Sexual Ethics – time for healthy conversations

We Christians, especially in America, are terrible at having healthy conversations about sexuality and sexual ethics.  The landscape of these conversations are ripe with charges, counter-charges, fear, and sweeping judgements, so much so that when I write about sexuality, I need to read all the comments carefully so as to remove the hateful words that inevitably show up, offered in the name of “staying true to the faith” or “holiness” or some other such nonsense, in much the same way that the Pharisees had their rocks in hand, ready to kill, but only after they’d used the woman caught in adultery to catch Jesus in a theological conundrum so that they could condemn him too.  He’d have none of it, though, for either the woman or himself.  That’s because the gospel is, after all, good news – for the woman caught in adultery, and for literally every other person on the planet, if we’ll but let it be what it actually is.

No other arena of Christian ethics kills the hope of the gospel more than the slaughtering we’ve done of sexual ethics.  We invoke church discipline in this arena inconsistently and harshly, in ways that elevate some sins above others.  We act as if Christian sexual ethics are easy and absolute, the same everywhere for all time, when the reality is that our ethic is fluid, as seen in dress codes, french kissing, oral sex, the distinction between longing and lust, and o so much more.  We sometimes act is if heterosexual sin is less offensive to God than homosexual sin.  And worst of all, actions become labels:  She’s not a teenager sold into sexual slavery who performs sex acts as a means of providing food for her family; she’s a prostitute.  He’s not a man who occasionally fantasizes about sexual experiences with other men –  he’s a homosexual.  She’s not a woman who loves her husband fiercely, but in one night of drunken weak will, gave up her fidelity at a high school reunion and woke up with regret.  She’s an adulterer.

These labels we give each other take all the nuances that are our sexuality and turn them into a label we’re then told to wear, as if this action, or that longing is who we are.  This is what flames shame, and hence non-confession, and hence hypocrisy.  This makes honest and nuanced conversation about Christian sexuality difficult, even impossible in some circles.  As a result, the whole topic’s driven underground.  As Jenell Williams Paris writes in her marvelous book, “Reticence to engage the issues in a sustained and civil manner has led – and is still leading – to secrecy, repression, taboo and scandal.”  The fruits of this are seen in the secrecy of Christians struggles with sexual ethics and sin, as so many feel there’s no safe place for conversation.  Those who feel that way aren’t fabricating their fear.  I know it’s real because of the sweeping condemnations invoked in Jesus name from pulpits and print.  When I’ve blogged about homosexuality in the past, I’d estimate that there were about 10% of the comments that I refused to approve, because their words were so harsh and damning, even while they would sometimes say them, according to their own view, “in love”.

So, here are three resources to help you bring the issues into the light.  Read, agree, disagree, discuss charitably.  Above all else though, bring these conversations into the light, so that we can, as people of hope, provide a sense of safety for people to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality.  The result will be, I believe, a coming into the light and safety of grace, which is above all else, a place of health and transformation.

Your Brain on Porn is a ‘secular’ website that catalogs the damning nature of porn by virtue of what it does, physiologically, to the brain.  I’ve pointed several men to this material who’ve thanked me, finding it frankly more helpful than a website quoting Bible verses about sexual purity.  The problem with those Bible verses, often, is that folks stuck in porn already know them, but have become stuck in a dopamine addiction that overrides reason and their commitments to holiness.  Ironically, many people find that when the subject is de-spiritualized a bit that it’s easier to deal with it and break free.  The website includes testimonials from people whose lives were transformed by breaking free.  Every pastor should have this website in their toolkit, but so should every friend, and every person.

The Demise of Guys is a book I reviewed earlier, but offer it here again because just as women do, men face unique issues which have conspired to hinder their full functioning.  Guys have become more passive, less able to pay attention, less inclined to choose reality over fantasy, and more filled with shame, fear, and insecurity.  All of this is the result of the cultural air we breath, including porn, video games, and fantasy leagues.  Until guys name this stuff,  commit to renewing their minds, and choose life giving ways of using their free time, there’ll be little hope.  This book is a wake up call, and can be a first step toward a fuller life for many guys.

