Saturday, October 10, 2009

Crowd Without a Cause

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. (Acts 19.32)

Looking for a Fight

Hopefully school life is more civil than when I was a kid. But I rather doubt it, since what we’re discussing today has been around forever. The behavior is so basic and universal, I'll set up the anecdote and let you finish it. Sixth grade: the class stud’s name is Charlie—cute verging on handsome, smooth operator. Eileen is the early bloomer, and thus Charlie’s de facto squeeze. When another girl, Melody, starts coming into her own, Charlie shows interest in her, too. The class bristles as tension builds to the inevitable after-school face-off. The final bell rings, the school empties, and kids from the other classes notice the sixth graders rushing in the same direction. So what do they do?

Something in kids loves looking for a fight. Maybe it’s part of the tribal compulsion to fit in—or fear of being left out. Whatever it is, when we’re “tweens,” a fight is not to be missed. And though our enthusiasm is fairly harmless at this point (since the fights are usually benign), it seeds a dangerous tendency that sprouts up in adult behavior. Left unchecked, avidity for ringside inclusion will choke the tolerance, compassion, and gentleness every follower of Christ strives to cultivate. Conflicts we flock around as adults carry far greater potential for hurting others and damaging us than two sixth-grade girls fighting over a boy. If nothing else, eagerness to join the crowd often finds us where those described in Acts 19.32 are: “Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”

None of Their Business

These people have no clue why they’re there because what’s underway is none of their business. Like most conflicts that simmer until they boil over, it’s basically a spite match. The Apostle Paul has had great success in Ephesus, converting many new believers from the cult of Artemis (Diana), whose massive statue is the city’s world-famous centerpiece. Artemis is good for commerce. She lures out-of-town tourists to Ephesus and regional devotees spend small fortunes on personal shrines to her. Paul’s ministry puts a serious dent in the Ephesian economy. Shrine sales are down with no sign of rebounding, which prompts a silversmith named Demeterius to call a meeting of the city’s craftsmen. He exploits their financial worries to stoke their fears and superstitions. Because of Paul, he says, they and their business are verging on obsolete—and worse than that, the Artemis mystique is vaporizing before their eyes.

A mob scene ensues. The craftsmen grab two of Paul’s colleagues and hustle them into the town’s theater to assault them. Paul wants to rush to their aid, but his friends beg him to stay put. Meanwhile, the rest of the city catches wind there’s a big fight going on. People drop what they’re doing and hurry to the theater. As the crowd surges, havoc breaks out. Everyone’s shouting and shoving, though very few ascertain what the ruckus is about. The reason for the riot gets lost; as far as the crowd can tell, somebody insulted Artemis. Demetrius’s issues with Paul inflate into an anti-Semitic squall. Local, non-Christian Jews shove a spokesman, Alexander, onstage to defend them. But it’s too late. Everyone’s fully convinced this is an Us versus Them situation. He can’t be heard over the crowd chanting, “Artemis! Artemis!” The city clerk finally quiets things down, reminding the mob it’s at risk of being charged with rioting. “Let the courts decide this,” he advises. Confronted with the prospect of arrest, the people trickle back to work and the matter is dropped.

Part of the Problem

A wise person said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That’s what we’re looking at in Acts. It’s something we see every day. Call it morbid curiosity, armchair activism, fear of exclusion—call it whatever you like—that kid inside us keeps looking for a fight. Even though we’ve outgrown the urge to fight, the chance to cheer with the crowd can be irresistible. But a crowd formed around an issue it knows little about and has no intention of resolving is a crowd without a cause. It fits Shakespeare’s description of hollow bluster: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” All it gets from its rush for inclusion are a few thrills before skulking back to work it left undone.

For believers, being part of the problem causes bigger problems. From our neighbors’ perspective, joining crowds without a cause signals conformity, even if we root for the non-conformist or underdog. Thus, when we rally behind a cause we truly care about, we monitor ourselves closely lest our motives wither under pressure we conform to the angry, confused crowd’s demeanor. Writing to Roman believers, who were infamous for constantly looking for a fight, Paul says: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12.2) Spiritual transformation calls us to test and approve, the opposite of protest and disapprove. We base tests and approvals on God’s expectations, not what we hear or think.

