Friday, January 8, 2010


Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it. (Ezra 10.4)
Home from the Front
The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece, tracks the lives of three World War II GI’s who come home from the front. They grapple to reconcile three conflicting images of the small town they left: as it was, as it is, and as they idealized it while they were away. On top of that, each man has undergone profound changes. All three are emotionally scarred; one is severely maimed. So while their home isn’t as they remembered it, neither are they remotely like their families and friends recall. Everyone strives to help the soldiers’ reentry into civilian life, reassuring them they can pick up where they left off—tacitly overlooking where they left off is long gone, never to return. Until the men summon the courage to grieve their losses at home, however, their loved ones will never understand what must be done to lift their hopes.

Ezra’s story puts me in mind of The Best Years of Our Lives. Born to a Jewish priest in Babylonian captivity, he’s never seen his homeland or met any Jews outside of those in exile. All he knows is what his elders told him and he’s read in Hebrew texts. Still, he aches with homesickness. He gains permission to lead 5,000 captives back to Jerusalem. But when he reaches the city, he’s stunned to find it’s nothing like he imagined. The Israelites have abandoned God’s statutes, permitted His house to fall into disarray, and disavowed their heritage. Like the soldiers, Ezra’s anxiety is two-pronged. Life in exile ineffably heightened his awareness of all that was right and good in Israel, and the loss of what he idealized plunges him into sorrow. Rather than acclimate to the changes, he becomes a first-rate activist. He mounts a campaign to rebuild the temple and restore Hebrew life according to what the texts say it should be. For the first time in nearly a century, Israel is challenged to live by the Book.

Good Grief

By returning with 5,000 exiles and expensive gifts from Cyrus, the Babylonian king, Ezra becomes someone worth watching. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s astutely demonstrative. When he learns the Jews have flouted prohibitions against intermarriage with pagans, he tears his clothes, falls facedown in the temple, and wails with grief. But it’s good grief—the kind of sorrow that garners attention and chastens those who’ve played so frivolously with the Law. What shakes them are Ezra’s objectivity and pure motives. As a well-informed observer, his response to Israel’s disobedience is undeniably apt. Many Jews rally around him. They ask God’s forgiveness for their sin and encourage Ezra to take the initiative to press for widespread change. “Rise up,” they tell him. “This matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10.4) They authorize Ezra to conduct a nationwide investigation and identify every improper marriage. A spirit of penitence sweeps over Israel as Ezra leads the nation he loves back to the values it lost.

Ezra Moments

We all happen on Ezra moments at various times—if not on the same scale, most certainly of the same sort. We’ve been raised on principles of faith and morality that we expect to find in lives and situations we encounter. Any time we realize people we trust and respect don’t honor what they taught us to value, we’re shocked and filled with sorrow. This is especially true for those of us who’ve gained deeper understanding of our values while living apart from those who share our heritage. Returning to find they’ve abandoned principles we cherished from afar, our first inclination veers toward confronting them or criticizing their hypocrisy to willing listeners. Ezra shows us a much more effective response. Instead of venting outrage over wrong attitudes and actions, it’s far better to express our grief over what’s lost because of them.

When we mourn sin’s losses rather than malign its practitioners, we demonstrate its impact. What grieves Ezra are bald discrepancies between what he knows is correct and what he witnesses. The Jews don’t need a good talking to—they need to ask God’s forgiveness and mend their ways. Israel has grown so comfortable with its errors that Ezra’s distress takes everyone by surprise. If he can see the harm of their disobedience, and if he cares so deeply for his nation that he weeps because of it, how can the Jews possibly dismiss it? His grief surpasses condemning them; it convinces them. While others might put them down, Ezra lowers himself to lift them up. And they answer by lifting him up. “We need your help with this,” they confess. “And we’ll help you do it. Take courage.”

In Matthew 23.12, Jesus says, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility reveals true courage. It also exposes the cowardice hiding behind condemnation. Genuine grief for moral or ethical shortfalls reduces our self-importance in order to raise the minds of those who’ve fallen into indifference. To cite a current example, finding believers who put political ideology above compassion for those without healthcare, we’re tempted to challenge their Christian claim. We take issue with them, when the suffering of millions is what’s really at risk. Mourning what’s lost by unconcern gets to the point. Identifying the harm disobedience causes reaches the heart. We see this in Ezra. His pain is empathic—not in the shallow I-feel-your-pain sense, but as one who authentically mourns what the Jews have let slip away. Ezra moments call for courage to care more about the problem than our pride. They tear down logic’s scaffolds to uncover the truth about sin. It hurts.

