Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sweet Scroll

Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. (Ezekiel 3.3)

Nothing Like It Looks
Blogger informs me this is Straight-Friendly’s 500th post. While that includes reposts and updates, the lion’s share is comprised of original reflections that, until the recent pullback to three per week, appeared daily. Had I known what a new post each day would ultimately demand, I’d have dismissed the idea out-of-hand. Yet this milestone reminds me how much I would have lost by not setting such an ambitious pace. The daily obligation to deliver something hopefully worth reading and useful necessitated digging ever deeper and wider into God’s Word. Since my youth, I’ve tried to devote time each day to reading and/or meditating on Scripture. This experience, which I admit was driven by stubbornness to keep up as much as anything, turned into something else entirely. For the past 18 months, I’ve feasted on God’s Word, finding flavors and textures I’ve never tasted. With more conviction than ever I can testify: God’s Word is sweet.

Ezekiel also learns this, albeit in a less rigorous, time-consuming manner that, well frankly, makes me a little envious. He’s swept into a trance, where he surveys the vast beauty of God’s creatures and beholds the Creator’s glory. He falls facedown as a voice calls him to speak to Israel—which at the moment appears to be in a sorry state. “Do not be afraid of them or their words,” the voice says in Ezekiel 2.6. “Do not be afraid though briers and thorns are all around you, and you live among scorpions.” The calling ends with the voice offering Ezekiel a scroll, commanding him to eat it. “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe,” he reports in verse 9. Ezekiel stands up, opens his mouth, and discovers the parchment tastes nothing like it looks. “It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth,” he writes.

Trapped Between the Lines
As Ezekiel finds out—and something I’ve come to recognize—the sweetness of God’s Word is often trapped between the lines. The riches and rareness of its flavor aren’t always evident at a cursory glance. To experience its full taste, we go beyond looking at it and look into it, searching for pockets of honey, where God’s love and grace hide beneath harsh judgments and reactions to our weakness and disobedience. It’s entirely possible to read the Bible, observing how God deals with us—from the Garden eviction in Genesis to the bloody vengeance described in The Revelation—and come away with a bitter taste in our mouths. That’s because we’ve only skimmed the surface. When we open it up, however, and open our minds to what it’s actually depicting, its amazing sweetness springs to the surface.

The undiscriminating eye sees exactly what Ezekiel does at first glance: pages spread thick with lament, mourning, and woe. But reading the Bible has a completely opposite effect when we discipline ourselves to look beyond what happens to see why God speaks and behaves as He does. Even in the most brutal, seemingly merciless instances—e.g., the Flood, or the savage torture and execution of Christ—we detect the sweetness of God’s undying love and determination to restore our relationship with Him. The extraordinary lengths He goes to and the enormous risks He takes to return our attention to Him fill us with awe.

The Good Parts
It’s a good guess the majority of Bible readers fall somewhere between the skimmers and the searchers. Like people who stick with what they liked as kids and avoid unfamiliar or challenging flavors, they spend their lives ignoring much of God’s Word to get to “the good parts.” And it’s likely “the good parts” are indeed the best parts—passages where God’s love and grace are easily found and absorbed. But there are liabilities to confining our exposure to what suits our tastes. First, we stunt our growth by not gaining insights and strength only found in tougher portions that bury their sweetness. Second, we’re left to rely on others’ opinions regarding unfamiliar passages. This is especially true for gay believers who continue to trust people who rip scriptures out of context to condemn and discourage them. If they explored the texts for themselves, they could be following Christ in full confidence. Finally, a limited diet—no matter how sweet it is—will eventually turn bland. Believers who restrict their tastes to what they already like return less frequently the table. Their hunger to know more of God withers under the misconception all His Word offers is more of the same.

When Ezekiel is given the scroll, he’s told, “Eat this scroll and fill your stomach with it.” In other words, he’s instructed to eat everything—much like parents tell finicky children to stop picking at their food and clean their plates. Had he combed through the scroll for its most tasty or digestible nibbles, he never would have known its full sweetness. Nor would he have been strengthened for the opposition he was due to face as he obeyed God’s call. We need God’s Word, all of it, to know God in His fullness and sweetness. Only by delving beneath its sometimes harsh, off-putting surface can we discover the sweet scroll it truly is.

Skimming the surface or skipping to "the good parts" hides the sweetness trapped between the lines of God's Word.

