Saturday, October 1, 2011

Brighter by the Minute

The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what they stumble over. (Proverbs 4.18-19)

To Make the Day

With each turn of the earth comes that silver moment, when light’s promise stills darkness’s confusion, when bitter cold of night surrenders to refreshing coolness. It’s my favorite time of day, an enchanting, innocent interlude that holds all of nature—as well as human ambition and mischief—in abeyance. It lasts no longer than a kiss. But there’s peace in the kiss, and with it, an ache to linger in the new day’s gentle arms. Knowing it’s just a moment sweetens it with melancholy. Brightness will slip over the horizon, shattering the silence with compelling brilliance that conceals a simple question: What will you do with this day?

Our answer teeters on how we greet the day as it unfolds. If we’re overly idealistic, each step into time will become heavier with regret, as dawn’s silvery promise fades into daylight’s ironclad realities. If we’re prone to cynicism and defensiveness, our jaded outlook will only find confirmation in the harsh light. Either way, we’ll discount our power to make the day happen—not only for us, but also for those who need us to make their day. Either way, we’ll settle for bemoaning injustice and selfishness, rather than responding in ways that restore balance. As people of faith, however, we have within us a bottomless wealth of compassion, tolerance, and kindness to make the day, because righteousness exists in us. In 2 Corinthians 5.21 we’re told God specifically ordained Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate sin offering so that we might “become the righteousness of God.” Coupling this supreme gift of grace with the gift of sunrise empowers us to make the day—to bring to it the serenity and promise that announces each dawn.

Truly Awesome

I flinch when I hear the word “awesome” tossed around. God is awesome; we aren’t. Nature is awesome; human achievements and invention are not. Although heights we reach often surprise and baffle us, our success proves they’re neither inconceivable nor impossible. To inflate regard for our accomplishments with puffed-up awe diminishes our ability to perceive truly awesome miracles and might at work in our world—not the least of which is truly awesome goodness God endows in us. The righteousness of God is so far beyond us we’ll never fully comprehend it. Nor will we ever replicate or implement it purely by mortal means. We can manufacture light. We can raise mountains, dig valleys, plot rivers, and plant forests. We can even engineer new species and life forms. Righteousness, however, forever exceeds our scope, as we haven’t the innate wisdom and will to be infallibly right. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” Romans 3.10 insists, implicitly defining righteousness as an exclusively divine trait—which is why God’s provision through Christ enabling us to become righteous is a truly awesome phenomenon, a cherished gift to be shared at all times. (It’s also why self-righteousness is such a dangerous, foolhardy, and wicked proposition.)

Being confidently aware we possess God’s righteousness allows us to seize the promises of daybreak and greet every waking moment as a sacred opportunity. “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day,” Proverbs 4.18 explains. We arise in peace, burst forth in splendor, and grow brighter by the minute. Propelled by an insatiable desire to reflect our Maker in all we say and do, we nurture justice and mercy where cruelty and resentment thrive. We dispel shadows that blight unenlightened souls with fear and ignorance. We answer chaos with clarity, despair with hope, doubt with faith, and hatred with love. Before speaking, we seek God’s infallible wisdom and will to say the right words. Before acting, we ask divine guidance to do the right thing. Before forming opinions and striking attitudes, we remind ourselves it’s within our power to govern our thoughts and emotions rightly.

Does this sound like a far-fetched, utopian fantasy? Of course it does. Resisting self-serving logic and dark impulses is a constant battle. The sun seldom, if ever, sets without witnessing momentary lapses. Rather than surrender to weaknesses, however, we defy them. Knowing God’s righteousness exists in us confirms our passing failures are out of character. We tap into the assurance Paul expresses in Philippians 1.4: “I am confident in this, that the One Who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Faith in our God-given ability—and God’s faith in us—to do what’s right carries the day.

The Dark Side

To grasp the relative insignificance of temporary setbacks in a rightly led life, consider Proverbs’ depiction of those who reject righteousness. “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness,” it says. “They do not know what they stumble over.” (v19) Can you imagine a more dismally frustrating existence—repeatedly tripping over hidden obstacles, blindly falling into mean snares, fearing danger with every step, and never feeling confident of one’s direction or progress? This is how many around us live. Navigating the dark side is their daily reality.

Thus, growing brighter by the minute surpasses the peace and clarity we experience. It radiates God’s grace and love, giving those who neither see nor know true righteousness a glimmer of the goodness it affords. Because it’s completely alien to human nature, it’s unlikely they’ll understand it any better than we do. Indeed, many will be so confounded they’ll suspect ulterior motives drive our words, deeds, and attitudes. They have that choice. We need not qualify our behavior and we definitely shouldn’t respond in ways that suggest it’s any of our doing. There is no one righteous, not even one. All we are—all we can possibly be—are recipients of God’s righteousness. Since it’s so far beyond us, it shines through us despite our frailties and faults. How awesome is that?

Most Righteous God, we stand in awe of this unfathomable gift You place in us through Christ. And, like the psalmist, we pray, “Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to You.” Amen.

Each sunrise asks, “What will you do with this day?” Confidently aware we possess God’s righteousness, we greet each moment as a sacred opportunity. Our path grows brighter by the minute.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The New Wave

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21.31)

Early Adopters

A big part of me wishes I were what tech gurus call an “early adopter.” But I’m not. When it comes to gizmos and Web-related stuff, I’m a 2.0 type of guy; before I jump on the newest wave, I hang back to see if it actually materializes as the next wave. And a big part of me is okay with that, because I seldom find the process of mastering the latest—allegedly “intuitive”—convenience intuitive or convenient. Deciphering inscrutable instructions and reordering one’s life to adopt new technologies can be maddening, particularly if the effort outweighs the benefits or one’s frustrations come to naught when the concept doesn’t catch on. So, despite appearing lazy and technophobic, I tend to wait until early-adopter friends can explain an innovation’s value and functionality in language I understand. This tactic has taught me to appreciate the wisdom and courage of early adopters and why watching them closely is so essential.