Courage to weep for sin's sorrows is what we need.

(Next: Gray Days, Bright Nights)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stick with Your Competencies

We have different gifts, according the grace given us. (Romans 12.6)
Graced with Gifts
Steve, my younger brother, is a gifted athlete. He shouldn’t be. He was born with a stomach defect that caused him to eliminate food before his system processed it. My parents spent the first weeks of his life trying to save him from starving to death. The doctors suggested surgery—saying if it worked, he’d live, but never develop into the strapping boy all parents want their sons to be. Mom and Dad took this to mean, “It’s time to trust God.” Much to the doctors' chagrin, the baby who was supposed to grow into a scrawny boy became a first-rate jock. A stockpile of trophies trailed him from Little League to college.

I turned out to be the skinny klutz nobody wanted on the team. While classmates teased me mercilessly, it never fazed my parents, Steve, or me. Although I ascribe most of this to my parents’ wisdom, I believe it also had to do with Steve’s proof we are graced with gifts. Rather than pressure us to be like anyone else, Mom and Dad urged us to discover our talents and master them. While they deserve high praise for this, they’d be the first to dismiss any pretense of innovation in it, because Paul says the same thing in 2 Timothy 1.6: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you,” And his well-known treatise on the Body of Christ in Romans 12 is founded on this philosophy.

Sacrificing Conformity

Paul begins with a bold statement too rich to be summarized or condensed:

I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 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 12.1-3)
This is a daring and radical concept by itself. To a “mixed” congregation of Jews and Gentiles openly practicing their faith in Roman society, it was revolutionary. Contrary to belief, first-century Rome was admirably tolerant of foreign ethnicities and religions. Yet, as often happens, Rome’s diversity was constructed of stereotypes each group felt compelled to embody. Thus, notions of what made Christians unique exerted great pressure to live up this “pattern.” Conformity within the Body became an issue. Specific talents God placed in the congregation went woefully underdeveloped, crippling its unity, health, and tolerance of one another. A new stereotype affixed itself to Christians, who became known as an obstreperous group of uncaring people. Indeed, insistence on total conformity sparked internal brawls that spilled into the streets and disturbed the peace. More than anything, the Christians’ reputation as troublemakers seeded the prejudice that escalated into persecution.

While the Romans persisted in pursuing a uniform identity, Paul saw this would be their undoing. Sadly, this phenomenon is no less common today. Each of us struggles to balance personal faith with what we’re told Christians believe and do. It’s essential we listen very closely as Paul debunks the cookie-cutter myth. There is not one kind of Christian, he says; there is one Body comprised of all kinds of Christians. “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others,” he writes. (v4-5) Conforming to Christ’s ideal demands sacrificing conformity to popular perceptions. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us,” verse 6 says. Neglecting talents God gives us for a one-size-fits-all persona negates His purpose for endowing us with special gifts. It weakens us and deprives others. Adhering to stereotype serves no one.

In Proportion

After urging us to identify our gifts, Paul rolls out a litany of examples that startle us with the Body's diversity of talents. “If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (v6-8) His picture hardly portrays a crowd of clones who reject individual passions and skills to do everything the same way. As Paul sees it, conformity destroys the Body’s effectiveness. Diversity celebrates and bolsters its primary objective: “Do not conform… but be transformed.” When we recognize and refine the gifts God has entrusted to us—when we stick with our competencies—they become something far more unique than passions and skills. They’re transformed into what verse 3 calls the ability “to test and approve what God’s will is.” Doing our best with what we know best proves God’s purpose in our lives. But more than that, it attests to His providence in providing for the entire body’s needs by placing us in it.

The key is found in Paul’s instruction to use our gifts in proportion to faith. Success in what we’re designed to do starts with believing we can, and allowing others to excel in areas where we lack faith. Appearance may indicate we’re better equipped than someone else. My uneventful medical history actually favored me becoming the jock instead of Steve. Had we followed this reasoning, his success would have been compromised and my real talents would have gone ignored. In the same way, having more at our disposal doesn’t necessarily mean we have a talent for giving, or possessing leadership aptitude doesn’t make us gifted leaders. Many notable attributes are secondary to actual gifts. Realizing this spares us guilt over not using certain assets in obvious ways—and frees us to use them as we fan the flame of God in us. When all is said and done, that’s what separates conforming to artificial patterns from being truly transformed.

To this day, society and religion endorse a cookie-cutter myth, which Paul directly opposes. Diversity--not conformity--is the Body of Christ's greatest strength.

