Saturday, October 24, 2009

Keeping Track

Does he not see my ways and count my every step? If I have walked in falsehood or my foot has hurried after deceit—let God weigh me in honest scales and he will know that I am blameless. (Job 31.4-6)

Do You Know?

OK, it’s time to play “Camp Movie Classics.” See how many clues it takes to name the film. 1. Released in 1975. 2. Second movie to star a pop diva-turned-actress. 3. Set in Chicago. 4. A rags-to-riches tale—or, better yet, a rags and riches tale. 5. Featured one of the 1970’s most cloying theme songs. Give up? The answer is Mahogany, Diana Ross’s sophomore disaster following her amazing début in Lady Sings the Blues. Its story of a secretary who becomes a supermodel was no more than a thinly veiled excuse for Ms. Ross to play dress-up. That theme song—ugh—is what’s pertinent here. If you recall it, no doubt it’s already dug its talons into your brain. If not, here are the lyrics, with apologies, because “Theme from Mahogany” is one of those tunes that roost in your head for hours.

Do you know where you're going to?

Do you like the things that life is showing you?

Where are you going to?

Do you know?

Since the song ultimately concludes, “How sad the answers to those questions can be,” I for one don’t appreciate having them foisted on me. That wouldn’t be the case if it were “Theme from Job 31,” as this chapter in Job’s riches-to-rags story asks a lot of questions that lead to happy answers. The lyric would need tweaking, though, to reflect Job’s chief query: “Does God know where I’m going?”

A Step-by-Step Inventory

Job asks this hypothetically after friends see the disastrous turn his life has taken and wonder where he went wrong. Sensing they’re headed down the Mahogany path of sad excuses, he doesn’t appreciate it. After protesting his integrity as chapter 31 begins, Job considers a riddle that’s haunted us since the dawn of time: how can a loving God let bad things happen for no reason? Shouldn’t disaster be reserved to punish wickedness? These are legitimate questions no human’s ever adequately answered. (But Jesus did; we’ll get to that tomorrow.) “Isn’t God keeping track of me, counting every step I take?” Job says. “If I’ve failed to please Him, He knows it wasn’t my intention.”

Job’s gone over this repeatedly. But in case he missed something, he takes a step-by-step inventory of his life that testifies to his humility and honesty. Rather than tick off sins and declare his innocence, he frames them as possible missteps that merit correction. Maybe I allowed my eyes to lead me astray, he says. Maybe my hands grabbed after corruption. I may have longed for another’s wife. Perhaps I treated my employees unfairly. Maybe I failed to do all I could for the poor and homeless. It’s possible I placed too much pride in my wealth and success. I may have lost sight of God by glorying in His creation. Maybe I enjoyed seeing my enemy’s misfortunes. Job ends his list with an astounding theory: I may have buried my sin and guilt too far from sight to detect them. If so, he says in verse 35, “let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.”

Trouble Has Its Reasons

Trouble doesn’t need us to give it reason to show up. Its purpose isn’t limited to punishment or correction. If we confine it to that, we’ll be like Job—constantly wondering where we failed. (Since some problems are self-inflicted, a step-by-step inventory isn’t a bad place to start, though.) Many trials that come our way originate elsewhere. This makes it ever important to recognize trouble has its reasons, because even when it’s not of our making, we’ve been chosen to deal with it for a specific purpose.

Trouble is a teacher. The psalmist wrote, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Psalm 119.71) It teaches us what we don’t yet know and sharpens our understanding. Trouble also proves faith and builds stamina. James 1.2-3 encourages: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Finally, trouble is a cleanser. It inspires us to invite God to inspect our hearts and welcomes His participation in our struggles. Job asks for a written indictment. Similarly, when David finds he’s under attack and uncertain why, he prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139.23-24) When trouble persists and answers don’t come, we find the courage to tell God, “Here, You take a look.” There may be nothing to see. But turning to God for answers turns trouble over to God.

When trouble knocks us around, our first impulse is to ask why, and our second wonders, “Do I know where I’m going? Do I like the things life is showing me?” The real question, however, is “Does God know where I’m going?” followed by “What is God showing me?” Job says God sees our ways and counts every step. We may have no idea why trouble has taken us by surprise or the slightest clue where it might lead. Instead of worrying with what we don’t know, it’s best for us to learn all we can. God is keeping track. He sees what’s happening. He knows why. And He knows how to use trouble to teach us, build us, and clean us up for what’s ahead. Knowing that is all we really need to know.

