Saturday, March 13, 2010

When Worlds Collide

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” (Mark 5.6-7)

The Guise of Goodness

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods ends with the fairy-tale characters summing up what they learned during their forest forays. Red Riding Hood—the least likable personality in the show—figures caution is best when strangers (like the wolf) turn on the charm. After the wolf devours her grandmother and nearly makes a meal out of her, Red concludes, “Nice is different than good.” How true this is—and how difficult for believers to absorb. On its surface, it totally contradicts what Jesus teaches about kindness. Because the type of charity we practice is genuine, we assume it’s genuine all-around. Much of the time it is, but not always.

Many who mean us no good are exceedingly adept at assuming the guise of goodness. They entice us with kindness, win our trust, and then, once our guard is lowered, reveal their appetite for vicious, often violent cruelty and condemnation. Paul warns us to watch out for these types, saying, “For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11.14-15) But do we want to second-guess every kind act shown to us? No. That raises our risk of rewarding true kindness with disrespect and ingratitude. That’s why 1 John 4.1 tells us to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God.” How do we do that? Looking back to 1 John 3.10, we read: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” The instant we detect false motives, prejudice, or injustice, we know what we're dealing with—deceptive niceness, not genuine goodness.

Different Worlds

Recognizing counterfeit niceness as “kindness” that potentially kills is fairly straightforward. Yet even when it’s tendered in bad faith, we’re compelled by Christ’s laws of love to offer genuine kindness in return. This does not mean we’re bound to indulge it, however. Just as “nice is different than good,” tolerance is different than permission. And this is where things get murky for us, because we tend to do the “nice thing,” forgetting spiritually guided people and carnally driven ones inhabit different worlds. The goals, mindsets, and success measures aimed at achieving earthly status and favor don’t apply to us. As Paul explains in Colossians 2.20: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?” Common customs, like “playing nice,” are foreign to us, because they lead to ruinous compromise and subject us to dangerous influences and environments. Most of all, they sidetrack our attention toward pleasing others and ourselves, which often results in displeasing God.

Paul writes in Romans 12.2, “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.” There they are again: test and good. A transformed mind discerns what is authentically good, pleasing, and compliant to God’s perfect will versus what is not. In 1 Corinthians 2.12, Paul asserts this isn’t a skill we acquire, but a gift we’re given: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” When we embrace new life in Christ through His Spirit, distinguishing between “nice” and “good” is governed by our desire to please God.

Close Proximity

Mark 5 provides a superb example of what happens when our world and other worlds collide. Christ and his disciples have just sailed across the Sea of Galilee, when their path crosses that of a seriously troubled man. He’s vexed by an evil spirit and lives in the tombs, where he’s least likely to harm others or himself. He sees Jesus and rushes to meet Him. Once He gets in close proximity to Christ, the spirit that controls him cries out, “What do you want with me, Jesus? Swear you won’t torture me!”

Let’s look at this. Jesus is in the first stages of His mission. He’s new to the area, and already its most problematic resident is making a scene. The evil in the man’s mind convinces him Jesus has come to attack him. The nice thing to do would be to calm his fears so he can return whence he came and Jesus can move on. But that’s not the good thing—the right thing. Despite the spirit’s protests, something in the man knows Jesus can help him. Leaving him in his current state is unacceptable. Jesus speaks to his problem: “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” (Mark 5.6) The spirit resists at first. Jesus asks for the man’s name, but the spirit answers instead. “Legion,” it says, “for we are many.” The demon begs permission to infiltrate a nearby herd of swine. Jesus assents, and the pigs—about 2,000 of them, Mark says—immediately dive into the sea.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever clash with evil in this manner or on this scale. Yet dismissing this as a “miracle story” without personal relevance is unwise. The same Spirit Who embodies Jesus lives in us. And when our world collides with worlds where evil runs rampant, it’s expected those vexed by its power will seek us out. Yet when they reach close proximity to the Spirit in us, it’s also possible a scene will develop. In their world, this is enough for anyone unaffected by its influences to move on politely and quickly. But in our world, we see what’s really happening. They need help. In kindness, we speak to their turmoil. The goodness we portray shows them their consuming thoughts and actions are unworthy of them—and everyone around them. They may resist us. They may opt for life in the tombs over life in full. But when our worlds collide, we have an opportunity to present what life in our world can be. They now have a choice. That’s why nice is different than good, and good is better than nice.

