Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the Job

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3.23-24)

Higher Standards

As a freelancer who works from home, I’ll occasionally rifle through daytime TV programs during breaks. The simulated courtroom shows especially interest me. Since their purview is limited to small claims, the suits usually amount to tempests in teacups: unpaid loans, overdue rent, minor property damage, etc. The plaintiffs and defendants intrigue me, though. In stating their cases, a great deal about their lives and values comes to light. I’m often amazed—as well as distressed—by how little worth many of them place on virtues like honesty, fidelity, and honor. Indeed, most of the dust-ups could be settled without adjudication if it weren’t for the parties’ mutual disrespect and distrust.

The worst of the worst—instances that vex my spirit no end—involve self-proclaimed “Christians.” Case in point: I recently saw a pastor, frocked in collar and crucifix, who boasted of leading her neighbor to Christ, only to sue the lady’s elderly mother when the $75 purchase of used appliances went sour! After the minister’s third or fourth mention of her clerical integrity, I shouted, “Madame, read your Bible! Saints don’t sue!” Having heard me say this before, Walt asked, “Why don’t saints sue?” I told him Scripture emphatically forbids it, citing Jesus’s instruction to settle disputes out of court (Matthew 5.25-26) and Paul’s outrage at lawsuits within the Church (1 Corinthians 6). That didn’t answer his question. “But why?” he asked. I explained, “With God as our Judge, we believe justice supersedes redress and penalty. Forgiveness, given or received, is also needed for true justice to prevail. So we avoid court, as human reparations fall short of pleasing God. We hold higher standards.” All Walt said to that was, “Huh.”

The Believer’s Work Ethic

Today, opening Day 4 of the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer—which my local church has taken as its Lenten study guide—I too said, “Huh.” The editor, Rick Klug, mines the great theologian and martyr’s writing for the basics of practical Christian living. Day 1 is discipleship, Day 2 Bible-reading, and Day 3 morning prayer. But I wasn’t prepared for today’s topic: the believer’s work ethic. Bonhoeffer’s preface to the day’s scripture concludes:

Every day [but Sunday] should be marked for the Christian both by prayer and work. Prayer also requires its own time. But the longest part of the day belongs to work. The inseparable unity of both will become clear when work and prayer each receives its own undivided due.

I confess amusement at reading this. How Germanic of Bonhoeffer to remind us Christians should be industrious and responsible on the job! Then, as I followed on to read Colossians 3.23-24, I realized this is simply another case of higher standards. Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” It takes a while to get our heads around this, I think. Particularly in these days of economic uncertainty and workplace turmoil, we tend to divorce practicing our faith from professional obligations. Yet this text says they’re inextricably linked. While our “human masters” reward our productivity, Paul teaches God will ultimately reward our performance. Everything we do—from the most menial tasks to the most ambitious assignments—we approach as godly work. “It is the Lord Christ you are serving,” Paul insists.

This principle resounds through Jesus’s teaching and Paul’s epistles. In numerous lessons, Jesus talks about wise servants and faithful laborers. Paul repeatedly discusses the importance of personal and professional ethics that eliminate potential for shame to besmirch our witness. How we are on the job speaks volumes about our commitment to Christ. When we’re industrious and responsible in our earthly pursuits, we favorably reflect the fervor and faithfulness of our discipleship. In contrast, if we do the minimum of what’s expected of us and render anything less than exemplary results, we evidence a lack of discipline that discredits our faith. It yields the kind of incredulity I feel when—quote-unquote—Christians take petty grievances to the airwaves.

The Lent Connection

Authentic discipleship sets higher standards in every area of our lives. And that’s where Bonhoeffer’s canny reminder of the believer’s work ethic intersects with Lent. This season is provided for us to confirm anew our desire and determination to follow Christ. We pledge ourselves to disciplined fasts and times of prayer, meditation, and study with the intention of overcoming selfish impulses and desires. We accept Lent’s higher calling and embrace its sacrificial demands. Yet these requirements aren’t supposed to be diminished or abandoned once our journey ends. They’re meant to transform us in enduring ways that witness the power of resurrection in all we do. Lent is godly work that teaches us every obligation and opportunity is Christian service. Prior to stressing an exemplary work ethic, Paul says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3.17)

Furthermore, we who fall into the category of “unorthodox Christians”—as LGBT, progressive, or disenfranchised believers—are all the more compelled to maintain higher standards. We must view every thought and behavior as an either/or decision. Our attitudes and actions either validate our faith in God’s love and acceptance or call it into question. Either we witness the mind and nature of Christ or we deny it. Paul challenges us about careless behavior in Romans 6.1-2: “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” And Hebrews 6.7 dramatizes the implications of inconsistent witness, saying those who don’t subscribe to God’s higher standards “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” Who we are on our knees should be who we are on the job. That’s the Lent connection, plain and simple.

