Thoughts on Finding Our Place

I suppose I should know better by this time. There are more than enough opinions competing for market share in a ridiculously overcrowded blogosphere; why bother to add another to the cloud of unknowing, to borrow a phrase?

Perhaps that “unknowing” is a word that aptly fits where we find ourselves as confessing Christians in a world order we have not known. We don’t know what has happened to the world as we’ve known it in the west, and particularly in the USA. We don’t know what the ramifications will be, either for the church or for the society. We don’t know how to pray–at least it appears so in many quarters, especially those previously given to equating being American with being conservative Christian, or in some cases, vice versa.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex couples able to be legally married, with every pertinent right as enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. The present court, though deeply divided, does not appear to be of a mind to hear cases that would call the decision into further review. Before expressing my thoughts on how Christians might most redemptively respond to the ruling and the possible outfalls, it might be helpful to answer a question on the minds of many who do not pay particular attention to the Supreme Court, other than when warning sirens are sounded by certain interest groups.

What Just Happened?

The case was brought before the court on the grounds that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For the sake of convenience, I include the text of that amendment’s first and fifth sections here:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

. . .

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.[1]

The amendment itself was part of the Reconstruction period legislation in 1868. As can be seen, it covers a wide range of interests. The most relevant section, of course, is the first. It was enacted primarily to protect the interests of former slaves. Since then, it has been used many times in an ever-expanding array of cases in which an aggrieved party believes existing laws restrict in some meaningful way their liberty to do something the state has unreasonably forbidden. In the cases at hand, same-sex couples argued that the state unreasonably hindered their liberty by prohibiting their ability to participate in and benefit from the legal benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples, asking that their unions be placed on the same footing.

As everyone is now aware, the court agreed. To do so, however, it had to argue a different definition and understanding of marriage from what many people, particularly religious people, had assumed to be unassailable. In what can only be described as question-begging logic, the court acknowledged that marriage has historically and universally been thought to be a union of one man and one woman. It then argued that since changes have been made to the institution of marriage in the past, such as the decline of arranged marriages, allowing imprisoned persons to marry, and prohibitions against interracial marriage, change itself regarding marriage is a good thing. It seems to acknowledge on one hand that all the changes cited have to do with the practice of marriage and not the nature of the union; but it then argues that change of any kind can be good, and that to refuse this particular change would make the children of same-sex couples stigmatized and inferior, along with a few other unpleasant entailments.

What also becomes clear is that marriage is far more than a building block of society, as it celebrates and legitimates personal choices of intimate association and life choices pertaining to how one will choose to live. It seems far more important to the court to enhance personal satisfaction than to consider the interests of society. Let’s stop here for just a moment. Throughout history, all cultures, universally, have protected the union out of which children arise; it is necessary for the continuation of society in a cohesive fashion. And it is with that in mind that governments, particularly in the west, have extended certain legal priorities, privileges, and protection to married couples. The raising of the next generation is important to the public interest. Marriage may well be more than that institution by which new generations arise; but it is difficult to understand what interest the government would have in any of those additional characteristics. Simply referring to an evolution of understandings of marriage does not answer that question. Nor does it answer how one moves from changes in the way marriages are arranged and which men and which women can enter into the union to what that union is.

The majority opinion also spends considerable time speaking about the benefits to personal happiness of intimate association such as exists in marriage. But love may or may not be present in a marriage and it may well be present in a relationship between two persons who are not married. Formal marriage cannot create the bond; nor can its absence prohibit the bond.

Nonetheless, it has become the law of the land. For those people who complain that Christians or other identifiable groups of people impose their morality on others, two things should be noted. The one-man, one-woman nature of marriage was cross-culturally held for centuries. It was not imposed on people who wanted it to be otherwise. Secondly, it is the Supreme Court that has imposed a new definition of marriage upon the nation. Much of the criticism in the dissenting opinions from Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito is centered on precisely this point.

Finding Our Place

Now what? For many people, the questions surrounding same-sex marriage have been given far too much attention. They wonder what the big deal has been all along and are happy to simply settle the question once and for all. Just move on and do what you’ve always done. After all, no one is telling anyone that they must marry someone of the same sex.

There is some wisdom in this approach.  It is particularly tempting to adopt it when listening to those who address the issue with palpable hatred and disgust for the persons on the other side of the matter. As Christians, we never serve the cause of Christ well with anger, name-calling, belittling, and censure. Letting our speech be seasoned with grace somehow escapes far too many people as a directive for our interactions. And Paul does tell us to be subject to the governing authorities, to live quiet and peaceful lives, and to be know as people of hope. We do not serve, and we certainly do not owe ourselves to any earthly power. Not even one with the Constitution of the United States of America. And we should not expect any earthly power to substitute for the rule of Christ in our hearts and in our communities of faith, much less expect a secular government to require other to follow a way we don’t do so well at obeying ourselves.

