Saturday, February 27, 2010

Heavier Uphill

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me paradise.” (Luke 23.42-43)

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16.24)

A Journey Within a Journey
We equate Lent with Christ’s desert odyssey—a voluntary journey to find solitude and learn self-control over temptation. In this context, however, we can’t lose sight of this trek being a journey within a journey. Every step Jesus takes from His very first as a child leads to the cross. That’s what our journey is also about: preparing ourselves to claim Calvary’s inheritance in ever more vivid and vital ways. In this regard, however, we identify not with Christ, but with the criminal who declares his faith while hanging beside Jesus. His personal journey has led to this moment and beyond. When he asks Christ to remember him, his promise of resurrection is assured.

Popular art and movies paint Jesus’s progress up the Via Dolorosa—the road to Calvary—as a solo act. He’s surrounded by Roman guards and jeered at by a bloodthirsty crowd. But this flies in the face of the facts. Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as a common criminal, meaning He isn’t treated any differently than others who are crucified on that grisly Friday. He’s one of many, at least three but probably many more. All of them bear heavy crosses and many no doubt have also been severely beaten. Since Jesus is the focal point of the Gospels’ accounts, we know how He dies in excruciating detail. Yet torturing prisoners and nailing them to crosses isn’t uncommon in Roman times. It’s entirely possible those dying around him suffer similar agonies. Treating Jesus in customary fashion makes sense; it’s the ultimate form of humiliation and adds extra bite to the thorny crown and “King of Jews” inscription irreverently affixed above His head. Indeed, the fact that Jesus may have been treated on par with the others could be why another criminal hanging nearby taunts Him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23.39)

Bigger Than You
In Matthew 16.24, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Given Calvary’s seismic implications, we read this as the ultimate self-sacrifice—as well we should. But since Jesus says this before the event, we should also pause to consider what His disciples hear. To their ears, “taking up his cross” means subjecting themselves to everything common criminals suffered under Roman occupation: brutal arrest by a hostile regime, little to no hope of justice and mercy, public disgrace, agonizing death, and anonymous burial. In other words, Jesus tells His followers they must volunteer and prepare themselves to be ground down to utter insignificance. That’s why He prefaces His command to bear the cross with one of self-denial.

The disciples also grasp a deeper meaning in Christ’s words, though. They understand Him to say, “This is bigger than you, and if you truly want to be identified with Me you must lay your ambitions and hopes aside and follow Me.” Is that not what Lent’s journey within a journey teaches us? We leave all sense of privilege and uniqueness at the desert’s edge, walking into its unknown hazards with one phrase on our lips: “I’m yours.” We carry nothing with us but our crosses, embracing our determination to participate in something bigger than us—searching for clarity and resolve to sacrifice our lives for Christ’s purpose. And in the process, His teaching in Matthew 10.39 springs to life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Some of us, like the disciples, will discover it before we reach Calvary. But others of us won’t realize it until, like the repentant thief, we recognize the needless torture and shame Jesus endures on our behalf. The moment isn’t important; the meaning is what counts.

The Weight
As our wilderness trek toward Calvary continues, the weight of the cross grows more pronounced. Our burden gets heavier uphill. There’s good reason for this. It tests our commitment and faithfulness. Our identification with the Savior heightens in intensity, and our sense of what’s really taking place becomes more acute. I believe this is the case with the repentant thief. As he lumbers alongside Jesus, bearing the cross of his sins, he’s keenly aware of Christ’s innocence. His own feelings of shame and futility instill horror that Someone Who’s done no wrong could be reduced to nothing by an evil, faithless society. While the other criminal’s lack of conscience causes him to berate Jesus, this man’s increasingly difficult journey unfolds Christ’s compassion and willingness to lower Himself among the worst of the worst. What he sees confirms Jesus is the Christ. He believes. Without the weight of the cross, this likely wouldn’t be the case.

“Remember me,” the criminal entreats Jesus, as both men fight for every breath. “This day you will be with Me in paradise,” Jesus declares. The sin and struggle that bring the thief to Calvary end in divine assurance. So it is with us. Following Jesus into the wilderness and bearing our cross are one and the same. Both bring us face-to-face with our wrongs and inner conflicts. Both lead us to confront temptation—to ask why our habits and burdens drag us down, prodding us to question why Christ doesn’t spare us. This journey is bigger than us. It stretches across the desert and proceeds up the steep road to Calvary, where we lose our lives in order to find new ones in the tomb. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead,” Paul writes in Philippians 3.10-11. That’s the repentant thief’s story. It’s ours, too.