We all know conspicuous consumers who strive to be up-to-the-minute by spending fortunes on high-tech marvels and leaping on every Web craze. Yet they rarely do more with them than older models they replace. Their excuses for not availing themselves of progress’s potential typically boil down to resisting change that newness requires. In contrast, early adopters look before they leap. To welcome change, they need to know it’s worth welcoming. If they sense pushing new buttons and adapting behaviors will get them no further than they are, they pass. But once they’re convinced something revolutionary is underway, they trust their instincts. They’re unconcerned with whom they impress or how nerdy their enthusiasm looks. All they care about is what the new wave signifies in terms of eliminating barriers and opening new vistas in their lives.

Disruptive Behavior

In Matthew 21, Jesus silences a challenge to His authority with a parable that describes the first-century equivalent of conspicuous consumers and early adopters. He doesn’t embroider the tale. Indeed, it’s one of His least nuanced stories—and for good reason, because the religious leaders who confront Him about His disruptive behavior love nothing better than getting lost in the weeds. And before we examine His response, we should concede those questioning Him are well within their rights. Jesus has just staged a raucous Passover arrival in Jerusalem, intentionally mounting a young donkey to fulfill prophecy that the Messiah will come to Israel riding an untried colt. After dismissing criticism that He’s incited the palm-waving crowd’s adulation, He marches into the Temple’s courtyard market and literally turns it upside down. He returns the next day—as if nothing happened—and has the temerity to teach the congregation. The Temple leaders immediately shut Him down, demanding, “Who do You think You are? Who authorized You to behave so outrageously?”

Jesus responds by questioning them. (Talk about audacity!) “Answer Me and I’ll answer you,” He says, asking, “Was John’s baptism authorized by God or just a fad he started?” It’s a brilliant move, leaving His challengers no viable option. Saying God ordained John to baptize begs why they didn’t believe him. If they say he invented baptism as a signature gimmick, the crowd—who regard him as a prophet—will turn on them. “We don’t know,” they opt out. “Well, I’m not going to explain Who authorized Me, either,” Jesus says. Then He reframes their dilemma as a parable.

When a man with two sons tells the first to go work in the family vineyard, the son refuses. But after thinking it over, he does as he’s told. The second son agrees to work, only to welch on his promise. “Who did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. (Matthew 21.31) “The first son,” His accusers say. With that, Jesus yanks the rug from under them. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” He declares. They’re early adopters. They sensed something revolutionary transpiring and believed John. Reminding the Temple leaders they doubted John, He essentially casts them as conspicuous consumers who resist change. “Even after you saw it,” He asserts, “you did not change your minds and believe him.” (v32)

Going into the Vineyard

Although the parable and its application occupy only four verses, unpacking it opens numerous points of entry. We first have to come to grips with our fondness for the path of least resistance. It’s more convenient to maintain a 2.0 stance and let others deal with the frustrations of adopting—and adapting to—the new wave. It’s easier to promise and not deliver than to change our minds about what we’re unwilling to do. Appearing phobic and lazy seems less risky than summoning wit and courage to assess the validity of change and meet its demands. We’d rather be late than laughed at, safe than sorry. So we’re content to wait and see what the hubbub’s really about, never imagining it will amount to much and therefore never recognizing the significance of what we’re looking at. Besides, if this new wave does turn into the next wave, we can always catch up. (Note Jesus doesn’t say the Temple leaders will never enter the kingdom. He merely says their reluctance to change will ultimately cost their leadership status by putting people they revile in the vanguard position.)

But this parable also speaks specifically to those of us who—despite being misconstrued as sinners and reprobates—perceive faith’s revolutionary new wave and dare to believe it’s divinely ordained. Yes, it took a while to revise our views of what following Christ means and why it’s worth risking our reputations to believe. Being convinced of faith’s power to remove barriers and open new vistas in our lives, however, compels us to honor our calling as early adopters. We’ve got to do as God asks. Whether or not our brothers and sisters join us, going into the vineyard is the only way we’ll figure out how this new thing works. Being there is our sole means of bringing the promise of inclusion to fruition.

We should expect those tending the vineyard to be outraged when our presence turns everything upside down and challenge our right to be there. Still, we need not answer them, since they’ve yet to believe what we know is true and divinely ordered. Our task is to be seen obeying God’s will. Those who oppose us may not believe what they see. They may resist the change happening before their eyes. They’d rather be late than laughed at, safe than sorry. Nonetheless the new wave is here. It’s sweeping the Church, steadily demolishing barriers and opening new vistas. While appointed leaders balk at the excitement and disruptive behaviors it generates, we’ve been given divine authority to take the lead. And lest we get all cocky and confused about our vanguard position, we need to remember what early adopters do. They get there first so those struggling with newness can get there, too.

Dear Father, we’re tired of worrying about what people think and promising without delivering. Let them call us what they will and hate us for what we are. You asked us to work for You and we’ve decided it’s the right thing to do. So teach us to be wise and courageous. Lead us into Your kingdom and bless us to show the way to those who have yet to believe what they see. Amen.

Although early adopters stir up a lot of commotion and disrupt the status quo, they ultimately validate the significance of the newness they believe in.