Homosexuality: Does a Pastor have to have an Answer?

As a minister, you get used to hearing people ask you what you believe about all kinds of different issues.  This occurs from people within your church as well as people outside your church – from Christians as well as non-Christians.  Occasionally, I’ll even receive Facebook messages from high school friends and old acquaintances asking my opinion about certain matters – anything from doctrine to politics to current events to interior design – ok, that hasn’t happened, but just about everything else has!  Most ministers become adept at navigating their responses to delicate and controversial issues in order to convey their true feelings while also respecting a diversity of thought and opinion.  Some, like Patrick Mead, even offer an ongoing “ask the preacher” kind of format in his blog. No doubt, we all have our sacred cows and find it difficult to answer both honestly and succinctly to certain matters (just ask me about militarism), but by and large, this is something that comes with the territory and the title.  We are teachers.  Those who preach come from a long line of prophets and Christian leaders.  Our voices aren’t more important than anyone else’s – I firmly believe that – but our voices are often heard by more than others.  Even those of us who preach at small churches like mine carry some degree of influence.  Thus, people are genuinely interested in what we have to say.

Generally, I truly appreciate these inquiries and am humbled that anyone cares about my opinion.  I try to be a constant student, love learning, and make every effort to be as prepared for any question or discussion that may come my way.  The older I get and the more I study and learn – the more inadequate I feel and the more difficulty I have in offering short answers to just about any question.  I find I hate yes/no questions more than ever.  And the more I change my mind about things, the less certain I become about many of the beliefs I currently hold.

And so, inevitably, I find myself asked in different ways, under differing circumstances, and by a broad diversity of people what I believe about homosexuality and correspondingly what I believe the Bible teaches about homosexuality.  I have some pretty controversial perspectives on politics and nationalism (along with a few other things :-)) but I have become more afraid of tackling this topic than any other . . . by far.

If you are like me, you have a short attention span when it comes to reading blog posts and so, if you are truly like me, you probably won’t read this entire thing, because . . . if you’re like me, you can’t write shortly or succinctly about this one, but I’ll do what I can to offer what is at the heart of my struggle here.

In response to one of the most recent inquiries into my beliefs about homosexuality and Christianity and the Bible, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, “I don’t know.”  It wasn’t a cop-out and I wasn’t trying to avoid the discussion.  Honestly, I’ve been studying and thinking about this issue pretty seriously since 1998 when I was first exposed to teenagers who were wrestling with this issue.  I was pretty confused back then, and I find it discouraging that 15 years later, I’m still really confused and unsure.

And now everyone wants to know what I think – well, not everyone, but three or four people.  As of late, it’s become an explosive topic to discuss – even more than in the past.  I’m disappointed that more high profile pastors and Christian leaders aren’t having honest public discussion about the topic.  I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. I’m sure they’re scared to death to open this can of worms.  Sure, the boisterous voices on either the far right and far left of the issue are quick to throw out their zingers and offer their messages of condemnation or salvation, but just look at how many are really quiet.  My tradition is, admittedly, an interesting one, but we have our fair share of public figures, and I haven’t heard many of them address this topic head on.  Thank you for being an exception Sally Gary!

This post is already long, so let me get to the heart of things here.  You want to know my opinion about this matter?  I don’t know.  Honestly.  I don’t know what I believe about it.  I feel caught between a rock and a hard place in coming to terms with a theological articulation that I am comfortable with.  I’ll offer a point or two below to highlight why I don’t know, but first I want to ask the question, “Is it so bad that I don’t know?”  Haven’t we moved beyond the era where pastors and other teachers and leaders have to be “answer men/women”?  Haven’t we been wrong on enough matters to keep us from speaking too definitively on just about anything?  I know this scares the hell out of some people, but just look at the track record of the church.  We’ve been wrong . . . really, really wrong, on some crucial matters in the past.  Southern churches on slavery and later on civil rights, German Lutherans and their dual kingdom theology allowing them to turn the other way at Hitler’s rise to power . . . torture and execution of heretics . . . need I go on?

Even the Bible gets it wrong.  If you’ve never squirmed your way through some of the Old Testament passages that kicked the women out of the camp because they were on their period or that would offer a rapist the woman’s hand in marriage for a fee or read the book of Joshua and considered the countless women and children that were murdered at the hands of God’s people, you have skipped over the icky parts.  Maybe I’m overstating it to say that “the Bible gets it wrong” . . . but my point is that it’s not like this sacred book that we all point to for guidance and truth can just be picked up preached without some unpacking.

For this issue of homosexuality, there’s a lot at stake, and I understand that’s why it’s so explosive.  All wrapped up in this matter are the issues of politics, the sacredness/sacrament of marriage, equality, rights, biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), your view of Scripture, your view of the state, love, parenting, creation, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, science, genetics, and probably a thousand others I’ve overlooked.

And I don’t know what to do with it all.  Theologically and hermeneutically, I struggle to make homosexuality “fit.”  There’s a lot at stake in order for me to make it “fit,” and slowly around me some of those troubles are beginning to fall away.  However, for good or for ill, I remain reluctant to make that jump.   Experientially, I struggle to make the prohibition of homosexuality “fit.”  Friends, companions, and conversation partners I have had in the past and currently have help me struggle through their created nature.  Why would they have feelings like this?  Why would God make them like this?  What does it mean?  It is like other struggles (alcoholism, etc.) but it’s not the same.  Not by a long stretch.  And so . . . what to do?