Carrying our cross leads us through the desert to Calvary, where we lose our lives so we can find new ones in the Easter tomb.

Postscript: Thief

Today’s post was inspired by Jake’s Lenten musical suggestion, Third Day’s “Thief.” It had been quite a while since I’d heard this powerful depiction of the repentant criminal—and before now, I’d never quite identified with it so strongly. Thank you for this, Jake!


I am a thief, I am a murderer
Walking up this lonely hill
What have I done? I don't remember
No one knows just how I feel
And I know that my time is coming soon.
It's been so long. Oh, such a long time
Since I've lived with peace and rest
Now I am here, my destination
Guess things work for the best
And I know that my time is coming soon
Who is this man? This man beside me
They call the King of the Jews
They don't believe that He's the Messiah
But, somehow I know it's true.
And they laugh at Him in mockery,
And beat Him till he bleeds
They nail Him to the rugged cross,
And raise Him, they raise Him up next to me
My time has come, I'm slowly fading
I deserve what I receive
Jesus when You are in Your kingdom
Could You please remember me?
And He looks at me still holding on
The tears fall from His eyes
He says I tell the truth
Today, you will live with Me in paradise
And I know that my time is coming soon
And I know paradise is coming soon.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Step Away

She got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. (Exodus 2.3-4)

Too Big to Hide

The virtual faith community is an extraordinary thing. Since plunging into this sea of witness, my life has been enriched beyond compare. Particularly during Advent and Lent, the ability to zoom around the planet without leaving my desk has blessed me to experience them through numerous perspectives. This Lent has been especially rich. Daily I’ve come on a thought that arrests my spirit in new and challenging ways. Last Monday, Fran’s blog There Will Be Bread lit up with her post, Making My Way to the Reeds. Referring to Moses’s mother placing her infant in a basket and hiding him in the Nile’s reeds, Fran wrote:

There are things that we can't toy with, adjust or fix. We just have to let them be, let them go, as it were. I tend to suck at this, but you never know. There's always a first time. In the meantime, I am down by the river's edge, making my way to the reeds.

I’ve not been able to shake this image all week. I keep returning to Exodus, reading the story again and again with new messages surfacing every time. It starts with a population explosion. The Jews are exponentially increasing, raising the likelihood of a slave rebellion. Pharaoh orders Egypt’s midwives to murder every Jewish boy-child at birth. But Hebrew women are hardy and self-sufficient. They deliver without assistance. After Moses is born, his mother conceals him for three months—until he’s too big to hide. His cries are too loud, his needs too great, to avoid drawing attention. His mother gradually accepts she must let him go. While there’s no promise this will spare his life, holding on to him all but guarantees he’ll be killed.

A Method to Stave Off Madness

Releasing her child no doubt rips this mother apart. Yet she’s canny enough to understand if her selfishness led to his murder, she would lose her mind to guilt and grief. She invents a method to stave off madness. She unseals the baby’s fate by giving him to God. She crafts a waterproof crib out of a basket, lays her son in it, and wedges it in the Nile’s reeds. Then she does a most amazing and wise thing. She steps away and leaves Moses’s sister to see what happens.

Any number of horrors could befall her child. He could topple out of the basket and drown. Crocodiles or other predators could devour the baby. An Egyptian could spot the child and kill him on the spot. A strong current could sweep him downriver. None of these is far-fetched; any of them is likely. Moses’s mother knows even if she’s standing by, she’ll never get to her child in time to save him. Once she lets go, she has no choice but to trust God. But given the kind of kids she raised—Aaron, Israel’s first great priest, and Miriam, the jubilant, faithful servant of God—something tells me this lady has every confidence her son’s life will be spared. After she lets go, she doesn’t hang around to get in the way of God’s plan. (She has no idea how grand and essential His plan for Moses is!) She retreats and waits for her daughter to tell her how God honors her trust.

For His Sake

Fran’s post and its Moses story dovetail with Jesus’s half-dozen or so “leave-it-all” statements looming in the back of my mind since Lent began. To be candid, I find them disturbing for their nasty slant. When Jesus says we can only follow Him by leaving parents, siblings, children, and holdings behind, the “them-or-Me” undertone feels contradictory to His character. Matthew 19.29 takes some of the edge off His vehemence with an incentive: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Yet even in this more positive setting, it seems like Jesus asks too much—until, like Moses’s mother, we make our way to the reeds.

