Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Go to a land I will show you

When I was seventeen, I got on a Greyhound bus in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and got off in downtown Seattle.  I had never been west of the badlands before, never seen mountains.  For the next two years as I went to college in Seattle I became intimately familiar with the highways between Washington and Minnesota.  That experience of being uprooted, of being called (and I do believe I was called, though I couldn't have said so at the time) away from my home, my family, and everything familiar, had a deep impact on my life.  What's more, that experience made room in me for God to do a lot of work that needed to be done if I was going to be willing to be used for his purposes!

In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham (at that time still named Abram) to leave what was familiar -- his family, his father's household, his own country -- and go "to a land I will show you".  God doesn't even fill in the destination -- he just calls Abraham to go.  Yet Abraham obeys.  He packs up Sarah and his nephew Lot and all their possessions and he goes.  This obedience becomes the launching pad God uses in Abraham's life to bless Abraham, and to bless all creation.

We don't know if Abraham had a chance to practice.  Did God call him to obey in some smaller things, and then reward him for his obedience?  God often does that, teaching us to be faithful in little things so that we have confidence to obey in the big things.  We don't know if God did that with Abraham.  

What we do know, though, is that Abraham had some experience in this kind of big move.  At the end of Genesis 11 we read that Abraham's father Terah picked the family up from Ur of the Chaldeans (in what is today southeastern Iraq) and moved them to Haran, far to the northwest.  So at some point, Abraham was part of his family's move from Ur to Haran.  Did Terah move the family because God called him to do it?  Maybe it was because business was better in Haran?  Maybe they had bad neighbors in Ur, or maybe the local economy was bad.  Or maybe Terah just had itchy feet and wanted to move.  Whatever the reason, God set that precedent in Abraham's life.  When God's call came to Abraham years later to pick up and move "to a land I will show you" Abraham at least had an experience he could draw on.

What precedents has God set in your life?  When you look back to childhood, when you look to your younger days, what precedents are there that might be preparing you for God's call?

My move from Minnesota to Seattle when I was seventeen didn't come out of the clear blue sky.  My cousin Karen had gone to the same Bible college I was going to attend, and I had talked to her about her experience.  Deeper in my past, I had heard my father tell stories of his own yearning to go to forestry school in New York when he was a young man.  His older brother's death at Omaha Beach changed those plans, but Dad's yearning and his stories of "what if" shaped me and prepared me for God's call.

What preparations, what precedents has God put in your life?  And how might he be calling you today?  Is he calling you to move physically?  Maybe, but probably not.  More likely he's calling you to leave behind a habit, an attitude, an obsession or an idolatry, and move toward a new phase of dedication to him and openness to his Spirit.  It can be a frightening thing to take those first steps of leaving the familiar behind and launching into something new.  But rest assured that God has prepared you for this moment, and he is faithful to lead you into a good place!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Paul's letter to the 21st Century

I've often wondered what the Apostle Paul would write if he could write a letter to western Christians in the 21st century.

Look at the pattern of so many of Paul's letters.  He starts out introducing himself, thanking God for certain things and affirming the church he's writing to.  Then he often delves into some pretty heavy theology that is appropriate to the context.  Hard on the heels of this theological content he does some practical application about habits and behaviors for individuals and the church as a whole, including specific advice to problems or errors in the churches.  Finally he concludes with a bunch of personal information, wanting to greet individuals or groups with whom he has a personal connection.

So I wonder.  What theology would Paul want us to consider?  What would he affirm?  What practical advice would he give?  What issues would he take on and what would he ignore?  What errors would he expose and what corrections would he offer?

On Sunday morning I reread the book of Colossians in the New Testament.  Paul wrote this letter to connect with Christians he'd never met personally, but who had been converted by people who had been nurtured under Paul's teaching.  These Christians lived in an area filled with a variety of pagan, Roman, and Jewish influences that threatened to pull these baby Christians into all kinds of errors.  Pressure came from outside and inside the church to buy into legalism, to participate in paganism, and to deny the basics of Christianity.

Paul's response?  Almost the entire book of Colossians is one long focus on Jesus Christ.  From the opening verses that describe Jesus as the "firstborn of all creation" to the admonition near the end to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" Paul calls the Colossian Christians back again and again to focus on Jesus.  Jesus, properly understood and worshipped, is the antidote to legalism, paganism, and all sorts of errors.

I kind of think what Paul might write to us today would be very similar to the book of Colossians.

So here's my encouragement this week:  Read the book of Colossians a few times.  You can get through it in a half hour or so.  Try reading it first with those first century Christians at Colossae in mind.  Try to hear and understand their situation as Paul addresses it.  Then read it again, trying to imagine Paul writing to us today.  Finally, read it yet again and try to hear what the Spirit of Jesus might speak to you personally out of this letter.

Yes, you're reading someone else's mail.  But as you read through Colossians, I think you'll find that it's easy to forget the letter isn't written to you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thinking more about marriage

Something occurred to me the other day, and I thought I'd post it here.  (Some of you will be greatly relieved that this will not be a long, complicated argument.)

Here it is:

If marriage is a private commitment between two people who love each other, then gays have had the right to marry all along.  They can be married simply because they choose to be married.  

If marriage is something greater -- a divinely instituted thing, or even just an institution based on long-standing tradition that stands at the core of human society, then we'd better not be so hasty to change definitions.  

You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say that just because two people love each other they can get married, and at the same time claim that the state has a greater right to dictate whose marriages are legal.  (So, then, making it necessary to change the state's definition of marriage so that homosexual unions are now considered marriages.)

