welcome. why "weak on sanctification"?

this accusation is often made about lutheran christians. because we focus so strongly on god's justifying grace in christ, and our continual need, as "sinner-saints," to receive god's gifts of grace through word and sacrament, people say we are "weak on sanctification." i prefer to say we are strong on jesus, whose sanctifying work in our lives is the fruit of the gospel all along our lifelong journey. i would much rather focus on what he has done than on anything i might do.

the weekly discussion

each week I set forth a topic to promote discourse about some aspect of Christianity, the church, or the spiritual life. i would love to hear your perspective and thoughts on each week's subject. these discussions are usually posted on mondays, so if you missed this week's post and would like to catch up on the conversation, just scroll down and join us.

October 30, 2009

October 22, 2009

my "suburbs" rant

death by suburb: how to keep the suburbs from killing your soul, by dave goetz. harperone, 2007.

i'll start this by cutting to the chase—this book ticks me off. not because i strongly disagree with it, but because i find it to be so devastatingly accurate and ugly. furthermore, it describes a great deal of my own life and character, and that just plain stinks.

dave goetz's death by suburb vividly portrays the world we have fashioned with our american prosperity. to use his term, it is a "thin" world—superficial, insipid, and unsubstantial.

as goetz sees it, the suburbs are...
  • a world where i must be in control
in a world that i will into being, there's not much room for mystery, for the sacred, for that which is outside my control. everything happens for a reason, right? if i want a better marriage, i attend the church's small group on marriage. if i want more knowledge of church history, i take a class at the local christian college. if i want to protect my kids from bad music, i play in the minivan the christian radio station that brands itself, "safe for the whole family." if halloween scares me, my kids and i can attend a fall festival, an alternative halloween event at a large church in our area...i live in a neighborhood so safe that the only way christians "stand up for christ" is by not serving alcohol at the block party. (it's a family neighborhood, after all!) even the construction workers working on the $1 million home next door listen only to nice Christian radio. how nice for our kids!

immersed in a context that values things done right or not at all, i inevitably conclude, most subconsciously, that i can control my life. (25f)
  • a world of "competitive parenting"
i absorbed quickly that my children's education needed to be approached like an nba championship. no detail was too small and no standardized test too insignificant. education was not really about learning but about winning. (p.8)
  • a world that's all about collecting "immortality symbols"
the meaning of children and their accomplishments is only one suburban immortality symbol. there is the sprawling five-thousand square foot house with the gorgeous sun porch. there is the "ken and barbie" appearance that some couples exude—eternal youth packaged in fresh cleavage and low body fat. for clergy, it's the three-thousand-member mega-church....

there is, frankly, no one more uninteresting than a person with no immortality symbols: the suburban family with no smart or athletic kids that lives in a relatively small house; the poor; the single mom left to raise three kids under twelve after the divorce; the elderly with no winter condo in florida; the midlife pastor with a small congregation. none of these folks is asked to speak at the college alumni banquet. (42f)
  • a world that feeds the deadly sins of envy, coveting, and gluttony
the 'burbs are all about striving to be unique, but we all end up competing for the same symbols—the four-bedroom home with the pottery barn colors, the l.l. bean underwear and outerwear, the fuel-guzzling truck, the purebred dog, the family pilgrimage to disney world, and the athletic and scholarship-bedecked college-bound freshman. my wife says she doesn't really covet her neighbor's husband but only the figure of his size 6 wife.... (p.65)
  • a world in which "church" is about my consumer preferences
within my protestant family, many churchgoing folk change churches as if they were changing drycleaners. if they come across a coupon for a dime less per laundered shirt, they're off to another store. actually, i think it may be less like shopping and more like casual sex.

it's certainly not about ongoing relationships. it's about the immediate experience, the brief sensation of feeling like i have found a home, a place where i deeply resonate with the worship and theology (at least for a time).

