Friday, October 15, 2010

Nothing to Drink

I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. (Matthew 25.42)

(With a grateful hat-tip to Jan, of Yearning for God, who brought the date to my attention.)


Years ago, Chicago parks were outfitted with bubblers—six-sided cement water fountains that flowed non-stop. They were just tall enough for a six-year-old to tiptoe against and lean into for a quick gulp before returning to play. The water was, without question, the sweetest, coldest, and most refreshing I’ve ever tasted. Bubblers were also exciting to us because we were expressly forbidden to drink from them, due to high frequencies of communicable diseases like mononucleosis, strep throat, and rheumatic fever. Although we’d been vaccinated against many of these illnesses, the risk of contracting a crippling infection was too great. So we were repeatedly warned, “Stay away from the bubblers or you’ll get sick.” But how can a child who’s worked up a tremendous thirst look at a bubbler—or any other freshwater source—and see potential danger?

Ours to Correct

Thirst is an immediate, primal need. Unless readily available water is noticeably tainted, thirst will overrule reason every time. This is true for people and animals of all ages. The possibility of eventual sickness loses its import when the need to replenish depleted fluids takes over. Since the vast majority of water-borne diseases have no discernible taste, it’s very easy for long-term health concerns to evaporate on demand. In areas where clean water supplies are low or non-existent, aid workers report tremendous difficulty convincing locals that imperceptibly polluted drinking water and widespread epidemics are linked. Furthermore, in places where the only available water undeniably runs thick with deadly microbes and chemicals, residents are apt to acquire a taste for it. Dying of thirst or dying of disease amount to the same thing: dying. In these situations, a perverse logic takes hold. Remedies for water-borne sicknesses are typically easier to find and administer than solutions for untreated water sources.

In many places, quenching one’s thirst constitutes a death-dance. It’s very hard for people who drink worry-free from taps and fancy-labeled water bottles to comprehend that. Imagining such a thing is so far beyond the pale we tend to set it aside—as if letting Mother Nature worry about the crisis is the most sensible response. But she’s got no worries, because she’s not to blame. We’ve made this mess by treating her streams as our trash disposals, rerouting her rivers for our purposes, and assigning value differentials to human, plant, and animal life based on profit motives. It’s chilling that we can wrap our heads around the literally godforsaken notion it’s permissible to violate remote peoples and places if mining their minerals and befouling their deltas raise our standard of living. Rogue corporations and tycoons treat Africa, Asia, and parts of Central and South America as though they’re barren planets: get in, get the goods, and get out, all the while soaking the terrain with toxins that wash downstream, leech into freshwater aquifers, and destroy the natural balance created to safeguard against diseased and deadly water. We created the crisis. It’s ours to correct.

Data and Biology

Jan posted some powerful data on her site that’s worth sharing here:

  • Every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease.
  • 890 million people lack access to safe water.
  • 2.5 billion people don’t have a toilet, roughly 1 in 3 of us.
  • $25 brings one person clean water for life.
  • 200 million hours of labor are consumed daily to collect water—i.e., our “modern world” is nowhere near as modern as we think.
  • Improperly disposed and untreated human and animal waste is the primary cause for global illness.
  • More people on the planet have mobile phones than toilets.

Now let’s add biology into the mix:

  • On average, water comprises 55-60% of the human organism.
  • Virtually every bodily function relies on it for chemical reactions, purification, and waste elimination.
  • Dehydration sets in with a 5% reduction in water content.
  • Severe, often fatal dehydration occurs when body water is reduced by 10-15%.
  • Since the largest populations without clean water are concentrated in tropical and subtropical regions, dying of thirst is hardly a metaphor or figure of speech for them. Indeed, that’s what ultimately what kills most who suffer with water-borne illnesses due to nausea, perspiration, diarrhea, and cellular decomposition.

A Life-and-Death Issue for Us All

Universal access to clean water is an urgent global imperative and moral responsibility. But believers have the added obligation to care for the thirsty in obedience to Christ. To know this need exists and ignore it condemns us with neglect. In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a glimpse of how we’ll be judged. He compares the process to a herder dividing his sheep and goats. The herder groups sheep to his right and goats to the left. He welcomes the sheep into his fold, naming all the good things they did for those in need, never mentioning “them.” He personalizes it, saying, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v37) Jesus lists caring for thirsty people among the compassionate deeds the herder rewards. The same criteria apply to the goats, who minimized others’ needs and suffer dire consequences. “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” the herder tells them. The goats protest, “We always took care of you!” Here’s how the story ends: “He [the herder] will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v45-46)

There we have it. Thirst is a life-and-death issue for all of us. It kills those we neglect and, as long as we ignore the clean-water crisis, exposes us to an even grimmer fate. Simply put, as long as we’re in the world, there’s no excuse for one soul perishing to thirst and water-related disease.