This, by the way, is at or near the root of the increasing practice among both heterosexuals and homosexuals to simply shack up together once we fall in love.  Our practice says that we have decided cohabiting with whatever degree of commitment is our right, that the perks of marriage belong to us just because we want them without cost and without permanence.  The children of these temporary unions are reaping the devastating consequences of this belief.

If marriage is a purely human institution, then majority wins.  If marriage derives its reality, its definition, from something greater than simple human opinion, we have no right to change it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Salt and Light

This is a modified version of the page to the right entitled "options" -- I think it's worth reposting given the climate in our current political fracas.  I've mostly kept this post as it was originally posted, just changing a few details to avoid confusion.  In the end, what this post comes down to is the question, what does it mean for Jesus' followers to be "salt and light" in the world today?  And what are some of the mistakes we often make in seeking to be salt and light?

I'm taking a page from N.T. Wright's teaching on the resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the church, simplifying a deep talk to present a basic idea here. We will start with the situation in the New Testament and see what it says to the church today.

Wright says that for the Jews in Jesus' time, there were basically three options. The first was compromise. The most obvious examples of compromise is Herod on one hand and the Sadducees on the other, those who figured they had to go along with the Romans to some extent to get along and make better things happen for their nation and their people. Among Jesus' disciples Matthew -- the Roman-employed tax collector -- might be the best example of this mindset.

The second option for the Jews was extremism. The Zealots chose military resistance to Roman rule, and plotted to find the best time and circumstance to throw off the rule of Caesar. They had no patience for spiritual solutions that had no impact on the political situation. They yearned for the time of the Maccabees, the military Jewish leaders who threw off Greek rule about 165 B.C. Every now and then a Zealot would rise up and lead a revolution against Rome and be quickly put down. Near the end of the book of Acts, when Paul is arrested, the Roman tribune assumes Paul is an Egyptian Zealot who was leading a revolt. These extremists were a destabilizing force in Jewish society, because the threat was always that a revolt would bring increased military oppression from Rome. Jesus included a Zealot (Simon the Zealot, sometimes called Simon the Canaanean) among his twelve disciples.

The third option facing the Jews was quietism. The Essenes are never specifically mentioned in the New Testament, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that they withdrew into the wilderness, especially to Qumran, where they strove to live lives of holiness apart from the politically and religiously tainted life of the Temple, the Romans, and everyday Jews who had to live in a world polluted by interaction with pagans and all the compromises it demanded. They studied the scriptures and focused on their own community piety, striving to live holy and blameless lives. They were adamantly waiting for the Messiah who would come and make things right, but they were withdrawn from the world while they waited.

Interestingly enough, you can see same options facing Christians today. Many Christians have chosen the route of compromise. This is true in America on the right as evangelical Christians have become the driving force behind the Republican party; it is true on the left as liberal mainline churches have dedicated themselves to the platforms of the Democrats. Jesus has become a tame political slogan for both sides. Republican evangelicals show pictures of Jesus weeping as he holds the aborted unborn; Democratic mainliners see Jesus in the faces of immigrants facing deportation or the poor who can't get health care. Both sides use the righteousness of their cause to bolster their political campaigns, and they have lost any true sense of who Jesus is and what he really is about. They read the gospels through the filter of their political assumptions. This is the fruit of compromise.

Extremism takes a couple different forms in our world. Certainly there is fundamentalism of all stripes -- whether Muslim or Christian or other. The fundamentalist Islamist who would strap explosives to his body and destroy lives in Baghdad is not much different from a fundamentalist Christian who would bomb an abortion clinic or abusively demean a gay person. This kind of fundamentalism is rooted in fear, and may withdraw from the world's pollution to start with, but eventually it creates a worldly kingdom where religion rules morality and community life with steel gloves. Eventually, if the fundamental community feels threatened enough, this fearful religion strikes back at an apostate world.

Extremism can also be a little less cut-and-dried, however. Look at the Zealots' impatience with spiritual solutions, and you begin to see others in our world who fit into this category. Christians who resort to political activism in order to change the system are in danger of this same mindset. (More on the common mindset in all three of these options in a moment.) I am not saying that the Christian is not called to political activism, but the problem with the Zealots was that they acknowledged Caesar as lord. They didn't want him to be, and they were determined to do whatever it took to change that fact, but they didn't feel they could live in freedom until they threw off Caesar's yoke. The same mentality infects activists who believe we cannot live in freedom until we win the battle for our social agenda.

Quietism infects much of the Christian church today, especially among the middle class suburban church. Whether it's the right-leaning evangelical churches or the left-leaning mainline churches, many Christians are content to live peaceful lives in which they worry about their kids' soccer schedules and their 401K's and exercise a personal piety, effectively withdrawn from the world with just enough of Jesus to make them secure in their own salvation. They're concerned about the quality of their pastors and their church buildings, they send a group to some third-world country now and then to build homes, and they effectively live isolated from the real brokenness in their own communities.

Here's the thing. Jesus didn't buy into any of these three options. He rejected the Herodians and the Sadducees and their way of compromise. He rejected the Zealots and their desire to fight the Romans. He rejected the monastic communities withdrawn into the wilderness. While all three of these approaches saw themselves as the only legitimate way to be Jewish, Jesus reached back into the tradition, into the stories, into the scriptures, and did something quite different.

You see, the problem with compromise, with extremism, and with quietism is that all three approaches recognized Caesar as Lord. Until Caesar was defeated, all three approaches believed that the Jews could not live out their God-given identity as the Chosen People.