I have a good friend who is transgendered and, whether she knows it or not, is helping me think through this as well.  When I say alot is at stake, this comes front and center in the matter of gender identity.  The first question we ask upon a child’s birth is, “Is it a boy or a girl?”  It’s the fundamental black and white question in our society.  But what about when it’s not black and white?  What about when we understand gender as more than anatomical?  When that question becomes complicated, that seems to make the point that everything is complicated.

There are so many related issues under the rubric of homosexuality and I am far from prepared to delve into even a few of them.  For now, I am prepared to let you know that I don’t know.  Many, maybe even most, will look at that as being “soft.”  A cop out.  Wimping out.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I am.  I do believe that most of what I am hearing and reading about regarding the matter of homosexuality from professed Christians isn’t helping anyone.  It’s often vitriol, judgmental, and condescending.  I know that all of it isn’t and that we are becoming more adept at public discourse regarding the issue, but we have a long ways to go.

I also know that there are many Christians who are struggling through this matter.  I know many of them are not in churches that allow them to share openly and honestly the struggles that comes with these feelings and, perhaps, being in these relationships.  I know that I don’t understand what they are going through.  I want to empathize, and try as much as I can, but I don’t understand their struggles.  I am full of my own struggles and know the temptation of pornography, short skirts, and tight shirts.  I know the power of libido and confess my own shortcomings in taking captive those thoughts to Christ.  And I know that I am not in a position of being your judge, and hope that these people can find friends and companions that will help them navigate these challenging waters.  I hope to provide some additional posts in the coming weeks into some of my struggles through this issue, but as for now, I just wanted to say to all those who want to know what I think about homosexuality: “I don’t know.”

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“Let the Little Children Come to Me” . . . in the Nursery

We had a really strange experience this past Sunday morning at our church.  Our congregation is small (100 folks or so), and with the flu going around and folks traveling, etc. our crowd was especially small this week.  A young couple walked in with two small children – looked like they could have been twins – maybe two years old.  A few of our members chatted with them briefly before the service and then one of our elders introduced me to the husband.  “He was asking about the nursery,” I was told.  As we have such a small church, and so many of our families have little children, we find it difficult – well, impossible – to provide a staffed nursery for parents.  Some of our parents will take their children out of the service if their child is particularly fussy or restless, but for the most part, we try to incorporate our children into our services and generally welcome the distraction of them crying out or running around.  It can be a little hectic and often is distracting . . . but so is life.  But it’s not just because “we can’t staff the nursery,” that we don’t have one.  It’s actually pretty intentional on our behalf.

Well, in regards to the young couple, it was a little difficult for them to understand and so they slowly and quietly left – before our services ever started!  I was astounded.  They never gave it a chance.  They, like many other people who visit our congregation’s Sunday services, they were looking for an hour-long service when they can focus on God and energize themselves without the distraction of their children.  And I get it.  We’ve got three kids of our own, and I remember the challenge of the years between when they became mobile and when they could sit down quietly and be entertained.   I know how difficult that was, particularly for my wife – and nothing I am about to say is said without that very legitimate concern and realization.

There’s nothing wrong with a church offering a nursery during their services – I need to affirm that as well.  However, there is something very pure, authentic, and important about our worship gatherings being truly family-oriented.  There is something to be said for having a time for age-appropriate messages and expressions, but that can never come to dominate our structure – as if that is the rule instead of the exception.  The idea that we need to “sanitize” our services of all distractions is disingenuous to what life really is.  We fall into the temptation of making them smoothly packaged with the outcome predetermined – a far cry from the realities of life.  I know that it can be difficult for older folks to “drown the noise out.”  I understand it can make it challenging for those without children to empathize.  We should be cautious and thoughtful about affirming that to those people often.  However, again, I wonder if that should be the exception instead of the rule (that is always making concession for those people). At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to be humbled.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think alot of this discussion revolves around the pastor’s ego.  We don’t want an entire week’s work (ie. sermon) to be “wasted” when the most poignant moment is drowned out by a screaming child.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And . . . now . . . it honestly just makes me smile.  I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.  I think that’s what more church folks  need to do.  Most people could probably affirm the fact that a baby’s coo or a little child’s outburst is just as God-honoring and glorifying as my exposition on Ecclesiastes.  Postmodernism has knocked us off our pedestal, and we need to continue to let it due so.  Our worship gatherings should be collections of numerous worship experiences throughout the congregation.  It’s not dictated and directed by the leaders up front.  I look at it as if we are hoping to help create an atmosphere (with the guidance and participation of the Holy Spirit) where people can connect to God.  I hope that happens through the sermon, sometimes, through our worship in song, and our other public experiences.  However, I think more often, and more powerfully, those experiences are happening through side conversations, shows of affection, spontaneous prayers, a cup of coffee, and even (GASP!) unruly or disruptive children.

My wife probably had the best perspective on this event from Sunday.  A couple from our church recently adopted a baby – after waiting for several years and going through the ringer as nearly everyone who goes through the adoption process undergoes.  We prayed with them for years that this day would come.  And in my wife’s great wisdom she points out, “How can we go through those many years of praying and longing, and then finally celebrating alongside them . . . and then expect them to spend most of their time together with us . . .  out in the nursery?  That little baby is as much a part of our church and a part of each and every service as the oldest members among us.”

This is where we come to terms with being an intentional and missional church that doesn’t do things because they are “more palatable” or “attractive” to outsiders, but instead, are driven by our theology to make decisions that are holistic, God-focused, and . . . often times . . . more difficult.  Ironically, in our sermon on Sunday, we spent some time talking about not making your family your idol . . .

Ke$ha the Prophetess?

