Friday, June 24, 2011

March and Shout

As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. (Joshua 6.20)

Some Parades Aren’t for Watching

For years, Walt and I scheduled an annual vacation in Paris for the Fête de la Musique, a dusk-to-dawn revel unlike any in the world. One year, Paris’s Fête du Pride—the LGBT celebration held the last Saturday in June—fell four days after the Fête de la Musique. Knowing Paris, we knew it would be big and didn’t want to miss a beat. We dropped in on a friend who’d spent a lot of time in New York. “Where’s the best place to watch the parade?” we asked. He wasn’t sure what we meant. Assuming our French was off, we rephrased the question. He still wasn’t clear. As a last resort, we tried English. “Ah,” he replied with a wry smile. “It’s not a parade one watches; it’s a march one joins in solidarity of purpose—to demand equality for all. Naturally, there will be music and dancing and costumes. But the march is more than that. It’s for everyone and everyone participates. You’ll see.” And so we did. As the route turned into the Place de la Bastille, the boulevard leading to the Place de la Republique—the final destination—overflowed with half a million people marching (many with distinctive flair) for LGBT equality.

Some parades aren’t for watching. They must be joined—if not physically, in spirit. This holds for any parade that celebrates minorities and movements, as its primary goal is demonstrating solidarity of purpose. Along with marking the community’s proud heritage, longevity, and progress, a yearning to overcome still greater barriers surges beneath the jubilance. Aside from displaying collective strength, the mobility touches a primal nerve. It says, “We’re not satisfied yet. We won’t stand still or be silent until every impediment raised against us is removed. As long as one of us is unjustly held back, we’ll march ahead as one.” Sideline viewing won’t get you there. Nor, as Israel’s legendary conquest of Jericho teaches, will relying on the kindness of strangers. As they say, you gotta be in it to win it.

A Place Belonging to Them

To date, archeologists have unearthed just enough evidence to support pro and con cases for Joshua 6’s version of Jericho’s fall. Some scholars defend its historical veracity; others theorize Joshua’s author reframes the conquest as metaphor to emphasize the miraculous nature of actual events. Read literally or metaphorically, the message is the same: God delivers on the promise that Israel will have a land of its own. And noting a few known facts about Jericho while revisiting the legend greatly amplifies its meaning and relevance.

Jericho is at its pinnacle when Israel arrives (ca. 1550 BCE). While it’s too soon in the human saga to call it a “major metropolis”—it covers eight square acres—it’s a renowned manufacturing and trade center. Compared to nomadic peoples like Israel, its citizens, politics, and culture are highly advanced. Furthermore, Jericho’s commercial eye looks favorably on foreign artisans and laborers. Few cities match its expansive capability to assimilate and accommodate outsiders. These and other factors make Jericho an open city—except when outside threats arise. Then, its gates slam shut and its fate hangs on walls said to be the strongest of their time.

So, realistically, the Israelites have an option. Instead of mounting a full-frontal attack, they can systematically occupy Jericho in waves, like other immigrant groups have done. And they know this, as two spies Joshua dispatches to survey the city in advance enter and move about it freely. (Only when their mission comes to light do they encounter hostility.) Yet Israel also recognizes stealthy integration isn’t enough. God promises much more than a place for them to “belong.” No, God promises the Israelites a place belonging to them—where their voice matters, their views carry weight, and they’re entitled to shape their destiny. Before Jericho and the adjacent Canaanite territory can truly be The Promised Land, every barrier relegating Israel to second-class status must topple. Strolling into town, settling down quietly, and hoping for change won’t change anything. (It will be Egypt redux—less traumatic, perhaps, but a backward step all the same, since they’ll lose autonomy gained in the desert.) When change needs to happen, walls need to fall. And when walls need to fall, it’s time to do exactly as God instructs Israel: march and shout.

Circus Act

Over-familiarity with the story leads us to discount how peculiar God’s strategy must sound to Israel and how strange its execution must look to Jericho. Word of potential military assault puts the city on lockdown. Defensive troops stand watch on the walls. When the Israelites are first sighted marching toward Jericho, their armed guard leads the way. As they get closer, though, things get weirder. Seven trumpeters decked out in priestly regalia follow the guard, and behind them seven more priests haul some sort of fancy box. (Canaanite ignorance of Israelite culture keeps them from recognizing the Ark of the Covenant—the vehicle expressly designed to transport the nation’s most sacred relics to The Promised Land.) As for the army, well, it’s definitely irregular. Even at a distance, it’s plainly sub-standard. Its weapons are crude. Its uniforms (or lack of them) aren’t presentable. And it obviously could use some discipline.