Faith becomes the engine driving our cause. Because God dwells in us, He enters every situation with us and through us. We don’t act like the crowd because we’re not like the crowd. They look for a fight; we seek a solution. They watch; we work. Our faith enables us calm confusion, as the city clerk does or, as Paul’s friend’s do, persuade others to avoid harm. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” James 2.17 says. Any time we gather around a cause, it’s because we believe God's presence in what we say and do will have a positive effect on the situation. If that’s not our cause, we've no cause to be there.

A crowd looking for a fight is a crowd without a cause.

(Tomorrow: Stillness)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tinkering with Truth

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5.18)

Far from Seamless, Yet Seamless

The Bible is rare even among sacred texts in its collaborative nature. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments resound with cacophony expressed in every imaginable literary form, from allegory (Song of Solomon) to memo (3 John). Unlike anthologies that use genre, theme, or period as their unifying factor, the Bible is a sprawling collection of amateur compositions written over thousands of years. Very few, if any, of its authors wrote “for the ages.” They targeted contemporary readers, and since they wrote before mass print was conceived, it’s inconceivable they expected their texts to be read, studied, and digested by more than a relative few.

The result is far from seamless. Purely from a historical perspective, it’s pocked by huge gaps of silence. There are also anonymous contributors writing in the guise of famous figures. (For example, it’s doubtful Paul wrote half the letters signed in his name.) Then there are the revisions, accidents of replication and overt alterations. A few books—like Genesis, with its back-to-back creation accounts—further warp the Bible’s fabric with internal conflicts created by two or more authors. If the Bible were merely the work of mortal writers, it would have been discarded long ago. While it’s filled with compelling passages, it’s a literary wreck. No basic structure exists. Its elastic view of time is maddening. Subplots and characters arrive with a bang only to drop off quickly and quietly. When read like any other book, it aches for a savvy editor to pull the loose ends together.

Yet the Bible is seamless. Despite glaring contradictions and omissions, it remains coherent and cohesive from cover to cover. One voice holds it together. We hear it in every book, on every page. It’s the voice of God, and whether by direct quote, inference, or interaction with humanity, we get His message loud and clear. How the Bible manages this defies analysis, because the character of God varies widely and His approach to similar situations is seldom the same. For instance, God lets Moses to get away with murder, but He punishes him for striking a rock instead speaking to it. Or how’s this? God gets so fed up with humanity He kills all but eight people in a flood; thousands of years later, He gives His life to save the entire world. Still, regardless of such shifts and reverses, His voice never changes. His message remains. We belong to Him, He loves us beyond measure, and He’ll go to any length to hold us to Him.


God’s voice makes Scripture holy. It alone is sacred and timeless. The words, syntax, and style that convey it are human inventions, opening them to speculative study and interpretation. Even theories of Scripture’s origins have no bearing on its holiness. If we accept it as literal transcription of God’s audible voice, view it as the product of divine inspiration, or regard much of it as sullied by human hands and superstitions, the voice is still there. The message still rings. God’s Word is forever holy.

That should lift the heavy weight of divisiveness that cripples us, freeing all believers to gather around the inexhaustible, common truth in Scripture. That should encourage us to respect each Christian’s privilege to dissect the text according to his/her conscience and need. No matter how we slice and dice it, God’s voice infallibly emerges. That should be enough to know Scripture is not to be handled carelessly, selfishly, or hatefully. It isn’t a legal brief, tug-rope, billy club, or license for anything that imperfectly echoes God’s voice and improperly portrays His message. We can differ about interpretations, theories, and translations until we give up or die. But our reverence for the Bible’s holiness should make a marked difference in how we differ. These and other reasons should impact the handling and discussion of Scripture. Yet they don’t.

