Saturday, October 3, 2009

Prospering in Parallel

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

3 John 1.2

Pastoral Shoptalk

Being privy to shoptalk is one of the unsung joys of life in a pastor’s home. Like friends in any profession, preachers trade stories when they get together. Funny things always seem to happen around churches. On top of that, pastors spend big chunks of time before live audiences, largely supported by amateurs. Things go wrong—sometimes hysterically so—and while a minister must keep straight-faced during these minor disasters, they make for terrific anecdotes. (Example: During my minister-of-music days, a visiting missionary’s wife preceded him with a solo. Barely into the song, her voice cracked. She apologized before restarting. “Please bear with me,” she said. “We’ve been traveling a lot and I’m a little hoarse”—except, poor thing, the catch in her throat resurfaced, serving up the last word as “whorish.” I glared at my choir members, daring them to giggle.)

Pastoral shoptalk also has moments when wisdom flows like honey. Listening to my parents’ colleagues taught me many things. On one occasion, a young pastor raved about how his church was prospering. Attendance and giving were at record highs. Several full-time staff had joined. The trustees recently engaged an architect to design a larger sanctuary and a wealthy couple pledged the down payment on a new site. Once the congratulations subsided, the pastor of a congregation many times larger than his gently asked, “And your people? Are they prospering in parallel with your church?” It was not so much a rebuke as a reminder. Pastors are called to be shepherds, not tycoons. Their success is gauged by how their people are getting along, not by how their church is doing. The same lesson applies to our lives. Are we nurturing our souls, seeing to their health and prosperity? Or are we focusing primarily on our physical and material needs, leaving our souls to catch as catch can?

An Appeal for Hospitality

John’s third epistle reads closer to a dashed-off note than a carefully outlined letter. (Merely 14 verses long, it could be tightly scripted on the back of an envelope.) Writing to his friend, Gaius, the first thing he says is “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” (v2) Initially, this reads like the kindest of wishes, as well as a gentle reminder for Gaius to keep his priorities straight. But John uses a Greek word that better translates as “psyche” than “soul,” which broadens the meaning beyond Gaius’s emotional and spiritual wellness to include his mental health. In praying God’s blessings in every area of Gaius’s life, John encourages him to focus on his inner needs, knowing psychological, emotional, and spiritual soundness increase physical and material stability.

As John goes on, his purpose in praying for Gaius’s prosperity takes shape. He hopes to send ministers to Gaius’s congregation. To date, he’s had no luck, as one of its leaders—a churlish-sounding sort named Diotrephes—has refused all offers. John charges him with “gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (v10) John’s note boils down to an appeal for hospitality. (Speaking of his envoys in verse 4, he urges, “We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.”) Welcoming John’s ministers will demand much of Gaius. Since Diotrephes drove out others eager to accept John’s offer, Gaius’s allies will be few to none. He’ll need great inner fortitude to do the right thing. And when he succeeds, showing hospitality to John’s ministers will fall to him, taxing his energy and resources. There’s no doubt why John prays that Gaius prospers in parallel, psychically and physically. He’s going to need all the reserves he can muster to get the job done.

Inner Compliance

Promises of prosperity—getting along well in life—fill the Bible. In Deuteronomy 29.9 God tells Israel, “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do.” The Psalms open with the profile of a believer who honors God’s laws, saying, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1.3) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us not to worry about our material and physical wellbeing. “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Scriptural promises of physical and material success always rest on inner compliance to precepts that foster mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The result is total prosperity, a balanced, productive life—as opposed to tycoon prosperity, which sacrifices inner health for material wealth and invests exorbitant effort in staying physically fit to enjoy its fortunes.

In addition to benefits we gain by prospering in parallel, 3 John provides an even nobler reason to strive for total prosperity. When attention to our inner soundness equals concern with our physical and material stability, we’re ideally equipped to help others. We have the fortitude to oppose hostility and rejection, not merely in principle, but also in practice. We have the will to stand with the minority or alone if need be. We have energy and resources to show hospitality to those whom others refuse. In verse 3 of his note, John tells Gaius it gave him great joy to hear “about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.” That’s where prospering in parallel ultimately leads—walking in the truth.