On the other hand, we believe that God’s expressed desires for human living are not arbitrary, but are good for the flourishing of people–all people. He designed us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Thus fearing, reverencing Him by accepting his ways, even when we don’t understand the reasons, is the beginning of wisdom. I have a strong suspicion that it is the loss of the very idea that God made us, intentionally, that lies at the heart of the present debate. If we are the product of a random evolutionary process, then nothing can be forbidden. Blind and dumb nature can only produce things, not “oughts” or “shoulds” to guide our moral lives. We are on our own.

In finding our place, Christians need to pay far greater attention to a robust theology of human nature as the deliberative and purposeful action of the God who finally revealed himself in the person of Jesus. Christian anthropology (the doctrine of mankind) has for too long started and and finished with Genesis 3, skipping over chapters 1 and 2.  We do read there of the creation in the image of God, an image which is born differently by male and female; and it is in their union that the image of God is more fully represented to the succeeding generation. This has much to say about issues of gender equality as well as of gender differences. If we are to have a meaningful contribution to make in the continuing public debate (and it will continue), we need to do more than recite verses from the Bible. We’ve thrown far too many pearls before many angry swine. Instead we need to reflect on the contextual meaning of the text and on the understanding of the present age to see where we fit and where we don’t. Or, more accurately, where the thought of the day does and does not reflect God’s design for human flourishing.

In finding our place we must also be honest about what the text does and does not approve, what it does and does not condemn. I’ve said virtually nothing about homosexuality itself to this point, and I won’t say a lot about it here, either (though I am open to talking more about it in a subsequent post). We cannot refashion the text to comport with contemporary sensitivities and thoughts. To put it bluntly, Matthew Vines’ hermeneutic is demonstrably flawed. Homosexuality is not God’s plan for human sexuality. That is abundantly clear on a responsible reading of the text, one which has not decided beforehand to neuter any passages that indicate such divine disapproval. That being said, we are not thereby authorized to go about the business of condemning homosexual person, or even of denying that there may be underlying causes or tendencies toward homosexual desire–most of which we do not fully understand.

Finally, finding our place must be done in full recognition that the place we will occupy is one of the alien and the outcast. And we must accept that as our lot if it comes to pass. We have a hard time fully believing Jesus when he told his followers that if they hated him, they would hate his followers; or Paul when he said that those who live godly lives will be persecuted. I am not sounding alarms here. I am suggesting possibilities. We have heard dire forecasts of what will come next on the agenda of those who believe they have won the day. Perhaps some of it will eventuate, perhaps not. Let those who know Christ be fully committed to him and his kingdom, come what may. Paul learned how to get along in all circumstances; so must we.

House for Prayer? Thoughts on the Third Sunday in Lent

Jesus cleansing the temple. Chasing out the bad guys, the ones who had turned into a place to make a fast denarius or two. And from that little tidbit we build sermons around what we perceive to be the parallel misuses of the buildings used for worship today. You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them; I’ve preached them.

Today, however, I’d like us to focus a little more attention on the first portion of Jesus’s objection to what was happening in Jerusalem. We can lay aside the reality that there are difficulties in identifying each of our respective houses of worship with the “my house” character of the Jerusalem temple. The reality is that any temple or church structure dedicated to the worship of God will encounter the same troublesome tendencies at some time or other. Lots of things happened in that temple on a regular basis; even more activities arguably take place in our buildings today. We play there, we worship there, we exercise there, we study together, we laugh, we cry, we talk about football and politics, we fellowship, we celebrate, we encourage one another, entertain guests and performers, raise funds, etc., etc. But how much do we pray there? Really pray?

The posts in this year’s somewhat shorter Lenten series have been focused on the kingdom of God and how we should make it more of a centering concern for our calling as the people of God. Nowhere can the commitment we have to the kingdom be better seen in our congregations than in the way we think about the places in which we gather as the body of believers. The question is simple–how much of what we do “at church” has prayer at its core, or as a natural outgrowth of the activity?

“My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Did this mean that any other activity was forbidden? No. The temple was a busy place; it was the symbolic center of communal life, where the reason for being was found, where purpose for moving ahead through difficult times was instilled, where hope was renewed, where children were reminded of their special identity in God’s desires for the world and its redemption. Faith was formed in concert between home and temple, and faith was never perceived as some private
decision to believe what one wanted; it was “the faith” before it ever became any particular one’s faith. And prayers both confessed that faith and wove it into the fabric of the lives of its people.

