Saturday, September 5, 2009

Learning as We Go

He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.

                        Psalm 25.9

Shaking Stereotypes

Few feelings are more vexing, I think, than behaving stereotypically without being able to shake it. Years ago, while staying in Paris, Walt and I scooted off to London. He’d never been and I’d not returned since college. Walking out of Victoria Station into a bustling hurly-burly, I instantly saw my memory of the place had been lacquered with Dickensian sentimentality. It remained a labyrinth of streets, but the traffic and crowds diluted the charm I recalled. One evening, we headed into West End clutching a list of plays, planning to see the first we found with available seats. The cab dropped us at The Lion King. It was sold out. So, map in one hand, list in the other, with the clock ticking, we looked for another. No matter which way we went, we’d turn the corner and find ourselves back at The Lion King. “Ask somebody,” Walt pleaded. But something in me couldn’t abide the idea. “There’s no need,” I insisted. “We’ll find something.” The night ended with us eating overpriced curry in Soho, sullen and silent. He was angry at my stubbornness, but nowhere as much as I.

Not asking for directions was such a man thing—the stuff of sitcoms and New Yorker cartoons. What was my problem? The more I thought about it, the worse my regret and deeper my shame at putting myself in the way of what I truly desired. I wanted to share the London I knew and loved with Walt. Somewhere in the middle of that, though, my pride entered the mix. I couldn’t bear to admit I no longer knew London very well. Stumbling through the West End, I kept bumping into me and I couldn’t shake the stereotype of the willful, self-absorbed husband. Pretending I knew the right way led me wrong. Unwillingness to own up to my ignorance taught me the value of learning as we go. It was a costly lesson. It pretty much killed Walt’s interest in London. We’ve not gone back since.

Going With What We Know

If there’s a stereotype David struggles hardest to shake, it’s the “man thing” of not stopping for directions. His notorious scheme to marry Bathsheba is a case in point. He spots her from his palace roof, is totally smitten, and inquires who she is. Learning she’s the wife of Uriah, David hatches a plan to woo him. He invites Uriah to the palace, gives him fancy gifts, and wines and dines him. Once he wins Uriah’s trust, David sends him into battle, where he’s killed. His death crushes Bathsheba. Yet her pain doesn’t faze David, who, given his sensitivity to godly things, surely sees the stupidity of pursuing his plan. Still, he cagily waits until Bathsheba recovers, marries her, and they have a son. According to 2 Samuel 11.27, “The thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

God sends His prophet, Nathan, to charge the king with adultery. Instead of sentencing David to death—the legal penalty for sleeping with another man’s wife—Nathan prophesies the son’s death. No matter which way he turns, David bumps into his pride in thinking he could pull off such a dastardly deed without paying for his deceit of Uriah and Bathsheba. He begs God to spare his son’s life to no avail. Coming to grips with his pride turns into a costly lesson. Perhaps for the first time in life, David experiences the sorrow that befalls us by arrogantly going with what we know instead of humbling ourselves to learn as we go. Had he paused to seek God’s guidance, he would have abandoned his circuitous path and saved himself the humiliation of learning he deceived himself worst of all.

Running on Empty

Since we have no records pinpointing when David composed each of his psalms, we can’t place Psalm 25 before or after his debacle with Bathsheba. But it surely carries the weight of getting lost in pride-inflicted misery. “No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse,” David writes in verse 3, calling on God in verses 4 and 5 to “show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me.” In verse 7, He pleads, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways,” which in verses 15-20 he attributes to causing numerous problems—feeling trapped, lonely, anguished, hated, and humiliated. This is a man running on empty. Nonetheless, his sensibilities rally. He recognizes what has to happen to get back on course. Before even itemizing his woes, he announces what he’s learned from his mistakes: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way… Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.” (v8-9; 12).

Presuming we’re smart and experienced enough to go with what we know is a stereotype we all need to shake. Christ’s path is too narrow for ego-driven stubbornness and too straight for circuitous schemes. Going our way infers we know where we’re headed and we don’t. When we follow Jesus, we cast off prior knowledge and sense of direction. He maps our course. We humbly accept this. Isaiah 42.16 says, “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.” The smarter and more experienced we become, the humbler and more dependent on God’s guidance we are. We stop worrying about dark stretches and bumpy spots. Our Leader turns darkness into light and smoothes out rough roads. We learn the only way to get where we’re going is by learning as we go.