We question why trouble comes to us and where it will lead. All we really need to know is God sees where we are. He’s keeping track of us step-by-step.

(Tomorrow: How Can a Loving God… ?)

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Point in Defeat

What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? (Psalm 30.9)

Impossible Odds

As some of you know, I earn my keep developing and directing corporate sales events. Especially during periods of economic uncertainty—i.e., today’s environment—sales leaders beat the bushes to find someone whose story of defying impossible odds will inspire their people. Seldom are these speakers connected to the company’s business or the sales profession. Over the years, I’ve worked with intrepid mountaineers, prisoners of war, imperiled astronauts, AIDS activists, deep-sea explorers, dedicated teachers, quadriplegic artists, and more sports legends than I can remember. Despite each account’s unique twists and turns, it always reaches the same conclusion. Had the speaker given in to defeat, there’d be no point in telling the story.

The will to survive is a force of nature, while the drive to succeed reinforces our determination to survive. Most of the time, their combined strengths provide ample power to withstand defeat. But ever so often life throws us a curve unlike anything we’ve experienced. Crises like sudden tragedy, financial ruin, prolonged illness, and unprovoked violence overwhelm us. Our trust in God and self-confidence teeter on collapse. We deny faith’s reality to accept fear’s reasoning. Waiting for answers increases our comfort level with living in defeat. We discount Christ’s promise: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16.33) Instead, we overestimate Nietzsche’s premise: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Granted, faith ignores all natural instinct, drive, and logic. But faith’s most unnatural extreme can’t rival Nietzsche’s absurd notion. How does settling for failure give rise to strength? Why would enduring defeat ever end in victory? All this gets us are feelings of inferiority—the sense we’re too weak to conquer defeat.

Lost in the Dust

In Psalm 30, David tells us there’s no point in defeat. “What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit?” he asks. “Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?” Ah, now we get it. If we spend our lives rationalizing our insecurities and ignoring our Creator’s existence, Nietzsche's logic makes sense. In contrast, if, like David, we ignore our insecurities and anchor our existence on faith in our Creator, we understand why defeat is not an option. If we lose, God loses. Sinking into defeats leaves His praise lost in the dust. The moment we meet impossible odds, He begins strengthening us to rise above them for His glory. What did Jesus say? “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” Our powerlessness gives Him occasion to prove His power.

Though the latest crisis looks more impossible than any we’ve seen, it’s wise to consider a few things before doubting we can survive it. First, nothing we face in life is new. Our circumstances may be unique, but their underlying cause isn’t. Solomon tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1.9) Because of this, we realize God’s seen our crisis play out in every conceivable way. There’s not a thing we can do to shock or worry God. Regardless how difficult we make things by panicking, questioning, and interfering with what He wants to do, He already knows how to fix us so He can fix our problem. In 1 Corinthians 10.13 we read: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” God finds no glory when we lie down in despair. Getting us back on our feet is how He gets praise. There’s no point in defeat.

Strength to Survive and Succeed

Overcoming impossibilities won’t always mean solving the crisis that creates them. Sometimes God receives higher praise by teaching us to live with our problems and still refuse defeat. Contrary to Nietzsche, our weaknesses—not our crises—give us strength to survive and succeed. Paul lived with an unidentified, tormenting problem until he died. He begged God to remove it. But God refused, telling him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9a) Many times God gains greater glory when we—and others around us—know we’ve got a serious problem that can’t defeat us because we invest total trust in God’s faithfulness and strength. Once Paul got this, his crisis became his crown. He writes, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (v9b)

Instead of fretting over his weaknesses, Paul gladly boasts in them. David does likewise in Psalm 30. After seeing no point in defeat, he distances himself from the problem to make room for God. “O LORD, be my help.” (v10) With that, he too is overcome with gladness. “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (v11) Did God fix the problem? David doesn’t say. But He certainly fixed David’s feelings about it. The poem closes with a vow: “O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.” (v12) Praise is the point in every struggle we face. And since there’s no praise in defeat, there’s no point in it either.

Getting us back on our feet is how God gets praise. He finds no glory when we lie down in defeat.