Accessible, clean water we take for granted is a godsend to millions. As God’s agents, we must send it to them.

Postscript: Obedience Outlets

There are hundreds of organizations working to solve this crisis, all of them needing our time and means. They’re obedience outlets—opportunities to honor Christ’s commandment to care for the thirsty among us. Here’s a very short list of organizations you can contact to learn how to support to their efforts.

The Water Project

Global Water

The Clean Water Fund (US-focused)

Charity: Water




Just a Drop

(If you’ve worked with or given to other organizations and would like them added to the list, please let me know and I’ll update the post.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Land of Either/Or

Who shall separate us from the love Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8.35-37)

Cosmic Mash-Up

A great friend moans on Facebook that he’s got an Olivia Newton-John song stuck in his head he can’t pry loose. Everyone jumps to mention other smarmy tunes that glom onto us like gum to a shoe. I flag “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and think no more of it. Then, this morning, I wake up to find Ms. Newton-John has set up shop in my head. She’s chirping before I hear myself think, a song from Xanadu, no less, one of the worst movies ever made. All she gives me is the hook: “You have to believe we are magic, and nothing can stand in our way.” It loops over and over on the far side of my ears, where I can’t get to it. I try to suppress it during a meeting, but whenever the conversation lulls, there it is: You have to believe... I can’t take it. The instant I get on the subway, I crank my iPod’s “Living in the Past” playlist of Sixties and Seventies hits. I desperately need The Who or The Kinks or The Stones to rescue me. So what shuffles up? The Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way”: “Hang on. Help is on its way. I’ll be there as fast I can. Hang on, a tiny voice did say, from somewhere deep inside the inner man.”

Perhaps I’m watching too much “Glee”. Without conscious intent, I’ve concocted a motivational mash-up (not a bad one, either): Hang on. You have to believe. Help is on its way. Nothing can stand in our way. I’ll be there as fast as I can… Is Someone speaking? Not being one who stores much credence in extra-scriptural phenomena, like weeping Madonnas or (wink to Gleeks) Christ’s apparition on a slice of toast, I park the question to see if more back up turns up. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows. See? Just a coincidence, I sigh—until “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” gives me a jolt. I ease off to let the music play. Another sigh when Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” comes on. Then she sings, “Are you gonna let me go there by myself? That’s such a lonely thing to do.” All of a sudden, I’m in the Land of Either/Or: Believe or Beelzebub; Hang On or Help Me; “I’ll be there” or, “Are you gonna let me go there by myself?” I realize I’m in the cosmic mash-up we sort through constantly. Everything we do and say, every response and expectation is shaped either by faith or fear, persistence or panic. Either we trust God for our best or we tremble to imagine our worst. We either hang on, knowing He’s on His way, or we go it alone. We dwell in the Land of Either/Or.

The Principality, Not the Path

I won’t be convinced deciding to follow Christ is tough or complicated. No one can possibly exceed the lengths He’s taken to offer us love and life. Accepting His gift is so clearly the best decision it’s hard work to rationalize rejecting it. The ease in recognizing it’s the right—the only—choice can be misleading, though. When challenges that accompany following Jesus surface, many believers lose their way. They quit without pause, saying, “I signed up to be loved and gain eternal life, not to love haters, welcome strangers, give to receive, break habits, fix attitudes, embrace the impossible, and trust the invisible. How is any of that easy?” We can’t dispute them. None of it seems easy. But the difficulty is caused by the principality, not the path. As we follow Jesus through the Land of Either/Or, each step confronts us with dangers and perplexities that demand responses completely unnatural to the atmosphere surrounding us.

We have to believe we are magic—not in the Harry Potter sense, of course, but in knowing we’re indomitable and impervious to forces that govern Either/Or. That’s why we never tire of hearing Paul’s description of our unique powers in Romans 8.35-37: “Who shall separate us from the love Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Just look at all those “or’s!” Every one of them is a fear-fueled, panic-ridden, completely realistic possibility. Yet when we believe, when we opt for the “either’s”—the choices that test our faith and persistence—nothing can stand in our way. We are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us, Paul insists, removing any question of where our powers lie. Our fortitude, confidence, and hope—our genius—is in the love Christ proved, and the life He promises.