Prospering in parallel—seeing to our inner and outer wellbeing—ultimately leads to walking in the truth.

(Tomorrow: More Grace)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gender Bias

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

                        Genesis 1.27

A Slight Departure

We’re taking a slight departure today to discuss a particularly nagging problem for modern believers: God's gender. As a result, the post is less an exploration of Scripture than a look at a factor that often hinders our comprehension of God and His Word—a series of observations about Him and us, and language's influence on our perceptions of both. This will take a while, but I pray you’ll stick with me, as I firmly believe the discussion merits consideration and hope you’ll find it worthwhile. 

Inequities forged by centuries of gender bias are, gratefully, becoming less common and far less commonly embraced. With each generation, children are growing more adept at the art of seeing others as different but equal. While we’ve got a long way to go in stamping out sex discrimination (and with it, bigotry against non-heterosexuals), we can’t ignore how far we’ve come. In a matter of a half-century we’ve gone from accepting “a woman’s place is in the home” to “stay-at-home dads.” Equal pay for equal work is the law of the land in most Western nations. And sex-based occupational boundaries are fading fast. When I was a kid in the Sixties, the idea of male nurses or female construction workers, for example, was downright laughable. No longer. This is a huge leap we shouldn’t resist taking credit for and finding much satisfaction in.

A Delicate Matter

The final frontier in excising gender bias from our vocabulary and mindset rests in the faith arena. It’s a delicate matter. It challenges us to think of God in a consciously fresh—what some consider “unorthodox”—way. But it ultimately has no impact on God’s identity or our relationship to, with, and in the Divine. It basically amounts to lifting a centuries-old language lens that obscures the totality of God by limiting how we describe and discuss Him. (This sentence proves its own point.) We who speak Germanic and Latinate tongues have no all-encompassing, gender-free pronoun for the Divine. Consequently, when referring to God, the pronoun defaults to the masculine. In service to this, Biblical translators and writers inadvertently saddle God with male identity.


It’s possible many recognize this usage restricts their terminology to half-truth. (As an informally trained amateur, I most certainly do.) In being neither male nor female, God is male and female—He/Him and She/Her. Opting for the feminine pronoun for God over the male (as happened in English with nations and ships) merely exchanges one half-truth for another. But this inescapable inadequacy also presents the inescapable fact that arbitrary gender-assignation to God creates tremendous social, political, personal, and spiritual fall-out, setting off new struggles to correct a highly charged deficiency without adequate means.

At its most benign, the dilemma poses an intellectual problem, a conundrum to solve or a superstition to debunk. At its most harmful, it undermines equality and justice Christianity and “Christian” societies stand upon. In Galatians 3.28, Paul insists, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yet entrenchment in the preferred-masculine can be seen in Paul’s lead-in to this glorious, gender-free doctrine. He starts with “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (v26) Even with the neutral “children” at his disposal, Paul finds no contradiction in using a masculine noun for both genders. Verse 28 tells the true story. Verse 26 tells the sad one.

Liberating God

Our relatively recent concern with social equality makes the idea of liberating God from gender bias a welcome dilemma. It offers us the chance to undo centuries of linguistic paralysis with creative options. No doubt over time one of them will be universally adopted. But, for every believer participating in the Body of Christ, it’s essential to accept we’re dealing with options, not solutions. Each of us currently chooses how he/she thinks and talks about God’s gender. More often than not, our choices are driven less by trying to correct His/Her half-truthful depiction than which gender most closely reflects His/Her expression in us. (Hence no one goes for the most obvious alternative: It.)

