Saturday, February 13, 2010

Your Song

Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” (Psalm 126.2)


Leona was a twin born in rural Mississippi on Leap Year Day 1900. When the midwife saw her sister crowning quickly behind her, she wrapped Leona in a towel and placed her snugly in a boot to attend the other’s delivery. The nickname “Boots” stuck. Hardscrabble life as a black sharecropper’s daughter endowed her with two mighty gifts: determination and dreams. In the mid-1920’s she boarded a train for Chicago to make a better life among thousands who migrated north to find work. I got to know Boots a half-century later, when I volunteered to drive her to church every Sunday evening. I’d go by her house early to listen to her stories. Her mind was razor-sharp, but she often retold the tale of arriving in the big city because it was her favorite. “Tim,” she’d say, “when I looked up at all those tall buildings, I said, ‘Boots, your dream’s coming true!’” She’d chuckle to herself and add, “God sure is a good God.”

Boots wasn’t your typical church lady. On the contrary, she was a salty old gal. She called things like she saw them, usually tossing in a few phrases many considered unbecoming. Beyond her love for God and people, her passions were baseball and chewing tobacco. When I could swing by her place to watch the game with her, someone—a niece or nephew, neighbor or friend—invariably knocked on her door to ask for help. Rent was overdue. They needed bus fare to get to work. Their phone was shut off. “Hand me my pocketbook,” she always said. Seeing this pattern, I said, “Boots, you need to look after yourself.” She gave me a wise grin. “When I look after them, God looks after me. I’ve never gone hungry a day in my life and I never will. I know they think I’m crazy. Half the time they think they’re tricking me. But what they do is on them. I’m going on anyhow.” She was determined to let nothing stop her from living her dream of having enough to share. Boots viewed each request as a personal favor to her. She was a Christian through and through.

A Happy Road

Sometimes, if our conversation ebbed, Boots unconsciously sang to herself. She couldn’t carry a tune, but her song soared on wings of beauty. It was always the same:

And He walks with me and He talks with me

And He tells me I am His own

And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known 

If she caught me smiling, she’d laugh and say, “No sense in feeling sad and sorry when it’s a happy road.” And that’s precisely where the author of Psalm 126 is—on a happy road. He sets the scene in the first verse: “When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.” He and his fellow travelers are like Boots when she got to Chicago. They can’t help but rejoice as their dreams of freedom and restoration start coming true. “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy,” verse 2 says. “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’”

Ironically, they’re returning on the same road that led them away. Being forced to leave their families and homes for a strange land made their journey mournful and frightening. One imagines they traveled in silence, terrified of making a sound, trembling with fear of what lay ahead. Yet though it’s the same road, their return bears no likeness to their departure. Laughter and exuberance fills the air. They sing without hesitation. They’re headed home. No doubt their unbridled joy seems crazy to others. Most likely they meet people who try to take advantage of them. Yet despite any opposition or derision, they keep going. There’s no denying God has done great things for them, and nothing or no one can steal their joy. They’ve got every reason to laugh and sing. They’re on a happy road.

Which Road

Which road are we on—the mournful one leading from home, or the happy one to a joyful life of freedom and restoration? Are we traveling in silence and fear? Or are we laughing and singing, going on anyhow, no matter how nutty it seems or who’s playing tricks? Since it’s the same road, direction determines the nature of our journey. And we differ from the psalmist in one major aspect: we choose which we way we want to go. When we realize fear, doubt, and oppression are pushing us down a harmful path, we turn around. With determination, we head in the opposite direction, straight toward our dreams.

The Lord has done great things for us. He will continue to do great things for us. He walks with us, talks with us, and tells us we’re His own. The joy we share with Him fills us with laughter. It inspires songs of joy. I have a song. You have one, too. Your song is your weapon. It’s your defense against uncertainty and sorrow. It lifts you above your troubles and celebrates your hope. It bubbles over in your soul and changes your perspective. It enables you to envision your dreams coming into fruition. No one or nothing can steal your joy when you decide to travel the happy road. No one or nothing can silence your song once you’re committed to this path. What others think, say, or do is on them. It has nothing to do with you. Go on anyhow. Choose the happy road. Sing your song.

Choose the happy road. Sing your song.

