Saturday, March 20, 2010

You Can Do It

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4.12-13)

Dismantling the Mantra

Hearing the Bible called “The Good Book” puts me off. It’s not that the colloquialism minimizes the Word’s sacredness. What bothers me about “The Good Book” is its suggestion the Bible is a collection of proverbs and fables, a religious Poor Richard’s Almanac. The phrase usually turns up in sentences beginning with, “Like The Good Book says…” But the Bible wasn’t written so we could pick through it for notable quotes. It was given to teach and enlighten, and when we yank bits and pieces out of context, more often than not we distort—in some cases totally mangle—their intended meaning.

Philippians 4.13 is a classic case in point: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” As an axiom, it says one thing. As Scripture, it says something entirely different. Quoted out of context, it promises unlimited potential through Christ, which is why it’s a favorite mantra of athletes and entrepreneurs, positive thinkers and prosperity preachers. It’s lovely, this notion we can achieve anything we want in partnership with God. Alas, when we replace the verse in its original context, we find Paul’s not talking about achievement at all. He’s discussing adaptability. “I’ve known poverty. I’ve known prosperity. My stomach’s been full. It’s been empty,” he writes. “But I can be content in any and every situation because Christ gives me strength.” Dismantling the mantra strips its pop-friendly optimism and gets down to the nitty-gritty of life. It’s not “nothing’s gonna stop us now.” It’s “you can’t always get what you want, but you’ll get what you need.”


In Jeremiah 32.27, God says, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” As the Creator and Ruler of everything that is, He holds supreme authority, His word is absolute, and His promises are true. In this sense, then, there’s nothing we can face that God can’t remedy, nor anything we can ask that He can’t do. Yet is it not foolish and presumptive to believe we can capitalize on God’s infinite power to realize our ambitions? God isn’t there to do what we want. We’re here to do what He asks. He places in each of us the talent and temperament to accomplish what He created us to do. The reason why we can’t all be millionaires and superstars is because each of us is uniquely suited to serve his/her specific purpose. That’s God’s plan and we should stick with it.

Earlier in his letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (2.12-13) Before succumbing to the delusion God enables us to do anything we undertake, we might consider His reasons for making us as we are, where we are. Working that out—“with fear and trembling,” placing His will above our wants—initiates a process that leads to “I can do everything.” Fulfilling God’s purpose begins with wholehearted embrace of our making, time, and place—i.e., self-acceptance. Rejecting any aspect of ourselves, especially on the premise it displeases our Maker, is no less dangerous than trying to be more than we are. Both unleash tides of doubt and discontentment that destroy God’s purpose. Once we accept who we are, we’re content knowing God is working His will in us. Anything He asks can be done with confidence in His strength.

Adaptive Obedience

This looks great on paper. Actually implementing it, however, raises questions about what God’s purpose is. While some intuitively know God’s will and others are specifically called for a purpose, the majority of us haven’t a clue why God shaped and placed us as He did. An interim step is needed—an accurate inventory of our talents and skills, passions and proclivities. All of these are tools God hands us to do what He asks. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us,” Romans 12.6 teaches. “If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.” An accounting of what we can do leads to discovering what we’re meant to do.

This is where self-acceptance and contentment come in, because knowing who we are and trusting God’s purpose in every circumstance are how we accomplish everything He made us to do. Personal doubts and desires no longer nag at us. We follow lives of adaptive obedience—giving all of ourselves, and using all we’ve been given, to do everything we can in response to our situation. It’s no longer about less or more, too much or not enough. It’s being content to apply our gifts in proportion to our faith—that is, trusting God’s power to accomplish what He selected us to do.

So, who are you? How are you made? Where are you? What’s your situation? What are your tools? What do you bring to life that no one around you has? Answering these questions will define what everything means to you. You’ll be amazed how grand and glorious your “everything” is. You’ll also be concerned it’s too much. But you can do it. You’re made for it. You’ve been placed to do it. You’ve got all you need to get it done. And strength to do it is already yours.

Philippians 4.13 isn’t about accomplishing the impossible. It’s about knowing who we are and adapting to our situations.

