Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Exclusion Won't Work

Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4.4-5)

Soul Food

Being one with Southern roots who’s also an incurable Francophile, I’m always amused by the similarity between dishes I grew up with and offerings on French menus. The cooks who fed me as a child may not have exhibited the flair and nuance Parisians are famous for. But without hesitation any of them could trade places with a three-star French chef and each would feel completely at home in the other’s kitchen. Southern food—soul food—shares one fundamental with French food: disdain for waste. If it’s edible, it’s credible. With a bit of ingenuity and a lot of patience, the lowliest parts of any beast or plant can be transformed into delicacies when cooked with the right seasonings at the right temperature. Southern cooks and French chefs create culinary triumphs from foodstuff less imaginative cooks toss aside by viewing all food as inherently good and useful. How it’s treated makes the difference. And they take it upon themselves to treat it with love and respect that brings its goodness to light.

Cracklings are a good example. They’re pigskin sheared from fatback (just what it sounds like). You rub rock salt, cayenne, and black pepper on the skin, cut it in strips, and bake them on a rack. Heat causes them to puff up and the residual fat mingled with spices saturates them with flavor. Cracklings make for a fine snack. But they’re best with white beans slowly simmered in the juices of a ham hock, roast beef drippings, and other leftover meats. In France, they call the bean portion cassoulet and pigskin bits grattons. Grattons are less spicy than cracklings, but cassoulet tastes the same as our bean stew. We call it “country cooking;” they call it “cuisine.” Either way, it’s soul food, because it reflects reverence and appreciation of goodness in everything God makes.

Wasteful Cooks

The soul-food philosophy is identical to the one behind Paul’s statement to Timothy: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4.4-5) On its own, it sounds like a sunny proverb. (A Web search turned up eight posters—all happy and pretty—with its inscription.) Yet when we read down from verse 1, we discover it’s a cautionary reminder. Paul warns his young charge to be wary of believers who “abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits.” (v1) They’re seduced by “teachings [that] come from hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” (v2) Paul cites two erroneous doctrines that exemplify the sort of foolishness Timothy should guard against: “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (v3) Then, lest Timothy succumb to similarly baseless notions, Paul restates the truth: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected.”

If you’ll indulge one last tug on the soul-food metaphor, Paul’s saying, “Stay clear of wasteful cooks. If they throw out perfectly good food because they think it’s nasty—or too hard to swallow—or it violates religious taboos—or they have neither talent nor patience to bring out its flavor—or ingratitude blinds them to its goodness—don’t hang out in their kitchens and eat at their tables. They’re incompetent.” Returning to Paul’s original context, his message makes sense. People who doubt the inherent goodness of God’s creation, who feel no compunction about rejecting anyone or anything God made have no business messing with God’s business. Beliefs that alienate aren’t to be believed. Religious groups that throw lives away instead of gratefully seasoning and preparing them for service aren’t faith communities. Christians who dismiss people on sight have yet to see Christ. And taboo-driven traditions that teach exclusion have abandoned Christ’s way to follow hypocritical liars with seared consciences; they’re neither credible nor competent in the faith.

Received with Thanksgiving

The Church and the Body of Christ it represents are ordained for one purpose and only one: to nurture faith. The last recorded conversation we have between Jesus and Peter, whom Jesus charged with founding the Church, confirms this. In John 21, Jesus asks whether Peter loves Him. “Lord, you know I love you,” the disciple protests, to which Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” He takes Peter over this three times to leave no room to doubt the Church’s mission is feeding souls. Policies and practices, doctrines and dogmas that hedge this command by questioning the inherent goodness in God’s creation and rejecting anyone for any reason evidence no love for Christ. That’s why exclusion won’t work for those in committed relationship with Christ. Out of love for Christ, they turn no one away. They receive everyone with thanksgiving, knowing what each life can become once it’s seasoned with God’s word and prayer.

Genuine Christians know exclusion won’t work, because they know how God works. God isn’t in the trash business. God doesn’t throw us away. God saves us. Open any page in the Gospels. Every word Jesus says, every story He tells, every trait He exemplifies, and everything He does points directly toward redemption. “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” He says in John 6.37, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

So where did this noxious idea that one must become righteous to be part of the Church originate? It makes no sense. Being part of the Church is how we become righteous. That’s why exclusion won’t work. And that’s what anyone struggling with religious exclusion has to realize. The landscape is dotted with churches deceived by doctrines of exclusion and ingratitude for God’s creation. Without knowing it, they’ve abandoned the Church Christ ordained. When they say you’re not good enough to belong, they speak for no one but them. God created you. Know that. There is goodness in you. Know that. You deserve to be received with thanksgiving by believers committed to bringing your goodness to light. Exclusion only works if we allow it. Love for Christ won’t permit that. That’s why exclusion won’t work.

Exclusion won’t work for those in committed relationship with Christ. They find goodness in all of God’s creation and receive everyone with thanksgiving.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Down in Our Hearts

Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalm 4.6-7)

Where Real Joy Resides

One of the ditties that never failed to excite us as Sunday school kids went:

I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart

Down in my heart, down in my heart!

