Friday, April 30, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

You did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to your joy? ... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Galatians 4.14-16)

The Mysterious Thorn

Overall, Paul’s an up-front, no-holds-barred kind of guy. When he finds restraint useful, he typically says why that’s best. For instance, near the end of his second letter to Corinth, he explains, “This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not tearing you down.” (2 Corinthians 13.9-10) In other words, “Better we hash this out on paper now than get into arguments when we’re together.” The only subject Paul shows any reticence in writing about frankly is his mysterious “thorn,” a personal issue he refers to in 2 Corinthians 12 and Galatians 4. It’s fairly safe to say reliable knowledge of what troubled Paul so much died with the last individual who knew him personally.

Thus, we have centuries of scholarly theories, none more plausible than the next. The second-century writer Tertullian is convinced Paul’s vexed by chronic ear infections, which helps explain his mercurial personality. But others propose sexual desire, stuttering, malarial fever, and acute eye inflammation. The last supposition assumes Paul’s condition is secondary to his blinding conversion, a notion supported by a reference to his eyes in Galatians 4 (see below). In any case, accepting we’ll never conclusively identify Paul’s problem doesn’t impede our learning from how he deals with it.

Additional Findings

The famous 2 Corinthians passage is Paul’s primer on the matter. He says his thorn is given to keep him humble, which would set off intense conflicts in anyone of his talents and drive. But Paul also copes with daunting insecurities due to his circumstances. He’s a latecomer to this movement, a man who’s burdened by a notorious past that casts shade on his motives and sincerity. More than that, he’s called to bring Gentiles into the faith—a mission many Jewish believers oppose. So Paul’s past, his role in the Church, and innumerable obstacles concomitant with his purpose already humble him. The added struggle amounts to more than he can bear. Three times, he begs God to remove it. God refuses, assuring Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) When Paul accepts his thorn isn’t going away, he changes his attitude. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses,” he writes in verse 10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This mindset is the key lesson we derive from Paul’s condition. Disadvantages that might cripple our self-image and effectiveness become assets when we place our trust in God’s grace.

In Galatians 4 we uncover additional findings. Galatian believers have retrenched into religious traditions and verge on losing their faith. In verse 9 Paul asks, “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” He reminds his readers: “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you” (v13), alluding to his problem. This tells us Paul’s discretion on the page does not imply any shame about his thorn. He’s very open about it and uses it to witness God’s grace. But it’s also apparent his thorn stigmatizes him in some way. He writes, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” (v14) Now, in the wake of regressive influences, the Galatians withdraw their welcome because of the very thing they once tolerated gladly. In verses 15 and 16, we hear his sorrow: “What has happened to your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

Burying Our Thorns

What weighs on Paul is worse than rejection. He’s wounded to know had he concealed his thorn (assuming it was possible), estrangement from the Galatians wouldn’t have happened. He’s penalized for his honesty! It angers and confuses him that formerly tolerant believers can’t discern they’ve been manipulated. He understands his freedom from shame and confidence in grace are no threat to the Galatians. But they most certainly intimidate those who oppose him. “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good,” he insists. “What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.” (v17) Before he debunks their heresy, he adds, “I am perplexed about you!” (v20) Nothing would please me more than asserting Paul’s frustration is an anomaly, a convergence of social and religious prejudice never again seen in Christian circles. But to this day, believers and faith communities adopt “don’t tell, don’t ask” positions at the urging of obstructionist dogma that neutralizes their duty to welcome the stranger, accept the outcast, embrace the weak (and their weaknesses), abhor rejection—in short, to love others as themselves.

Advocates of exclusion amass power through fear. “Believe what we say,” they threaten, “or there’ll be Hell to pay!” And sadly, many of us with thorns as inescapable as Paul’s submit. We lack the Apostle's confidence in grace. To keep our predicaments from coming to light, we conform to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Most definitely, this is the easier way to go. But is it right? Paul would say, “Definitely not!” Burying our thorns hides God’s grace. Not only that, it offers no hope to believers who’ve lost their joy to hateful teaching. Later, Paul challenges those who’ve fallen for erroneous ideology: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5.7) His question revokes “don’t ask, don’t tell” by exposing how it nurtures deception and disobeys truth. We delight in our weaknesses so God’s power may be revealed in us, for our sake as well as others’. It secures our confidence and restores the joy false teachers have stolen from gullible believers. That’s why, when asked, we must tell.

