfinished fabric on a loom, he’ll be powerless. She follows his directions while he sleeps and startles him awake. No luck. So Delilah pulls out the stops. “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t trust me?” she whines. Her nagging wears Samson down. He tells her everything: “If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.” (Judges 16.17) Sure she’s got the truth, she invites the Philistines back after she shaves Samson’s head. When she wakes him, he doesn’t realize his hair’s been cut. As verse 20 explains, losing his hair causes him to lose God's power: "He did not know that the LORD had left him." His foes seize him, gouge out his eyes, and yoke him to a gristmill. He trudges in blind circles the rest of his life.

Nothing to Play With

Samson’s story illustrates how easily we slip into an inflated sense of self by taking our talents and gifts for granted. Since he’s always been smart and strong, Samson presumes he’ll always be smart and strong. Instead of honoring his vows to live apart from the world, Samson believes he’s immune to the world’s ways. He puts trust in his hair, not the obedience it signifies. Before his enemies take his sight, Samson’s self-regard blinds him to his sacred obligations. He distances himself from God’s ways and people to play games with an unwholesome, envious crowd that fears him. They’re happy to play along, savvy enough to see Samson will stay in the game until he loses everything.

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” Proverbs 16.18 reads. The moment we mistake God’s power for our strength, His wisdom for our intelligence, we request a rude awakening. People who mean us no good and enticements to show off are nothing to play with. Winning arguments and eluding temptation on our own never pleases God or honors us. 1 Corinthians 15.57 assures us staying true to Christ is how we win: “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The longer we’re exposed to harmful influences, the less we respect the Source of our strength. In other words, we eventually tell those who fear our confidence and ability how to destroy us. They shear off our strength, steal our vision, and lock us into a grind of going in circles.

Samson’s hair grows back while he mills around in misery. The Philistines throw a victory party and string him up to jeer at his sorry condition. He prays for new strength. With just enough to bring the place down, he crushes his enemies in one fell blow. Tragically, he dies as well, lost in the ruins of an arena where he sought his own glory, one of many who never live to tell of his mightiest exploit. Playing games sounds fun. Experiments in pleasure are tempting. But they significantly increase our odds of going too far. We can get so comfortable with harmful people and places we don’t find out we’ve lost what we treasure most until it’s too late. Succumbing to shear seduction always ends in sheer defeat.

Ask Samson. Ask Britney. Excessive pride and self-confidence lead to losing sense and strength… and often looking strange.

(Tomorrow: Conscience Cleanser)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Willing Spirits, Weak Bodies

Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

                        Matthew 26.41

The Last Word

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” surely sits in the Top 10 Jesus quotes. It’s said so widely and often it’s been diluted into a sighing apology that usually means, “I would if I weren't so tired.” When we revisit the situation prompting Christ’s remark, we’re liable to be shocked and ashamed at how casually we toss it around. Jesus says it at a time and place that lends it poignant gravity. But while the situation removes all doubt about its profundity, it also creates ambiguity about whom Jesus is talking to. It initially sounds directed to the disciples. Yet as we read on, it’s quite possible Jesus is speaking to Himself. If we re-read the entire passage, it’s sensible to assume He addresses the disciples’ error and His internal turmoil simultaneously.

Matthew records this as the last word Jesus speaks exclusively to His disciples as a mortal. They’ve left the Last Supper to pray in Gethsemane. Over dinner, Jesus has told them He’ll soon leave them and when they arrive at the garden, He distances Himself to pray secretly. He falls facedown and agonizes with God about His imminent suffering, asking to be spared and then submitting to His Father’s will. He appears to reach a point of acceptance, because He returns to rejoin the disciples—who are supposed to be praying with Him—to find them sleeping. He chides Peter for not keeping them awake. Then He says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Knowing Peter will yield to temptation twice before the night ends, we automatically assume the Lord’s statement is aimed directly at him. But that may not be the whole of it. After Jesus says this, He turns back to pray a second time, repeating His first prayer: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26.42)