By the time Israel reaches Jericho’s perimeter, it’s a joke. The city watches in befuddlement, wondering what this circus act means. The Israelites make a lot of racket while parading once around the walls. Then they go home. They repeat the march for six days. Day Seven’s parade runs longer. The Israelites make seven laps around Jericho. Just when the march starts to wind down, the trumpeters sound a blast and the army yells at the top of its lungs. The rest is history—or, if you prefer, legend.

People of the Promise

This weekend, cities around the world will commemorate the birth of the LGBT equality movement 32 years ago, when a handful of irregular-looking patrons of a tiny New York City bar decided intolerance no longer could be tolerated. Just as Israel’s rebellion against Pharaoh triggered an onslaught of chaos and violence, the 1969 Stonewall uprising sparked a series of riots that shook the world. Gay communities everywhere united, instinctively marching out of our Egypt, where we’d been held captive and forced to live persona non grata in service to oppressive powers. The heady pursuit of freedom and equality set us down the path Israel followed: we abused our liberty by shrugging off responsibilities to safeguard our health and welfare. Urgent threats to our survival disoriented us. For the more than a decade it felt like we’d lost our bearings in a wilderness of death and disease. The desert’s crises muted our exuberance, but we kept marching. While adversaries sat on their hands and jeered at our distress, our persistence prevailed. Allies from everywhere joined our march. With their help, by God’s providence, each step brought us nearer to our Promised Land.

So where are we? I believe we’ve crossed the Jordan. Where we live now looks nothing like where we left. During our wilderness ordeal, God prospered the place promised to us, enlightening its people to the advantages of tolerance and equality. Yet we mustn’t mistake the hospitality and kindness of strangers for an acceptable option. Strolling through open gates, settling down quietly, and hoping for change won’t change our being viewed apart from the majority. Our 32-year journey brings us to Jericho, the last bastion of impediments between the promise and us. We haven’t come this far to compromise. A place where we can belong is a far cry from a place belonging to us, where our voices, wishes, and self-determination inform the world we live in and future we shape for generations to come. Equality isn’t real until all things are equal. Freedom is an illusion if one of us isn’t free.

As people of the promise—gay and straight, young and old—we will march and shout until every wall crumbles in every corner of the world. We will remain mindful that, right now, millions of LGBT sisters and brothers in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean have only begun their march. For those held captive to fear of death, violence, and political reprisal, the Promised Land is a flickering dream. Even we who live in more advanced societies face allegedly unconquerable barriers of indoctrinated prejudice, legalized injustice, and institutional indifference. This has to change for good. When change needs to happen, walls need to fall. When walls need to fall, we march and shout.

For the Record

This weekend, and every time LGBT people and their allies—as well as every other minority and movement—take to the streets, we remember some parades aren’t for watching. Christ’s command to love our Creator and neighbors compels us to join their march, in spirit or, if possible, in person. The Bible’s constant entreaty to defend the widow, care for the orphan, and welcome the stranger calls us to respond.

And, for the record, we know how weird and weak we look to gatekeepers and watchers on the walls. We realize ignorance of what our bizarre dress and behavior signifies blinds them to power we possess. It’s okay if they regard us as no more than a noisy circus act. Every march is one more lap around the walls. Every shout rattles their foundations.

Joshua 6.20 reads, “As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it.” Though it looks and feels like we’re walking in circles, we’re privy to the plan. Day Seven is coming. Remaining bastions of inequality and exclusion will fall. What’s promised will belong to us at last.

We may look weird and weak, our dress and behavior may seem bizarre, and our marches and shouts may appear futile. But we’re privy to the plan. Day Seven is coming.

Postscript: Much to Be Thankful For

By design, Straight-Friendly was launched on June 29, 2008 to coincide with the Stonewall anniversary, hoping to underscore LGBT right of Christian inclusion as both a spiritual and social mandate. Thus, this weekend also celebrates our third year together. And what a magnificent journey it’s been!

There’s much to be thankful for. First and foremost, I lift a heart of gratitude to God, Whose gentle love and abiding presence sustain this place, to Jesus Christ, Whose teaching and example are its bedrock, and to the Holy Spirit, Whose guidance and instruction steady its course. And then there are all of you, who’ve so generously embraced, nurtured, and blessed Straight-Friendly with your love, wisdom, joy, and strength of character. I’m humbled beyond measure that you would claim me as your brother—and thrilled beyond compare to count everyone who gathers here, seen and unseen, as true friends. May God richly reward the faithfulness and kindness you’ve showered on S-F, its readers, and me as we continue marching ahead.