More Precious Than Gold

In Psalm 19, David waxes poetic about God’s Word. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul,” he says in verse 7, adding, “The statues of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” He goes on for two more verses. God’s precepts are right; they give us joy. His commands are radiant; they help us see. Reverence for God is pure and lasting. His ordinances are sure and righteous. Finally, he sums up this section: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold.” (v10) Every time we reach for the Bible, read it, quote it, and discuss it, we hold God’s voice in our hands and His message passes our lips. Scripture is the most precious treasure you and I can ever own. We treat it with the greatest care, even though not everyone shares our convictions about this.

Shockwaves sounded far and wide with recent news of The Conservative Bible Project’s plans to substitute “family-friendly” and “trustworthy” content for “liberal wordiness” and “ambiguities” in current Bible translations. Of course, it disturbs and angers us when people sling the Bible at others, stretch it to “prove” opinions, or re-stitch it to their purposes. At the same time, God’s Word is too holy and precious to become the object of cheap arguments. Besides, religious debates come and go, while Scripture remains eternal. In Matthew 5.18, Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Let those predisposed to misuse Scripture carry on—to the end of time, if they like. When they finish tinkering with truth, nothing they’ve done will change what God’s Word says and means. The voice will be there. The message will remain.

“Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear.”

(Tomorrow: Crowd Without a Cause)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Out of There

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 5.15)

Slave Mentality

I first heard of “slave mentality” from Bishop Charles Blake, the greatest preacher and pastor I’ve ever known. He described it as doctored memories of past emotional and/or physical abuse. Psychologists refer to a similar dysfunction as Stockholm syndrome, a hostage’s delusional devotion to his/her captors. Slave mentality is chronic Stockholm syndrome. After breaking free of unjust intimidation and cruelty, issues concomitant with living free tempt us to romanticize our captivity as better than it actually was. If we’re not careful, we’ll go back to thinking like slaves instead of living by faith. Reversion to fears and behaviors fostered by people, doctrines, and pressures that once controlled us cancels present and future freedom God wants us to enjoy. In Galatians 5.1, Paul warns us not to fall for such ideas: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."

God mercifully spares some of us of this by entrusting us to healthy, free-minded families and communities. Some of us stumble into coercive relationships on our own. Then, for reasons we can’t understand, some of us are born into captivity. Violence and fear are all we know until God intervenes. Such is the Israelites’ case when He delivers them from Pharaoh. Since none of them has ever known freedom, they feel their way into it. From the far side of the Red Sea, Egypt looks truly despicable. But once their euphoria of freedom lifts, the Israelites respond to every setback with moans about how much easier life in Egypt was. Crazy as it sounds, we who’ve experienced oppression and abuse can relate to their panicked confusion. We recognize why they’re prone to choose knowing what to fear over fearing the unknown. Fortunately, Israel saves itself over and over by asking the question Bishop Blake often put to those of us in his care—a question we all should ask ourselves. Do we want to go back to Egypt?

Harnessing Memory

Escaping our Egypts seldom brings an end to our suffering. Memories stain our minds and defensiveness hobbles our behavior. To make the most of present freedom, we learn to live with the past without living in it. Still, we struggle to comprehend why God would deliver us out of tormenting situations yet leave our mental and emotional scars intact. It seems patently unfair—to the point of cruelty. Deuteronomy 5.15 offers invaluable insight into His reason for this. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” it says. Memories of where we’ve been remain to remind us God brought us out of there.

Childhood trauma, parental neglect, religious bigotry, abusive partners, self-destructiveness, unfaithful friends, and other circumstances that held us hostage persist in memory to sustain the joy and gratitude we felt when God brought us out. Just as we resist any temptation to fall into slave mentality, harnessing memory to celebrate freedom from the past is no less essential. It gives us cause to rejoice in where we are now and how far we’ve come. It teaches us to thank God for His goodness instead of questioning His motives. And recognizing how much He’s already done reinforces our trust He’ll continue to move in our behalf. Philippians 1.6 urges us to be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” Deliverance and healing are progressive processes. God ministers to our suffering continuously, relentlessly. While He deals with our pain, we deal with our doubts, knowing He’ll finish the work He began in us by bringing us out.