I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart

Down in my heart to stay!

The second verse said, “If the devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack!”—whereupon we’d deliriously yell, “Ouch!” To this day, I haven’t the slightest idea what that was supposed to mean. Only inattentive people sit on tacks. And that certainly didn’t describe the devil, who according to our teachers, was a wily sort always lurking in shadows—like the Big Bad Wolf—to pounce on any unsuspecting child who meandered his way. Of course, as children, we didn’t worry ourselves with the tune’s unseemly contradiction. As far as we were concerned, we had joy in our hearts. It wasn’t going anywhere. So what if the devil didn’t like it? He couldn’t do anything to stop it. We had joy in our hearts to stay. There. Case closed.

I’ve not given much thought to the song over the years. But now that it’s sprung to mind, I regret not doing so. When I consider how often I’ve forgot where real joy resides, how secure and amazingly durable it is, and why there’s no cause to fear for its survival, I wish I’d kept “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy” handier. It sure would have been helpful when no signs, let alone promises, of joy were visible and no outward evidence of it seemed to exist. I could have used it when I felt bankrupt of joy and unsure how and when it might be replenished. And I truly needed it for times when I’d lost touch with my joy while others—who, from what I could tell, had done nothing to deserve happiness—appeared to be head-over-heels in joy. If only I’d remembered to hum a few bars of that cockeyed little melody, I’d have realized when we have real joy down in our hearts, it remains and sorrow passes. It's safe and secure from temporary trials and emotional storms. We don’t always see joy, because it’s often hidden from sight. But if we open our hearts to real joy—God’s joy—it’s there to stay. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. If that makes them unhappy, well, there’s a seat and tack with their name on it. (Ouch!)

Resistant and Responsive Joy

God’s joy is like all of God’s gifts. It’s unconditional. It comes by way of God’s favor, through no effort or merit of ours. That means joy down in our hearts is decidedly unlike joy we experience from human kindness and good fortune. Indeed, we’d be wise to distinguish the two to prevent our confidence in God’s joy from foundering when we’re troubled by the unreliability of human joy. We might define the joy God gives as “resistant joy.” It’s impervious, implacable, and immune to any and all conditions. There are no causes and effects attached to God’s joy. It just is, because God is, and assurance God is the sole source of God’s joy. Joy we receive from others and by chance is “responsive joy.” Though we position ourselves to receive as much responsive joy as possible, it still depends on factors beyond our control—whereas God’s joy resists anything that interferes with it abiding in our hearts. Because it comes from God, it’s like God. It requires no reason other than God to exist and needs nothing from us to persist. It’s unconditional and eternal!

In Psalm 4 we see two kinds of people seeking different kinds of joy. The first wants responsive, conditional joy. “Many, LORD, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?’” verse 6 says. These people allow circumstances to define their happiness—in this case, prosperity. When the coffers and cupboards are full, their joy is full. When their means run dry, their joy dries up. David charitably prays for their wellbeing: “Let the light of your face shine on us.” As their king, their happiness is paramount. Yet he doesn’t include himself with them. In verse 3, he attests, “Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” Then, in verse 7, he differentiates himself again by praying for a very specific kind of joy—God’s unconditional joy that resists temporal factors, joy that delights in blessings without relying on them: “Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.” This joy sustains David in any situation. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety,” he writes, closing the psalm in verse 8. The joy David seeks requires no reason other than God and persists because of God. He asks for joy down in his heart to stay.

Big on Joy

The Gospels go out of their way to emphasize Jesus was big on joy. In fact, joy is the very first emotion we “see” Him elicit. When the newly pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, her cousin witnesses Christ’s reality by telling Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1.44) After warning us we’ll be hated because of Him, Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Luke 6.23) Many of His parables (too many to list) end joyfully—lost treasures are found, babies are born, patience is rewarded. And, explicitly in John, but implicitly in the other Gospels, Jesus pointedly distinguishes God’s joy from earthly joy. He calls it “My joy” and says it will reside in us and be complete (John 15.11), succeed grief (16.20), resist human interference (v22), and be given for the asking (16.24) in full measure (17.13). The distinction between our responsive joy and God’s resistant joy is so vivid to the Apostles that their letters specify which they’re writing about. God’s joy is always “complete,” “glorious,” “in the Holy Spirit,” and “by faith”—i.e., unconditional and eternal. It transcends emotion, refutes logic, and resists circumstances. The joy down in our hearts just is, because God is. It’s more than feeling. It’s fact. And whoever doesn’t believe or like that—well, we talked about what they can do.

