Saturday, December 4, 2010

Repost: Performance

Blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. (Luke 1.45; KJV)


Of all the coming-out scenarios I know—meaning any significant life turn based on self-disclosure—one has yet to rival Mary’s story. Here is a lovely, small-town girl engaged to a modest tradesman, probably expecting no more from her future than an ordinary life as a wife and mother. Then—WHAM!— an angel appears. In about 10 minutes’ time, Mary learns things about herself she never imagined. For starters, she’ll soon become pregnant. That knocks her into a tailspin and each new bombshell compounds her problems.

We think accepting ourselves and asking family and friends to do likewise is scary? After looking at Mary, let’s think again. At least we gradually discover who we are. Mary’s news hit her like a ton of bricks. It was her job to deal with it—its physical and emotional challenges, explaining it to Joseph and her family, facing inevitable shame in her neighborhood, and worst of all, comprehending the whole thing. If ever someone was entitled to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” it was Mary. But listen to her response: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1.38)

Scene Changes

Each of us understandably likes to view his/her life as its own unique drama. We see ourselves in lead roles we were born to play. And this is so. But our story also intersects with the spectacle of creation, in which we’re one in a cast of billions. Now, we’re supporting characters created and called to avail our talent to ensure God’s glory is revealed through us. This is precisely how Mary saw it. With stunning perception, she saw the scene had changed. Although Christ’s story suddenly overshadowed hers, she recognized God chose her for a reason. She set aside her expectations in life to serve God’s purpose.

A God Who Performs

Any time we’re asked to step into God’s sphere, we’re apt to have doubts. It’s hard to envision the full scope of God’s plan and feel comfortable about what we’re supposed to do. This apparently happened to Mary. Luke says she hurried off to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who also was pregnant. Mary barely got through the door before God’s Spirit spoke through Elizabeth, saying because she believed there would be a performance of all she’d been told.

My former pastor repeatedly cited this passage, reminding us we serve a God Who performs. When God says it, God means it—whatever “it” is. Paul said, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 1.20) Yes, it is so, we say, knowing our story nestles inside a far greater one. Each of us plays a part. We all serve a purpose. And God performs.

Originally posted August 22, 2008.

Our story intersects with the spectacle of creation, in which we’re one in a cast of billions. We say "Yes" to God's purpose, and God performs what's promised to us.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Called to Hope

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you. (Ephesians 1.18)

How’s Your Hope?

This being Advent’s “hope week,” it’s been my daily focus. Yet I confess an odd sort of ambivalence about hope. Unlike faith and love—the other two abiding principles that complete Paul’s triumvirate in 1 Corinthians 13—hope strikes me as a slippery concept. Faith and love are easier to get our arms around, because Jesus and the epistle writers provide a plethora of definitions for them. On the other hand, as often as the word hope appears—180 times in the NIV—I’ve yet to find one verse that says, “Here’s what hope is.” Tracking down the Hebrew and Greek words only confuses things. Old Testament “hope” derives from “cord” or “rope,” indicating it’s a thing we hold and trust while we wait. New Testament “hope” is more straightforward: “expectation.” That gets to the nub of my consternation. When David says, “I hope for Your deliverance” (Psalm 119.166), he means, “I’m hanging on.” When Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in hope” (Romans 12.12), he wants us to exult in what we expect God will do. Where I come from, hanging on is one thing and exultation is another.

Imagine my perplexed response when thinking about hope brought this to mind: How’s your hope? I had no answer, as I had no idea what I’d asked myself. I fired back, “What do you mean?” (I have these testy inner dialogues from time to time.) Was I wondering about my tenacity to believe or my ability to expect? “All of it,” I heard myself say. “How are you doing with it?” I didn’t like that question one bit. Truth be told, I don’t work too much on hope. I’m confident I have it. I expect God’s goodness and mercy in all things. As a rule, I trust God when I’m left hanging. Yet hope seldom captivates my thoughts. I’ve settled for having it instead of doing it, twisting it into a limbo lobby, a type of suspended optimism I hang with until something actually happens. Is that hoping? It sounds more like loitering. Now I realize why the hope I project on Advent texts feels ambiguous and thin. I’m not seeing the writers and figures do hope. I’ve got them waiting—albeit excitedly—for the show to start, and that’s not what they do, since that's not what hope is.