(Tomorrow: Keeping Track)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Our Right to Representation

If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense. (1 John 2.1)

Miranda and Christ

In March 1963, Phoenix police detained Ernesto Miranda for the rape of a mentally disabled 18-year-old woman. At 22, he was a known criminal with a long history of arrests. He’d spent most of youth in custody. A 15-month Army stint ended dishonorably after he’d repeatedly gone AWOL to satisfy voyeuristic urges. When they picked him up, police also suspected him in several similar rapes. Questioning led to confession. Since he confessed without benefit of counsel, however, the Supreme Court vacated his sentence, holding his Constitutional right to representation had been violated. The ruling didn’t spare him. Additional evidence convicted him on retrial. Within a year of his 1975 parole, he was stabbed to death in a bar brawl. Yet, because of his crime and the officers’ indifference, hardly a moment passes in the US—and most of the free world—without Miranda’s case being invoked to guarantee due process of law.

While parallels between Miranda and Christ aren’t exact, they’re notably similar. Both set lasting precedents to ensure protection against coerced admissions of guilt. Both were charged as a result of reckless indifference. Just as Miranda’s arresting officers ignored his rights to secure his conviction, legal and religious figures of Jesus’s day were so determined to stop Him, they fomented outcry for His crucifixion when neither Herod nor Pilate found grounds to put Him to death. And though we feel squeamish about comparing a confessed rapist to Jesus, the crimes that nailed Him to the cross actually exceed—and include—Miranda’s offenses. As 2 Corinthians 5.21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Miranda and Christ share a lot more in common than we prefer to imagine.

Three Major Principles

Despite similarities in their cases, however, the outcomes couldn’t be more dissimilar. Miranda still paid for his crimes and died in ignominy, no more than a tarnished footnote in legal history. Jesus ultimately triumphed over sin, became the greatest influence in human history, and after literally vacating His death sentence, and now serves as the greatest legal advocate humanity has ever known. The size of His caseload equals the global population—not merely the present figure, but the aggregate representing every man, woman, and child who ever lived. Though we have no idea how, He is everywhere with everyone all the time. His constant guidance keeps millions out of trouble. His genius for crisis resolution knows no bounds. His counsel in handling accusations and legal malfeasance is flawless. And while staying constantly busy with these activities, He’s always—always—pleading God’s mercy in our defense.

In his first epistle John says: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2.1-2) Three major principles surface here. First, John guarantees our right to representation after we sin. While we admit wrongdoing and ask God’s forgiveness, Christ stands in our defense. As God Incarnate, awareness of our frailty and vanity supremely qualifies Him to plead for our acquittal. Second, Jesus’s atonement secures His right to represent us. This leads to the third principle. Knowing our debt’s paid and our Lawyer never loses doesn’t give us latitude to sin. Prior to describing Christ’s advocacy for our defense, 1 John 1.6 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” Assurance of God’s mercy doesn’t entitle us to exploit it. We can’t have it both ways.

The Truth, Nothing But the Truth

“Living by the truth” held great resonance for early believers, who battled false doctrine within their ranks while living in a society that put little value in moral truth. We see how shaky the concept of “truth” was in the transcript of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. He asks Jesus if He’s a king. Jesus answers, “You say that. I didn’t come to be a king. I came to bear witness to the truth.” To which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18.37-38) The Apostles constantly stressed knowing the truth—embodied in Christ and taught by Him—demands we live by it. They defined sin as anything that subverts truth. Discipleship came down to the truth, nothing but the truth, and that was that.

Paul wholeheartedly supports this in 1 Timothy 2.4-6, saying Christ “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Our right to representation brings with it awesome responsibility to represent Christ. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus tells us in John 14.6. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He also says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8.32) Knowledge of the truth liberates us from dishonest pursuits, false pleasures, and hypocritical behaviors that displease God, hurt others, and harm ourselves. It teaches us to do the right thing; it doesn’t free us to do as we please. Here we have three passages confirming Jesus is our representative. He speaks to God in our defense. He is our mediator. He gets us to God. But as significant as this is—and despite the extraordinary precedent it sets—defending our sin isn’t His primary purpose. He came to witness the truth. He is the truth. The more we live by the truth, the less we need to prevail on Christ for our defense.

Our right to representation doesn’t excuse our responsibility to represent our Defender by living by the truth.