(Next: Making the Most)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

To Heal Them

Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. (Psalm 107.4-5, 20)
For Everyone’s Sake
It was one of those moments that become unforgettable for what they harbinger. In 1981, I moved to California to live with a sumptuously talented couple that invited me to assist them as music ministers in a growing church. They and their two children welcomed me into their home like family, which we virtually were. One Monday evening in early June, I came home to find Eddy watching the late news. “Have you heard this?” he asked. “Gay men in New York are coming down with some kind of deadly flu.” Patsy overheard him, came into the living room, and together we got our first glimpse of GRID, gay-related immunodeficiency. A flu that only targets gay men—how could that be? While the question perplexed doctors, we immediately knew how it would be answered in our world. “The preachers will have a field day with this,” Eddy said. Our hearts sank to think of the sidetracked sermons proclaiming an outpouring of antigay wrath. Patsy softly said, “Let’s pray they figure it out soon—for everyone’s sake.”

In less than a year we learned the virus wasn’t an exclusively “gay” disease and changed its name to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Discovering its unbiased opportunism didn’t instantly unlock its mysteries, however. Meanwhile, its toll on the gay community soared, causing us to unite as never before to raise millions for research, demand viable treatment, and launch a no-holds-barred campaign to contain the virus. The days of citing “gay liberation” as license for recklessness ended. With our best and brightest falling left and right, frivolity’s price cost more than we could bear. AIDS forced us to grow up. In coming to our senses, an amazing blessing came to us. Walls dividing straight and gay people tumbled and a unilateral community joined to fight AIDS. Contrary to doomsday prophecies, the virus compelled both sides to repudiate their differences and doubts for everyone’s sake. Though we mourn the lives stolen by AIDS, we also honor them by acknowledging their irrefutable role in drawing people of every orientation, ethnicity, and persuasion together. Because of this, I’m thoroughly convinced history will show they did not die in vain.

Speaking the Truth in Love
Today we remember millions of lives lost or irreversibly altered by AIDS. We also gauge our progress against social stigmas that persist despite the battlefield’s shift from gay enclaves to sub-Saharan Africa and urban areas destabilized by poverty, drugs, and sexual ambivalence. At the same time, significant inroads forged by earlier straight and gay activists are steadily eroding. With a second generation coming of age, containment has resurfaced as our most critical issue. Breakthrough therapies lead many—young and old, gay and straight—to view HIV as a manageable condition. High-risk behaviors win wider acceptance with each day as we revert to a dangerously inflated sense of entitlement, completely ignoring our responsibility to protect others and us.

Obedience to Christ’s law of love leaves us no option but to refute the diabolical notion precaution is no longer imperative. Urgent concern for our neighbors calls for compassionate candor. Indulging their failures in the guise of tolerating their flaws exposes our cowardly attempt to escape conflict and criticism. If the unnatural lifestyle Jesus taught and exemplified proves anything it’s choosing what’s easiest for us over what’s best for others benefits no one. It’s senseless. But gambling with lives to make ours easier goes beyond senseless. It’s hateful—a sign of selfish immaturity every bit as reckless as the behavior that ushered AIDS into the world and sustains it. In Ephesians 4, Paul says maturity is essential “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (v12) When we grow up, he writes, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (v14-15) A vast gulf separates silent complicity in the name of love and speaking the truth in love.

Secondary Diseases
The brutality of AIDS easily distracts us from equally horrendous diseases that accompany it. These illnesses are hardly confined to HIV-positive people. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re all infected with AIDS. We bear the cruelty and shame affixed to it. We wear its scars of loss, deprivation, and grief. We suffer the indifference of those who think AIDS doesn’t—or won’t—affect them. Whether they trust where and how they live to protect them or believe protection is unnecessary, their ideas have become the disease behind the disease. This is why believers in every community and corner of the world must speak the truth in love about AIDS. While scientists continue their quest to obliterate HIV, Psalm 107 says our outspokenness can bring healing to its secondary diseases.

Composed as a thanksgiving hymn, Psalm 107 charts Israel’s troubles to extol God’s faithfulness. Yet reading it today (which I wholeheartedly recommend), we’re struck by its resemblance to the AIDS crisis. It describes dying people in search of community, inattentive people imprisoned in darkness, people who suffer from rash behavior, and people who imperil themselves. After each account, the psalmist reminds us God delivered these lost souls from destruction, saying, “Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.” But the brightest gem glimmers in verse 20: “He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.”

God’s word goes forth when we speak the truth in love. It mends minds and spirits troubled by alienation, darkness, rashness, and peril. It speaks to those without direction, trapped without light, sickened by selfishness, and endangered by impetuosity. God sends His word to heal them. He sends it through us. World AIDS Day reminds us how important and influential what we say can be. We must leave total healing of those afflicted with HIV to God. He alone can guide us to its cure. But stemming the AIDS tide is well within our capabilities. In Isaiah 51.16 God tells us, “I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand.” His healing word is in our mouths, waiting for us to speak it with love.

Healing for diseased attitudes and actions that spread HIV is in our mouths. We need only speak the truth in love.

(Next: The Sweet Scroll)