Before Our Stories Happen

Hope is a tough concept for us because we take its operative principles less seriously than our ancestors. Modern cynicism and self-sufficiency lend credence to “promises are made to be broken.” Nowadays, it’s bad form to hold people to their word. Often out of grace, but also to escape appearing needy—Heaven forbid we rely on someone—we overlook most bad promises. (Forgiving them is a conversation for another time.) We forget little to no faith in promises produces little to no hope. To guard against disappointment, we view hope suspiciously, which is exactly not what it’s for. Hope is given to nurture confidence in promises until they’re honored. The ancients understood hope more clearly. In their day, the burden of hope rested on the promise maker, not its taker, because they had no alternative to depending on one another. If the farmer didn’t deliver promised grain, no one ate bread. If the weaver didn’t produce promised cloth, everyone wore rags. Promises held the world together. Hope made it spin. Their combined gravity secured daily life. That’s why God’s promises and our hope form the braid—the cord—that ties Scripture together, and why we’re consistently told to be true to our word, even as our Creator honors promises to us.

Rethinking hope as an active pursuit rather than passive—possibly futile—occupation also reveals its hidden beauty. It’s the key to entering our stories before they happen. It puts us where we want to be ahead of actually getting there. Reality-clouded intellect would have us dismiss canny hope as callow fantasy. To go through life hanging on promises, fully expecting they’ll come to pass, seems naïve and weak-minded. We’ve even coined a euphemism for it: living in denial. Paul challenges this, asserting hope is the sign of hard-won, inner strength: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” (Romans 5.3-5) Yes, hardship builds character. But ending the process there limits involvement in our narrative to the moment it calls for character. True strength becomes evident when trust in God’s promises presses us to finish the sequence—to muster the guts to hope. According to Ephesians 1.18, that’s what God hopes we’ll do: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” We are called to hope. While murky minds don’t see it, our enlightened hearts recognize we have a place in our story long before promises we rely on come about.


Look at the characters arriving at the Christ-Child’s manger. Need we ask what brings them there? Every one of them, from Mary and Joseph to the Magi to the lowliest shepherd, lands in this filthy barn on wings of hope. They embrace God’s promises and act on them. They leave what they know behind—friends and families, palaces and pastures—answering God’s call to hope. Terrible outcomes cannot be ruled out. Obeying God’s call could end with Mary and Joseph being stoned as fornicators. Seeking Christ’s birthplace could result in the Wise Men’s arrest as covert insurgents. After abandoning their flocks to worship the Savior, the shepherds could return to find their livestock stolen or destroyed. Yet not one of us would consider any of the Holy Infant’s attendants delusional or weak-minded. They’re paragons of insight and strength!

Hope makes arriving at God’s promises possible and vindicates us from doubts and criticism along the way. God calls us to hope—to enter our stories with God, to follow God in active expectancy, to pursue God’s promises with enlightened hearts. Hope takes us where we’re headed before we get there. It’s what proves strength of character forged in hardship. Hope is what we do, leaving everything we know behind and trusting every risk we take will be rewarded. So how is your hope? How are you doing with it?

Hope is the key to entering our stories before they happen.

Postscript: “The Solid Rock”

This incredible choral arrangement combines two favorite hymns: “My Hope is Built” and “Standing on the Promises”—neither of them Christmas carols, but both appropriate for anyone who follows hope to the manger. With minor regrets for not finding better video with the song, it’s my great joy to leave you today with “The Solid Rock” by Rev. Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir. I have no doubt you’ll be inspired by it!