This is altogether understandable and justifiable, even advisable and admirable. Yet in the interest of Christian unity, it’s equally incumbent on us to respect and validate every believer’s right to choose how he/she refers to God. Many (myself included) retain the preferred-masculine to avoid disrupting the thought at hand with grammatical ambition. Use of “He/Him” doesn’t nor should connote inability to perceive a sexless God, however. On the other hand, others adopt alternative gender specifications to intensify personal identification with the Divine and/or free It from unjust assumptions men are “naturally” superior to women because God is a “He.” This option is no less viable or indicative of a gender-neutral concept of the Creator. The irony of a more inclusive vocabulary for God potentially polarizing His/Her worshipers cannot escape us.

In the end, that’s what all this comes down to: worshipping God. Whether I worship “Him,” you worship “Her,” someone else adores a “Father/Mother,” another fellowships with “God,” or yet another communes with the feminized “Godde” alters nothing in the Divine or Its worthiness of praise. The sole purpose for liberating God from gender bias is to liberate us to worship our Creator and reaffirm our reflection of God’s image and likeness.

In Truth

A careful reading of Genesis 1.27 could have rendered this masculine-centric image of God useless long ago. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God creates “man”—i.e., gender-neutral humanity—in His image. Instantly, the writer realizes he/she is tangled up in grammar. The phrase’s antecedent for “his” is “man,” implying God shapes humanity in its image, the opposite of what it means. Rather than strike that and start over (as one sorely wishes he/she had), the writer adds a clarifier: “in the image of God he created him.” This settles the image issue, but the preferred-masculine (“him,” referring to “man”) screws everything up to suggest God creates “a man.” So the writer tries to fix that with one more—and by far the most salient—point: “male and female created he them.”

God crafts male and female humans because neither wholly reflects His/Her unified nature. For reasons unrevealed, He/She follows the template for most other organisms and fashions two human genders that must unite to create life. But the decision doesn’t preempt understanding divine reality encompasses the entire spectrum of gender and, for that matter, humanity itself. God has no gender, ethnic, or sexual identity. As none of these things, God is all of them. Our diversity expresses the fullness of God to confirm His/Her complete absence of human traits.

“God is spirit,” Jesus tells us in John 4.24, “and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The truth of God transcends every form of human bias. With each person who walks the planet as His handcrafted facsimile, the sum of the Divine exists in each and all of us simultaneously. This compels us to worship, conceive, and discuss God in the truth of who we are. “In him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17.28 tells us. Perhaps the divine gender bias will never be resolved. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps language does us a great favor by forcing us to overcome gender-based hurdles and reach the God in each of us. In the final analysis, our unique images of God matter only so far as helping us find ourselves in the infinite spectrum of the Divine.

God is spirit without gender, ethnicity, or orientation. Liberating the Divine from bias enables us to find our place in Its infinite spectrum.

(Tomorrow: Prospering in Parallel) 

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.

                        1 Samuel 20.16-17

A Love Story

Were Jonathan and David lovers? Many presume so, based on the passion 1 Samuel attributes to their relationship. Three different times, the writer points out Jonathan loved David “as he loved himself.” Erring on the side of caution, I read this as the hallmark of a friendship that merits attention, whether or not it involved physical intimacy. In our haste to find what we seek in their relationship—encouraged by modern assumptions about same-sex affection—we cheat ourselves from seeing what’s actually there. The tale of Jonathan and David overshadows any story the Bible offers as its most vivid depiction of friendship.

Viewed as a chaste bond or an impassioned affair, the account is nonetheless a love story. It gives us a sterling example of true friendship and exemplifies true romance, as genuine lovers are by nature best friends. At first, the two young men have little in common. Jonathan is King Saul’s heir, groomed and schooled in the finest traditions. David is a country boy. He meets Jonathan after his victory over Goliath and the Philistine army, and from the first, the king’s son is smitten with admiration. 1 Samuel 18 tells us Jonathan “becomes one” with David. He pledges his friendship and immediately remedies their inequalities by literally giving David the shirt off his back.

