Saturday, September 11, 2010

Choose Life

I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. (Psalm 118.17)

The Living Dead

Has anyone else noticed while we in our generation brawl mightily against one another, waging wars of words and violence, the next generation has become obsessed with the living dead? If, like me, you have very little interest in zombies and vampires, your reading and entertainment options are sharply curtailed. While one could argue every generation goes through a phase of dark, magical thinking, the sudden surge of interest in the past couple years suggests something more than intrigue with otherworldly lore may be involved here. The armchair sociologist in me wants to read deeper implications into this. Do our youth embrace this universe because there one needs only a thermometer to discern genuine humanity? Perhaps they’re responding to contradictions littered through fantasies where the non-living are often most alive to compassion, tolerance, justice, and fidelity. Both notions seem valid, particularly when one puts down the latest Twilight Saga volume for a newspaper, or turns off Zombieland to catch the latest melodrama unfolding on FOX News. Is it any wonder moral urgency thrumming in the land of the undead beckons young people desperately clinging to ideals taught by adults who’ve abandoned all pretense of honoring them?

Our constant tearing at one another overwhelms us with walking wounded. Healing virtues hold so little value they’re scantly felt. Calls for righteousness and reason are dead on arrival, their advocates marginalized as dreamers and radicals. With each torrent of cruelty and injustice, we who follow Christ find it increasingly difficult to fix our place in this world—in part, because much of the poison appears to originate in our house. The name of Jesus has been commoditized as an imprimatur of hatred, prejudice, and criminality, inflicting defeatism and shame on His true believers. Given the wrongs committed by usurping Christ’s authority, it’s understandable we may feel it best to withdraw into our little sphere, where people play nice and love prevails. Yet if not we, then who will summon courage to bind broken hearts? To bring light to darkness? To speak justice and compassion? To prove faith, hope, and love truly abide? Who will help today’s youth choose life?

The Name of the Lord

Biology ensures our perpetuity. But the life of our species and planet must be nurtured tenderly, tenaciously. When we observe those falling prey to greed and power-lust—when these evils become prerequisites for prominence and leadership in our society—we must move quickly, decisively to answer with unflinching resolve. We accomplish this not in our strength for our sake. We emulate the example in Psalm 118, whose author is surrounded by broken mindsets, institutions, and leadership. Confidence he can’t be defeated resounds so strongly, the repetitive style obtains oratorical force. He’s preaching. “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” he declares once and again. “The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies.” (v6-7) Another one-two punch instantly follows: “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. [Again.] It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (v8-9) And he caps both doubles off with a triplet: “All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They surrounded me on every side, but [again] in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; [again] in the name of the LORD I cut them off.”

The name of the Lord—so grossly brutalized by zealots and strivers—belongs to us. We are given authority to act under its aegis in Mark 16.17-18, where Jesus says, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” By ourselves, we’re nothing. But the name of the Lord transforms us into a force to be reckoned with. Just look at what Jesus says we can do in His name. We confront evil and send it packing. We change the conversation. We disarm slippery, cold-blooded sneaks before they strike. Poisonous attitudes and behaviors pose no threat to us. We heal. Using the psalmist’s paradigm, when deadly evil, talk, deceit, and agents envelop us, in the name of the Lord, we cut them off. We don’t tolerate them. We don’t reason with them. We don’t acknowledge their authority, respect their privileges, indulge their behavior, or clean up after them. We cut them off.

The Life Inside

The decisiveness of our actions is based on a decision that defines and binds us together: we choose life. Each of us comes to Christ and commits to His way because He is Life—the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, Life to the Full, and Eternal Life. Life before or without Christ no longer compels us. The Life inside us is the life we live. Galatians 2.20 splendidly conveys this truth: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In light of this, when we see where the psalmist’s courage and tenacity lead, we join him, saying, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” (v17)

Being alive in Christ means being alive in this world, refuting powers of sin and death, defying fatal influences, and opposing destructive ideologies. We are brave, articulate beings placed in every corner to answer defeat with triumph, hatred with compassion, cruelty with kindness, and selfishness with sacrifice. We recognize every issue troubling our society is a matter of life and death. In reality, our world is actually more like the alternative universe of pop fiction than we presume, clearer and more balanced than it often appears—with one exception. We’re not the living dead; we are gloriously, vibrantly, powerfully alive. We choose life to proclaim life in the name of Life.