(Tomorrow: No Point in Defeat)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fresh Regard

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5.16)

Knowing What We Believe; Believing What We Know

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul plunges into the deep end and never looks back. Staying with him demands stamina, because he keeps diving below the surface and coming up with another gem. In many ways, this chapter serves as a companion piece to John 3, where Jesus and Nicodemus discuss Christianity’s most profound mystery: spiritual transformation. Jesus describes it as rebirth: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3.3) Paul calls it re-creation: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17) Point of view differentiates the two passages, however. Jesus defines transformation from His perspective as the Agent of change. Paul explains it from our side as beneficiaries of change. Both lines of thought intersect at faith, the point where our hopeless mortality is transformed into eternal hope. In John 3.16, Jesus says, “whoever believes shall have eternal life.” In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul writes, “We live by faith.”

Faith begins by knowing what we believe. Most Christians start with John 3.16. Longing to restore our relationship with Him, God loved us so much He took on mortal flesh to defeat death and sin through the power of resurrection. When we believe that, Jesus says, we too are transformed from death to new life. Of course, Paul reaches the same conclusion. But he gets there from the opposite direction. He opens chapter 5 with the importance of believing what we know. And what do we know without any doubt? We die. Being aware our bodies are temporary dwellings, Paul says we intrinsically know “we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (v1) Why is he so sure of this? Verse 5 says, “It is God who has made us… and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” In the mean time, Paul says, “we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” (v2) In other words, God’s longing for reconciliation with us described in John 3.16 is matched by our longing to be reconciled with Him. Knowing He created us to live forever in harmony with Him is why we believe we will.

Eternal Life Begins Now

Tim McGraw scored a hit a few years back with “Live Like You’re Dyin’,” a ballad about a man whose fatal disease inspired him to enjoy every moment he had left. The Freeman-Nicholson comedy, The Bucket List, covered similar territory. Paul would say “Pshaw!” to both. He says eternal life begins now. Instead of living like we’re dying, we live now like God intended us to live always. “So we make it our goal to please him,” Paul writes in verse 9, “whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” We’re no longer limited by what we can see—to our human faculties. Reconciliation through faith in Christ broadens the meaning of life. Indeed, it redefines life’s meaning.

Many assume John 3.16 says if we believe in Christ, then we shall have eternal life. This skews the sentence’s tense, which is not conditional but future-simple. “Shall” denotes spontaneous action following a prior action—when, not if. Eternal life is ours the moment we believe. No New Testament writer is more convinced of this than Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15.54-55 he writes: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Yet neither Jesus nor Paul discusses eternal life solely in future terms of escaping inevitable death. Both explain it as present transformation. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” Jesus says. “The old is gone; the new has come!” Paul says. New life and eternal life coexist in the now. This changes how we view everything—including one another.

New Outlook

New life in Christ gives us a new outlook on life. We view others and ourselves with fresh regard. Here’s how Paul puts it: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” (v16) From the moment Jesus entered the world until the second prior to His resurrection, He was as human as His contemporaries—or, for that matter, you and I. He was no less vulnerable to death and disease, temptation and stress than anyone else. And that’s how the world saw Him. But after Easter, it was impossible to view Him from “a worldly perspective” any longer. Now brace yourself: Paul says this changes how we regard everyone. There are no exceptions.

Your faith doesn’t make you special. Neither does mine. Everyone who believes has eternal life. Regarding people from a worldly point of view invites us to assess their behaviors. We’re looking at them through dead eyes. Our new outlook focuses on their potential to believe, seeing them not as they are, but as they can be. Our worst enemy can have eternal life if he/she believes. Our most scathing judge can have eternal life. The murder, the abuser, the rapist, the adulterer, the murderer, the hypocrite, the liar—you name it—can have eternal life. As new creations, transformed by God’s grace and power to live forever, we of all people should be convinced if Christ made eternal life possible for one, it’s possible for all.

Knowing Christ offers eternal life to all people changes how we regard everyone. There are no exceptions.

(Tomorrow: Our Right to Representation)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Speak to Me

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3.10)


The United Church of Christ has a terrific motto: “God is still speaking.” My heart skips a beat every time I see it displayed on a UCC edifice, publication, or Website. Yes! I say. Our deafness can’t break God’s will to speak. Though we muffle His voice with every kind of noise, He won’t be silent. At the same time, what He says is too sacred to be subjected to shouting matches. Only hearts and minds trained to tune out human racket will discern His voice. Unfortunately, the communication frenzy overtaking our lives further compounds the interference. It’s tough to quiet facts, gossip, and opinions dancing in our heads long enough to fall asleep. After being constantly assaulted by voices competing for our attention in all sorts of tones—from violently shrill to seductively dulcet—when we find we are able tune into God’s wavelength it’s easy to attribute His voice to another source. What we learn from Samuel’s story makes our chatty culture all the more lamentable. God’s voice has always been difficult to identify, even in primitive days of silence.