On the Down-Low

Saul’s jealousy of David—whose military conquests make him wildly famous—constrains Jonathan to keep their friendship on the down-low. The king knows they spend time together, but he’s oblivious to the intense loyalty they share. From the sound of it, paranoid depression plagues Saul. He descends into dark moods that, ironically, can only be alleviated by David’s music. So when Dad’s not feeling well, David and Jonathan are always together. Each time Saul recovers, though, he sends David back into war, hoping he’ll get killed. His strategy consistently backfires; David wins every battle and his acclaim soars. Taking a new tack, Saul offers his eldest daughter to David, hoping to have him murdered once he’s in the palace. David demurs, claiming he’s unworthy to be the king’s son-in-law. Saul offers his second daughter, who’s madly in love with David, on the provision he kills a thousand Philistines. The marriage has no appeal but the challenge does. He brings back proof he killed twice the number Saul asked and weds the princess.

Jonathan reenters the picture when David moves into the palace. Their love is stronger than ever, while Saul’s antipathy for David reaches manic heights. Without provocation, he hurls spears at David and conceals none of his determination to destroy him. Jonathan becomes David’s lifeline, taking great risks to protect his friend. He alerts him to Saul’s mood swings and repeatedly helps him escape. Meanwhile, he tries to persuade Saul to end his vendetta. The psychotic king will hear none of it. Jonathan and David’s last conversation occurs before David once again flees into hiding. They work out a system for Jonathan to signal if it’s safe for David to come home. Still, both men know as long as Saul lives, David will be on the run. As they stand together in a field, Jonathan makes an ominous prediction: “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” One last time, he asks David to pledge his love. Their final meeting happens when Jonathan signals it’s no longer safe for David to be in Saul’s house. David falls at Jonathan’s feet and scrambles off in silence.

There’s an epilogue. Saul’s madness throws Israel into chaos. The Philistines slaughter Jonathan and his brothers and Saul falls on his sword. David returns to claim Israel’s throne and leads the nation in mourning with a eulogy. It ends: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” (2 Samuel 1.26-27)

Beyond Convenience

It’s likely Solomon grows up hearing David speak of Jonathan, leading us to imagine he’s thinking of them when he writes, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17.17) It beautifully captures their commitment to one another. Whether they slept together amounts to minor curiosity. The true nature of their friendship comes to light in their parting words. It’s a heartbreaking, harrowing moment. Jonathan’s brotherly gesture of dressing David in his clothes established parity between them. Now, years later, they can’t deny Saul will never view David as his son and Jonathan’s equal. For his friend’s sake, Jonathan essentially falls on his sword, professing faith in God to avenge the crimes against David. There will be no happy ending. The House of Saul will not become a dynasty. Jonathan will not succeed his father to the throne. He accepts this in exchange for two things: David’s safety and pledge of love.

In John 15.13, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” True friendship places everything one person possesses at the other’s disposal—not merely material things, but intangible traits and emotions. It’s important to have friends who love us. But it’s more important to love our friends. It’s comforting to have friends we can trust. But it’s better be a trusted a friend. We don’t measure friends by the number; popularity is no indicator of friendship. The masses adored David, but Jonathan was his friend. He looked out for David. He risked the rage of a madman to protect him. And in the end, he laid down his life, surrendering his throne so David could fulfill his destiny. A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

True friends ignore inequities and risk sacrificing all for the other’s benefit. (Rembrandt: David Embracing Jonathan; 1642)

(Tomorrow: Gender Bias)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blessings in Disguise

However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you.

                        Deuteronomy 23.5

Prophet for Profit

Balaam is one of the Old Testament’s odder characters in that he’s a mercenary seer, a prophet for profit. He’s given gifts of foresight and divination—he reads omens and hears messages—but he’s not loyal to any god or nation. So if you need a few tips on what’s going to happen or want to call down wrath on your enemies (and can afford him), Balaam’s your man. Of course, what he lacks in conviction he makes up in cunning. His clients tell Balaam what to say. He says it and if his prophecy comes true, it’s to his credit; if not, it’s hardly his fault the god du jour won’t cooperate. Balaam works best when the gods stay out of his way. When one does interfere—as God does in Numbers 23—he winds up stuck between disappointing his customers and offending the deities he counts on for power. Since he’s a smart guy, his customers come second.