Find an allegedly 100% functional family or relationship, and I’ll show you people stumbling over lumpy carpet. Conflicts and crimes are inescapable when we live together. Sooner or later problems that shouldn’t arise in the first place prove too big to hide. We’ve got three options: live with them until they consume us; pretend everything’s fine; or stave off madness by heading for the river. Placing our families in the reeds is basically the same as leaving them to follow Christ. Both require we let go and step away, trusting God for their safety and removing possibilities we’ll interfere with His plan for them.

Jesus never indicates we leave families and possessions behind for our good. We let go and step away for His sake. But we should know anything we do for Him benefits everyone. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” He says in Matthew 25.40, telling us when we do this, He’s pleased to welcome us to His kingdom. We let families and friends, past, present, and future problems go for Him. Once they’re His, He does with them (and us) as He wills. May this Lent be a milestone for each of us, a season of letting go and stepping away.


The story of Moses’s mother ends with a marvelous twist. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the child before any harm comes to him. She asks his sister if she knows whose child he is. The sister—showing early signs she inherited her mother’s wisdom—demurs, saying she knows a Hebrew woman who can nurse the baby. Moses is returned to his mother, who now plays a critical role in God’s plan for him, rather than bungling it by hanging on. Letting go and stepping away doesn’t mean all is lost. On the contrary, it places us where God can use us best.

Truly obeying Christ’s command to leave family behind for His sake entails a trip to the reeds. We let them go and step away, trusting God for their safety.

(Tomorrow: Heavier Uphill)

Postscript: Stepping Away = Total Surrender

Nothing I know is harder to let go and step away from than family, whom we can’t help but love and cling to despite how healthy or harmful our ties may be. I believe that’s why Christ asks this of us. Short of that, we’re not completely His. And until we do it, we’ll never experience the profound peace and joy of total surrender. Today’s Lent music selection: “I Surrender All” by The Isaacs.

Lent music suggestions are steadily coming in and we’ll be hearing them, starting tomorrow. If you’ve not yet recommended a song or video, please do!


All to Jesus I surrender

All to Him I freely give

I will ever love and trust Him

In His presence daily live

I surrender all

I surrender all

All to Thee, my blessed Savior

I surrender all

All to Jesus I surrender

Humbly at His feet I bow

Worldly pleasures all forsaken

Take me, Jesus, take me now

I surrender all...

All to Jesus I surrender

Lord I give myself to Thee

Fill me with Thy love and power

Let Thy blessings fall on me

I surrender all...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fellow Travelers

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.16-17)

The Playing Field

Ideally, faith should be the key to equality for all. Belief in God, regardless of what name He/She/It bears in various cultures and constructs, should level the playing field, as they say. It should become the common ground on which we all stand, one no higher or better than the other, all of us equal as His handcrafted creation. It doesn’t, though, because there are no such things as level playing fields. We purposefully design them to slope from the middle to either side. This allows rain to run off so players won’t slog through puddles. In other words, we pretend every player has equal advantage when we really favor some over others under the guise of safety and convenience. Unfortunately, this practice extends beyond ball fields and soccer pitches. It spills into the halls of justice, finance, education, and faith. The first three are manmade institutions and thus imperfect. In the halls of faith, however, everything should be equal. Why isn’t it?

Let’s go back to the playing field. For the safety and convenience of those in the center, faith managers for eons have compromised the equality of those in the margins. Before we shake angry fists at “the Church,” we should bear in mind this isn’t a uniquely Christian problem. Although some belief systems come closer than others, none fully lives up to its professed ideal. The reason is found in faith’s being a human endeavor. It’s riddled with logical fears and natural insecurities, all of which oppose its radically unnatural demands. Yet the near impossibility of faith’s requirements vis-à-vis equality doesn’t relieve us from striving to meet them. While faith managers justify grading the field to benefit many at the expense of a few, as keepers of the faith, it is incumbent on each of us to eradicate inequality. Regardless how slippery and messy it gets, we must do all we can to ensure the field is and remains level. We do this by building up the margins to equal height with the center.