Samuel is a miracle baby, an answer to his mother, Hannah’s, prayers. After failing to conceive, she vows if God brings her a son, she’ll give him to Eli, the high priest, to train for ministry. So Samuel grows up studying by day and spending his nights at rest before the ark, the temple site reserved exclusively for God’s living presence. One night, with the elder priest bedded down elsewhere, a voice calls the lad’s name. “Here I am,” he answers, thinking Eli wants him. When Eli doesn’t respond, Samuel goes to ask what he needs. “It wasn’t I,” Eli says. “Lie back down.” The incident repeats itself twice. By the third time, Eli figures it out. (He’s always been a tad slow on the uptake. He mistook Hannah’s demonstrative prayers for a son as drunkenness, and has stupidly ignored God’s warning that his sons slated are criminally unfit for priesthood.) After Eli realizes Samuel is hearing God’s voice, he instructs the boy, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3.9) Samuel does as he’s told. Once he confirms he’s on God’s wavelength, God speaks.

Open Ears

The story opens with this observation: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.” We’re challenged to wonder why that is. From Genesis to Joshua, barely a chapter ends without God talking to His people or sending word via visions, dreams, or angelic visitations. Why is God so noticeably silent in Samuel’s time? If we flip back to chapter 2, we discover God never stopped speaking. His word doesn’t reach His people because Eli and his sons are deaf to His voice. Verse 13 says, “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD.” In a nutshell, they treated the sacraments with contempt and exploited their priestly office for sexual favors. When Eli confronts them with this, they blow the old man off. But worse than that, he continues to allow it. God sends a prophet to indict his apathy, asking, “Why do you honor your sons more than me?” The priest has no excuse, yet not even this moves him to get the situation under control. And so it is God calls to Samuel in the night, speaking to an innocent whose open ears are impervious to the taunts of corruption, greed, desire, and fear. Samuel’s purity places him in prime position to hear God clearly and accurately.

Lessons in Listening

This little story houses the pivotal moment in one of the Bible’s most influential figures. What Samuel experiences that night conditions him to stay attuned to God’s voice for the remainder of his life. And what a life it is! His listening skills supersede the duties of priest, lifting him to the highest station in Israel’s theocratic structure. He becomes God’s mouthpiece—the nation’s prophet extraordinaire who conveys what God says and wants to Israel’s kings. From this moment on, Samuel places himself at his Maker’s disposal and even when the country and its leaders stray from God’s will, he remains true. In return, God stays true to Samuel. Verse 19 of the third chapter tells us, “The LORD remained with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.”

The story also provides us invaluable lessons in listening, offering explicit examples of what to emulate and what to avoid. Where Samuel first hears God speak cannot be overlooked. He’s as close as he can possibly get to God’s presence. Then, once he’s convinced the voice belongs to no one else, he answers, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (v10) This inexperienced child is in position to listen because he’s where he needs to be physically and spiritually. His thoughts, aspirations, and concerns aren’t impeded by what he wants to hear. His ears are wide open to everything God says.

God is still speaking—if not always audibly, most certainly by imparting His thoughts and direction via open channels in our hearts and minds. Our receptivity depends on how close we stay to His presence, how well we guard against interference from selfish and corrupting noise, and how willing we are to trust what He says. Once we reach the place where we’re confident and ready to hear Him, when He calls us by name, we can answer, “Speak to me. I’m listening.”

Proximity to God’s presence, clarity of thought, and willingness to trust are the keys to hearing Him speak to us.

(Tomorrow: Fresh Regard)

Monday, October 19, 2009


Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9.37-38)

Harassed and Helpless

Anyone practicing or raised in evangelical Christianity knows this text by heart. He/she hears it and immediately—almost reflexively—associates it with a call to ministry. And that it is. But Jesus says it as a direct result of an observation that troubles Him more so than as a strategic appeal to recruit workers. Here it is in its fuller context (Matthew 9.35-38):

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

What moves Him is what He sees at present, not what He envisions for the future. Everywhere He looks there are harassed and helpless people. They’re incapable of defending themselves. They have no sense of direction. They follow whatever passes their way and fall into trouble without intention.