Hence the anger with which Jesus confronted the money changers. Their activities clouded rather than cleared the vision of life and godliness that prayer was to engender where the people of God gathered. They hindered prayer. We are stimulated by and alerted to the real intents and purposes of God for us through the teaching of the scriptures; we commit ourselves to it through prayer. And our very identity as the people of God depends upon it.

What is it in our congregations that cannot continue without prayer? To put it another way, would anything in our regular way of doing things really be different if prayer were removed from it? Is it there at all? Maybe for some of our congregations we don’t need to repent of not praying for the kingdom as much as we need to repent of not really praying at all. Our faith formation and our faith transmission to another generation will not take place without it. And if something is crowding it out of our corporate life, perhaps a few overturned tables are in order. Repentance surely is.

Kingdoms and Politics

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Granted. This post backs up one short phrase from last week’s thoughts on praying for the kingdom to come over all the earth, and not just over our tiny corner thereof. Those who are tracking with me joined in repenting of having such a narrow view of God’s interests. Perhaps we also need to ask what it is we are praying for, and what it is that we too readily accept as substitutes. And at times we lobby harder for the substitutes than we do for the kingdom of God.

There are, of course, many ideas about just how the kingdom of God relates to the kingdoms of this world, some of which are nearer or farther from exhibiting laws and policies that are consistent with the rule of God. Good Christians have long disagreed about the level of involvement in secular government that is appropriate for believers. Do we dig in and make the best of a messy situation, hoping to influence policies in God-honoring ways, or is the very activity of governing so steeped in corruption that we must stay out of it entirely if we are to maintain any sort of integrity as citizens of God’s kingdom? I’ve held both views at different times–and sometimes simultaneously!

But this post is not about finding the right theory of engagement for Christians. It is about thinking wrongly about the prospects of bringing God’s rule through governmental actions and policies; and it is about our apparent belief that getting the right party to control the halls of Congress or the various state houses is where our hopes should lie and toward which our energies should be expended. It is all too common for self-identified Christians to join in political rants that have far more to do with maintaining the power of a chosen party than they do with what measures are good for our common life. Often it is done with very bitter spirits, with venom toward any who disagree, and with an edge of anger and self-preservation unbefitting those who are not their own because they’ve been bought with a great price.

Neither the anger of people, not the policies of a government can achieve the righteousness of God. We look to the wrong places for the solutions to greed, corruption, theft, abuse, violence, and basic unrest and distrust if we think a party can accomplish it if only given its way. His will; His ways. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we focused our minds on the ways of our Lord, and then learned to make his ways more consistently our ways we would have the audience the gospel deserves. We might do well to repent of not making it so in our lives.

It Must Be So: Thoughts on the Second Sunday in Lent

“Get away from me, Satan!”

The gospel lesson for today is Mark 8:31-39, wherein Jesus announces his death and resurrection to his disciples. Peter’s response is not at all surprising: “No way!” To which, of course, Jesus replies with the words above. Matthew’s version of this account includes the stark contrast between the words to Peter after his recognition of the true identity of Jesus and the words after the same Peter’s objection to the very means by which his Lord would become his saviour.

The temptation to want a Christ without the messiness of the crucifixion is ever with us. We want a champion with whom to identify, one who captures the imagination with his incredibly insightful answers for all occasions, who confronts the powers that be, bringing them down to size and exposing their duplicity. We want to be on the winning side when the final buzzer sounds. We like the idea of siding with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the victims. After all, somehow the world unfolds in such a way that we all tend to think that we have drawn the short straw in one way or another. Things are unjust; someone needs to answer for that, and we find it difficult to rest until we at least know who it is. The idea of a triumphal Christ, one who will bring justice in his arm, set the world to rights (in deference to N. T. Wright), and make the evil doers pay sits well with us. We might even be willing to put up with an inconvenience or two in order to remain on his side. It will all be worth it someday.

But somehow the very cross that makes the promised victory possible doesn’t seem quite so popular among some of his would-be followers. We want Jesus to win the day, but we want him to get on with it on our terms. We want him to fill our hopes, our expectations, our dreams of a utopian world, and we really don’t see the need to be talking about crosses along the way. Such is the implication, sometimes clear and sometimes subtle, when we want our side to win without cost. Jesus already paid it all, right? Let’s not speak of it any longer. And if we must, let us speak of it strictly as history.