(Next: Wisdom's Ways)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

God Sees

To deny a man his rights before the Most High, to deprive a man of justice—would not the Lord see such things? (Lamentations 3.35-36)

Schisms, Chasms, and Conflicts

The politics of Christianity have been its worst enemy from the beginning. The more one thinks about it, the more obviously they’re born of impatience. Any believer with a thimble-full of knowledge understands God alone has the final say. Meanwhile, He has given us His Word and Spirit to evaluate how we’re doing. It’s hard to conceive we need more than that. But we insist they’re not enough. After we open the Word and listen to the Spirit’s counsel, arguments still erupt about what they mean. With so many questions hanging around, we find it impossible to let them rest until God yields His opinion. Rather than admit we don’t know the answer, we presume to have the last word. Manmade doctrines and policies become so ingrained in Church culture, we no longer check them against God’s Word and Spirit. We forget we hatched these ideas and they’re just as apt to be wrong as right. Making up answers because we haven’t the patience to wait on God’s verdict is treacherous business.

Proverbs 14.12 warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Judging anyone or thing by what seems right destroys our unity, sullies our witness, and saps our spirit. The schisms, chasms, and conflicts that fracture the Church and break the hearts of its people have, to a one, begun by differences over matters we’re not qualified to judge. There are presently tens of thousands of Christian sects and spin-offs, each tenaciously clinging to its views, defiantly claiming it’s “right.” The damage this inflicts on our unity is enough to revile the practice. Yet its harm runs deeper, because it generates endless confusion and bitter attacks within the ranks. Instead of contenting ourselves to say, “God knows,” impatience goads us to profess, “We know.” Consequently, the Church, which should be a paragon of justice and righteousness, has earned a reputation for discrimination and error.

A Disdain for Justice

God’s Word is fairly explicit about what He wants. The principles of love, justice, and mercy laid down in the Old Testament resound through the Gospels and Epistles. The rest of the Bible’s content shows us how easily and quickly we screw up. Either we get overly zealous about pleasing God and invent a lot of rules, or we pound our heads against the wall, asking why He allows hardship to befall us when we disobey. Both responses indicate how little we know. And both reveal a disdain for justice—the first by fostering a judgmental climate that suffocates faith and hope, the second by shirking responsibility to love God and our neighbors. Neither comes to grips with the fact God isn’t merely the One Who decides what’s right and wrong. He’s also the only One Who sees what’s really going on. We’re told in 1 Samuel 16.7: “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”


The Hebrew title for the Old Testament book of Lamentations is Eikhah, or How. Traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, it contains five poems that mourn Israel’s degradation by its enemies and repeatedly asks how the nation fell into such despair. The first poem is written in the voice of a grieving widow, while the second connects Israel’s woes with its wickedness. In content and cadence, they suggest the prophet is too overcome to view his people’s misfortune from a more balanced perspective. But he comes around in the third poem, where his focus turns from “How”—with its implicit “Why”—to “Who.” His inability to find answers invites him to believe God alone sees and knows. What’s more, he recognizes the principles that account for Israel’s fate will ultimately apply to her enemies as well. “How could this happen” is answered by “Here’s how God works.”

This conclusion is a watershed for Jeremiah. Among the prophets, he’s one of the harshest and most punitive. His message and tone resemble those of a drill sergeant tasked with shaping up a brigade of losers. Yet by the time he writes Lamentations (which legend says occurred while secluding himself in a cave), the nation’s suffering has reached a scale that feels unbearable. Jeremiah asks, “Doesn’t God see we’ve been stripped of our rights? Doesn’t He recognize the injustice against us?” He knows God sees, and has every confidence He will be faithful. In verses 58 and 59, he writes, “O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life. You have seen, O LORD, the wrong done to me. Uphold my cause!”

The same impatience that accounts for the Church’s politically driven, unjust doctrines and policies also thwarts those of us who’ve been hurt or disturbed by them. We also rush to judge those who differ with us and rally to have the last say. But despite how accurately our views reflect God’s Word and respond to His Spirit, the final say still isn’t ours. Whether or not others see what’s going on, God sees and knows. He also knows how to handle it. Yes, we must refute injustice at every turn. We must stand firm and speak out. Yet in our pursuit of righteousness we must take precaution against falling into the habits of the unjust. Psalm 1.1 says, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” Instead of turning on our brothers and sisters, we turn our case over to God. He sees the wrongs against us. He upholds our cause. Patience, not politics, ensures His principles will endure. Those who’ve been wrongfully accused will be vindicated. And those who’ve exploited their position will be judged. That’s how God works.

Injustices and abuses we see God sees. He sees what's really going on and He knows how to handle it. He has the last word, and we must be patient with confidence justice will come.