Matthew muddles the passage somewhat by introducing a herd metaphor just prior to quoting Christ’s description of what He sees as a field of ripe grain. Yet the juxtaposition also adds urgency to what Jesus says. An untended crop will go to seed and survive by reproducing itself the following year. Untended sheep, on the other hand, will dumbly lead themselves into oblivion. They’ll get lost, wander aimlessly away from healthy pasture, and fall to sickness and predators. Isaiah 53.6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The compassion Jesus feels for the strays He finds everywhere comes out of His sensitivity to the sin and ignorance steering them in unhealthy directions. He feels the weight of iniquity they don’t even realize they carry.

Unorthodox Approaches

If we take another step back and look at Christ’s call for harvesters in even wider context, we find something particularly enlightening. Matthew places it at the end of a chapter laced with religious controversy. First, Jesus draws fire when He ministers to a paralytic by first telling him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (v2) This gets the legalists in a twist. Who does He think He is to forgive sins? (Well, He knows Who He is.) So Jesus asks, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (v5) To prove His authority to forgive, Jesus uses His power to heal. The lame man walks away and His critics slink back into the shadows.

They don’t stay gone for long. When Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow Him, the Pharisees corner His disciples in verse 11: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” referring to social and religious outcasts. Jesus steps in. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” He says, “but the sick.” (v12) Next, He bumps heads with disciples of John the Baptist. They’re irritated that they and other Jews fast, while His followers don’t. Jesus talks about patching old clothes with new fabric and storing new wine in old skins to explain what He’s doing doesn’t fit the legalist paradigm. Finally, in quick order, He breaks all kinds of taboos. He heals a hemorrhaging woman, a comatose girl, and two blind men—all of them “unclean” and all of them healed by His touch. He rounds things off by loosening the tongue of a mute allegedly possessed by a foul spirit. From first to last, Christ’s unorthodox approaches baffle crowds who’ve been taught those Jesus helps are beyond help. In verse 33, they say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

Our Field of Service

In perspective with all that precedes it, when Christ mentions the plentiful harvest, we see something quite the opposite of amber waves of grain billowing in the wind. Our field of service reaches beyond presumably healthy stalks standing in orderly formation. It spills over to stunted lives overshadowed by fear and prejudice, knotted people growing inward due to shame and powerlessness, malnourished souls weakened by cruelty and self-abuse, and tender shoots trampled by peer pressure and conformity. Before they can be harvested, they need our care—our light to reactivate their growth, our caress to turn their focus away from themselves toward God, our nurture to restore their strength, and our protection to withstand the stampede of the crowd.

People we first need to save in order to “save” surround us. Christianity isn’t a numbers game based on collecting more points for our side by halftime. It’s an organic process that demands extraordinary, unorthodox approaches that tenderly assess every person we meet on a case-by-case basis. We forgive in order to heal. We find the sick and wounded, rather than build a practice in hopes they’ll find us. We ignore paradigms to infuse new life into old doctrines. We touch untouchables and enable the tormented to speak freely. Will traditionalists challenge us? Of course—that’s what they do. Will we be criticized for hanging with the wrong crowd? If not, we’re doing something wrong. Will other believers who don’t understand confront us? We can expect that. But if we truly want to answer Christ’s call to harvest, we can’t permit third-party observers to hinder our commitment. What He asks us to do is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Our field of service goes beyond the amber waves to reach the ignored and abused that first must be saved in order to be harvested.

(Tomorrow: Speak to Me)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Strength in Joy

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. (Nehemiah 8.10)


A trio of Old Testament books, Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah, tend to get lost in the stacks, squeezed between the epic chronicle of Israel’s formation and the Bible's staggering poetic works. These three slender tales are like summer TV series—great stories in search of an audience. It’s really a shame, too, because they portray three intrepid exiles who take enormous risks to save thousands of people in jeopardy. Ezra becomes the catalyst behind a vast pilgrimage of exiled Jews returning to their homes. Esther rises from obscurity as a Hebrew exile to become Queen of Persia and foils a plot to exterminate her people. Nehemiah, another Jew living in Persia, also attains a prominent place at court, where his service as the king’s butler secures him great favor.