Going on what we know leads to some humiliating places. Better to humble ourselves and learn as we go.

(Tomorrow: Plugged In)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Noble Attempts

Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

                        Matthew 14.29-30 

Great Instincts, Lousy Reflexes

Jesus automatically gets top billing in the walking-on-water story, but Peter’s the actual star. Matthew’s account opens with Jesus crossing a lake on foot as an introduction to the main event: Peter’s attempt to walk the waves. Nothing is expected or routine in this one-off episode. When it happens, the disciples have been with Jesus over two years. They’ve seen dozens of miracles as well as supernatural phenomena like calming storms. What they’ve not seen they probably imagine, since every miracle Jesus performs prior to this echoes feats by Old Testament prophets. Even so, according to Mark’s version (which omits Peter’s part of the story), the disciples have difficulty comprehending how Jesus does these things. And since water walking doesn’t enter the encyclopedia of miracles until this moment, it’s totally inconceivable to them. Peering into the night to find a figure coming toward them, the disciples think it’s a ghost.

The weather is perfect for ghosts—howling winds, boiling waves, and ominous skies, hardly prime conditions for a late-night stroll on the lake if it were possible. Jesus tells them to relax: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14.27) That’s all Peter needs to hear. He wants to try. “If it’s You,” he calls to Jesus, “tell me to come to You.” Jesus does. Peter steps across the water without a problem until a gust of wind reminds him what he’s doing. His heart is full of great impulses, while his mind runs rampant with lousy reflexes. The bottom drops out. He starts to go under. Jesus pulls Peter up and scolds him: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”—not “What are you doing?” but “Why do you doubt?”

Leap of Faith

Christ’s question leads to easy conclusions about doubt that jaundice our regard for Peter. Yet since the pivotal moment comes with Peter’s leap of faith rather than his loss of it, we can read a significantly different message and view Peter with greater respect. His request to leave the boat reveals genuine belief in Christ. Once Jesus calls, Peter's on the water and moving toward Him in a fraction of the time we’d spend talking ourselves into (or, more likely, out of) even trying. So he doesn’t make it all the way. So the wind knocks the faith out of him. So his reflexes take over and he panics. So he almost drowns and has to ask for help. So he’s ashamed for doubting. So? Let’s not malign Peter’s nervy ambition; let’s marvel at his noble attempt. Although he didn’t fully succeed, his partial success still constitutes an act of faith unmatched to this day. Peter is the only mortal ever to walk on water.

Personal Confidence

Rethinking Peter’s water walk as partial triumph and not total failure seems to throw Jesus’s question out of whack. But why does Peter doubt? He can’t be skeptical about walking on water; he’s doing it. He can’t be worried about displeasing Jesus; he’s answering His call. He can’t be worried about the disciples; they’re out of the picture. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, suggesting the wind-smack causes Peter to lose confidence in his own belief. His head fills with “hows,” stealing his heart’s focus on “Who.” Jesus gently tells Peter personal confidence in his belief is as important as belief itself.

When Jesus refers to anyone as “you of little faith,” He’s challenging his/her insecurities, while “lack of faith” connotes total unbelief. For example, Matthew ends chapter 13 saying Jesus performs no miracles in Nazareth due to its “lack of faith.” The Greek word is apaistia—faithlessness: “I don’t believe it.” In contrast, the Greek for “you of little faith” is oligopistos—incredulity: “How can this be?” The subtle distinction between “lack of faith” and “little faith” makes a huge difference in how we view Peter’s water-walking experience. His belief remains sound, but when the wind changes and his confidence founders, his faith shrinks and he sinks.

Believing God can do anything isn’t the same as trusting Him for everything. Without personal confidence, belief produces little faith. The doubt we most often trip over is our own uneasy suspicions that if we can’t comprehend how it’s done, we'll never be sure it will be done. Instincts fade, reflexes kick in, and we start looking at the wind when we should confidently look to Jesus. We may merit recognition for getting so far. We may do something no one’s ever done. But partial triumph doesn’t compare to total success. Noble attempts become notable acts when we stand confident on what our hearts believe without getting sunk by what our minds can’t conceive. Why do we doubt?

Noble attempts become notable acts when we stop worrying about what’s in the wind and start walking toward Christ.

(Tomorrow: Learning as We Go)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Give 'Em Something to Talk About

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

                        John 13.35 

How About Love?

