Friday, October 8, 2010

People and Things

I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing... I showed you by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20.33, 35)


When I left my marketing agency job to freelance from home, one of the first lessons I learned was daytime TV can be frightfully seductive. Once it’s got you, it holds you with enticing promises of “what’s coming up next.” Before you know it, the day’s gone. I had to set a policy: No TV. In exchange, I could record one guilty pleasure to enjoy over lunch—assuming I got to eat lunch. So (brace yourselves) I chose “Judge Alex,” a syndicated court show featuring a strikingly handsome Cuban-American jurist with a sense of humor and compassionate streak I admire. Today’s episode about a botched used-car sale between friends—a common complaint—startled me with the announcer's opening summary: “They were closer than close, but material things came between them!” I thought, That’s mighty lofty language for a deal gone bad. Yet as I watched the case unfold and saw how broken trust over a thing irreparably severed the litigants’ friendship, my mind kept inching toward covetousness. I did my best to leash it, because it’s an uncomfortable subject for us. When last did you open a book, click on a blog, or hear a sermon that addressed wanting something so badly you were willing to hurt someone—a loved one, neighbor, coworker, or even yourself—to have it? We just don’t care to discuss it. Instead, we work around it, casting it as the silent partner of sins we view more seriously: greed, lust, envy, deceit, and so on. If covetousness plays a decisive role in so many destructive pursuits—and it does—should we not talk about it as much as, or more than, the rest? How have we got so detached from a sin so tightly affixed to so many weaknesses?

Tenth Out of 10

A big part of the problem originates with The Ten Commandments, where covetousness comes in tenth out of 10. Of course, it’s grossly incorrect (and downright silly) to presume they’re ordered by priority. Still, because they begin with four exceedingly profound edicts that define Hebrew faith and culture—a preeminent God, no idols, devout reverence for His name, and the Sabbath—it’s easy to think of the remaining six as amendments to a divine constitution. What’s more, they also suggest ordinal significance. “Honor your parents” (5) tops this section because those after it concern antisocial behaviors that often result from rebellion and squandered upbringing: “Don’t kill” (6). “Don’t commit adultery” (7). “Don’t steal” (8). “Don’t lie” (9). Then, if we track the relative social and psychological impact of each act, they do appear less consequential by descending rank. Thus, for many, it stands to reason number 10, “Don’t covet” is the least important on the list. “What harm is looking without touching?” we ask. And this is our first mistake, as touching always starts with looking.

We know not to question God’s wisdom in including an anti-coveting law in His precepts. Nonetheless, we’re tempted to minimize its relevance because the original language and grievances it cites are ridiculously archaic: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20.17) The chattel kills it for us—wives and servants defined as male-owned property on par with real estate and farm animals. The examples are so morally repugnant we dismiss the whole thing as indefensible. Taking this tack invites downfall by suggesting since these egregious practices no longer exist, covetousness is not a “modern problem.” But it is. It’s a really big problem. In fact, given how much more we have and our heightened awareness of what others have, it probably poses a bigger threat to us—despite our “progress”—than ancient Israel.

Exploiting Vulnerability

First-century Christians had no issue with calling covetousness by name. It was an evil unto itself—not one folded into “bigger” sins. And it seems they were able to get past the examples to focus on the principle set down to combat the sin’s dangers. Paul, who wrote off most laws as obsolete and irrelevant, makes a point of expressing gratitude for the Tenth Commandment in Romans 7.7: “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” Whether or not its examples were germane to him, they illustrated the principle and that was enough. Indeed, he strikes this note in Acts 20.33-35, as he bids the Ephesians a fond farewell. “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing,” he professes. “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

What’s remarkable about this passage is its usefulness in explaining what Paul means by “I wouldn’t have known what coveting really is” in Romans. “We must help the weak” is the critical link. Covetousness makes the Top Ten by being more invidious than raw lust or greed, envy or deceit because its linchpin is exploiting vulnerability. Once we fix our hearts on getting something that belongs to someone else—be that property position, success, or reputation—it drives us to search for and devise ways to capitalize on his/her weaknesses. We lie in wait for an opportunity to help them fail. We discourage them to our benefit. We take advantage of their trust. Sometimes we even go out of our way to get “closer than close” so things we want from them will come between us.