Nehemiah’s story begins with bad news from home telling him Jerusalem’s been ransacked. It sits defenseless, its famous walls in shambles and its citizens starving to death under an oppressive regime. The butler’s sorrow troubles the Persian king, who asks how he can help. Nehemiah requests permission to return to Jerusalem and oversee its reconstruction. Without pause, the king appoints Nehemiah as Judea’s governor, equips him with an entourage, and writes letters of passage to safeguard his travels. Rather than taking charge straightaway and ruffling the city’s occupiers and religious establishment (both woefully corrupt), what Nehemiah does is most clever. He surveys the damage under cover of night and quietly forges an alliance of concerned priests and citizens who share his determination to restore Jerusalem. When the powers that be hear what he’s up to, it’s too late. The plan is place. The people are organized and ready to work. And Nehemiah’s authority under the Persian king protects him from typical power plays used by illegitimate governments and wayward leaders.

Knowing All Along

Subtle details in the Biblical narrative lead many to conclude Nehemiah is a eunuch—not in the euphemistic sense often used for gay people, but in its strictest definition as a castrated servant. Assuming this is correct makes his story all the more astonishing and exceedingly poignant. Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem and wrests its people from their oppressors knowing all along Hebrew law categorically states, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23.1) Once the city regains stability and resumes its way of life, he’ll govern Judea by Persian authority. Yet persona non grata status as a Jew will never permit him to join his nation’s community of faith.

What’s more, Nehemiah labors on Jerusalem’s behalf knowing all along he’ll have no children to enjoy what he’s built and carry on his name. The reconstructed walls will stand firm for centuries because of his concern. Generations will gather in the temple because of him. While his work remains, however, in all likelihood Nehemiah will gradually vanish from memory until he is no more. In light of these circumstances, we feel a lump in our throats as we listen to his prayer in Nehemiah 5.19: “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.” His prayer is honored and, happily, his amazing story remains intact to this day.

Nehemiah’s Secret

Here’s what’s most impressive about Nehemiah: he won’t be confined by arbitrary limitations. He keeps in touch with his roots despite his exile. He communes with God despite religious discrimination. He builds a monument to his faith despite the prospect he’ll be forgot. In spite of these hurdles, he persists. How does he do this? Coming home restores his joy. He resurges with fresh optimism and energy. After he rebuilds the walls, other exiles start coming home. Having not seen the ruins, they can’t appreciate what’s been done. Since there’s more yet to do, what they find distresses them. Nehemiah calls an assembly to address them as their governor. He tells them it’s a sacred day—a time to rejoice in progress to date, not to mourn over how much further there is to go. “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength,” he says. (Nehemiah 8.10) Strength in joy—that’s Nehemiah’s secret.

Looking at damages done to the institutional church by corrupt impostors and wayward leaders, our hearts break with sorrow. Yet we can’t permit dismay to weaken us. Nor can we be confined by arbitrary limitations and worries our work won't be noticed or remembered. Exiles are needed at home. Residents are needed to welcome exiles. There’s damage to assess—under cover of night, if need be—and alliances to forge. We return fully supported and authorized by our King, Who urges us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecclesiastes 9.10) Our strength rests in the joy we gain by doing God’s work. As we work together, other exiles will return. We’ll teach them not to worry about problems yet to be fixed. We’ll teach them to find strength in joy. Isaiah 51.11 promises, “The ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” This is not a day for sadness. It’s a sacred day, a time of joy, a time of strength, a time to work.

Damage to the institutional church grieves many of us. Working together to restore what’s been lost turns grief to joy. Joy becomes strength.

(Tomorrow: Harvest)

Postscript: Hymnology

Marion, a longtime Straight-Friendly subscriber, sent the link to this video of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” one of her favorite hymns. “Nothing like the English singing it in the Abbey… gave me goosebumps! I’m sure your readership would love it, too,” she wrote. Marion’s an English ex-pat; but it had the same effect on me, a Southern-born, Midwestern kid. I’m delighted to share it with you on this Lord’s Day.

As I watched it, I thought how delightful it would be to feature videos of other favorite hymns from time to time. I invite everyone to pass along suggestions. If you’ve found a video you especially like, send the link. Otherwise, the title will do; I’ll track something down to share. Don’t be shy, now. It takes all of 30 seconds to type a title in the comments section (and only a bit longer to say why you love the hymn). Given the diversity of S-F’s readership, I have no doubt we’ll all be enriched and inspired by the suggestions.

Thanks, Marion, for the link—and the inspiration!