Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Faithful Servant

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. (Isaiah 42.2-4)

Premature Battle Fatigue

Much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing an unusually hot and savage summer. Regions that need no more rain—like Iowa, Northern China, and Pakistan—have been deluged, while Russia crackles and burns. Here in the States, we’re in the early throes of what’s already an unusually hot and savage Congressional electoral campaign. (We hold biannual elections because we’re masochists.) The hot weather combined with the overheated rhetoric makes both doubly exhausting. The hopes that ushered in the current Administration vaporized long ago, almost immediately, in fact, when the opposition made it very clear every debate would be hobbled by political ideology, not guided by civic principles. Life here has become a “Road Runner” cartoon. While one side wants progress, the other hatches schemes to foil it. Objective viewers chuckle at how often the strategy blows up. But the opposition’s genius surfaces in how cleverly it’s bleached reason from the landscape. Somehow it’s convinced a large sector of the population the Road Runner is the villain and Wile E. Coyote is the hero.

At four months short of the Administration’s midpoint, many of us are dealing with premature battle fatigue. Nerves are frayed, hopes battered, and friendships bruised. Why must everything that’s said or decided be a polarizing issue? When did middle ground turn into a sinkhole? For American believers who watched as their nation steamrollered clear-cut Biblical standards of justice, compassion, and peace, the strain feels all the greater. The call for a return to godly principles might be answered if it could be heard. But the din of greed, prejudice, and conscious disregard for the least among us has become our national anthem—often sung around the flagpole of religion. This isn’t the American way. It surely isn’t Christ’s way. And we who disagree with it must take care not to abandon our ideals in hopes of protecting them. This fight that feels bigger than we is actually beneath us. Those who contradict God’s Word while claiming to honor it cannot stand. They will fall—sooner than many expect, because they’re not as safe and secure as most seem to think. The current model for sociopolitical engagement is founded on bad faith, suspicion, and bravado. (That’s why it’s beneath us.) The model we’re to follow is Isaiah 42’s portrait of the faithful servant.

An “Inside Voice”

We’re conditioned to read Isaiah as The Treasure Chest of Messianic Promises. And that it is. No prophecy approaches its eloquence and accuracy. Yet we minimize its worth by not recalling its impetus. Isaiah spoke to a people consumed with religious pride and mischief. Their haughty presumption that God’s favor was a right instead of a gift gave birth to a reckless sense of entitlement. They flocked to the Temple, where they put on an impressive show of piety that fooled everyone but God and His prophet. The prophecy begins with scalding condemnation of Israel’s self-deception. In making a spectacle of itself, it neglected the disadvantaged and disenfranchised within its borders. This puts a vastly different spin on the lyrical passages we trot out during Advent and Holy Week. The Promised One is coming not to rout Israel’s tormenters and establish a Hebrew empire. He’ll be sent to correct its faults and remediate its deficiencies. Since Israel has a real knack for confusing politics with priorities, Isaiah 42 says the Messiah will subvert every human method and impulse.

He’ll assume a lesser—some might even say passive—role that underscores His reliance on God. Verse 1 reads: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” The Spirit will endow Him with an “inside voice” in every sense. He will be internally driven to rise above external influences and threats. But He’ll also master the carnal impulse to drown out His opponents and prove His superiority in the public square. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets,” verse 2 declares. Yes, He will speak against Israel’s folly; that’s His charge. But it’s unnecessary for Him to engage in their folly in order to defeat it.

He will be a gentle Savior, a caring King, and a just Ruler Who cherishes the wounded and perishing among His people. I love how Isaiah captures this: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (v3) No one will be unworthy of His love and protection. Surely this will fan outrage in Israel’s classist society by putting an end to privilege and transference of power. They’ll dig in their heels, question His authority, and mock His methods. But they’ll make a fatal mistake by misjudging His quiet nature as weakness of character. Not sacrificing His integrity to their game will give Him stamina to defeat their ploys by outlasting them. “In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on the earth,” Isaiah writes. (v3-4) This Faithful Servant won’t be concerned with winning the day. He’s coming to establish justice. He’s in it for the long haul. He is our model.