it's one year here and two years there, back to the first church to patch things up, and then on to the cool church with the AUTHENTIC charismatic liturgy where you can find inner healing. few, except for frustrated clergy, admit that local church loyalty is this thin; the reasons offered by church migrants (when someone bothers to ask) always seem reasonable. often the reason goes back to the kids: "there's no youth program for our kids, and we know that over at first church, they have a large youth program. and we really want our kids to make good friends."

parents will lay down their lives if their kids' spirituality and social needs appear to be at stake. it would be better to slap the cub of a she-grizzly than to suggest to any suburban parent that perhaps there are considerations other than the immediate welfare of kids for making decisions.... (127f)
  • a world where serving others is primarily about my own significance
i often find myself serving mostly in safe or comfortable programs, where no relationship with someone in deep need forms. there doesn't appear to be any conspiracy to preclude relationships with the poor and broken. it just sort of happens, or, rather, doesn't happen. it's easier not to befriend a single mom who at forty-two with a newborn and only $6-an-hour job skills fears telling the father that he has a son because he might sue for custody because she's in such poverty. why get involved in THAT? there's no upside. (p. 109)

this stuff really hurts. the "american dream" life, the life of prosperity, comfort, safety, efficiency and productivity may be one of the most inhospitable soils in which to grow true disciples of christ that the world has ever known.

moses, who had seen it all, who'd been through slavery and exile and persecution and the wilderness, warned the second generation of israelites who were soon to enter the promised land that they were about to face one of the most severe trials of their lives—the trial of prosperity:
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God. (Deut 8.11-20)
dave goetz puts it this way:
i think my suburb, as safe and religiously coated as it is, keeps me from jesus. or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real jesus. the living patterns of the good life affect me more than i know.
i guess what bothers me most is that so few see this. we accept our cultural surroundings like a fish takes water for granted. we don't see anything spiritually harmful in "the patterns of the good life." we don't recognize how they play to the flesh and anesthetize the spirit.

to aid us in battling "the world" as it surrounds us in affluent society, goetz recommends several spiritual practices gleaned from the history of the church and monastery. frankly, i'm not sure they are enough.
  • individual transformation through such practices is a key, but only a start.
  • at some point we are going to need to talk about what church is all about;
  • and living among and walking with the poor;
  • and perhaps participating in a movement out of the affluent suburbs and into the cities and needy neighborhoods;
  • and forsaking the mindset of "whites only" privilege that continues to predominate in the suburbs so that we can relate and learn with our brothers and sisters from other cultures.
thus ends the rant. thus begins deep heart searching on the part of this so-called "disciple."

thank you for the wake-up call, dave goetz.

today's van gogh

October 20, 2009

"wild things" i cannot control

david brooks writes an insightful column in today's New York Times about the new film, "where the wild things are." from my perspective, brooks sheds some very helpful light on what it means to be "weak on sanctification."

when describing some insights that the film sheds on the subject of character, brooks contrasts the "philosopher's view" of character with the "psychologist's view."
  • the first perspective asserts that individuals have certain ingrained character traits that shape who we are and how we act. i am basically a dishonest person or an honest one. i am either compassionate or unsympathetic. one of the life's great tasks is to develop a deep-rooted character of virtue. then, i can be the "hero" who will always do the right thing and win the day.

  • in contrast, the psychologist's view suggests that our actual behavior is not driven by specific permanent character traits that consistently apply across contexts. i may be honest in one situation while dishonest in another. i have many different tendencies that may be activated by various circumstances and moods. i am made up of what Paul Bloom calls, "a community of competing selves."
the film "where the wild things are" portrays that, even in childhood, we are torn by warring impulses that are difficult to understand and control. the main character, max, is a boy who adores his mother, yet rages against her; who looks up to his older sister, yet trashes her room when he cannot enjoy her in his life as he would like.

in the midst of this turmoil, max makes a fantastical journey to an island where wild things live. each of the monsters he meets represents a member of his own "community of selves." brooks comments on what the lad discovers on the island:

in the movie, max wants to control the wild things. the wild things in turn
want to be controlled. they want him to build a utopia for them where they won't
feel pain. but in the movie max fails as king. he lacks the power to control his
wild things. the wild things come to recognize that he isn't really a king, and
maybe there are no such things as kings.

the philosophers teach that once we achieve virtue, we do virtuous things. However, the view represented here shows that...