If I could go back and hang out with some folks from the Old Testament, I think I would have to pick one of the prophets.  I just love how “in your face” they were . . . not to mention how irreverant and crass they were (inspiring my Twitter handle @Crasslyyours).  Whether they’re lying down on their side for a year, running around naked, cooking dinner over poop, or making little figures out of play dough – these were some weird folks!  I’m trying to convince my wife that not getting a haircut is my God-given calling as a prophet of the Lord . . . and currently that argument is not going so well – at least I don’t cook dinner over the toilet.

Now, I don’t really think Ke$ha is a prophet, but she is weird and she is in your face.  She sings . . . or raps . . . or whatever it is she does, with the swagger and crassness that has almost always been reserved for men.  By all accounts she’s trashy (even if she is super smart – she scored 1500 on her SAT and has an IQ of 140 . . . but apparently missed the health classes on STDs and the effects of alcohol abuse) and annoying as she has turned the $ sign into the 27th letter of the alphabet.  However, she has also captured something in the hearts of adolescents that has made her music crazy popular.  She’s smart . . . and she’s talented.

Her most recent hit captures the heart and soul of youthful zeal and carefree living even in the title, “Die Young.”

Strangely, in kicking the year off with a study of Ecclesiastes, our church wound up humming the words to this Ke$ha song.  OK, we didn’t actually hum the words and I was too much of a chicken to actually play the song (that whole “magic in your pants is making me blush” part made me think it a bit inappropriate), but I read the following lyrics:

Young hearts, out our minds
Runnin like we outta time
Wild childs, lookin’ good
Livin hard just like we should
Don’t care whose watching when we tearing it up (You Know)
That magic that we got nobody can touch (For sure)

Looking for some trouble tonight
Take my hand, I’ll show you the wild, side
Like it’s the last night of our lives
We’ll keep dancing till we die.

Most of the time, churches stay away from the Book of Ecclesiastes like it is the plague.  If you do a little research into Ecclesiastes you find that it’s always been like that.  Even the great rabbinic schools of old – Hillel and Shammai were divided about what to do with it – Hillel thought that the message of Ecclesiastes was so troubling it “defiled the hands.”  At Alum Creek this January, we have chosen to study the book through the prism of transitions.  As the writer looks back at his life, he’s really reflecting on the many changes that have taken place in his life: getting older, his family, his job, etc. and through it all, he’s trying to make sense of it.  Why am I here?

The difficult part of reading Ecclesiastes is that it doesn’t really give a good solid answer.  Depending on where it is you happen to be reading, it can sound a whole lot like a Ke$ha song (though the text does not include “wild childs, looking good” – that is not good Hebrew).  Notice the connection between “Die Young” and this portion from Ecclesiastes 9: 1 – 7

“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

When we read the Bible, we like the message to come wrapped up nicely with a bow on it (and probably a cherry on top, to boot).  Most sermons are like that.  What I have enjoyed about preaching through Ecclesiastes is that a lot of times there is no nicely-wrapped ending each week.  Ecclesiastes is authentic as it helps us wrestle with the ebbs and flows of life.  As the all too inappropriate SNL sketch tells us, “This here is real.”

I don’t know what to do with Ke$ha’s song and her less-than-stellar message.  At the same time, I hear in her message the same cry from the writer of Ecclesiastes, struggling with the confusion and challenges of being young . . . or old . . . or middle-aged . . . There is something to be said for living like we’re young  Sometimes I think Christians would do well to kick back on a Ke$ha song once and while and just . . . have fun.

Missio Dei

Fresh off our trip to Europe, I still feel like I’m racing to get caught up on everything.  We spent just over a week in England and then a week in France.  We had such a great time and took tons of pictures.  If I ever have time, I will be sharing them.

What brought us to Europe in the first place, was my doctoral class “Encountering New Ways of being Church.”  The class is taught by John and Olive Drane, and also had substantial contributions by Ian and Gail Adams.  The class was as study in the experimental ministry by the Anglican and Methodist churches in England known as Fresh Expressions.   In addition to the Dranes and Adams, we were also given the opportunity to interact with Jonny Baker, Andrew Roberts, and we attended a gathering of Stillpoint, a Fresh Expressions gathering at a pub in Oxford  (I think it was Stillpoint 🙂  Obviously, I’ve got quite a lot to reflect on, and it will be awhile for me to process the wonderful experiences of the past couple of weeks.  I thought I’d begin by sharing where I’ve been an what I have been up to the past few weeks, and share what I think is the overarching theme that’s held these experiences together for me.

Over the past two years or so, the most significant development to my theology has come through my introduction to the term “missio dei.”  In reality, it’s an idea I’ve been flirting with for better than a decade – ever since I read Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, but it has become more enfleshed as I’ve read more specifically about missio dei.

Theologically, a grant shift has been taking place over the past two decades as practitioners have humbled themselves in realizing that God’s presence and mission is in place before they arrive in a particular context.  It seems almost obvious now, but in reality, this is a fairly recent development (with ancient roots, not doubt).  For many years, Christians were trained to think that they needed to “bring Christ to the nations.”  While this perspective serves as a great motivator, it also places a great amount of pressure on each Christian – after all, if we are to bring Christ to the nations – if we don’t go, we truncate the mission of God to those people.

In moving from a “we have something you need” mentality to a “you are experiencing something common to us that we are attempting to better understand – can we join you?” is a significant shift in perspective.  It is more humble.  It is more contextual.  It is more honest.  And . . . in the end . . . it’s actually easier!