Postscript: His Strength is Perfect

Realizing the extent of everything we can do is a humbling experience. We’re fraught with second thoughts about our limitations. But they’re also there by design to create built-in reliance on God’s strength. “His Strength is Perfect,” by Steven Curtis Chapman.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Under the Falls

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42.7-8)

Thirsty and Drowning

Psalm 42 is an arresting study in contradictions. The poet begins by declaring his dire thirst: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (v1) But God feels too far removed to relieve his parched condition. The psalmist tries to make do with what he can muster out of himself: “My tears have been my food day and night,” he reveals in verse 3, “while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” As we read on, we learn he’s terribly depressed and lonely. Somehow he’s lost his way and doesn’t know how to get back to the refreshing waters of God’s presence. All he thinks of are the good old days when he was a leader of worship. For unknown reasons, he’s now isolated, and though he realizes what needs to be done, he has no strength to do it. He gives himself a pep talk: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (v5-6)

Our hearts ache for this man, because we know exactly what he’s going through. We all reach dry places in life where nothing seems to work and reasons why our joy and confidence escape us can’t be found. Which is why verse 7 takes us by surprise: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” All this time we’ve pictured the psalmist as a man trapped in a desert, only to learn he’s engulfed in water—thirsty and drowning at the same time. He’s flailing against chaotic currents, fighting to keep above foamy caps. His shouts are no match for the falls’ thunder; the depth of their roars dwarfs his little voice. Now we see why he’s thirsty, weak, and confused. Breathing takes precedent over thirst. Staying alive is more important than conserving strength. Needing God’s power to survive while being terrified of it is a conundrum. If we’ve not yet experienced contradictions like this, we may strain to empathize with his crisis. But sooner or later we will, because every believer eventually spends time under the falls.


Until we’ve survived an episode under the falls, we don’t really know how lonely and disorienting it can be. Unlike getting lost in the desert—which typically starts by aimlessly drifting away and then gradually losing direction—being plunged under the falls occurs rapidly. And ironically, it most often happens when we’ve reached a new peak in our faith experience. Oh, how we’ve longed to scale this height! How hard we’ve climbed to get here! Once we rise over the crest, however, we may be stunned to discover the view and atmosphere aren’t all what we anticipated. Problems and people that loomed so large below appear inconsequentially small. Rough passages that drained our energy look pedestrian. Graceful rivers of peace and presence flowing nearby spill over the precipice and converge into a pounding torrent of immeasurable power. Just how high are we? Curiosity lures us to the edge. Vertigo seizes us, our foot slips, and down we go. The plunge takes no time. It’s too quick to realize how badly it bruises us. The real trauma takes place under the falls, where we have time to reflect on the severity of our descent, injuries, and crisis.

“I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng,” the poet remembers in verse 5. Here is a man whom people admire and follow. His love for God and godly things lifts him above the crowd. It propels his ascent to new heights. It also garners an assemblage of enemies eager to watch him fall. Verse 10 reads, “My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” And that’s one of the harsher realities that surface under the falls. When we tumble over the edge, believing friends who travel beside and behind us remain on the mountain. Doubters and detractors are all we find at the foot of the falls. They have no concern for us. Cries for help merely fuel hopes for our destruction. Loneliness and panic overtake us as we search for something stable to cling to. “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’” the poet writes. (v9)

Yet Praise

The overly familiar mighty-are-fallen proverb may lead some to assume pride causes the psalmist’s crisis. Yet there’s not a trace of arrogance in his poem. Despite his descent and confusion, he refuses to lose faith in his Maker, saying, “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.” (v8) I find this very telling, since he writes from a place swirling with danger, where his songs and prayers can’t be heard. No, he’s not proud. He’s dazed. Psalm 42 gives us a man trying to regain presence of mind. It closes with a reprise of verse 5’s inner dialogue: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (v11)

The ending is a cliffhanger, most unusual for a psalm. Testimonials of this sort tend to stick with the “I-cried-to-God-and-He-saved-me” formula. Although this psalmist doesn’t say God rescues him, the sly insertion of “yet praise” gives every indication his story ends happily. “Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise,” Jeremiah 17.14 says. When we find ourselves under the falls, the first thing to remember is praise precedes healing and salvation. We’ve lost our balance and tumbled over the edge, yet we praise. We’re bruised and buffeted, thirsty and drowning, yet we praise. We’re lonely, confused, and ridiculed, yet we praise. Praise needs no reason, which is why—even under the falls—we have every reason to praise. When praise goes first, salvation and healing are sure to follow.