My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus' blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus' name

When darkness veils His lovely face

I rest on His unchanging grace

In every high and stormy gale

My anchor holds within the veil

On Christ the Solid Rock

On Christ the Solid Rock

His power is able to keep me from falling

Having done all to stand He will make me strong

On Christ the Solid Rock I'm standing tall

When He shall come with trumpet sound

O may I then in Him be found

Dressed in His righteousness alone

Faultless to stand before the throne

On Christ the Solid Rock

On Christ the Solid Rock

My faith has found a resting place in Jesus

I love Him more each day; His love has shown the way

On Christ the Solid Rock I'm standing--

Just for me He chose to bleed

For my sins He took the blame

And then He died for all

So that all could come and not be lost

Standing on the promises of Jesus Christ, my Savior

Glory in the highest I will shout and sing His praise forever

On Christ the Solid Rock

He is that Solid Rock

On Christ the Solid Rock

I'm standing tall!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Repost: Waiting for Strength

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run, and not grow weary; they shall walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40.31)


“Anticipation is making me wait; it’s keeping me waiting,” Carly Simon sang so splendidly in her 70’s classic. And as the anonymous sage said, “Anything worth having is worth waiting for.” But it's easy to wait for something we desire. Waiting for what we need is another thing entirely—definitely not anything to sing about. When we anticipate needs, we provide for them in advance so we won’t have to wait. It’s only when unanticipated needs arise that we’re plunged into the waiting game. These are times when anticipation turns into its ugly alternative, anxiety. Once anxiety rears its head, fear and doubt soon follow.

After lavishing God's people with extraordinary promises of its coming Redeemer, Isaiah wisely intuits the big question on everyone’s mind: When will our Savior get here? Given the perpetually repeated pattern of invasion, occupation, destruction, and rebuilding before the next enemy attack, their concept of a Messiah long ago morphed from heartfelt desire into desperate hope. Still, Isaiah doesn’t know exactly when the Promised One will appear. So he changes the subject from a promise with an undetermined delivery date to a matter of urgent importance.

Immediate Needs

Like Israel, we frequently fix our sights so far into the future we overlook immediate needs that weaken our perseverance and patience as we hope for big promises—finding a life partner, financial security, social and family acceptance, equal rights, etc. We grow weak and weary and disgruntled, focusing on signals that discourage us from holding fast to the promise God will come through in the end. Until then, we’re in dire need of new strength and tenacity. If we lose heart and let go, the “big things” God wants to do for us will never come about.

Isaiah preempts Israel’s question about how long it must wait on God by questioning how well it knows God. In verses 28-29, he asks, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” Though our faith falters and our stamina fails, God continues to move, full speed ahead. God’s reasons and methods are beyond our comprehension. In the meantime, God meets our immediate needs for new strength and power.


Solomon observed, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9.11) In other words, a lot of uncontrollable factors come into play as we wait for big things. The question isn’t when will they come to us. It’s when will we get to them. Endurance is what’s most crucial here. Jesus said, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10.22) And, in verse 30, Isaiah points out not everyone who seems likely to go the distance makes it: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall.” But, he says, those who hope in God receive new strength. They soar like eagles. They run without getting tired. They walk without feeling faint. God’s great promises require great endurance. When our hope starts to weaken, God sends new strength to sustain our trust.

Originally posted December 4, 2008.

It's not when great things will come to us—it's when will we get to them. To shore up our endurance, God meets our short-term needs for new strength.

Postscript: “They That Wait”

I was raised on this simple song that takes its lyric from Isaiah 40.31 (KJV). It never grows old for me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Not Unnoticed: World AIDS Day 2010

The woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” (Luke 8.47-48)

Perils of Invisibility

June 5 of 2011 we will enter our fourth decade of fighting HIV/AIDS. It boggles the mind that we’ve been at it for so long—for most of us, more than half our lives. We who witnessed the battle’s commencement find it impossible to imagine a second generation will soon come of age never knowing a world free of the virus. It frustrates us that many younger people are less concerned about HIV/AIDS than we’ve been. This is the dark side of progress we’ve made to disarm the virus. HIV is now a “manageable” disease like hypertension or diabetes. We thank God it is. Yet there’s no ignoring the disconnect between what “living with HIV” means to anyone who survived the plague’s devastation versus those who’ve grown up since the discovery of how to contain and treat it.