This leads us to ask the question, “What is God doing in this neighborhood and how can we be a part of it?” instead of “What do we need to do to show these people to Jesus?”  In reality, God is already working in their lives.  He is already present in their neighborhoods.  The church is not the full realization of the kingdom.  While the church may be absent in a particular community, God’s kingdom, his larger reality in the world, is alive and at work.  Biblically, this is exactly what happens in Acts 17 while Paul is in Athens.  He looks around at what God has already been doing in that community.

This perspective is a driving force for the Fresh Expressions experiment (for lack of a better word) in the UK.  I appreciated the perspectives I was exposed to, and, although it required a good deal of translation for my context (the most pressing questions for me revolve around the denominational support that Fresh Expressions relies on relating to issues of sustainability), their impulse and devotion was encouraging.  There seem to be alot of people talking about these kinds of things, but few churches (especially in the United States) actually incorporating them into actual practices).  I certainly came away with many more questions than answers, but am determined to be an active part of God’s missio dei rather than some bystander serving only to commentate on what others are doing.

Living in the Age of TMI

We’ve all been there: engrossed in conversation with someone when the person that we’re talking with begins to volunteer information of an extremely personal nature.  The setting of the person’s story, more times than not, is a bathroom . . . or a bedroom . . . and if you’re lucky, you can nip the conversational, pre-flowered, bud by inserting the three letters, “TMI.”   TMI, of course, is an abbreviation for “too much information.”  TMI is usually designated for those moments when someone is broaching an extremely private matter and to continue on would merit social embarrassment.  Inherent in this response is the idea, “Hey, some things are best left unsaid – keep that to yourself.”

What constitutes TMI is quite a complex discussion.  TMI in one social setting, is far from out-of-bounds in another.  You may fart freely while among one social group, while squeezing tightly to avoid the embarrassment in another setting.  You may speak freely of your sexual escapades with one or two friends, but that social circle is pretty small for most of us.  Finding a level of appropriateness and comfort for everyone is going to be nearly impossible.  What one groups finds to be appallingly rude, another is going to find prudishly uptight.

While I don’t intend to get off on a tangent of social graces here, the concept of TMI is something that is becoming more and more a point of conversation.  The dual influences of the Youtube generation who feels comfortable with all aspects of their lives broadcast publicly along with the Google/Wikipedia reality where we now have all the information that’s ever been available in our phones in our pockets . . . all the sudden we live in the age of TMI.

I really don’t care what your status update is on Facebook, or your latest tweet is, and I’m guessing you don’t care about mine either.  And yet we read them.  We interact with them.  Twitter has now allowed us to update and broadcast what we are doing just about every second of our lives.  I can’t keep up with my own life, not to mention my wife and kids . . . and then throw in the how-ever-hundreds-other of Facebook friends, and Twitter followers, and there’s just TMI.

I love my Google content reader – it’s been one way I’ve been able to help sift through the vast amount of information that comes my way in a day.  As I come across neat blogs and interesting people, I add them to my reader . . . until, once again, I have TMI.  This influx of information . . . this overload of information . . . will have drastic impact on the kind of people we become twenty and thirty years from now.  Off the heels of the scientific age when we wanted to learn all that we could – our learning was insatiable . . . and now we realize that we can never learn everything.  No matter how small our focus might be, it’s becoming harder and harder to “master” everything.  The reaction to this in our society will be compelling to watch.  A few things I wouldn’t be surprised to see happen:

* An oversexualized/over-exposed generation leads the way to a return toward modesty.  When you’ve already seen all that there is to see, sometimes the sexiest, most attractive thing to do is to cover is all back up.

* Colleges are going to have a harder and harder time maintaining that their accreditation standards mean anything.

* Discernment will be the spiritual discipline of the next age.

* Wisdom will find a new-found appreciation and will be valued over knowledge.

* We will continue to invent, create, and revolutionize the world as each generation becomes smarter and smarter and more adept and creative with the abundance of knowledge they have at their finger tips.

* The world will constantly fight the Babel-ian impulse to build towers and “make their name great.”  [If this reference makes no sense to you, go back and read the account of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and see if that doesn’t sound like a timely story for the world that we know.]

Christmas Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

There is no mistake in your blog feed – I have a new post for my three followers to peruse!

Christmas is one of my favorite time s of the year.  My family was always able to make it a special time when I was a kid, and that has carried over to when I had a wife, kids, and family of my own.  Christmas was a time my mom worked hastily in the kitchen making candy and cookies that have helped keep my blood sugar and cholesterol high.  It was a special time with our family.  We had our traditions, and for the most part they revolved around family.

Christmastime has become even more special now that I have my own family.  Mary Beth and I were married a week before Christmas.  At first I kind of hated it since there are so many other things going on that time of year, but it has become a special part of our tradition to celebrate in the midst of a celebratory time of year.  There are even more opportunities for things for us to do than there would be if we had gotten married during another time of the year.  Then, just because that wasn’t enough, Clark’s birthday is January 7, so we kind of start the celebrating a week early, and keep it going a week after New Years.  So . . . Christmastime has a special places for the Metzes.

The reality of the religious significance of Christmas has played a pretty minor role in our family until more recently.  Nativity scenes were looked upon as way too Catholic for my family growing up, and we regularly heard sermons about how “We celebrate Christ’s birth every day.”  That may have been the case, but December 25 seemed to be one day we were definitely NOT going to celebrate Christ’s birth.