Although we're encouraged to keep silent about our thorns, duty to God, others, and us demands open honesty.

Postscript: The "Drew Marshall" Interview

Audio of my interview on last Saturday's "The Drew Marshall Show" is now available at the program's Website. It was most stimulating. The conversation covered a broad range of topics, from my personal faith experience to marital equality. Whether or not this indicates anything, it ran past its original 35-minute time slot by nearly 10 minutes. Please take the time to give it a listen. It is most definitely a product of our shared journey. I pray God uses it for His honor and glory, just as I pray you'll find it useful in some way and worthy of sharing with others.

Finally, if any good comes of it, none of it would be possible without your loving support and effective prayers. I owe all of you an immeasurable debt of gratitude, and truly thank God for all He's doing in and through you. The praise is His, but the reward is yours!

"The Drew Marshall Show" - April 24, 2010

The interview is listed under the "Journey" segment. I'll be most interested to hear your thoughts. And, once again, thank you!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Starting Over

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (John 21.17)

The Specter

After the interim between Christ’s execution and resurrection, the disciples are ecstatic to resume a semblance of normal life. Their Master’s presence restores their confidence to reenter the world. There are a few changes. Judas is gone. Women take more active roles in what is unmistakably a new paradigm. And Jesus most assuredly isn’t the same. He comes and goes at will. He alters His appearance from time to time. His flesh is real, yet He’s supernatural. This final change is very welcome. Since many see Jesus and several touch His transformed body, no way can His resurrection be discounted as a spectral visitation. This is by design. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have,” Jesus reminds the disciples. (Luke 24.39)

Pensiveness and despair that overshadowed the disciples dissipate from everyone’s heart. Except for Peter. His friends sense something happened during their recent ordeal that Peter won’t disclose. They’re correct, of course. While they took cover on the night of Jesus’s arrest, Peter followed Him, doing his best to keep tabs on Christ without being detected. His strategy backfired. He was recognized three times, and he denied knowing Jesus every time. Peter’s haunted by the specter of his faithlessness. Since he and Jesus keep no secrets from one another, Peter knows they’ll need to sort things out.

The Breakfast Interview

Peter’s obviously distracted. He feels certain he’s shattered Christ’s faith in him and assumes their friendship is over. When Jesus appears to the disciples after He’s risen, Peter’s mistake goes unmentioned. This makes him jumpy. Not long after that, he’s sitting around with a few disciples and out of the blue he says, “I’m going fishing.” (John 21.3) Yet out on the water he forgets everything about his trade. They fish all night and catch nothing. The next morning, a Stranger turns up on the shore and tells them to hang their nets off the right side of the boat. They catch 153 large fish. The miracle prompts John to tell Peter, “It’s the Lord!” Hearing this, Peter does the nuttiest thing we see from him, period. Having stripped down to fish, he now puts his clothes back on, jumps in the water, and wades to shore! He wants to reach to his Friend right away. Once the others secure the boat, Jesus tells them to bring some fish over to a fire He’s built. “Let’s have breakfast,” He says.

Here’s the thing. There are already a few fish and some bread baking on the fire—just not enough to go around. Could this mean Jesus comes to the shore intending to talk with Peter? It appears so, since the breakfast interview that follows involves no one but them. After they eat, Jesus turns to Peter and calls him by his birth and family names: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” He asks. Peter answers, “Lord, You know I love You.” Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” (v15) Jesus repeats the question; Peter repeats his answer; and Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.” (v16) Tendering the question a second time suggests Jesus wants to confirm Peter’s clear about what’s being asked of him. (In light of Peter’s erratic behavior, He might as well say, “Focus!”) But Jesus asks the question again, and this third round hurts Peter to the quick. “Lord you know everything,” he responds. “You know I love you.” And that’s the confession that reinstates Peter: “You know everything, even my failure and confusion and fear—the whole toxic cocktail that left me in a stupor of denial.”