...people have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that
have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing
[and, I would
specify, our sinful nature]. there is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

that may be one of the clearest statements of the christian's spiritual struggle that i've read"there is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside." i want to think that if i can only be king and rule over them, all will be at peace and there will be no more sadness. but i am not really a king, indeed, there really are no such thing as kings among ordinary humans. the answer is not within us.

however, there is a king outside of us who has overcome the wild beasts (mark 1.12-13), whom god rescued from the mouths of the menacing monsters and raised up in victory over them (psalm 22.6-24).

each and every moment, i look to this one, king jesus, to tame the wild beasts within.

today's van gogh
self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe

October 18, 2009

the weekly discussion—october 18

recently, i listed some of the books that i have been reading lately. for this week's discussion, it would be great to have a conversation about what books have been feeding your mind and spirit.

i'm particularly interested in hearing about books that have given you formative insights in the following areas:
  • the spiritual life with christ
  • the church: its history, life, and ministry
  • loving your neighbor and serving your community
  • truths about life, the world, and/or human nature
  • important people, events, and/or movements in history
  • the relationship between religion and science
it doesn't matter whether the books you recommend are non-fiction, fiction, or poetry, classic or contemporary. i'm just always interested in hearing about good books!

"let the wild rumpus begin!"

today's van gogh

green ears of wheat, 1888

October 16, 2009

the lord's day—oct 18, 2009

20th sunday after pentecost

today's lectionary readings
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

today's bach cantatas
bwv 48, "o wretched man that i am"
bwv 5, "whither shall i flee?"
bvw 56, "gladly shall i bear the cross"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news

one of the great leaders of europe over the past quarter century has been václav havel, who emerged at the end of the cold war and became president of czechoslovakia. havel, a writer and playwright, had fought for peace and freedom many years before the Soviet Union fell, suffering constant government harassment and multiple imprisonments because of his writings and work as a political dissident. ironically, this man who had been under the power of a repressive regime, ultimately was voted into a place of power, where during the 1990s he helped lead czechoslovakia into life as a free nation.

upon receiving one of his many awards as a significant force for peace and freedom, havel made a speech about the temptations that come with holding a position of political power. here is part of what he said that day:

Why is it that people long for political power, and why, when they have achieved it, are they so reluctant to give it up?

In the first place, people are driven into politics by ideas about a better way to organize society, by faith in certain values or ideals, be they impeccable or dubious, and the irresistible desire to fight for those ideas and turn them into reality.

In the second place, they are probably motivated by the natural longing every human being has for self-affirmation. Is it possible to imagine a more attractive way to affirm your own existence and its importance than that offered by political power? In essence, it gives you a tremendous opportunity to leave your mark, in the broadest sense, on your surroundings, to shape the world around you in your own image, to enjoy the respect that every political office almost automatically bestows upon the one who holds it.

In the third place, many people long for political power and are so reluctant to part with it because of the wide range of perks that are a necessary part of political life -- even under the most democratic of conditions.

power, said václav havel, is pursued by those with high ideals, who want to make a difference in the world. they are also driven by the natural need to be affirmed and feel important. and third, they seek power because it offers attractive and comfortable side-benefits.

in today's gospel lesson, two of jesus' disciples ask if they might be granted positions of power in his coming kingdom. i'm sure they had many good motivations in asking him this.
  • first, they were right in understanding what was happening through jesus. god's glorious kingdom was dawning! jesus was the messiah, the promised one who would restore the splendor of david's reign over israel and the world. the long-awaited messianic era of righteousness and peace was about to be revealed, and jesus would be at the center of it all, on the throne.
  • second, they wanted to serve and represent him in this kingdom. when something so wonderful is about to take place, who wouldn't want to be an important part of it?
but certainly, there must have been some other motives as well. after all, sitting at jesus' right hand, just next to the throne, would be heady stuff. can you imagine how satisfying and fulfilling that would be? and you know the perks would be great too! no more of this "nowhere to lay our heads" kind of existence. a place in the palace must have sounded pretty nice to them after three years on the road.