As I have grown, I have found an appreciation for the Christian piece of the holiday.  Our church has embraced the significance of the celebration by catering our services to the Nativity accounts during Advent, and we have conducted a Christmas Eve service for several years.  That, too, has become an important part of our Christmas traditions.  Our kids have a nightly ritual of opening a door on an advent house to reveal a piece of the nativity which presents us a chance for a daily reminder of Christ’s birth.

I say all of this to make my point that I am in no way a Christmas scrooge.  No matter what your perspective is regarding this holiday, I probably can empathize with you.  There are times when I want to scrap the whole thing as irredeemably commercial.  There are times when I want to learn from my Catholic friends and integrate the high ecclesiology and reverence that I so often lack.  There are times when I am just overwhelmed by gifts and “stuff” and all that and think we should “occupy Christmas.”  There are times when I am encouraged and inspired by the generosity and gratitude of others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is a great time to look in the mirror – Christmas really is a mirror.  Our thoughts and emotions during this time of year are indicative of who we really are and where our faith really is.  Those who are especially dogmatic about not celebrating Christ this time of year often have so elevated dogmatism and doctrine that they can lose the relational and celebratory side of faith.  Those who are especially dogmatic about celebrating Christ this time of year may be guilty of under-appreciating his birth throughout the year and instead attempt to take their “Jesus” pill in a big dose this time of year.  Those who speak loudly against commercialism this time of year can fall into the trap of not appreciating a God who gives freely and appreciate the gifts and things we are blessed to have.  Those who indulge into the throes of debt and become overwhelmed by shopping malls and their online orders this time of year can equally miss the point of being satisfied in Christ alone.  Me personally – I think I fall guilty on each account at some point.

Any missions class begins with the idea of cross-cultural engagement.  If you desire to reach a people group/culture, you have to learn their language, learn their customs and traditions, learn how they work, and what makes them tick.  You have to learn to love them for who they are and what they do – not as potential “converts.”  Did Jesus set out to convert anyone?  Seems to me what he offered was “life” (John 10:10 anyone).  He offered the kingdom – a new way of living and seeing life now – not some kind of fire insurance for the future.  This way of life impacted the way they lived here and now.

Christmas is a time to celebrate.  It is a time when our culture chooses to celebrate.  I understand it is not this way for everyone – and that is a different topic for a different day.  But, whether it’s Hanukkah, Kwanza, winter solstice, most of our culture chooses to celebrate in some way.  It seems to me that one of the most detrimental things we could do is sit back with our arms crossed and say, “We can’t do this.  This is just too messy.  This isn’t biblical.”  Or whatever other reason we may offer.  Instead of yelling what we’re against, what if we went out of our way to engage the culture, to show why we can celebrate, to show how much fun we can be – an why!  Certainly, we can live among this culture as aliens and strangers and find ways to celebrate alongside those in our culture while not imbibing in paganism or hedonism.

We tend to be most critical of the things that are closest to us, and I think that is largely where many of us fall when it comes to talking Christmas.  It’s such an easy target. And perhaps, that is where our look into the Christmas mirror can reveal something important to us.

Mary Beth and I were able to spend several days in New York City at Christmastime last year.  Having heard about the mystique of the City for years, it was incredible to be able to experience it ourselves, and I feel as though we walked around every day and took in all the “pagan” aspects of the season: from the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center to ice skating in Central Park (OK, we didn’t actually ice skate but we saw other doing it!), and went to Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral .(not pagan, obviously 😉 . . . and like Paul in Athens, saw alot of yearning and wonderful God-desires manifested in different ways.  As citizens of the kingdom, we celebrated our freedom and our life and the grace we have received everywhere we went.  We hope that we can continue to do that in whatever way we choose to observe (or not) the Christmas season.

Pondering Rob Bell, Ishmael, and the Non-Elect

Rob Bell has been the most recent Christian to stir up the challenging task of relating the Christian message in a pluralistic world.  Just sniffing around at this issue is enough to draw ire from many Christians.  Bell has certainly lit a firestorm amidst the blogosophere.  What I’ve been encouraged about, and what really is one of the merits of our times, is that his book has opened the discussion (or really just advanced it).  Most people have used his book to open the topic – one desperately needed for our times.

Ever since reading Leslie Newbiggin in seminary, this issue has really resonated with me.  Newbiggin’s work has really opened the can for the current discussion.  If you haven’t read Foolishness to the Greeks, or his best known book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, you’ve missed a really important voice in this area.  John Hick’s inclusivism (Christian universalism) has always been appealing to me, but I’ve just never been able to get there theologically.  Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and his idea of the “anonymous Christian” has helped ease my mind somewhat, but, in large part, I remain confused and unsure.

Which brings me to Ishmael.  I understand the great impulse of the Great Commission to go into all the world, I get that, I respect that, and I want to honor that.  For me, that is one end of the theological balance.  Certainly, Paul, Peter, etc. had a passionate desire for Christ to be preached.  However, the story of Ishmael causes me a bit of a theological crisis here.

We’re studying Genesis on Sunday mornings, and any time I come to the story of Ishmael, I become conflicted.  More than anything, I feel for Hagar.  The poor and marginalized woman brought into this mess by the underdeveloped faith of Abraham.  And yet, it is so strange what happens to her and her son.  God blesses them.  And this is no old-grandmother-blessing-you-at-the-table kind of blessing.  This is the real deal!  Have you read it lately?

“Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”  The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”  (Genesis 16: 9 – 10 and then later when they are sent away, “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”  (Genesis 21: 20)

What?  Ishmael will be blessed beyond measure?  A great nation?  These are the same promises that were given to Abraham . . . father of the Jews . . . father of Christians.  I admit to not having studied this at great deal, so I am speaking out of ignorance here (even more than usual!), and I know there is a great connection with Ishmael and Muslims.  So . . . what are we to do here?  I am not interested in the Muslim connection, but rather the theological foundation at play here.  I think Walter Brueggemann is dead on here, which has partly led to my theological crisis: “God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.  There is passion and concern for the troubled ones who stand outside that line.”  (p. 153 from his Interpretation Series Commentary on Genesis).

“God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.”  I wonder how many non-Christians would believe those words would come from the lips of a Christian.  NT Wright has a really interesting video over at the Altar Video Magazine site that I find interesting and relevant: see here.

Like I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with all this stuff.  You can throw your accusations out and I’ll just avoid them, not just to avoid them, but because I’m just not sure.  I have really appreciated the dialogue recently.  Above were some of my more structured ideas, but below are some more scattered questions and thoughts that have been bouncing around lately:

– The more determined we become to isolate salvation to a moment, the more challenging it becomes.  I’ve been thinking about this at nursing homes.  Most Christians I know understand the mentally handi-capped and severely mentally ill to be under the auspices of grace.  But how does that work for all those nursing home patients who have slowly deteriorated?  “They had their chance and now it’s gone?”  I’m just not sure how to deal with this intersection of life and death/body and spirit.  It seems like we paint a picture of God who is cruel when we imagine a God who sits around waiting for these mentally-incapacitated patients to die off so they can go to hell.  Maybe that’s too harsh a way of putting it, maybe he’s grieving them all along, but then why is there nothing to be done for their soul at this point?

– A Bible passage that has really convicted me lately is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heven give good gifts to those who asks him?  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . .”  It’s an interesting line of logic.  We have these impulses towards good, imagine God’s!  I’ve never heard this applied to the topic at hand, but it seems relevant.  If I can imagine a world that is good and where a man is forgiven for his crimes rather than punished to death, why couldn’t God?  After all, as Matthew teaches, I am evil.  Imagine how great his illustration of grace would be!  While I haven’t read it yet, I get the idea that this is the gist of Rob Bell’s book.

– Also, there’s all those people who were living all around the world at the time that Jesus walked the earth.  What about the ancient Eastern cultures?  Do they simply represent a long line of hell-bound people who were never within the influence of Israel, and who, until the apostles reached them were condemned to hell?  With the above point in context, it just seems hard to swallow.

– But, I should end that there’s the other end of the theological balance to wrestle with as well.  So many of those early disciples gave their life for the faith.  Even today around the world, martyrs abound.  What are we to say of them?  The Bible itself shows them in a special light.  I think sometimes we are mistaken to believe that we can all just gather around the campfire at night and sing Kumbayah and “Imagine” with John and Yoko.  This is where realism slides into idealism.  There are missionaries all the time risking their lives.  There are Christians dying for their faith.  And then theirs Ishmael . . .

Sermon #3 in Deconstructing Theology Series

Here’s Sunday’s sermon from our deconstruction series . . .