Balak of Moab, an enemy of Israel, hires Balaam to curse the Hebrews. On his way, however, God meets Balaam. He instructs the prophet to keep the date but speak only what God tells him to say. Time arrives for the big curse and Balaam balks. He asks Balak, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” (Numbers 23.8) Instead, he praises Israel as “a people set apart and [who] do not consider themselves one of the nations” (v9), a multitude too great to be numbered. “Let me die the death of the righteous,” he says in verse 10, “and may my end be like theirs!” The pray-for-pay star declares Israel’s righteousness, begging to be like them when he dies. Balak is not pleased. “I brought you curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!” he protests, to which Balaam says, “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” (v11-12)

Memory Serves Correctly

Flash forward to Deuteronomy 23. Israel’s number has increased with foreign stragglers it picked up along the way. God apparently has no problem with non-Jews living among the Israelites. Yet He draws a hard line on who’s acceptable to participate in communal worship. (Remember, this is before Christ’s sacrifice for all nations, when God’s favor rests on Israel and its allies—and when He issues edict after edict to bring the nation into conformity to His will.) Thus, in His list of those excluded from “the assembly of the LORD,” He includes the descendents of Balak and his people. “If memory serves correctly,” He says, “they didn’t help you on your journey out of Egypt. They went so far as to hire Balaam to curse you. Let them be.”

On this side of Calvary, we set aside the vengeful, exclusionary aspects of God’s directive. Encased inside it, however, we find a beautiful truth that holds to this day. In essence, verse 5 says, “The Lord overruled your enemies’ intentions. He turned the curse into a blessing for you, because He loves you.” That last part leaps out at us—because He loves you. Not because Balak’s hatred for Israel angered Him. Not because Balaam deserved public humiliation for exploiting his talents for profit. Not even because Israel’s goodness and obedience merited God’s favor. God reminds Israel so its memory serves correctly. He foiled Balak’s plan and used Balaam to bless His people for one reason only: He loves them.

Divine Interference

We mustn’t be shaken when we’re criticized by people who don’t understand our faith and try to “put the fear of God in us” with wrathful prophecies. They’re not helping us on our journey, nor are they speaking on God’s authority (despite their talents and reputations). We stand on this truth: God loves us. Our confidence in this must be impervious to any and all attempts to instill doubt in His love, mercy, and acceptance. If our relationship with Him was like Israel’s, based entirely on compliance to God’s laws rather than total trust in His grace, it would be necessary for Him to do with our adversaries as He did with Balaam. He’d have to prove He loves by literally turning their curses to blessings. But our certainty of His love generates divine interference of its own kind. It deflects hatred and anger aimed at us and opens our eyes to see curses as blessings in disguise. They’re fresh reminders He loves us, regardless what anyone says or thinks.

It’s instinctive when hearing or learning about harsh words against us to hope God will respond with anger for those who curse us; that He’ll expose those who profit by their curses; that He’ll reward our goodness and obedience. Instead, He confounds curses by sheer force of His love. Assurance of this turns our thoughts from expecting Him to prove love for us by attacking our enemies. We prove love for Him doing as Jesus taught: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5.44-45) God’s love makes every curse and every chance to bless those who curse us blessings in disguise.

Ignore the signs. Every curse is a fresh reminder of God’s love—a blessing in disguise.

