Friday, July 16, 2010

Flirtations and Affairs

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6.4-5)

The Way I Always Heard It Should Be

A lot of us read the phrase above and instantly heard Carly Simon’s hit. In the song, she’s considering a marriage proposal—working her way through the issues, assessing its merits based on her parents’ experience, and deciding if she’s agreeing to marry because she truly wants to or because she feels pressured to say yes. In the end, she accepts. But all of her doubts haven’t been resolved, and one gets the sense they may remain with her always. That’s the beauty of the song—its sense of stepping out on faith despite all of the visible evidence and internal questions that recommend turning down her suitor.

Our commitment to God is no less difficult. When He calls to us—declaring His undying love, and vowing to be our sole companion, provider, and protector—there’s a lot to work through. We’ve always heard it should be this way. Yet before we commit, there are issues to weigh. We’ve observed how lifelong relationships with God can flourish. We’ve also seen how often they lapse into doldrums, with one party going through the motions while the Other competes with distractions to make His love known. We’ve witnessed many who committed their lives to God, simply to conform to outside pressures. Relationships of this last kind seldom endure. At best, they devolve into a “name-only” arrangement. More likely, they end in estrangement.

We’re right to evaluate these possibilities before we accept God’s offer. We’re also wise to reckon with the reality that doubts causing us to hesitate may never be allayed. There will be days we may wish we hadn’t committed—moments when the sacrifices and confinements of monogamy will overshadow its benefits and comforts. Those days will require conscious discipline to stay true. We’ll need to fall back on faith this thing will work, because everything we see and sense will urge us to let go. In these moments of doubt we exchange “The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” for another Carly Simon song: “(Loving You Is) The Right Thing to Do.”

The One

We open Deuteronomy 6 and hear Moses declare: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (v4) As Christians burdened with our complex—some would say, problematic—Trinitarian doctrine, we’re apt to assume he’s referring to God the Parent, God the Child, and God the Spirit. But no such doctrine exists for Israel. In a culture dominated by three monotheist faiths, we’re equally prone to believe the “one God” concept is a similarly easy purchase for Israel. It is not. They’ve always heard that’s the way it should be. But they’re surrounded by a lion’s share of evidence to the contrary. They’ve witnessed lapses—flirtations and affairs with idolatry—in their ranks. They’ve opened their community to polytheist fellow travelers, whose alternative faith approaches seem to work fine for them. So Israel has doubts. Moses strives to change their tune from “The Way We Always Heard It Should Be” to “The Right Thing to Do.” That’s why he follows his declaration with this: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” (v6)

In telling Israel its God is “one,” Moses says, “He’s the One”—the Perfect Partner. He urges Israel to accept God’s proposal, because there can be no better offer. Then he urges them to commit to the relationship. “Love God with all your heart,” he says. In ancient terminology, the heart governs existence. Loving another with all your heart removes all boundaries, making the two of you inseparable. Loving someone with all one’s soul demands a bottomless emotional commitment, a passion for the other that can’t be shaken by third-party promises or seduction. That’s why a durable and fulfilling relationship with God takes all of one’s strength. Temptations to flirt with other gods, literally and figuratively, has enormous appeal. Our fascination with new ideas and experiences makes us easy prey for enticements. But when we focus our entire strength on staying faithful to God, we remain true in our hearts and souls. We can’t be dissuaded He’s the One. Our conviction that loving Him is the right thing to do will not wane, despite inner doubts and contradictory evidence.

30 Words

In two sentences—30 words—Moses explains the difference between loving God and entering a monogamous relationship with Him. It’s easy to love God, since He loves us, whether we love Him or not. But He will never have us and we will never be His until we say yes to His proposal and totally commit to our union with Him. While we weigh issues involved with committing to this relationship, we should be realistic. No offer will ever be better. He’s the One.

Ironically, awareness of God’s unconditional love often beguiles us to believe flirtations and affairs with other suitors are harmless—innocent, even. God will always forgive our silliness and welcome us home. And that’s true. When we come to our senses and run back to Him, no love will be lost between us. But what have we lost in the process? We’ve given our hearts to false notions and gods. We’ve surrendered our emotions. We’ve compromised our strength. It is we, not He, who suffer. The damage to the relationship rests with us.

When Pharisees taunted Jesus with an impossible test, asking Him to select the most important commandment, He quoted Deuteronomy 6.5, calling it “the first and great commandment.” First—the best. Great—all-encompassing. God is the One. Loving Him is the right, the only, the best thing to do.

There’s a difference between loving God and entering a monogamous relationship with Him.