At the Proper Time

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up,” Galatians 6.9 instructs. Our work is not in the streets, trying to shout down belligerent bellowing of self-deceived, self-serving fools. We work among bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. The voice inside us reminds us how much power we accrue by using our “inside voices.” Our gentleness, care, and commitment to justice resound in our words and actions. What others perceive as weakness of character is really integrity that energizes and enables us to outlast our adversaries. Faithfulness is the key that brings forth justice. Let the coyotes win the day if they must. Faithful servants are roadrunners. We have stamina to burn and tenacity to last. Most of all we have faith. At the proper time—and no sooner—our faithfulness will bear fruit if we don’t give up.

Like Wile E. Coyote, those seeking to undermine compassion and justice may think their schemes sound. But our integrity as faithful servants gives us stamina and tenacity to defeat them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Always Keep on Praying

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6.18)


In these days when most people walk around with mobile phones in their pockets or mashed to their ears, what I’m about to describe will sound quaint to anyone younger than 30 or so. But there was a time when talking on the phone meant staying put until the conversation ended. Moving about during a call required lengthening the cord. Kitchen phones with cords spiraling to the floor were common sights, and many had foam-filled shoulder rests glued to their handsets so talkers could hold long conversations hands-free. Lengthy calls and idle chat were verboten in our house, as the line needed to remain free in case members of my parents’ church needed their help. They were also forbidden in my best friend’s home, because his mom thought hanging on the phone while working on other tasks distasteful. “Phone-huggers,” as Mrs. B called them, were a favorite gripe. “Who wants to talk to someone who’s not paying attention?” she’d say. “If you’re cooking, tell me and we’ll talk later. I don’t want to pour my heart out while you’re making gravy. That’s just rude. And don’t get me started about people whose lines are busy day and night…” (Sometimes I think they invented call waiting just for Mrs. B.)

It may also seem quaint that “back then” the telephone was a common metaphor for prayer. In part, this was because it was the quickest, easiest way to contact anyone, regardless of distance or time of day. So preachers compared prayer with phone conversations to stress God is never out of reach—a message that worked its way into popular gospel numbers like “I Can Call Jesus Anytime,” “Operator (Give Me Jesus on the Line),” and “Jesus on the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want)”. The telephone’s imperfections also figured into the metaphor. God’s line is never busy, we were told. He’s always there to pick up the phone. We can call Him no matter where we are. Such quips encouraged us to be spiritual phone-huggers, taking full advantage of God’s accessibility and interest in what we say. Frequent, lengthy talks with Him were our privilege.

Empathetic Prayer

We don’t hear the metaphor these days, since the phone is now as much a nuisance as convenience. The same goes for texting, IM’s, and email. Our fast-isn’t-fast-enough world of ring-tones, acronyms and emoticons, has cheapened prayer. We want to Twitter God while we multitask, jumping on and off so quickly we seldom reach that golden moment when running out of things to say about us turns our focus to others. How often do we hang on long enough to pray earnestly for others? Do we finish with us and click “send” or resort to ticking off names like children praying bedtime blessings on Mommy, Daddy, Bubby, Sissy, and Cousin Tommy, who’s sick with measles? How many of us pray for one another like we should? I know I don’t, which is why Ephesians 6.18—and many similar verses peppered through the Epistles—grabs me by the scruff of my neck and gives me a good talking-to. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” it says. “With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

There are all kinds of prayers, Paul says: recited ones, like The Lord’s Prayer; ritualized ones, like mealtime grace; prayers of penitence, thanksgiving, faith, entreaty, intercession, and so on. There are all kinds of requests, he says: for mercy, provision, protection, insight, comfort, etc. He points this out to remind us these options aren’t available solely for our personal benefit. The prayers and requests we use to bring our needs to God are also useful when praying for others. Paul implies we should pray for each other with the same fervor and consistency we pray for ourselves. This requires some pre-work. Upholding others in prayer as Paul instructs necessitates identifying with their situations, conflicts, sufferings, and fears as though they’re our own. Empathetic prayer asks more than briefly mentioning another’s condition, perhaps tossing in a few symptoms of what afflicts them. It expects us to agonize with their pain, tremble with their uncertainty, and stretch our hands to God from their valleys of confusion and doubt. “Be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints,” Paul writes. Alertness insinuates authentic, spirit-to-spirit connectivity that grips us with urgency and tenacity to pray in depth and detail until God’s answer comes. We always keep on praying for one another.