Finally, “The End of Sexual Identity” is an important book for anyone looking for an honest conversation about sexuality and Christian ethics.  I sense that the author’s shaped by Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” book, which means that she resists easy moralizing and judgmentalism, believing that proof texting, and shooting people with Bible verses isn’t what it means to be Christ followers.  For this reason, many conservative won’t like her.  On the other hand, she makes a strong case of exalting celibacy and chastity, which will no doubt alienate some liberals who falsely believe that being sexual active is a necessary ingredient for being fully human.  There are far too few books on this topic that nuanced, thoughtful, gracious, and well grounded in both scripture and cultural history.  This is one of them, and so even though I doubt anyone will agree with everything she writes, I recommend it without reservation.  After all, what’s needed right now aren’t the same old theological sound bytes, delivered up more loudly, or with special scary effects.

What’s needed is a bringing of sexuality into the light so that we can say to one another, “come – let us reason together”.  This will help us become more like Jesus, both individually, and collectively.

Happy Reading!    Feel free to share other resources that have proven helpful by responding in the comments section.


If you give a moose a muffin – and other kinds of repentance

The best children’s book series, in my opinion, is the “If you give…” series.  I like it because it speaks to the realities of cause and affect, and the importance of what Peter would call the “day of visitation”, but does so in a way that children and even adults can understand.  Each book begins with someone giving an animal something edible, and then this simple act leads to another act, and another act, and another act, until the day is filled with nothing that was originally anticipated.  This is the way of it for mice, and pigs, and the plural of moose.

Who knew that giving a moose a muffin, or giving a mouse a cookie, or giving a pig a pancake, could lead to such a flurry of activity?  But there’s more in play here than just children’s entertainment because in truth, much that is significant in our lives comes about because we took what we thought in the moment was going to be an insignificant step:

It was just supposed to be an elective class, but as a result of it she changed her major from drama to global development, spent a summer in Rwanda, and now works for a company focused on global health initiatives.  If you give a mouse a cookie….

It was just supposed to be a concert, but Mozart’s Requiem pierced his soul, pouring water on parched parts of it that had dried up due to disillusionment, growing up as he did in a strange blend of Jesus talk, racism, and obsessive social propriety.  He wept as listened and tasted again for the first time the reality and goodness of God.  This revival would lead to a different vocation that would take him around the world and help him give voice to people doing remarkable yet unsung things in Jesus’ name.  If you give a moose a muffin….

It was, for me, just a weekend in the snow, in search of powder and in hopes of connecting with a cute blonde.  The words of the speaker at this ski conference, though, were spoken only for me, it seemed, and before the weekend was over, I’d taken a major step in my life which eventually lead to a change of major, a change of college, which of course, would lead to my marrying a different person, and ultimately becoming a pastor, a writer, and a resident of what is, to me, the most beautiful city in the world.  If you give a pig a pancake….

We decide to get the wood floors in our house refinished.  We move the piano out of the room.  We decide the room looks cleaner, nicer, without a baby grand.  I envision how nice it would be to own an electronic keyboard and once again write music the way I did when I was young.  We start thinking about the meaning of simplifying our lives, and downsizing.  Just thinking about this makes me realize how insanely wealthy on the global wealth scale, and how this creates real responsibilities.  I read a book on the subject of simplifying.  We begin envisioning living lighter and, though getting there will mean more work rather than less, at least in the short term, we decide that this is part of our calling and start walking down a new and life changing path.

Someone watches a documentary on the global exploitation of women.  They only go there because they were flipping channels out of boredom.  Whatever.  Their eyes are opened, and they’ll never be the same, as they take steps to make the world better reflect the justice and freedom that God has in mind for us all.  Soon they’re deep in a story much larger than flipping channels and waiting for the new season of Modern Family.