When we’re plunged under the falls, our crisis ends when praise begins.

Postscript: Praise the Lord

I love this song—have loved it for more than two decades. So, with apologies in advance for the grainy video and fervent delivery, I offer it to you. Hide its message deep inside as a reminder of what to do when you’re under the falls. “Praise the Lord,” sung by Russ Taff.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Make Scents

We are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (2 Corinthians 2.14)

The Nose Knows

My first boss was a great guy who kept himself fastidiously groomed. His cologne was his signature. While the rest of “the fellows” came to work smelling faintly of bar soap or cheap aftershave, Larry preferred Aramis—then the leading high-end men’s fragrance “sold only in finer department stores.” Although the scent wasn’t overpowering, it was certainly distinctive, and any time Larry was nearby you knew it without looking. The oddest aspect of this was the way each person’s reaction to Aramis matched his/her regard for Larry. Since he and I got along, I liked the smell. Meanwhile, coworkers who clashed with his management style never missed a chance to complain about his cologne.

Sense of smell is by far the least understood, yet clearly the most powerful, of the five faculties. Eyes and ears can’t be trusted. Taste can be convinced. Touch can mislead. But the nose knows. More than any sense, smell triggers emotional responses that affix to their sources. Christmas, for instance, carries a plethora of sights, sounds, tastes, and textures we also associate with other places and events. Yet if we catch the slightest whiff of evergreen, our first response is “It smells like Christmas.” Or we can pass a stranger in the supermarket, pick up a scent we’ve not smelled since childhood, and say, “She smells just like Great-aunt Lucille.” That brief waft looses a flood of memories about a lady we may not have thought about for years. In turn, our feelings about her shape our feelings about the scent. If she was jolly and kind, it’s extremely pleasant. If she was mean and selfish, it stinks.


Modern science and manufacturing have sharply reduced our keenness of smell. We undermine its value by hiding odors in chemical additives and fresheners. In Biblical times, however, scent was the most reliable indicator of what something was. Without refrigeration, plumbing, and mass-produced deodorizers, the world was a wretched-smelling place teeming with animal filth and deadly microbes. No amount of dressing up could conceal the pungency of disease, poor hygiene, and rotten food. Yet that was a good thing, because bad smells worked very much like today’s side-effects disclaimers—Take at Your Own Risk. Thus, the more sensitive one’s smell, the healthier and happier he/she was. What’s more, rarity of pleasant scents greatly increased the value and appreciation of their sources. That’s why two of the Magi’s offerings (frankincense and myrrh) were fragrances and Judas was so outraged when a woman poured perfume on Jesus’s head.

It’s also why Paul compares us to atomizers—walking, breathing vessels that emit Christ’s invaluable scent of life. In 2 Corinthians 2.14-15, he writes, “[God] leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” Paul returns to this metaphor in Ephesians 5.2: “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” By itself, either comparison feels a bit awkward and unfinished. But when we combine them, we get a better idea of what Paul means by each. The Corinthians allusion focuses on our role in the world. God places us where we are to spread “the aroma of Christ” indiscriminately—i.e., not only to those who value it (those “being saved”), but also those who don’t (“those who are perishing”). In contrast, Ephesians explains Christ’s role in us by describing the fragrance we contain and emit. Paul distills it to two essentials: love and sacrifice. Now we get it. How much of what’s poured into us changes and refreshes what’s around us depends our willingness for God to release it through us.

Prior Associations

“What a terrific metaphor!” we exclaim, envisioning ourselves as divine fancy-store fragrance models eagerly spritzing everyone we meet with incomparably expensive, aromatic Christian love. If Paul ended his Corinthian atomizer analogy at 2.15, we’d be spot-on. But he makes sure to reset our expectations in the next verse: “To the [perishing] one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” In other words, not everyone is crazy about the smell we emit. Prior associations with personal, social, philosophical, and religious clashes have tainted their appreciation of Christ’s aroma. The slightest whiff sets off all kinds of nasty memories that have nothing to do with us, or the Christ in us. We’re spreading the finest fragrance humanity’s ever known and, unfortunately for those who associate it with foul deeds and attitudes, it smells like decanted death. They push us away to get as far as possible from the smell.