václav havel went on to say this about our motivations in seeking power:
I have never met a politician who could admit to the world, or even to himself, that he was running for office only because he wanted to affirm his own importance, or because he wanted to enjoy the perks that come with political power. On the contrary, we all repeat over and over that we care not about power as such but about certain general values. We say it is only our sense of responsibility to the community that compels us to take upon ourselves the burden of public office. At times, only God Himself knows whether that is true, or simply a more palatable way of justifying to the world and ourselves our longing for power, and our need to affirm, through our power and its reach, that we exist in a truly valid and respectable way.
the desire for power may be, for christians, the most misunderstood temptation.

i have watched pastors function as dictators over their congregations, without a clue that their original ideals have become so corrupted that they now brazenly lord it over people. i've seen lay people seize power and hold congregations hostage to their opinions and preferences. i've watched as national evangelical leaders get sucked into the "culture war" mentality and learn to play the game with all the spin and manipulation of the most hard shell, hardball politicians. i've seen brothers and sisters bully one another over the most insignificant issues.

and most of all, i know how much i myself want to be in control, to feel important, to get the cushy assignments, to be seen with the right people, to have others do the grunt work while i enjoy the banquet.

most of the time, we can somehow rationalize what we're doing, claiming it's necessary to achieve a higher purpose. however, i believe that it is the rare person who can successfully navigate the rapids of power.

jesus did, because his modus operandi was sacrifice. from cradle to cross, he laid down his life for us. he came not to be served but to serve. to give his life. to provide a ransom by his own death for those enslaved and imprisoned.

our glory only comes as we die with him. doing so will teach us to treat even the smallest forms of power with extreme caution.

October 13, 2009

book thoughts: what i've been reading

it has been awhile since i've posted updates on what i've been reading, so here's a look at a few of the good books that have come my way in recent months.

the list reflects the fact that my reading for some time now has been heavy on non-fiction, christianity and theology. i've been especially interested in writings on worship, ecclesiology (the church), lutheranism, church history, christianity and culture, and the spiritual life.

An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor
a luminous book about encountering god in the common, everyday practices of life. taylor, a former episcopal priest, understands the sacramental nature of ordinary living as well as anyone i've read. her prose shimmers, and has caused me often to feel a bit of the "joy" about which c.s. lewis testified—that strange and sweet sensation that another world is present in mine.

The Lost World of Genesis One, by John H. Walton
walton, a professor at wheaton college, offers this "literal" interpretation of genesis one—and here's the catch—in the context of what we know about ancient near eastern thought. his main point is that a truly literal reading of genesis in its ancient context shows that it is not so much interested in the material origins of the universe (our modern concern) as in how god organized the already-existing materials to function as a cosmic temple from which he reigns as king.

Acedia & Me, by Kathleen Norris
finally, someone has written about my besetting sin! this book is an insightful, sometimes unwieldy combination of personal memoir and spiritual and psychological reflection, laced with long walks through history, literature and theology, with one consistent theme: the deadly sin of acedia (commonly known as sloth). a remarkable book on a sorely neglected aspect of the spiritual life.

Knowing Christ Today, by Dallas Willard
one of our best spiritual writers offers this well-reasoned defense of the legitimacy of moral and spiritual knowledge over against the contemporary notion that religious faith is based only on emotion and preferences. not only is such knowledge legitimate, it is indispensable—"A life of steadfast discipleship to Jesus Christ can be supported only upon assured knowledge of how things are, of the realities in terms of which that life is lived."

Christless Christianity, by Michael Horton
subtitled, "The Alternative Gospel of the American Church," professor horton launches a full-scale attack on "moralistic, therapeutic deism," which he claims is the true religion of american evangelicalism. like luther, he laments the (american) captivity of the church and calls us to reformation. his claim is, that aside from the religious packaging, the church offers little that can't be found in any number of self-help groups available in our culture.