Although we occupy the same planet, followers of Christ and those driven by harmful thoughts inhabit different worlds. When they collide, we speak to their problems and show them a better way.

Postscript: If I Can Help Somebody

A riveting arrangement of the gospel classic, “If I Can Help Somebody,” performed by the Morgan State College Choir, featuring a stunning turn by the finest male soprano I’ve ever heard, Earnest Saunders.


If I can help somebody as I pass along

If I can cheer somebody with a word or song

If I can show somebody that he's traveling wrong

Then my living shall not be in vain

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought

If I can bring them beauty to a world up-wrought

I can spread the message that the Master taught

Then my living shall not be in vain

Then my living shall not be in vain

Then my living shall be in vain

If I can help somebody as I pass along

Then my living shall not be in vain

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Never Again

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5.1)

Captivated by Captivity

Giving due respect to other ministers in my past, present, and future, the one who nurtured my faith for 10 years in L.A. will always be my pastor. Beyond his erudite mastery of the Word, Bishop Charles Blake has a rare genius for distilling Biblical principles into concise phrases that remain with you forever. For example, his sermon on the Annunciation is as fresh and vivid today as when I heard it nearly 30 years ago. His text came after the fact, when Elizabeth hails Mary: “Blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1.45) After leading us through a detailed recap of Mary’s story and drawing parallels to our own lives, he anchored our confidence in God’s faithfulness with one unimpeachable sentence: We serve a God Who performs. I’ve never forgot—or doubted—it since.

A new nugget surfaced during the webcast of last Sunday’s service. Preaching from Psalm 25.15 (“Mine eyes are ever toward the LORD; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.”), Bishop Blake noted it’s easy to become captivated by captivity. We allow dilemmas that ensnare us to define us, making them our life’s work. “We fix our eyes on the net, when they should be turned toward God,” he said. When I heard “captivated by captivity,” I knew exactly what it meant. Too frequently I’ve fought with nets I could have escaped much sooner had I stopped looking at everyone and everything else (including me) and set my sights exclusively on God. Then my thoughts turned to countless people I know who are desperate to break free of homophobic and sexist religiosity, childhood trauma, damaged relationships, addictions, and numerous other nets. Bishop Blake’s message reminded me how hard it can be to let go of issues that won’t let go of us. At the same time, though, when we become captivated by captivity, we're voluntary prisoners of our problems.


I'm convinced the severity of our problems is directly linked to our propensity to turn them into unfriendly fascinations. We can’t resist thinking about them, why they were sent our way, and how we could have avoided them. We seek out friends, literature, and groups that might possibly explain our problems. Now we’re caught in a web of opinions and advice that pull our attention further from God’s power to save. While it all makes sense, nothing provides a definitive solution to our dilemma. We become slaves to the questions. They own us and define us, and our reliance on them steadily seduces us into believing there is no real answer. Our lives become endless choruses of “If Only”. I could be at peace if only… I would be healthier if only… I would be a better [fill in the blank] if only… By this point, we’re not merely captives of our woes, we’re captivated by them. We’ve embraced them as our raison d’être. Every thought and action, longing and limitation is colored by the problem that enthralls us. It’s all in the net.

Some of us find net-life pleasing. But it doesn’t please our Maker. Nor does it fulfill Christ’s purpose. In John 10.9-10, He says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Come in and go out. Find pasture. Have life to the full. These are not qualities found in net-life. But they’re why Christ came. Our freedom from fear, guilt, doubt, pain, and every other unfriendly fascination is inextricably wound into His life, teaching, sacrifice, and resurrection. In Luke 4.18, Jesus emphatically announces He was sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” Isn’t it interesting how He wedges “recovery of sight” between “freedom” and “release”? Escaping net-life to enjoy new life occurs when we stop focusing on the net and start looking to God.