(Tomorrow: Friendship)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Forever Young

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

                        Matthew 18.3 

The Greatest

While Jesus is otherwise occupied, the disciples try to establish rank and file among themselves. Based on angelic hierarchy, they assume there must be a pecking order for us. Having no direct knowledge of one, they turn to Jesus, asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18.1) Their motives are transparent, giving Jesus an excellent teaching opportunity. He sees a young boy and calls him over. “Unless you drop this adult obsession with status and become like little children, you won’t get into Heaven,” he says in verse 3. Then He adds three insights in verses 4 through 6: (1) “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom to heaven.” (2) “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” And (3) “Whoever causes a ‘little one’”—meaning a humble believer—“to sin would be better off hanging a large millstone around his/her neck and drowning in the sea.”

Wow. Paying heed to their competitive drives bought the disciples more responsibility than they anticipated—which is always the case when we try to force-fit Christ’s unnatural lifestyle into our natural mindset. First, Jesus pulls them up short, reminding them no one is any better than anyone else in His kingdom. Everyone is equal. Second, He scolds them for forgetting a lesson He’d taught them repeatedly. For example, Mark 9.35 reads: “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” If they truly believed that, their question about greatness in Heaven never would have surfaced. Third, He charges them to welcome everyone in His name. And finally, rejecting anyone from following Him—suggesting he/she is ineligible for His forgiveness—is worse than murder. It’s suicide. Ask Jesus a silly question and you get some very serious answers.

We’re No Angels

Angelic hierarchy exists much like professional job titles; it’s assignment of duty based on rank. Roles and responsibilities are also assigned in the Body of Christ. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4.11: “It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, and some to be pastors and teachers.” But whatever functions we perform in Christian service, these jobs come without status. Several verses above his breakdown of Church leadership, Paul sets this context: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (v3-6) Bigger responsibilities don’t confer greater authority or infer higher favor. We’re no angels. We’re children. Jesus tells us we must play well together.

A few years ago, I spent a most joyous, instructive afternoon with the daughter of two very dear friends. This was my first visit to Jim and Eric’s new home on the West Coast and Savannah, then seven or eight, showed me around. The tour ended with looks at her books and artwork and so on. Then she said, “OK, here’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to hang out in the tree house Daddy built for me. And then you’re going to give me a makeover.” I jumped to explain I didn’t know anything about make-up and fashion. “Of course, you don’t,” she said. “That’s why I’m going to teach you.” She welcomed me and led me through the afternoon as her equal. In her eyes, I was like her other friends, despite being much older than they. The only requirement for entering her world was humbling myself to remain open to her guidance. And while the adults visited with one another, the purity of what I was privileged to share with Savannah took precedence. We were so engrossed with one another, their “sophisticated” conversation paled by comparison. (We never got around to the makeover, by the way.) That’s what Jesus is talking about here: the willingness to welcome and lead others, to humbly follow and open ourselves to new knowledge and experience—the power we gain by staying forever young.

Problem Children

When children organize games, they assign parts and attach significance to each according to what’s best for all. They don’t place lasting authority in momentary role-play because they know their engagement is temporary. Playtime will end and they’ll return home to parents who nurture them and hold them accountable for how they play with others. The bully who insists on running things, the know-it-all who won’t play if he/she can’t make the rules, the brute who creates conflict, and the tattletale who constantly threatens trouble become problem children. Kids who want to enrich their play-life eventually distance themselves from these sorts, leaving the adults to manage them. There’s a lot they can teach us.

There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. The God I serve, Who surrounds and lives in me is the same God you serve, Who surrounds and Who lives in you. He makes us equal by nurturing and holding us accountable for our conduct with one another. Those who insist they run things, make the rules, create conflict, and threaten punishment are problem children. They’re too old for their britches. Letting God handle them is how we protect our happiness and creativity. It keeps us pure and secures our place in Christ. According to 2 Corinthians 5.17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” It’s essential we realize newness never ends when we follow Jesus. Every day is a fresh adventure—a pure, unspoiled opportunity to grow. That’s why Jesus teaches us to think and behave as innocent children. Life in Christ keeps us forever young.

There is no rank and status among believers. We’re all children and Jesus teaches we must play well together.