Even with God speaking to Israel through anointed prophets, it still succumbed to a playing-field mentality. It constructed a faith culture that appealed to the prosperous, respectable majority’s desire to live piously without converting its piety into compassion. In short, it talked a good game but went out of its way to see no one got dirty. How did it do this? It became preoccupied with rituals and traditions it touted as the best way to honor God. Imagine the shockwaves rippling through the crowd when Isaiah takes the pulpit to read God’s latest message. “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies,” He roars. (Isaiah 1.13)

As it turns out, contouring the field for the majority has ended with them running headlong into God’s anger with their filthy ways. Their comfort and convenience carry no weight with Him. He wants Israel to clean up its act and restore the field to its level condition per His design. He gives them no leeway for debate or delay. “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (v16-17) In today’s vernacular: “Quit playing around and do as you’re told.”

Wholly Days

Casual observers tend to misperceive Lent as an annual tradition buttressed by two rituals, Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Authentic adherents, however, know Lent is the least tradition-bound, ritualized season on the Christian calendar. It’s less about the “holy days” than the “wholly days,” the travel time spent in prayerful introspection, remaining wholly available for everything God asks of us. Its beauty exists not in formalized worship but in improvised responsiveness to the Spirit; other than its designated dates, Lent is virtually faith-manager-free. It’s when the keepers of the faith set out as fellow travelers in a unified pilgrimage to the cross.

Beyond the spiritual quest binding us together, we’re connected by a common vow of self-denial. Our respective fasts serve two purposes. They teach discipline in overcoming temptation, and they create disadvantages we’re unaccustomed to dealing with. Self-denial levels the field by pushing all of us to the margins, where everyone struggles and, hence, everyone is equal. There is no comfortably convenient way to experience Lent if it’s practiced properly and sincerely. Yet the purpose behind this isn’t just to create empathy for the “other half;” it’s so we’ll remember there is no “other half.” Lent puts mirrors in the eyes of the misused and oppressed, orphaned and alone. They’re fellow travelers, too, and being wholly available to God means being wholly available to them.

Alas, Israel hears God’s prophet and still misses His principle. It calls a fast and backslides into pious ritual. In Isaiah 58.6-7, He re-clarifies His demands: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” We journey through Lent individually yet not alone. We honor God not with the piety of our fast, but with the compassion it stirs. We remain wholly available to Him by staying wholly available to fellow travelers in the margins.

The “level playing field” actually slopes to prevent puddles and disadvantages those along the margins. We correct this by raising the margins to equal level.

(Tomorrow: Step Away)

Postscript: Songs of the Season

We don’t normally associate Lent with music, yet many of us incorporate it into our daily worship and reflection. A recent post on A Seat at the Table—where Claire’s comments triggered numerous comments with song suggestions—inspired me to include a music video with the daily Lenten posts here. Some of them will be personal favorites selected to match the day’s topic. But others will be more random. And in the spirit of community, I’d be thrilled to include your recommendations. If there’s a song (or songs) that speak to you during this journey, please let me know so I can share it with everyone. Since we’re traveling together, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t sing together!

Today's selection: "Available to You" by Rev. Milton Brunson and The Thompson Community Singers. (Note: Rev. Brunson, who appears "caught up" from the previous number, quickly steps aside to give the choir center stage.)


You gave me my hands to reach out to man

To show him Your love and Your perfect plan

You gave me my ears, I can hear your voice so dear

I can hear the cries of sinners

But can I wipe away their tears?

You gave me my voice to speak Your Word

To sing all Your praises to those who've never heard

But with my eyes I see a need for more availability

I see hearts that have been broken

So many people to be free

Lord, I'm available to You

My will I give to You. I'll do what You say do

Use me, Lord, to show someone the way

Then enable me to say,

"My storage is empty and I am available to You."

Now I'm giving back to You all the tools You gave to me

My hands, my ears, my voice, my eyes

So You can use them as You please

I have emptied out my cup so that You can fill me up

Now I'm free and I just want to be more available to You

Lord, I'm available to You...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121.5-6)


The last visit I recall with my maternal grandmother took place on a scorching Alabama day. My brother and I, seven and eight, played in the yard while the grown-ups talked inside. The heat didn’t affect us at all. Mama Dougal came outside to spend time with us. She spread an old bed sheet under a weeping willow and called us over. Dabbing our sweaty temples and brows, she said, “You children ought not play so hard in the sun. You’ll wind up sick.” She patted the ground beside her. “Have a seat and tell your grandmother how you’re doing,” she said. Once we got settled, she asked, “Now isn’t it so much cooler under this tree?” Steve and I glanced at each other as we mumbled, “Yes ma’am.” It was cooler beside her. But sitting in the shade held no appeal for us. Having raised 11 children, Mama Dougal knew she was trying our patience. After 10 minutes or so, she stood up, straightened her dress, and folded up the sheet. “Go into the house and get something cold to drink. Then you can go back to what you were doing.” As we ran ahead of her, she said, “But I want ya’ll to be careful out here. Don’t play so hard in this heat.”