Weakness on Both Sides

The admonition to withstand temptation with vigilance and prayer—overcoming physical fear and frailty that hinder spiritual trust and resolve—bridges the disciples’ carelessness with Jesus’s caution. It confesses human weakness on both sides. The disciples are exhausted in body and mind. It’s been an unusually grueling week and they’ve spent the past few hours grappling with ominous news. No doubt they have every intention of praying with Jesus, but it’s late, they’re not quite sure how they should pray, and their Master isn’t there to lead them. Fatigue trumps their faith. On the other hand, being privy to the torture awaiting Him, Jesus’s body quakes with dread, urging Him to plead for a stay of execution. His Spirit is willing to see this plan through, yet His body is weak and reluctant. We find our lesson in the contrast between the disciples’ response to Christ’s warning, what He does, and how He and Peter handle themselves as the evening progresses.

Following His second prayer, Jesus discovers the disciples have fallen back to sleep. He doesn’t wake them again, but goes back to pray the same prayer a third time. After that, He rouses them as Judas and his co-conspirators approach. Jesus puts up no resistance to His arrest. He sees His enemies coming and having prayed three times without any indication His fate can be avoided, His Spirit’s willingness to obey takes precedence over His natural impulse to escape. Jesus faces His fears. Failing to discipline his physical compulsions, Peter’s caught off-guard. He attacks Christ’s enemies and, later, cowers in fear of being identified with Jesus. His body’s weakness undermines his spirit’s willingness.

Willing and Willful

Our spirits are willing. Our bodies are willful. One guides us to please our Maker. The other drives us to satisfy our urges. The spirit and body engage in constant conflict, the former leading us to do what’s best and the latter pressing for what's easiest. It’s like dieting. When an enticing yet fattening treat is placed before us, we’re presented with a choice: eat now and pay later or sacrifice now and profit later. Choosing between our spirits and bodies is no different. Each choice boils down to this question: whose example will we follow, Christ’s or Peter’s?

When we follow Jesus, we’re watchful against reacting angrily and fearfully when confronted. We stay prayerful, continuously in contact with our Father, Who strengthens our resolve. When we follow Peter, we’re taken by surprise. We’re not watching for temptations headed our way and praying for strength. We lose emotional and physical control. Our bodies’ willfulness to survive overwhelms our spirits’ willingness to succeed. Willfulness masks weakness, while willingness reveals strength. If we desire to defeat temptation, we must watch and pray. Sleep can wait. Self-gratification can be denied. Weakness can be overpowered. Our spirits can will it so.

We follow one of two examples when dealing with temptation: Christ’s or Peter’s.

(Tomorrow: Shear Seduction)

Monday, August 24, 2009

It's Good

It is good to praise the LORD, and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night.

Psalm 92.1-2

Morning, Noon, and Night

Most Pentecostal congregations worship twice on Sundays. The morning service is typically more formal and reverent, adhering to a standard order of worship and keeping an eye on the clock. Evening worship tends to be freer and livelier. While it follows an outline similar to the morning service, the relaxed atmosphere encourages worshipers to spend extra time in impromptu, celebratory praise. There’s a lot more singing on Sunday nights, with morning hymns replaced by catchy, up-tempo songs sung from memory, repeatedly and at length to unite the people in praise.

My favorite of these is “Praise Him,” a real toe-tapper that says, “Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him in the morning; praise Him in the noonday. Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him when the sun goes down.” As I’ve witnessed many times, something mystical transpires as the song buoys the congregation’s spirits with its ineffable joy. By the third or fourth iteration, worshipers begin reflecting on God’s goodness, morning, noon, and night—mercies greeting them at dawn, provisions and grace following them through the day, and peaceful rest attending them at sundown. Its simple reminder of our daily blessings transforms “Praise Him” from a swift-paced ditty into a rapturous anthem, the musical equivalent of an oft-repeated Pentecostal statement: “God is good all the time.”