(Tomorrow: Blessings in Disguise)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Everything We Need

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

                        2 Peter 1.3 

Every Promise

In children’s church, we sang a little tune that began, “Every promise in the Book is mine.” The song lost some of its luster as I got older and experienced a fair share of broken promises. After a while, I grew to accept the fatalism in the proverb “Promises are made to be broken.” Having failed to keep more than my share, I understood that good intentions don’t always manifest themselves. Now, when someone promises something, I tend to appreciate the spirit of the gesture without counting on it. Since disappointment is never a happy experience, I find being pleasantly surprised far more enjoyable than feeling downcast if a promise doesn't come through.

The grander the promise, the less likely we are to depend on it. This presents major challenges with God, since He doesn’t make little promises. Indeed, what He says He’ll do assumes a scale so far beyond human capability we refer to it as His “covenant,” something closer to a sacred oath than everyday promise. Even adding this gravity—this implication God is bound by His Word—doesn’t always ease our trepidation about taking His promises at face value. Yet it should. In Numbers 23.19, we’re cautioned not to let human unreliability tinge our faith in God’s covenant: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” Someone actually sat down and counted the Bible’s promises, numbering them at 1260. That’s a lot of promises. But Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1.20: “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” Every promise in the Book is ours. God’s Word is God’s word.

The Peter Principle

Peter spends his entire Christian experience living on promises. When Jesus finds him and his brother, Andrew, fishing on the Galilee shore, He says, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4.19) It’s an odd promise and Matthew doesn’t say whether they understand it. But they don’t hesitate to follow Christ. As Peter’s faith matures, trust in God’s promises sets him apart from the other disciples. When he confesses Jesus is the Christ, Jesus replies with a promise specifically for him: “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16.18) This promise also sounds strange. Yet it comes to pass after Peter trusts another promise Christ gives in Acts 1.4-5: “Wait for the gift my Father promised… You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” When the Spirit comes as promised, Peter’s role as the Church’s leader is also confirmed. He delivers the first apostolic sermon on record, taking Joel’s prophecy as his text to preach (what else?) God keeps His word: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39)

Utter confidence in God’s promises is The Peter Principle. It’s the fundamental element of Christian faith, the bedrock on which all we believe rests. Thus, it’s no surprise his second epistle opens with this sweeping statement: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who has called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1.3) And how do we access everything we need? You got it—by trusting God to honor His word. Verse 4 reads: “He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

Divine Power, Divine Nature

The authorship of 2 Peter is widely contested, with those disputing its authenticity citing stylistic irregularities and mention of Paul’s letters, which weren’t yet widely published at the time of Peter’s execution. A later writer attempting “the style of Peter”—i.e., one less learned and precise than Paul’s—may explain the convoluted prose that often requires several readings to trace the flow of ideas and connect the dots. This is certainly the case with the two verses cited above. In verse 3, Peter (or “Peter”) says Christ’s divine power enables us to receive everything we need to live righteously by knowing Him. But verse 4 embellishes this concept with a fascinating twist. It says when we place our trust in God’s promises, we “participate in the divine nature” that shields us from “corruption… caused by evil desires.” When we piece the two concepts together, we learn why trusting God’s Word is so vital.

God only promises what’s best for us. If our desires don’t square with His Word, we’re either asking for more than we need or what we most assuredly don’t need, neither of them good. Believing God’s promises liberates us from worries about how we’re viewed and cares about human standards of success. His divine power enables us to participate in the divine nature that lifts us out of the world. Our wants and needs conform to what God desires us to have. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks, what parent whose child asks for bread hands him a stone? Or who gives a snake to a child hungry for meat? Then He says, “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who as him!” (Matthew 7.12) God’s promises—all 1260 of them—encompass the best for our lives. Trusting Him to honor them guarantees we’ll have everything we need.

Knowing God’s promises and trusting them provide us with everything we need.