I’m predisposed to like Bonnie Raitt. She exudes a kind of old-soul pragmatism I find appealing in its skill to cut to the chase without getting twisted up in superfluous emotions. In fact, a number of her songs are written from the viewpoint of someone so self-contained and experienced petty nonsense flies right by her. Raitt’s 1991 single, “Something to Talk About”—her biggest hit to date—draws on this perspective. Its freewheeling tone and tempo set the song in the voice of a more seasoned lady speaking to a younger or perhaps less worldly man. Evidently they’ve been friends for a while and their relationship has set tongues wagging with suspicion they’re lovers. At first she dismisses the idea. But then she detects there may be some validity to the rumors. The talk makes her buddy nervous, as if he’s concerned it will reveal his hidden desire for her. She welcomes the chance to take their friendship to a more intimate level, however, and tells him, “Let’s give ‘em something to talk about, a little mystery to figure out. How about love?” In one fell swoop, she brings love into her life and defuses the rumors by confirming them. How smart is that?

People Talk

It’s absurd to imagine we can conduct ourselves in such a way we’ll never become grist for the gossip mill. People talk. And most of the time, their reason for talking has more to do with them than us. They talk to prove how much they know. (“Well, I heard…”) If we can’t prevent being talked about, we can influence what people say by giving them something to talk about. Basically, that’s Jesus’s point in telling us “everyone will know you’re My disciples if you love one another.” When we’re known for our love, what’s said about us is affected in one of two ways. Either people discuss how we love others as ourselves, or if someone suggests otherwise, they and their comments carry no credible weight.

Christ and His disciples work in an atmosphere crackling with gossip and character assassination. This is common in repressive environments like theirs—where everyone issubjected to intense scrutiny by the religious right—as well as among oppressed groups like the Jews living under Caesar’s thumb. People who feel unworthy and powerless grab at anything they can to prove their legitimacy. Knowledge is power; it confers authority—if it’s authentic. Speculation boomerangs on the talker. People stop listening to the gossip and start talking about the gossiper. Jesus explained how to handle talebearers in His Sermon on the Mount: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5.11) Here, He instructs us to be known for love so those who limit their conversation to facts can only speak well of us. “Give ‘em something to talk about,” He says, “a little mystery to figure out. How about love?”

Good Gossip

Is anyone more fascinating than one who loves without condition and restraint? A person who’s known for his/her love generates good gossip by raising questions about where so much love comes from and how it’s constantly expressed. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this. A friend whose dating history is rather spotty introduced her new boyfriend to several of us. Beyond being handsome, he was also outgoing, unaffected, and genuinely fond of our girl. He became the hot topic before we could get home to call one another about him. Surely something’s wrong somewhere, we thought, because everything about him seems right. So far, everything indicates we were wrong—not only for talking, but also for doubting—and we still spend more than usual time discussing him. With the cynicism behind us, though, our conversation revolves around what a fine, gentle, loving guy he is. He mystifies us and we feel honored to know him.

When people talk about us, what do they say? It’s worth noting, because it’s a good measure of how well we’ve mastered Jesus’s instructions. It’s often said love is a decision, not an emotion. Yet in light of Christ’s commandments, there’s nothing to decide. Love is what we do. It’s what we’re known for. Choice isn’t an option. We love equally and unilaterally, without selective preference. If we truly seek identification with Jesus, our first order of business is to love as He loves. Deciding we can love some more and others less (or not all) also gives people something to talk about. But what’s said won’t reflect Christ. In John 3.16, Jesus states His impetus for living and dying as one of us: “God loved the world.” As His disciples, we understand each of us comes into this world for the same purpose and reason. God loves the world. We embody and express His love accordingly. Loving everyone, from our closest friends to our worst enemies, we fulfill Christ’s laws of love and squelch false rumors. People won’t have to be told we follow Jesus. They’ll know. That’s something to talk about!

Give ‘em something to talk about. How about love?

(Tomorrow: Noble Attempts)

Postscript: Can’t Resist…

The Raitt tune’s been pounding in my ears the whole time while writing this. Although it’s not about discipleship, the chorus very well could be. For those who need a refresher, here it is.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Leaving a Legacy

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that whose who believe are children of Abraham.