I call these muffins, and cookies, and pancakes, and concerts, and floor refinishings, and documentaries, ‘catalyst moments’Here’s what all of us would be wise to remember about catalyst moments:

1. You don’t come looking for them; they come looking for you.  Theologically, this is what is called the ‘day of visitation’, and we diminish ourselves if we think that the visitation requires a burning bush, and an angel.  Visitations happen all the time – on hikes, in concert halls, in pubs, staring at newly finished floors, staff meetings, staying overnight in a homeless shelter, taking a class, listening to a person describe their deep pain or joy – there are lots of moments of visitation.

2. Our lives are richer if we’re paying attention.  One of the challenges many of us face is that religion often blinds us to moments of visitation.  The religionists of Jesus day picked apart His healing of a man born blind – “Why did this Jesus heal on the Sabbath?”  “How did he heal?”  “Are you really the man born blind, or a body double to trick us?”  They parsed and pontificated, but they never saw.  I’m convinced many Christians never hear what God is trying to say.  Some of them are too busy to listen, their minds constantly running 100 miles per hour, so that they never see the sunrise, or hear the Mozart or Mumford.  Right at the critical moment of intimacy, when his spouse has exposed her soul and his, the cell phone rings.  “THANK GOD” he thinks, as he answers and avoids yet again the single most important conversation of his life.  Visitation averted.

We need to wake up and pay attention, because visitation usually comes when we’re not looking, and if we’re either intentionally avoiding God encounters, or are just too busy, we’ll miss them over and over again.

3. Our lives are richer still if we respond.  If we hope to walk in God’s better story for our lives, it will be best for us if, in our encounters, we respond.  If God’s asking you to confess your sin to someone, do it.  If God’s asking you to take a class, or visit an orphanage in Romania, or volunteer for a medical clinic, or invite someone over, don’t ignore the prompts.  Sure, check things a bit to make sure you’re hearing from God, rather than just reacting to heartburn or lack of sleep, but when you know God’s speaking to you respond.

Robert Frost makes it sound like there’s a single fork in the road – one moment for Moses, or Jonah, or you, or me.  Without even trying hard I can think of about five hundred vital, life shaping moments, including:  a Sonic game in 1978, watching “The Mission” in a theater in Friday Harbor, a night climbing in Stone Gardens, a hike to Snow Lake, responding to an e-mail from an acquisitions editor, and choosing to go to Los Angeles for seminary even though everything in us wanted to be in the Pacific Northwest.  All these forks in the road have made all the difference.

How do you attune your heart to listen for God’s voice throughout your day and week?

Wrong Words lead to Wrong Actions: Environmentalism and John 3:16

She came in on a hot summer day to be treated for Asthma.  Dr. Matt Sleeth treated the young child, born into poverty, and told little Etta for whom breathe had become a literal life and death matter, that he wouldn’t let her die.  A few years later though, she did die, in a severe asthma attack – in prosperous America.  Don’t worry – this isn’t a post about American health care system(s).  It’s about something much more important- how our reading, or misreading, of the Bible shapes our actions and how those actions affect other people.

Dr. Sleeth gives us a hint of the issue when he writes that “to reduce traffic congestion during the Olympics, the city of Atlanta closed the downtown area to car traffic, increased access to public transportation through additional buses and tyrains, and promoted flexible work schedules, carpooling, and telecommuting for Atlanta workers.  The result:  for seventeen days, peak daily ozone concentrations decreased 28%.  Concurrently, acute asthma events dropped as much as 44%.  Atlanta’s inner-city children on Medicaid seemed to benefit the most, showing a more than 40% decrease in asthma related emergency room visits.  After the Olympics, when Atlanta traffic patterns returned to normal, so did Ozone concentration, asthma attacks, and rates of emergency room visits among the poor.”

The colors of brokenness in our world are many: human trafficking, abortion, torture, totalitarianism imposed in the name of God, or the state, or both, addictive behaviors of every stripe, greed, loneliness, boredom, poverty, lack of access to clean water or health care.  The good news is that for many of these issues, Christians are stepping up, painting the colors of hope on the canvass of their world.  Soon, our church will begin partnering with a mobile medical clinic to meet the needs of an increasingly large uninsured American populace, which will better enable us to serve our world and make God’s reign visible.