God’s joy down in our hearts isn’t the same as joy we feel in response to kindness and good fortune. It’s impervious, implacable, and immune to circumstances. It’s not feeling. It’s fact.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deciding Makes the Difference

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30.19-20)


We’ve all known people who survived insults and injuries only to waste an inordinate amount of time (theirs and others’) keeping their ordeals alive. And before going on, I should clarify they’re not tragic souls severely traumatized by physical, emotional, or sexual violence. They’re the sorts who encounter difficulties on par with anyone else: neglectful parents, rival siblings, faithless lovers, bad neighbors, treacherous colleagues, overbearing relatives, deceitful friends—i.e., the usual suspects in life’s rogues’ gallery. Which raises the first question: Who doesn’t smart from wounds inflicted by toxic people? (No one.) Yet these folks are convinced their conflicts merit constant revisiting. They develop a genius for derailing even the most banal conversations with embittered recollections of what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” She did this to me. He said that to me. They treat me terribly. Desperation to set themselves apart with victim statements typically ends with others setting them aside, because there’s just no good answer to the next question: If the people who hurt them are/were so toxic, why go on talking about them? Over time, people who nurse toxic wounds turn toxic by choice, which invites many around them to choose to walk away.

Substances we abuse—from sugar to hard drugs—are poisons. Taken in small amounts they trigger euphoria caused by our bodies releasing chemicals and altering responses to counteract their effects. Used consistently, however, the body begins to anticipate their influences to the point it depends on them. As any addict can verify, unchecked desire to get high leads to uncontrollable drive to get “normal.” The only way to reset the body’s natural balance is by consciously choosing to deprive it of intoxicants it relies on. This physiological requirement is no different than the psychological one to restore mental and emotional balance after habitually poisoning ourselves with toxic people and memories.

Dangerous people and places can be intoxicating in euphoric ways. They’re new to our systems and set off a lot of exciting bells and whistles. But when the ugly side of the thrill surfaces, it’s ours to choose whether it continues to absorb our time and energy or we treat it like an unfortunate lapse that results in nausea and hangover. Nursing poison makes toxicity normal. Resolutely rebounding from toxic episodes is how we restore healthy equilibrium to heart, mind, and soul. When we wrest our minds from intoxication’s hold—be it after a nasty bender or years soaked in bitterness—what’s most important is summoning the resolve to deprive ourselves of the poison. Deciding makes the difference.

Responsibility of Choice

The importance of making healthy decisions impacts every area of our lives. Everything we do, we do by choice. Moses repeatedly stresses this in his departing instructions to Israel. Up to this point, he’s made all the decisions for them, most of them good. He’s also made some really bad ones, though, that cost his privilege to enter The Promised Land with his people. And now he’s greatly concerned that the Hebrews’ unfamiliarity with responsibility of choice may lead to disaster. The euphoria of living in a strange land among strange people may incite them to choose toxic ideas over godly ideals. They may mistake God’s blessings for entitlements. They may presume the victories and miracles of God’s continued intervention are of their own doing. They may choose arrogance that leads to death and disobedience that gives rise to curses.

Moses challenges Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30.19-20) Choose life. It sounds so simple. Yet as we watch Israel repeatedly suffer from irresponsible choices, we’re reminded opting for healthy, life-affirming attitudes and actions often presents us with tough decisions. Sure, at times, what’s best is immediately apparent. In these situations, it’s easy to decide which choices lead to life. But many more times, our options lack clarity and outcomes aren’t at all assured. We may be misled by what initially seems right. Once we discover the flaws in our choice, new decisions come into play.

It’s Not Too Late

Proverbs 14.12 tells us, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” It’s not at all unusual to travel far down a seemingly healthy path before we realize it steers us in deadly directions. It’s hardly uncommon to have euphoria overtake us to such a degree we’re unaware we’ve become captives to poisons that intoxicate us. Yet clarity that eluded us at first eventually makes itself known. We recognize the road we’ve taken is no way to go. Its toll costs more than we can pay. It won’t end in blessings and life we crave. Our need to compensate for toxins we encounter on unhealthy paths creates unhealthy dependencies. We’re out of balance. It’s time for a new decision.

Will we stick with our original choice, knowing it curses us to die a slow death? Will we continue to feed its toxins with increased doses of “woe-is-me”? Or will we choose life? Will we consciously deprive ourselves of deadly influences we’ve come to rely on? Will we purge our conversations of life-depleting victim statements? Will we rid our hearts, minds, and souls of self-defeating bitterness? Will we quit our road to nowhere for one that leads to blessings and life?

“Choose life,” Moses says, “so that you and your children will live and that you may love God, listen to God, and hold fast to God.” The decision to abandon toxic people, situations, and mindsets has far-reaching implications. It restores our inner balance, as well as the balance of lives we touch and our balance with God. Inevitably, we’ll make bad decisions. We’ll choose ways that appear right only to discover they lead to death. Thankfully, we’re never forced to live with bad choices. Choosing life consistently asks us to make new decisions—tough decisions. But if blessings and life are truly what we seek, we’ll muster the resolve to choose what’s best. No matter how long we’ve suffered due to faulty choices in the past, it’s not too late. Undoing the past can’t be done. But choosing a better path is well within our capability. Deciding makes the difference.

No matter when we discover a chosen road won’t end in blessings and life, it’s never to late to decide on a better path.