Saturday, May 8, 2010

Praise Looks Good on You

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61.1, 3)

Bounce Back

So, after eight seasons of stalwart resistance, I succumbed to “American Idol” contagion. I’ve got it bad, too. Unlike the raft of knock-offs that leave me cold, it’s the real deal. The contestants are wildly talented and sincere. There’s no fake backstage drama to goose our interest; it all hinges on weekly performances in which a poor song choice or sour arrangement can be the decisive factor. In the prelims, the losses aren’t so painful, because the emotions are disbursed across several contestants. When the field narrows to 12 finalists, however, with one sent home each week, the losses really hurt. Now here’s the worst of it: when the elimination is revealed, the loser watches a recap of his/her “Idol” experience (scored with Will Young’s “Leave Right Now,” no less) before taking the show off the air with one final performance.

What troupers these kids are! Their dream is shattered. They’ve literally watched their professional lives (thus far) flash before their eyes. Devastated fans, friends, and family weep for them. Then, with the conductor’s downbeat, they bounce back, giving their swansong everything they’ve got. Just that fast, they shed their grief and don the demeanor of seasoned pros. It’s downright uncanny. At first, I was appalled the show’s producers would ask this of them. But I eventually caught on why it was the kindest, wisest thing to do. Sending losers home on a wave of sympathetic applause would only magnify their sorrow. This last lesson teaches them why it’s so important to reach for joy in times of despair. Having got this far, their future success is assured. Yet if they don’t discover their power to summon joy out of despair, they’re doomed. That got me thinking about us, and how we so often accept defeat and abide dismay when the power to summon joy resides within us. And before we start making excuses why we don’t tap into our power to bounce back let’s underscore one fact that nullifies every excuse in the book. Joy is not a trait we possess or a disposition we develop. It’s a gift we receive. Dozens of times the Bible explicitly says Jesus came to give us joy.


In Luke 4 we read of Jesus’s first sermon in His hometown, Nazareth. He opens the Scripture to Isaiah 61, reads it, and resumes His seat. Luke only excerpts the first verse and half of the second: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” It ends there because Christ’s proclaiming a new era of divine grace is a thumping Messianic claim. (It also explains why His friends and neighbors become so outraged they run Him out of town.) But the quote captures less than half of a very long sentence. The larger portion announces Christ’s mission “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Without this segment, the prophecy is incomplete.

When we examine the full text, we’re intrigued by how cleverly it balances its declaration of liberty with its endowment of joy. The “good news” announces freedom from internal heartbreak, captivity, and darkness, while “comfort to all” expunges external expressions of grief: ashes, mourning, and despair. It’s abundantly clear Christ’s transformative power goes further than freeing us from turmoil, compulsions, and doubt. It includes redressing our affect, how we convey profound changes in our hearts, minds, and spirits. Ancient Jews responded to devastating events by stripping away all adornments in exchange for scratchy burlap tunics. In public repentance for sins that caused their misfortunes, they sank into a mound of ashes and didn’t budge. The longer they sat, the filthier and more miserable they looked. Isaiah’s prophecy foretells the end of this custom and Jesus’s Nazareth sermon confirms it. He came to crown us with beauty, anoint us with gladness, and clothe us in praise. In short, He came to give us joy.

Open the Closet

Times of despair still send many of us scrambling for sackcloth and ashes. When our dreams shatter, our lives flash before our eyes, and friends and families weep for our woes, our first impulse is to sink into angst and self-recrimination. Instead of bouncing back, we put everything on hold while we grow more miserable by the minute in hopes a wave of sympathy will hoist us to our feet. This is remedial behavior, unworthy of anyone who’s experienced the transformative power of Christ, who knows He’s a Healer of broken hearts, a Liberator of captive minds, and an Illuminator of darkened spirits. Instead of outing ourselves as failures and dwelling on our mistakes, we open the closet and reach for His crown of beauty, His oil of gladness, and His garment of praise. This is precisely what the author of Psalm 42 does. He writes: “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) He won’t wait until his inner turmoil ceases before offering praise. He opens the closet and puts on his garment of praise. Wearing his joy brings him joy.

No matter how dreary the situation gets and how you’re tempted to sink into despair, always remember praise looks good on you. It lifts you out of the ashes. Once you’re wrapped in praise, you can’t help accessorizing it with crowning beauty and fragrant gladness. Praise feels good—much better than the scratchy burlap woven from despondency and self-condemnation. Finally, when you’re clothed in praise, you’re covered in God’s goodness and love, mercy and protection. You see yourself as you really are—in Him. And once you recognize that, you find praise not only looks good on you. It’s good for you.