Good for Us

The composer of Psalm 92 earmarks it as a Sabbath song, suggesting it’s appropriate to sing it any time of year, as opposed to certain seasons or festivals. And what’s most striking about his/her lyric is its framing perspective: “It’s good to praise the Lord.” The psalmist wants us realize God ordained praise as much for our benefit as His honor. That’s why praise is never inappropriate. It needs no occasion. God expects our praises. In Isaiah 43.21, He refers to us as “the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.” Yet, like everything else He asks of us—obedience, trust, commitment, and love—praise ends up being good for us. Honestly? Whether or not God receives praise is of no consequence to Him. Ingratitude, forgetfulness, negativity, and anything else diminishing our praise can’t diminish Him. He remains as loving and powerful as ever. Heeding Psalm 92.2, proclaiming God’s love in the morning and His faithfulness at night, helps us. It fills our days with the reality of His goodness. When we don’t make praise a habit, our days are full of doubt and anxiety. The less we praise, the bigger our problems seem and the smaller we feel. Diminished praise diminishes us.

Perpetual Praise

The psalm’s fourth verse reads, “For you make me glad by your deeds, O LORD; I sing for joy at the works of your hands.” Perpetual praise keeps us constantly aware of wonderful things God has done and continues to do for us. We marvel in joy at His wisdom and way of working things out. Praise that keeps God’s goodness always before us keeps our faith in Him alive and strong. We know without a doubt He’ll help us with each day’s turmoil, just as we know He’s helping us deal with ongoing struggles one day at a time. Praising God for what He’s done invites us to praise Him in advance for what He is doing and will do. In Philippians 1.6, Paul concludes offering thanks to God for the believers at Philippi by saying, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Past praise leads to future praise. It changes how we view what’s happening now and what’s coming later.

My grandfather passed away when I was 10. Yet no one rivals his influence on my life and faith. He was larger than life in every sense and came by his nickname, “Big Daddy,” physically and spiritually. When we visited him, I stayed at his side. Randomly through the day, he’d whisper little praises. They flowed as naturally from him as his laughter and kindness. One day I asked, “Big Daddy, why are you always thanking and praising God?” His answer imprinted itself forever in my heart. “Well, it’s like this,” he said. “God has done so many good things for me, they just keep bubbling up in my mind. When they do, I make sure I praise Him right then and there so I don’t miss doing it later. It makes me happy when I tell Him how wonderful He is.” I’m convinced Big Daddy’s determination to praise God morning, noon, and night explains why he was the happiest person I’ve ever known. And he died happy. God called him at the end of a Sunday morning service as he joined the congregation in one last offering of praise. God is good all the time. It’s good to give praise to the Lord.

God ordained praise for our benefit as well as His honor.

(Image courtesy of Lisa Ellis, a tremendously gifted creator of worship quilts.)

(Tomorrow: Willing Spirits, Weak Bodies)

Postscript: “Praise Him!”

For those who are curious about the song, “Praise Him”—or fondly recall it from their upbringing—here’s a little taste. (It’s somehow perfect a Catholic choir from France performs the best video rendition of it I could find.)

Chorale la Villanelle (Beaugency, France): "Praise Him"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

From Coat to Robes; or, Rejected to Rise

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!”

                        Genesis 45.4 

Beautiful Dreamer

Thanks to diligent Sunday school teachers everywhere, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, we can dispense with a detailed plot summary and get to the good stuff. Here are the headlines to jog our memories. Joseph is the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons. His father gives him a colorfully ornamented coat to show his favoritism, while his Father favors him with the ability to have and interpret prescient dreams. Both gifts make his brothers jealous. They steal Joseph’s coat, sell him to slave traders, and tell Jacob wild animals killed him. Joseph ends up in Egypt, where his dream skills and integrity prompt his rise from household slave to governor second only to Pharaoh. Meanwhile, famine befalls his family, bringing his brothers to Egypt to buy grain. They bow before Joseph—just as his childhood dreams predicted—and after a bit of back-and-forth, he finally reveals his identity to them.