Jesus said something radically different. He said people should turn away from these ways -- they should repent, they should turn away from they way they had approached life. Then Jesus said they should believe in the good news. What was the good news? Caesar is not Lord. Instead, Jesus proclaimed that "The Kingdom of God is at hand." We need to understand this if we're even going to begin to get Jesus at all. Why did Jesus spend so much time talking about the kingdom of God? Because this was the heart of his message. This is what gave meaning to his teaching. This is what led to his death, and this is what his resurrection is all about. And -- don't miss this -- the kingdom of God is what the mission of the church is all about. Individually and corporately, Christ-followers are called to be proclaiming the same message in our words and our actions and our worship and our community and our work. Caesar -- the powers of this world in all their forms -- is not Lord. Jesus is Lord, and he has come to establish a kingdom under the loving rule of his Father.

What was so confusing, so infuriating, so frustrating about Jesus in the first century was just this. He had the audacity to live as though God was really in charge. The way Jesus lived showed who God was and what he was really like, first of all -- he was a God who hated hypocrisy and treated the broken ones with gentleness, who welcomed the outcasts and touched the lepers. Second he was ruling, alive and active and sovereign over all creation. Jesus lived in God's sovereign freedom. He refused to acknowledge political expediency or Caesar's sovereignty. He refused to fear poverty or privation. He spoke truth to power. He ate with all the wrong races and economic classes.

Jesus was not just an example of these things; he built a new sense of what it meant to be God's chosen people that centered in himself. The temple was no longer the center of worship -- Jesus was. The sabbath rules and the dietary rules no longer defined morality -- Jesus did. The sacrificial system no longer mediated between sinful humans and a jealous God -- Jesus stood in that gap.

He came to proclaim a kingdom, to be enthroned as its king, and of course there were groupies and camp followers who sought to profit from his popularity. Even some of his own closest followers asked to be on his right and his left when he was enthroned, and Jesus put them off, saying, "You don't have a clue what you're asking about." When he went to Jerusalem and was finally enthroned, James and John were quite glad they didn't receive the positions to Jesus' right and left. Those crosses were occupied by two criminals, one of whom rejected Jesus and received judgment; the other repented and entered into the kingdom. Jesus hangs between heaven and earth as judge and as mediator. He is the crux, the center, the focal point of reality. We judge ourselves by our response to him. By him we either enter into his reign and his kingdom, or we alienate ourselves from God's good plans for us.

So what does it mean for the church to follow Jesus today? We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into the options of compromise, extremism, or quietism. After his resurrection, in John 20, Jesus tells his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." We are sent into the world to proclaim that the kingdom of God is here. We are to live as if God was sovereign, as if Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. We are to live without fear in the face of economic uncertainties, to proclaim the limitless love of God in our words and our actions.

Does this mean that we should abandon politics, social justice, and economics? Far from it. As those who know Jesus, as those who recognize him as Lord, we step boldly into those arenas. We do not come to lobby or to compromise. We do not come to make demands. We come as those who speak and live the truth, who speak and live Jesus, and we speak and live that truth in the face of power. Rather than stand back as Jesus' followers and critique those in power, we should be more inclined to simply build structures that become centers of kingdom life. We don't need the world's permission to meet together to study scripture, to sing, to pray. We just do these things. In the same way, we don't need the world's permission to help the hopeless, to befriend the friendless, to lift up the downtrodden. We don't need the world's permission to create pockets of economic justice. We don't need the world's permission to proclaim the kingdom of God through radical generosity that transforms some small space in society.

Why do we insist on living as though Caesar was Lord? Jesus is risen. We follow him in this world, and by the power of his Spirit we live in the world as salt and light, working the kingdom of God in our lives, our actions, our spending, our giving, our speaking and our loving.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Does your morality require the cross?

"Christian" today has become a bit of an odd label.  Many people call themselves "Christian" because they are not really anything else, or because their parents or grandparents were "Christian."  "Christian" has become a label that is basically meaningless.  People talk about a Christian nation, Christian values, Christian music.  There are Christian vacations and Christian companies.

Multitudes of people today call themselves "Christian" but don't really have a clue what it means.  Jesus anticipated this state of affairs in Luke 6:46: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' but do not do what I tell you?"  Submission and obedience to Jesus are part and parcel of what it means to follow him.  Taking on the Christian "brand" doesn't make you a follower of Jesus, which is what the word Christ-ian originally meant.

At the same time many people who call themselves Christian are spouting off ideas totally opposed to what Jesus was really about.  Here are some of the sound bites you'll hear today that give you a clue that the speaker really hasn't done his or her homework about what Jesus is up to, or what "Christian" really means:

  • God wants me / you to be happy.
  • I just want to love everybody.
  • If we could just love each other like Jesus said, everything would work out.
  • I want people to be happy.
  • I will never vote against anyone's right to be happy.
  • If you feel something strongly enough, you should act based on that feeling.
  • People have the right to be happy.
  • We should just be nice to each other.
  • If you were created a certain way, that makes it right for you.
  • Why can't we all just get along?
  • If two people love each other, that can't be wrong.
  • Jesus said "Love God and love your neighbor."  That's all that matters.
So think about something for a moment.  If you call yourself a Christian and if your particular value system embraces any of those bullet-pointed statements, ask yourself this question:

Does your moral system, your values, your beliefs, require the cross?

I know this might be hard to think about but please, if you claim the title of Christian, think it through.  Does what you believe make sense without the cross of Jesus Christ where he died?  Or, to put it another way, if Jesus had never died on the cross -- if, for example, he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 95 or if he was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and never died -- would your view of the world still make sense?

If you can answer yes to that question, you are not, in the classic sense, a Christian.  Or as I prefer to put it on this blog, a Jesus-follower.