Staying Free

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” Jesus says in John 8.36. After we fix our eyes on Him and He releases us from our nets, staying free is up to us. That’s what Paul means in Galatians 5.1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” We claim our liberty from net-life by declaring, “Never again!” We need to brace ourselves, however, because our pledge will be constantly tested. Living net-free doesn’t remove the net—it defies our fascination with it. And any time newness of free life presents uncertainties—which are inevitable—we’ll grope for the net. It’s what we know best. We’ve invented all sorts of labels for this weakness: codependency, battered wife syndrome, victim mentality, low self-esteem, etc. (Bishop Blake describes it as "going back to Egypt.") Call it what you will, it’s relapsed captivation with captivity.

Christ gave His life to set us free. We commit ours to staying free. Never again means never again. We may have been tangled in hurts and resentments due to hatred and rejection. Never again. We may have been hopelessly bound by extreme cruelty and abuse. Never again. We may have been trapped by self-doubt and impossible questions. Never again. We stand firm, resisting every urge to relapse. Because Christ set us free, freedom is now our reason to live. There's nothing in the nets we want or need. There’s not one good reason to glance their way. Our eyes are ever toward the Lord.

Unless we stand firm, we'll relapse into fascination with net-life and forget freedom in Christ is why we live.

Postscript: Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone

Turning our eyes to God overwhelms us with grace. Captivity loses all fascination and power to capture our minds. A medley of “Amazing Grace” and “My Chains Are Gone” by Chris Tomlin.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4.16; KJV)

Trying to Hide

As Sunday night’s Oscar hoopla fades, one film clip inexplicably sticks with me. It came during the tribute to John Hughes, whose films I never found very memorable. From what I could gather, Molly Ringwald’s date can’t figure out why she won’t let him drive her home. Evidently a lot of questions precede the clip: Are you worried I’ll embarrass you? Do you think your parents won’t like me? Etc. She bursts into tears and confesses, “I don’t want you to see where I live!” Unlike most of the teen angst that became Hughes’s calling card, this felt like the sort of kick to the gut we associate with great dramatists like Tennessee Williams—the moment when stereotypes and quirks get shaved away and an archetypal realization emerges.

Thankfully, I’ve never been ashamed of where I live. But many, many times in my life I’ve prevented people from seeing parts of me I’m unsure of. I’ve invented all kinds of ruses and excuses to keep them away, fearing what they found would drive them away. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about; no doubt you’ve done it, too. Any time people get too close to discovering our weaknesses and self-doubts, our reflexes take over and shields go up. But trying to hide what we’re uncertain of in ourselves isn’t something we only do with people. We do it with God as well. And, especially during Lent’s season of consecration, it’s time we rethink this.

Uncovered and Laid Bare

It’s futile to conceal anything from God. Hebrews 4.13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” God knows everything about us: our progress, our thoughts, our actions, our whereabouts—even our physiology and lifespan. Jesus tells us “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10.30), and Job submits, “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” (Job 14.5)

These statements baffle me. How can God possibly keep up with so much information about me, let alone 300 billion other humans and innumerable creatures, plants, stars, and planets? I imagine celestial accounting and surveillance facilities lined with endless rows of whirring mainframes, and they’re still not enough to process what’s happening across the universe this very second. Then it occurs to me: it’s less a matter of tracking and watching than knowing. God’s awareness of us is part of Who He is. It’s as instinctive to Him as breathing is to us. We need to know this as surely and thoroughly as God knows us. Once we let this sink into the very marrow of our beings, we can toss off heinous burdens of shame, guilt, and self-doubt we’ve been told we must carry. We can stop hiding things we don’t like about ourselves, as well as things others aren’t happy with.

While our burdens come in every shape and size, a good number of them are inextricably linked with the three basics of our God-given identity: gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. It’s no accident the Evil One has chosen these traits as his tools for planting self-destruction and hatred, because they’re immutable and inescapable. He’s constructed an alternative morality and society in which we’re encouraged to view sex, color, and orientation as insurmountable hurdles. This is a myth. If we’re unsure of this, we should consider the source. Here’s Jesus’s description of the Enemy: “There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8.44) It’s a lie that we have any cause for shame, guilt, or self-doubt about who we are, because God made us as we are and He knows us as we are. He sees where we live.