So what should we do? If we were modeling a consumer product, we might go after them with the hard sell, which many believers try to do. But misguided efforts to rack up big numbers only compound the problem by attaching another unpleasant experience to Christ. Paul’s fragrance analogy reminds us His sacrificial love isn’t a commodity. It’s a gift. Whether or not it’s accepted falls to personal background and choice. Our job isn’t defending what’s inside us. It’s dispensing it. We make scents of Christ’s love and sacrifice available to all so those who are drawn to His life-giving aroma will make haste to accept it.

How much of what’s been poured into us changes and refreshes what’s around us depends on our willingness for God to release it through us.

Postscript: Instrument of Peace

We are atomizers—instruments—placed in the world to make available Christ’s sacrificial love. This haunting composition based on the Prayer of St. Francis stresses our need to be where we’re needed. It’s written by Frances Key and Cyrille Verdoux, who perform the song with their children’s chorus, “The International Peace Performers.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the Cloud

Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud.” (2 Chronicles 6.1)

Rising into a Falling

For a brief period, I became infatuated with the open road. I’d bought my first new car, a 1987 five-speed Jetta lovingly christened “Coretta.” Any chance or excuse that came along, I made a break for it. I always knew where I was going, but remained flexible regarding the time and route I took to arrive. Each trip grew more complicated as I sought more challenging terrain to test my driving skills and Coretta’s handling capabilities. The first leg of one expedition headed south from Chicago to spend a few days with my grandmother in Decatur, Alabama. I left there for Philadelphia, where my best friend lived. I charted a roundabout method through the Great Smoky Mountains, followed by brief stops to soak up Asheville and Washington, DC before doubling back to Philly. On reaching the Virginia border, I started seeing signs for the Blue Ridge Parkway. This would be an unexpected treat for Coretta and me—her opportunity to hug a legendary mountain highway and mine to enjoy its stunning vistas.

I pulled off to map the best spots to access and quit the Parkway. According to the serpentine brown line, once you took the road, you had to stick with it for quite a distance. That seemed fine to me. Off I went, totally unprepared for abrupt atmospheric changes as the road steepened. Within a half-hour I found myself rising into a falling cloud that grew denser by the minute. I couldn’t see more than a few yards on any side of the car. There was no going back. Any turnouts where I could reverse direction were beyond my field of view. The thought of plummeting to my death terrified me, as did crashing into a slower driver ahead or being bumped off the road from behind. The higher I climbed, the harder I prayed. At last, a clearing revealed a lookout. I eased in beside the only car there. An older couple got out and walked toward me. I fully expected to break into sobs before greeting them. It was best to proceed in tandem, we decided. If one car met with disaster, the other would be there to help. As I returned to Coretta, the husband stopped me. “You know God, right?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered. “Good,” he said. “Then you know He’s in this cloud. We’re safer than we feel.” He was right.

Surprise Appearance

I’ll never know if the gentleman consciously referred to the divine cloud that appears on numerous occasions in the Old and New Testaments. He may have had no knowledge of it all. Either way, his remark relieved my fear by assuring me with God in the cloud there was no safer place to be. In a very literal sense, I was surrounded by His presence and protection—which is precisely why we find Him inhabiting clouds all through the Bible. In Exodus, He hovers in the cloud that leads Israel through the desert and shields them from its unbearable light and heat. He envelops the Mount of Transfiguration in a cloud that audibly confirms Christ’s divinity. At the Ascension, a cloud removes Jesus from sight.

As vivid as these manifestations are, none tops the temple cloud that permeates the site with God’s glory. In 2 Chronicles 5, the congregation gathers to dedicate Solomon’s extraordinary house of worship by raising its voice in praise. As their adoration peaks, the chapter closes with this report: “Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God.” (v13-14) Evidently, the priests and worshipers are more than a little unraveled by this surprise appearance. (Liturgical breakdowns can do this to people.) They try their best to proceed until Solomon calms them down, urging them to grasp what’s transpiring before their eyes. He opens chapter 6, reminding them of God’s promise in Exodus: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud.” Like my anonymous friend on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Solomon essentially asks them, “Do you know God? Then you know He’s in the cloud.”