When we’re in despair, we reach for the garment of praise. Praise not only looks good on us. It’s good for us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Loving You

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And this is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3.1)

Not Easy for Mortals

A quarter-century hasn’t diminished the tingles set off by the late Minnie Riperton’s classic, “Lovin’ You”. Before she stakes full ownership of the ballad with her incomparable portamento off high F#—which renders the visceral sensation of falling in love unlike any song I know—her besotted opening line still gives me the shivers: “Lovin’ you is easy ‘cause you’re beautiful.” With most love songs, it’s assumed “you” means “the beloved.” But Riperton’s delivery is so direct the pretense vanishes. We are “you.” Her unabashed declaration of love is a bit off-putting at first. We know loving us isn’t easy. We’re not as beautiful as she says. Yet she persists. The candor of her lyrics and the daydreams in her “la-la-la-la-la’s” exploding in those enraptured plummets persuade us we are beautiful. Riperton’s angelic persona assures us love that’s not easy for mortals somehow comes easily to her. She finds beauty in us that others, even we, don’t see. She loves us because she can. By the song’s end, the dissonance between what she says of us and how we see ourselves no longer exists. The shivers are gone as we bask in love’s warm light.

Granted, the sensual overtones in Riperton’s recording make it an imperfect comparison to God’s love. Yet my response to it (which may be unique; you may consider it just another love song) equates with how I perceive God’s love. Everything I read in Scripture and have personally experienced convinces me it’s bold, direct, and intuitive, completely uncompromised by mortal standards and inhibitions. His love goes beyond what’s “not easy.” It achieves the impossible. It transcends discerning our hidden beauty by embracing ugliness we’d prefer to conceal. No rational logic can explain this, which actually simplifies things so we can accept it without cognitively understanding it. God loves us because He can. Why He loves us will forever be a mystery. Science may slowly unravel our “modern” cosmology by pinning natural causes and effects on phenomena we attribute to the divine. But when all is said and done, God’s love will inexplicably persist. In Jeremiah 31.3, He declares, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” God’s love is. And the most mysterious aspect of His love is that we somehow know it is without knowing why or how it is. God loves us.

The Enigma

The enigma of God’s love supersedes mere inability to explain it. The mystery spills over into how it’s conveyed to us. Its knowledge is transmitted via our lack of knowledge, its fullness revealed in our deficits. Paul captures these contradictions in Ephesians 3.17-19: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Grasping the reality of God’s love comes by realizing it exceeds our grasp. Its substance resides in its ephemeral nature. Its foundation is laid in abstraction. Hence, our assurance we are loved is rooted in ineffable, instinctive awareness of God and His love.

The deeper we’re pulled into the eddy of God’s love, the more perplexed we become. Our senses sharpen to its power and presence, yet our minds wonder why, of all things, God chose to withhold from us the faculties to verify His love and existence. Why are the very things we should know without a scintilla of doubt impossible to prove? Doesn’t that prove God does not love us? Is that not the epitome of cruelty—hatred even? First John 3.1 answers these questions with breathtaking clarity: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And this is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Once we yield our nervous curiosity to the calm assurance of God’s love, nothing—no one, no theory, no “evidence”—can shake our faith in it. John says anyone who contests our belief God loves us is simply misinformed. They don’t know us because they don’t know God.

We Know Better

We respect others’ right to their opinions. For all they know, God doesn’t exist. Or He’s not a god of love. Or He loves some and not others. Or He loves men more than women. Or He favors one race over another. Or He finds lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual people unlovable. Or He cares about Christians, but not Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists. For all they know, any or all of the above is true. But we know better. Why? God lavished His love on us, extinguishing every doubt we are His. We can’t prove why and how we know it’s true. Yet there’s special grace in our inability to rationally explain God’s love and acceptance. Being unable to articulate it disqualifies us from debating it. God loves us. We belong to Him. No question about it.

I pray all of us, from the most seasoned to the newest believer, from the most mainstream Christians to those shoved to the farthest fringes, will never doubt God’s love. No, loving us isn’t always easy, because we’re not always beautiful. We know that. But we can’t ever forget God’s love defies everything we know. Romans 5.8 tells us, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners—while we part of that “for all they know” crowd, before we knew God’s love existed—He loved us. Now that we know better, why ever would we doubt it or allow uninformed opinions to shake our confidence in what we know? God loves us. God loves you.

We don’t understand it, can’t explain it, will never be able to explain it. But we know it’s true—God loves us.

Postscript: No Greater Love

If “Lovin’ You” reflects love’s power to look beyond our ugliness because it can, this song mirrors our astonishment at God’s persistent love: “Your love is forever.” Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ perform “No Greater Love”.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Quiet Lives

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4.11-12)


Remember Ann Landers? She and her twin, Abigail “Dear Abby” Van Buren, were two Iowa farm girls who came to Chicago with cases full of common sense. They set themselves up as advice columnists at opposing newspapers and over the course of several decades pretty much dictated American mores. Ann was by far the franker of the two, which accounted for her edge over Abby as the nation’s most trusted sage. While not unsympathetic to her readers, she could be counted on for cut-to-the-chase advice friends and family tactfully withheld. She typically told readers who sent in complaints about feeling ignored or overwhelmed to “buck up.” People who wanted to blame others for their trials were advised to take responsibility—“get over it or get out of it.” And those who asked what they should do about friends whose situations needed fixing were usually told “MYOB.” Mind your own business.