We needn’t regress to classifying people as property to admit covetousness reduces them to that. There’s no difference between “I’ve got to have that!” and “I want him/her!” The world runs wild with lost souls pouncing on vulnerabilities with the intent of crushing relationships, success, reputations, and hopes. And for what? A lover. A promotion. A leg-up. A laugh. The moment admiration for another’s blessings switches to imagining they can be ours is the instant we sense covetousness at work. If we’re wise, we shut it down before it infects our minds, eyes, ears, and tongues. Covetousness inverts everything Jesus taught and exemplified. It’s an evil unto itself. It compels us to hurt whom we should help, to hate what we should honor. Coveting people and things meets no need. It serves no purpose. When it enters our minds, we need to call it by its name and confront it for what it is.

Coveting inverts everything Jesus taught and exemplified. It compels us to exploit others’ weaknesses. It’s an evil unto itself and we should confront it for what it is.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Take It Easy on Yourself

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11.28-29)

Digging Down and Doing

This is one of those passages we regularly reach for, yet seldom grasp. Without doubt, it’s one of the most blissful—and blessed—promises Jesus makes: “When you’re worn down, come to Me. When you’re overloaded, come to Me. I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28) Could it be more straightforward? So we take Him up on His offer. We go to Him and sigh, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so beat. I just don’t have it in me to move ahead.” Or, “Oh, Jesus, I’ve had it up to here. I just can't find the strength for one more problem.” We stand and wait, as though He’s running a supernatural rebound clinic, where He doles out reenergizing pills and burden reduction therapy. To some degree, the protocol we’ve derived from this text works, because time spent in Christ’s presence always restores energy and strength. Yet when we study the instructions attached to it, our approach is out of line with His direction. Like everything Christ teaches, the outcome He promises expects significant behavioral change from us.

It’s the next part that throws us, where Jesus explains how we get rest. Thus, before staggering to His doorstep, clutching verse 28 like a gift certificate to a spiritual spa, we should read verse 29’s fine print a few times:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Notice the not-so-subtle shift from “I will give” to “you will find”? When we feel too exhausted and put-upon to keep going, we turn to Christ. But in our turning, we realize His promise isn’t about standing around and waiting. It’s about digging down and doing. Jesus never says He’ll handle the heavy lifting. He invites us to exchange our baggage for His lighter load. He doesn’t offer a massage and a nap. He shows us how to take it easy, so our backs don’t ache from unnecessary burdens and our stamina isn’t spent on pointless exertion. “Be like Me,” He says. “Be gentle. Be humble. And you’ll find rest.”


At a glance, this passage seems to pop up from nowhere. It feels tacked-on at the bottom of a relatively uneventful chapter, as if Matthew decided he needed a button—a closing zinger—to pep it up. When we read chapter 11 with wide eyes, however, there’s no mistaking why it’s there. By the time we reach verse 38, it’s obvious Jesus is weary. The chapter starts with bad news. A big crowd has turned out to hear Him preach. Just before He speaks, disciples of John the Baptist arrive to inform Him their imprisoned leader now has second doubts about Jesus. “Go back and tell him what you see,” He replies. “People are being healed. I’m preaching the truth. John needs to settle down.” After they leave, Jesus realizes the crowd overheard His discussion. Some damage control needs doing, because it’s commonly known Jesus began His career as John’s disciple and launched His ministry at the Baptist’s urging. This little dust-up could easily be misinterpreted as rank ingratitude on Jesus’s part or, worse yet, set fire to new questions about His legitimacy. Now He has to scuttle what He intended to tell the people and assure them He holds John in highest regard.

It clearly enervates Jesus that John, his followers, or the crowd would entertain the notion He’s not authentic. “What do you people want?” He asks. “John lives in the desert like a recluse and you say he’s possessed. I minister in the towns and because you’re not thrilled with the company I keep, you say I’m a glutton and drunkard. You’re like a bunch of kids trying to run the show.” Then, catching Himself, Jesus finishes this part of the sermon by saying, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions” (v19)—the same message He sent to John. Usually, He’d change gears here, maybe tell a story with an uplifting moral, or point to something—a tree or field or coin—and extract life-giving wisdom from it. But He can’t seem to escape the weariness and pressure brought on by relentless questions about Him no matter how much good He does. Jesus unleashes a barrage of woes aimed at cities that doubt Him despite the miracles He performed in their streets. It’s not pretty. Once more, He catches Himself, only now He stops preaching and starts praying. The prayer reveals what’s actually going on and why He’s so tired of it. It’s in the prayer that He finds—and we learn how to find—rest and relief.

