Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fully Human in Every Way

For surely it is not the angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way… Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.16-18)


Has it only been a few years since “gay” gained widespread usage as a non-pejorative adjective? It feels like it’s been with us always. But prior to the mid-1990s, it was a label—typically an unkind one. Before it shed much of its derogation, gay people regularly resorted insider slang. Gay men were often called “friends of Dorothy” (presumably alluding to The Wizard of Oz heroine and its star, Judy Garland) or “members of the choir.” Lesbians were “sisters of Sappho,” named for the Greek poet who lived on the isle of Lesbos and scribed love songs to women. Bisexuals were “switch-hitters” and, to our shame, argot for transsexual/transgendered people in our community was too charmless and abrasive to repeat. Collectively, we were “PLU”—People Like Us.

The acronym was heavily weighted with subtext. To describe someone as PLU flagged more than same-sex orientation. It indicated he/she belonged to us—was one of us—whether or not she/he was out or involved in community life. The strains and astonishments of being gay were what made People Like Us people like us. While none of our stories was exactly alike, the sentiment behind PLU declared “we’ve all been there.” (One of the truest generalizations about our community is our fondness for generalizations.) And though slang for dozens of LGBT stereotypes lard the “lavender lexicon”—yes, we even have slang for our slang—one need not fit any mold to qualify as PLU. Having survived, and continuing to survive, the gay experience was sufficient.

Now that the “gay” stigma has softened, “PLU” has fallen from usage. Yet the phenomenon of basic inclusion persists, as with all communities built on shared culture and experience. The PLU principle applies to any collective, including the Body of Christ. Which is why it’s no surprise to open Hebrews 2 and read that God found it necessary to become like us in order to belong to us.

The Jesus Puzzle

Strange as it seems, the Early Church’s biggest dilemma is pinpointing where Jesus fits into its radically unorthodox beliefs. To the Apostles—who served with Him, learned from Him, and witnessed His life first-hand—it’s a no-brainer. Jesus is The Christ, God made human to atone for our failures and free us from fear. To newcomers, this is a brand new, completely foreign construct riddled with contradictions no one can logically resolve. Jews, Greeks, Turks, or Romans, they’re part of a global culture with very rigid ideas about deities and mortals. Their texts and legends stress logical divides that separate supernatural forces governing nature from human submission to their will. So the question troubling many first-century believers is, “Was Jesus human or divine?” While they could accept Him as one or the other (and doctrines that lean either way start popping up in no time), the notion that Jesus was/is both doesn’t compute.

It doesn’t compute because early Christians see no reason why Jesus should be God and man. God’s role is unique to God. Our role is unique to us. That God would choose to be like us makes no sense to them. Of course, it makes sense to us because it requires faith and faith is what Christianity’s all about. In its dawning days, however, with the concept of faith in God’s grace and acceptance still in its infancy, the Jesus puzzle is a brain-buster for everyone but the Apostles. It’s particularly hard for converts from fear-based, legalistic religions like Judaism. The author of Hebrews comes to their rescue with a splendidly logical rationale for Jesus’s coexistent humanity and divinity. Pulling a verse here and there from his/her deposition on Christ’s humanity deprives us of its full impact. Here’s why it was essential that Jesus become people like us:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.14-18)

Vast Capabilities

When we can’t say why we succumb to fears and temptations, we reach for the age-old, one-size-fits-all excuse: “We’re only human,” as if we’ve tapped every ounce of will and strength to defy fear and temptation. But it’s no excuse because Jesus gave lie to the ruse. God decided to become like us—and belong to us—to demonstrate the vast capabilities imbedded in our humanity. Jesus wasn’t only human. He was fully human in every way. His flesh ached at times and tingled at others, just like ours. His blood boiled with rage, cooled with disappointment, and flowed with ardor, just like ours. He battled the same fears we battle, subjecting Himself to hunger and thirst, exposure to poverty and disease, hatred and anger, pushing Himself to the brink of exhaustion. He didn’t stop being fully human until death broke His body in excruciating pain. Only then did He retaliate, breaking the power of death and its terror for our sake.

Jesus gave Himself to the whole of mortal experience—its joys, sorrows, worries, and wonders—to show us what being fully human in every way looks like. He set the standard for people like us, who’ve decided to follow His example. Had Jesus been God alone, His life would hold no relevance for us. Had He been nothing but a man, faith we confide in His compassion and understanding would amount to hero worship. What we see in Jesus is more than enough to persist in our quest to be fully human in every way. He became people like us so we could become people like Him.

In being fully human in every way, Jesus set the standard for people like us, who’ve decided to follow His example.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Take a Seat

Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive. For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.” (Isaiah 52.2-3)

Come On Up

When our friend Mark called to invite Walt and me to Macy Gray’s sold-out concert at the House of Blues, we leapt at the chance. Then came one of those “uh-oh” moments that often follow a too-good-to-be-true surprise. We said yes without knowing how much it would cost. If the tickets were brokered, they’d set us back a bit—more than we could comfortably afford. Walt finessed the issue by asking how soon we needed to give him money for tickets. “Money?” he laughed. “Don’t be silly. I’m producing this gig. Just give your name at the door.” After he hung up, it was our turn to laugh. Walt said, “My mind was racing, trying to figure out how we’d dodge that bullet and there was no bullet to dodge!”