The cross defines everything about Jesus.  He said so himself on more than one occasion.  Read the gospels -- over and over Jesus talks about the necessity of going to the cross, of his purpose in life being to die on the cross and rise again, of the cross being God's plan for him, and of the cross defining not only his life but also the life of his followers.

If your philosophy works without the cross, you're not following Jesus.

So you can say, "I just want to love God and love my neighbor," and you don't need the cross at all.  You can say, "God wants people to be happy," and the cross makes absolutely no sense for your philosophy.  Your moral system, centered on whatever it is centered on, is not centered on Jesus.  More than likely it is centered on your own beliefs, adopted from the culture around you, that go something like this:

1. People are inherently good.
2. Everyone is created / evolved with basic internal needs and drives.
3. Each person should act on their internal needs and drives.
4. If people act on those drives and don't do stupid things, they'll be happy.
5. Individual happiness is the primary goal of life.
6. We all need other people in order to be truly happy, so we should learn to live well together.

None of this is Christian.  In fact, most of it is diametrically opposed to Jesus' teaching, except perhaps #2.

One of the biggest problems in the "Christian" church today is that people come to worship with these basic cultural assumptions, and then they hear the Bible read or a preacher speaking and they try to fit what they hear into their previous assumptions about reality.  

That's why well-meaning people who consider themselves Christian can say that Jesus is just concerned for us to love God and love other people.  This simple statement, based on Jesus' own words (see Mark 12:28-34) taken radically out of context, totally contradicts everything Jesus said about himself and about his mission.  Here's how you can tell: You can pursue these two commands in a totally sensible way all your life and never need to deal with the cross.

At the cross, all of the Old Testament -- the story of creation and fall, the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt under Moses, the conquest of Canaan, the Davidic monarchy, the tabernacle, the laws about sacrifice from Leviticus, the priesthood, the prophets -- at the cross, all these things come together into sharp focus.  These things are fulfilled at the cross, woven together into a larger whole.  

At the cross, the brokenness of creation and human rebellion against God's sovereignty is taken into the being of God.  Jesus takes our sin upon himself, to put it scripturally.  Without this, all our efforts -- including our efforts to love God and love our neighbor -- are simply a continual act of willful rebellion, an attempt to do life on our own without God's intervention.  Unless our brokenness is dealt with, all the morality in the world is just a pathetic self-help program.  It's like trying to do physical therapy before the broken bone is set and healed -- the structure isn't there to support the effort, and the wound is just going to get worse the harder you work.

At the cross, the problem of sin -- that antiquated word -- is resolved.  Sin, of course, is still present in our day, which simply drives us back to the cross as an ongoing reality rather than only a historical event.  Our lives are lived at the foot of the cross, in a manner of speaking, where we constantly return to confess our brokenness and receive healing.

Which brings us to the other face of the cross.  The cross doesn't exist in a vacuum; Jesus' dead body was placed in a tomb and on the third day, he rose from death.  This resurrection is not just good news for Jesus, but for everyone who lives shaped by his cross.  What's more, this resurrection becomes a re-creation, a new initiation of the creation of all things, so that flowing out of Jesus' death and resurrection is not only individual forgiveness but also healing for the brokenness of all creation (see Romans 8).  God's plan, in fact, from the beginning has been to roll out a new creation through Jesus' death and resurrection, and to announce and enact this new creation through those who follow Jesus.

This way of life, this way of cross and resurrection, this way of brokenness and healing, this way of dependency, runs totally counter to the world's desire to live in the anarchy of rebellion against God and independent of God's sovereignty.  So the world will bring more brokenness down on those who strive to follow Jesus.  

This is why so many who take the name of "Christian" have unwittingly adopted the world's philosophies and moralities.  "Jesus wants everyone to be happy" is totally inoffensive, except to those who truly know him.  You can claim the name of Jesus on the surface but never have to swim upstream against the world's systems.

But God's plan is to roll out a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth, and the entrance to this plan is through Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection.  You will never participate in this new creation by believing that Jesus just wants everyone to be happy.  That belief binds people to their brokenness, chains people to their dysfunction, imprisons people in their delusion.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Redefining Terms

A friend of mine sat in his college class as the prof led them through a discussion about poverty.  In the best tradition of liberal arts education, however, the class was really about thinking.

The prof listened to his students debate potential solutions to the problem of poverty for almost an hour.  Right near the end of the hour allotted, he spoke up.  "We can eliminate the problem of poverty right here, right now, before class ends," he said.

Of course, he had the attention of every student in the room.  They had debated welfare, employment, education, food distribution, motivation, generational issues, and much more.  Five minutes remained in the hour.  How could they possibly solve the problem of poverty in that short time?

"All we have to do," the prof said confidently, "is redefine poverty."

Of course, the professor was absolutely right.  If you redefine poverty carefully, you can structure the definition so that no one is poor.

And of course, the professor was absolutely wrong.  You can redefine terms all you want and babies will still go to bed hungry, children will live without adequate clothes, and young men stifled by lack of meaningful opportunities will turn to violence, "poor" or not.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  What's in a name?  You can redefine things all you want, but it doesn't change their essential nature.

So when it comes to the "redefinition" of marriage, what really changes?  Two men or two women can pledge lifelong faithfulness to each other and call it marriage.  Is it?  Heterosexual pop stars stand in front of a Justice of the Peace and pledge love for each other and days later nullify the whole arrangement in divorce court, and we call it marriage.  Is it?

The question to be reckoned with is this: where do our definitions come from?  Are we submitted to some greater reality, some greater whole, than just our collective sense of language?  If we all agree that purple is really orange, does that make it so?