“It’s Just Me”

Three verses after telling us there’s nothing we can hide from Him, the Hebrews writer states: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Knowing there’s nothing He should not see enables us to approach Him without pause or trepidation, saying, “Here I am—all of me.” Leaving parts of us behind when we come to God constitutes an unfortunate mistake. Actually, it’s two mistakes in one. First, we stand incomplete before Him. We’re not the beings He created, the people He knows. But, second, when we hold back pieces of us that have been corrupted by evil lies, we deprive them of the light of God’s presence and purity. That’s where their beauty unfolds and their fragrance bursts forth. Only when we bring ourselves wholly to God can we find wholeness in life.

Current translations soften Hebrews 4.16 a bit. For example, the NIV renders it, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence…” As a gay believer, though, I find the King James Version’s “boldly” more inspiring—not in the sense of arrogance or presumption, but in its urgency to meet God without reticence or apology. “It’s just me,” I say as I enter, “the white, gay son You know all about.” And in my mind, I see countless multitudes comprising the entire spectrum of human gender, race, and sexuality—all of them free of the Liar’s burdens, all walking boldly toward God and announcing themselves the same way. “It’s just me, the child You know all about.” As we continue our Lenten journey, I pray we will leave all of the Liar’s burdens behind and bring all of who we are to God.

When we walk boldly toward God, we leave the lies of shame, guilt, and self-doubt behind. We enter His light, where we see who we truly are.

Postscript: All I Ever Have to Be

I mentioned this song in a comment on another blog a few weeks ago, and it feels particularly apt for today’s post. Listen closely to its lyrics. I believe you’ll find robust boldness beneath its gentle affect. Amy Grant’s “All I Ever Have to Be.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Who's That?

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3.25)


As a boy I got hooked on ABC’s “Batman” series. I loved the show for its big climax. The villain would be within seconds of destroying Gotham, when—surprise!—the Caped Crusaders would appear from nowhere to save the city. The camera would zoom into an extreme close-up of the villain’s stupefaction as he/she cried, “What are you doing here?” Of course, I expected this all along. Yet there was something deeply satisfying in seeing bad people caught off-guard. It touched a nerve in my young psyche that never got old.

That nerve still lights up when I revisit the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel. In this case, however, the villainy is chillingly imaginable. Babylon’s monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, is profoundly troubled. A recurrent nightmare robs him of sleep. He summons his psychics to explain it, but in true madman fashion, he insists they describe the dream before they interpret it. “That’s impossible,” they say. Their response infuriates the king and he orders the execution of every wise man in his realm, including Daniel and other captive Jews. The night before he’s to die, God reveals the dream and its meaning to Daniel. He solves the mystery for Nebuchadnezzar, who honors his request to spare the wise men's lives and gives him charge of them and his government. The king also grants Daniel’s request that his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be named regional administrators so he can remain at court. A first-time reader might assume this is the surprise ending, when it’s actually exposition for the really big surprise.

Short-term memory loss appears to be a common Babylonian affliction. Once the king’s peace of mind is restored, he forgets his dream. It involved an enormous idol that crashes down because its clay feet can’t support its weight. So what does Nebuchadnezzar do? He constructs a nine-story idol and decrees everyone must worship it or face death. Naturally, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to comply. The native seers and sages, who loathe the Jews (forgetting a Jew recently saved their lives), rush to report the three Hebrews’ disobedience. The king goes into a rage, arrests the men, ties them up, and throws them into a furnace. But all the fire does is free their bindings. Instead of going up in smoke, they move about the incinerator. The king increases the heat by seven and waits for their demise, when—surprise!—a fourth figure appears from nowhere. “Didn’t I throw three men into the fire?” he asks. “Then who’s that? There’s a fourth person—someone who looks like a son of the gods!”

The Adult Version

For many of us, the story is so familiar—etched forever in memory since Sunday school—I imagine we quickly scanned the retelling to find out if there’s any unusual take on it below. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t, though it may not be exactly what you expect.) Still, we lose something highly valuable, I think, by categorizing this and other childhood Bible favorites as juvenile fables with quickly grasped morals. When we’re kids, we’re told about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to learn the importance of not compromising our faith under pressure. To be sure, this lesson remains relevant always. Yet as adults, there’s more we can find here—and profound comfort we should take from what we discover.