The invisibility of HIV/AIDS in the Western world unleashes new perils. Chief among them, of course, is our blunted sense of vulnerability to infection and vigilance against its spread. Safe sex is now widely viewed as a choice. In the gay community, “bug-chasing” is on the rise, with people intentionally seeking high-risk sex with HIV+ partners, presuming infection will end the need of protection. It’s heinously selfish—naïvely so for risk-takers, and downright criminal of anyone who obliges them. Such stupidity was inconceivable before medical advances commuted HIV/AIDS’ death sentence to life without parole. Seeing the virus devour its victims turned unsafe sex into cultural taboo.

With visibility among us reduced practically to nil, HIV/AIDS is mistaken as nothing to fear. That’s the myth we now battle. That’s our new frontier. And the reckless shift in our culture perpetuates further perils of invisibility by blinding us to the plague’s rampage in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. There—where customs, superstitions, and ignorance impede prevention, while poverty, access, and shortages frustrate treatment—HIV/AIDS sightings are all too common. Breathing skeletons walk the land. Orphans and widows beg alms in the streets. Exhausted healthcare workers stagger beneath unbearable loads. But even when we’re shown what full-blown AIDS looks like there, we don’t really see it, because that’s not how HIV/AIDS looks where we are. Since driving this villain underground, comfort in living with it has dampened fervor to conquer it. Every grateful prayer for learning to defuse HIV/AIDS’ violence should include an earnest plea for renewed courage and commitment to defeat it once and for all.

Unafraid of Being Seen

In Biblical times, the relationship between disease and invisibility is the reverse of today. No thought is given to suppressing symptoms so the sick can live without detection. Raising barriers against disease and offloading non-productive family members holds primary importance. The Law banishes afflicted people from their communities. The lame, blind, deaf, mute, mentally ill, and lepers line city walls or huddle in designated areas, surviving on the charity of passers-by. Those with internal sicknesses languish at home, explicitly banned from public gatherings and worship. Ignoring these restrictions constitutes a felony, in some cases a capital offense. And so, as we observe World AIDS Day by revisiting the story of the hemorrhaging woman, it’s essential we understand the huge liabilities she assumes to be cured of her condition. Ongoing relief and concealment of her symptoms aren’t viable options. Her only hope rests in defeating the disease that plagues her once and for all.

For twelve years she’s agonized with abnormally heavy and prolonged menstrual periods, which classifies her “unclean.” Because her flows are unpredictable, she’s not at liberty to move about when well. Once her period begins, she closes her door, sparing visitors the cleansing ritual and daylong quarantine required of anyone who contacts her. Those who know her obviously know she’s sick—which is why simply leaving her house when Jesus visits her village amazes us. Although she’s currently bleeding, she’s unafraid of being seen. Anyone she touches will be contaminated, raising the prospect of being exposed to the whole village. Suppose she reaches Jesus. What will she say? “I’m hemorrhaging” would be social suicide. Even if He heals her, disregard for everyone she bumps into will breed contempt. Hope of regaining freedom she lost to sickness will be futile; she’ll still be a pariah. She devises an ingenious strategy, investing all her faith in it. “He doesn’t need to see me, hear me, or speak to me,” she tells herself. “If I can touch His coat’s hem, I’ll be cured.” Her predicament puts her in the strange position of avoiding notice to benefit from Jesus’s attention.

Standing with Christ

While the strategy ultimately fails, the woman’s faith carries the day. The bleeding immediately stops when she catches Jesus’s coat. In what must be a most alarming, unforeseen complication, she also stops Jesus. “Who touched me?” He asks. Everyone backs off. Peter tries to break the tension by reminding Jesus He’s swarmed with people jostling Him. “Somebody touched Me,” He insists. “I felt power leave Me.” Luke 8.47-48 tells us: “The woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’” Her confidence is why she’s cured. Compassion is what stops Jesus. He knows the woman is healed. He felt it happen. It’s vital to Him that she’s not unnoticed, so He can rid the stigma of her disease as well. He calls her His daughter. “Go in peace,” He says—an overt warning to anyone who might ostracize her in contempt. And He ratifies her freedom by ignoring the cleansing and quarantine ordinances for anyone touched by a menstruating woman.