Life among the Lutherans, by Garrison Keillor
being a newbie lutheran myself, i thought i should read this to see what i've gotten myself in for. this collection of "news from lake wobegon" talks paints a pretty good picture of folks who are "merciless in their goodness," "ordinary people doing their best to be good and walk straight in a world that seems to reward the crooked and mock the righteous." oh, and you don't want to miss the service with the gospel birds or the report from the national usher's convention.

today's van gogh
the novel reader, 1888

October 11, 2009

the weekly discussion—october 11

should a follower of christ...
  • watch fox news?
  • listen to keith olbermann?
  • listen to glenn beck?
  • watch michael moore movies?
  • listen to rush limbaugh?
  • be a fan of jon stewart and the daily show?
what do you think about the state of discourse and "news" in the u.s. today?

what do you think christians should do in order to be wise and discerning about the opinions and information we receive through the media in these days?

today's van gogh

old man in sorrow (on the threshold of eternity)
, 1890

October 9, 2009

the lord's day—oct 11, 2009

19th sunday after pentecost

today's lectionary readings
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

today's bach cantatas
bwv 96, "lord christ, the only son of god"
bwv 169, "god alone shall have my heart"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news

i have good news for you today...
you don't need to be rich for God to accept you into his heavenly kingdom.
nor do you have to be young and attractive.
nor do you have to have your act together.
the fellow who came to jesus in today's Gospel lesson had all those things. we call him the "rich young ruler"—he had wealth. he had youthful vitality. he had authority and seemed to be in control of his life. however, he somehow knew he didn't have it all, because he approached jesus with a question: "good teacher, what must i do to inherit eternal life?" the text indicates he may have been truly eager to find out the answer, because it says he "ran up and knelt before" jesus to ask his counsel.

to be honest, jesus' disciples were probably shocked at that. quite likely it took them by surprise. of all the people in the world, a man like this would be the last one they expected should have doubts that god accepted and favored him. didn't his life bear all the marks of god's blessing? surely if ever there was a righteous man, it would be someone like this! this is just the kind of guy every pastor loves to have in his church, every neighborhood loves to have as a resident, every community loves to have in its midst.

folks like you and me look at a fellow like this and we are humbled. why can't i be like him? why didn't i get all of his gifts and talents? straight-A student. president of his class. most likely to succeed. it all seems to come to him so easily. he gets all the breaks. he knows the right people. whatever he touches turns to gold. oh yes, and he is also a model religious person. (from my mouth to god's ear, i have a daughter who should meet this one!)

and yet...

he doesn't seem to have what jesus is talking about—a place in the kingdom of heaven. he has recognized something different in jesus' teaching, a call to something beyond his culture's idea of success. his heart has been awakened to another reality, and suddenly, he wants more.

so he asks jesus, "what must i do to inherit eternal life?" in common fashion, jesus answers with questions of his own—"why are you asking me? you know god's commandments, don't you—the ones moses gave?" well, that was like asking a college graduate to recite his ABCs. he might have been insulted. surely, there must be something more, he might have thought. after all, i'm rich. young and vibrant. well-positioned in life. devout and faithful in my religion. what's left? there must be something more to it than that!

"ok, one thing." said jesus. "give it all up, and come, follow me."

there it was—the one option that was totally out of the question. this young man had been taught since infancy to be the right kind of person, to do the right thing, to pursue excellence in all the various areas of his life, to be wise with his choices so as to avoid the pitfalls of life, to diversify his investments, to build a solid life of integrity, diligence, and righteousness. and now jesus says to him, "do you really want to know what the life of the kingdom is all about? here's how you'll find out: leave your rich, young, in control life behind. throw it all away. turn your back on the whole endeavor and come with me; join my small band of disciples. oh, and by the way, we don't even have a place where we can lay our heads."

of course, the young man said no.