The adult version focuses on what transpires before the furnace. It shows how faithfulness to God can result in extreme tests. And it reminds us that people whom we serve and protect should not be counted on to return our kindness and compassion. We will meet many in life who are afflicted with short-term memory loss. Their fear and hatred of us—or people like us—will erase any recall of how we helped them. After we reach out to ease their anxieties, they very well may ignore everything we tried to tell them and fall back into old habits and prejudices. In fact, they may resent us with such fervor they’ll contrive elaborate methods to back us into corners where refusing to compromise will put us in dire jeopardy. Rather than accommodate their success by submitting to fear and doubt, we stand firm. We may never know why they’re intent on our destruction. But this we do know: they will not succeed.

The Last in a Series

We often equate trials with fiery furnaces—extreme situations where everything is at risk. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego teaches us differently. The furnace is the last in a series for them. They’re sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit. Even though one of their own wins pardon for those who did enrage the king, deeply entrenched prejudice against them persists, fueled by jealousy when they’re more highly favored than the majority. Despite their loyalty, there’s no respect for their values, no regard for their individualism. They’re presented with a choice: conform or die. One suspects if we spoke to the three men today, they’d say the fire was the least of it. The toughest part was surviving the conflicts and betrayal leading up to the furnace.

Sweeping judgments are trials. Ungrateful acts are trials. Prejudice, jealousy, and disrespect are trials. Compulsions to conform are trials. Times when we’re tied up and tossed into ruin are trials. Situations where others watch us suffer, waiting for our destruction, are trials. Through it all, we endure confidently, knowing we will survive. There’s a big surprise ahead—a triumphant moment when those who wish us no good will ask, “Who’s that?” He may look like “a son of the gods” to them. We know precisely Who it is. His standing beside us is hardly a surprise. He’s been there all along.

Although our adversaries may be taken aback when they finally recognize God stands with us in our trials, we’ve always known He’s with us.

Postscript: Imagine Me

I posted this video several months ago, but it’s worth repeating here—just for this: “Imagine God whispering in your ear, letting you know that everything that has happened is now gone.” The Bible says, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego left the furnace, not one hair on their heads was singed and no smell of smoke was in their clothes. God stands with us in our trials to bring us through, intact and unscathed. Kirk Franklin: “Imagine Me.”


Imagine me loving what I see

When the mirror looks at me

'Cause I imagine me

In a place of no insecurities

And I'm finally happy

'Cause I imagine me

Letting go of all the ones who hurt me

'Cause they never did deserve me

Can you imagine me

Saying no to thoughts that try to control me

Remembering all You told me

Lord, can You imagine me

Over what my mamma said

And healed from what my daddy did

And I want to live

And not read that page again

Imagine me

Being free, trusting You totally

Finally, I can imagine me

I admit it was hard to see You being in love

With someone like me

Finally, I can imagine me

Being strong and not letting people break me down

You won't get that joy this time around

Can You imagine me

In a world nobody has to live afraid

Because of Your love, fear's gone away

Can You imagine me

Letting go of the past

And glad I have another chance

And my heart will dance

"Cause I don't have to read that page again

Imagine me...


This song is dedicated to people like me

Those that struggle with insecurities

Acceptance and even self-esteem

You never felt good enough

You never felt pretty enough

But imagine God whispering in your ear

Letting you know that everything that happened is now

Gone, gone

It's gone

All gone...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Call and Response

Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. (Jeremiah 33.3)


Numerous times we’ve been watching a pay-per-view movie when our cable box freezes. We scramble to find an old bill with the service number, run the gantlet of menu options, and brace ourselves for a half-dozen contortions to get the thing going. Either the help desk personnel are woefully under-trained or instructed to take the caller through every step on their diagram, because halfway through the call, we stop them. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we say, “we’ve done all that. What’s the real answer?” Once in a pique of frustration, Walt asked, “Is there something extra we should know, something we're not doing right? Because this keeps happening.” He turned on the speaker function. Silence. Finally, the operator said, “I don’t know what that could be.”