At our age, we’d not yet heard of sunstroke nor lost any grandparents. We didn’t consider how raising a big family as a single mother shaved years off the far end of Mama Dougal’s life. She’d always been with us and we assumed she always would. Her warning about overexposure to the sun was just the way she talked. Naturally, we didn’t listen. Less than a half-hour later, I got dizzy. I went into the house, complaining, “I don’t feel so good.” “Son, you’re hotter than a firecracker,” Mama Dougal said. She dipped a cloth in cold water, washed my face, arms, and legs, and then tied the cloth around my neck. “Rest here a while and you can go back out. But I need you to promise to stay under the shade tree. Now you know the sun isn’t anything to fool with.” And so the last thing Mama Dougal ever taught me was the danger of overexposure to hot sun. But I had a lot more growing up to do before I learned overexposure to unhealthy elements of any kind could end with me feeling shaky and disoriented.

When the Fun Ends

Who can deny the allure of hanging out with dangerous people in dangerous places? Something about exposing ourselves to unhealthy elements boosts our sense of invulnerability. We dismiss warnings about overexposure as grandmotherly advice. Even with shady refreshment nearby, we insist on playing as hard as we can. And then we’re seized by dizziness. We don’t feel so good. When we realize we’re vulnerable to harmful influences, that’s when the fun ends. We run for shelter in search of help to regain our equilibrium. But we can’t hide from the world always. Once the queasiness lifts and our stability returns, we need to get back to our lives. Although it takes some of us a few times to grasp the dangers of overexposure, eventually we learn the wisdom of seeking shade from the world’s harshness. And the wisest of us, I believe, find the safety we need in God’s shadow.

A Distancing Exercise

“The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand,” Psalm 121 tells us, promising, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Our protection from dangerous influences and elements comes in knowing we serve a watchful God. Lest we mistake His protective shield for invulnerability to overexposure, however, we should note His shade sits to our right. We shouldn’t count on God’s sunscreen when we go left and ignore His counsel to watch where and with whom we play. Countless times—more than many of us realize—His Word instructs to distance ourselves from detrimental people and places. For example, Paul quotes Isaiah and Ezekiel in 2 Corinthians 6.17: “’Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you.’” Our watchful God offers protection we need. He waits to receive us when we turn away from the world’s bedazzlement to seek His shade.

One of Lent’s richest benefits is its value as a distancing exercise. And it’s positively amazing how it works. First, it calls us away the world’s harmful influences. We leave daily dangers behind to search for God. Yet our quest draws us into a spiritual desert, where overexposure is a constant risk. Blazing sun and heat leave us dizzy and disoriented. In many ways, what we experience is no different than what happens when we surround ourselves with toxic people and atmospheres.

But there’s a big difference. God watches us as we wander, beckoning us to turn to the right, to walk in His shadow. He’s teaching us when we distance ourselves from the world’s dangers, we’re far removed from undue fear. “The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore,” we read in Psalm 121.7 and 8. Lent positions us to seek God’s shade, to trust His promises of protection, and to understand why turning to what’s right is so vital. God watches our coming and going now and forever. We leave Lent knowing if God can protect us from the desert’s unforgiving heat and sun, we can turn to Him for safety from the world’s dazzling deceits.

The desert teaches us to find God’s protection from the world’s harsh elements by turning to the right.

(Tomorrow: Fellow Travelers)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Clean and New

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)


The ancients examined character in a vividly literal fashion, regarding its functions as physiology, not psychology. They divided personality into three segments: mind, heart, and spirit, with the soul standing apart as a divine component—the actual presence of God within, the “being.” Not surprisingly, their breakdown mirrors Freud’s superego-ego-id triad. The mind was the arbitrator, the heart housed conscious thoughts and motives, and the spirit held instincts and emotions. The three functioned symbiotically; dysfunction in one contaminated the other two. Much like we monitor our weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and similar indicators of physical health, they kept close tabs on what was going on in their minds, hearts, and spirits. Their diligence superseded balancing the three. Purity on all counts was essential. And just as we watch caloric intake and diet to remain healthy, the ancients stressed avoiding influences and behaviors that clouded their judgment, thinking, and impulses.