Deconstructing Theology #3
Alum Creek – Jan. 17, 2010 – Alum Creek

The Grain of Salt: Learning to Ask Questions

Every once in awhile, a line is uttered in a movie that jumps off the silver screen and is forever etched in the psyche of popular culture. Often times one or two lines of dialogue from a movie forever represent an entire film. Before we get into the lesson this morning, I want to hear from you some of the greatest movie lines of all times. Some of my favorite:
· “I see dead people.” – The Sixth Sense
· “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” – Dirty Dancing
· “I feel the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun
Who remembers this line? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That line, obviously, comes from the Wizard of Oz, one of the many famous quotes from this movie. As we move into our third lesson in our series on deconstructing theology, this scene becomes a very good starting point for our discussion. We began two weeks ago by asking some questions about the way we think. We acknowledged that our knowledge, our perspective, is circumstantial. There’s not getting around that. We think the way we think because our environment, our training, our personality, our tradition, our teachers, and an infinite number of other things affect what we know in addition to affecting the way we know what we know. In acknowledging this reality we came face to face with the fact that we could be wrong – about a lot of really important things, and thus, should always ask the question, “What if we are wrong?”
We looked to Paul and saw that his call for transformation of the mind in Romans 12 was really a call to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Paul states that transformation happens by the renewing of your minds . . . and the renewing of your mind is an ongoing process of stating, “Well, I’m wrong about this,” and then subsequent growth from righting the wrong.
Last Sunday we pressed on further by calling for some cognitive humility – confessing to others that we don’t have all the answers. We saw that Job was completely undone by not just the undoing of his life, but by the undoing of his mind. What happened to Job didn’t fit in his box – his understanding of things, of God. We will never be able to grow until we are readily able to admit, “I don’t know.”
But . . . is that allowed? Aren’t some things just given? Aren’t some areas just the way they are because they are?
David Dark begins his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by telling the story of a small tight-knit community. The community is close and they watch each other and take care of each other. Anyone visiting from the outside would quickly notice their blatant and constant affinity to “Uncle Ben.” It was very common to hear members of the community say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Even in tragedy, the locals acknowledge, “It just goes to show you how much we need Uncle Ben.”
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting at the largest house in the town where the people get together and talk about the events of the community and each family. They talk about Uncle Ben until a bell rings and all the people get up from their seats and moves to a staircase that goes to the basement. The entire community descends the staircase where they see an enormous, rumbling furnace. There is a man in black overalls with his back to them. They wait in silence until the man turns around.
He turns and his face is slightly contorted with anger and he yells at the people, “Am I good?”
They respond to him in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of his praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness – “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.”
The Uncle Ben in this story shares a striking resemblance to the God that so many have directed their worship. They live their lives the best they can. They do good to others. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They pray, read their Bibles, and attend church services. And all along the way . . . they are completely paralyzed by fear. The God that they serve is Uncle Ben . . . the who threatens fire and damnation to the one who looks behind the curtain . . .
If your image of God resonates with the Uncle Ben portrait there is no place for questioning. Fear stymies questions. It extinguishes all hope of growth. It does not allow for transformation. It forces us to walk on eggshells hoping not to get anything wrong. It creates an environment of insecurity and unease – far from the peace that God promises His people.
There’s a great parable in another movie that I want to show you, it’s a very brief clip from the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The movie tells the story of two 10-year-olds, Jess and Leslie, who find a magical land in woods surrounding the homes. One day as their play date was rained out, Jess bemoaned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to return soon since he had to do chores the next day, and the following day was Sunday and he would have to go to church. Leslie asks to come along to church, but Jess is sure she won’t like it – after all, she’ll have to wear a dress. Listen to this amazing exchange the two of them have (with Jess’ little sister) on the way home from church.
[Play Bridge to Terabithia clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ).]
“You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” What an incredible quote! If you have an Uncle Ben picture of who God is, then you have to believe. You can’t take a chance. It must have been what the philosopher Blaise Pascal had in mind when thought through what is now known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, he asserted that the existence of God cannot be determined, but if there is a God and he can condemn you to hell forever, it’s better safe than sorry. If you work your whole life believing there is a God and turns out there’s not, you’re not out nearly as much if the opposite proves to be true.
At this point I have to ask you the question, “Is this the God of Scripture?” Does the Bible portray a God who demands dogmatic precision and theological perfection? Is He the kind of God who will zap you if you miss too many answers on the final exam? Is our God really a “better safe than sorry” God? Is there really no room for error? Does it really have to be either/or when eternal torment is at stake?
Obviously, if our God is like that of Uncle Ben in the story we just read, the answers are always going to have to be pretty straightforward. But . . . what if God isn’t like that? What are the implications of a God who is different than Uncle Ben?
The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were forced to ask some very difficult questions . . . questions that called into question all that they have ever believed. This morning, quickly, I want us to consider two especially relevant stories from the Book of Acts.
As chapter 7 comes to a conclusions in the Book of Acts, we are told that, as Stephen was lying dead on the ground at the hands of Jewish leaders who had stoned him, a man named Saul stood giving his approval. Saul was an up-and-coming Jewish leader who was working his best to eradicate a Jewish sect of false teachers who were followers of a man named Jesus. He knew all the answers to religious questions. He had been trained in theology. He knew who God was. He knew who he was.
Then . . . Acts 9: 1 – 9.
What do you think those three days were like? What do you think he was thinking about? I bet a lot of the same questions we’ve been asking: What if I’m wrong? How could I have been so wrong?
The story of Saul is one we have grown up hearing. We talk about it all the time to the point where it nearly becomes dull to us. But we must not allow that to happen to us. Listen to the story. Saul is standing there watching some of his friends throw stones at a man who is tied up so that he wouldn’t run away. And they threw stones until he died. He watched every gory detail. And then he and his friends went back to the place where they were staying and had dinner and joked and went on their merry way.
And then . . . in just the matter of weeks, days, this same man is out promoting the very Gospel that he had been out to kill with force. He had been completely and totally wrong. Now, he was left with the ominous task of convincing others in the Christian movement that he wasn’t attempting to simply infiltrate the group and turn on them all.
And if the story of Paul doesn’t make the point well enough, another chapter over and we learn of the great Apostle Peter and his strange vision.
Read Acts 10: 9 – 23.
Something major was about to change for Peter as well. He knew that the Jews were the exclusive people of God. This was still their understanding after Christ was resurrected. The Christian movement was a Jewish one. Peter knew this. They all knew it. But now the vision . . . Cornelius . . . read verses 34 – 38.
And then what happens . . . challenges you a bit, too, doesn’t it? Read verses 44 – 48. This is a problem for those of us who have grown up in the Churches of Christ. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes on us at baptism – as it does to those who are baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2: 38 and at other places in Acts. But here, this is not what happens. They receive the Holy Spirit . . . then they are baptized.
But this is another time, a unique time, with the apostles and all that you may wish to argue . . . and maybe so, but in moving away from the Uncle Ben image of God . . . it becomes less important to argue the case for the proper practice of baptism and defining who is in and who is out and more important to simply revel in the glory of God’s goodness revealed to us. To rejoice in all that God has done and is doing.
Last week we spoke of the difference between putting up fences to bound our practices and define the boundaries of our pastures versus digging a deep well for all to come and drink from, knowing that no one will venture too far away from the spring and well of life. With fences up all around the property, some questions are off limits. In that kind of atmosphere, there are some things you just can’t ask. They are too threatening to the man behind the curtain. But with the God of Scripture, no questions are off limit. Yahweh is no deceiver hiding behind some great production. “Come and seek me,” he asks us, “I have nothing to hide.”
Paul was forced to ask incredibly penetrating questions. “How could I have been so wrong?” Peter is left with the far-reaching implications of his visions, “This changes everything!” And both men leave their ‘Aha’ moment changed forever. Forever. There was no going back. It’s as if the boundaries that they were so focused on maintaining kept them from standing back and seeing that outside of the boundaries were acres and acres of more property in the fold of God, but they couldn’t see them because their attention was so myopic.
What are we afraid of? When changes come? When new beliefs take hold? When new ideas prevail? What are we afraid of? If, indeed, Uncle Ben is our God, there is much to fear. But if our God is too complex to box in, if He’s too diverse to be defined, if He’s too deep to fathom, then we are left with nothing but questions. David Dark’s words are helpful again here:
God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off from the complexity of the world we’re in . . .
Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolatry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can’t hold life-giving water. Nothing we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or as adults places us on the winning side of God’s affections . . . Standing firm in our beliefs will often take precedence over seeing what’s in front of us.
If we never ask questions, we allow ourselves to stand before the great Wizard of Oz and never realize that the one we’ve cast as God is nothing more than a fraud. Our questions force us to delve deeper. Our questions tell us that we don’t have to be afraid any more. God isn’t afraid of our questions. God likes our questions. God wants our questions.
Read Psalm 100. God is not the God Jonathan Edwards describes having us dangling like spiders above the pit of hell held in place by a “slender thread” ready to knock us in for every doctrinal ineptitude.
The psalmist rescues us from such a God. Our God is to be worshipped with gladness. Our God is a god that can be known. Our God is one who is worthy of praise and adoration. And our God is a God who welcomes our questions.