The parallels with looking to God for answers are striking, though this doesn’t insinuate any inadequacies on His part. We’ll be moving along in our daily walk and suddenly freeze up. We do everything we know to do to jumpstart our lives. We may even see a flicker or two that indicates we’re close to resolving the issue. Yet we can’t quite get going. So we call on God. After we run down the list of possible solutions, we still don’t have any answers. Like Walt, we ask, “Is there something extra I should know?” Silence. But unlike the cable agent, when God eventually responds, He knows what the problem is. There is something more we need to know. He opens our understanding so we’ll be able to identify the problem if it rears back up and reboot our faith.


“Call to me,” we hear God say in Jeremiah 33.3, “and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” In essence, this is an open invitation to learn more about God’s operating system. We’ll never fully grasp its mechanics, no more than we’ll ever comprehend the inner workings of the cable system. “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Romans 11.33 exclaims. Yet when everything we try fails and we turn to the Provider, He directs us to wisdom and options we weren’t aware of before. They’re “unsearchable” because we never knew they existed or weren't ready to explore them until now.

The silence prefacing the answer is a superb time to consider that last point. “Freezes” aren’t uncommon when growing in faith. They signal expansion—availing ourselves to more of God’s Word and way—which often requires mastering new skills and broadening our concept of how faith works in our lives. Much of our exasperation arises from sensing there’s functionality we’ve not yet tapped, and while we intuitively know it’s there, the same intuitions don’t offer any insights into how we access it. We try every imaginable combination of faith, prayer, Scripture, and meditation. We scour our behavior and attitude for a clue. We may even turn to friends for answers. Strangely, we take more comfort from those who say, “It’s beyond me,” than those who’ve already struggled with similar issues. Their answers always sound too pat: “That’s easy. Here’s what you do,” they tell us. “It’s a little tricky, but you’ll get the hang of it.” When we hear that, we hear an inner voice wonder, “What if I don’t get the hang of it? Will I be stuck indefinitely?”

Why God Answers

These thoughts crowd our minds while we wait out the silence. And since thinking is all we can do until God answers, we might ponder this: why does God answer at all? That’s where the customer service analogy breaks down. God responds to our call because it pleases Him. “Come near to God and he will come near to you,” James 4.8 advises us. Turning to God for answers brings us closer to Him, allowing Him to come closer to us. If the entire plan and approach were laid out in simple terms from the first, we could do this on our own. When something didn’t go our way, we’d reach for the handy-dandy troubleshooter’s guide and fix it by ourselves. But we must remember the underlying purpose in following Christ is reconciliation with God. This journey never was intended to be easy and smooth. The stalls and panics are designed to prompt our calls to God so He can draw nearer to us. We cry, “Help!” and He answers, “Let Me show you.” As we step closer to Him, He comes closer to us. Reconciliation begins.

“I will tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know,” He promises. Every crisis that causes us to freeze puts us on the brink of revelation. Our minds must be clear to absorb what He says, though, which is why there are frequent silences between the call and response. It takes time for us to let go of our instincts and plans, to be ready to hear and do what He tells us. When we call on God, it’s unnecessary to explain what we’ve already done to fix our problems or what’s always worked in the past. He’s watched us all along. It’s not a matter of what we’re doing wrong as much as what we’re not learning by doing it the way we always have. And particularly during this desert season, when we purposefully seek greater, deeper understanding—when we wander into the wilderness with our hearts set on growing closer to God—we’re apt to freeze up. Let’s never forget two things. The freeze is a positive sign we’re maturing in our faith, and God is coming to us, bringing us knowledge and information unlike any we’ve known before.

When we can’t go on until help arrives, it’s because we’ve grown past our current skills. Calling on God brings Him near to us to teach us what we don’t yet know.