Our work ethic speaks volumes about our discipleship.

Postscript: “Take My Life”

I can’t locate the name of the artist who performs this sublime arrangement of the classic hymn. But her sterling vocals and the visuals fit perfectly with today’s post. A consecrated life is witnessed all day long.

Friday, March 11, 2011

To Start the Day

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1.35-37)

Awakening to Holiness

For a number of years I attended the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, a weeklong convention of the nation’s finest gospel singers, songwriters, and musicians. Although my meager musical abilities could never compare to their genius, they welcomed me with open arms, and I was grateful for the chance to soak up everything the experience offered. Now there are a couple of things you should know about gospel artists before I get to the nub of my story. They are, by nature, an extremely friendly, high-spirited bunch that honors the sacredness of their calling by not taking themselves too seriously. If you weren’t clued into who they are, you’d never guess the people laughing and joking together wrote and recorded countless songs that changed millions of lives. The second thing to know is gospel musicians are late-night folks. Next to making music, they love nothing more than hanging out into the wee hours, swapping stories. Having been to similar events, I expected long nights of table-hopping in jammed coffee shops, oversleeping the next day, and dragging into afternoon workshops and rehearsals. But the usual M.O. didn’t fly at the Seminar. On my first night, I was surprised that everyone made hasty business of the post-concert “afterglow” and scooted off to bed. When I asked what the rush was, they said, “You don’t want to miss Walter. If you’re late, you won’t get a seat.”

“Walter” was Edwin’s brother and pastor, Rev. Walter Hawkins, the most prolific songwriter—and by far the most progressive Bible teacher—in the gospel sphere. At the top of each morning, he hosted “To Start the Day,” a brief session during which he gave seminar attendees a portion of Scripture, a few comments on the text, and led them into a time of prayer. It was simple, pure, and inspiring. It set the tone for everything that followed—and set the Seminar apart from others like it by awakening us to the holiness of what we would accomplish as the day progressed. “To Start the Day” subsumed the musical aspect of the event with a higher purpose. Classes, rehearsals, and performances became the day’s tasks. Its mission, however, was seeing them as windows for holiness, open and alert to God’s voice and Spirit—invitations to obey rather than do, to create rather than complete. Beginning each day with a few moments to settle our minds with a guiding thought and prayer made all the difference, such a difference “To Start the Day” was not to be missed.

Habits and Disciplines

It’s remarkable how so many will rally for Church-prescribed undertakings like Lent or training for sacramental milestones, while paying little heed to habits and disciplines that Jesus practiced in daily life. In Mark’s opening chapter, which reads like a breathless dispatch filed under deadline pressure, our first glimpse of Jesus’s personal faith regimen occurs in verse 35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” With all that transpires in the preceding 34 verses—Jesus’s baptism, wilderness temptation, declaration that the Good News is near, calling the disciples, and numerous healings and exorcisms—Mark gives the impression that everything happens so swiftly Jesus hardly has a moment to breathe, let alone ponder what He should do next or take time to pray about it. And what follows seems to back this up.

After waking to discover Jesus is gone, Simon Peter and his buddies scout Him out. “Everyone’s looking for You!” they say. Jesus knows who “everyone” is. The night before, after an exhausting day of preaching and healing Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus is met by townspeople—“the whole town,” Mark says—crowding his door with sick and disturbed people they want Him to cure. Apparently those He wasn’t able to reach have returned. Had He not got up early to pray, He’d have been obliged to help them. Yet starting His day with prayer not only releases Him from being inundated with demands, it gives Jesus directional clarity. He replies, “Let’s go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (v38) And this is the first time Mark shows us Jesus taking charge of His ministry. Before this, He avails Himself to opportunities to preach and work miracles. Is it a coincidence that we see Jesus begin His day with prayer and then turn from doing what’s expected so He can obey God's higher purpose? While Mark doesn’t call out the connection, it’s there. Otherwise, why even mention Jesus’s morning prayer? If it didn’t influence His decision and reorient His thoughts on His mission rather than His tasks, why not skip the episode entirely and simply report Jesus and the disciples moved on? “That is why I have come,” Jesus says.