Teaching Us What to Do

Rushing through prayer for one another—treating it as an itemized to-do list for God—defeats its capacity for teaching us what to do. The investment of proper time and attention to pray empathetically for others rewards us with meaningful responses to their needs. It increases our potential to serve as instruments of faith, encouragement, and wisdom. Earnest prayer fills the hollows in words of comfort to those in sorrow, hope to those in distress, and guidance to those who seek direction. By alerting us to the pressures confronting those we pray for, it opens our eyes to ways we can provide practical assistance and relief. In the end, praying for one another in depth and detail blesses us by addressing deficits in our lives. Our compassion increases. We’re enriched with better insight to life’s complexities. We grow in wisdom, knowledge, and experience we apply to our own problems. Finally, praying for one another multiplies our opportunities to watch how God answers prayer in every circumstance. His line is never busy. He always picks up when we call. He never tires of listening to us. Making time always to keep on praying for one another keeps us hugging the phone, because there’s always something important to discuss with God.

When we uphold one another in empathetic prayer, the time and attention we invest are rewarded with meaningful responses and insights.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Words and Meditation

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19.14)

He Knows What’s Up

The past few days, Walt’s endured relentless replay of “Work on Me,” by Tonex (pronounced “Tow-Nay”) & The Peculiar People—so-named for 1 Peter 2.9: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (KJV) Before getting into the song, it’s useful to provide some background on Tonex (born Anthony Charles Williams II), as his life speaks to his music. After growing up as a Pentecostal pastor’s son and church musician, he burst on the scene with no qualms about pushing gospel’s boundaries, bypassing convention to reach new audiences, and defying stereotypes about how gospel singers look and behave. For the first time, the genre had an authentic “bad boy.” Some questioned his methods, but none disputed his calling or commitment. People everywhere testified that his music changed their lives. He sold millions of CD’s and was honored with every conceivable award. Then, in 2009, on a nationally televised Christian talk show, he came out. The crowds fled. The awards stopped. Preachers labeled him an unholy disgrace.

Tonex secluded himself, sparking rumors of what’s to become of him. We who’ve dealt with similar rejection know what’s next will be even more amazing. To date, he’s the only high-profile male gospel star to embrace his same-sex orientation—though (trust me) the field overflows with men who would follow suit if they had his courage. Still, faith that God has extraordinary plans for Tonex rises less from his bravery than his music. The chorus of “Work on Me” is a prime indicator of where his head’s at and his heart lies. As one listens to it, the music—an inspired restyling of classic call-and-response gospel set to a pop-friendly stride—merges with the spirit in its lyrics: “You know what’s up. So fix me up. Please Lord, just work on me. You know my faults, my secret thoughts. Please Lord, just work on me.” This is worthy of David at his finest, a profoundly personal prayer in psalm. The lyric’s conscious craving coupled with the composition’s driving desire reveal sincere longing to honor God without compromise. Since He knows what’s up, He can fix us up. And nothing less than His pleasure with us will satisfy. As the first verse says, “Lord work on my life, so I’ll be pleasing in Your sight. You know what’s up.” The same message and emotions pierce Psalm 19.14: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

Two Distinct Channels

Words and meditation mirror lyrics and music in how they work. They’re two distinct channels that converge in unified expression. Like lyrics and music, words from our lips have no power unless they’re tightly anchored to meditation in our hearts. Fully grasping this requires a little homework to dig out the roots of “meditation,” because modern concepts of its meaning deviate significantly from its origins. Meditation is more than inwardly articulated thought or attentive silence. At best, these notions focus on meditation’s means without remotely defining its ends. Conscious inner thinking is cogitation—knowing thought—while silence in search of God is contemplation, which literally means “to make space for the divine.” Both are valuable, but neither focuses on meditation’s purpose. If meditation is something other than cogitation and contemplation, then what is it? The family resemblance to “medication” and “mediation” provides our best clue. “To meditate” in the truest original sense means “to avail oneself to a healer.”