Postscript: ‘Tis So Sweet

This was my grandmother’s favorite hymn and it perfectly reflected her faith philosophy. “When there’s nothing else to do but call on the Lord,” she taught me, “that’s when we feel closest to Him.” In a beautiful a cappella arrangement, The Altar of Praise Men’s Chorale sings “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Glory Rising

I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth. (Psalm 57.4-5)

The Age of Extremities

America’s healthcare war turned one last week and we’re no closer to a satisfying resolution now than a year ago. We have no idea how many have died or continue to suffer because of ideological strife. Yet the longer this battle persists, the more I’m convinced something precious is slowly dying in all of us. Faith in our leaders and political process has reached a new low. Everyone agrees something urgently needs doing, but no one cares enough to yield personal preferences for the common good. Both sides have taken an all-or-nothing position, neither realizing this strategy usually leads to nothing. Our impasse would be alarming if it were unique to the healthcare debate. Sadly, it’s not. What we’re witnessing is nothing more than a reflection of the culture-at-large. We’ve become a love/hate, thumbs-up/thumbs-down people stranded on opposite sides of a chasm created by collapsed middle ground.

We live in the Age of Extremities. We’ve exchanged pursuit of the common good for false certainty in manmade truths. It’s not as simple as everyone plying his/her individual interests at the expense of others. Using the healthcare crisis as a prime example, what we’re seeing are people stubbornly defending their chosen extreme at their own expense. Those in favor of healthcare reform defend their leaders despite how shamelessly they’ve reduced the likelihood of success with compromising interests. Those opposing reform hold the party line, even though many of them stand to benefit personally from it. Almost daily, we turn on the news channels to find we’re in the same situation David describes in Psalm 57.4: “I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” And being there, we’re wise to follow his example by praying, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” (v5)

What’s God Got to Do With It?

Many look at that last sentence and laugh, asking, “What’s God got to do with it?” Their question has merits, because compassion and mercy aren’t compatible with extreme living. When they’re not visibly present, it’s hard to conceive God is invisibly present. Yet because we’re there, He most assuredly is there too. That gives us every reason to believe He will be exalted and His glory will appear. What we currently see is no indication of what will ultimately be. Isaiah 60.2-3 reads: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Virtually every conflict that concerns us, collectively and individually, concerns God. The “big issues”—healthcare access, civil rights, marriage equality, faith equity, etc.—that divide us as a people are troubling to Him simply because they exemplify our disdain for compassion and mercy. But I would venture conflicts that polarize relationships, families, and communities also trouble Him on an equal scale. That’s because what we’re experiencing socially is nothing more than what we’ve grown to tolerate personally. Thus, it stands to reason that improvements in social justice arrive in the wake of improvements in personal justice. Before we can expect God’s glory to be above the earth, we must allow Him to rise upon us so His glory will appear over us.

Beyond Praise

This “glory” business can be a little confusing, having acquired several shades of meaning over time. In modern vernacular, we associate glory with praise. We’ve also turned it into a verb, i.e., “to exult,” as in “I glory in success.” Both usages are tied to achievement on some level. We give God glory for the things He does. We glory in accomplishments. But the ancients reserved “glory” for the transcendent. Glory went beyond praise. It acknowledged the eminence—the insuperable majesty—and immanence—the pervasive presence—of the divine. To experience God’s glory, which the ancients called “seeing,” they humbled themselves by lifting Him above all else and embraced His involvement in everything. Notice the formula: “Be exalted, O God” and “the LORD rises” first, then “let Your glory be over all the earth” and “His glory appears over you.”

If we want to see God’s glory, we first humble ourselves to exalt Him above everything else. With His glory rising in us, His presence is known in all of our circumstances. His glory changes how we perceive things as well as how we’re perceived. James 4.10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” When we give way to God’s majesty and presence—when we exalt Him—He raises us. The lions and ravenous beasts that bare their teeth and snarl become harmless, no more than tiny silhouettes against the vista of God’s glory. People who sought to intimidate and destroy us come to our light and the brightness of our dawn. We no longer feel it necessary to take sides and defend our beliefs. God’s glory raises us above our conflicts. Our first priority is exalting Him, not proving we’re right. And as more of us learn to do this more often, His glory becomes more powerfully revealed and palpably present. So, what’s God got to do with our social and personal turmoil? Everything.

Seeing God’s glory requires humility to acknowledge His majesty and presence in our lives. When we do this, He lifts us up.

Postscript: He Is Exalted

We rejoice in God’s glory as it rises and appears above us. “He is Exalted” by Twila Paris.