At This Hour, In This Place, With These Gifts

To start the day with prayer is to reorient our thoughts from what’s expected of us to consider why we’ve come to this day. The same sense of consecration, gravity, and duty that brings us to Lent’s desert, sacramental moments, and high holy days should greet us with every sunrise. Just as we’re able to set aside the previous day’s chaos and sequester our thoughts from mundane tasks on these “special” occasions, can we not also discipline ourselves to begin each day spending a few moments alone with God? It’s then we can focus on the purpose God has for us today—to contemplate why we are present at this hour, in this place, with the unique gifts God places in us. Rising to pray before we’re inundated with demands awakens us to holiness. It sets the tone for all that follows, enabling us to obey rather than do, create rather than complete. It provides clarity that guides us to people and places that need us. It reminds us why we’ve come to this day. If Jesus found disciplined, habitual morning prayer necessary, can we possibly question its importance and value?

Morning prayer turns our thoughts to why we’re present at this hour, in this place, with the unique gifts God places in us.

Postscript: “What Shall I Do?”

And when we rise to pray, what do we say? The late Walter Hawkins gave the world a masterpiece that, if spoken, would constitute the perfect prayer to start the day. Here is his wife, Tramaine, singing “What Shall I Do?”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sweet Words

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119.103-105)

New Tastes

One of the earliest lessons pastors’ kids learn is proper behavior when dining in parishioners’ homes. As it was, good table manners were drilled into my brother and me from the day we left our high chairs. But a home-cooked meal with church people raised my parents' expectations several notches. They impressed on us that we were honored guests and our hosts—many less fortunate than we—deserved our utmost gratitude for their hospitality. Dinners they served us represented their finest efforts, which called for our most gracious behavior however unappetizing or irregular the fare might be. (I could tell you stories…)

Before we went, we reviewed the standard protocol. Take some of everything that’s offered; our hosts must never feel they prepared a dish we don’t care for. Don’t ask what anything is; if you don’t recognize it, we’ll tell you what it was later. If you don’t like how something tastes, move it around to seem as though you ate more than you did. But—and this was imperative—try it first; you may find it’s much tastier than it looks. On this my parents couldn’t have been more right. I owe my adventurous palate to those days of learning to appreciate new tastes no matter how off-putting food sometimes appears.

Unfortunately, it’s taken a lot longer to learn the same rule applies to Scripture. For years, if I came on passages that looked hard to swallow, seemed half-baked, or smelled funky, I’d either skip them entirely or push them around a bit to pretend I did more with them than I had. Hearing believers rave about relishing the tougher portions of God’s Word, I’d think, “If that’s what you like, knock yourself out. But some of that stuff is just nasty and indigestible.” To be sure, parts are nasty and indigestible. Written to primitive cultures in situations that no longer exist, they’re rotten and deadly, and believing we must choke them down because they’re in the Bible risks scriptural food poisoning. (Indeed, most nausea in today’s Church can be traced to texts that have outlasted their expiration dates.) Yet as I mature, I’m amazed how much of what I avoided is truly delicious. Psalm 119’s poet exclaims, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v103) and I get it. The Word is sweet.

The Vibrant Force

To say the psalmist loves Scripture would be like saying fish love to swim. It goes beyond love. God’s Word is his natural habitat. It permeates his every thought. He hides it in his heart. He knows it better than all his teachers. He keeps it top of mind, present in memory, never to be forgotten. He relies on the Word to strengthen him when he fears he’ll faint. He loves the sweetness of its taste. He looks to it to light his path. He doesn’t depart from its direction. He can’t exhaust its boundless truth. He takes solace in its permanence. His understanding of the world is rooted in God’s precepts. He goes on and on, waxing rhapsodic about Scripture until he ends up composing the Bible’s lengthiest chapter—176 verses in all, running longer than nearly half (30/66) of the Bible’s books in their entirety.