There’s an area though of injustice and devastation that at best gets little attention among Christ followers.  At worst this area is dismissed as snake oil science, or new age attempts at a one world government.  The neglected area is environmentalism, and its well beyond time that the church wake up to just how central stewardship of the planet is to our calling.  Scott Sabin, who directs a favorite project of mine (more about that later) has written a simple small book about environmental stewardship as a central element of discipleship.  His thesis is  that it’s central for __ reasons.

1. Our God given task has never changed.  – Genesis 1 & 2 reminds us that our calling is to ‘serve’ (translated ‘work’ in most Bibles) and ‘protect’ (translated ‘keep’) the garden.  It was, in fact, the very first job God gave to humanity, and though humans were removed from the garden, every indication of God’s dealings with his people (see especially the environmental laws related to Israel’s treatment of the land, and related public health laws having to do with water sanitation and waste treatment) is that this calling never left humanity.  To the contrary, God’s judgement on Israel is that ‘the land mourns‘.  When our lives are driven by greed and consumerism, we’ll overuse and abuse creation, and the result will be environmental degradation.

2. Our fallen world cries out for us to act.  Romans 8 tells us that all of creation is longing for the redemption of humanity, that creation is groaning as humankind abuses creation.  You see, in God’s creation mandate he told all creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ so that the cycle of replenishment could continue on the earth down through the millenia.  Instead, we’re presently seeing increasingly species extinctions that are caused by humans (especially through pollution, overfishing and over hunting).  This isn’t just a problem for the whales and polar bears.  The same causes of extinction create cultural crises, and environmental crisis, so that people, made in God’s image, suffer too.  Cancer and Asthma are on the rise in America, but that’s less than even the tip of the melting iceberg.

3. It’s part of the upstream solution to numerous downstream problemsScott’s book speaks of environmental as a justice issue because our failure to steward the earth has become a contributing factor to countless justice issues:

“There is a dramatic statistical correlation between race and proximity to facilities where hazardous waste is treated, stored, and disposed of.”  (Scott Sabin) Entire communities are destroyed in Appalachia by “mountaintop removal coal mining practices” which blow the top 800′ off a mountain to get at the coal, destroying streams and water tables for communities below.  It’s cheap and efficient if your only consideration is dollars.  But if the long term well being of communities is worth anything, then we need to rethink this.

Illegal immigration?  Countless immigrants from Mexico make their way to the states, not because they want x-boxes and flat screen TV’s, but because their land has stopped producing anything at all, having been stripped of its topsoil for a host of reasons. Astonishingly, some Americans have responded to this by saying we need to deport ‘these people’ so that we can collectively have a smaller environmental footprint.  I can’t respond to that kind of thinking without swearing, so I’ll move on.

In Thailand, this same problem doesn’t lead to illegal immigration – it leads to parents selling their children, often unwittingly, into sexual slavery.  That 13 year old girl sleeping with 20 men a night is doing this because her parents were unable to feed her, or themselves.

What does all this have to do with the Bible?  Many of us remember reading John 3:16 as children and being told to replace the Bible’s words, “the world” with our own name.  So, when I was in 4th grade, I stole a glance in Sunday school at the brown haired girl across the circle before reading out loud, “For God so loved Richard Dahlstrom that he gave his only son”.  It’s great to be loved by God.  It’s terrible to mess with the Bible that way.  God was saying something significant here about his love, not just for me, not just for humanity even, but for the whole world – for rock badgers and mountain goats, salmon and honeybees, forests and mountaintops.  By the reading the book of Job, I get the feeling that God loved the world because he delighted in it, and while that’s true, the more I understand the world, the more I realize that he loved every element in the world because every element needs every other element.  The ones in charge of loving the whole world on God’s behalf?  Well, these days, it’s supposed to be God’s followers.  Instead, God’s followers are often too busy protecting free markets and deregulation, so they outsource environmentalism to “the world”.  I, for one, am moving in a different direction because I can’t appeal to Genesis as the basis for marriage and continue to be silent on God’s words regarding care for the planet which come from the same chapter in the Bible.