An Uphill Journey

Without a doubt, following Christ is an uphill journey. And the higher we go, the less we see. And the less we see, the more clearly we understand what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 5.7: “We live by faith, not by sight.” Growing in faith is like rising into a falling cloud that envelops us until our only choice is trusting God’s guidance and protection. Despite dangerous possibilities on all sides, all we see is Him. We may want to turn back for lower altitudes. But we’ve come too far for blind risks that may send us over the edge. We continue to press upward, no matter how much our natural minds flash on images of potential ruin. We creep along, praying always in hope of the moment when we find a clearing where we can stop what we’re doing and catch our breath. Often that’s when God sends a messenger—a middle-aged man, a wise king, or another chosen vessel—who reminds us to stop looking at the cloud and see Who’s in it. We resume our journey by reentering the cloud, but our freshly gained reassurance transforms it from a fearful place to an infinitely secure one. It’s unnecessary to see where we're going or what we’re doing. All we need is faith to know we're safe because He’s there.

Cloudy conditions on the Blue Ridge Parkway: God is in the cloud.

Postscript: Alone in the Presence

Rising higher in our faith can be a frightening experience—until we realize the Presence that surrounds us. “Alone in the Presence,” sung by CeCe Winans.


I'm safe and sound, serene and calm

Whenever I'm here I know You're near me

My secret place where I escape

From all of the cares of this race

Because of Your grace

Joy fills my heart

Peace rules and reigns there

Nothing but love overflows

And Your will clearly shown

When I'm alone

In the presence of You

Wisdom is served and life preserved

All from Your words that You speak, Lord

Power displayed and weakness fades

Your greatness is known and all fears erased

Because of Your grace

Joy fills my heart...

When I'm alone with You

My soul learns worship

In spirit and truth

For the glory of Your name.

Joy fills my heart...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rag Pickers

You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64.5-6)

A Trick of the Eye

There’s a big difference between being righteous and acting righteous—and it’s not hard to figure out. True righteousness defends. It sets aside personal preferences and popular opinion to uphold compassion and mercy. It places no credence in earthly approval and seeks only to please God. Thus, being righteous also means being courageous, steadfast, and humble. Feigned righteousness, on the other hand, is defined by totally opposite principles. It’s driven by a personal agenda shaped by popular ideas. Its judgments are based on favor rather than fairness. It courts approval by speaking for God, not listening to Him. Its operative elements are fear, inconsistency, and hubris. For all these reasons, feigned righteousness offends. And the most chilling irony: it offends on purpose, because acting righteous demands an audience. It must be seen and heard to achieve its desired effect.

Isaiah 64.5-6 paints a stark contrast between genuinely righteous people (“those who gladly do right, who remember your ways”) and poseurs (“we who continued to sin against them”). It also contrasts God’s response to both groups. He helps one and unleashes anger on the other. These elements are obvious. If we were to illustrate Isaiah's text visually, hang it on a gallery wall, and gaze at it, however, we’d discover a very interesting dynamic that reverses their meaning. It’s what art majors call a trompe l’oeil—a trick of the eye that simulates three-dimensional reality by deftly drawing attention past the foreground to deeper planes of vision. Isaiah positions the righteous up front and identifies them as people unjustly scorned by mainstream society. They command primary focus because they exemplify true righteousness that God honors. Further back, he depicts their adversaries as helpless, unclean rag pickers: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one unclean, and all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” The picture flips from accusing the falsely righteous to imploring the truly righteous to have mercy on their accusers. The tragic realism of the situation comes to life in all of its dimensions.

The Rag Trade

In fashion terminology “the rag trade” refers to cheaply manufactured, readily available knock-offs of designer originals, while media experts have co-opted the phrase to denote recklessly inflammatory newspapers and punditry. Both usages apply to Isaiah’s portrait, as well as to what’s happening with increasingly regularity today. The “acts of righteousness” the prophet bemoans are no different than those dominating current mainstream media. They’re cheap imitations of what God originally designed righteousness to be and they’re mass-produced for no purpose other than inciting fear and injustice. In just this last month, we’ve seen:

  • Congregations committed to social and economic justice vilified as “Nazis” and “communists”
  • A state board of education promoting radical rewrites of textbooks to reflect extreme conservative bias in the guise of a “Christian worldview”
  • A vehemently anti-GLBT state legislator exposed as a secretly gay man
  • A gay Congressman resigning office amid a mudslide of filthy rumors and accusations aimed at him and other leading political figures
  • A cable news network airing a lengthy diatribe in defense of McCarthyism
  • An allegedly Christian organization citing Mosaic law to call for stoning a captive whale that fatally wounded one of its keepers
  • A self-professed Christian governor quietly excising non-heterosexual employees from his state’s equal employment opportunity policy
  • A Ugandan pastor hosting a night of hardcore gay porn to rouse support for a proposed death penalty for certain types of homosexual offenders
  • An eminent prelate council renouncing a movement within its communion that advocates inclusive worship regardless of sexual identity.

