Thursday, December 31, 2009

In With the New

New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.” (Luke 5.38-39)
Uncommon Vintages
A June 2003 visit to Paris ended in several days of oppressive heat. Though Paris is many things, heat-friendly isn’t one of them. Its stone architecture, narrow backstreets, and inland location turn the city into an oven. So we spent our last days in air-conditioned museums and stores, when we’d rather have roamed outdoors. Back at home, French news reported the heat hadn’t lifted and Western Europe was in full-on crisis. Death tolls overwhelmed undertakers and forced families to place loved ones in makeshift morgues. Calamity also loomed for France’s vineyards. If conditions didn’t cool, one of Europe’s leading industries and economic drivers might actually die on the vine.

The heat hung on through August, causing nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone. It also reduced harvests by 15-20%. But a most interesting thing occurred. In some regions, scorching conditions improved the grapes. Critics hailed many of that year’s wines as exquisitely uncommon vintages. As older, highly reputed bottles gathered dust, 2003 wines flew off the shelves. Buyers happily paid more for typically cheaper labels. Lastly, while wines produced under more stable conditions tend to improve with age, atypical factors affecting the 2003 vintage raised suspicions it might degrade over time. Instead of waiting for an occasion to bring out a fine bottle, opening a 2003 wine turned into an occasion. Rarely has newness ranked so high among a wine’s qualities.

Utterly Innovative

Having grown up with Christian values, we're hard-pressed to appreciate how utterly innovative Christ’s message and methods were. Mark, writer of the first Gospel, hastens to drive this home in the first miracle he describes. Jesus is teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, where we’re told, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as teachers of the law.” (Mark 1.22) As He teaches, a man vexed by an unclean spirit interrupts Him. Jesus silences the man, who undergoes a seizure and the spirit flees. Mark writes in verse 27: “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!’” Mark ends by saying news of Jesus spread quickly.

Now, imagine Jesus walks into our church, stands in the pulpit, and preaches His doctrine of selfless, pure love. Would we not also be amazed? Suppose a disturbed individual jumps up to dispute Him and His reprimand triggers a fit that cleanses his/her heart of evil. Would we not be shocked? Lastly, consider the response of church officials. Would they not rush to discredit Him as a radical? That’s what happens to Jesus. But in Luke 5.38-39, He concedes His message isn’t conducive to traditionalism: “New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’” In matters of faith, experts and enthusiasts are often less astute than wine critics and connoisseurs. They aren’t as willing to allow uncommon factors can create a rare vintage vastly superior to the established standards.

Strength to Expand

Storing new wine in unused skins is necessary because the finishing process isn’t complete. Fermentation generates gasses that test the wineskins’ strength to expand. It creates new pressures that burst their seams. What’s more, drinking new wine before “its time” challenges people accustomed to flavors and nuances of older vintages. They believe old wine is better because that’s what they’re taught and all they know. In many ways, they’re no different than old wineskins. Processing traditional beliefs saps their strength to expand. The old wine tastes better because it’s safer and easier to digest. That Jesus’s critics adopt a similar distaste for His doctrine hardly surprises Him. Yet it’s important to realize He doesn’t use this analogy to criticize traditionalists. Indeed, His explanation softens our regard for them. Jesus raises the topic of new wine and wineskins to encourage us to be strong and open-minded enough to receive His doctrine—to develop palates for its new flavors and fortitude to withstand the pressures it creates within us as it matures.

More than ever, I’m convinced Christ is pouring new wine into our hearts. Believers trained to prefer vintages of condemnation and exclusion can’t stomach Christ’s doctrine of inclusion, while we who’ve developed a penchant for new wine struggle to accommodate it in skins weakened by previous faith processes. Pressures to judge pushes hard at our seams. Every believer must pray for strength to expand. In Romans 7.6, Paul explains, “By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” In Ezekiel 36.26, God speaks to our hardened attitudes: “I will give you a new heart and a put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” In the closing hours of 2009 and dawning moments of 2010, we ask God to finish this work in us. More than ever, need His new wine. We need to serve in the new way of the Spirit. We need soft hearts that expand with compassion and tolerance. More than ever, we need to proclaim, “Out with the old, in with the new.”

With prayers and hopes for a healthy and happy New Year to you all.

Christ's new wine tests our willingness to develop uncommon tastes and accommodate differing views.