Happy Anniversary!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pondering in Silence

Know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for Himself: the LORD hears when I call to Him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. (Psalm 4.3-4)

Cleansing Power

Childhood fascinations with faith and film collided when, at seven or eight, I first watched The Nun’s Story (1959). Although Roman Catholicism and cloistered life were foreign to me, the picture’s piety touched me on a level unlike any movie I’d seen before—and very few since. I’d noticed nuns on the street and heard about them from playmates. Yet the depiction of their devotion floored me. Upon entering the order, the heroine (Audrey Hepburn) and other postulates are briefed on convent life, including the “Rule of Silence—interior and exterior silence” ridding one’s mind of idle distractions and thoughts. Having never heard such a thing, along with other customs I picked up from the film, it seemed worth a try. To my parents’ dismay (on many levels), I pinned a towel to my head like a veil, made the Sign of the Cross at every turn, and spoke only when spoken to. The role-play ended when my father sat me down and told me, “Son, it’s time to end this. You’re not Catholic. You’re not a nun. Nuns are girls, and”— his greatest concern—“you’re not a girl.” While I didn’t like it, he had a point.

Following that brush with sacred quietness, interest in contemplative silence eluded me, largely due to lack of exposure. As you may know, Pentecostalism (my faith background) is a noisy tradition. Instead of emptying our minds to listen, we were constantly raising our voices in prayer. And there are benefits to vocal prayer. Articulating one’s faith indubitably strengthens it. What’s more, audibly expressing needs and desires to God alerts one to false motives, pride, and vanity tucked into the requests. What goes missing, however, is silence’s cleansing power—a thing I only recently discovered by attending my present church’s monthly Taizé prayer service.

Modeled on the ecumenical monastic community in Taizé, France, the service builds to a 15-minute silence, as everyone sits together, alone in prayer and meditation. The quarter-hour feels like an eternity and an instant. I usually lose a few minutes to thinking about not thinking. Gratefully, such thoughts quickly grow tiresome. My mind rests as silence washes over it. Anxieties and ideas I seldom ponder surface, yet stillness puts them at ease. It becomes a presence that speaks assurance and peace to my innermost being. In the cleansing, I’m reminded troubling concerns belong to the world. Though they affect me, they’re not part of me. The same realization sits at the heart of Psalm 4.

Save It for Later

Signed by David, who notes it should be accompanied by strings, the song finds him holding three conversations at once: one with his God, another with his people, and a third with himself. A rift between the monarch and his subjects apparently inspires the anxious tone at the psalm’s outset. (Resurging idolatry in defiance of his rule is implied.) David begins with a prayer we all pray when dispiriting problems disturb our peace. It’s me again, Lord. “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer,” he writes. (v1) He all but says, “You’ve helped me with this kind of stuff before and I’m sure You’ll show me how to handle it. Still, I need to know You’re there and listening.” With that, David turns to his nation, asking, “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him.” (v2-3) The dejection (“Why are you doing this?”) and assertiveness (“You know God listens to me”) tell us how distraught David is. His mind won’t rest. He’s unable to sleep.

David’s experience in similar dilemmas proves its worth in wisdom he offers his people—and himself. “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” (v4-5) This is advice we frequently hear and rarely heed. When troubles plague our waking thoughts and cloud our perception of what’s best to do, it’s best we do nothing. If we’re uncertain what we should say, talking about it certainly won’t help. From the sound of it, something has shaken Israel’s faith. In a panic to rationalize and remedy the situation, it’s talked its way into disobedience. David grants thinking about the problem can’t be avoided. But it can be corralled. “Save worrying for later,” he counsels, “when you’re alone and quiet—when silence can cleanse your mind from trouble that comes from the crazy, confused world outside, and guide your thoughts to peace and assurance residing within.”

Not Obsessing—Accessing

Pondering in silence sounds like the worst possible means of easing anxiety, particularly in an overly anxious age hounding us about suppressed emotions and denial. We spend hours talking about our problems and talking to others about theirs. If it helps—and sometimes it does, though not as reliably as we’re told—negativity we breathe into the air nonetheless poisons our perceptions and dims the brightness of future expectations. By and large, thinking we can talk our way out of troubles talks us into paralyzing pessimism. David observes this phenomenon in verse 6: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!’” (Again with the talking!) While they fret over what they don’t have, David’s silent pondering clears his mind to reconnect with abiding joy, peace, and assurance obtained by trusting his Maker. He verges on gloating as he closes in verses 7 and 8: “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.”

How nutty is it that the very thing David suggests our talkaholic culture resists most? What he calls “pondering in silence,” we disparage as “obsessing"! All that reflects, however, is how grossly we underestimate force silence accrues when prayerfully approached. Entering silence to listen rather than talk transforms obsessing about troubles we can’t prevent or control into accessing strength we possess by faith. We say to God, “It’s me again. I know this is an easy matter for You, because we've gone through similar situations before. I just need to know You’re there and listening. Now I’m going to quiet myself to hear what You want to say.” If we start there, silence clears thoughts and anxieties muffling the hushed Voice that imparts calm and confidence and anchors our souls. Chaos surrounding us loses its influence over us once we renew access to sacred joy, peace, and assurance abiding within.