In some sense, one has to admit that this is in fact the way things work, from a purely linguistic point of view.  "Gay" used to mean happy, as any fifth grader singing Christmas carols can tell you.  "Don we now our gay apparel" causes a lot of blushing and giggling in the ranks!  You can think of many words that have changed meanings along the way.  "Intimate" these days connotes underwear or sexual encounters rather than heart-to-heart conversation.   Not too long ago "lame" referred to a defect in one's physical ability to walk and saying someone was "sick" meant they needed to see a physician.  "Prick" used to be a verb and a "dick" used to mean a private detective.  Thongs used to be sandals for walking on the beach.  The way we use words changes.

But that's not what we are talking about around the issue of marriage.  What is being proposed today is, in fact, quite the opposite.  With marriage we're trying to keep an older definition and fold a different kind of relationship into the older definition.

In times past marriage carried a great deal of weight and privilege.  When a man and woman got married, their relationship was legitimized in the eyes of society.  We still hear this idea in old movies where a promiscuous relationship is to be redeemed when the couple gets married -- characters sometimes referred to the act of getting married as a way to "make an honest woman of her" -- implying that promiscuity could be corrected or at least curbed through marriage, and that a tarnished reputation could be at least somewhat redeemed.  This is why the phenomenon of "shotgun weddings" was so common a few generations ago; a pregnancy out of wedlock (now there's an old term) carried a deep sense of social stigma.  I once heard a wag say that pregnancies can vary; the first child arrives unpredictably, but after that they usually take about nine months.  Marriage legitimized not only the relationship between husband and wife, but also the existence of children.  "Illegitimate" was a descriptive term applied to children, and too often accompanied by less civil insults.

This older, weightier definition of marriage opened the door to all kinds of tangible and intangible benefits.  A married couple automatically, at least in some states, had access to each other's money and property.  They were automatically granted beneficiary status on life insurance policies, and health coverage was automatically extended to them.  In the eyes of the legal system, the marriage relationship was the closest relationship in society, so that if a person died without a will, their worldly goods went first of all to their husband or wife.

Marriage was seen as the foundation of society, the most fundamental, stable building block of human social relationships.  Marriage was the foundation stone of the family, and the family was the building block of all other social institutions -- school, church, community, city, state, republic.  This is why couples wanting to be married apply to the state, not the church, for a marriage license.  The state has a vested interest in the stability of marriages because unstable marriages destabilize society.  So the state of Minnesota along with many others give discounts on the cost of a marriage license if a couple has completed a certain number of hours of premarriage counseling.  The state doesn't ask, "Do you truly love each other?" Instead it asks, "Have you put in the time and effort to prepare for this marriage?" because willingness to work, more than an emotional expression of love, tends to make marriages last longer.  As a nod to the fact that people's deepest understandings of human relationships are rooted in our understandings of our relationship with God, the state grants responsibility for "solemnizing" marriage vows to religious leaders.  But at the end of the wedding, the marriage has no legal validity unless the religious leader completes the proper forms and mails them in to the offices of the state.

Up until the very recent past, this has been society's definition of marriage.  It is not a religious concept; it is a civil concept.  It is not a shiny ideal; it is a practical, gritty reality of families, children and social groupings that moves toward the economic realities of home ownership, savings, compassion, and social consciousness.  The state has a vested interest in stability.  Today we as a society are dealing with the radical instability caused by the waning of this social concept of marriage.  Higher and higher percentages of children are born outside a family with a stable marriage relationship at its core.  Sociologists can tell you that where fathers are absent (the usual pattern when marriages fail or are nonexistent) children suffer and instability is the result, individually and socially.  A few years ago, a group of 22 inmates at a jail near my home were asked, "What one thing would you change about your upbringing?" 21 of these men answered, "I wish I had a father."  The other one answered, "I wish I had a family."  The sociologists can also tell you that statistically, becoming a teenage mother without a marriage relationship will, in the vast majority of cases, lead to children growing up in poverty.

So the concept of marriage has carried a lot of weight, and it has been in decline as an institution in our society.  But the idea, the term, still carries some of the legitimacy that it had a generation ago.  We still celebrate marriages and many of our legal -- and even a few social -- doors open wide to married couples.

The current move toward gay "marriage" is not a move to strip marriage of its meaning; rather, it is a move toward legitimizing homosexual relationships, giving them the same sense of dignity, stability, and viability as heterosexual marriage.  The idea is to fold homosexual relationships into this same weighty, legitimized definition of marriage.

Earlier I asked this question: Are we submitted to some greater reality, some greater whole, than just our collective sense of language?

The first time through that question, if you're a Jesus-follower, you probably answered with a resounding, "Yes! We are submitted to a greater reality!"  Christians believe that our definitions come from God.  Jesus-followers want Jesus and his reality to be our reality.  We are taught to pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Speaking in terms of society, our past definition of marriage comes from an old set of definitions rooted in the collective Judeo-Christian roots of western society.   The definitions were largely biblical, largely shared, and largely unexamined.  The definitions were part of the leftover Christendom that dominated western Europe for a thousand years or more.  As we have drifted farther and farther from those roots, the void of definitions and understandings has been largely filled from two sources -- darwinian biological understandings and psychological analysis.  Both of these sources, biological and psychological, start with the organism -- in this case the human -- and define things based on a hypothesis that attempts to find an accurate description of observed reality.

So in our current debate, we look at a man and a woman, or two men, or two women, and we say they're all acting roughly the same way.  They express feelings of love for one another.  They set up housekeeping together.  They raise children together.  They pool their resources, share sexual activity, and live out some measure of commitment to one another.  The society around them begins to treat them as a couple, a social unity.  Because we start with the organism and its behavior, we say, "These things are all similar -- why not call them all marriage?"