(Next: Coming Soon)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


“Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Malachi 3.10)

What Lies Beyond What Is

We’ve been on a Liza kick lately. It started when Walt latched on to “Ring Them Bells,” a Kander and Ebb novelty about a girl who goes to Europe and discovers an opportunity that lurked under her nose all along. Walt’s one of those people who can play a song they love again and again. So, hoping to add some variety to his playlist, I dusted off the DVD Liza with a Z, a TV concert she filmed in the wake of her Cabaret triumph. It opens with “Yes,” another Kander-Ebb tune with a similar message that knocked me off my heels in spite of it pushing the kind of hard-sell, show-biz sunshine that normally gives me the willies. In this case, however, knowing Liza performs it at her peak adds conviction to its brazen optimism. As she belts, “What lies beyond ‘what is’ is not. So what? Say, ‘Yes!’” I’m a believer.

I was raised on the power of “yes,” though not in the same sense as Kander and Ebb’s song. Instead of being told I could do anything I set my mind to, my parents taught the only answer to “No, I can’t” is “Yes, God can.” So what if what lies beyond ‘what is’ is not? Saying “yes” turns a blind eye to impossibility and unleashes our Maker’s power. Romans 4.17 says God “calls things that are not as though they were.” Inability to detect anything beyond options we see has no bearing on His means and methods. When no viable solution exists, He creates one. All He needs from us is belief. When we say, “Yes, You can,” He proves it.

Faith and Surrender

Re-reading the above raises trepidation some may consider it nothing more than a religious twist on the same cockeyed notion that songwriters have served up for decades. In all honesty, it does ring them bells, and I spent most of my thirties hatching rationales in favor of this view. Drunk on self-confidence, I decided countermanding life’s “no’s” with divine “yeses” was beneath me. I was too sophisticated to believe God actually preferred to intervene in my impossibilities rather than trusting me to live with them. (Imagine that—God trusting me, not me trusting Him!) While I muddled along, however, I kept noticing people who knew no better than saying “yes” got out of trouble, not through it. Still, I wouldn’t accept it could possibly be so simple. I rifled through variations on the theme: happy coincidence, self-fulfilling prophecy, or cosmic beneficence—anything but faith and surrender.

Faith and surrender distinguish “Yes, God can” from “Yes, I/we can." When we turn our “no’s” into God’s “yeses,” we must sincerely believe He can do the impossible and let go so He will. We dismiss what we think in order to rely on what we know. That’s how it worked with me, anyway. In His amazing kindness and wisdom, God sent a raft of unbelievable opportunities and impossible situations my way. All at once, I faced the fact I was neither smart nor talented enough to seize chances I’d been given, let alone resolve crises I’d stumbled into. “What should I do?” eased into “I can’t possibly do it,” which left no alternative to confessing, “I can’t, but I know You can and believe You will.” Once I said, “Yes,” things began turning around. One Sunday morning, the choir hauled out an oldie I’d never been crazy about, “I Tried Him and I Know Him.” And in that moment I understood something I’d never put together: I tried Him because I know Him. I said, “Yes,” because “Yes” made total sense.


In getting to know God, we learn He often tests us so we can test Him. We see this in Malachi. The Jews have reassembled after 80 years of exile and foreign occupation. They scrape together what’s left of their assets to pay enormous reconstruction costs. With “no’s” at every turn, it takes all their resources just to keep going. In the process, devotion to God’s work and House wanes. So what does God do? He asks the impossible, demanding Israel sacrifice one-tenth of its income to restock Temple coffers. “Test me in this,” He says, “and see if I won’t bless you beyond your capacity to contain it.” Building Temple reserves while struggling to put roofs overhead and meals on tables doesn’t make sense. God has asked more than they can possibly do or afford. It takes time for Israel to forget saying, “No, we can’t,” and agree, “Yes, God can.” But when they conclude savvy and skepticism are merely fear in fancy dress, they take Him up on His offer. They test Him because they know Him. Just as He promises, prosperity and security are restored. What was impossible for Israel proved entirely possible for God.

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1.20. With a fresh year approaching, there’s no better time to know that we know God—to know tests that look like big fat “no’s” to us are really grand opportunities to test Him. He will prove there’s more than “is not” behind “what is.” There are promises we can trust and creative power we can’t see. Every promise God makes is an automatic “yes.” Our “yes” declares faith and surrender. We say, “Amen”—it is so. I pray 2010 becomes our Year of Yes, that we enter it with minds to trust God’s power and leave it having seen Him prove Himself with every test.