Power and Reach

God tells the Israelites to remember He brought them out of Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Likewise, we can’t forget the enormity of His power and reach. When He lifts us out of trauma, He grips us with a strength that defies any force on Earth to hold us down. Those who intimidate and condemn us must let go. God crushes their ability to control our thoughts and emotions. Surrounded by His mighty hand, we exult with the psalmist, saying, “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118.6) Standing safely on the Red Sea’s banks, Moses and Miriam sing: “Your right hand, O LORD, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.” (Exodus 15.6) That’s our song, too.

When God brings us out, He puts a sea between our captors and us, removing us from their range of influence. The longest tentacles are no match for His reach. Returning to Moses and Miriam, we hear: “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.” (v13) David echoes their assurance in Psalm 27.5: “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” God hides us from future danger and harm. Remembering we were slaves is how we know we’re free. Remembering abuses of power and trust we once endured increases our trust in God’s enduring power once and for all. Remembering where we were increases our security in where we are. Remembering Egypt stiffens our resolve to press on, no matter how many setbacks we face. Now that we’re out of there, there’s no going back.

Do we want to go back to Egypt?

(Tomorrow: Tinkering with Truth)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Golden Opportunities

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6.31)

An Idea Worth Spreading

TED—an acronym for technology, entertainment, and design—is a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” As its name indicates, TED began as an institute for mass media moguls and artists and quickly received notice for its elite annual conference and "TEDtalks" lecture series. But it soon became apparent the interests and ideals of TED’s primary (and secondary) audience reached far beyond the arenas it first identified. Five years ago the institute inaugurated the TED Prize, three annual $100,000 grants to thought leaders who then reveal his/her “wish to change to the world” at the next year’s conference. Past Prizewinners include Bono (2005), Bill Clinton (2007), and in 2008, Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, historian, and progressive theologian. She defined her wish thusly:

I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christian and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.

Apropos of TED’s constituents, Armstrong frames her wish in lofty language. In a subsequent TEDtalk (posted below), however, she breaks it down to its essence. Every “great world religion”—including those not based in “Abrahamic traditions”—shares one core value: moral reciprocity, i.e., The Golden Rule. Not only does Armstrong make a credible case that doing to others as we would have them do to us is an idea worth spreading. By the time she finishes her talk, she removes all doubt if each of us seizes and acts upon it, we can change the world.

Good News Is Not News Until We Make News

The Golden Rule is no news. Global pervasiveness and millennial perpetuity make its validity a foregone conclusion. As Christians, we embrace it as good news, the Gospel epitomized in Christ’s life and lessons. While we typically quote Luke 6.31’s more concise rendering of The Golden Rule, in Matthew 7.12, Jesus couches it in the same language He uses with His Great Commandments: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Since Jesus is the embodiment of the Law and Prophets, obedience to The Golden Rule is the key to conforming to His instruction and example. It’s not an idealistic goal or a soft-pedaled suggestion. It’s a rule—a must-do, not a should-do.

Armstrong’s clarion-call to return to Christ’s doctrine of “justice and respect” (or, love and tolerance) stresses the Rule’s one aspect we conveniently overlook: good news is not news until we make news. The revelation of God in Jesus and our reconciliation to God were never intended to stop with each believer’s personal beliefs. Faith in Christ changes us to enable us to change the world. We’re supposed to make news, to obtain notoriety as people of fearless compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. Obedience to the Rule is the glue that holds the Gospel together and the energy that keeps it alive. We’re expected to command the spotlight, not as superstar do-gooders, but as dazzling reflections of God’s luminosity. In Matthew 5.16, Jesus tells us: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” We draw light by emitting light and then deflecting it, taking no glory for us to direct all of it toward our Father. That’s the Rule’s ultimate goal.

In Everything

It’s enlightening to realize The Golden Rule has been on the books long before Jesus preaches it. Written circa 500 BCE, Leviticus 19.34 reads: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself.” Roughly 100 years before Christ, the Talmudic scholar Hillel writes: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Armstrong finds parallel principles emerging in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism during the same period (900-200 BCE). Thus, Christ’s advocacy of the Rule isn’t original or unique. Yet His teaching of it is nonetheless revolutionary. Before Jesus, the Rule exists as an ethical precept. He transforms it into spiritual expression. It transcends individual morality to reveal the present nature of God through human personification of His love and mercy.