I welcome your thoughts…

Naked and Not Ashamed: Steps in our pursuit of intimacy

NOTE TO MY READERS:  I’m going to be moving my blog away from the Patheos website that presently hosts it, so if you’d like to be apprised of my posts and join the conversations, feel free to subscribe by clicking over there on the right.  Thanks! 

We’ve all had moments when we ran and hid, tears stinging in our eyes as we either said or received angry words, words that should never have been spoken.  We’ve all had moments of anger towards those we love, when we felt our blood pressure rising and couldn’t imagine the person in front of us as capable of goodness or beauty.  We’ve all had these moments, and when they pile up we become something we were never meant to be.  We become lonely.

Isolation and our longings to connect would go on to saturate thoughtful music and film, beginning with Ordinary People, and continuing on with Fight Club, Garden State, Lost in Translation, and Goodwill Hunting.

Loneliness and isolation are woven into the fabric of every cultural demographic worldwide.  It’s increasingly said that “all poverty is relational”, which means that when people are stuck in cycles of oppression and want, there’s a lack of healthy relationships upstream from those presenting problems.  Dealing with relational poverty is increasingly seen as the first step in dealing with material poverty.  But the wealthy aren’t immune from loneliness.  In The Price of Privilege, we read that wealthy people, “in spite of their economic and social advantages, experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of group of children in this country”.  The overwhelming evidence is that whether you’re shopping at Goodwill or wearing Gucci, odds are that you’ll face intimacy challenges.  There are two good reasons for this, along with the good news that the gospel provides a way forward in our intimacy dilemma:

1. We’re made for intimacy.  If the first two chapters of Genesis are our reference point for how humanity is intended to live, then we’re clearly made for intimacy.  “It is not good” says God, “the man (humankind) should be alone”, after which God creates another person and we find this glorious phrase, “naked and not ashamed” in the text, a word which means that this first couple knew each other perfectly, with nothing hidden, and were able to love each other in the knowing.  God is telling us something significant here about the longings of the human heart, telling us that in distinction to the animal kingdom, we’re made for more than procreation and copulation.  We’re made for intimacy, and this is as it should be because we’re made in God’s image, and God isn’t a one, but a three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living in perfect fellowship, community, and union.

It is, in other words, “in our nature” to seek intimacy, to be fully known, and to fully know.  It’s why we risk sharing our hearts with others, as we peel back layers to share our deepest selves, or listen intently as another unveils in order to be known.  It’s why we have parties and spend time with the neighbors.  It’s why we smile when we see an old couple holding hands and think to ourselves, “this is as it should be”.  Maybe the Beatles were right; maybe love is in fact, “all you need”.

2. Anti-Intimacy is in our nature.  Though love might be all we need, love isn’t “all we have”, because there’s something in us that runs from intimacy too.  We discover this in Genesis as well, where we see that it’s in our nature to make anti-intimacy choices.  First, we reject intimacy with God by saying in essence, “I don’t care about your longings for me.  I want to do what I want to do”, and choose paths of our own making rather than those of the one who loves us perfectly and longs for us to be whole.  Then, having chosen autonomy from God rather than intimacy, everything else unravels.  We suddenly see the world through a different lens, and shame becomes part of our being.  We feel the stinging pain of our own vulnerability, our loss, our hurt – and decide that we don’t want others to see that, so we cover our shame.  In the Genesis garden we covered it with leaves. Today we cover it with other things:  fancy clothes, fancy cars, plastic surgery, schedules so packed that we’ve no time to share or listen to those we love, machismo, hyper-sexualization; it’s a long list but in the end we see that there’s a whole tool kit enabling us to hide from each other.  And we’re experts at using it.

What’s more, we’re afraid.  Adam tells God that he heard God’s voice and was afraid, so he ran and hid.  I’m afraid of rejection, afraid of conflict, afraid of truth telling because at various times when I’ve gone down these roads, things haven’t turned out well – I’ve been hurt, and so I crawl into my shell – choose safe illusion over naked reality.  “Naked’s too risky” is what we tell ourselves as we run from each other, not literally usually, but metaphorically through the use of words that paint a thin veneer of propriety over reality.  The result is loneliness, as we know from movies, and the lives of others and our own lives as well.