Daily, it seems, more “righteous” pretenders leap into the rag trade. The ingenuity of their cheap imitations—their “acts of righteousness”—accounts for how quickly they trickle into hearts and minds easily seduced by irrational fears and fervor. And it’s a safe guess each of us knows someone gulled into buying and believing these rags, which raises the question: how do we respond to this and remain righteous before God? Can we happily do right and follow His ways?

Impoverished Souls

When we meet false righteousness, it’s our duty to perceive its practitioners as abjectly impoverished souls. Despite their claims, numbers, and appearance, they’re helpless, ragged people who’ve flocked to the fringes. Those of us striving to be righteous extend our compassion and mercy to them, never pausing to assess merit or seek approval. Because we adhere to God’s ways, He helps us. This is a good thing, too, since interactions with people who act righteous are often so degrading, without His help, we might let them to walk in shame, completely oblivious to their sorry condition. We might hope they get what we think they deserve. Such thinking belongs in the rag bin.

Paul nicely summarizes righteousness in action with this advice. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12.19-21) Although we know we’re not helpless outcasts in rags, being viewed as such enriches our understanding of how it feels. “Nobody should be treated so shabbily,” we say. Do we mean that? If so, we’ll make every effort to see nobody—not even our worst enemy—is.

We see those who practice intolerance and injustice in the name of righteousness as they really are—abjectly impoverished souls—and we respond to them with compassion and mercy.

Postscript: Mercy On Those—A Prayer

I’m trying something new with today’s Lenten selection. First, I’ve turned to a secular recording, “Mercy on Those,” by the incomparable Phoebe Snow. Second, I’ve chosen to post it in audio form. I invite you to pray as you listen to its sorrowful depiction of powerful people unaware of their defeat. See the many around you suffering with similar delusions, pray God’s help to show them mercy.


Sleep is a mercy to men with no feelings

To our tragic heroes, sleep is relief

The battle was won, but the war has been lost

So now take a restless bask in your greed

Have mercy on those men with no feelings

Shouting is over, the silence is louder

The once brilliant argument has lost all its edge

Here is King Pyrus alone down on Wall Street

Sexy lights up and out on the ledge

Have mercy on those men with no feelings

Mercy on those who fight 'til they're spent

So long and so hard they forgot what they meant

Have mercy on those men with no feelings

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgiveness Function

“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. (Hebrews 10.16-17)

Save and Delete

We recently had to buy a new desktop computer. After seven years of heavy use, the old one couldn’t be counted on to start, let alone run properly. The new one is a gem—so clean and sleek—and we’re hyper-conscious about not clogging it with nonsense. Meanwhile, the old machine sits to the side, waiting until I can get around to transferring the files worth keeping to the new one. A part of me wants to junk the whole thing and start over. Sorting through gigabytes of memory to see what we should save and delete involves some trepidation about what may be tucked in the nooks and crannies—nothing scandalous, mind you, but artifacts of past foolishness and neglect. Yet it must be done, since the old hard drive is also full of marvelous things that shouldn’t be discarded. Of course, this wouldn’t be such a task had we been more diligent about what we kept and tossed as we went.

I’m sure you know where this is going. Coming to Christ gives us a clean start—an opportunity to save and delete. And make no mistake: deciding what of us should be kept and discarded is a massive, often uncomfortable chore. Fickle choices and curiosities riddle us with unsavory memories. We’re pocked with guilt over broken relationships and rash decisions; we’re cluttered with petty attitudes and amusements. But once we identify them, we can prevent them from carrying over into our new life. Hanging on to past failures is like transferring corrupt files to a fresh drive. They house viruses that cause us to crash. On the other hand, there are many marvelous things in us we must retain and protect. Taking the time to ensure we hold on to the good while letting go of the bad is vital. Then, maintaining the integrity of our lives by continually removing dangerous, wasteful, and destabilizing tendencies is how we sustain optimal performance. We accomplish this by understanding the interplay between God’s mercy and our memory.