We have been given authority to proclaim Life in a world overtaken by deadly ideologies and practices.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Blessed Every Which Way

All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country… You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. (Deuteronomy 28.2-3,6)

The Puzzle of His Providence

Over the years, many have encouraged my mother to write her memoirs as a girl who grew up in rural poverty, defied convention by answering the call to ministry, and ended up shepherding big-city congregations in underprivileged areas. She recently completed the rough draft and we’ve spent hours on the phone editing it before she sends it to her editor. (She’s the type who cleans up before the housekeeper arrives.) I’ve heard these stories before, some of them many times. Yet compiling them into one narrative moves me in profound ways.

Mom was the eighth of 11 children whose father deserted them soon after the youngest was born. The family subsisted on odd jobs it could find and neighborly charity. Eventually, it was blessed to squeeze into a tiny house paid for by sharecropping the owner’s land. As you might imagine, being the poorest folk in a poor community added hardship. Even their church, which they faithfully attended, walking three miles in each direction, looked down on them. The parishioners felt no compunction about assigning less desirable tasks like cleaning the sanctuary or washing dishes to my grandmother and her brood. Very seldom did anyone offer to drive them to or from church. On one occasion my mom vividly recalls her Sunday school teacher ridiculed the walked-down shoes she and her sister wore in front their classmates.

The psychic toll, coupled with a series of illnesses and near-tragic mishaps, gave rise to a severely wounded, withdrawn little girl. A Bible storybook became her constant companion. Her fertile imagination opened her heart to the reality of God’s love and mercy; at an early age, she began piecing the puzzle of His providence together. Though she couldn’t discern the purpose of her suffering, she sensed something taking shape in her life. In retrospect, she’s able to sort out the rhymes and reasons of it all. Each trial—whether harrowing trauma or stabbing slight—prepped her response to struggles encountered many years later in the lives of her people. That’s the beauty in her story. Knowing God’s intentions would have frightened the faith out of her. Not knowing allowed her to connect obedience with providence. When time came to minister in Chicago, there was no question obeying the call would bring blessings.

Rewards and Incentives

The link between obedience and blessings fascinates me, because the Bible frankly admits submission to God—serving at His pleasure—isn’t compulsory for His favor. Jesus says God scatters blessings on an equal-opportunity basis: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.45) Paul wades into the thick of this when he suggests blessings also come from disobedience. “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable,” he writes in Romans 11.29. Mercies and roles God chose for us open the possibility we'll accept His gifts without heeding His call. This makes no sense—until we read verse 32: “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” God uses blessings as rewards and incentives. When we reflect on this, we find times when obedience brought great blessings. But we also find times we were chastened to realize God blessed us despite our behavior. He extended His mercy to draw us back to obedience.

Before we write off blessings as arbitrary phenomena, we should note a codicil attached to God’s will. While disobedience doesn’t block the flow of mercy and kindness, obedience substantially increases it. Again and again, God promises to shower us with goodness when we make His pleasure our priority. Very few of His pledges match Deuteronomy 28’s eloquence. It’s too delicious for excerpts.

If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.

The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

The LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. (v1-9)

The more we submit to God’s Word, His will, and His way, the more we experience His blessings—experience being the operative word. Obedience sharpens our perception of blessings that rise out of hardship and deprivation. They come upon us and accompany us, germinating within us until we’re able to recognize and accept them. Obedience primes us to experience blessings every which way, when and however they come—including those wrapped in struggle and dismay.

The Lifting

“If you obey Him, God will lift you,” Moses assures us. The lifting doesn’t exalt us to boast of deserving God’s goodness. Adherence to God’s principles raises us above turmoil and sorrow to perceive His providence at work in us. We become certain pleasing Him invariably ends in what’s best for us. His precepts of compassion, sacrifice, and service often create short-term hardships and uncommon demands. Yet obedience opens eyes of faith to see our predicaments through the lens of God’s infallible mercy and goodness. Doing what’s right steers us from actions and attitudes we’ll regret later. Difficulties we wrestle with now strengthen us for more rewarding challenges ahead. We count every piece in God’s providential puzzle as its own blessing. Obedience holds the key to remaining confident no matter where we are. In the city or country, coming in or going out—we’re blessed every which way.