Without exploring the psalm, the obvious question is, “Why does he love the Bible so passionately?” The answer is his poem’s raison d’être. Verse upon verse, line upon line, he exults in the wealth of God’s Word and how it enriches his life. A more fascinating question, perhaps, is, “How did he come to love Scripture with such fervor?” The psalm is abundantly clear he’s been obsessed with the Bible most, if not all, of his life. By not providing details about where his passion originated and its development over time, however, he whets our curiosity about his leaps from casual reader to devoted student to besotted lover of God’s laws, precepts, and commands. “Oh, how I love your law!” he exclaims in verse 97—and we want to grab him by the lapels and ask, “How did you do it?” His ecstasy is contagious. By the time we’re this far into the poem, we sense tinges of jealousy creeping into our response. Whatever he found that made Scripture the vibrant force it is in his life we want it, too.

Wonderful Things

So how did he do it? The riddle’s solution hides in plain sight in verse 18: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” The psalmist has stopped reading God’s Word and started discovering it. He no longer listens to it; he expects it to speak. In other words, he makes himself available to the text. For him, the Bible isn’t an objective, impersonal library of knowledge and wisdom. It's God’s channel to communicate directly, specifically to him. The more he learns about it the more clearly he finds his place in it. When he turns to a page, he uncovers wonderful things that immediately resonate with who he is, where he’s at, and what he needs at this precise moment in his life. Thus he prays for open eyes to see what God wants him to know. It may the first time he’s explored a certain passage. It may the hundredth. Either way, he eagerly anticipates seeing what God desires to show him now.

I love the way Hebrews 4.12 captures this phenomenon: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Bible is a living thing. It’s actively engaged in our lives. When we open it with open eyes, we discover wonderful things that God wants us to see now. It’s the medium through which God speaks—to you, others, and me, collectively and personally. It penetrates gray areas between our soul’s emotions and our spirit’s longings. It takes us apart and puts us back together. It pierces the marrow of our beings and assesses our thoughts and opinions. If we read it passively—passing on the tougher portions and moving what doesn’t appeal to us around our plates—we miss much of its sweetness. We’ll never fully tap into its incandescence. Our paths will remain dim. But if we approach it, passionately and eagerly expecting to find what we need at this point in our lives, we discover wonderful things. The more frequently that happens, the more like the psalmist we’ll be. God’s Word will become our natural habitat. As we undertake our Lenten journey, I pray we’ll make ourselves available to God’s Word in new and wonderful ways, finding many new and wonderful things.

The Bible is God’s channel to communicate directly, specifically to us now. We pray for open eyes to discover new and wonderful things each time we open it.

Postscript: “Open My Eyes”

My church closed our Ash Wednesday service with this hymn—albeit at a more meditative pace. A longtime personal favorite, it distills the essence of praying for discovery and expecting God’s Word to speak. I trust the song will speak to you as well.

Open My Eyes, That I May See

Open my eyes, that I may see

Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp and set me free

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my eyes, illumine me

Spirit divine!

Open my ears, that I may hear

Voices of truth Thou sendest clear

And while the wave notes fall on my ear

Everything false will disappear

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my ears, illumine me

Spirit divine!

Open my mouth, and let me bear

Gladly the warm truth everywhere

Open my heart and let me prepare

Love with Thy children thus to share

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my heart, illumine me

Spirit divine!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who's Calling?

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30)

Our Journey Begins

Today is that Wednesday, when triumphant hosannas crumble into ashen humility and billions of Christians around the world set out on a virtual pilgrimage. We travel a route established nearly 20 centuries ago; by the Council of Nicea (325 AD), most Lenten customs we currently practice were in place. Church leaders combined emulating Jesus’s 40-day wilderness exile—the crucible of consecration He obediently entered to prepare for ministry—with a parallel path tracking His last weeks of human life.

Although the route remains unchanged, we pursue it knowing no two experiences are ever the same, because we are not the same. Following Christ is an adventure that changes us as we grow. Each year, we stand at the desert’s edge, surveying its terrain, with greater experience, higher awareness, and deeper longing to learn more about ourselves by discovering more about Christ. We prayerfully consider what to leave behind as well as what to carry on this Lenten odyssey that will open our eyes and hearts to the Savior's beckoning.

As always, Straight-Friendly will observe Lent with daily posts. Yet the uniqueness of this year’s experience will emerge (after much thought and prayer) by merging the paths of this, our online faith community, and my local one, which is using the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a devotional and journaling guide drawn from the works of the renowned German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr—as its compass. I invite those of you seeking fresh perspectives on discipleship and obedience to come along. And, of course, one need not actively engage with the book’s daily readings to join discussions here; the book will focus our thoughts without dictating scope of each day’s reflections. (See the postscript for more information about the book.)