Critical Steps

It’s easiest to view forgiveness as total erasure—everything gets wiped out and we begin again. Those who embrace this idea pair Christ’s doctrine of rebirth in John 3 with Paul’s new-life statement in 2 Corinthians 5.17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The romantic appeal of the notion can’t be denied. Neither should its legitimacy be questioned. Nonetheless, it errs on efficiency’s side by gliding past three critical steps in the forgiveness function: self-evaluation, penitence, and transformation. First John 1.9 breaks down the process: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Honestly confessing our sins expects us to identify them first and decide what to delete. Since God knows what they are, we’re apt to wonder why this is even necessary. But there are many reasons for self-evaluation, with two that immediately spring to mind. First, specifying wrongs to be forgiven leads to recognizing talents to be prized and developed. It reveals what needs to be given as well as forgiven. Second, it helps us distinguish between sin and weakness. This plays into penitence. We’re sorry for submitting to weakness, not weakness itself. God in His mercy removes the failure from memory, yet in His unfailing love and wisdom, He allows us to retain the propensity to fail. And it’s here that the total erasure and reboot theory falls apart by suggesting forgiveness of sin obliterates weakness for sin. We need weakness. Without it, we’ll never experience God’s transformative power as our weakness gives way to Christ’s strength. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12.10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Forgetting Failure

Forgiveness boils down to forgetting failure in order to increase effectiveness. It’s God’s way of making room in our lives for Him by eliminating worries with past shortcomings. In his/her letter to Jewish converts, who were steeped in perpetual fear of failure, the Hebrews writer quotes Jeremiah: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Therefore, he/she says, “where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” The general thought confirms Christ’s final atonement for all sin. But there’s a second message layered into this: once our failures are forgiven and forgotten, there’s no reason for us to hold on to them. This is what Paul means by “the old has gone.” Persistently obsessing over old wrongs slows us down and distracts us from experiencing transformation. Forgiven sins can only clog our memory if we transfer them from our past lives to our new ones. We decide to remember.

The friend who installed our new computer remarked, “You’re going to love how fast and clean it works.” How right he was. Applications that stretched the old machine’s capabilities (and our patience) now fire right up. Web pages load instantly. Limitations that prevented us from enjoying everything the Internet offers are gone. The new has come. Now we’re eager to upload the good stuff from the former computer, knowing it will look even better and run more smoothly in this new environment. Our weaknesses as end-users will remain. But the new system is so much more robust they’ll be transformed by untapped abilities. As for failures that burdened the old one’s memory and impeded its operations, once they’re deleted, they’ll be forgot. That’s the way forgiveness functions.

Forgiveness begins with assessing what we should delete—and then forgetting past failures to make room for new possibilities.

Postscript: I’m Forgiven

It’s time for a little old-fashioned quartet music. There are hundreds of great songs extolling the joy and power of forgiveness, but none better captures the utter freedom and thrill of knowing what’s forgiven is forgot. It’s an infectiously, happy tune! “I’m Forgiven,” by the Gaither Vocal Band.


From the start You held a place in my heart

A place that no one else could fill

Sin kept Your Spirit from working in me

I couldn't look at life honestly

Until the day my will gave away

To the truth that I found in You

I never knew just how good it could be

To stand in Your presence, totally free

I'm forgiven

Now I have a reason for living

Jesus keeps giving and giving

Giving 'til my heart overflows

Now I can see me as a person who's free

Even when I slip and fall

"Cause He is God Who forgives and forgets

And now I want to give Him my all

I'm forgiven...

I know this love that's placed in my heart

Is a love that will never depart

Sin brought me here to the end of my rope

And now He's given me a brand new hope

I'm forgiven...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Not Ours

Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. (1 Timothy 6.6-7)

The Myth of Ownership

Great movie lines are hard to come by these days—so much so I can think of only one in the past 15 years that measures up to the old Hollywood standard. It’s from 1995’s The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The paradox lands like a ton of bricks. By morphing into an allegedly imaginary figment, the Evil One turned into a superstition not to be taken seriously. It was true genius. And though two films could hardly be more dissimilar, the Suspects line popped in my head when I recently re-watched the Frank Capra classic, You Can’t Take It With You (1938), an uproarious comedy about a family of iconoclasts who live like “lilies of the field… except we toil a little, spin a little, [and] have a barrel of fun.” They know all too well that the Devil exists and devote their time to flouting his greedy, fearful ways. The picture climaxes when the grandfather delivers a much-needed lecture to a Wall Street fat cat:

You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you’re a failure—failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, “Good riddance!” That’s a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you’ll enjoy it. I hope you’ll get some comfort out of all this coin you’ve been sweating over then!

