Saturday, December 12, 2009


Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)
A Deep Breath
The 40-day period between the resurrection and ascension intrigues me. The Gospels and Acts report several interactions between Jesus and His disciples, but we don’t observe Him doing much beyond issuing last-minute instructions. While Paul asserts one of these encounters involves 500 people (1 Corinthians 15.6), neither the Gospels nor Acts chronicle it. He spends His final days on Earth behind the scenes, preparing His closest followers to continue His ministry after He leaves. And there’s no record anywhere of a major public appearance where He announces He’s risen to life to the masses. This strikes us as a bit surprising, since Christianity hinges on faith in Jesus’s resurrection. We might think He’d seize every chance to be seen by as many as possible—until it occurs to us if His resurrection were a verifiable fact, faith would be irrelevant. Jesus stays out of the public eye because His mission centers on ending our reliance on what we know by requiring us to trust what God says. “Whoever believes shall have eternal life,” He says in John 3.16.

Instead of an historically definitive event, the pivotal moment comes in John 20.21-22: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He uses a fairly innocuous gesture to transfer power to the disciples. He inspires them exactly as God first inspired humanity. With one breath, He fills them with His presence, His gifts, nature, and authority. Jesus explains they’re receiving the Holy Spirit—the Comforter Who, as He promised, “will guide you into all truth.” (John 16.13) Yet note why He breathes the Holy Spirit into them: “I am sending you.” The Spirit’s comfort and counsel aren’t only for the disciples’ edification. Henceforth, they carry It with them wherever they go and express It in calm assurance conveyed in their demeanor and words. They’re now able to bring Christ’s presence to any situation and change the atmosphere around it with no more than a deep breath.

A Most Unusual Message

When God directs Isaiah to “comfort My people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” He’s invoking the prophet’s capacity to bring solace and clarity to Israel’s turmoil. Repeatedly God has pressed His people to obey and repeatedly they’ve failed. By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, their stubbornness has pummeled them with sorrow. They’re punch-drunk, exhausted, and despondent as they see their hope, like Jerusalem itself, lay in ruins. In times past, prophets predicted doom and destruction if Israel didn’t mend its ways. But God calls Isaiah to restore the nation’s faith and ease its worries. He commands the prophet to proclaim their hardships are ending, their sins are forgiven, and He’s repaying their repentance twice over with His love and mercy. This is a most unusual message delivered by a most unusual prophet who views his responsibilities in a most unusual manner.

Isaiah describes his mission this way: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (61.1) His compassion is so remarkable Jesus quotes him verbatim to define His ministry in Luke 4.18. And He essentially condenses it when He breathes on the disciples. He endows them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world to preach, to heal, to liberate people in distress. “Comfort my people; speak tenderly to them,” God tells Isaiah. Jesus vests the disciples with the Comforter so they can do the same.

We too have drawn the breath of Christ into our beings. We’ve also received the Holy Spirit and been sent into the world. We too can provide solace and clarity to troubled lives. Because the Comforter dwells in us, we have the capacity to make Its presence felt in every situation we enter. The confidence expressed in our behavior and the words we speak—words carried on inspired breath—have the ability to change the atmosphere around us. Yet if we limit our perceptions of what the Spirit within us can do and how we manifest Its power to our problems alone, we negate Jesus’s purpose for giving It to us.

We’ve received a most unusual message that must be delivered in a most unusual way. Our faith in Christ’s resurrection convinces us of His power to restore life. We’ve experienced it in our own lives. Thus, there are no lost causes and no one is beyond redemption. It’s our privilege to comfort God’s people—to assure them He has their problems in hand, He’s forgiven them, and He will repay the costs of their mistakes twice over. Though much of their anxiety results from stubborn disregard for God, others, and themselves, we honor our calling to comfort them by resisting urges to confront or condemn them. “Brutal honesty” is an oxymoron; since it justifies wounding someone’s spirit as a method of healing, it’s patently dishonest. It’s best we leave that sort of “comfort” to self-deluded haters and old-school prophets. We provide comfort in a manner that pleases our Maker and reflects the Comforter’s presence in us—in a word, tenderly.

We neither confront nor condemn. We comfort.

(Next: Travel Advisory)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

For the Least

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me. (Matthew 25.40)

Who Qualifies?