We seek God’s help with our outbound words and inbound meditation because one can’t succeed absent the other. Without conscious effort to please Him in what we say, our hearts can’t instinctively welcome His healing. On the other side, until we give God free rein to work on us, His power can’t work through us. Awareness we’re being healed even as we speak changes our conversation. Peace, confidence, and love gained in meditation emerge in words of peace, confidence, and love. In this way, talking and knowing become very much like lyrics and music. What can’t be put in words is felt in our composition. This is what David strives for—to be like the rest of the Nature, which automatically yields to the Creator’s touch and rejoices for His pleasure. He announces this right away: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” (v1-3) Healing that transpires in word and meditation transcends spoken language and articulate logic.

Peculiar People

Contemporary translations of 1 Peter 2.9 hang very closely to the King James Version except for one phrase—“peculiar people.” Obviously scurrying from an adjective with unflattering connotations, they opt for “a people belonging to God” (NIV), “a people for God’s own possession” (NASB), “His own special people” (NKJV), etc., which suggests we’re His particular people. While the scholars get A’s for accuracy, I still think they fail by implying we’re some kind of in-crowd of spiritual elites. If anything, we’re outsiders. Mindful effort and heartfelt craving to please God in word and meditation make us peculiar. Knowing they converge as the Great Physician works on us enables us to speak, love, and live freely. And freedom so great is very peculiar.

Concerns about what we can’t understand or why we’re not understood hold no value for us. They invite us to speak defensively or timidly, neither of which pleases God, and they crowd our hearts with emotions that impede our healing. As peculiar people, we sing David’s song: “Let my lips and heart please You, my Rock and my Redeemer.” We sing Tonex’s song: “You know what’s up. So fix me up.” When we do this, we make good on the charge Peter affixes to our peculiarity: “That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (NIV) Darkness to light—healing meditation. Declaring praise—healing words. It pleases God to work on us so He can work through us.

As we speak healing words, meditation opens our hearts to God’s healing. As meditation yields to God’s healing, we speak healing words. It pleases Him to work on us so He can work through us.

Postscript: Work on Me

Some of you may have caught this yesterday, when I posted it on Facebook. If you missed it—or if, like me, you can’t get enough of this song—here’s Tonex & The Peculiar People: “Work on Me.”

For those preferring a softer-edged approach to the same theme, here's "Make Me Over."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Maternal Manifestation of God

Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24.67)


Sooner or later it falls on every believer to assess the Bible’s accuracy and completeness. Some accept it fully, going so far as to insist impeaching its factuality or questioning its gaps is a faithless act. Others grant that inaccuracies and oversights pock Scripture, if for no other reason than likely error by human writers and transcribers. Either way, Christians typically regard the Bible as sacrosanct text that stands “as is”—whether perfect and absolute or flawed and inadequate. Judaism takes a more canny approach. It starts by conceding inaccuracies and omissions are unavoidably there. Then it seeks to restore what’s mangled or missing by drawing on details found in comparable passages. Jewish believers call these extrapolations midrashim, or “studies,” and look to them for legal clarification or spiritual edification that would otherwise be lost when reading the literal text.

As any thoughtful reader knows, the Bible is woefully skewed to favor the male perspective. With very few exceptions, women are cast in secondary roles as wives, mothers, and daughters. Furthermore, those who appear without ties to a man most often are portrayed as helpless victims or harlots. While gender imbalance in Scripture went ignored by Christian scholars until very recently, it’s been a perennial concern for their Jewish counterparts. Yesterday, I clicked onto Fran’s post on the above-cited passage and discovered an extraordinary midrash intended to rectify the diminution of women in the Bible—specifically, the importance of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Rebekah, the wife of Isaac. The author focuses on the significance of Sarah’s tent, which has stood empty since her death three years earlier. Yet it’s remaining untouched, coupled with Isaac’s decision to marry Rebekah inside it, plainly designates it as a sacred place.

The midrash connects Sarah’s tent with Israel’s Tent of Meeting. According to Exodus 33.9, “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses.” The cloud consistently reappears whenever God’s presence is evidenced in the Tent. The midrash retrofits this to place its origins at Sarah’s door: “All the days in which Sarah lived, there was a cloud attached to the entrance of her tent. Since she died, the cloud ceased; and when Rebecca (sic) came, the cloud returned.” With that, things get truly fascinating.