With the mind controlling everything from the wings, the heart and spirit took center stage. Their relationship was somewhat tricky for their owners, because they fed off each other. The heart was the easier of the two to manage. A person knew what thoughts it entertained and motives it concealed. If the heart was the least bit impure, it immediately weakened the spirit. That set off a down spiral, with the spirit submitting to increasingly rotten instincts, which polluted the heart’s pondering mechanism. Left unchecked, the entire system broke down. The heart would blacken and atrophy, while the spirit darkened and grew brittle. At this point, resistance was futile and natural resilience was no longer possible. The mind set out in search of a clean heart to replace the corrupted one. Without that, the spirit’s strength couldn’t be restored.

Many Hearts

David went through many hearts in his lifetime. One imagines a military and political leader of his stature would have tremendous willpower, but he clearly did not. This is because David was a man driven by passions. He indulged his spirit’s baser instincts with little caution about their impact on his heart. Consequently, he routinely suffered from what we might call mighty-are-fallen syndrome. (We see a lot of this condition today.) When David’s mind, heart, and spirit were aligned with godly principles, no one was greater than he. The downside to his triumphs, however, came in the form of recklessness. He stopped protecting his heart and let his spirit take over. Time and again, his passions overcame him, filling his heart with filthy thoughts and motives. In the worst cases, they infected him with deadly hubris, convincing him he was above the law.

Psalm 51 is composed after the most devastating episode of David's life. Sexual compulsiveness has inflamed him with desire for another man’s wife. Having her is all he thinks about, and refusal to bridle this obsession opens his heart to foul ideas. He contrives a way to have the woman’s husband killed so he can marry her. His motives are transparent to everyone, including him, but he carries out his plan anyway. Not long after the wedding comes happy news of his wife’s pregnancy. Then comes the bad news. The prophet Nathan charges David with coveting another man’s wife, a capital crime. Instead of putting him to death, however, Nathan tells David God has ordained a more extreme punishment. His son and heir will live long enough to grow attached to him, after which God will take the baby’s life in retribution for David’s sin. The severity of God’s sentence opens David’s eyes to his heart’s blackness and his spirit’s unruliness. As he’s done before, he pleads for mercy and healing. He prays, “Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (v10) David can’t undo the past. But he can correct his future if he starts over, clean and new.

Forced into Crucibles

It’s been my experience we’re forced into crucibles we could otherwise escape by attending to our hearts and spirits. This is certainly David’s case. Had he regularly examined his thoughts and motives—and disciplined his impulses and emotions—he’d have been spared the anguish of confronting his failure. His deviousness in removing his nemesis from the picture proves he knew what he was doing. It’s impossible to conceive his mind didn’t send up flares, telling him his plan would end in reckoning. It’s very unlikely his mind didn’t urge him to purge his unseemly ideas and motives from the moment they entered his heart. Yet his spirit’s emotions and drives got the best of him, pushing David to dismiss his action’s inevitable consequences from his mind. If only he’d found it in himself to create a crucible of his own—to self-test for impurities that defiled his heart and hijacked his emotions. Had he managed that, his heart and spirit could have remained intact.

Lent can be experienced as many things: a season of consecration and recommitment, exploration and reflection, self-denial and self-discovery, obedience and humility, temptation and triumph, sacrifice and resurrection. And it should be viewed as all these things. Yet wound into every one is its value as a self-imposed crucible. We place our character on God’s refining fire, first looking for impurities that trouble our minds, pollute our hearts, and weaken our spirits. Then we ask Him to burn off the dross before our motives and emotions become unsalvageable. There are two ways to keep our hearts clean and our spirits new: bring them to the crucible for preventative care or ignore them until we’re forced into it. Lent is Plan A, an overhaul by choice. Plan B isn’t viable.

The crucible: we can enter it by choice or wait until we’re forced into it.

(Tomorrow: Sunscreen)

Postscript: If You Care Anything at All...

Rev. Fred Anderson, one of Straight-Friendly's first friends and supporters, posted this video on his new blog, neoorthodoxology. It's a talk by Dr. Mark Achtemeier, a "self-affirming, practicing evangelical" who teaches systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary. Aptly titled "And Grace Will Lead Me Home: Inclusion and Evangelical Conscience," it describes Dr. Achtemeier's personal journey toward favoring the full inclusion of GLBT Christians in church worship, sacraments, and leadership.