(Tomorrow: Forever Young)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rushed Judgment

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in the darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

                        1 Corinthians 4.5

Opinion Overload

Here’s a question for those who watch the news regularly: Where is it? All I find are ‘round-the-clock interpretations of the news, which is problematic because I haven’t time or patience to sift the facts out of rambling conversation. (Since I don’t speak pidgin English, I can’t decipher the headline crawlers, either.) What few details I snatch appear to be news about news. The guy on this network says something about what that network’s “media consultant” says about the radio guy spewing venom to stay in the news. Since none of this concerns me—and I think it rude when grown-ups drag personal differences into public—I try another network. There, all I hear is what could happen as a result of something that’s supposed to happen. Am I alone in finding it bizarre that most news is now wild speculation about what is or will be news?

We’re collapsing beneath opinion overload. Before news becomes newsworthy, pundits and scribes rush to judgment, clogging the channels with preemptive strikes. When we finally get a sense of what’s going on, we’ve already been told what to think. We might dismiss this as journalistic decay but for one thing. Being inundated with half-baked opinions has created cracks in the culture and this spirit of rushed judgment is seeping into daily life. We’ve become people who first make up our minds and then shape our reality to fit our judgment. It’s a dangerous business—not only for its sociopolitical impact, but also because it’s ruining our personal and spiritual lives.

Believer-on-Believer Judgment

The politicization of faith has blurred the boundaries of church and state to the point they don’t exist. Issues believers would—and should—regard as moral imperatives are now “agendas.” On the other side of the coin, civic duty to protect equality and freedom has now morphed into defending “values.” The divisive spirit ripping our country in two now dwells unabashedly in the halls of faith, tearing the Body of Christ to shreds. Believers are rushing to judgment about other believers, condemning one another’s faith because their politics don’t mesh. This must stop.

Judgment has no place in God’s kingdom. Jesus explicitly warns us about this in Matthew 7.1-2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Do we get this? Judging condescends. When I judge you, I place my standards and ideals above yours. In doing that, I set myself up, because sooner or later I’ll also fail by my own standards. I’ll ask your forgiveness, but my past will haunt me. I’ll be judged and scorned.

Believer-on-believer judgment creates inequities that divide. Paul’s treatise on the Body of Christ explains why judgment is antithetical to Christian unity: “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 condescension expressed by rushing to judge others actually confirms their value. God gives them greater honor to ensure their equality. He judges them worthy. Our opinions have no merit. Shall we challenge God’s judgment? Well, we do. When we label another believer unchristian or unworthy, we brazenly dispute God’s opinion of him/her. Every letter in His Word may confirm he/she is wrong. Every action and attitude may contradict Christ’s teaching. But knowing this doesn’t license us to judge. Instead it compels us to care and pray for those in error. That’s rushed judgment’s greatest harm. In our haste to do God’s job, our duty to love and uphold weaker brothers and sisters goes untended.

Judge Nothing

“Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes,” we’re advised in 1 Corinthians 4.5. And when Paul says “nothing,” he means nothing. In verse 3 he writes, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.” I love the maxim “What you think of me is none of my business.” If I’m reading Paul correctly here, though, we can expand it to include “What I think of me is none of my business; what I think of you is none of your business.” It’s God’s business. Verse 4 tells us we haven’t the wherewithal to judge anyone, not even ourselves. “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent,” Paul says. “It is the Lord who judges me.”

Rather than rush to judge anything, we withhold judgment about everything, deferring to God’s final, fair decision. Continuing in verse 5, we read, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” Only God knows the whole story. He alone can ascertain what drives us to think and behave as we do. According to 1 Samuel 16.7, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Our hearts make the difference. What others judge wrong in us may stand righteous before God because our botched behavior springs from pure motives. What we judge wrong in others may stand righteous before God as well. Not knowing what He knows, we can’t say what He’ll say. Beyond the impudence rushed judgment displays, we should avoid it because it’s like making news of the news and forming opinions before the fact—a silly waste of time.

The current trend for rushed judgment has entered the halls of faith and it’s tearing the Body of Christ to shreds.

(Tomorrow: Everything We Need)