Connecting visibly divine presence with Sarah, Israel’s matriarch, is not at all far-fetched. The Jews named this holy cloud Shekinah, a feminine noun that translates as “dwelling” or “settling.” Thus, they defined Shekinah as the maternal manifestation of God—the Mother Who dwells with Her children, settling over them to protect and care for them just as a hen broods over her young. Contrary to common thought, Shekinah wasn’t an extraordinary occurrence. It was a fixture in Israel’s daily life. The Hebrews relied on it to guide them through the desert. Numbers 9.17 reports “Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; where the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped.” They clung to their Mother, trusting Her to lead them to places where their needs would be met and their safety assured. She was the Source and Keeper of their lives.

The midrash links Shekinah and Sarah by witnessing Isaac’s chosen site for his marriage. The text includes no detail about the wedding itself. None is needed. Entering Sarah’s tent sets a precedent we respect to this day by opening the marital rite with “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God…” Isaac’s return to Sarah’s tent has nothing to do with sentimental attachment to his earthly mother. As the sole carrier of seed that will bring forth a nation from his union with Rebekah, he’s instinctively drawn to Shekinah, the motherly Presence that will bless and sustain his offspring for generations to come. This is what the midrash means by suggesting the cloud reappears at the tent’s entrance when Rebekah becomes Isaac’s wife.

Now suppose we do a bit of midrash-ing of our own to update the Old Testament’s Shekinah to New Testament times. Not surprisingly, the story begins with a blatant allusion to Shekinah. When Mary questions how she can conceive the Christ Child without sexual congress, she’s told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1.35) The maternal nature of God supernaturally manifests itself through Mary and in Jesus. When we see Christ gather children to Him, restore their prematurely stolen lives, and multiply their lunches to feed thousands, we’re looking at Shekinah. We hear Shekinah when He tells us to come to Him as children, when warning us not to harm young ones, and when He mourns Jerusalem’s rebellion: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23.37)

Shekinah also literally appears at four pivotal events in Christ’s life. When the angel announces His birth to the shepherds, Luke 1.9 says, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” At Jesus’s baptism “the heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” (Matthew 3.16). At His transfiguration, “a bright cloud” envelops Him, along with Peter, James, and John. After Jesus ascends, Acts 1.9 tells us “a cloud hid him from their sight.” We actually hear Shekinah in the second and third instances, both times declaring Jesus as “My Son.” And it’s worth noting in neither case is the voice attributed to His “Father,” even though masculine-skewed tradition prompts us to assume the Speaker is male. This assumption doesn’t jibe with Early Church perceptions of divine presence, though. Like their Jewish ancestors they also chose a feminine noun—the Greek term for “presence,” parousia—to describe the ever-present Spirit that oversees and directs the Church.

Under God’s Wing

This is very intriguing, but what does it signify to us? The main implication seems fairly obvious. When we limit our concept of God to a father figure (whether we picture Him as a gently paternal ideal or an emotionally distant authoritarian), we deprive ourselves of Shekinah’s maternal influence. While our Father provides, our Mother abides. She settles on us, sustaining us day by day. We cling to Shekinah just as the Israelites did, trusting Her to protect us and looking to Her for guidance. When we sense Her presence lift, it’s time to move on. When we hear Her voice, we listen attentively to Her counsel. When we feel Her tender restraint, we don’t take another step without Her approval. And whenever we embark on a life-changing venture, we return to Her tent to seek Her blessing.

But there’s a second aspect that heightened awareness of God’s maternal presence brings to light. The abiding nature of Shekinah invites us to see ourselves as Jesus desired, as we truly are—chicks gathered under God’s wing. The extent to which we experience nurture and growth relies on our willingness to be gathered. Straying from under-wing exposes us to predatory influences and random dangers. It draws us away from the Source and Keeper of our existence. It denies us the comforts and joy of family life. Shekinah beckons us to thrive and luxuriate in Divine Presence, to know God’s love in a distinctly maternal way. It’s an awesome opportunity we can’t possibly ignore.

(Offered with a grateful hat-tip to Fran for her extraordinary, inspiring post.)

An unconventional, yet altogether accurate image of God’s maternal manifestation as Shekinah.