If we move toward defining homosexual relationships as "marriage," what we are not doing is starting with a preexisting definition from a source outside ourselves and testing to see whether the relationships fit the mold.  It may not seem like an important difference.  However, at issue is the worldview, the core assumptions about reality.

Which of the following statements do you most agree with?

1. Reality is created; it reflects the character and the desires of God.

2. Reality is possibly created or possibly random, but the source of reality is in the end unknowable.  In any case, reality is best understood through observation and hypothesis.

If you choose #1, you have to seek God and any way God may have revealed himself for the definitions.   If you choose #2, you're on your own, in the fullest sense of that expression.

The Jesus-follower in this culture has to recognize that the culture as a whole is choosing to act (whatever we may think we believe) based on #2.  A simplified parody of the scientific method -- observe reality, create a hypothesis, test the hypothesis (though we often leave this step out), and act based on the hypothesis -- has come to dominate our thinking about the larger questions of our day.

The trouble is, we are not very good at observing reality.  Instead, we accept what our friends post on Facebook or what we read on CNN as reality, and our hypothesis is usually just what makes sense to us without much examination or reflection.  Darwin would be appalled by our weakened apprehension of the scientific method.

For the Jesus-follower, much of the New Testament is coming into stark focus these days.  The writings of Jesus' earliest followers spoke of those who followed Jesus and those who belong to the world as two distinct groups of people. The New Testament assumes a tension between the world's ways and the ways of those who follow Jesus.  Jesus' followers are called to live in this world, but not to belong to it (see John 17).  Just before he was arrested and crucified by the rulers of Jerusalem and Rome, Jesus told his followers, "In this world you will have trouble -- but take heart, I have overcome the world" (see John 16:33).  For a millennium and a half, most Christians have lived under a system where the powers of the world and the powers of the church were in league, if not in fact one and the same.  Only in the last few generations have we started to see this marriage dissolve.  Today we live in a time when we in the West are rediscovering the tensions, renegotiating the definitions.  Those who hold to Jesus tighter than they hold the ways of this world are figuring out what it means to let him define things.

The question is about where the definitions come from.  We can make our own definitions based on what makes sense to us.  Or we can let God define things.  But we can't do both.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Archimedes the social engineer

"Give me a lever long enough, and a place to rest it, and I can move the world." -Archimedes, c. 215 BC

If you've been tracking my most recent trajectory in these blog posts, the following will come as no surprise to you.  If you have not, I suggest you go back at least to the post titled "Review" and possibly back to "Jesus was not a rationalistic humanist" and catch up.  What follows is a lengthy argument that takes on much of what is happening in our current society.  My argument comes to a point later in this post when I discuss the Marriage Amendment that will be on Minnesota's ballot this fall.  That is not my ultimate goal, however; my ultimate goal in this post (and largely in this blog) is to make a cogent argument for a view of the Bible not as an ancient resource book, but rather as the authority that dictates the nature of reality to those who would follow Jesus.

It's not that our culture has surrendered the truth.  That would imply a struggle, a desire to maintain truth.  No, our society has not fought for the truth.  Instead we have chased whatever shiny objects flutter past our vision.  As a society we have a bad case of attention deficit disorder.  We are fascinated by whatever is new, whatever is trendy.  We would like to think that we are people of integrity, that our values don't change, but integrity and constancy don't get much press.  It's hard to post about integrity on Facebook and get people fired up.

So instead our public conversation tends toward those things that are novel and a little bit controversial. Not a lot controversial, but just a little bit.  This is important.

If our public statements fly in the face of the commonly shared assumptions of society -- what George Orwell in the book 1984 called "groupthink" -- we are perceived as outcasts, pariahs, or idiots.  So instead we take a position just a little outside the groupthink and we stand up boldly, as if we were revolutionaries or rebels for a really good cause.  People who are on the other fringe of the groupthink dislike what we say, and there's a little flash and a little controversy, but other "revolutionaries" come to our defense and so the momentum builds.

The idea is simple.  If you're going to move a heavy object -- like, say, a society -- you don't try to move it a long ways all at once.  Instead you place a fulcrum close by the heavy object, get a long lever, and move the society just a little bit.  What you need are the following:
  • A mover, that is, someone to move the long end of the lever -- in other words, a group of people committed to ideals far outside the targeted society, willing to work for repeated small changes in a single direction.  Currently this is the goal, for example, of most of Ron Paul's supporters in the presidential campaign.  They know their goals are far outside the current thinking, but they are dedicated and willing to try to shift the groupthink a little bit at a time.
  • A lever -- usually involving communication tools that can shape public opinion.  In past decades, the press was a pretty good lever, though it was slow.  The advent of television-for-entertainment speeded things up a bit because a new idea could be both edgy and entertaining if you handled it right.  The internet opened up all kinds of levers.  Right now social media is an amazing lever, and fast.
  • A fulcrum.  This is the key.  You need a solid place, however temporary, to rest your lever.  A fulcrum is an issue or a position just outside the groupthink of the targeted society.  Fulcrums are not important in and of themselves -- in fact, they're really throwaways.  But you need them to give the lever a place to rest so it can shift society.  You'll need a bunch of successive fulcrums -- a bunch of successive places to rest your lever, each one a little farther from the place society was resting originally.  In the moment, the fulcrum masquerades as the real goal.  But in the big picture, the cause of the moment is a fleeting thing.
  • An object to be moved -- in this case, a society with no firm commitments to an unbending truth.  If society is anchored by habits, perceptions, and preferences, all you need to do is change people's habits, perceptions, and preferences.  In a rationalist, humanist society, that's not hard.  Just change people's perceptions of what makes sense, and then change their perceptions of what is good for humanity.  This is the state of our society.  By and large, we have few unbending truths; instead, we have a morass of habits, perceptions, and preferences that have shifted enormously in the last few decades.
Now, this tactic of social engineering works in ways I like and in ways that trouble me.  So, for example, people stand up to oppose sex trafficking, and I applaud that.  People post about the need for justice, the need to stop child prostitution, the need to deliver slaves from bondage (which exists today in the world more than it ever has, sadly).  And I applaud.  But there are also causes that trouble me.