His story is rich and edifying, both for its witness and its scriptural incisiveness. The video is lengthy (48 minutes), but if you care anything at all about this matter, please make time to watch it--in chunks, if need be. And for anyone in search of deeper theological insight into why this issue is a God-given imperative, this will be a fount of understanding.

Dr. Achtemeier defines the rising tide of Christian inclusion "the great move of God's Spirit." As you listen to him, I have every confidence you will feel God's Spirit at work in his words.

PS: I heartily recommend swinging by Rev. Fred's new blog. It's a refreshing, thoughtful take on vitally important, contemporary faith issues.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Walker

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. (Deuteronomy 31.8)

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30.21)

Out and About

We’re fortunate to live in a neighborhood where virtually everything we need is within a mile’s radius. Several times a week one or both of us compile a list of errands and head off to get them done on foot. When someone calls for the one who’s away, the other says, “He’s out and about.” If the caller asks when he’ll be back, the answer is usually “I’m not sure exactly.” It’s not uncommon to remember other things we need and get them as well. There are also favorite haunts along the way—bookshops, art dealers, home accessory boutiques, clothing stores etc.—we can’t resist browsing through. Finally, having lived here for nearly two decades, it’s possible we may bump into an old friend we’ve not seen in years. That leads to an extended curbside conversation or cup of coffee. Sometimes we can be out and about for hours without realizing it.

Walt’s better than I at sticking to a plan. Once I’m out and about, I tend to wander. The fresh air, serene side streets, and sounds of birdsong and children at play—music that never reaches our high-rise windows—carry me away. I treasure these mini-excursions as chances for my mind to wander. Many times they sneak up on me. I leave my route on a whim and find I’m being refreshed. Often my wanderings put me in step with God’s presence. My roaming thoughts fixate on a passage of Scripture. Or they lead to stream-of-consciousness meditation and prayer. Or they unearth a song that speaks to me. Occasionally, something I see prompts these reactions, as if it were placed there for my benefit. And the real beauty of it: if I planned to be out and about for this purpose, it’s unlikely I’d experience anything I’ve described. In my eagerness to see what I set out to find, I’d find what I want to see and miss what I need to discover.

Willing to Wander

I’m convinced the same principle applies to Lent’s figurative journey. Everything we need or want is within walking range. We start out with an agenda—a set of objectives we hope to achieve. Walking with God tops the list. Yet many of us who’ve lived in Christ for years may be overly familiar with the territory. Being out and about raises prospects we’ll get caught up with distractions that delay our progress. We know the wilderness so well we forget it’s for wandering.

How much we gain from our excursion is directly proportional to our willingness to be drawn off the beaten path of ritualized observance and routine obligation. Remember, Jesus’s desert odyssey wasn’t rooted in dogma or tradition. Luke 4.1 makes this plain: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” Note: in the desert, not simply into the desert. From start to finish, where He went and what He found were Spirit-led. If we follow Christ’s example, we too must yield to the Spirit. We too must be willing to wander. We too must let our plans and expectations go so we can be receptive to divine guidance. If we do this, we will emulate Christ in every way because, as Romans 8.14 tells us, “those who are led by Spirit of God are sons of God.”

With Us

Our desire to walk with God is worthy. At the same time, if we permit that goal to dominate our thoughts we may end up only finding what we want to see, instead of seeing everything He wants us to find. When we follow the Spirit, we discover something altogether amazing. God is The Walker and we are wanderers. He finds us and walks with us. And He has a most peculiar stride. His steps surround us, in front, at our side, and from behind. “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you,” Deuteronomy 31.8 says. For those concerned about who’s got their backs, Isaiah 30.21 confirms there’s no cause for worry: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”

God walks ahead to prompt our attention to truths He wants us to discover. He paves our way with subtle reminders and stark revelations. He walks next to us to quell anxieties about winding up lost and alone in the desert’s uncharted landscape. He walks behind us to offer guidance if we lose our sense of direction or question whether we’re really following the Spirit. “You’re doing fine,” He whispers. “Keep going. I’m with you.” When God walks with us, He’s more than our traveling companion. He’s our habitation. “In him we live and move and have our being,” Paul preaches in Acts 17.28, adding, “We are his offspring,” i.e., children of God led by His Spirit. We have entered this wilderness in hopes of walking with God, quite possibly never stopping to consider He’s all around us, walking with us. Once we understand this, we can take Deuteronomy’s advice at face value: “Do not fear; do not be discouraged.” We wander. God walks. It’s the best of all possible worlds. We discover more than we hoped to find and He keeps us safe and sure.