and the text tells us that with love, jesus watched him as he walked away. oh, i can hear some of us now. some of us are tempted to say, "that is just too bad. god could have really done something with a man like that!" and that statement shows that we still don't get it.

the fact is, nobody brings anything to the table when it comes to being accepted by god. if we want to be part of his new creation, his heavenly kingdom, we must get this straight—he is not looking for anything at all from us. a good portfolio and full bank account doesn't mean anything to him. he doesn't care if we're young and healthy and attractive and strong, or if we come to him all weak and broken-down. as for having our act together, being in control, having a good position in life—forget it. none of that matters. it's simply a matter of responding to jesus.

that's good news for most of us, for folks like you and me who would never be described as "rich young rulers". all i have to be is plain ol' me. all i have to do is receive jesus' invitation. all i have to do is give it all away. all i have to do is die.

you see, jesus is not in the business of recruiting the best and the brightest. he's in the business of raising the dead.

October 6, 2009

music for grownups

nobody explores the wrinkles around a common man's eyes better than mark knopfler. the former leader of the 80's band dire straits has matured over the years into one of our finest songwriters and musicians. he paints intimate musical portraits, mostly of ordinary people, their work, their loves and losses.

his new album, get lucky, is a masterpiece of genius, poetry, and restraint. knopfler's prodigious skills are never put on display for attention or effect, but always in service of the song and story he is telling, and these stories are profoundly grounded in real life: a truck driver "knocking out a living wage in 1969," the handyman broken down on the shoulder of the road as a metaphor for losing love, day workers sitting around the fire and passing a guitar, the cynical old battle-scarred vet cleaning his gun, mates on the cricket pitch who went to war and never came back.

this earthy and satisfying album will never get the attention received by a host of shooting stars. that is too bad, because this is just the kind of rooted, mature, reflective balladry that a culture caught up in adolescent spectacle needs. this is music for grownups.

highest recommendation. best music i've heard this year, and in a long time.

today's van gogh

head of a peasant with cap, 1884

October 4, 2009

the weekly discussion—october 4

i am going to ask you to do a little homework before you respond to this one.
both articles tell stories from the personal side of the creationism vs. evolution debate.
  • stafford gives two accounts of christians with vocations in science, and the troubles this caused them with their christian communities. both became increasingly detached from their christian friends and the life of the church because of the disapproval they felt from fellow believers in light of their work as scientists.
  • imonk tells about niki, a brilliant student from japan exposed thoroughly to christianity while pursuing her education here in the states. yet, she returned to japan an atheist. why? here is her explanation: “when people here explained to me what they must believe as christians, I always ask them about evolution, and they say 'you cannot be a christian and believe in evolution.' so i cannot be a Christian, because I believe that evolution is true.”
what would you tell her? can a person be a christian and accept evolution? can a bible-believing follower of christ affirm that evolution and other scientific paradigms, at this point in our understanding, present a legitimate portrayal of the origins and development of the universe and life?

in my opinion, the church needs to talk. now. this is serious.

today's van gogh
starry night, 1889

October 3, 2009

the lord's day—october 4, 2009

18th sunday after pentecost

today's lectionary readings
genesis 2:18-24
psalm 8
hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
mark 10:2-16

today's bach cantatas
bwv 114, "ah, dear christians, be consoled"
bwv 148, "give unto the lord the glory due his name"
bwv 47, "whoever exalts himself will be humbled"

today's van gogh
the church at auvers, 1890

today's good news

despite the text from mark for this sunday, today's message won't be about divorce.

actually, if you read the text closely, you can see that the pharisees who came to jesus that day and questioned him didn't really want to hear about that subject either. the gospel says they were testing him, which means this was all about theological one-upmanship. people like the pharisees loved to take controversial subjects and debate them, just so that they could prove they were right and you were wrong. it wasn't like they were really concerned about the actual human suffering of husbands and wives and children who had been through divorce. it wasn't like they were looking for answers so that they could help real people, like their neighbors, who were struggling in their marriages. nah, this was culture war stuff. they just wanted to win an argument, maybe get jesus in trouble with the media. happens a lot, even today.