Normally, we enter miracle stories in the shoes of the sufferer. Today, as we focus on HIV/AIDS victims and the critical issues swirling around the virus, there’s much to gain from standing with Christ in this story. We possess power to feel the tug of HIV/AIDS, to rid its stigmas, to warn anyone who ostracizes its victims, to ratify their freedom by ignoring phobic reactions to their touch. Healing and health are matters of personal faith; they’re beyond our reach. Our primary concern is ensuring HIV/AIDS is not unnoticed, for the benefit of those it afflicts, as well as current and future generations at risk. Living with HIV is an advance, not final victory. The war must not end until the virus is irrevocably defeated.

We stand with Christ in compassion for more than 40,000,000 people afflicted by HIV/AIDS and its stigmas—and millions more oblivious to its dangers. They cannot go unnoticed.

Postscript: "Hidden Faces of AIDS"

If you've not seen this powerful intro to World Vision's "Acting on AIDS" video, it's well worth the one minute, eleven seconds of your time.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stolen Voices

The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng. (Psalm 68.11)

A Mighty Throng

Yesterday, after a truly wild and woolly workday, I really needed it to end. A nap would give me a fresh start, I thought. I awoke an hour later with gifts in mind—not Christmas gifts. Just gifts. I recalled Ephesians 4.7-8: “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’” With Paul quoting Psalm 68.18, I reread the entire song. Even after a third read, however, I hadn’t the slimmest notion what it was about. It sounded like a victory hymn. Clearly, something amazing happened—a war won, a lost territory regained, or a longtime enemy vanquished. But the language was all over the map. Ephesians sounded much easier. It fired up plenty ideas: grace personified in Christ; Christ’s gifts to us; ascendance; etc. But verse 11 wouldn’t let go: “The Lord”—Governor of all things—“announces the word”—including The Word, the Christ—“and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng.”

A mighty throng of women proclaiming God’s Word! The image thrilled me no end. Having plunged into Advent, my mind instantly saw Mary and Elizabeth. It dashed ahead to Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb, to Lydia, Lois, Eunice, and other Early Church heroines. It flashed on Sarah, Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Esther, and Hannah, as well as three matriarchs Matthew makes sure to include in his genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, the rejected wife; Rahab, the courageous prostitute; and Bathsheba, the widow of a man David has killed so he can make her his queen. Finally, I ran the long list of extraordinary women of faith in my life, especially those I’ve come to know here. What a mighty throng they are! “Christ gave gifts,” Paul says, and the multitude of Spirit-led, fiercely committed women proclaiming God’s Word undoubtedly ranks among the greatest of them. Is this what David’s saying? That’s what I hear. Still, it would be careless not to confirm my reading. Who are the women in Psalm 68?


Opening Calvin’s Commentary on Psalms, I learned Psalm 68 confounded him and every other reputable commentator after him. Adam Clarke named it “the most difficult psalm in the whole Psalter.” The 17th-century theologian and linguist, Simon de Muis, wrote, “There are customs here referred to, which I do not fully understand: there are words whose meaning I cannot, to my own satisfaction, ascertain; and allusions which are to me inexplicable.” Combing through commentaries uncovered constant refrains of “David seems to say” and “This might mean.” So who are Psalm 68’s women? Nobody can confidently say. According to Clarke, verse 11 literally translates as, “Of the women preachers there was a great host,” and many agree, much to our satisfaction. They also agree the verse likely evokes Deborah, Israel’s legendary judge, who sent King Barak into battle and stood with him to declare victory. Yet, since she sings her triumph, most commentators—obviously skittish about the whole woman-preacher thing—use the extrapolation to interpret “the mighty throng” as a female choir. Unfortunately, David adds ammo to their speculation in verse 25 by mentioning “young women playing the timbrels,” an instrument associated with Miriam, who led Israel into song and dance after crossing the Red Sea.