This is our dilemma.  We’re made for intimacy and long for it, but there’s something in us that wants to run and hide.  The results are stale marriages, stalemate relationships between children and parents, millions settling for the pseudo-intimacy of porn or sexual addiction, and an ache in our hearts which, try as we might, we cannot fully numb.

3. There’s an isolation antidote – The gospel is good news because it makes a way for intimacy.  God pursued Adam in the garden and said in essence, “you’ll never be able to cover your shame – but I’ll deal with your shame” and God killed an animal and made coverings for Adam and Eve.  That act was a seminal picture of what God would do in Christ when, naked on the cross, he absorbed our dysfunction and shame, our sin and guilt.  This reality enables us to know that we’re fully loved and accepted, in spite of our failures.  There is ONE who is inexorably for us, more even than we’re for ourselves.  Learning to actually believe this isn’t some theoretical theological exercise; it’s what enables our own transparency and intimacy.

What’s more, this Jesus not only forgives and loves, he transforms, so that little by little, we find ourselves better able to choose truth telling, confession, forgiveness, sacrifice, and vulnerability.  All the ingredients of intimacy become ours in fuller measure because the Master of Intimacy lives with us, and in us, and is committed to teaching us his ways.  “Perfect love” we’re told, “casts out fear” because fear involves judgement, but the one who is our judge says, “you’re known – and forgiven”.  If I can believe this, receive this, then I can learn healthy patterns of intimacy, because I know that, come what may in this world, there is One who loves me completely, with whom I can be naked and not ashamed.  If I have this as my starting point, I’m on the right road.  If I miss this, I miss a lot.

Permission to enjoy life: Granted

“Come and have breakfast.”  It’s a simple statement embedded in the story that billions believe has changed the trajectory of history forever – the resurrection of Jesus.  The bit about breakfast might easily be lost on us because of the larger framework of the resurrection, and the restoration of Peter to faith after he’d failed Christ by denying him.  But the meal and the wounds in Jesus side aren’t incidental décor; they’re telling us something vital about the nature of our life in Christ and where history’s headed.

The resurrected Jesus is embodied.  The person that rose from the grave left empty sheets in the tomb.  This means that Jesus appeared among his disciples as a whole person.  His glorified body could walk through walls, but it was a body nonetheless.  “Touch the scars” is what Jesus said to the doubter.

Continue reading “Permission to enjoy life: Granted”

Obama Faith – The Problem of Two Kingdoms

I will never, if I live to be 100, understand the wedding of a particular political party (left or right) with Christianity.  The “religious right” days of the eighties, or the neo-religious right resurgence of the Tea Party, are both examples of politicians portraying themselves as “God’s Party.”   It’s all reminiscent of the “Essenes,” “Zealots,” “Pharisees,” and “Herodians,” four different sects afoot in Israel when Jesus walked on the scene around 30AD (you can hear about them here).

His announcement that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” was warmly received by everyone at first, because all parties presumed that he’d be endorsing their view–which was, of course, the right view.  Instead, by both teaching and action, he systematically deconstructed each of these views, revealing them as forgeries of God’s good reign rather than the real deal.  Jesus’ kingdom was other.  Less isolated than the Essenes, more separate than the Herodians, less religious than the Pharisees, and utterly other than the violence of the Zealots.  The four factions, all of which claimed God’s endorsement, were revealed as being nothing more than self-interest clothed in God language.

Let’s not be too hard on them.  They needed Jesus in order to see the possibilities of a way that had never been seen before, a kingdom “not of this world” which would, nonetheless, be made visible right in the midst of this world. Jesus would declare the charter for this kingdom in Luke 4 when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has send me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” That’s what God’s reign is all about, and those who set about to follow Jesus on this path will see their own brokenness and need for personal transformation as well (as Peter demonstrated).