My partner’s been without work for six months. Thankfully, we’re able to get along on one income, which has given him time to explore new fields and apply previously untapped talents to volunteer projects. At the same time, managing his benefits is a full-time job. He spends hours every day navigating the unemployment morass. A missed deadline or unplaced call can mean lengthy conversations and paperwork to get back in the system. On top of that, an ongoing condition also entitles him to health subsidies that require extra vigilance. If one agency drops the ball, another agency drops Walt. Almost daily, he’s on the phone, explaining why he qualifies for this or that type of assistance. “I’ve never felt so insignificant,” he said recently. “You have no idea how demeaning it is to have to convince someone your needs matter.” I asked if people he deals with are brusque or inattentive. “No,” he replied. “They’re very kind. But someone’s bound to fall through the cracks. I have to make sure it’s not me.”

I imagine most of us already know Matthew 25's story about letting people fall through the cracks. Actually, it’s not a story at all. It’s a plainly worded warning dressed up as a parable. Jesus tells it in the future tense and sets it on Judgment Day. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, the King assigns people to one of two groups. He places those who’ve helped anyone in need on His right; those who’ve parceled out compassion and generosity on a case-by-case basis stand to His left. He welcomes those on His right; those to His left are dismissed. Jesus doesn’t use the story to provoke fear of damnation as a means of promoting love. As 1 John 4.18 explains, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Jesus knows this. His story’s purpose focuses on one question: Who qualifies for our mercy and kindness? “Everyone” is His definitive reply.

Beneath Contempt

“Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers, you did for me,” the King insists, much to the amazement of the right-hand crowd. Equal regard for all was so deeply instilled in them, they stopped worrying about who did or didn’t merit compassion. Meanwhile, the left-hand crowd was appalled—outraged, actually. Selectively deciding who deserved their attention seemed like the logical thing to do. Why waste their efforts on people unworthy of them? “In rejecting the least, you reject Me,” the King insists. Had they read 1 John 4.20, they would have acted differently. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Because the people Jesus mentions are hungry, homeless, without clothing, sick, and imprisoned—i.e., safely qualified for modern benevolence—we tend to interpret “the least” to mean “overlooked.” But His listeners heard something radically different. Their culture viewed anyone stranded in such conditions beneath contempt. These people were viewed as spreaders of disease, disturbers of the peace, and leeches on the system. If Jesus told the story today, He’d revise His list to include racists and homophobes, abusive parents and spouses, liars and cheats, and others we consider too hateful to merit attention, love, and forgiveness. He’d also alter the King’s comment to read, “Whatever you did for the worst, you did for Me.”

For Him

None of us is spared the likelihood someone will behave toward us in unthinkably horrible ways. People will heed their cruelest impulses at our expense. They’ll hate us without reason and plot our destruction to satisfy dark urges. They’ll exhibit no concern about suffering they inflict or scars they leave on us. Regarding those who harm us as profoundly needy people takes some doing, in part because they create enormous deficits in our own lives. And even if we get that far, we’ve not yet reached the place Christ expects us to be—accepting them as they are and loving them with the same compassion and understanding we desire. How can we love the worst? How can we honestly pray for their welfare? How can we find it in ourselves to care about their needs?

Jesus’s story answers these questions, too. When loving the worst costs more than we can give, we rely on our determination to love God at all costs. We do it for Him. He’s supremely qualified for our love and attention. We take John’s words to heart. Allowing love for anyone, including the worst of the worst, to fall through the cracks takes love of God with it. Choosing whom we will or won’t—can or can’t—love chooses not to love God at all. In Matthew 5.44-45, Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Connecting that with the Judgment Day scenario pulls everything together. The King doesn’t separate the crowd because of what they do. He divided them according to who they are. His true sons and daughters made the leap, clearing personal hurdles to love the worst in eagerness to love Him. The impostors looked before they leapt. Withholding their best from the worst landed them in the worst of all possible circumstances. Moral of the story: loving God to the best of our ability will often require us to make a leap, to look at the worst as our gateway to loving the Best.

We don't pick and choose who qualifies for our love. Loving those who harm us will require us to look past them and love them for God's sake.