                        Galatians 3.6-7

Dynastic Mystiques

A friend and I talked about the Kennedys last weekend, as many did, saying how sad it was to lose Eunice and Teddy 14 days apart. “The real tragedy is none of the grandkids met their stature. I guess this ends the dynasty,” he said. I didn’t buy it. Every socially conscious American under 60 is a Kennedy, I told him—everyone who owns responsibility for the disadvantaged and disabled is an heir to their legacy. When you peel away the money, glamour, and scandal, passion for freedom and justice rests at the core of the Kennedy mystique. Rising to the occasion forced them to rise above privilege, tragedies, and deficits. Their perseverance inspired millions to do the same. And as poorly as they often behaved, the integrity of the their beliefs was never at issue. It held them together and survives in we who are bound by similar beliefs.

In Galatians 3, Paul cites another dynastic mystique that molded millions of lives despite its family’s flubs. Quoting Deuteronomy, Paul says Abraham “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (v6) He doesn’t go into Abraham’s dalliance with a maid, their illegitimate son, the nephew who slept with two daughters, the grandson who stole the family fortune, the great-grandkids who sold their little brother into slavery—none of that. Abraham’s unswerving faith is why he’s revered as a righteous man. His legacy outgrew his family, entitling all who believed to claim his lineage, regardless of ethnic origin or social status. “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,” Paul writes in verses 8-9, “and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Epic Proportions

Abraham actually didn’t appear to accomplish very much in his lifetime. For the most part, he wandered around, looking for a spot to raise children he didn’t have. The longer and farther he roamed, the older he and his wife got, until their childbearing years elapsed. But Abraham was driven by a promise. God told him he would father a nation. His heroism springs entirely from his confidence in God no matter how it flouted conventional wisdom. His wife even laughed at the idea of having a child and parenting a people. Still, reaching old age without a son in his arms or a country in his possession wasn’t enough for Abraham to give up. He kept going, and going, and going. At the age of 100, his child arrived.

Before his grandchildren were born or the promised territory fell into his hands, Abraham died. Yet to the end, he believed God. And God honored Abraham’s faith. “It was credited to him,” Paul explains. God owed Abraham. So it turns out, while Abraham left the world with little to show for in measurable terms—one son—his accomplishment reached epic proportions. His legacy continues to this day. What we believe goes back to Abraham, who invested all of his trust to yield an inexhaustible fortune of faith.


Sometimes God calls patriarchs like Abraham. Sometimes he endows entire generations, much like the Kennedy sons and daughters. Either way, he equips them with long-range vision that looks beyond lifetime achievements to focus on leaving a legacy. It’s altogether possible the work they start won’t—can’t—be completed in one generation. But their all-consuming belief it can and will be done is credited to them. Long after they leave the scene, God continues to honor their commitment. Their faith legacy multiplies with each generation until it exceeds their family’s needs and spills into common trust accessible to everyone.

Writing to first-century Christians, many who live as outcasts and wanderers among their own, Peter says, “You are chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2.9) If we believe that, we can be that. Changes we long to achieve may not be ours to enjoy before we leave. Christian acceptance we pray for may not come in our time. Nonetheless, faith in God’s promises and what He’s chosen us to do must not fail. In closing, Paul encourages the Galatians: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest of blessings if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6.9) Our work here will be finished in time and on time, if not for our sake, then for that of future generations. Living only for ourselves, looking only for our good, means nothing we do will outlast us. Leaving a legacy is how we create change that endures.

We may not complete the work we’re chosen to do, yet for the sake of those to come, faith in God and our efforts must not fail.

(Tomorrow: Give ‘Em Something to Talk About)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Parents Need Our Prayers

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

                        Exodus 20.12

Second Guessing

Luke, a Straight-Friendly email subscriber, left a comment on last Thursday’s “Conscience Cleanser” post that’s stuck with me ever since. If you missed it, here’s the portion that startled me to fresh awareness:

This false guilt blog really hit home with me. Not because I have false guilt over something, at least not that I am aware of now. It hit home because of my mother. She and my father both thought my being gay was their fault… It is hard to admit that you have nothing to be guilty about for some people. No matter if you did or not God has forgiven you because of Jesus' sacrifice. My parents wouldn't accept that or that they had done nothing wrong to begin with. It tortured them for a long time.

Luke’s story reminded me no matter how God shapes us, male or female, regardless of orientation, our parents naturally believe they could have done better. When we veer from the course they envisioned—drastically, as is usually the case for parents of GLBT children, or subtly—they’re left second guessing decisions and choices they made. It’s all too easy for parents to accept false guilt for perceived failures and incredibly difficult for them to accept God’s plan for us doesn’t always synch up with theirs. We may never convince them nothing they’ve done—or possibly could do—affects who we basically are. There may be nothing we can do to alleviate their anxiety. But we can intercede for their peace and comfort. Our parents need our prayers.