(Next: Courage)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Coming Soon

You must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Luke 12.40)
A Touchy Subject with Urgency
The Second Coming is a touchy subject, a doctrine strongly influenced by personal factors like upbringing, life philosophy, and chosen faith community. That Jesus may come any moment is extremely vivid for many. They live in a state of heightened alert constantly reinforced by churches they attend, books they read, music they listen to, and believers they fellowship with. Others view the Second Coming as a prophetic eventuality unlikely to occur before they die, a common view in their circles. And some regard it as a quasi-metaphor—less an actuality than a message to inspire vigilance. If you’re among Christians holding widely divergent opinions about this, take note. Simply broaching the topic may topple the apple cart quicker than you imagine, as the Second Coming gets wound up in profoundly individual implications. For instance, are we following Jesus out of expedience—what’s happening—or expectancy—what may happen? Does belief in a literal rapture versus a looser interpretation reveal respective weaknesses in either? And on it goes.

For unity’s sake, let’s agree to disagree about the whens and hows in hopes of reaching consensus about the Second Coming’s whys. Jesus obviously has major reasons for promising to return, and the Apostles’ insistence He will figures prominently in Early Church culture. Since the doctrine threads through the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, we can’t minimize it as we do specific religious, social, and sexual mores mentioned here and there. Faith in Christ’s return is a universal mandate. However we choose to interpret its mechanics, we must infuse its essence with urgency. The Second Coming matters. A lot.

Keep Busy

Varying views on the subject don’t really affect our grasp of why it matters and why it’s urgent. While introducing the concept with three parables in Luke 12, Jesus clearly addresses our fondness of haphazard procrastination and frivolous pleasure. In a sense, the sophomoric “Jesus is coming—look busy” almost gets it right. The real message isn’t look busy, though; it’s keep busy. Relaxed attitudes, reckless behavior, and delays in rectifying them will not stand. Jesus’s stories convey the urgency of doing our best with an ominous moral: taking it easy inevitably leads to being taken by surprise.

In the first parable, the master of a house goes to a party and stays out later than usual. Jesus says he will reward servants who stay awake and occupied until he returns—“even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night” (roughly from 10 PM to dawn; v38)—by serving them. The second story concerns a homeowner who’s unaware a thief is casing his house, leaves it unlocked, and comes back to find it ransacked. “Had he known when the thief would strike,” Jesus says, “he’d have taken proper precautions.” (v39) In the third story, a master leaves one servant to manage the others in his absence. If he takes the job seriously, Jesus says the master will make him manager when he returns. But if suspicions his master is delayed cause him to abuse his authority and indulge in excessive pleasure, the master will catch him off-guard and destroy him. (v46) Jesus applies these tales to His Second Coming in verse 40: “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

No Time Left to Lose

Our conflicts about the Second Coming arise from a common—and convenient—misreading of its purpose. We presume it’s meant to ensure we behave without supervision. If we respond to this kind of discipline, we avidly embrace the Second Coming’s “Gotcha!” aspect. It works exactly as we think it should by using fear and uncertainty to create faith and hope. But if we resist (or resent) negative intimidation to achieve positive ends, we find it out of character with everything we know and love about Christ. So the same faulty understanding ends up justifying everyone’s perceptions, which makes all of us right and none of us wrong—or, more accurately, none of us right and all of us wrong.

The reason why Christ will return, as well as why it’s urgent to believe He will, becomes apparent in how it alters our sense of time. When Jesus establishes this doctrine, He effectively cancels tomorrow. We no longer can excuse what we do and need to do now on the premise we can compensate for it later. When we glance at a clock or calendar, all we see are the present hour and date. There’s no time left to lose. Because our Master hasn’t returned, we keep busy and stay awake. Because we don’t know when He’ll walk through the door, we take care that everything we’ve been given remains protected. Because we suspect His coming is delayed, we maximize the added time to nurture those around us and clean up our act. Jesus doesn’t say, “Get ready.” He says, “Be ready.” The Second Coming was never intended to focus our attention on an undefined future moment. It’s about remaining steadfast and responsible in the very real and present now. Jesus is coming soon—maybe not as soon as some think. But when He does, whether it’s today or a million years from now, no doubt it will be sooner than expected. Be ready.

Almost right. Instead of looking busy, though, Jesus teaches us to keep busy. Instead of getting ready, He tells us to be ready. The Second Coming is about the very real and present now.

(Next: Stick with Your Competencies)