Joseph’s fancy, handmade coat has faded from his brothers’ memory and he sits before them, unrecognizable in richly tailored robes. The beautiful dreamer they “killed” is now a handsome ruler who holds their lives in his hands. They never dreamed of this when they shipped him off and forgot about him nearly 20 years earlier. But Joseph hasn’t forgot them, his dreams, and most important, his God. Indeed, confidence in promises imparted to him in dreams sustains him during his years of estrangement. And although Joseph embraces his brothers with heartfelt love and forgiveness, their reunion is bittersweet. Both sides suffered needlessly due to the brothers’ envy and insecurities. What’s more, when they rejected Joseph, they naïvely redirected Hebrew history. Selling their little brother into slavery ends in their people’s enslavement for generations to come.

Humbled by Force

The brothers’ primary mistake comes from foolishly thinking they’ll regain Jacob’s affection by eliminating Joseph. They hate him for being “different”—younger, innately wiser, and more talented than they. This is survival strategy, plain and simple, and it doesn’t work. It first backfires by grieving Jacob; he never fully recovers from the loss of his son and the brothers never receive the favor they crave. Second, faith they inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should alert them to expect their plot will fail. Yet human reasoning blinds them to God’s principles of love and justice. They forget His penchant for classic reversals.

Jesus provides a fine explanation—and moral—for Joseph’s saga in Matthew 23.12: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” In this case, Joseph is humbled by force. He’s outnumbered and an outsider. He can’t change who he is. He can’t return the gifts he’s given; they come to him without asking, because of what his earthly father sees in him and what his heavenly Father shows him as he sleeps. Still, nowhere in Scripture do we find Joseph resist being humbled—not by his brothers, nor in Egypt, where he’s wrongly accused and imprisoned. He alone of Jacob’s sons lives by faith in God’s mercy. He rejects rejection to trust God’s favor and will for his life. Consequently, every setback turns into a leap forward.

Everlasting Pride and Joy

Every day, humility is forced on sincere believers. Their families and faith communities reject them because they don’t conform to “normal” attitudes and behaviors. Their gifts skew their view of the world through unique filters. As their perspectives assert themselves, others grow resentful of their self-confidence and assurance in God’s promises. They’re sold off, forgotten, and presumed dead. They land in strange countries, where they’re buffeted by further hostility and situations they can’t control. Yet those who remember the individuality and favor that precipitated their rejection will rise. The colorful coats they treasured will be replaced with royal robes. Their success in exile will one day lead those who humiliated them to turn to them in need.

Many of us presently stand at midpoint in this journey, halfway between homes we knew and fulfillment of dreams we’ve been given. We’re humbled by force. But we find strength in humility by trusting our dreams. What’s done is done. Looking back in anger and resentment only erodes our assurance we’ve been rejected to rise. This is God’s promise and He will deliver. If we accept our humbling, we will be exalted. Isaiah 60.14-15 says: “The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet… Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no one traveling through, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.” God has richly favored each of us. The jealousy and insecurities of others have brought us low. Still, God’s glory shines in our lives. The pride and joy stolen from our lives will be returned in everlasting pride and joy that stands the test of time.

Rising out of rejection: “Close Every Door to Me” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

(Tomorrow: It’s Good)

Postscript: Fran's Back!

Several weeks ago, the always astute and irrepressible Fran published the last post on her wildly popular FranIAm, leaving a gaping hole in the blogosphere. We who cherished her place as a lively, comfortable gathering spot sufficed by keeping in touch via her Facebook page. But it wasn't like hanging out with Fran in a place of her own. Well, for all of us who've felt a little lost since then, I'm delighted to hear she's launched a new blog, There Will Be Bread.

In the year or so since Fran found Straight-Friendly (and no one's better at finding new spots than she), we've become fast friends. She's been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration, both in her comments here as well as many long, offline conversations. During our talks, Fran said she felt led to redirect her focus from FranIAm's more general (though always faith-imbued) interests to topics more specifically centered on Christian experience and concerns. There Will Be Bread comes out of this.

If you've not yet got acquainted with Fran, now's the perfect time to do so. I'm thrilled to add There Will Be Bread to S-F's links roster. And I'm leaving the FranIAm link there also, for those who discover her at Bread and want to go back to see whence it came.

Fran, we can't wait to see where this new venture will take you--and all of us who travel and pray alongside you!