Lives of Rhymes

In a saga overrun with problematic people, I find Peter to be the Gospels' most frustrating character. He’s willful one minute, wobbly the next, extremely perceptive here, thick as a brick there, an invaluable asset in one situation and a major liability in another. Yet I also find Peter’s singular beauty entrancing. His is a life of rhymes meted out with geometric precision. Jesus calls him from professional fishing to become a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4.19) Then once the time comes to reel the disciples in, he tries to catch fish. He’s the first human to confess Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16.16) Then when Jesus is falsely arrested for claiming He’s Christ, Peter denies any knowledge of Him. On that fateful night, Peter trails Jesus at a distance. (Matthew 26.58) Then on this glorious morning, he goes overboard to be near Him. Peter’s disavowal occurs three times around an unfriendly fire; he reasserts his love for Jesus three times around hospitable embers. He starts as Simon, is renamed Peter, reverts to Simon, and finally regains the right to be called “Peter.” That’s the rhyme scheme of his life: B-A-B-A. And I find this maddening pattern breathtaking in how perfectly it overlays our scheme.

We too live lives of rhymes meted out with geometric precision—starts and stops, progress and setbacks, confessions and denials, stupid nights and brilliant mornings. Through all of our ups and downs, however, the theme that holds Peter’s life together lends unity to ours. We love the Lord. It’s the constant that ultimately defeats our inconsistency. Jesus knows we love Him, too. Yet He often draws us to His fire, where He feeds us and then asks us to confess our love for Him. His question cuts us to the quick until our answer changes from “You know I love you” to “You know everything.” When we reach that place, we grasp salvation and reconciliation depend on second chances. That’s what redemption means: reclaiming what’s lost—starting over. We find grace and forgiveness in the rhymes of our lives, where Christ’s strength answers our frailty, His truth undoes our denial, and His relentless love eclipses our self-recrimination. “Do you love Me?” He asks, pushing us to the point where starting over begins.

A fresh start is always in order. The need to renew our love for Christ is always an opportunity to strengthen our faith.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Living Hope

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. (1 Peter 1.3-4)

Keep Hope Alive

Reverend Jesse Jackson and I go back a ways—not as personal friends, but as fellow travelers in the gospel corridors of Chicago’s South Side. I was fortunate to discover this amazing universe not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when African-American leaders and pastors scrambled to fill the vacuum he left. Rev. Jackson was the obvious heir apparent. His national profile was high, though not nearly as intense as it was locally. Passion and florid rhetoric had been his stock in trade from the start, as he ventured from the Chicago Theological Seminary to make his way through pulpits around town. While the public knew him as a civil rights activist and orator, we relished his prodigy as a preacher. Few equaled his depth and agility. He rarely spoke from prepared text. Even when he did, as his topic coalesced and the congregation’s response escalated, he usually left the page so the sermon could lead him. That’s when his gifts were most wondrous, for he seemed to pluck perfect verses out of thin air: a spot of Job followed by something from Paul matched with an ingot from Isaiah topped off with a bit of Mark.

Having witnessed this so often, to this day, listening to Rev. Jackson’s speeches and comments, I see his mind flash on this and that scripture, which he molds into secular syntax. This is certainly true with his trademark phrase, “Keep Hope Alive!” The evocation of Dr. King’s legacy is apparent to every listener. But those of us who know Rev. Jackson's dexterity with Scripture place its origins further back than the Civil Rights Movement. We hear 1 Peter 1.3-4 and its celebration of renewal and inheritance made possible by divine mercy. “Keep Hope Alive!” transcends Dr. King’s dream. It’s a cry for certainty, immutable trust that hope will be rewarded and justice will prevail.