The horrific persecution being visited upon our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world might give us pause to reconsider the words of Jesus in a different, more challenging light. Crucifixion was the way of God’s victory over sin. Resurrection completes the accomplishment. And those who come after him are encouraged to take up their cross. Middle East believers in the early twenty-first century are not the first or only ones to know fully how literal that directive from Jesus can sometimes be. And while their sacrifice, along with that of all who have gone before them in similar fashion, does not atone for sin, it does give witness to the way of God’s ultimate victory. Cross, then resurrection.

To demand or desire another way, to insist upon a more palatable way of using the name of Jesus will continue to draw the response that must have stung in Peter’s mind: get out of my way, Satan. Perhaps it’s because we really don’t grasp the depth of our sin problem that we think we can have this champion Jesus without his cross. It’s our problem, and it’s the world’s problem, and it is ours as much as it is the world’s. Whenever we prefer another Lord or kingdom, no matter how good and just it might seem, over the one that comes by way of crucifixion, we are in great peril. And we should repent.

On Earth–All of It: A Lenten Post

And when you pray, pray like this: “. . .Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

How many times have we prayed those words, with varying degrees of sincerity? Those who worship in congregations given to greater use of forms for prayer have said them more frequently than those in supposedly “free” church congregations. But we all know them. This midweek Lenten post focuses on repentance in prayer. Not repenting as a part of our prayer, which is surely to be done, and not repenting for not praying more than we do, but for praying unfaithfully. What is meant by that?

As I have listened to countless calls for prayer requests, the response is almost always the same, no matter where one goes, especially but not exclusively in the evangelical world. Someone’s illness, someone’s surgery, perhaps a bereavement, and maybe even a need for employment or housing for someone known to us. And there is the rub–someone known to us. How often are our prayers limited to requests to God to procure for ourselves or for someone close to us the blessings of health, comfort, and security? To the extent that these good gifts do indeed come down from the Father of Lights, and to the extent they exhibit the kingdom in our midst, we should so pray. But we cannot stop there.

Our prayers will inevitably display the content of our hearts, our dreams, and our desires. They will also make manifest the limits of our vision. The dire straights in which Christians in the Middle East find themselves have begun to shock some people into recognizing that we have it “pretty good” here in the security of the west. And we pray that God will keep it that way, and go on our way, absorbed by the life that is ours in a relatively cozy culture, where we become oblivious to the dangers of that coziness. Meanwhile those whom our Lord declares his brothers and sisters, and who are therefore ours as well, suffer mightily. They are deprived of home, work, and of life itself in all too many cases.

When we pray for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, do we really ask for it to come to earth, or to our little corner thereof? Does the rule of other powers and authorities bother us if it is not visible to us where we live? Do we desire his rule of to be made manifest where it is most antithetical to what is currently the case? When you pray, when I pray, when our churches pray, let us look with a broader vision of God’s desire for all people, all nations, and especially for those of the household of faith. And let us repent for praying only for the protection of our comfort in a broken world. The next time someone asks for a prayer request, what aspect of “Thy kingdom come” will burn in our hearts so that we must share it with those present?

Lord, I repent of praying unfaithfully. I haven’t meant the whole world when I’ve asked for your rule to come to earth. Enlarge my heart, increase my vision, I pray.

Repentance: Thoughts for the First Sunday in Lent

The Gospel text for the First Sunday in Lent (Mark 1:9-15) doesn’t come from the Passion account of our Lord’s final week before the crucifixion. It comes from the beginning of his public ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Many of us are accustomed to reading this text as saying that there is further good news, that the gospel is something other than what Jesus announced here–the kingdom of God has come near. As a result, we are prone to thinking that the we must supply the missing information, which we do by telling people to confess their sins and ask Jesus to forgive them so that when the kingdom does come, or rather that we go to the kingdom (somewhere) when we die, we will be part of the throng, among the citizens. Well, yes, and no to that idea.

As Scot McKnight has explained quite clearly in The King Jesus Gospel, we haven’t always distinguished between the good news itself–the kingdom of God is coming–and the means by which we enter that kingdom and the nature of our participation therein. The good news, the gospel, is that God’s reign is at hand. And because it is, the only response we can make is enter that reign by way of repentance. Literally, this means a change of mind. I’m reminded of the preaching of Paul on the day of Pentecost, culminating in the declaration that this Jesus whom they had crucified God had been raised and made both Lord and Christ. When the listeners were struck to the core by this fact, they wanted to know how to respond: repent and be baptized.