A Child Can Do It

“I praise you, Father,” Jesus says, “because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (v25) The challenges that weary Christ come from clever people driven by insatiable craving for difficulty. They make things more taxing than they are because simplicity strips their audacity and pride. When the answer is so obvious a child can see and understand it, the smart crowd loses its edge. They flood the squares and pulpits, declaring, “It’s not as simple as it looks.” Yet in Christ’s case, looking proves how simple it is. As He prays, Jesus comes to grips with the fact He’s made Himself tired by trying to get the smart set—whether people of faith, like John and his followers, or doubters, like the cities He condemns—to see what they won’t believe. He’s got sucked into their madness, which He doesn’t relate to, because He’s not like them. They’re harsh; He’s gentle. They’re haughty; He’s humble. They love difficulty; it’s their weapon. He loves simplicity; it’s His gift.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father,” Jesus confesses in prayer. (v27) He has no use for grueling debates and cumbersome issues. Faith in His Father and His purpose removes any reason to be combative and haughty. After this coalesces while He prays, He tells us: “Learn from me. Don’t get sucked into the madness. It’s not as difficult as they claim. It’s just looking and believing—so simple, a child can do it. Don’t let non-essentials exhaust and burden you. Be gentle. Be humble. Be like me. Take it easy on yourself and you will find rest.”

We exhaust and overload ourselves with non-essential complexity. Christ teaches His way is so simple a child can see it. Following His example is how we find rest.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers... He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. (Psalm 1.1,3)

We Wonder

Last week’s news of Tyler Clementi’s suicide burdened our nation, and many around the world, with heavy hearts. His was an unusually happy story that turned tragic in a matter of minutes and ended abruptly the next day. The implications surrounding the tragedy go beyond the premature loss of a talented young musician whose gifts were meant to impart joy and inspiration for years to come. They expose corrupt, distorted values that inevitably emerge when a society becomes preoccupied with fear and hate.

The unjustly sad and final chapter of Tyler’s life starts with a foolish prank. A freshman at Rutgers University, he—like many at his age—was self-consciously discreet about his same-sex orientation. But he appears to have caught the attention of another young man. When he asked for privacy to spend time with him, his roommate pretended to oblige. While Tyler and his friend enjoyed one another’s company, the roommate streamed live video of their visit to an audience he rustled up with this Twitter feed: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” With one invasive mouse-click, he uncovered a secret Tyler purposefully held until he could feel confident and comfortable revealing it. If his wishes and feelings were even considered, they weren’t respected. And we wonder: while his privacy was maliciously violated, was he waiting—hoping—for love and companionship to open the door so he could live openly and honestly? While unknowingly victimized by haters who vent fear through ridicule, did he envision the complete opposite—pride, integrity, and courage? Such sentiments often race through the minds of young gay people at moments like this. Whether Tyler pondered them we don’t know, because he left without telling. He typed six words—“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry”—on his Facebook page, got into his car, and spent his final hour en route to the George Washington Bridge.

Absence of Light

Without minimizing the tragedy, Tyler’s story was perfect for TV. It had terrific video of him playing the violin. It occurred on a highly esteemed campus, complete with leafy quads and Gothic architecture. It involved technical savvy and social networking—hip, hot topics. Tyler’s sexuality definitely added edginess. (Many news outlets deviously upgraded “making out” to a “sexual encounter.”) Still, while watching the coverage unfold, I thought of the innumerable teen suicides that go unreported simply because they occur in less auspicious places and less viewer-friendly situations. How many other children took their lives that day because someone had no problem humiliating them? How many fell to gun violence? (Last week, four Chicago teenagers’ lives ended that way.) How many decided another minute in a world drunk with malice, fright, and pessimism was more than they could bear? And—God help us—how many are silently, invisibly inching closer and closer to the precipice, where the dark unknown frightens them less than terrors hiding in absent light?