When God walks with us, He surrounds us. He prompts our attention to what we should see. He ensures our safety. And He whispers assurance we’re following His Spirit’s direction.

(Tomorrow: Clean and New)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Made for Us

I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done… This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118.17, 24) 


The Biography Channel recently added a show called “I Survived”. Ordinarily, I’m a sucker for true crime series. But this one, featuring testimonials from people who’ve escaped accidental death and murder, makes me queasy without seeing one episode. I can’t justify asking anyone to relive a life-threatening trauma to sate my curiosity about what staring at Death is like. Having known trauma survivors (as I’m sure most of us have), I can attest the terror doesn’t end when the ordeal is over. For many, survival is worse than death. Each day is little more than a breathing exercise; the will to live is gone.

Psalm 118’s composer is a trauma survivor. The first half of his poem almost reads like an “I Survived” installment. As he tells it, his enemies pushed him to the brink of extinction. “But the LORD helped me,” he writes in verse 14. Rather than allow the experience to destroy his determination, the psalmist turns survival into his life’s work. “I will not die but live,” he insists, “and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” (v17) And what’s most remarkable is how he makes praise his life’s purpose. Listen to his morning song in verse 24: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” After his close call with death, he greets each day as though God made it especially for him. Seldom do I read or hear Psalm 118.24 without thinking about the old spiritual that says the same thing in a much more picturesque way: “I could have been dead, sleeping in my grave. But You made Old Death behave.”

Patience and Endurance

Too often we greet the day as another in a series of ordeals to get through. Before we rub the sleep from our eyes, our minds start racing through lists of what needs getting done and what may go wrong in the process. We’re on edge without even having left the house. When we factor in our Lent commitments—self-denial, added time for reflection and prayer, and an abiding consciousness of God’s presence—we can easily fall into the trap of feeling overly stressed. If we’re not careful these activities can devolve into extra chores and reconfigure our concept of Lent’s journey into a 40-day survival course. Instead of ending each day feeling stronger and richer, we may close our eyes contemplating how many “close calls” we had with temptation and non-compliance. But Lent’s rigors aren’t meant to be survived. They’re given to teach us patience and endurance.

No passage describes the Lent process better than James 1.2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The extra demands of Lent’s consecration indubitably generate extra needs. They require more time, discipline, and energy. Invariably we’ll be challenged to meet those needs, and how adequately they’re met will vary. Some days will open up unexpected opportunities for introspection and communion with God. Others will close with us feeling a bit like cheaters or procrastinators. And ironically, these days end up being equally valuable to our quest, because they test our faith. Having “failed,” we face the hardest test of all—the temptation to give up altogether and try again next year. But “perfect scores” don’t define Lent’s success any more than surviving the journey does. Perseverance, holding fast to our commitment despite our shortfalls, makes us mature and complete.

Creation’s Reprise

Every sunrise is creation’s reprise. Light shatters the darkness. The land and sea come to life. We rise out of sleep’s oblivion, take our first conscious breath of divine inspiration, and start to move. God makes each day with the same attention to detail and design that He invested in the first day. And each day we live is made for us. The opportunities we find and challenges we face are put there for our benefit. The degree to which we succeed or fail isn’t measured by how much or how well we do. Each day is weighed by what we gain from what we’ve been given—how we maximize the good and persevere through the bad.

These thoughts summon another spiritual I truly love. “Another day’s journey, and I’m glad about it,” it says. “I’m so glad to be here.” Perhaps the best way to approach Lent is by closing the calendar and treating it as a daily walk, with each day being its own wilderness of trials to manage and endure. In this respect, every day’s desert, like the day itself, is made for us. Its blessings and tests are created to teach us lessons we need to learn today. Each journey sends us out in search of wisdom we acquire by communing with the One Who made the day. Each journey ends with experience won by persevering its trials. It’s another day’s journey. Be glad about it. Be glad to be here.

Every day and what it holds are made for us. Every day is a unique journey all its own.

(Tomorrow: The Walker)

Postscript: One More Day

Lately I've been dusting off old albums and digitizing them. One album (that I bought as a teenager) by The Robert Wooten Choral Ensemble contains a song that fits perfectly with today's reflection. It's called "Thank You Lord for One More Day." I made a little video of it to share. If you've got a couple spare minutes, have a look. I pray the song and images will bless you!

(If you'd like to pass this along to anyone, here's the link: Thank You Lord.)