“This is Me”

As I’ve mentioned before, “coming out” isn’t a uniquely gay rite. We all come out once we mature into full personhood. Traits and proclivities we quietly harbor through youth grow more pronounced as our self-confidence improves. Many of them sneak out before we know it—a competitive drive becomes self-evident in our passion for sports or a solitary nature reveals itself in voluntarily keeping to ourselves. But eventually our closets run out of space for parts of us we try to hide. We open the door and announce, “This is me. This is who I’m meant to be.”

The coming-out experience is traumatic for some and reaffirming for others. From the worst to best possible scenario, freedom to live openly and honestly ends with us feeling relieved and exhilarated. We’re ready to get on with our lives. Before we dash into the future, though, we may find our parents headed into the past, replaying missed opportunities to steer us from potential dangers and disappointments we may encounter. From the most supportive to the least, they’re apt to feel let down and guilty on some level. Their responses may range from “I don’t care who you are, I’ll always love you” to “I didn’t raise you to be this way.” Wherever their reactions fall (and settle) on the acceptance spectrum, as followers of Christ, we accept them as they are because we desire their acceptance. If they enfold us in loving arms or angrily kick us to the curb, knowing their behavior and attitude toward us comes from internal struggle is why we love them and pray for them.

Second to God

The Ten Commandments' ordinal arrangement reveals a fascinating insight into God’s estimation of parenthood. The first four focus on Him: I come first; no idols allowed; revere My Name; set aside one day a week for Me. Then, before the big stuff that makes news—murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and greed—He wedges in a commandment many find toughest to obey: Honor your parents. Since He does nothing randomly, we assume putting this behind those about Him tells us to esteem our parents as second to God. Particularly for those whose parents act and think nothing like God, this sounds unreasonably impossible. How can He ask us to honor people who abused us physically and emotionally, neglected and rejected us, who withheld love and tormented us with fear, who took more than they gave? God only knows. But here are two viable theories.

First, we honor our parents as His instruments in our creation. Second, we honor them for our health and peace of mind. Reviling and resenting them weakens us. Thus, God promises long, established lives for those who obey. Our relationships with our parents may be damaged beyond repair. Yet inoperability doesn’t relieve us from showing the same kinds of concern we needed and still need from them. Those who endure unmitigated horror at their parents’ hands have every right to question why God placed them there to suffer. Yet they also should consider the possibility such questions are misdirected. Could it be we’re sent to love our parents, not the opposite? Again, only God knows, though it’s worth pondering, if only to aid obedience to His Word. Whether we credence this or not, we're still obligated to obey. When we can’t reach our parents with love, we can honor them with our prayers.

One last thought. Luke’s comment takes us to Calvary, where Mary stands. We wonder what she’s thinking and feeling as she looks up at her oldest Son splayed on a criminal’s cross. It defies all logic to imagine she’s not crushed with false guilt. How her mind must run through the past, searching frantically for where she failed, panicking at the thought she must have failed. John’s Gospel suggests Jesus senses Mary’s anguish. He sees her and calls out, “Dear woman, here is your son,” indicating John. Then He tells John, “Here is your mother.” “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home,” John 19.27 says. At His weakest, loneliest hour, Jesus saw to His mother’s care. We can do no less. Parents need our prayers.

No matter how “perfect” we grow up to be, our parents will inevitably feel guilty for not having done better. If we can’t dissuade them of this, we can pray for their peace and comfort.

(Tomorrow: Leaving a Legacy)

Postscript: Glade Church

I’m delighted to add Glade Church in Blacksburg, Virginia to Straight-Friendly’s “Welcoming Churches” list. It comes to us by way of personal recommendation by Alice, a regular reader here who attends the church with her partner. She recently inquired about how her church could be listed. After explaining I ask for an emailed permission from pastors of all the churches listed here, her pastor, Rev. Kelly M. Sisson immediately replied.

Glade Church and Rev. Sisson are active leaders in campus ministry at Virginia Tech, the site of last year’s horrible killings. Their witness of Christ’s love and healing is extraordinary in their on-campus work, congregational life, and numerous other outreach ministries they support. To learn more about the church, visit their site here:

Glade Church

Alice, thank you so much for bringing this vibrant body of believers to our attention! We will keep you, your partner, your pastor, and your community of faith in our prayers.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Wonderful Things

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me.