And absence of light truly is the issue. Before we slap indictments on the disciples of hatred and fear, it’s our duty to assess how fervently and insistently our light shines. Have we misused Christ’s calling on our lives as a rationale for polite meekness? Are we too concerned about ruffling feathers and alienating people to seize every opportunity to restore light where it no longer exists? Must we actually experience tragedy born of our timidity before mustering courage to fight a cultural tide of thoughtless evil? Had any of us known Tyler or his roommate, does our typical behavior enable us to imagine we might have been instrumental in preventing their tragedy? Or would we have been the sort that thinks we're "making a statement" by not laughing at hateful jokes or sitting silently by while others promote fear and prejudice? Is our concern about being stigmatized victimizing others? No doubt, at this very moment, people who knew these young men wish they'd said or done what they should have said and done to prevent this horrible outcome.

We Will Not

Something’s very wrong when the people we live, work, and associate with presume we’re okay with their destructive attitudes and behaviors. Getting along with everyone is less essential—indeed, it’s non-essential—than spreading our light. To think we can remedy this crisis while abiding its causes is nonsense. Our commitment to justice and righteousness should precede us. We shouldn’t be welcome where hatred and fear reign. We mustn’t be seduced by the idea permission indicates tolerance. We can’t risk perils that befall those who believe it’s possible to indulge darkness up to a point. The first sign of its presence is the moment we say, “Enough!” and mean it. The safety of innocent lives is at stake. Our personal fulfillment and peace of mind are as well.

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers,” Psalm 1.1 wisely asserts. When we think this through, the focus shifts from what’s unacceptable in others to what’s unacceptable for us. Saying “Enough!” says, “We're not allowed to do this. We won't contribute to the crisis. We won’t risk the consequences. We will not surrender our light to darkness.” The psalmist tells us the person who defies wickedness and mockery cannot be shaken. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” verse 3 says, “which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” Why does the poisonous produce of hatred and fear overwhelm us at present? Too few trees bear the fruit of love and faith. We must stand firm in the light, all of us, every one of us, upholding the light, and declare without qualm or condition, “We cannot be shaken. We will not move.”

Absence of light perpetuates a culture of hatred and fear. We cannot falter in our resolve to restore light and end this crisis.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What's in the Water?

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.26-28)


I was reared in Pentecostalism, the schismatic offspring of Fundamentalist groups like the Nazarenes and Baptists, which means I come from a tradition of “dunkers.” Baptism for us was/is less a sacrament (though it is that) than a rite of passage, much like First Communion and Confirmation are milestones for Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Unlike those practices, however, our baptism isn’t generally associated with a certain age or juncture in faith formation. Individuals who come to Christ and confess His Lordship are urged to take “the next step,” i.e., meet the minister in waist-high water—usually in the church baptistery, but sometimes at an outdoor location—to be bodily submerged beneath its surface. (We refer to this as “total immersion.”) Since confession of sin presumes moral conscience and precedes baptism, the ritual is reserved for believers who’ve reached the “age of accountability.” Ergo only those mature enough to recognize their errors, repent of them, and commit their lives to Christ qualify as baptismal candidates. Each believer holds the right to determine when he/she gets “dunked.”

This tradition fixes its adherents to a perspective that strenuously opposes two practices in other Christian communities: infant baptism and the sprinkling or pouring of water on the believer. In the first case, it holds young children are incapable of true repentance and thus ineligible for baptism. And die-hard dunkers, for whom total immersion becomes a cause célèbre, jump to point out Peter’s first instruction to the Church is “repent and be baptized.” (Acts 2.38) The insistence on total immersion isn’t as cut-and-dried, however, as New Testament accounts don’t explicitly report head-to-toe dunking. For example, at Christ’s baptism, Matthew 3.16 says, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.” Does this mean He was under the water or returned to Jordan’s riverbank? In Acts 8, after hearing the Gospel, the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to baptize him. Verse 38 says they “went down into the water,” but doesn’t spell out the mechanics. And I’m not sure what we do with Acts 10, where Peter visits Cornelius, a Roman centurion, sees his and his family’s faith, and baptizes them on the spot. Are we to imagine Cornelius lives in a villa equipped with a spacious pool? Those are mighty fancy digs for a soldier stationed abroad.