We welcome silence to cleanse our minds of anxiety about troubles we can’t prevent or control so we can access peace and assurance we possess within.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father Knows Best

As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him. For He knows how we were made; He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103.13-14)

Creative Surrogates

If there were an ancient equivalent of the Time-Life greatest-hits CDs, Psalm 103 (Sunday’s morning psalm, attributed to David) would be a shoo-in for “Favorite Psalms of All Time.” Even those who’ve never read it probably know big chunks of it, as Psalm 103 regularly turns up in hymns, liturgies, devotions, and sermons, much like golden oldies are sampled in freshly minted pop tunes. The opening stanza easily stands alone as a timeless classic:

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all His benefits—Who forgives all your iniquity, Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from the Pit, Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, Who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, mercy, goodness, renewal: these are unforgettable benefits the Creator bestows on us so our creativity will flow and thrive. We’re created to serve God’s will as creative surrogates. And it’s essential we embrace our creativity as a defining trait common to all children of God.

What we receive from God definitely benefits us. Yet God also gives us these wondrous gifts to benefit others. Knowing God’s forgiveness teaches us to forgive. Experiencing God’s healing enables us to transmit wholeness to others. And so on. We learn to accept all of God’s benefits by faith. We're redeemed by faith—believing love and mercy revealed in Christ’s sacrifice empower us to reclaim virtues lost to harmful influences and wasted in disobedience. Faith in God’s goodness restores life’s meaning and our power of renewal. At the same time, faith that claims God’s benefits without replicating them is faith half-spent. Ephesians 2.8-10 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Faith is creativity’s catalyst. Part and parcel with internalizing God’s benefits by faith is exercising faith to impart them to others. This is the creative drive that mimics our Creator’s compulsion to fashion magnificence out of mundane materials and beginnings. Just as we originated from dust, good works we create start with very little. So when David says, “all that is within me,” he insists we hold nothing back. Unfortunately, too often we focus on hurdles to receptive faith, i.e., doubts and fears disabling our ability to claim God’s benefits, when the same hurdles also thwart creative faith that drives us to good works God prepared for us in advance.

Our Work Endures

In verses 10-12, David stresses God’s benefits are gifts we don’t deserve, not rewards we earn:

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far He removes our transgressions from us.

Coming across statements like this in the Psalms, we generalize them as ebullient poetry extolling God’s lavish grace despite our poor behavior. But, like any great artist, David carefully selects imagery to embellish his meaning. Comparing God’s love to the cosmos galvanizes Psalm 103 with wonder at its awesome singularity. Removing our sins “as far as the east is from the west” evokes time. As surely as eastern sunrise delivers each new day and western sunset seals it in the past, grace brings forgiveness and leaves failure behind. The planetary metaphors frame love and grace as divine forces that inspire wonder at our awesome singularity as God’s creative surrogates.

While we’re ever mindful that mortality subjects us to transience and limits us to human scale, good works we create ultimately reflect our Creator’s constant love and immeasurable grace. In verses 15-17, David urges us to remember God’s time is eternal and ours is fleeting: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him and His righteousness to children’s children.” Though we eventually fade from the scene, our work endures.


Opportunity to express God’s love and grace lasts only so long. The time we have obtains eternal value by sustaining God’s reflection on a human, rather than cosmic, scale. This explains David’s parallel “family” metaphor. We ensure continuity of God’s love and grace by transmitting them to current and future generations—“children’s children”—instilling confidence in their awesome singularity, teaching them by example to employ God-given talents that reflect their Maker. Verses 13-14 establish the continuity theme: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him. For He knows how we were made; He remembers that we are dust.”

We inherit God’s drive to create good works that start with little and acquire lasting value. Humbly offering forgiveness, healing, love, etc., by faith is our family business. Like a compassionate father knows best how to love and nurture his children, God knows best how to love and nurture us, refining our gifts to ensure continuity for generations to come. The purpose for our making, shape of our existence, talents we’re given, and creativity to convey them require no justification or apology. Each of us is made as we are, to become who we are, because God, our Creator and Parent, knows best what we should be and how best we can serve God's plan. Since God knows best, we give our best, blessing the Lord with all that is within us, remembering all of God’s benefits. By relying on creativity we inherit to express every gift God wills to us, good works we create on a human scale make God’s magnificence known.

Just as our creation in God’s image began in dust, good works we create start with mundane material and beginnings that lead to magnificence.