Postscript: Comment Challenge

In trying to convey what Moses means by “God is [the] One,” I turned to the phrase “Perfect Partner.” Now I turn to you. What makes God your Perfect Partner? What aspects of your relationship seal your commitment? This is a chance to share in a glorious, communal God lovefest. Take a moment to share your thoughts or experiences… Thanks.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Way Over Yonder—A Personal Reflection

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15.19)

Bishop Walter Hawkins

May 18, 1949 – July 11, 2010


Last weekend started one way and ended another. Both events jettisoned me back to my teens. On Friday night, Walt and I attended Carole King and James Taylor’s “Troubadour Reunion” concert. On Sunday evening, I opened my Facebook page to see a link posted by my good friend, Calvin Bernard Rhone. It took me to a Washington Post article: Walter Hawkins dead: award-winning gospel singer was 61. Since the early 70's, if anyone asked, “Who are your greatest musical influences?” without a second’s thought, I’d reply, “Carole King and Walter Hawkins.” As a burgeoning church musician, both drew me with their keyboard and songwriting genius. I spent hours listening to their breakthrough albums, Carole’s Tapestry (1971) and Walter’s Love Alive (1975, recorded with the choir of the church he founded, Love Center), followed by countless hours at the piano, trying to replicate their sound.

With music playing such a forceful role in my life and my faith, their influence exceeded its impact on my tastes and musicianship, however. Their lyrics shared many similarities that moved me profoundly. Admittedly, Carole’s songs were secular and often directed to friends and lovers, while Walter’s spoke of or to God. Yet it’s irrefutable both came from comparable places in their hearts. For example, Carole sang:

Way over yonder is a place that I know

Where I can find shelter from the hunger and cold

And the sweet-tasting good life is so easily found

Way over yonder, that's where I'm bound

Walter’s choir sang:

If you want to know where I'm going

Where I'm going soon

If anybody asks you where I'm going

Where I'm going soon

I'm going up yonder to be with my Lord

Carole sang:

Winter, spring, summer, or fall

All you have to do is call

And I'll be there

You've got a friend

And, on Love Alive II (1978), Walter’s choir sang:

He will never forsake you

Even though He knows everything

There is to know about you

He's that kind of Friend

These were potent messages of hope for a teenager struggling to reconcile his faith and sexual orientation. Knitted together, Carole’s compassion and Walter’s confidence became the shelter in my storms—the place where I could steal away to hear angels sing hope and acceptance. It was where I heard Walter’s music say:

God has not promised me sunshine

That's not the way it's going to be

But a little rain mixed with God's sunshine

A little pain helps me appreciate the good times

Be grateful, and it will be all right

While Carole told me:

You've got to get up every morning

And show the world all the love in your heart

Then people will treat you better

You're gonna find, yes you will

That you're beautiful as you feel

The Far Shore

So I wept with joy on Friday, as Carole performed her life-giving songs, and again Sunday, on learning Walter was gone—up yonder, way over yonder. Yet in my tears, sorrow would not come. What I felt was no less than insurmountable joy. In song after song, sermon after sermon, he insisted he was bound way over yonder. I couldn’t have been happier for him. And in my happiness, I realized the depth of his impact on me. All along, he’d been my living example of 1 Corinthians 15.19: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” I understood why I felt no alarm when I heard he was battling pancreatic cancer. I knew hope for him surpassed healing and longevity. He’d lived his life looking to the far shore.

Walter Hawkins taught me—and hundreds of thousands he graced with his music—to live in hope. Through him we grasped there’s no such thing as hopelessness when we place total faith in Christ’s word: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14.1-3) Walter compelled us always to remember we’re going up yonder. Setting our sights on the far shore keeps life’s trials in perspective. Here’s how Carole framed it:

I know when I get there the first thing I'll see

Is the sun shining golden, shining right down on me

And trouble's gonna lose me, worry leave me behind

And I'll stand up proudly, in true peace of mind

When the Battle’s Over

While playing Walter’s records as a kid, I never imagined I'd personally know him. I lived in Chicago. He was in Oakland. He was world-famous. I was nobody. I moved to Los Angeles after college and a series of coincidences landed me in the heart of L.A.’s gospel community. A good friend was recording his choir’s first major album, which Walter offered to produce. We’d briefly met a few times in passing, mostly when I visited his church in Oakland. When he came to L.A. to record my friend’s album, I somehow ended up driving him around town. He talked excitedly about his upcoming project, Love Alive III, and when we happened to pass my church, West Angeles, he asked to stop so he could say hello to my pastor.

After he and Bishop Blake visited, Walter said, “Let’s go to the sanctuary. I want to play some of the new album for you.” I can’t describe the emotions rushing over me as I sat beside him, watching his hands glide over the keys, listening to songs the general public had yet to hear. I wanted to explain what this moment meant to me, yet I knew I wouldn’t do it justice. So I sat in silent awe. We’d been there a while when Walter said, “One more, then we need to go. You’re really going to like this one.” He sailed into a classic Walter Hawkins toe-tapper, “When the Battle is Over.” Here’s the second verse:

With tears streaming down, when there's no one around

And you feel like all hope is gone

Don't despair, God is right there

When the battle's over, when the battle's over

We're going home.