Too Much Like Right

With no irrefutable example, total immersion advocates fall back on a literal reading of Paul’s turn of phrase in Romans 6.4 and Colossians 2.12: “buried with him in baptism.” Meaning and metaphor conflate into a method that inflates into a mandate: no submersion, no “burial;” no “burial,” no baptism. And now we come to the rich irony buried in this baptism business. While the dunkers’ rationale for their approach could use more solid scriptural backing, their neighbors across the fence—the sprinklers and dousers, many of whom recoil at the idea of getting soaked to the bone in a public display of faith—don’t fare any better. Nothing in Scripture indicates their technique is any more or less valid. The long and short of it: all we know is baptism exists as a holy ordinance, a symbolic demonstration of faith typified in death and rebirth. Everyone agrees on this and that it must be done. But no one can say with absolute certainty how to do it. So it makes sense to concede the issue on all sides and celebrate the meaningfulness of the act, rather than quibble over the material aspects of the activity. There should be no contention whatsoever about baptism. Yet it remains one of the most divisive topics among us.

Why can’t we come clean and admit we’re all solid on the principle, but shaky on the procedure? To borrow my grandmother’s pet phrase about people who insist on bickering over phantom differences, “Agreeing sounds too much like right.” If everyone’s right about baptism and nobody’s wrong, then I can’t question your Christian experience, nor you mine. That’s a beehive we’re terrified of splitting open, because once we do, we have to respect each other’s beliefs—and our individual rights to believe as we believe—entirely, without exception. In short, we have to trust one another’s word and mean what we say, neither of which comes readily, or reasonably, to us. It’s so much easier to speak for God despite His needing no spokesperson. And we’re very clever about how we do this.

We’re too smart to attack fellow believers on the grounds we’re forgiven and they aren’t. There are just too many “whoever’s” and “anyone’s” and “everyone’s” on the loose. We dare not tamper with that. But baptism—ah, baptism!—now there’s something we can rally around to riot over. If I don’t have to take your word about that, I don’t have to accept it about anything else I’m not comfortable believing. What’s more, since baptism is the physical testimony of repentance, disqualifying your baptism disqualifies your faith. We’ve turned this sacred institution into a trap door we use to pull the floor from beneath one another—or, in some cases, disappear through like it’s a rabbit hole to an alternative universe where we’re right and everyone else is wrong. God have mercy on us.

All of You

Baptism’s mystery and meaning aren’t in fingers that sprinkle, hands that pour, or arms anchoring candidates as they go under. (Or, for that matter, are they found in arms cradling an infant whose parents present the child in baptism to signify their vow to raise it in the faith and knowledge of Christ.) Baptism’s power and majesty reside in the water, whatever its quantity or however it’s administered. Thus, we must ask, “What’s in the water?” Opening Galatians 3.26-28, we find our answer. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Confession of faith brings us to baptism, whose primary purpose is removal of differences. It is not the equivalent of salvation, nor is it simply a reenactment of death and resurrection.

It is total immersion, if not literally, then in the far more profound sense of submersion in a Force so powerful it destroys all divisions, be they cultural, religious, social, or sexual. Baptism clothes us in Christ, Paul teaches. It creates uniformity of purpose by cloaking our pride of self and doubt of others. It enables us to see each other as one and the same. (“Your are all one in Christ.”) By way of baptism, everyone belongs—babies and grown-ups; Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers; rich people and poor people; brown, black, white, yellow, red, and mixed-race people; women and men, gay, straight, and everything in between; dunkers and sprinklers and dousers—everyone touched by the water belongs. And doesn’t it just figure? The very sacrament ordained to free us of differences is the one we won't quit fighting about. Agreeing on baptism doesn’t merely sound too much like right. It is too much like right. Once we get this corrected, we’ll be able to correct the “too much like wrong” that plagues and defames the Body of Christ we’re baptized into.

It’s not in the method; it’s in the water. Baptism submerges us in a Force so powerful it destroys our differences and clothes us in uniformity.