Having nothing left to say but “No” is the exact moment we should say, “Yes!”

(Next: In With the New)

Postscript: “Yes” and…

Minnelli’s optimistic booster and “I Tried Him and I Know Him” by Perfect Praise.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrow

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6.34)
Time in Mind
Christmas closes a marvelous period for me, when time feels suspended in wonder. Although Advent marks time more closely than other seasons, its days combine into something greater than their sum. Then December 26 dawns and New Year’s thoughts pounce. We’re back in the rude clutches of time, reflecting on this year’s missed opportunities, resolving to do better next year. We’ll lose weight. We’ll work harder. We’ll be more attentive. We’ll stop smoking. We’ll live more modestly. We’ve got five days to plan how to pull these resolutions off—five days to brace ourselves for big changes when January 1 rolls around.

By and large, it’s a hollow exercise, because we conjure our grandiose schemes in total darkness about what the future holds. We resolve to save more money and then our employers initiate company-wide pay cuts. Intentions to slim down get foiled by an illness that requires steroid treatment. An unpleasant encounter triggers the search an orphaned cigarette. Worries with car trouble steal attention from our partners, families, and neighbors. Time in mind and real time seldom cooperate. The tomorrows we anticipate rarely materialize. As Ecclesiastes 8.7 says, “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?”

Stuck in the Moment

When we’re kids, we fantasize about flying and disappearing, growing taller than trees and traveling through time. As we mature, we learn to accept our physical limitations. Yet we never outgrow our desire to master time. Something in us resists admitting we’re stuck in the moment—that today is all we have. We can improve our perception of time by thinking of today as yesterday’s tomorrow. When we compare what we expected to what we experience, we invariably see factors that never crossed our minds threw our plans off-kilter. They can be minor—the extra press of the snooze button that dominoes into a daylong frenzy. They can be so catastrophic they halt time, as happened on 9/11. They can also surprise us by turning out better than we hoped. In any case, life’s wrinkles remind us worrying (or dreaming) about time we’ve not yet reached wastes moments we have. Since that’s where we are, that’s where our primary focus must rest.

In Matthew 6, Jesus warns us not to get overwrought about future issues like what we’ll eat or wear, and He mentions such seemingly trivial matters because, in the final analysis, our hopes and fears basically distill into caring for ourselves. Instead of squandering moments we have on moments to come, Jesus tells us to take a lesson from Nature. Pointing to birds and flowers, He reminds us virtually all other earthly organisms live in the now. Untainted by ill-gotten, Godlike knowledge, they innately trust their Creator to provide for them as He wills. They instinctively place tomorrow in His hands, which is incredibly wise, as He alone knows what it holds. So, while we fret and fritter with our future, being stuck in the moment is all Nature knows. And that’s what Jesus—as both Creator and human—urges us to emulate as He says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (v34)

Too Smart to Live So Wisely

Nature also knows what occurs at any moment depends on God. It accepts its limitations and survives on its Maker’s mercy. Not us. We’re too smart to live so wisely. Assuming we know what’s best for us, we presume to engineer the future in our favor. Instead of piling up yesterdays obsessed with tomorrows, we’re better served by learning today’s lesson. Not everything that happens to us is for, about, or because of us. As inhabitants of God’s intricately constructed, infinitely balanced universe, there will be days when we gain at others’ expense; there will also be days we’re required to sacrifice for another’s survival. That’s why thinking we can shape the future for our benefit is folly. After Ecclesiastes 3.1’s profound declaration, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” chapter 7 expands on the principle: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.” (v14) If yesterday and today proved bigger than we are, why would we imagine tomorrow won’t be?

Jesus says being stuck in the moment relieves us of useless worry. Solomon counsels us to enjoy our blessings and use our trials to ponder our place in the world. Neither remotely suggests mortgaging our future for an aimless existence. Both emphatically stress God’s active role in our lives and teach us the wisdom in yielding our ambitions in order to achieve His purpose. In Jeremiah 29.11-13, we read, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” If we can only resolve abandoning inadequately conceived plans to concentrate on God’s all-knowing plan for our lives, we’ll enter 2010 fearing nothing and expecting everything.

We avoid wasting time on New Year's promises and worries about the future by resolving to concentrate more time on pursuing God's plan for us.

(Next: Yes)