A Life of Its Own

This “hope” business can be tricky, though. Without a fixed objective—a thing hoped for—it can easily get away from us, like a lovely kite that breaks free of its tether. And that’s typically how we lose hope. Rough winds and invisible currents snatch it out of our hands, leaving us with only the slender thread that connected it to us; we watch helplessly as it flies into the clouds, assuming a life of its own. Yet that’s Peter’s point when he writes, “[God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Hope has a life of its own. It’s a force that won’t be tethered to one outcome, or predictably respond to strings we attach to it.

A swift lope through the Old and New Testaments suggests our modern concept of hope as a thing we can have and cling to actually reverts to pre-Christian thinking. In hope-heavy books like Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, it’s generally referred to “my hope.” But the apostles write of hope in a much larger sense. Basically, hope has us. It’s very close to an entity we plunge into, a medium that surrounds and infiltrates our lives. This is what Peter means by “new birth into a living hope.” First-century believers closely associated hope with the imminent return of Christ. Yet their perspective on the Second Coming differed in many ways from ours. They preferred the term “parousia,” which literally means “transcending substance” or “divine presence.” Thus, parousia amounted to reunion with the Risen Redeemer and they firmly expected it would happen soon.

So great was this hope it encompassed every aspect of life to become something far more essential than a commonly held desire. It defined the Church’s mindset and behavior in every respect, as believers practiced hope in preparation for parousia. Thus, we hear Paul say “we rejoice in hope” (Romans 5.2) and the Hebrews writer refer to hope as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (6.19) and Peter admonish us to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1.13) We’re instructed to abide in hope, to allow it to breathe and move through us. To keep hope alive and in operation as the precursor to parousia. To govern our lives as though the Risen Christ were present now in anticipation of His presence to come. This sensibility forcefully emerges with the incomparably brilliant explanation of faith in Hebrews 11.1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

More Than a Feeling

Hope is more than a feeling of optimism we harbor about possibilities. It’s our guiding principle, and since I’ve already invoked one 70’s single, I’ll add another that captures the nature of hope. It’s a living thing. And we live in hope exactly as fish live in water. Its certainty surrounds us, supports us, propels us, nurtures us, and sustains us. We keep hope alive because hope keeps us alive. It’s a powerful, interdependent relationship that must be protected so both can thrive. Doubt, logic, and fear poison hope. Consequently, they poison us. They steal our breath, weaken our systems, and cripple our will to live in hope. When we entertain unhealthy opinions and indulge in harmful behaviors, their pollutants destroy hope.

Hebrews 6.11-12 urges us to maintain “diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” Again, there’s the same connection Peter makes by connecting living hope to “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” On the heels of last week’s Earth Day observances and the resurgence of ecological values, we should remind ourselves that our spiritual health, survival, and inheritance are predicated by healthy hope the same way the prospects of marine life rely on healthy seas. We have been born into a living hope. But if we don’t keep hope alive, we’ll be washed up on shore, saturated with poisons, lifeless, and without our rightful inheritance.

We plunge into hope. It encompasses and moves through us, much like the sea surrounds and filters through fish. We keep hope alive because it keeps us alive.

Postscript: Impossible to Resist

It’s a living thing… I’m taking a dive! (And anyone who says "Don't you do it!” simply doesn't know what he's talking about.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

With Heartfelt Thanks

For keeping my interview on yesterday's "Drew Marshall Show" in your thoughts and prayers. The experience was truly exciting, unforgettably so. Both Drew and his co-host, Tim, couldn't have been more gracious and forthcoming. And the responses I've received thus far have been uniformly positive. None of this would have been possible without your constant kindness and support. You are great blessing to me and everyone who finds this place.

Now we join hands and hearts, praying any seeds of hope and reconciliation planted by the program will grow and reproduce. Our God is truly a great God, an Opener of doors that no one can close, a Rewarder of those who seek Him!

As soon as the audio archive of Drew's discussion with me is posted, I'll be swift to pass it along. Thank you again. May God reward you richly.