Jesus’ words have little to do with creating a strong national defense, lowering taxes for the wealthy, or defining the family.  The have everything to do with turning the prevailing cultural values of both Rome and the Jews on their head by saying that it will only be in serving that greatness will be found; it will only be in giving that we’ll truly receive; and it will only be by laying down one’s life that we’ll truly find the life for which we’ve been created.  This is the gospel!  It’s not republican, with it’s idolization of the individuals and the free market.  Neither is it democratic, with it’s idolization of the state as the ultimate source of provision and security, as source that’s proven itself over and over to be enslaving rather than empowering.  It’s wholly other.

So how do politicians, sworn to further the interests of the state, live our their commitment to this “wholly other” kingdom?   The answer will always be the same:  not very well.

President Obama talked about his faith yesterday in a backyard event in New Mexico.  There was nothing new in what he said there, as I’d read The Faith of Barack Obama back in 2008 before the election. It was a good book because it cataloged the faith journeys of four people: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and John McCain.  The differences were stark:  George W. came to faith because his personal life was spinning out of control, and so he prayed to receive Christ as his personal savior.  President Obama and Hillary Clinton both came to their faith in Christ because of their exposure to poverty and their understanding that Jesus’ kingdom message was invitation for people to step outside of personal preoccupations and into God’s story, a story which is bigger than personal peace and prosperity, a story which has to do with being a blessing.

So who’s really converted? I can’t tell you, because only God knows.  I can tell that Jesus’ call to follow Him by serving others and breaking down dividing walls was like the call to which Obama and Clinton responded.  Paul’s articulation of the gospel resonated with Bush.  Paul’s words about sin hearken back to Jesus’ words about being born again.  All of their testimonies have the potential of authenticity.  Both facets of the gospel (stepping into God’s story, and the need for personal transformation) are needed if the gospel is to be real.

But these conversion stories don’t mean they’ll embody the kingdom and heart of Christ when they take office.  This is because the political right and left both fall woefully short of God’s kingdom ethic; this should come as no surprise to any of us, because God’s reign isn’t about capitalism, free-markets, bank bailouts, social programs, or arguments about taxation.  God’s reign is about laying down our lives in service–in particular ways.  It’s providing water in Africa; it’s freeing women from sexual slavery in Ghana; it’s serving the poor and those on the margins in significant ways, so that they’re empowered and enabled to rise out of their bondage; it’s helping people see their need for personal transformation; it’s moving people towards reconciliation and forgiveness, so that people stop playing the victim card their whole lives, and so that perpetrators can be healed too.

When tin-voiced Sarah Palin says, “How’s that hope-y, change-y thing working for you?” my anger isn’t that she’s trashing Obama.  I bailed on having party loyalties a while ago.  My anger is that she, like the one she’s shooting at, implies that her party’s got it – that if we’ll just cut taxes, and drill for oil in the Arctic, we’ll be a powerful nation, and everyone (both individuals and companies) will rise up to become responsible, benevolent entities so that finally, the hope we’re longing for will be realized, as we sip our tea and celebrate our greatness.

Maybe we should realize that Christians who begin their journey with a personal born-again experience will be drawn more towards the individualized call to personal responsibility found the Republican party, while those initiated to the gospel by serving in a housing project will be drawn to the Democrats.  That’s all fine.  Let’s just realize that, however we vote, we’re not voting for someone who’ll usher in God’s reign.

Making that reign visible, until He comes, isn’t the responsibility of either party – it’s the responsibility of God’s people, the church.  We’ll do it, not be a lust to power, but by washing feet.

I welcome your thoughts.

When walls fall down… lessons from Berlin

We had a German student staying at our house twenty years ago this week and together watched the stunning news out of Berlin, as people armed with nothing more than hammers and picks dismantled the wall between east and west.  We were stunned then and, as the subsequent weeks unfolded, even more so as nation after nation in Eastern Europe declared their freedom from the totalitarianism of the Soviet machine.  I was privileged to travel through east Germany shortly after the wall had fallen and the east had opened.  At the time the poverty was still palpable, evident in everything from food to architecture.  Things are different now, where Berlin offers all the evidence of upward mobility and freedom, as people stand in line for lattes and the landscape rises with some of the most progressive architecture in the world.