We Are Magic

Paul cites Psalm 44.22 to stress how our meek appearance belies our mighty power: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” The dangers we encounter on the road come from crossing hostile territory and passing derisive personalities. Earlier in the psalm, the poet complains, “You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.” (v13-14) Why is that? Seen from the roadside, we look like sheep headed for ruin, as though we’re so oblivious to the world’s ways we’ll look up to find our Shepherd’s left us in the slaughter pen. “Never!” Paul says. “Nothing will ever separate us from His love!”

Thus, in a very real sense, we are magic, because magic tricks the eye. How we’re seen and what’s said of us is not who we are. We look like sheep on the outside. Inside, we’re more than conquerors. What appears to be mindless compliance is revealed as ingenious obedience. The terrors meant to defeat us are inexplicably transformed into tests that define us. When we should cry, “Help me!” we rejoice, “Help is on its way!” We must always remember everything we see and hear in Either/Or is backwards. Apparent weakness is true strength. Foolishness that’s mocked merits respect for its wisdom. Insults translate into praise, and logical thinking is ridiculed by unnatural faith. Knowing this, we have to believe we are magic. Nothing can stand in our way.

For all practical purposes, the world sees us as oblivious sheep. But our appearance is deceiving. We’re not sheep. Christ’s love makes us more than conquerors.

Postscript: Hang On

Saddling you with Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” would be a cruelty beyond forgiveness. Instead, here’s a 1978 video of The Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way.” I find the bridge particularly powerful:

Don't you forget who'll take care of you

It don't matter what you do

Form a duet - let him sing melody

You'll provide the harmony.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Enoch and Enoch

Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. (Genesis 5.24)

A Mismatched Set

Genesis gives us two men named Enoch, making it easy to confuse them and possibly even conflate them into a single person. It’s important to keep them separate, though, by getting to know both. They’re a mismatched set and distinguishing between them uncovers nuances we’d otherwise miss. The first Enoch is only remarkable for his background, while the second one definitely qualifies as a “seminal figure”—the academician’s pet name for someone who instinctively revolutionizes how future generations think and live.

Enoch 1: Never to Be Mentioned Again

Enoch 1 shows up in Genesis 4.17-18 and vanishes, never to be mentioned again: “Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad,” after which three subsequent father-son pairs are listed.

Mining this information yields much gold. 1.) He’s Adam’s first grandson, the earliest offspring of a mortally conceived man, and thus the primary link in humanity’s self-perpetuating chain. 2.) He comes from bad stock. His father’s an exiled murderer. To say his mother’s background is sketchy amounts to gross understatement; we have no idea where she and everyone else in Nod, Cain’s chosen abode, come from. 3.) In keeping with Jewish tradition, she’s a “foreigner,” making Enoch 1 a half-breed. Then, since Judaism defines ethnicity by maternal origins, Enoch 1 effectively is a “nobody” without any claim as Adam and Eve’s heir. 4.) The text hints that Cain names a city for his son to compensate for deficits passed down to him. Alas, Enoch 1 doesn’t accomplish anything worthy of a namesake city. Notable achievements don’t surface on this branch of Adam’s family until five generations later, when the first farmer appears, followed by his son’s musical talent, and the next son’s invention of metalworking. By then, nine generations down the line, Enoch 1 is a faded entry in the record.

Enoch 2: Mentioned Repeatedly and Often

While Cain struggles to establish his family, Adam and Eve have a new son, Seth, who becomes the de facto patriarch of the Jewish race. Ironically, Genesis 5 documents his lineage with no mention of anything inventive or productive. For six generations, all we’re told of each is: “He lived so long. He fathered an heir and other children. And then he died.” Then Enoch 2 appears seventh in line on Seth’s side and does something too spectacular to be ignored. He walks with God.

Like Enoch 1, his story briefly unfolds (four sentences) and then he vanishes. But he’s mentioned repeatedly and often because he vanishes. Genesis 5.24 reports, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” He disappears never to return. While Enoch 1 and the city named for him turn to dust, Enoch 2 is forever remembered because not a speck of him exists on the planet. He breaks the then-he-died mold. He defies convention with something so simple it’s impossible to fathom: He walks with God and is no more. And in doing that, he radically alters humankind’s understanding of how it relates to God and what happens when He’s pleased. To this day, his instinctive drive to build a relationship with his Maker—not a city or a name for himself—influences all we believe God to be and all we hope to gain from Him.