                        Psalm 119.18-19

New to These Parts

John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) casts Jeff Bridges as an alien who crashes to Earth and assumes the identity of Karen Allen’s deceased husband. He coerces her to drive him to Arizona, where he’ll rendezvous with a homeward bound ship. They travel for a while before he asks to drive. She doesn’t like the idea. He assures her he’s watched her closely to learn the rules. It appears he has, until he tries to beat a red light and causes a multi-car collision. “You said you watched me, you said you knew the rules!” she yells. He calmly replies, “I do know the rules.” She disputes this. “Oh, for your information, pal, that was a yellow light back there.” Still unruffled, he answers, “I watched you very carefully. Red light: stop. Green light: go. Yellow light: go very fast.”

An element of Starman rings through Psalm 119.19: “I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me.” Like the Starman, the psalmist is also new to these parts. Instead of learning from human example, though, he/she seeks guidance in God’s Word. There’s a note of concern here, an alertness of how easily what God says will get lost if we base our lives on what others do. His Word says, “Proceed with caution.” They misread it to mean "go very fast." That yellow-light mentality is what distinguishes God’s way from ours. He shapes His instructions to keep us from harm and causing harm. In return, we stretch His Word to suit our agenda. We live as recklessly as we can inside His limits on the premise they’re there to save us from punishment. But keeping us out of Hell isn’t the purpose behind God’s standards. They’re meant to teach us how to please Him and fulfill His purpose, i.e., the most pleasing, fulfilling way to live. “Your statutes are my delight,” the psalmist writes in verse 42. “They are my counselors.” It’s because the psalmist feels like an outsider that he/she puts complete faith in what God says, not what people do.

Gnats and Camels

In Matthew 23, Jesus issues seven woes to religious leaders of His day, charging them as hypocrites who uphold the Law in principle but contradict it in practice. He accuses them of exclusion, dereliction, erroneous doctrine, injustice, self-indulgence, impurity, and false piety. Near the middle of His sermon, Jesus says, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (v24) He’s citing the same kind of yellow-light thinking that caused car accidents in Starman. In Christ’s time, pious Jews strained their wine through finely woven cloth to catch gnats that fell in the vats. They were unclean and not to be digested. Camels, the largest animals in Palestine, also were unclean, yet Jesus says the Pharisees and lawyers’ obsession with filtering out tiny Scriptural points to condemn others made them gullible to grossly foul ideas. Thus, when we hear the psalmist pray, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” he/she is asking for perspective to find the beauty and wisdom of God’s ways without being blinded by gnats or force-fed camels.

The Bible swarms with gnats, especially in the Old Testament, where clouds of them circulate in detailed protocols, genealogies, and prophecies. Indeed, they get so thick in Leviticus and Numbers they blind us to God’s reasons for dictating such minute directions to the Hebrews. And make no mistake: wherever we find gnats, camels are lurking nearby. Gnats feed on camels’ filth and infiltrate their payloads. They annoy and distract and make everyone miserable. When we stumble across anyone preoccupied with Scriptural gnats, we should leave quickly and politely. We have no patience with gnats, nor any stomach for camels. Like the psalmist, we want to see wonderful things in God’s Word. Gnats and camels hide the beauty of His commands.

Open Seven Days a Week

Gnats and camels notwithstanding, Scripture flows cover-to-cover with wonderful things. They’re pure, nourishing, and easily digested. If we approach God’s Word as anything less than His message to us, however, our eyes will remain closed to much of its wealth. The stories will read like history, the miracles like fairy tales, the Psalms like prose poems, the Proverbs like self-help, the prophets like sci-fi, the Gospels like biography, and the epistles like philosophy—all of them first-rate, but none intended to be appreciated solely on literary merits. Further down, in verse 105, the psalmist pens the best description ever written of the Bible’s real value: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” When we come to it with open hearts and minds, our eyes open to wonderful things. It lights our path to hidden beauty and wisdom. It protects us from being swayed by those who devalue its precepts by speeding through yellow lights and straining out gnats. But we’ll discover none of these treasures if our Bibles stay closed until we cart them off to Sunday service. To experience all the wonderful things God’s Word offers, we open it seven days a week. It lights our way.