I don’t buy it. If David meant “singers,” why call them “preachers”? They proclaim God’s word. What’s more, they witness God’s goodness to them: “Kings and armies flee in haste; the women at home divide the plunder. Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.” (v12-13) Doves are messengers, not songbirds. One imagines this mighty throng defiantly raising arms wreathed in fine bracelets to declare, “See what God has done!” I hear shouts of confidence, a flurry of powerful spoken praise. Miscasting women as a choir cleverly reduces them to back-up singers, which—despite the psalm’s riddles—they plainly aren’t. David puts them at the top of the third stanza. It’s God word. But it’s their proclamation.

Bristling at the commentators’ brazen attempts to shove women into the background, I thought of the song Mary sings to convey her wonder at God’s work in her. I turned to Luke 1 to reread it, hoping to hear echoes of Psalm 68. Indeed, they’re there. God scatters the proud. God brings down rulers. God fills the hungry with good things. But here’s what jolted me: before Mary opens her mouth, Luke writes, “And Mary said.” (v46) The mother of Christ proclaims, “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v49) She’s not singing at all! She speaks God’s word. Why have we allowed fearful men to persuade us this magnificent passage is Mary’s “song,” when it’s actually her homily?

It’s Not Okay

While this is turning into a rather arduous post, I trust you’ll hang with me. The commentaries and mislabeling of Mary’s message point out how subtly male stewardship of Christianity devalues women—and non-heterosexuals—by skewing Scripture to minimize them. Unclear passages open doors to assert a straight, masculine agenda. Mythologizing women and outcasts who step forward to proclaim God’s word is another neat trick. It’s okay if Mary sings, if Deborah sings, if the mighty throng sings. Singing isn’t preaching. It’s okay to limit the Hebrew and Greek words for “eunuch” to “castrated male,” even though both also define those sexually drawn to their own gender. The last thing the church needs are gay people claiming the promise of Isaiah 56.5: “To them [eunuchs] I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.” It’s okay to saddle Mary Magdalene—the first to preach Christ’s resurrection—with a promiscuous past, despite no Scripture supporting this myth. That diminishes her, so Peter and the boys can take charge. God bless them, men who’ve hatched and perpetuate this practice may sincerely believe it’s okay, as that’s how they view God and God’s Word. But it’s not okay. It’s not okay with us. And it’s certainly not okay with God.

Let’s go back to Ephesians. “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’” Advent stirs us to remember Christ comes to give us grace—each one of us. Christ comes to give gifts to Christ’s people—all of us. If it’s not okay for misguided men (and women) to apportion grace and gifts by gender and orientation, it definitely isn’t okay for us to permit it. Your gifts are your gifts. Christ gave them to you. Christ came to give them to you. Receive them. Cherish them. Use them. We who’ve been denied are a mighty throng. The Lord—the Governor of all things—announces the word—including The Word, the Christ—and we proclaim it. I pray this Advent becomes a season when many stolen voices will be found and reclaimed. Amen.

It is not okay to permit misguided men (and women) to apportion grace and gifts by gender and orientation. Our gifts are our gifts. Christ came to give them to us.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Repost: Breaking News

You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40.9)

Digging Through the Archives

Advent brings the beauty of God’s promises to life more than any other season. From this side of the Nativity, we read the Old Testament’s Messianic passages as established fact. But the prophets dispatched God’s promises much like p.r. agents publish press releases. Here’s what God intends to do. This is what’s going to happen. They weren’t privy to all of the details, though—certainly not as clued into the specifics as we are today. We know precisely why, when, where, and how God makes good on God's pledge to redeem humanity.

So this season of anticipation invites us to dig through the archives, pull out the promises, compare them to the facts, and marvel at how exquisitely God’s plan plays out. While Israel searches high and low for signals to shore up trust in God's promises, we know what God had in mind all along. As we read God's covenant to send the world a Savior and Redeemer, we know everything goes according to plan. We see and comprehend it all from the get-go, just as God envisioned and intended. And nothing I know competes with the plan’s audacious, impeccable beauty.