As with much in Genesis, the writer drops this bombshell about Enoch without answering many questions. Here’s all we know. When he’s 65, Enoch has his first son, Methuselah. (Yes, that Methuselah—the oldest human on record.) After his son’s birth, Enoch starts to walk with God. We’re not told what prompts his decision. But it's plainly suggested it's somehow tied to fatherhood. We do know engaging a close relationship with God doesn’t disrupt his life, because the writer tells us he continues to father children during the 300 years they walk together. So Enoch isn’t an ascetic who abandons his family to commune only with God in a cave or under a tree. Walking with God implies he moves in constant awareness he’s not alone. He remains present in God’s presence. He welcomes Him into every area of his life. This pleases God so much, when the time’s right, He skips the death process and assumes Enoch directly into His keeping.

Of course, we want to know how it works, particularly since the Bible’s other two assumptions—Elijah’s and Christ’s—include logistical details that go missing with Enoch. (A heavenly chariot whisks Elijah away, while Christ bodily ascends into Heaven.) The walking aspect invites us to imagine the day comes when Enoch defies gravity and climbs into eternal bliss. However we envision his transition, we don’t see him looking back, deeply conflicted about leaving. The devotion captured in three centuries of divine fellowship infers supreme detachment from relationships and possessions. Long before Enoch’s physical transformation, an inner change overtakes his heart and alters his views. He measures life in moments, not popularity and wealth (though we’re wise to suspect he’s well loved and well off, as that’s often typical of those who walk with God.) For Enoch, being lifted into God’s presence is simply the next step. He has no qualms about letting go. The letting-go happened so long ago, it’s possible he’s forgot how to hold on.

The Enoch Principle

What we might call “The Enoch Principle” permeates Christ’s ministry. Nearly everything He says in some shape or form points back to forging a constant, present relationship with God and detaching from people and possessions that hinder our walk with Him. It’s in the stories about risking great loss to achieve greater gain. It underpins the parables that warn against compromising our commitment out of fear of failure, as well as those about overvaluing what we own. Again and again, Jesus calls us to walk with God, from the tender beckoning of “Follow Me,” to the harsh demands we forsake family and fields for Him. And when we take to His road, He’s emphatically clear it doesn’t end. We turn a soft corner and, like Enoch, we are no more, because God takes us away. Walking with God leads to life.

We have a choice, it seems. Are we Enoch 1’s, daunted by circumstances beyond our control—misguided families, social stigmas, and anomalies no one can explain? Are we content to be associated with institutions constructed for our benefit without accomplishing anything of eternal value on our own? Are we OK with showing up, hanging around, and vanishing, never to be mentioned again? Or are we Enoch 2’s? Do we answer life’s challenges by seeking inner change? Do we walk with God? Are we present in His presence? Have we learned to honor our responsibilities without being hostages to them? Can we do the letting-go and train ourselves to forget how to hold on? Will it also be said of us, “They walked with God; then they were no more, because God took them away?”

What we do with what we've been given will determine whether we vanish, never be mentioned again, or vanish, never to return, always to be remembered. It’s our choice.

Walk with God.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Set Them Free

The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread. For I am the LORD your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar... I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand. (Isaiah 51.14-16)

Exponentially and Continuously

October 11 is National Coming Out Day (NCOD) in the States and many European countries. (The UK observes it on 12 October.) It’s a relatively new tradition, and we’re just getting the hang of it. One might think of it along these lines: as US Independence Day is to Election Day, LGBT Pride is to NCOD. Pride celebrates freedom to be counted as equally recognized and honorable members of society; NCOD creates an occasion for women and men who’ve not yet embraced their freedom to do so. Since it involves no polls, there are no reliable data to assess its real impact. Yet even if we could calculate how many took advantage of NCOD, the figure—whether 5 or 5 million—would concede a gulf-sized margin of error to account for not including everyone, regardless of orientation, who quits the closet alongside the newly out LGBT individual. Coming out must be measured exponentially and continuously, because none of us comes out alone—whatever our closets may be (and we’ll get to that in a minute).

Calling off the hide-and-seek routine initiates a journey. The instant we say, “This is who I am and where I’m going,” we essentially ask everyone who hears (and hears of) our declaration: “Are you coming or not?” Thankfully, some hurry to join us, saying, “It’s about time!” Others come along despite uncertainty they’re equipped for the journey. Some need more time to process the information we just dropped in their laps—information we’ve had years to absorb—and send us off with promises to catch up, which they ultimately honor. Then, sadly, others want no part of it. They issue an ultimatum: “If you quit this closet, we’re through.” That’s why we can never know exactly how many people come out. It’s Henry + 6 x the people they inform (- those who stay behind). It’s Nancy + 250 x their friends and neighbors (- others who refuse to leave her closet).