Just what is it about which we are to change our minds? Our sins? Yes, of course. But that relates to the saving work of Christ; it’s how we enter the gate to the kingdom. But what about the reign of Christ? To refer to Jesus as “Lord and Christ,” terms which relate the reign of Christ differently to Jews and Greeks, is to announce something larger than the forgiveness of individual sins. It says that he is now the king, fulfilling what Jesus had begun announcing in the beginning of his ministry. So what? Glad you asked.

To say that Jesus is Lord, or that Jesus reigns as king, or that he is above all rule, power, and authority is to call every other ruler, power, or authority to task. He relativizes each and every one of them. And sooner or later we come to recognize that we have offered submission to lesser lords, lesser powers. And we must repent. We must learn anew to live in the kingdom not of this world, even while it rages around us, threatening to undo us.

Who are these other lords, powers, rulers, and authorities? There are many possible answers. They include governments, to be sure; and many a believer has refused to bow to them when allegiance to the true Lord would be compromised thereby. More frequently, however, are we all tempted and occasionally held hostage by other powers, forgetting or not learning in the first place, that Christ is above them. Economics; politics; public opinion; fear; doubt; disease; hardship; pain; mourning; entertainment; leisure. All of these are very much a part of the world we live in, and all threaten at times to climb beyond their appointed boundaries and ultimately convince us to serve them, offering our best energies, gifts, and resources to their service.

Could it be that our giving of allegiance to these inadequate rulers is what leads us to commit the “personal” sins we usually think of with calls for repentance? Do we make our decisions in life in deference to them instead of to the kingdom of God?

That is the call for repentance on this First Sunday in Lent. I suspect it is one we must always be alert to hearing and heeding. But to declare “Jesus is Lord” is to continually keep all others in their place beneath him. The good news is that his kingdom has come near; his rule above all these can now be made real in our lives and in our world. It really is the good news, the gospel: God reigns over all.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Is it really what we do in life? Hold hands, dance around the flower and eventually fall into oblivion? It does happen to everyone equally, does it not? Qohelet, the mysterious author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, took such a view of things. No matter who we are, regardless of our fortunes in life, the fate of one is like the fate of the other, rich or poor, favored or despised, oppressor or oppressed, male or female. We know not what comes after us or what will become of our legacy, provided we are audacious enough to believe there will be such a thing. My brother recently pointed out to me that the vast majority of adults cannot come up with the names of their great grandparents. Sobering. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today many people will submit themselves to the imposition of ashes upon their foreheads, symbolizing their recognition of both mortality and the need for repentance. We are frail flesh; we are reminded of this when we recognize that our sin makes us ill-suited for eternal life. Throughout the next six weeks—the period of time we know as Lent—Christians will be encouraged to take the hard looks at self that we’d rather not take, reflect on things that we’d rather not think about, remind ourselves of things we’d prefer to forget, and generally to come to agree with our loving God that we don’t make very good candidates for sainthood when left to our own devices. Only after this reflection, can we be prepared to really receive the promise held in waiting on Easter morning.

Confessing, literally, means speaking together with someone in agreement. When we confess our faith, we are speaking with others what it is that we believe; when we confess our sins, we are speaking in agreement with God our failure to follow what we know to be the right way and our insistence upon an alternative in its place. Repentance means we change our minds and turn around to take a new direction. It’s what lies behind the tradition of fasting for Lent, whether through abstaining from food or some activity that we perceive as having ordered our lives in ways that are harmful to self and others. It’s not the giving up that becomes somehow meritorious, offering thereby the true spiritual benefit; it’s the new ordering of life, directed more consciously toward God that provides lasting benefit.

There are many Christians for whom liturgically set dates and times for such intensely personal activities as confession and repentance do not resonate. I understand that. As Paul said, some hold one day to be special, others hold another. To observe times and seasons is not a requirement he placed on any of his young churches or upon their converts, and I’m not so sure that we should, either.  On the other hand, there is value in the reminder that the calendar brings. We’re not generally prone to slowing down enough to give confession and repentance the time they require to do their work in us. We let them go until there is something entirely too daunting in front of us, something which might have been removed before taking on such proportion as to threaten to undo us.

We all fall down. Some with a misstep, some with a stumble, and some with a thud. Perhaps the most dangerous of them is the prideful deeming of confession to be something irrelevant to us. Being reminded that even at our best we fall short of God’s glory is something we all need. We will always stand in his righteousness, not our own, even while being molded more and more closely into his image. Whether one physically receives the ashes today or not, we should all consider ourselves as called to examine our lives, our thought patterns, our assumptions, and our hopes through the next six weeks leading up to the glorious resurrection promise. I don’t really want to. Which is why I must.