As a kid steeped in his parents’ ministry of intervention, Ann’s “MYOB” response often struck me as uncaring and, well, unchristian. We were raised to assume the welfare of any and everyone was our business. When people asked for help, no sacrifice or effort was too great. Our home was a food pantry, a halfway house, a rehab center, a homeless shelter, an orphanage, and so on—usually all of the above—which meant a certain degree of chaos ruled the day within its walls. Yet as I grew older, I came to appreciate how diligently my folks guarded against imposing their calling on our community. While neighbors knew of their ministry, to all outside appearances my parents led quiet lives. It was understood their work resulted from the compassion through which they expressed their faith. Helping people was their business, and their vigilant mindfulness of that earned the confidence and respect of all who knew them. But Mom and Dad did their best to see their efforts didn’t make them notable or, worse yet, nuisances. Looking back, I'm sure those living around us understood that as well, which had much to do with the respect afforded my parents. (By the way, even though technically retired, they’re still “in business,” and neighbors in their Florida community admire them the same as those I grew up with did.)

Calling Attention

When we read 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12 and hear Paul’s admonition “to mind your own business and to work with your hands,” we sense he’s doubling up—pairing Ann Landers’ MYOB with instruction to fulfill our callings in Christ. Our duty to care and intervene doesn’t include meddling or faux concern that licenses us to discuss those we help. This corresponds exactly with James 1.26-27: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We make it our business to help others while minding our business to avoid losing respect. We lead quiet lives.

If we’re effective, our work will gain attention. Jesus tells us this in Matthew 5.16: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Notice the dynamic: our deeds glorify God, not us. Calling attention to our work wins us praise that belongs to Him. We do His bidding for His pleasure, which is why Jesus also says, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4) When we put this together, it’s very clear. Our attention focuses on God’s intention to use us as His emissaries to attend to others’ needs. Seeking recognition defeats His purpose. Everything we’re taught contradicts the idea that “creating buzz” benefits anyone, including those we help, God, or us. This gets harder in a culture saturated with hype as causes compete for scarce resources. Still, the principle holds and must be heeded.

The Need to Feel Needed

It’s instructive, I think, always to examine our motives before we extend our help—not because they’re questionable, but to ensure they’re properly aligned with Scripture. It’s very easy to place ourselves in positions where what we do meets the need to feel needed. And, like it or not, that need is universal because when it’s met it compensates for other deficits, such as feelings of powerlessness, insignificance, and incapability. Relying on concern for others as our means of caring for ourselves is a dangerous gambit that promotes self-pride and fuels expectations we’ll gain respect and gratitude for our deeds. Quite often we will. Yet if that’s why we plunge into our work, that defines our reward. It reduces giving into a contractual, quid pro quo arrangement that may or may not be honored. On the other hand, giving without expectation or regard for our own needs adheres to the Biblical concept of quiet living, which promises we’ll win the respect of outsiders who observe our efforts on their own. Staying out of the spotlight allows God's light to shine through us.

More than that, Paul writes honoring these basic principles ends without our being “dependent on anybody.” We were to dredge up those old Ann Landers letters from people “wanting to help,” we’d notice hints of individuals defined by dependency on others. Implicit in their questions would be the need to feel needed, to win favor or appear wise or prove useful. Many of us—particularly we who are traditionally marginalized by faith communities—often succumb to this idea in hopes of validating our faith, sometimes even hoping to debunk myths about “people like us.” All this proves, however, is our desire to be defined by how others view us. We’re better than that. We know who we are because we know Who our Maker is. It is He Whom we seek to please. So we live quietly, doing the work of our hands, and trusting Him for our reward. This wins us respect and frees us from depending on anyone other than Him.

We lead quiet lives out of the spotlight so God's light can shine through us.

Postscript: Hushed Responsiveness

I'd already roughed out this post when I received a message from a longtime Straight-Friendly reader and my cherished brother, Maithri Goonetilleke. Many of you already know him, but for those who don't, Maithri is an Australian physician who spends part of each year working with AIDS victims and their families in Swaziland. In some villages there, he says, you find more coffin-makers than grocers. He's soon to return to Africa and resume his ministry there.

I urge all of us to take a moment to watch his video appeal below and, if so moved, support his work via his foundation, Possible Dreams International. Our hushed responsiveness is in perfect keeping with Maithri's mission and character. (His personal blog, The Soaring Impulse, calls reader comments "whispers of hope.") You can whisper hope to those he helps by clicking on the foundation's "Be Part of the Dream" page.