Off we went, overjoyed about waltzing through the door for free. An usher wrapped bracelets around our wrists and told us we had “full access.” That sounded nice, but we thought it best not to push our luck. We filed into the hall’s main floor, grabbed two general admission seats, and searched for Mark. Since it was hard to see anyone in the crowd, we decided to look for him during intermission. Then someone tapped my shoulder during the first band’s set and nodded toward the aisle, where Mark motioned for us to come with him. “What are you doing down here?” he shouted over the music. “We’re up there.” He pointed to a box overlooking the stage. “Come on up,” he said. “You’re gonna love it. It’s fabulous.” We did. And it was.

We were simply glad to get into the concert (for free, no less). But that wasn’t good enough for Mark. When he invited us he had something much better in mind than floor seats. Later, it occurred to me we’d done what my former pastor calls “living beneath our inheritance.” Too often, he says, we underestimate what God has in mind for us. We marvel that God would offer us a life of abundance we thought—and may have been told—wasn’t possible for us. We’re stunned that God’s grace and acceptance are free. We’re delighted to find worries about dodging bullets have no basis because there are no bullets to dodge. We’re amazed that all it takes to enter God’s goodness is walking through the door. Once inside, we’re granted full access to everything God wants us to experience. Simply being glad to get in, however, we decide its best not to push our luck. We never consider what seems good enough for us isn’t good enough for God. While we’re content on the ground floor, God points to something better, saying, “Come on up. Have a seat.” This is Isaiah 52’s message to the Jewish people, and to us.

Free Yourself

If ancient musical tastes included an equivalent to modern-day blues, one of the biggest hits of Isaiah’s era probably resembled The Doors’ “Been Down So Long (It Looks Like Up to Me)”. These people have been through the ringer. They’re trapped in a regional conflict that’s kept them under siege. They have no allies to speak of. Their immediate and long-term security hangs in a bizarre balance of royal quirks. How well their puppet king gets on with their occupiers’ monarch determines how well they get along. Nothing is assured, except every day brings more of the same. Jerusalem is in tatters. Its citizens, many living in shambles of wrecked homes, scrape by on subsistence rations. Years of relentless hardship have weakened their hearts and siphoned their imaginations. They’d be glad simply getting their country back. And through it all there’s Isaiah, speaking God’s promises of deliverance and tapping their shoulder, saying, “Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive. For this is what the LORD says: ‘You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.’”

Isaiah preaches this for 60-plus years. Four kings come and go, but his message stays the same. Page after page of his prophecy tenders God’s invitation. Verse after verse promises too-good-to-be-true surprises. So what’s the hold-up? Well, for starters, the Jews aren’t sure they can afford it. Brokering their liberty is beyond their means. God says, “This isn’t about money. I’m the Producer. Just show up and everything will be taken care of.” Although the people long to experience what God offers them, they’ve adopted a slave mentality that’s alienated them from God’s ways. They’ve lost touch with Who God is and what God can do. They’ve sat in the dust so long they’ve got to shake its mindset before they can comprehend God’s offer. Chains of oppression that once confined them now define them. Until they lose those chains, the invitation is a pipe dream. They’ll never picture themselves where God wants them to be. And it’s essential to note God doesn’t offer to rid them of their dusty defeatism and shackled self-image. That’s their job. God points to something better than they expect—not merely a chair on the ground floor, but an exalted throne—and tells them, “Free yourself and come on up. Have a seat.”

Everything to Gain

One of my all-time favorite lyrics comes from the Janis Joplin hit, “Me and Bobby McGee”: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. “Nothing left to lose” is just another way of saying, “Everything to gain.” The extent to which we experience the fullness of God’s invitation depends on our determination (dare I say willingness?) to free ourselves from defeatist attitudes and oppressive definitions. That starts by remembering we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Accepting God’s invitation costs us nothing. Like the besieged people of Isaiah’s day, we were sold for nothing and without money God will redeem us. In other words, we are not slaves to harmful habits and hateful ideas. Behaviors and thoughts that alienate us from God hold us hostage. We owe them nothing because they invest nothing to captivate us. That gives us every right to shake off their dust and break their chains. There’s no price for freeing ourselves—nothing to lose. That’s also why God’s grace—and everything we gain from it—comes without charge. Once we’re free to accept God’s invitation and enter God’s goodness, we receive total access to all God wants to give us. We don’t settle for what seems good enough. As fine as that might be, God always has something better in mind, a higher perspective, a fresh renewal, a deeper understanding, a richer opportunity, a fuller experience. The message never changes: “Come on up. Have a seat.”