No example is clearer at the moment in our society than the unstoppable march of those who are advocating greater acceptance of homosexual activity as a normal, accepted part of society.  Advocates for greater acceptance of homosexual behavior in our society have done a stellar job of using this just-outside-the-groupthink tactic.

Starting about forty years ago, advocates for homosexual acceptance began to assert positions just a little ahead of and outside the groupthink.  So, hard on the heels of the heterosexual revolution, about 1970 we began to see Gay Pride parades.  What had been a largely underground and unacknowledged lifestyle suddenly became a public spectacle.  Most of the population moved from denial of the reality of homosexuality to fear of "those people."

By the late 1970's a few gay and lesbian partners were bringing lawsuits to have partner visitation rights in hospitals and the right to claim insurance benefits for their partners.  In the 1980's AIDS terror swept the world and the movers found a new fulcrum to appeal for compassion.  (Tom Hanks starred in the 1993 movie Philadelphia, which was a brilliant move in this direction.)  In the late 1990's we saw increasing pressure for gay couples to be allowed to adopt children.  Madonna kissed Brittany Spears on stage in 2003 and it was hugely controversial for a week or so.  By 2008, however, Katy Perry could release "I Kissed a Girl" and the song rocketed to #1.  In Katy's words, "It was a subject matter that was on the tip of everyone's tongue at that moment, so it was kind of like a snapshot of things that were happening in 2008."  Also a few years into the 2000's, gay characters became standard fare on sitcoms.  In just a generation we went denial and fear about homosexuality to every television watcher feeling like they knew a funny, sympathetic gay character personally, and inviting them into their living rooms week after week.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not advocating a return to the days of fear and denial about homosexuality.  And of course I am absolutely opposed to violence and bigotry against anyone.  Period.

This November, my state (Minnesota) will vote on a constitutional amendment to "define" marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.  Fifty years ago this would have been a "duh?" moment -- totally unnecessary, as any other definition of marriage would have been unthinkable.  But today it's a serious question.  Given Minnesota's history of being sympathetic to more liberal values (at least in the population-heavy Twin Cities metro area, that politically more often than not wags the rest of the state) it's quite possible that Minnesota will be the first state to defeat such a constitutional amendment once it's on the ballot.

Back to social engineering.  We've reached the stage in the cultural manipulation where people who hold to more traditional values (like defining marriage as between one man and one woman) are beginning to be ridiculed, labeled "primitive" or "squeamish" and certainly "prudish."  So recently a friend of mine -- yes, a friend; I do not have to agree with all the things my friends believe or post -- posted this on Facebook.  Notice how any conclusion but the preferred one leads back to name-calling, and the preferred conclusion (homosexuality is accepted) leads to affirmation.

If you take some time and work through the flowchart, you'll notice that every argument ranged against the preferred position is a straw man -- a simplification of a complex argument.  There are, in fact, some powerful arguments against the idea of gay "marriage."  But this flowchart is a good example of a cheap way to win an argument: when you use simplified versions of your opponent's arguments and then topple these "straw men," people who haven't thought things through very well believe you've won the argument.  The attack is effective.

People are afraid of being bigoted, of being small-minded.  Rightfully so.  We hate the idea of being perceived as uncaring.  Heaven forbid that we should be out of touch or stuck in the past.  And worst of all, if there is a group that has been hurt, defamed, abused, or wounded, we don't want to be part of the problem.  I share these concerns, and I don't want to be a bigot.

But I don't want to give up the truth, either, not even by accident.  I don't want to be swept along in a shifting groupthink that is being shaped by someone else's priorities.  Without a firm place to stand, without something outside the groupthink that orients us to the truth, we will be swept away by people who have a clear goal in their minds.  We will believe we're becoming more enlightened, more compassionate, more open.  But will we recognize what we've lost along the way?

For Jesus' followers, the Bible has to be that firm place to stand.  I'm not talking about a wooden literalism or a fear-mongering that uses the Bible to throw stones.  I'm rather advocating a view of the Bible that says, "Here is the way God has chosen to reveal himself.  It is greater than I am; it is beyond my understanding.  I will choose to submit to it, rather than picking and choosing what parts I accept and obey.  I will choose to study it, to learn it, to know it in its entirety, and by knowing this word, to come to know the God who reveals himself here."

The Bible's revelation of God's character centers in Jesus.  So the first task for someone pursuing a firm truth to stand on is to come to know Jesus, to study him and his words and his actions.  Then there are interpretations of Jesus and the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection that make up the rest of the New Testament.  Then there is the Old Testament, that provides context and history and anticipation.  So the Jesus follower takes it all seriously and does not discard any of it.

(By the way, it is dangerous and difficult to start with Genesis and begin to know scripture from "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ..." onward.  For one thing, there's just too much creationist / darwinist baggage in this approach.  The Bible's message centers in Jesus, and it's much better to start there, perhaps with John's gospel, which oddly enough begins "In the beginning was the Word ..."  Maybe John intended this all along.)

