Saturday, September 4, 2010


So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. (Genesis 3.23)

What We’re Made Of

“Get out there and show ‘em what you’re made of” is one of those chewed-up pep phrases with no meat left on them. It’s what the hamstrung producer says to the terrified understudy about to face the footlights, what the pug-faced coach uses to rally his team of underdogs before the big game. It’s a movie cliché as old as the movies. Since it never fails on the silver screen, it’s laughable in real life, where no writers can engineer an improbable triumph. Still, the phrase came to mind when digging around for a Labor Day topic led me to Genesis 3.23: “So the LORD God banished him [Adam] from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” The connection between what we’re made of and the living we make is new to me, even though it’s always been there, explicitly spelled out. The verse puts fresh meat on the cliché, giving us plenty to sink our teeth into.

I landed on Genesis 3.23 by starting at verse 19, a Labor Day gem: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken.” Next comes the ominous suggestion labor we undertake to survive, i.e., “making a living,” is futile: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” This, of course, is the curse we inherited from Adam—our compulsion to do everything we can to live well and long, all the while knowing human life is fragile and finite. Gripped by mortality’s grim irony, it’s easy to glide by verse 23 as a recap of 19, never catching the huge implication in its syntactical shift. God banishes Adam from Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. Groundwork is what’s missing in 19. To escape life’s dust-to-dust futility, we must ask, “What’s in the dirt?” Or, better yet, “What’s in our dirt?” Once we answer that, “show ‘em what you’re made of” is no cliché. It’s a calling.

Replete with Goodness

Whether we view the Bible’s account of our creation literally or metaphorically, the dirt at its center proves remarkably rich. By itself it’s useless—which is not to say worthless. Dirt is replete with goodness: vitamins and minerals, substance and malleability. Pressure and heat solidify its surface, yet it never gets so hard it can’t absorb fresh water, break open, and fulfill its purpose. Because its meaning and worth derive from what’s planted and rooted in it, no medium could be more perfect for our making. That’s why—after speaking all other plants and animals into existence—God uses a different method for us. He scoops up inert soil, molds it to His pleasure, and endows it with purpose by breathing life into it. Yet if His breath of life transfixes us to the point we ignore our origins in the soil, we glimpse only half the miracle. Being taken from the ground signifies goodness is elemental to us. We’re replete with it.

Suddenly “working the ground” transcends dragging ourselves out of bed day after day to work for our survival. Our primary occupation turns into identifying the inherent goodness in us and allowing it to nurture talents and opportunities God seeds into our lives. It’s important to remember although soil serves the same purpose wherever it’s found, its composition varies greatly from place to place. So it is with us. The ground God formed into you contains a unique blend of goodness that enables your gifts to thrive where you are. My blend of goodness is unique to me so what grows out of me fits my circumstances and environment. Nonetheless, the world is full of believers who think all Christians are made of the same stuff to grow the same seed and thrive in the same environment. Not so. Just as God makes cacti grow in Arizona and redwoods rise in California, the gifts He wants to spring up and take root where we are determines what's in our soil. The ground we're taken from is the ground we work.

All We Need

Once God makes us from ground that best suits His intentions, He provides all we need to flourish. As 2 Corinthians 9.8-10 points out, what blossoms from one seed generates many more seeds. The living we make by working the goodness in us yields a harvest that sustains not only us. It also enriches the people and communities we serve. “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work,” Paul writes before referencing Psalm 112.9: “As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’ Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”

The goodness in our dirt comes alive in the living we make from the life God seeds into us. This weekend, wherever you are—whether in the States, celebrating Labor Day, or elsewhere—make time to recognize your unique goodness. Identify the gifts that grow out of it. Recommit to working the ground you’re taken from. Then get out there and show ‘em what you’re made of!

The dirt from which God shapes each of us contains a unique blend of goodness that enables the gifts He seeds in us to flourish where we are.

Postscript: Show Them What You’re Made Of

Here’s a song for those who might like a little accompaniment while contemplating the goodness in our dirt. Nik Kershaw sings “Show Them What You’re Made Of.”

After reading this post, Grant directed me to Steve Bell's "These Are the Ones"--a beautiful song that echoes the thoughts above in a particularly vivid way. Take a look--you'll be glad you did!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Valid Testimony

The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going.” (John 8.13-14)

Obviously Not What It Seems

Lately we’ve been hooked on “Perry Mason” reruns. Viewed a half-century after it was “must-see” TV in America, a veneer of camp attaches to its somber tone. Part of it comes from observing the writers shy away from romantic subplots for the debonair attorney. We initially assumed this was a concession to the star, Raymond Burr, who avoided onscreen affairs to dampen interest in his private life as a gay man in a committed relationship. As it turns out, the Erle Stanley Gardner novels on which the series is drawn allude to Mason’s ongoing affair with his longtime associate, Paul Drake—which adds fizz to their exchanges and explains how one always knows what the other is thinking. It also helps explain why Mason invariably believes in his clients’ innocence, all evidence to the contrary. He approaches every case on the premise nothing is ever what it seems.