but jesus wouldn't have it. i love what he did here—he just looked them in the eye and said, "why are you asking me about this? why don't you just go back to the beginning; see what god wants?" i think that's a great idea, don't you? rather than wrangling about all the ins and outs of what's permitted and not permitted now that the situation has gotten out of hand, why don't we just go back and take a look at what god intended in the first place? let's go back to the beginning.

in a couple of months, gail and i will have been married 31 years. we've known each other for 34. we met in bible college, on a saturday morning when a roommate dragged me out of bed to go try out for a singing group in the music building. there was this cute little pig-tailed girl everyone called "gig" playing the piano. i immediately found her interesting. when i passed the audition and started being around her more often, my interest grew.

we took walks, served side by side in music ministry, studied together, laid in the grass, looked up at the stars, and talked long into the nights. we fell in love over the course of those years in college. we got to know each other's families, we sensed a common calling, we decided to get married. i guess we did it all in a pretty old-fashioned way, considering it was the 1970's, when the talk was about free love and a sexual revolution. we fought off temptation and waited to have sex until we married. we asked permission and the blessing of our parents to wed. we planned our wedding in a church at christmas time, during which we called on jesus to be lord and savior of our marriage. we asked our families and friends to support us as we set off to build a life and family.

it was all pretty simple to us back then—we just thought that's what the bible said we should do. you know, like god made the first man and then the first woman, each in his image and likeness, each perfectly complementing the other. then he brought them together and gave each to the other as his own wonderful gift, and they were no longer alone. naked before one another and not ashamed, they became one, and life in the world began.

now, i am fully aware that some of you may never marry. some of you young people have seen a lot of crazy stuff when it comes to this subject, and you have no idea what you even think about marriage. some of you have been married and it didn't work. some of you are in marriages that are, frankly, disasters, and you have no idea what to do about it. today, please let me say to you that there is all kinds of good news for you in jesus—for any of us—no matter how bad and broken your love life is, no matter how dysfunctional your family has become, no matter how many times you have fallen in sexual sin, no matter what has happened to you in the realm of relationships or marriage. jesus welcomes you today with open arms and offers you grace, forgiveness, healing, and peace.

please hear that, and believe it. but, after hearing that, i want to ask us all to do something together with our imaginations. for a moment today, can we block all of that bad, painful stuff out of our minds? can we set the mess we've made out of love and marriage and family off to the side, just for a short time? and then can we, instead, take a walk back to the beginning, back to the garden, back to when everything was new and fresh? back to when god was there, and we were there, and there was a man and there was a woman, and they had everything they needed, and they were naked and not ashamed? back to when you can hear the man say, "finally! bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! name her woman for she was made from man. therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. they become one flesh" (gen 2.24, the message).

stay there for a bit. mull that over. get the picture. hear the music.

after awhile, if you want to join the pharisees, you can debate about things like divorce all you want.

but i think i might just want to stay where jesus suggested we go. back to the beginning.

October 2, 2009

my thoughts: follow-up to weekly discussion

update: i have added one point to my thoughts below...

i thought there might be an avalanche of response to this week's discussion on the decisions in the ELCA regarding homosexuality, but few responded. wonder why? i'm thinking many folks probably weren't interested in discussing an issue that affects a mainline Protestant denominational situation that has little to do with their daily reality. i thought the mere mention of homosexuality would raise evangelical hackles enough to get people talking. guess not.

to wrap up the subject, in this post i thought i'd give a few of my reflections on some of the issues related to this discussion, in a way that is broader than the ELCA conflict. as a christian living in these times, what is my thinking with relation to homosexuality, christianity, the church, and living as christ's people in this culture?

(1) i believe the bible teaches that homosexuality is not congruent with god's design for creation. i don't say this as the result of merely reading a few verses that speak against gay practices. the whole story of the bible, beginning in genesis, presents a view of creation in which the sexual union of male and female in marriage with the potential of creating life is the pattern the creator intended. further development of how this pictures the relationship between christ and his bride solidifies god's intention. nowhere in scripture is the same-sex relationship endowed with this meaning and significance. rather, it is specifically set forth as contrary to nature, a distortion of the original design.