In everything,” Jesus says in Matthew 7.12, short-circuiting any justification for selective application of justice and respect. He distills obedience to the Rule as constant analysis of every moment—a sort of preemptively reversed quid pro quo. Whatever we ask, that’s what we do. Do we want others to care for us? Then we care for them. Do we desire unconditional acceptance from those who reject us? Then we accept them as they are. (Glance back at Leviticus.) Do we ask forgiveness for our mistakes? Then we forgive those who withhold forgiveness. Living the Rule fills every minute of our lives with golden opportunities. It changes our lives, the lives we touch, and the world we live in.

(Hat-tip to Cuboid Master for the Armstrong inspiration.)

Living the Golden Rule requires constant analysis of every moment in life. Whatever we ask, that’s what we do.

(Tomorrow: Out of There)

Postscript: Armstrong

Searching youtube for Armstrong’s TEDtalk turned up a second video produced by her initiative, The Charter for Compassion, and left me in a quandary about which to post here. I finally decided to go with both, offering an option depending on the time each reader has. The Charter piece is shorter, slicker, and truly moving. The TED piece is longer, more informative, and by far more fascinating. You decide—but if I were you, I’d probably want to watch both…

The Charter for Compassion

The TEDtalk

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Bowl

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Galatians 5.13)

With deepest gratitude to Sylvia Gomez and Jon Duncanson for teaching Walt and me about The Bowl.

Veering Into What?

Though less now than before, we socialize most gay kids alongside straight kids without allowing for differences taking place in their minds and bodies. There’s a reason for this. Humanity needs to reproduce. So gay boys and girls grow up observing rites of passage that reinforce heterosexuality. In America, these include “going steady,” first kisses and dates, school dances, sexual initiation (rounding the bases until you hit a homer), engagement, marriage, childbirth, and restarting the cycle with a new brood of procreators. As a result, the gay youth’s personal circumstances—where he/she lives, family traditions and values, religious upbringing, ethnic background, etc.—seriously impact the point where he/she can veer off this course.

But veering off the beaten path with its clearly marked milestones means veering into what? Gay longings are the same as straight ones—loving companionship, stability, affection, and integrity. Without a proven model to emulate or social and legal bumpers to steer them, many gay people step right out of the closet into the woods. It goes beyond dangers associated with looking for love in wrong places—promiscuity, substance abuse, emotional injury, and so on. When love presents itself, many of us jump in over our heads. We fall too easily and give up far too easily. After a few failed tries, many of us settle for “single life,” which basically means self-imposed loneliness or frequenting places where it's most likely Mr./Ms. Right-Now will drift by. This suggests gay men and women struggle less with finding love than making it last.

Ironclad Reasons

I admit I’m knee-deep in presumptions here. I’ve also not mentioned many straight people wrestle with identical issues and tendencies. I beg forgiveness for this. My intent is not to perpetuate these stereotypes. It’s to guide all of us—gay and straight—away from considering them worthy of us as believers. The wisdom and discipline we gain by following Christ are not to be minimized in how we approach our personal lives. If anything, His principles apply more aptly to our most intimate relationships than anywhere else in our lives. Our relationships' importance to us, our desire to sustain them, and our ability to build them on Scriptural truth give us ironclad reasons to infuse them with faith.

Too often we presume since our partners know us so well, we’re free to indulge lower instincts—our sinful nature—and prevail on their love and forgiveness after the fact. And they may continue to love and forgive us. But every time we wrong them, we build higher walls and set narrower boundaries. We compromise real freedom and ease that make for healthy relationships. This isn’t just reckless of us; it’s contrary to our faith. Galatians 5.13 says, “You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.” Relationships founded on service in love are relationships that last.