Before we take our first step, it’s good for us to orient our thoughts to Lent’s purpose by asking, “Who’s calling?” We aren’t simply practicing a religious tradition. We aren’t honoring Christian obligation. We don’t do this at the institutional church’s insistence. We follow Jesus through the desert, to Calvary and the Empty Tomb, in response to His invitation and promise: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.28-30) We obediently subject ourselves to temptation and hardship in a sacred quest to find rest for our souls.

Everything about Lent—what we experience and discover along the way—is designed to submerge us in the counterintuitive, unnatural lifestyle common to all followers of Christ. We enter this wilderness weary from struggle and burdened with weaknesses. Daily encounters with temptation deplete our stamina all the more. Constant reminders of our lack of discipline and commitment further weaken us. Lent steadily drives to the place where, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we surrender our human desires and fears to God’s perfect will. Right now, we can’t see what that place is. Nor can we envision what will be required to break our pride and disobedience. All we know is if we sincerely, diligently stick to this path, we reach a point where we’re too tired and beleaguered to resist Christ’s call to authentic discipleship. Over time, we become increasingly cognizant of attitudes and behaviors we’ve yet to exchange for the mind and nature of Christ.

In theory, this should be an easy purchase from the start. But we’re stubbornly self-reliant, vain creatures. We’d rather wander aimlessly on our own, stumbling beneath our burdens, instead of humbling ourselves to accept Christ’s offer. As Lent’s journey wears on, we become intensely aware of needless weights we carry and the relentless drag they inflict on us. Only when we’re too weary to continue will we fully embrace Jesus’s invitation. Once our fatigue grows palpably real, we shed self-imposed resistance to His yoke’s gentle pressure and His humble heart’s lightness. Christ calls us into the desert to discover true reality is the polar opposite of reality fabricated by logical fears and doubts. He teaches us human reality is a fantasy. It makes no sense. It generates nothing but fatigue and frustration.

The Yoke of Discipleship

After our resistance to Christ’s call is disarmed, we discover another astounding truth: following Christ in obedience isn’t a burden. Nor is it a harness. Jesus invites us to wear His yoke. It weds us to Him, to walk alongside Him, and secures us to go where He leads. Our reasoning and intentions lose their importance. Being yoked to Christ removes our fears and cancels our doubts. The only way we can diverge from His path is by consciously removing His yoke. Thus, we walk into the desert of our own volition. But we exit it in total submission to Christ’s will and way. The rest we sought in taking on His yoke becomes our natural state. Thoughts and actions that exhausted us are things of the past—relics abandoned in the desert, never to be retrieved. This is precisely what Paul’s splendid description of discipleship emphasizes: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has gone, the new is here!”

Lest we misperceive Jesus’s invitation as the spiritual equivalent of riding shotgun while He does the driving and work, we must be very frank about how readily and frequently we chafe at the yoke of discipleship. Complete surrender to Christ’s will inevitably provokes stubborn determination to follow our own path. When we sense Christ turning us away from burdensome people, situations, and mindsets we cling to, we balk. Newness makes us nervous. What’s the old adage? Better the devil you know than the one you don’t? But such thinking reverts to human logic, which we’ve learned is irreparably flawed and misleading. We approach Lent seeking a better way. The desert breaks down our resistance. We yield to Christ’s authority. Once we take on discipleship’s yoke, we redirect our stubborn determination from pursuing a life of fear and doubt to embracing one of courage and trust. Christ is gentle and humble of heart. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. His promise is true. We will find rest for our souls.

We enter Lent’s wilderness of our own volition, responding to Christ’s invitation. We exit it wearing the yoke of discipleship, which guides us away from burdens to find rest for our souls.

Postscript: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a Hymn

For those interested in tracking the daily reflections here with the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you can get a closer look at the book and order it here. I can’t endorse it highly enough.

And finally, while working on today’s post (based on the book’s first entry), I kept hearing the old invitational hymn, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” As you listen to Cynthia Clawson’s lovely rendition, hear Jesus calling us to renew and strengthen our discipleship—to exchange our burdens of willful pride and logic for His gentle yoke.