(Next: Comfort)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make the Most

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5.15-16) 

Times Like These

An old gospel number says, “In times like these we need a Savior. In times like these we need an Anchor.” The song’s popularity peaked in the late 60’s, which most definitely were “times like these.” The world was a crazy quilt of war zones; rage and discontent erupted at dining room tables, on campuses, in city streets, and every other conceivable spot. We who lived through those days can’t shake the sense we’re in “times like these” once again. But this round feels oddly different. Hostilities similar to those reflected in 60’s media are now the stuff of media itself. Average citizens sit at a safe remove, watching rabble-rousers do the work instead personally engaging in the struggle to reconcile our current issues. This might be viewed as an improvement; riots, fires, and looting that plagued any good-sized city 40 years ago are no more. But it’s also a shame, because our perspectives on equal rights, healthcare, war, etc. now cost nothing. We’ve confused passive poses with impassioned involvement, and given how comfortable we’ve got with our laissez-faire attitude, it’s possible we've lost all concern about resolving our differences.

The tragedy of this stalemate plays out in lives wounded by crossfire. In all the talk about Wall Street and Main Street, nobody’s noticed the real drama unfolding on the side streets, where things actually slip and slide. The people there need an anchor. Since pundits avoid putting human faces on stats they bandy about, very few have figured out we can’t wait for “change to happen.” People everywhere need help now. Judging from history, the economy eventually will dig itself out. Opposition to social justice will wear itself down. Left unchecked, the healthcare crisis will escalate to the point it can’t be feasibly ignored. The war will end. Yet while “we” may rebound, thousands upon thousands will not without immediate help. Times like these call for people smart and caring enough to abandon cheap controversy for higher purpose.

Our World Needs Us

Our world needs us. At this stage, every one of us crosses paths with others currently struggling—people without jobs or shelter, homes with bare cupboards, disowned children coping with rejection, war-torn families facing a holiday with one less at the table, a senior sacrificing meals to afford medication. They and others like them live in constant fear and torment each of us can ease at very little, if any, personal expense or effort. Alertness to their circumstances opens new opportunities for our love and concern. Ephesians 5.15-16 admonishes: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” In the context of this discussion, “careful” means more than “cautious;” it implies earnest introspection about our response to situations we can improve. Knowing we possess the ability to lift up others and not doing so is foolish. Making the most of every opportunity is wise.

'Tis the Season

'Tis the season when churches and charities fire up their brigades so those lacking means will not be denied holiday joy. The nobility of these efforts cannot be exaggerated. But there’s also an underside to them we seldom acknowledge. They encourage us to think supporting their causes is “doing our part,” when in fact we’re only enabling them to the make the most of their opportunities. In a way, it’s no different than believing agreement with certain media figures’ opinions constitutes active engagement. Most assuredly, we should support charitable efforts. But writing checks, tossing canned goods in hampers, donating toys, and dropping loose change in a red bucket can't excuse us from actively addressing visible needs around us. “Making the most of every opportunity,” Ephesians says, “because the days are evil.”

Confining our compassion for the needy to contributions shortchanges them and us. It’s a surrogate arrangement—giving by proxy—and, at best, all we stand to gain from it is a fleeting reward quantified by faceless statistics: x families had Christmas dinner, y children opened anonymously donated presents. And let’s be honest: the good we accomplish in absentia evaporates from mind before the decorations and leftovers disappear. We make the most of every opportunity by approaching people whom we know are in need, welcoming outsiders to our tables, marshalling neighbors and family members’ assistance, and so on. In times like these, weary, embattled souls need to know help is on the way and it’s coming from we who genuinely know and care about them.

There’s an even greater benefit gained by all when we make the most of our opportunities. Active giving puts legs on our concern. It imbeds faces and names in our thoughts and prayers. We find ourselves regularly checking on them, asking to do more. By making Christmas a time of discovery, searching for opportunities to make the most of our giving, its spirit and meaning thrive year-‘round. 'Tis the season that never ends.

We possess the ability to bring love, joy, hope, and peace to struggling people we personally know. We should make the most of every opportunity to do so.

(Next: For the Least)

Personal Postscript: Impish Interference

This past week found me recalling an old lady I once attended church with. Whenever she hit one of those maddening stretches where minor problems pile up and become hopelessly entangled, she’d say, “The devil sure is busy.” Though I’m reluctant to give him any credence, it seems like he’s sure been busy around here. We experienced a couple power outages in our apartment building, the last of which sent a surge through the phone lines that fried my modem cables and reconfigured the entire system. Since last Wednesday, I’ve been lost in a sea of connectivity challenges that have interfered with my posting schedule. I’m very close to being fully up and running, and apologize for the delays. Barring any further impish interference, we should be back to normal.