Placed and Prepped

Isaiah’s job as the Messiah’s advance man hampers his view of the why, when, where, and how of God’s plan. At best, he’s been briefed on incredible events in the making since time began. Revelation 13.8 refers to Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of world,” indicating God formulated a strategy for our redemption before God formed us. Isaiah gets this. He also gets the gist of how things will pan out. What he’s missing are answers to questions that automatically surface any time something major is expected to occur. Even as Isaiah relays all he’s told, he’s also acutely aware it’s less than Israel wants to know.

In Isaiah 40.9, he handles this more like a p.r. maven than a prophet or a tight-lipped spokesperson. He ensures Israel’s top reporters are placed and prepped to broadcast the big news when it breaks. Isaiah tells them to “go up on a high mountain,” where they can observe all that happens, as well as command audience attention. Recognizing the story’s controversial angles, he urges them to tell it like it is without reservation. “Lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, and do not be afraid,” he says. Finally, he offers a headline: Here Is Your God.

Go Up

Discovering how God’s promises work and learning how to treat them are two of Advent’s most glorious lessons. Because Messianic prophecy’s scale assumes such epic, historically seismic proportions, we’re tempted to consider it a thing unto itself, unlike any other promise God makes. This holds true on many levels, of course. In terms of principles and methods, however, all God's promises operate identically. They constitute God's Word. None is any more or less significant than another. When we search Scripture for reassurance, we confidently expect God to honor promises to us with the same power, passion, and attention God invested in fulfilling the covenant with Israel. Numbers 23.19 says, “God is not a man, that God should lie… Does God promise and not fulfill?” And 2 Corinthians 1.20 confirms this: “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes.’” Every pledge God ever made to love, accept, forgive, heal, intervene, and care for us is unquestionably true.

Our challenges to believe God’s promises rest in our inability to see and understand the why’s, when’s, where’s, and how’s of God's plan. We’re where Israel was in Isaiah’s day—pensively wondering about the logistics and overall approach. And since we’re in Israel’s shoes, let’s imagine its curiosity did move God to reveal the details of God's strategy. Would any of it have made sense to them? Absolutely not. Advent teaches us God always delivers on God's promises, but God does it in highly unexpected ways—“more than all we ask or imagine” is how Ephesians 3.20 describes it. Therefore, Advent also teaches while waiting on God’s promises, the best thing we can do is go up. We rise above our problems so we can place and prep ourselves to watch God work. When God does precisely what God promised to do, we treat God's faithfulness like breaking news. We lift our voices and tell it like it is. Our stories may stir controversy; many will doubt. Still, we can’t be afraid to broadcast them. And we report them under Isaiah’s banner headline: HERE IS YOUR GOD.

Originally posted November 29, 2009.

While we wait on God’s promises, we position ourselves to watch God work and broadcast breaking news of God's faithfulness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wake-Up Call

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13.10-11)

Hushed Urgency

Dad awoke my brother and me every Sunday, the one morning we could sleep till 8:30. He’d open our bedroom doors and call to each of us, “Time to get up, sweet boy!” More often than not, the kitchen clatter and gospel music on the radio already had awakened us, and we were just drifting back off when the call came. A series of follow-ups grew sterner, until we dragged ourselves out of bed. Mom handled wake-up calls the remainder of the week. They came much earlier and though they should have been harder to pull off, her method was close to failsafe. She stole into the room and sharply whispered our names: “Tim! Tim!” and “Steve! Steve!” The hushed urgency sliced through our slumber. Before we could protest, dreams floated away like stray balloons and our waking senses lurched to high alert. We’d ask, “What? What is it?” Still whispering—as if rousing us for a top-secret mission—she’d answer, “You need to wake up.” Not, “It’s time to get up,” or “Get out of bed,” or “You’ll be late.” Always, it was, “You need to wake up.” By the time we realized the reason we needed to wake up was no different than any other day, we were wide-awake. Next we realized we didn’t have time to go back to sleep.