“You Gotta Get a Bowl”

Very quickly, Walt and I gathered the dynamics and stresses common to people in love are fundamentally the same for everyone, regardless of gender or orientation. One is neater than the other. One is more candid. One manages money better. Etc. Hence, the first phase of any relationship is invariably its most fragile and bruising. But especially as a freshly minted gay couple, every time we bumped into each other became a crisis. Our insecurity goaded us to magnify minor mistakes into intentional affronts. As expected, there was a fair share of “Shouldn’t he know this by now?” and “Why would he assume this?” and “This is who I am. Better get used to it.” We wanted our love to last. We just had no idea how to make it last. When we mentioned our anxiety to our friends, Sylvia and Jon, they smiled. “You gotta get a bowl,” Sylvia said. Jon agreed and they told us about the bowl—what it is and how it makes love last.

“People tell you the surest way to stay together is never to go to bed mad. Well, the bowl’s like that, only better,” they said. Here’s what we learned. When two people fall in love, they create a third entity—their union. It’s made from both of them, but it has a life of its own. It becomes the most important thing they share, and both make it their duty to nurture and protect it. “Think of it as a bowl between you guys,” Jon and Sylvia told us. “You need to love that bowl more than anything in life—in particular, more than yourselves.” They explained the bowl’s survival depends on each partner filling it with an act of kindness for the other every day. It’s the motive for the gesture—not its size—that’s important. “There will be plenty of times you won’t feel happy with each other,” they said. “But even if it’s the last thing you do, you don’t let a day pass without doing something nice for the other guy. So what if you don’t love him at that moment? You still love the bowl. You’ve put a lot into it. You want it to last.”

Now, 18 years later, I see Sylvia and Jon taught us the principle in Galatians 5.13. Commitment and intimacy don’t liberate us to give in to whimsy and weakness. They free us to show our commitment to one another in intimate ways. Every day, we add a special act of kindness to the bowl. A candy bar. Doing the dishes. Vacation tickets. An “I love you” Post-It on the mirror. A new car. Size and distinction don’t matter. Our willingness to nurture and protect the bowl is all that counts. Love worth having is worth the effort to make it last.

You gotta get a bowl.

(Tomorrow: Golden Opportunities)

Monday, October 5, 2009


O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Psalm 8.1)

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it. (Psalm 24.1)

God’s Great Gift to Us

The call letters for our Chicago PBS affiliate are WTTW, an acronym for “windows to the world,” and last week’s airing of Ken Burns’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea more than lived up to the station’s billing. I can’t recall a more thoroughly transcendent viewing experience. Burns’s documentary astounds the viewer with its unabashed reverence for God’s great gift to us. With the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” as its musical motif, it shucks any pretense of “balancing” faith and science. In this awesome context, belief and knowledge are the same, tactfully setting aside theories about the origins of natural wonders to tacitly attribute their creation to a power far greater and nobler than any we can explain.

Divine majesty is the film’s central thread, starting with John Muir—the 19th-century catalyst of the park movement, whose prose depicted Yosemite’s forests and mountains as “cathedrals”—and ending with George Hartzog, a former National Parks director who states with tremulous conviction:

When you stand in that silentness [sic] in the presence of the great sequoias, you can’t help but recognize you’re a part of something that is way beyond whatever you envision the world might be. You can’t stand there all alone without understanding there’s a power in the world that is far greater than anything you might experience, and that you’re connected to that power, just as that sequoia is connected to that power. It permeates all of us and when you understand that, it improves your relationship with your fellow man, because you understand he has the same capacity, he has the same access. He is your brother.

There’s no denying nature is God’s indisputable testimony to His creative brilliance and authority. It dwarfs our highest achievements by permeating everything in and around us, connecting us to Him and one another.

Continuity of Care

Although Israel’s hardscrabble terrain lacks the scale of America’s landscape, David’s descriptions of God’s wonderworks resound with the same awe conveyed in Burns’s film. “How majestic is your name in all the earth!” he writes in Psalm 8.1. After assessing creation’s scope, verse 4 ponders a sobering mystery: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” The two questions are related but not synonymous. The first comes from a heart humbled by thanksgiving: gratitude for God’s thoughtfulness in revealing His majesty to us. The second springs from utter perplexity: why does a God of unlimited creative capacity still attend to us? God's continuity of care—not His stooping to see about “little old us” (as many assume)—is what dumbfounds David.