What is Truth?

This is a great article reflecting on the current global warming debate especially in the context of the Copenhagen summit. This question summarizes well his concerns here: As the amplification of human opinion becomes more democratic, is suspicion of the excerpt and the intellectual – a long-held trope in American society – going viral?” Access article here.

Hopeful Fruit #3 – Populist Insistence of the Priesthood of All Believers

One of the marks of the Protestant Reformation, of course, has been the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As a direct result of a priesthood that had become thoroughly corrupt and overly powerful, believers found life and hope knowing that Scripture was for all and shouldn’t be reserved for the most educated and annointed. There are few groups of Protestant groups that have realized this as significantly as the Church of Christ.

I always find some humor in explaining to pastors from other denominations how our churches find their ministers. When you really step back and think about it, it is quite humorous . . . and yet, somehow strangely, refreshing. In a postmodern world where skepticism abounds and trust of “The Man” has all but deteriorated, it seems as though this tenet of our churches just might push us through a difficult transition. It seems to me that outsiders will be excited to know that our ministers are not the product of some denominational appointment or designation, but that this is who the local congregation chose. There is a great connection with our populist emphasis and our insistence upon autonomy.

I find myself talking out of both sides of my mouth on this topic. On the one hand, I am encouraged by our desire to level the playing field of interpretation and leadership. Regardless of education, background, or perceived expertise, everyone pretty much comes in on a level playing field. This is overstated, a bit, obviously, in that we still maintain some hidden or unwritten “weights” based on family demographic in the congregation (more prevalent families often have a more vocal place), socioeconomic bias I’d like to think we are free of, but are just as susceptible as other groups to injustice there, as well as racially and culturally. However, finding no perfect system, we may just have something to offer here.

I am writing these words as the Sarah Palin circus has come to town. They are expecting 5,000 to 8,000 to attend the Columbus-area bookstore where she’ll be promoting her book. The Sarah Palin political entry last year has proved to be an interesting example of the power of populist appeal. Regardless of your political leanings, you can’t help but find something attractive to the “normal person” who takes on “the Man.” This is the heart and soul of Palin’s attraction. She speaks for all the soccer and hockey moms – her now famous self-identification. And the response? A great outpouring of support (at least in the Midwest and Southeast . . . she’s not surprisingly avoiding the coasts in her book tour – now there would be some interesting events!) In any case, I bring Palin up here because she illustrates the power of the populist voice still today. People like the story of the underdog. They like to think that no office is too big for the common folk.

Sociologically, Churches of Christ fit this mold for the religious sects perfectly. We don’t ordain our pastors. The local congregation maintains the criteria and job assignment for the ministers. Worship assemblies are overseen equally by “clergy” and “laymen” (and maybe someday “laywomen” – we’ll get to that into the pruning portion of the posts!) Ministers are generally appreciated and respected for their unique Bible knowledge and ministerial expertise . . . at least generally.
It is here I find myself speaking out of both sides of my mouth. On the one hand I believe the populist appeal of our Movement speaks volumes for how we can traverse the postmodern matrix. However, at the same time, I feel as though it has been one of our most signfiant liabilities. In my ten plus years of ministry, now, I can assert that one of the most challenging aspects of working for churches is leadership. I have taken special interest in leadership in the past three or four years, seeing it as such a glaring weakness of my own, and many ministers I have worked alongside and known. It is tough to know how to lead a church.

However, I believe in the midst of such a populist driven church, the issue is ampiflied. Suddenly, the minister’s voice is watered down, and his significance dulled a bit. “He makes some interesting points, but let’s hear what lukewarm member who doesn’t do anything but warm a pew has to say,” and we have to keep in mind that so and so just isn’t there yet” and those kinds of comments abounds. It seems, from my experience, that the power and influence of a minister in Churches of Christ is truncated even to a greater extent than those in other denominations. This makes the task of leadership extremely difficult and probably says a lot about why our churches tend to remain pretty small.

Again, I see this populist approach as both a potential bonus for our involvement with non-Christians. Realizing the only folks setting doctrine and making decisions and excommunicating members and hiring and firing ministers are those folks you worship right beside on Sundays. However, it has potential risks as this populism can just as easily make us lazy and myopic in our understanding of our role in the invisible church. Group think can (and I think has) set in quickly under populist-driven congregations. Looking around at congregations of Churches of Christ throughout the rural parts of the United States, I think this is exactly what is ailing them.