It is very popular today to say, "Of course I take the Bible seriously.  But there are some parts -- the laws in Leviticus, or the brutality in Judges, or the polygamy, or the misogyny, or the mythology -- that I just can't accept."  So you get well meaning, compassionate people who claim to take the Bible seriously but dismiss whole swaths of it.  "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality" is one example of this attitude in action.  Never mind that Jesus said not one jot or tittle of the Law and the Prophets (meaning the Old Testament) would pass away (see Matthew 5:18).  Never mind that Jesus upheld marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman (see Mark 10:6-9).  Never mind that the earliest witnesses to Jesus had clear things to say about seeing homosexuality as God's intention.

Some of you are thinking, "Yeah, Jeff, but what do you do with the texts that condemn you?"  At least I hope some of you are thinking that.  There are many texts that condemn me.  My greed, my lust, my sloth, my self-centeredness -- all these are offenses worthy of death, according to the Bible.  And I believe this is true with all my heart.  I have money in bank accounts that draw interest, and according to the laws in Leviticus this is a shady practice at best.  I take that seriously.  The Bible calls me to critique my own actions, and more often than not, to come before God in an attitude of repentance.  As a pastor, as a father, as a man, have I done enough to build strong marriages, to oppose divorce, to stand for the needs of children who end up living every other weekend with the opposite parent?  The Bible speaks clearly against divorce.

I am guilty on all these counts.  But that does not mean that I should deny the truth and say, "I'll just do whatever I want."  Nor should I say, "Oh, well, none of us is perfect so people can redefine marriage any way they want."  The problem with these statements is that they assume truth starts with us, who we are, how we're created, rather than with a creator who has revealed himself to us in a clear word.  Fact is, if we believe we have the power to redefine marriage, we have surrendered biblical authority and we might as well just try to do our best figuring things out as we go.

The Bible speaks a hard word to my sin, and yours.  We stand convicted -- but not condemned.  The Bible's message goes on from our sentence, our conviction, to record how Jesus' whole purpose in coming was to open up the "kingdom of God" -- the rule of God as absolute sovereign -- in our lives.  God's sovereignty over us and our sin changes the game.  Instead of simply condemning and discarding us like a broken iphone, God redeems us.  He places our death sentence on Jesus.  This is why the cross stands at the focal point of the Bible.  But it does not stand alone; it is constantly paired with the empty tomb, with Jesus' resurrection.  The just sentence of God on our sin was death; Jesus took our sentence to the cross.  But the power and love of God was stronger than death, stronger even than merciless justice, and Jesus rose to life again.  So the sovereignty of God over us leads not only to justice and death (taken by Jesus on the cross) but to new life for both him and for us.

This is why the Bible calls the message about Jesus "good news."  Jesus takes our condemnation on himself, and in exchange gives us the gift of "abundant life" (see John 10:10).  What this means for us is that when we find ourselves in patterns the Bible describes as outside God's intentions for us, our response as Jesus' followers is not license, to say we can do whatever we want; that is rebellion against God's word.  Our response is not simple-minded "love" that simply affirms every desire of our hearts; that is foolishness.

When we confront our own behavior and see that God's word has described what we do as outside his desires for us, our response is to turn away from those actions.  The Bible calls this repentance.  We acknowledge our brokenness and our need for someone to save us from ourselves.  We turn to God in recognition that we are unable to obey his word, and we need to be forgiven, healed, redeemed, restored.  We are, of ourselves, broken.

There are places in my life -- in my management of money, in my management of time, in my relationships, in my sexuality, in my appetites for food and entertainment and the next new thing -- that I seem to be beyond healing.  I am so broken that I cannot fully turn away from these things.  I am, the Bible says, like a dog returning to its vomit.  But I can't seem to stop.

How then do I respond?  This brokenness leaves me helpless at the foot of Jesus' cross.  It calls me again and again to repentance, not as an occasional recognition of my sinfulness, but as a lifestyle.

This is one reason those who take the Bible seriously must be very cautious about affirming homosexual marriage.  If we are not careful, we will contradict God's word and by doing so, affirm something God says is outside his desires for us.  Then we will be guilty of cutting people off from repentance and the possibility of restoration.

I know how this argument will be taken in the current debate.  It will be reduced and pigeonholed and dismissed.  The biblical word about our sin and our brokenness and our need for redemption is not a sound bite; it is not something you can reduce to a protester's slogan or spray paint on the wall in an alley.  I know the hard word this speaks to my gay and lesbian friends.

I grew up in a family that did a lousy job of showing affection.  I was raped by a neighbor kid when I was eight.  Sexual matters were verbal taboo in our household.  Believe me, though homosexuality is not my struggle, I know what it is to wrestle with broken and twisted sexuality.  The worst possible outcome for me would be for someone to affirm me in my brokenness, to applaud my sin.

As Jesus-followers, we need to think beyond the slogans, to steep ourselves in God's word and not accept easy labels or easy answers.  We need to be radically loving of every person, no matter what sin or what problem they struggle with.  We need to be radically open to the world in all its diversity.  We must be uncompromising about the immense value and wonder of each person, affirming their identity as a very good creation of a loving God, and reaffirming their value again because Jesus died for them.

But we do not need to tell each person (not even ourselves) that we affirm every choice they make.  We cannot allow ourselves to squander our birthright -- the truth of the word of God and his revelation in it -- in order to shift with the changing tides of public opinion.  There is simply too much at stake -- and I'm not talking about the Minnesota State Constitution.