Walter’s passing compels me to encourage all of us to live in the bright hope of God’s promises. We will cry sometimes. At times, family and friends we look to won’t be there. We’ll feel like hope is lost. But we must never forget the hope we possess will ultimately triumph. We must always keep the far shore in sight. Way over yonder—that’s where we’re bound.

When the battle’s over, we’re going home.

"One of these mornings, it won’t be long, you’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone on home!” Bishop Walter Hawkins sings, “When the Battle is Over.” (Choir conducted by his brother, Edwin Hawkins.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 4.9)


The moment you close the window, this post becomes a thing of the past. Stepping into the present is a matter of perpetually zeroing out, leaving the prior minute go to make room for the next. Time doesn’t permit us to carry forward experience and knowledge. That’s memory’s function. In the moment, we rely on memory for insight. We consciously bring the past into the present. The Latin root of “memory”—memor—literally means “mindfulness.” To remember is to be mindful again. In contrast, to forget is derived from the Old English gietan (“to grasp”) and modified by for (“to pass by”), i.e., to let pass without grasping. Like remembering, forgetting is also a conscious act, a momentary decision to let things go. There is truth to the idea if we can’t remember it, it wasn’t important.

In the strictest sense, remembering and forgetting are not opposites, as they’re not matters of picking and choosing from the past. They’re dual functions of mindfulness, which means we sift through the present as we go. Initially, it’s instinctive. As infants, we’re unconsciously mindful that crying gets us fed or changed. But very soon, we develop conscious mindfulness driven by instincts. We choose to remember what helps and harms our chances for survival, while we let non-essential information go. We learn cooing and laughing delights the parents we depend on, while climbing out of the bassinette hurts us and scares them. We retain very few, if any, infant memories because our underdeveloped mental capacity has no space for useless information. By necessity, we forget as we go. Then, as we grow more independent, the need for mindfulness increases. We become more aware of what we should remember.

Failure to Grasp

Issues with mindfulness don’t emerge until much later, when we’d prefer to remember the good and forget the bad. But opportunity for forgetting passes with the moment. Rather than struggle in vain to undo the past, perhaps we should consider why we were mindful to retain certain experiences and not others. The answer may be simpler than we think. We were mindful in the moment to enable us to be mindful again. Still, we ask, why would we elect to remember hurtful, even harrowing events? I believe the answer is two-fold: to overcome them by becoming mindful they are things of the past, as well as remaining mindful we’re no less capable of inflicting harm on others than those who harmed us. Bad memories come to mind to awaken awareness of health and security at present—or to quicken awareness of dangerous threats to our wellbeing we’ve yet to disarm. Mindfulness prompts us to say, “I know better now.”

This is the nub of Deuteronomy 4.9: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.” Moses has spent the previous three chapters meticulously recounting Israel’s history under his leadership. Since his goal is inspiring them to go forward in his absence, he’s mindful to emphasize positive moments in the past. But he doesn’t shrink from discussing truly terrible ones—including the most harrowing of his own life, when a careless act nullified his possibility of living to see Israel take possession of Canaan. By human measure, the penalty seems too severe. Israel was thirsty. God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would pour forth. Instead, he struck the rock. It was a mindless act indicating Moses hadn’t been mindful of God’s power in the past. Acting on his own proved his failure to grasp the meaning in previous moments, when God provided for Israel. Moses’s mindlessness made very real the potential it might be said he, not God, led Israel into Canaan. He had to be absent to prevent this.

Leaving the Moment

When we read Deuteronomy 4.9, it’s vital to realize Moses isn’t simply telling Israel to recall God’s past goodness and judgment. He’s also urging them to remain mindful in the present. “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely,” he stresses. Living in the moment—a philosophy whose soundness can’t be overstated—goes beyond what we do and think in that instant. It also encompasses what we choose to retain or pass by when leaving the moment. Mindfulness is how we see what’s important now so we’ll understand future situations better. It’s what enables us to forgive and forget—to focus on mercy’s power without pausing to grasp sin’s pain. It’s what discerns between giving and lending, offering our best without expectation of repayment or reward. It’s what brings us ever closer to holiness, to the know God of the present as the God of the future—and the God of the past. The more mindful we are in the moment, the more quickly we’ll disable terrors of the past by recognizing the good we intended to grasp from them. Instead of recalling they diminished or nearly destroyed us, we’ll see them as moments we refused to be diminished or destroyed. That’s what we should be mindful of. That’s really what we kept when we left the moment. We need always to remember that.

Moses teaches us knowing why we remember is no less important than what we remember. In retrospect, we wish we didn’t remember many things, losing sight that we had sound reasons why we did. Mindfulness steers us from becoming prisoners of our past by alerting us to how it informs our present. What we recall while living in the moment determines how we leave it. Past good we remember spurs us on to greater good. The bad we chose not to forget strengthens us to withstand current harm. Understanding why we remember certain moments certain ways teaches us how to be more careful with this one.

When living in the moment, it’s essential to be mindful of how we leave it. Understanding why we remember is no less important than what we remember.