Today’s inaugural Advent readings (Revised Common Lectionary; Year A) intrigue me by juxtaposing grandiose Old Testament allusions to a promised Savior with the New Testament’s hushed urgency to realize we have no time to sleep. Isaiah 2.4 prophesies, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Meanwhile, Psalm 122.6-7 instructs: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.’” They seat us front and center, telling us what to expect, so we’ll know what’s happening when their predictions unfold. In contrast, the New Testament passages—both of which point to Christ’s second coming—caution us to stay alert, lest their prophecies happen before we know it. Jesus says, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24.42) And, in Romans 13.11, Paul writes, “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” The Old and New stun us with apparently opposed messages. Isaiah and David loudly declare, “Hold to the dream.” Jesus and Paul sharply whisper, “You need to wake up.”

The Very Same Promise

It’s obvious why the messages seem contradictory. One anticipates Christ as judicious Peacemaker; the other foresees Christ as ultimate Judge. One springs from our longing for Christ’s physical manifestation; the other reveals Christ’s desire for our spiritual transformation. The first is a dream born in darkness, before Light enters the world; the second shines Light on a world to come. Yet, in dissecting differences in Old and New Testament prophecies, we detect many similarities—so many we conclude we’re looking at one message from two angles.

Both promised events defy comprehension. We will never fully appreciate the compassion and commitment that drive God to dwell among us as one of us. Nor will we ever completely understand why, after Christ’s mission is accomplished, we’re promised another appearance that puzzles us as much as the first promise perplexed generations awaiting Christ’s birth. Until the angel explained God’s plan to Mary, no one had any idea how it would work. Scholars and theologians devoted their lives to unraveling the prophecies. They crafted timelines, scenarios, and all sorts of theories forecasting when, where, and how Christ would appear and what would come of it. Nobody got it right. That should have taught us to focus on the prophecy’s meaning, not its mechanics. Why then, since Jesus foretold Christ’s return, have we obsessed with a future occurrence beyond our grasp? The wild fields of apocalyptic speculation yield the same questions that vexed those struggling to absorb Messianic prophecy. Is it literal or metaphorical? Is it defined in human, historical, or heavenly terms? What’s really going to happen? Why hasn’t it already happened? Myopic scrutiny of enigmas we’re not equipped to solve obscures the very message the Old Testament prophets proclaimed—the very same promise. Christ is coming.

Perpetual Advent

Jesus says we will never decipher the Second Coming’s specifics before He predicts it. “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” He says. (Matthew 24.36) He does this so we’ll not do what so many have done, i.e., forget what’s most important. Now that Light has come to the world, the promise of Christ is no longer a dream. The command, “Be ready,” institutes perpetual Advent, an endless season of hope that Christ’s presence will one day overpower evil governing our world. And we’re charged with making that hope a reality. That’s why Paul prefaces his wake-up call by invoking unconditional love. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” he says. (Romans 13.8) He reinforces this in verse 10: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Then we hear his sharp whisper. “You need to wake up!”

If we reduce Advent to an amazing tale of Messianic dreams come true, we’re no more alive to its message than current prophecy fanatics are to the Second Coming’s meaning. Advent’s promise didn’t end at the manger. If anything, it began there. As Paul says, the hour has already come to end our slumber. Our salvation is nearer than it’s ever been. If Christ comes today, if Christ comes 10,000 years from now, if Christ never comes in a manner we expect, sleeping through opportunities to love others—to turn the promise of Christ into reality—is unacceptable. Time given to slumber is time lost forever. Advent calls us. Christ is coming. People are seeking Christ's love. We need to wake up.

Now that Light has come to the world, the promise of Christ is no longer a dream. We need to wake up to our responsibility to make hope a reality.

Postscript: Advent at Straight-Friendly

Straight-Friendly will return to daily posts during Advent, even though it would be overly ambitious, if not altogether unrealistic, to promise fresh entries every day. So we’ll pass the season with a blend of new reflections and old favorites. I trust you’ll continue to drop by and add your thoughts to the day’s topic. Have a blessed, hope-filled Advent, everyone!