Once we free ourselves to enter God’s goodness, we don’t settle for what seems good enough. There’s always something better. (This photo was taken from the House of Blues box Walt and I sat in at the Macy Gray concert.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50.7)

Needed Life

Before digging into today’s topic, I want to thank all of you who kept me in your thoughts and prayers during my absence. This trip was the culmination of an especially demanding project six months in the making. From start to finish its success was far from assured—or would have seemed so had it not been for the confidence I received from so many prayers and the amazing dedication of the finest team imaginable. God was ever faithful and I’m thrilled to report the project unfolded flawlessly. Afterward, I was blessed to spend a long weekend with my parents, always a treat. In this case, however, the timing couldn’t have been better. Two days prior to my visit, my mother learned a lump detected in a recent mammogram tested positive for carcinoma. She will undergo surgery later this month and we’ll have a clearer idea of her prognosis then. Naturally, we’re concerned, yet not at all alarmed. We’ve consulted the Great Physician and released our fears of the worst in order to embrace our trust for God’s best. God’s will is perfect and hoping for anything else would find us settling for something less. I trust you’ll add her name, Littia Wolfe, to your prayers as we embark on this unpredictable journey.

Coming off a taxing professional endeavor only to enter an unforeseen personal test reaffirmed why active engagement with God’s Word is paramount to one’s wellbeing. The readings shored my emotions with invaluable strength and guided my thoughts with timeless truth. Every day, I couldn’t shake the conviction God is speaking to me. Of course, one need not be in the throes of uncertainty to hear God’s voice in Scripture. But discovering anew how God’s Spirit breathes needed life into the written word affords immeasurable comfort and faith in troubled times. I ached for sufficient time to explore the riches I found with all of you, my faith family. Alas, the opportunities weren’t there; now that I’m back at my desk, my heart is too full to summarize my thoughts cogently. That said, though, one verse—Isaiah 50.7, which surfaced in last Thursday’s texts—constantly drew me, as if it were an extraordinary magnetic force around which everything else orbits. “Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

Facing Trouble

Isaiah 50 reads like a court transcript. God speaks first (v1-3) in a stridently Self-defensive tone that suggests the people have accused God of abandoning them and God rebuts the charge by demanding proof of their allegations. “There’s no divorce certificate, no bill of sale,” God says. “You left Me! Your sins divided us. I came looking for you and you weren’t there. Haven’t I always got you out of trouble? Haven’t I always been faithful?” Instead of replying to God’s testimony—or perhaps in light of it—the prophet goes off on a tangent (v4-9), asserting these nonsensical charges have nothing to do with him. In fact, his steadfast trust in God subjected him to vicious abuse, which he willingly endured. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting,” he says in verse 6. What compelled him to pay such a humiliating price for defying popular opinion? How was he able to do it? Verse 7 tells the whole story. His faith in God eliminated his fear of disgrace. The Sovereign LORD helps me. Facing trouble, his certainty in God’s absolute power and unfailing love fixed his face. I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

Now there are dozens of credos that encourage fixing our faces to hide fear, doubt, and distress. Don’t blink. Keep a straight face. Smile though your heart is breaking. Never let ‘em see you sweat. Don’t let on. But Isaiah’s stony response doesn’t jibe with this logic. He’s not hiding anything. His flinty face reveals exactly what he feels and thinks. He’s not afraid. He has no doubts. Despite suffering, he’s not distressed. He’s not playing games, withholding his tormentors’ satisfaction at watching him panic. His impervious, rock-solid expression mirrors his impervious, rock-solid trust in God’s faithfulness and love. In his steely stare, furrow-free brow, and hardened features we discover a monument carved from unyielding, invulnerable, eternal security. Momentary duress cannot move him. Passing fads and human assumptions don’t shake him. While his oppressors pressure him to conform to their thinking—insisting the God he knows isn’t trustworthy—Isaiah recalls Moses’s farewell song in Deuteronomy 32: “I will proclaim the name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (v3-4) Isaiah sets his face like a rock because God is his Rock, the only Truth sure to last. As he says in verse 9: “It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.”

Façades Are Unnecessary

Our confidence in God gets challenged on so many levels it’s highly probable we don’t realize how frequently it happens. The big tests are self-evident, of course. When confronted by obvious threats to our safety—unanticipated diagnoses, harsh criticisms, concerted pressures to submit to unhealthy, faithless ideas, and so forth—we tend to set our faces like flint. We try not to reveal what’s bothering us. We don’t want to trouble others with our troubles. We do our best to look and act courageous. We put on a façade to hide our fears, doubts, and distress. That would be OK—it might even be admirable—if it were necessary. But it’s not. And it might be OK, possibly even expedient, to use the same tactic to answer lesser challenges to our faith—subtle jests, logical misgivings, social discomfort, etc.—if it were necessary. But it’s not.

We set our faces like flint because our trust in God the Rock is impervious and invulnerable to erosive elements like time, pressure, and human wisdom. It is the Sovereign Lord Who helps us. God’s authority is final. God’s faithfulness is sure. God’s works are perfect. God’s ways are just. God is upright and does no wrong. God is eternal. Façades are unnecessary for us. Strength we express is strength we possess. We don’t have to put on a show of courage and confidence. When facing troubles, our faces show they’re there, because God’s there.

The courage and confidence on our faces aren’t a façade. They express our courage and confidence in our God the Rock.