(Next: Your Song)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matthew 6.16)

Gravity and Joy

“Saints, it’s time we turn our plates over, set our wants aside, and seek God until He gives us what we need,” the pastor would say and the church would answer, “Amen!” The room would fall into stillness as believers listened intently to the pastor’s instructions. Sometimes the fast lasted a week. At other times the minister called us to fast one day a week for the indefinite future. Sometimes it was called without protocol, leaving each person to decide what, when, and how long he/she would practice self-denial. Whatever the fast’s form, what I recall most from my youth was the galvanizing mix of gravity and joy it produced. We rigorously obeyed its command to make more room and time for God’s presence in our lives. Yet we entered the prescribed test with high hopes, knowing we’d be stronger, richer, and purer when we came out.

After my need for a more affirmative faith environment led me to a “mainstream” church, I found a very similar, if slightly less demonstrative spirit arose as the people prepared for Lent. Prior to that, since my family’s tradition didn’t observe Lent, the little I gleaned about it from friends and colleagues jaundiced my perceptions. From what I heard, Lent was a 40-day obligation to “give up” something they could easily do without (chocolate, alcohol, red meat) or shouldn’t do at all (cursing, gossiping, fibbing)—more about self-discipline than self-denial. I didn’t realize my exposure was limited to Lent lamenters, however, people whose hearts weren’t in it and apparently understood it no better than I. Once I met believers who greeted the season with the same gravity and joy I associated with fasting, Lent came to life. It was a deeply personal, yet significantly collective experience, an intensely sacred testing period begun in hope and ending in renewed strength and fervor. What’s more, I learned this mainly by observation because, unlike Lent lamenters, authentic Lent fasters don’t wear their sacrifices on their sleeves.

A Curious Business

Fasting is a curious business. Its primary focus—clearing distractions to make way for prayerful contemplation—must be preceded by prayerful contemplation of what distracts us. The verb “to fast” is interesting and enlightening in itself, as it derives from the gothic German fastan, “to hold fast.” Thus, the benefits of fasting aren’t in what we’re rid of but what remains. That’s why sacrifice is secondary to experienced fasters. Their attention literally fastens on spiritual priorities. They go into fasts having already considered what they can and can’t do without, and they concentrate on the former by denying the latter. This transforms fasting from obligation into opportunity. It becomes a season of joy and growth rather than one of angst and deprivation.

Many misconstrue fasting as a means of honoring God by voluntarily refusing to indulge in things they love. They think fasting denotes commitment and piety, and approach it as a sort of holy drudgery. By no means is fasting easy, but neither is it intended to impress God with how tough it is to give up what we don’t truly need. That’s Jesus’s message in Matthew 6. “Don’t look somber as the hypocrites do,” He says. “For they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (v16-18) Jesus’s logic completely checks out with what fasting actually means. It’s a sifting time that gets us back to what really matters. The opinions of others don’t merit the effort to make a big deal of what we’re letting go. The reward comes when what we decide to hold fast in our hearts pleases our Maker.

Essentials from Non-Essentials

With Lent just around the corner, we have time to separate the essentials from non-essentials. What needs to go so what remains can resume prominence in our lives? We’ve got two weeks to monitor our behaviors and attitudes to see which of them conflicts with what we know is best for us. If only it were as simple as surviving from Ash Wednesday to Easter without a candy bar or tasty morsels of gossip! To get the most from our fast entails much introspection. It asks us to enter the trial fully aware of any weakness that loosens our grip on virtues and aspirations we hold dearest. And whatever that is (or they are), that’s what we must sacrifice. When we understand what fasting is really about, we realize Lent is sacred, not somber, joyful, not lamentable. It isn’t about giving up what we’d love to keep. It’s about holding on to what we'd hate to lose.

Fasting is a sifting time. We let go of what we can’t use to hold on to what we value most.

(Next: God Sees)

Postscript: A Special Honor Sent Our Way

I'm thrilled to report Straight-Friendly was recently honored by the Biblical Learning Blog as one of "The Top 50 Ecumenical Blogs." It cites S-F as a "blog [that] reaches out to members of the GLBT community who want to regain a commitment to their Christian faith." The honor goes to all of you, who read and contribute to our little all-inclusive community. And praise belongs solely to our Creator, Whose love and acceptance we celebrate together. Congratulations!

Here's the link to view the other selected blogs. (We're in mighty fine company, I must say!)

Top 50 Ecumenical Blogs