What Do We Do?

The person coming out is never one data point, but a cluster of them that continues to multiply as more supportive allies accumulate. We show them our respect and gratitude by factoring them into our thoughts and conversations about coming out. As Christians, however, we’re also compelled to consider the missing points—the people shackled to prejudice and fear, those who sever ties to us because they’ve wound their love around doctrines, dogmas, and myths, and, finally, the unfortunates who filter every difficulty they face through their what’s-in-it-for-me sieve. What do we do—what can we do—for the people who can’t, don’t, or won’t leave our closets to take this journey with us?

We set them free.

Not us. Them. We set them free. This is where coming out ceases to be about us. Surely we understand those who willfully remain behind. How can we not, having fled the very terrors that torment them? It took years for us to muster the courage to defy it. Their reticence shouldn’t shock us in the least. Can we comfortably accuse them of conscious hatred, hypocrisy, and cowardice after inflicting the same harms—and many more like them—on ourselves? How soon we forget the doubt and confusion that darkened our lives!

Because we weren’t honest with God, others, or ourselves before coming out, we often look back on the closet as no more real than we were while trapped inside it. It’s now a cliché we’ve outgrown, a cartoon chamber of horrors we sneer at. But the closet remains very real to everyone it holds. It’s a prison that warps the heart of anyone too weak to resist its pressures. We recall the crippling grip of cowardice and the pain it hides in mean talk and hateful postures. The closet’s realities must never escape us. People we dearly love still languish there. And though we’re out of the closet, we won’t truly be released from it until we’ve done all we possibly can to set them free.

Answering Under Cover

“Okay!” I hear some complain. “The horse is dead. Put your stick down and tell us how we rescue our loved ones. What has to be done to tear the closet down?” We don’t tear it down. And we most certainly don’t go back into it, thinking we can sneak them out. (I know several who’ve tried and ended up worse off than before they came out—a few going so far as to submit to voodoo mind control therapy, attempting to reshape God’s image to reflect their fears. Oh yes, the closet is an extremely sinister place!) We free those still trapped in our closets by speaking and living freely. While they may claim they no longer care about us and may even say they hate who we’ve become, never doubt they’re attentively observing and listening to us. More likely than not, they watch because they’re primed to expect we’ll one day reappear at the closet door, begging forgiveness and readmission, like prodigals who’ve squandered their dignity on high living and carnal pursuits. In other words, they wait for us to fail. They don’t want us to fail, but they’re convinced we need to and we will. And that’s okay, because their attention is all that matters. With that, we have a God-given opportunity to demonstrate what freedom and integrity look like.

When we dedicate our lives to our Maker and devote our energy to pleasing Him, what they actually see bears no resemblance to what they anticipate. As I’ve personally witnessed again and again, our departure from their closet-based assumptions will trouble them. It should, as coming out constitutes a profoundly daring leap of faith—an act of determination based on confidence that God made us and loves us as we are. And faith never goes unrewarded. So coming out changes us for the better. The trials and hardships that often follow the leap are sent to refine our character, correct our thoughts, and increase our faith. Coming out fixes our speech and amplifies our courage to calm the distress that troubles others. Listen closely to Isaiah 51.14-16. God promises what we say and the confidence we express will become keys that release those still locked in our closets:

The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread. For I am the LORD your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD Almighty is his name. I have put words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand—I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, "You are my people."

See how this works? God honors their faith by troubling their minds. The churning doubts and roaring disapproval come from Him. He honors our faith by enabling us to answer under cover—to speak words He puts in our mouths boldly and fearlessly, knowing His hand rests over us. It doesn’t matter what closet we have (or have yet to) come out of. The things we want to hide are things God wants to use. Nothing He gives us is unworthy or unsightly. Every trait and talent, everything that makes you uniquely you, is given to steer and sustain your journey. Shake off worries about what others will think or how they’ll respond to your freedom. Come out. Claim your gifts. Use them. Demonstrate freedom and integrity. You’re surrounded with people waiting for you to come out. You know people who won’t get it at first, but they’ll follow in time. And you also know people too threatened and uncertain to leave your closet. See God in their churning. Hear Him in their roars. His hand will shelter you so you can speak His word to their troubled minds. You may have to speak it over and over. But keep speaking. Keep being. Set them free.

It doesn’t matter why they’re watching, as long as we can show them the freedom and integrity that come from leaving our closets of fear and doubt.