There really is no rational explanation for God’s constant concern for the daughters and sons of men. He might as well have put His finishing touches on the world and hung it in the universe, leaving it and us behind to make new beautiful, daring artworks elsewhere. (As it is, His fashioning other worlds and inhabitants is not outside possibility’s realm.) Yet since the dawn of time, not one second has passed without His active participation in the planet and humanity’s ongoing evolution. He remains steadfastly involved with the tiniest detail affecting every life form, orchestrating the interplay of innumerable species, natural phenomena, and human invention (or, with alarming regularity, our interference). All of it comprises a work in progress. And while this approach mystifies David, its purpose doesn’t altogether elude him. He answers Psalm 8.4's question in Psalm 24.1: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” God’s creative impulses supersede artistry to include ownership. Everything we know and see in this world—including all that we are, can be, and will be—belongs to Him. The spectacle of nature is God’s blatant reminder of Who He is and Whose we are. As Psalm 100.3 says, “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.”

Leave God Alone

The Burns documentary also strikes a secondary note throughout, a bracing corollary to its sacred regard for our Father’s world. The primary objective for establishing US national parks focused on protecting majestic expanses of natural splendor so future generations will marvel at God’s handiwork. It’s our job to leave God alone and let His work evolve as He wills without greedily assuming this planet belongs to us. He is the Artist. We are the curators. He assigned the planet’s preservation to us. Genesis 2.15 reads, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

Conservation and correcting damage done to God’s world is a theological mandate. If God’s concern spans generations, our concern should likewise continue. Bluntly put, the Christian who actively or passively approves the desecration of God’s creation is guilty of sin. Carelessness with God’s great gift is neither pleasing nor acceptable to Him. And it goes without saying the same principle applies to brothers and sisters bound to us by the thread of God’s creative majesty. Many of them are equally threatened with extinction. They too are victims of ignorance and avarice run amok. They too flounder on polluted shores and languish in toxic environments. The world and everyone and everything in it belong to God. It's our duty to care for His planet. It's our privilege to care His people.

God’s majesty reminds us of His continuity of care for us—and our responsibility to care for His world and His people. (Cathedral Rocks and Spires, Yosemite National Park.)

(Tomorrow: The Bowl)

Postscript: A Seat At The Table

If you follow the comments here, Claire Bangasser is already familiar to you for the insight, spirit, and sensitivity she brings to our discussions. As happens in the blogging firmament, Claire and I crossed paths on numerous times in various places. Yet in my busy-ness, I neglected to seek her out. How grateful I am she found her way here! In the months we’ve spent getting acquainted and sharing the Word, my admiration and respect for her has grown richer by the day. So it’s with enormous pleasure and honor that I urge you to add her blog, A Seat at the Table, to your reading list.

The banner on her blog reads: “I re-imagine a church engaged in dialogue with people at the margins, inviting everyone at the table, with a thirst for social justice and gender equality.” Without fail, her posts invite us to imagine this with her. She infuses Scriptural depth with erudite observations about the world at large, as well as her personal faith, gently guiding us toward acceptance of our Christian duty to reconcile others, our communities, and ourselves to Christ’s teaching and example. Among so many things I treasure about Claire—who describes herself as a “faithful dissident” in her Facebook profile—is her intense connection with her Maker, a nurturing, embracing, and incontrovertibly feminine Godde, Whom she reflects in every way. In a world overflowing with confusion and conflict, the clarity of wisdom and kindness coursing through A Seat at the Table offers us a very rare thing indeed—refreshment for our souls.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

More Grace

Do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” (James 4.5-6)

Unavoidable Tension

It was 18 years ago last Monday that Walt and I first met; we’ve not been apart since. Learning how long we’ve stuck together, straight and gay friends alike want to know “our secret.” When these inquiries first started, we stuttered, “There’s no secret. We’re just… together.” Eventually, we tried to come up with a stronger, more helpful response. It proved a very instructive exercise. First, we realized we’re best friends. When we teeter on break-up’s edge, knowing the leap will end that pulls us back. Then, for friendship’s sake more than anything, we habitually avoid tension with three “policies.” 1. Regardless how little we care for one another at the time, no day ends without each doing a kind deed for the other. (There is a secret to this, and I plan to write about it soon.) 2. No day finishes but what we somehow make each other laugh. 3. We refuse to entertain jealous thoughts about one another. While we do a lot of things wrong—the lion’s share, I’d say—getting these three correct has cemented our friendship and hence our marriage.