I thought to myself, “That’s another great diabolical lie—the myth of ownership.”

Pause for a second and look around you. Linger momentarily on your most prized possessions. Here in my study, I’m surrounded by essentials and mementoes: my desk, computer, and far too many books and photographs; a straw Fedora that belonged to Walt’s dad; a painting of a lone wolf that hung in my grandparents’ den; a few awards; a pine cone from FDR’s birthplace; an armchair Walt rescued from the trash and painted bright green, covering its seat in leopard print (it’s quite lovely, actually); and, oh yes, our feline terror, Cody, presently curled up on the loveseat. Then there are the gifts: a leather-bound NIV translation of the Bible; a Lladro of the Holy Family; an antique map of Paris; a wall plaque reading, “Slow! Fairy Crossing;” a red apple paperweight. All of these things, each invaluably dear to me, and not one of them is mine. The same is true of everything you see and love around you. None of it's yours.

Getting and/or Keeping

If convincing us he doesn’t exist is the Enemy’s greatest trick, persuading us we can own anything places a close second. The myth of ownership is double-edged. First, it preys on the biological fear of danger and deprivation as well as the psychological need to prove our worth in achievements and assets. Although human acquisitiveness has never been more feverish than in today’s consumer culture, it’s always been our Achilles heel. I believe virtually every conflict that ever tormented us can be reduced to a struggle over getting and/or keeping “what’s mine.” Which leads to the ownership myth’s second deadly aspect. It reinforces the notion that holding on to whatever we’ve got is more important than giving up anything—or everything—we have.

Debunking the myth of ownership blunts both its edges. They make no sense. Since none of what I have was ever mine to begin with, the fact it’s been given to me proves I won’t be deprived of what I need. And since it’s given, I’m foolish to imagine it in any way depicts my abilities and worth. Finally, because it’s not mine, I have nothing to lose by giving it up, whether in duress, sacrificial kindness, or in obedience to God. Once we wrap our heads around the folderol of all this getting and/or keeping, we open our minds to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6.6-7: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”

Great Gain

The second verse is where “you can’t take it with you” originates. Yet without “godliness with contentment” and “we brought nothing into the world,” it’s an overly obvious cliché, part of that rueful bit about not escaping death and taxes. What Paul talks about is hardly a reason to mourn, however. Indeed, he’s teaching us how to be happy. The ownership myth is founded on the fallacy everything we pick up along the way is naturally ours due to qualities we possess—skills, fortitude, creativity, etc., on the plus side, and even negative traits like selfishness, insecurity, and dishonesty. But they're all learned behaviors we acquire in service to acquisition. While we may be born with certain capacities, we no more bring our capabilities into the world than the material things they enable us to amass. Thus, pushing ourselves to do more to have more activates a law of diminishing returns and exposes us to fear of failure. At some point, everyone’s capabilities run dry and the gravy train derails. Mistaking what we’re been given—talents or possessions—for our own is a recipe for hardship and misery.

Knowing all we have is God-given puts our lives in perspective. It seats our Maker in His rightful place, as David describes in Psalm 28.7: “The LORD is my strength and shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped..” This is the “godliness” Paul refers to—unabashed trust in God’s provision and protection. It’s contentment that brings great gain. In Philippians 4.12-13, the Apostle reveals how to be satisfied. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” What we have today wasn’t ours yesterday. It may no longer be ours tomorrow. Awareness of this is why we're happy with what we have and unworried by what we don’t. God is our Strength, our sole Source and Provider. In these closing weeks of Lent and throughout the year, it’s essential we realize our fasts and sacrifices don’t ask us to “give up” anything we have. They teach us the joy and peace we gain by giving back what’s not ours.

No matter how much or how little we possess, none of it’s actually ours.

Postscript: The Heart of Worship

We bring nothing into the world and take nothing from it because it’s not about us. Mark Redman’s “Heart of Worship.”