Many Christians recklessly stretch God’s guidelines to suit their purposes. He says, “Proceed with caution;” they go very fast.

(Tomorrow: Parents Need Our Prayers)

Sunday, August 30, 2009


As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain… I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

                        2 Corinthians 6.1-2

Waiting for Change

If we had a nickel for every person who says, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” we could all retire. If we had a dime for every time someone say he/she plans to reunite with the Church as soon as it changes its stance against homosexuals or women priests or [fill in the blank], we’d be wealthy for life. While we empathize with the pain and disillusionment people have wrongfully experienced under the guise of Christianity, shouldn’t we wonder how much of this “waiting for change” position is legitimately thought out and how much is a ready-made excuse for not taking the initiative to follow Jesus?

Disenfranchised Christians are willing to wait for change because they believe they can wait. They know God’s grace is everlasting. He will welcome them back once they overcome their resentment and/or His people repent from their ways. Yet Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 6.1-2 challenges this idea. Waiting to reactivate one’s faith is nothing less than receiving “God’s grace in vain.” It’s relying on His love and mercy to be there when we get ready without accepting our immediate responsibility to express it. Paul urges us not to wait for more favorable conditions. “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor,” he writes. “Now is the day of salvation.” Confidence that God’s love and grace will be given as freely tomorrow as it is today makes today the day to embrace it. Waiting for others to accept us before we accept the fullness of God’s grace is, well, silly.

Fear in Drag

Resentment of Christian institutions and people who reject us seems logical until we consider what it is and who suffers because of it. Basically, resentment amounts to fear in drag. It camouflages insecurities about not being accepted, recognized, or appreciated, attempting to turn the tables on hostility by saying, “You don’t want me? Well, I don’t want you, either.” If this were a sixth-grade sleepover we didn’t get invited to, then perhaps isolating ourselves from the crowd might be understandable. But this is God’s grace—a life built on His love and light, an existence that grows daily in His wisdom and power. Removing ourselves from active discipleship because other disciples push us aside hurts us. Our resentment concedes to their error and, worse yet, accedes to their opinion we don’t—and can’t—belong to Christ. It proves we’re afraid of them.

This isn’t about them, though. It’s about Him and us. They only enter the picture when our fear of being rejected (again) or hurt (again) breeds resentment of them and the One they claim to represent. Actually, strike that last phrase. If we have one sliver of understanding about God and His love, we know their actions bear no resemblance to Him. We may believe we look and sound tough when we criticize other Christians for hating us and casting us aside. But after the show’s over and makeup comes off, all we’re left with is our fear.

What—or who—are we afraid of? Did God go on sabbatical? Has His sight grown too dim to look at our hearts? Has He got too feeble to manage His affairs? Surely, we know better. Then why do we let self-appointed judges and gatekeepers block our access to His grace or tell us what He thinks? Don’t we realize the fallacy we perpetuate when we think abandoning Christ will free us from Christian bigotry? If that were possible, why are so many of us still resentful and afraid? We’re no freer now than when we faced religious hostility head-on. But we’re a great deal poorer because we’ve surrendered the greatest opportunity life can afford—following Jesus.

Take Refuge

Psalm 118.5-8 speaks directly to any estranged believer who’s boxed in by fear and resentment. It’s a passage we all should take to heart, because sooner or later, each of us encounters someone whose beliefs differ sharply from ours. None of us is exempt from feeling cornered, helpless, and afraid when another Christian disputes our right to follow Christ or the legitimacy of our witness. “In my anguish I cried to the LORD,” the psalmist writes, “and he answered by setting me free. The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.”

Hiding fear of rejection in resentment or seeking shelter in gauzy tents of “spirituality” won’t free us from callous prejudice that shoves us aside. I can personally attest when we lay the anguish and agony of rejection before God, He does indeed set us free. He makes His presence known once again in our lives. Fear of what others do or say to us vanishes. We take refuge in Him, trusting His promises rather than manmade opinions. In John 6.37, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Anyone bold enough to contradict Him is nobody we should listen to. They’re not to be feared. What’s more, waiting until they change their minds only delays retrieving what we’ve lost to their misguided opinions. Now is the time of God’s favor, Paul stresses. Now is the day of salvation. Not later—now.

Resentment masks fear, encourages us to wait for change, and wastes time we need to regain what we lost. Now is the time of God’s favor. Now.

(Tomorrow: Wonderful Things)