If you’ve not seen the show or it’s been a while, here’s the formula. A fairly elaborate set-up puts a number of characters in motion, one of whom has the bad luck of being spotted at the scene of an un-witnessed crime just before or after it occurs. The suspect always has an apparent motive for murder, forcing Mason to unravel the prosecution’s timeline placing the defendant on the scene at the precise moment of the crime. He probes his client for every detail reconstructing the day in question. Where were you coming from? What time did you leave that place and how long did it take you arrive at the crime scene? Why were you there? What was so urgent that you felt it necessary to go there at that time? How long did you stay? Where did you go after you left? Did anyone else know of your plans? Mason shrewdly validates his defendant’s testimony by restoring proper context to the case. What looks obvious at first is obviously not what it seems. In John 8, we see Jesus using the same strategy to answer Pharisees’ charges that His teaching is baseless and indefensible without a corroborating witness. From this, we learn why our witness as Christians requires no objective validation when it’s called into question.

Itching for a Showdown

The Pharisees are itching for a showdown. Jesus recently humiliated them and their lawyer friends in public when their latest scheme to entrap Him backfired. It’s perhaps the definitive episode in their ongoing antagonism toward Him. They bring Him a woman caught in the act of adultery, removing any question of her guilt, and challenge Him to officiate at her stoning, as Mosaic Law directs. But in an act that presages His offering on Calvary, Jesus stands with the woman as a sinner among sinners. He invites the person without sin to throw the first stone, which excludes everyone but Him. When the troublemakers wander off—most unhappy with their failed strategy—Jesus lifts the accused woman to her feet and, even though He alone is qualified to condemn her, He refuses. One can only imagine how it infuriates Christ’s adversaries to see this woman walking unashamedly through the streets. How it must enrage them to hear that her encounter with Christ changed her life for the better. This is not what they hoped for. This is not the way they were taught. This does not fit with traditional doctrine that brings them comfort and confidence.

So the air pulses with tension, as everyone anticipates the Pharisees’ next move. Before they can remobilize, however, Jesus graciously accommodates their desire for another confrontation. In John 8.12, He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The Pharisees hear His implication they’ve led their followers into darkness. They pounce. Referring to Deuteronomy 19.15’s demands for two witnesses to establish testimony, they object to His statement. “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid,” they declare. (v13) Jesus isn’t shaken. He answers, “My testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” (v14-15) In a nutshell, it’s the Mason defense. Without proper context, the charge carries no weight. Since only Jesus knows whence He came and where He’s going, only His testimony is valid. The Pharisees’ prosecution fails because what seems so obvious to them obviously is not what it seems.

Only We Know

Whenever I say I’m a gay Christian, those who question my testimony fall into one of two groups: devout believers fixated on Mosaic Law and/or Paul’s condemnation of same-sex idolatry rituals; or gay advocates fixated on organized religion's infamous hostility toward same-sex orientation. Either way, both groups demand objective, third-party proof my witness is valid. They ask me to judge myself as they judge me—by human standards. Whatever your personal circumstances, you’ve probably met similar confrontations. People who can’t release themselves from traditional views feel compelled to challenge anyone whose faith doesn’t fit the mold they’re most comfortable and confident with. But Christ’s precedent in John 8 overturns tradition and ideology.

Only we know where we come from and where we’re going. We know the battles we’ve fought and miles we’ve traveled to seize God’s promise of grace and acceptance. We’ve heard God’s call to our wayward spirits, bringing us back to Him to reside in each of us as temples He created. We understand our compulsion to heed Hebrews 12.1-2: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” We recognize what seems so obvious to our critics—whether in the Christian or secular community—obviously isn’t what it seems. Like the once-adulterous woman, only we know how our encounter with Christ forever freed us from condemnation. Following Jesus means abiding by His precedents. John 8 assures us our testimony is valid.

Knowing where we’ve come from and where we’re going validates our testimony. Our witness speaks for itself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pride and Pretense

Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. (1 Corinthians 4.5)

With gratitude to Bishop Yvette Flunder, for her sermon of 8/29/10.