(2) furthermore, homosexual practices, especially those identified with idolatrous or pagan and abusive practices are specifically called sinful and condemned in the Biblical worldview. Some scholars try to say that these are the only gay practices that the Bible condemns, and they do a lot of exegetical and hermeneutical gymnastics to prove that Scripture is not speaking of the kinds of homosexual partnerships we see today, but are only talking about things like Canaanite rituals and Greek pederasty. However, in the light of point one (the overall biblical story) even if culture-specific practices are highlighted in certain texts, they are set forth as extreme instances of an overall unacceptable lifestyle.

(3) i don't believe that profound same-sex attraction which leads to homosexuality is something anyone chooses or practices solely on the basis of their life experiences. it is a matter of nature, not nurture. am i saying that, "god made them that way"? no, i am saying that we live in a fallen creation, and that a predisposition toward homosexuality is part of our brokenness as sinful human beings that some experience and must deal with.

(4) sexual identity is something that probably won't change. though some homosexuals who become christians may find "change" to one degree or another with regard to the power of same-sex attraction, i think it probable that for most, ssa will remain a struggle for them their whole lives, a part of what it means for them to be "sinner-saints."

(5) christians should not oppose giving legitimate civil rights and the normal benefits of citizens to homosexuals. this might include recognizing some legal status (civil unions?) for gay couples. in my view, no christian should be against a neighbor having access to the benefits of living in a free society on the basis of something like sexual orientation.

(6) we as christians must humbly practice repentance and confess our own part in creating and sustaining the cultural atmosphere regarding relationships that is present today. christians may not have bought into homosexuality, but we have bought into the present cultural ethos that marriage and sexual relationships should be rooted in romantic feelings and that personal fulfillment should be the primary focus. all data shows that we have not behaved differently from non-christians in this regard. when it comes to pre-marital sexual activity, adultery, divorce, and the general adoption of cultural values about love and marriage, we look pretty much the same as everyone else. if by our actions we are saying that these relationships are primarily about personal fulfillment, what right do we have to say to gays that they should not seek the same? we owe the world an apology.

(7) it is not enough for christians to say, "sinful!" when dealing with gays. for the life of me, i don't see how those who follow christ can ignore an entire population of people simply because we don't agree with their lifestyle. yet that is exactly what we are doing in most of evangelicalism. in my experience as a minister for 30+ years, i can count on one hand the times i've been involved in a conversation about gay folks in our community, and how jesus cares for them, and how we might befriend and be good neighbors to them, and how we might try to understand them, serve them, and show them jesus' love. not acceptable! Jesus' way is not the culture war, but the way of the basin and the towel, the way of eating and drinking with sinners, the way of touching those others deem untouchable.

(8) we must think through the issues related to "church," and find ways of supporting gay brothers and sisters who believe in jesus. we are all sexual sinners. not one of us is counted righteous in christ by cleaning up his or her sexual act (or any other act for that matter). furthermore, as sinner-saints walking with jesus, none of us find true change or christian growth simply through exhortation, command, and instruction. we grow as we patiently learn, live, love, and suffer in community with one another and in mission to the world. are we willing to live this way with our brothers and sisters who deal with same-sex attraction?

(9) though i disagree with the ELCA decisions, it is not likely that we will leave our ELCA church. i believe strongly that all spiritual formation is local, and we are in a good local congregation right now. the decision made by the national body won't likely have much effect on us in that setting.

today's van gogh
still life: vase with twelve sunflowers, 1889

"his story"—big picture of the torah

the third study has been posted on my bible study blog, "his story."

this is another "big picture" look at the torah (the first five books of the bible) and how, by standing back and looking at some of its overall characteristics, we can gain insight into its meaning.

take some time and check it out!

today's van gogh
still life with bible, 1885