Friendship and marriage find their greatest beauty as mirrors of our union with God. I believe Walt and I reflect this in the first two habits. Every day with God brings His kindness and joy. Dismissing jealousy is a major departure, though, because God is famously jealous. Right off, He establishes His covenant with us by declaring, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20.3) Then, lest we glide casually by that, His second commandment insists, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything”—or, “Don’t even look at something else”—prompting His admission, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” (v4-5) Particularly as we grow more sensitive to God’s presence, when our eyes stray or temptation sets off heart-flutters, we commonly feel His displeasure. As a result, unavoidable tension exists in our relationship with God.

Nothing to Fear

If this were an ordinary affair, we’d be wise to end it pronto. Jealous people make the worst lovers. Their insecurities stifle happiness and spawn nasty suspicions. But our relationship with God is unique. His participation contradicts everything human experience teaches us to expect. Therefore, as James explains, God’s jealousy is nothing to fear. In fact, it's one of the best aspects our relationship with Him. For starters, it gives him opportunity to ravish us with love and mercy. Second, it obliges us to learn the best—the only—way to deal with God’s envy is by submitting to His will and pleasure. And once we discover the motives and principles underlying His jealousy, life without the tension it creates becomes no way to live.

James opens chapter 4 on a tear, blasting believers for fighting to satisfy “desires that battle within you.” (v1) He doesn’t toss any specific examples of such self-serving actions, leading us to presume anything we crave solely for our pleasure fits the bill. Instead, he lumps them together as “friendship with the world.” (v4) Well, anyone knowing anything about God knows that won’t fly. We can hear the quiver in James’s voice as verse 5 essentially asks, “Do you think God is joking when He says He’s intensely envious?” If he were writing today, he might add, “You need to get a grip on yourself,” as he seems to realize he’s losing his grip as well. He takes a deep breath, lowers his tone, and quietly explains why God’s jealousy is good for us. “But he gives us more grace,” James says. “That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” (v6)


God is a categorical Thinker Who defines what is by what isn’t. That’s the first thing we observe about Him. In Genesis 1, we find Him hovering in abstraction above a dark, aqueous void. When He calls for light, darkness becomes “night.” When He speaks land into existence, water becomes “sea.” As His world takes shape, our understanding of Him solidifies, and we realize He creates negative possibilities to activate positive outcomes. This is why we live with “the desires that battle within us.” Temptation isn’t our test; it’s His tool, His method of defining His role in our union, which—true to form—employs jealousy to secure our trust. Rather than accusing us of faithlessness when we fall to temptation, God uses our failure to prove His faithfulness. He gives us more grace.

Temptation isn’t going away. There’s no point hoping it will. It’s there and we have to deal with it. This why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” It sharpens our sense of how easily our eyes wander and our hearts flutter. Trying to overcome temptation on our own is audacious rubbish. Remember: God opposes the proud. Battles with desire humble us to depend entirely on God’s grace—whether beforehand, to steer us clear of temptation, or afterward, for forgiveness and acceptance. When our will clashes with His, He gives us more grace. When what pleases us displeases Him, He gives us more grace. The unavoidable tension generated by God’s jealousy is in itself a gift of grace. It turns our hearts from temptation, a far more pleasant option than experiencing God’s envy when we put our desires above His. Yielding to temptation always makes a mess. It stirs up unnecessary trouble between God and us. But since it won’t leave us alone, God’s not going anywhere, either. He’s in this with us for the long haul. All the grace we’ll ever need can’t put a dent in His love and forgiveness. Day in and day out, He gives us more grace.

Jealousy in human lovers is dangerous. God’s jealousy is a gift of grace.

(Tomorrow: Majesty)