What Happens in the Wait

Last Sunday I worshiped with congregations I admire beyond measure: Love Center Ministries in Oakland and San Francisco’s City of Refuge. Love Center’s founder, Walter Hawkins, was one of my most influential role models, and I was eager to see how the church was faring since his passing a month ago. Last Sunday was the final service in its time of mourning, and hence, a pivotal moment. I’m thrilled to report its fervor and commitment have not diminished in the least. The message, “Go Forward,” urged the people to rise up in courage and cross into a new era of service, confident of God’s guidance and provision. A profound spirit of submission—no, make that, desire—overtook the people as they joined together in a Taizé-style chorus that prayed, “Lord, whatever you’re doing in this season, don’t do it without me.” It entered the marrow of this great people and witnessed their longing to participate in God’s future. The song won’t let me go.

It was also apt, as I scurried over to City of Refuge, a radically inclusive flock shepherded by Yvette Flunder (formerly an associate pastor at Love Center). As its name implies, City of Refuge is a stubbornly safe place where race, gender, and orientation are irrelevant. Everyone belongs and I’ve yet to worship at COR without the service erupting into a no-holds-barred love-fest as worshipers embrace one another, pray together, and rejoice in the beauty of their Maker. COR is also a place of deep-seated cognizance that self-honesty and humility are the mainstays of a community consecrated to the worth of every individual. This theme rang out of Bishop Flunder’s sermon, as she focused on the disciples’ 10-day wait for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1-2. “A lot happens in 10 days,” she said. “You run out of what you want to say and end up disclosing what you don’t want to reveal. Over time, you look less like how you want to be seen and more like how you really are. The make-up wears off. ‘Cute’ doesn’t last very long. And when you don’t know what else to say, there you sit—waiting for something, with no idea what that is.” The “something” I witnessed struck me as what God is “doing in this season” and City of Refuge tenaciously refuses to be excluded. With the Love Center song hovering in my heart, I can’t stop reflecting on Bishop Flunder’s teaching about “what happens in the wait.”

Waiting is Doing

The revelation in the sermon came when she remarked how so many of us ask, “What am I supposed to do while I wait?” Waiting is doing, she reminded us. It’s during this period that our pride and pretense fall away, enabling us to be 100% real with our God, others, and ourselves. “The patina—the façade—the mask comes off during the wait,” she said. Waiting makes us uncomfortable to the point we’re willing to change so we can receive what God desires to give us. The gift isn’t what takes time. Readiness to receive it is what requires us to wait.

Bishop Flunder pointed out the miserable group of people gathered in the Upper Room had no choice but to work through their issues—within themselves and among each other—while they waited. There were Peter, who denied Jesus, Thomas, who questioned Christ’s resurrection, and James and John, who jockeyed for favor. There were Nicodemus, the Pharisee who went to Jesus in secret, and Joseph of Arimathea, who was rich and a latecomer to this group. There were Mary, whose story of the Virgin Birth some probably viewed with skepticism, and Jesus’s blood relatives, who no doubt expected preferential treatment among His followers. All of them had to come to grips with unpleasant questions about each other and themselves. Until they shed their pride and pretenses, they couldn’t be free to appreciate the mighty thing that was about to take place when the Holy Spirit came. Once they had done the waiting, Acts 2.1 tells us “they were all with one accord in one place.” (KJV) That’s what happens in the wait.

The Appointed Time

“Judge nothing before the appointed time,” Paul counsels in 1 Corinthians 4.5. “Wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.” Strictly speaking, he’s admonishing us to withhold judgment entirely, leaving the job to God, Who alone is qualified to assess what people do since He alone knows why they do it. Yet I think we can also apply this principle to our own lives in terms of waiting. Time we spend doing the waiting brings us to moments of realization. Our make-up wears off. Our prayers progress from reverent requests to candid confessions. We bare our souls. When we reach that place, the Lord comes.

Attitudes and behaviors we’ve hidden in dark recesses move front and center. Our proud façade crumbles. There’s no use pretending these issues don’t exist, because they’re right in front of us. This is the appointed time to admit we’re struggling with habits and thoughts we can ignore no longer. And the beauty of the wait is found in how it defeats our will. It saps the obstinacy causing us to justify our weaknesses. It confronts us with the realization until we acknowledge the harm we do to others and ourselves we won’t be ready to receive all that God has for us. The wait exposes the true motives behind our pride and pretense. We suddenly face the fact that inability to forgive is actually unwillingness. Frustration is really impatience. Reasons are only excuses. And since we’ve waited this long, it’s time we deal with what surfaces in the wait. The assurance, healing, peace, joy, and strength we ask for are there, waiting for us. They will be ours when we’re ready to receive them. God is doing great things in us, in this season of our lives. Waiting brings us to a place of complete surrender, when we’re willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of whatever He’s doing in us.

Waiting is doing—dealing with pride and pretenses we’ve ignored. What we pray for is already there, waiting for us to reach the point where we’re ready to receive them.