Obedience sharpens our awareness that every piece in God’s providential puzzle is its own blessing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Our Friend at the Table

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for all partake of the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10.16-17)

The People of God

My faith community celebrates the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month, as has every congregation I’ve joined down through the years. So First Sunday always holds special meaning for me. Entering the worship space on that day promises a sensory return to the Cross. Even when the liturgy focuses elsewhere—like today, when the service centered on Psalm 139 (“Search me, O God”)—the service’s progression toward that climactic moment steadily draws my thoughts to the awful sacrifice and awesome victory that Calvary represents. Ordinarily, my inner vision lifts its sight to the Man of Sorrows. Perhaps because each new month finds me a little older and better acquainted with grief, appreciation for His boundless love runs deeper with every pilgrimage to the table laid in commemoration of His death.

Today was a little different. The minister raised the loaf of bread and chalice and said (like always), “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” The people of God—the words pierced my heart. My usual seat put me in the first wave of communicants. As we quietly filed toward the altar, all I could think was, “I am one of the people of God.” In our church, the loaf is broken in two with each half given to a lay-member who offers it to the rest of us. We pull a morsel from the loaf as we pass, followed by a tiny glass of non-alcoholic wine presented by another lay-member. Today, taking my portion from the bread refreshed my understanding: I come from this. The brutalized body of my Savior and the living, breathing Body that witnesses His triumph over death merged in my brain. The moment was as much about arising out of this Body as entering into It. Back at my seat, I looked at the extraordinarily diverse group waiting to reaffirm its faith and membership in Christ—young and old, straight and gay, partnered and single, brown, black, yellow, and white, prosperous and secure, struggling and anxious. The people of God. Mist filled my eyes, verging on tears when the pianist broke the silence with a reverent, subtly jazz and country-infused variation of the old hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel's veins

And sinners plunged beneath the flood

Lose all their guilty stains

Friends of a Friend

The table beckons us to remember Who joins us together. Physically gathering there destroys our differences by demonstrating one incontrovertible truth we share. We are all friends of a Friend. Our love and concern for one another began with His love and concern for us. The table guards our mindfulness He befriended us long before we confirmed our friendship with Him. As Romans 5.8 so beautifully puts it, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The taste of bread and wine replenishes our conviction no friend ever can or ever will offer friendship in a more radically trusting and inclusive fashion than Jesus—to the point He had no reluctance saying so: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13) He goes on to say, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

Our Friend at the table invites us to remember Him—to recollect His insuperable, a priori offering of friendship, an act of courage and faith greater than any other—to reestablish Him as our common bond. The magnitude of His selflessness withers our small-minded selfishness to imagine He would go to such extremes for us (and people like us), yet deny anyone we find disagreeably unlike us. What have we done to deserve such kindness? How could we possibly think who or what we are entitles us more than others to Christ’s friendship? Jesus scaled Calvary’s peak to create a mesa, a level place where all stand equally tall to see the world from the same height. For this reason, the flat table couldn’t be more appropriate as the place where we commune as friends of a Friend. Knowing one another’s business—scrutinizing one another’s affairs for approval—is wildly inappropriate there because His business, everything He has told us in confidence, is all we need to know.


“Sinners plunged beneath the flood lose all their guilty stains,” the hymn says. We are not spattered with droplets or lightly brushed with Christ’s love and friendship. We are plunged beneath the flood. We go in looking different and thinking differently. We come out looking and believing the same. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul calls this “participation in the blood of Christ,” saying the cup our Friend offers at the table equalizes us. He says the same of the bread: “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for all partake of the one loaf.” What’s on the table and the table itself defines everything we believe and do. Its contents and construction purposefully encourage participation by all. Nothing on or about it suggests limited accessibility to a select few. The table, the cup, and the bread are the gifts of God for the people of God. This is so fundamental to our faith any other presumptions regarding it are to be discounted, no matter how deeply they’re inculcated in our respective traditions. Some of us may feel constrained to indulge them in order to retain our faith heritages. But we must never accept them. To say you or I cannot meet at the table—or we’re unworthy to serve there—is as ludicrous as saying we’re not fit to breathe. That’s how basic it is, and that’s why the table is what it is.

The cup and bread are the gifts of God for the people God offered at a level table accessible to all. We meet there as friends of a Friend.