As I look back on both the opening up of Eastern Europe, there are lessons to be learned:

1. Faith spoke to oppression then – it had better continue to do so now. The Polish Pope’s visit to his homeland was just one of numerous instances of faith, which totalitarianism had tried so hard to keep in the grave, resurrected.  The events of Timasora in Romania were equally powerful.  In a remarkable convergence of circumstances that can only, retrospectively, be seen as the sovereign hand of God at work, Christ followers put their lives on the line in pursuit of liberty, and turned the tide of history.

The church hasn’t always been so bold, or so right.  I hope and pray that we can learn from the example of our friends in the faith from two decades ago, and that we will stand up to oppression in all forms, including human trafficking, and the reality that infant’s lives are snuffed out without ever seeing the light of day.  I’m asking myself what my role is in standing up against oppression, praying for both eyes to see and strength to obey.

2. Democracy and Capitalism aren’t magic pills – It was thought that the demise of communism and moves to democracy would, in and of themselves, lead cultures and nations to prosperity.  The results, however, have been spotty.  The reunification of East and West Germany was perhaps the easiest and most successful transition but they had the advantage of an existing infrastructure into which the east could be assimilated.  Even there it was hard.  The rest of eastern Europe has not been so fortunate.

The reality is that democracy and capitalism work only to the extent that there are some inherent moral underpinnings to a culture.  Without these foundations, the freedoms of these systems became a petri dish in which greed, corruption, and graft will grow unchecked.  We see this throughout eastern Europe to this day, which is why my friend in Romania is trying to mentor an emerging generation of cultural leaders, so that they’re rooted and grounded in Christ.

We need to learn from this, because though the clothing is different, the obscene bonuses offered wall street and banking execs in the wake of their greedy behavior in indicative of the reality that we too are losing our way.  Capitalism in an amoral society necessarily leads to corruption and oppression.  It’s happening everywhere these days, because when people reject Christ, sins aren’t only sexual, they’re economic, as you can discover here.

3. God is surprising us… Nobody saw it coming, including think tanks everywhere, and the CIA.  I look back on that week in November 1989 with great fondness, because the relationships that began that week, opened up opportunities for me to travel and teaching all over the world, and learning about how God is at work in various cultures has shaped my theology more profoundly than any other element.   I also look back fondly because that week, as my German friend had tears in her eyes, hopeful that she might finally meet relatives her were on ‘the other side’, I realized that when God’s ready to move on something, He moves.  Psalm 2 says that God laughs at the raging schemes of humanity when we assert that ‘our will be done’.  He’ll allow it, but not forever.

That week gave strengthened my faith, giving me the confidence to believe that God is moving in human history.  Subsequent to those days there have been terrible wars, Genocides, and acts of terror, reminders that humanity is still raging against God’s rule.  But the day will come when all the dividing walls will fall.  May we embody the hope that certain future; right here; right now.

O Lord Christ…

Thank you for the reminders in history that you are on the move.  Thank you that you use people to bring slices of hope and liberty into the world, foretastes of your full reign.  Make us such people; people of courage and sacrifice, generosity and integrity, that the world might see and know foretastes of your future and certain reign.  Thank you for the ‘glimpses of glory’ that come about when walls fall down.  Give us the grace to work with you in knocking more down, all around us, today and everyday.


Strange Juxtapositions

The room from which I’m writing right now in Canada looks south.  The beauty out the bay window is more than stunning; the beauty almost makes me ache.  Crisp golden leaves dancing in the wind as clouds envelope Vancouver island to the east, and waves whitecap the sound, while the other sound is rain hitting the window.

Then I open my computer to post, and right after I’m finished posting about his beauty, and the good God behind it, I read the news of the shootings at Fort Hood.  I don’t know details, other than twelve dead, but I’m shaken from this isolated island of peace and sanity, reminded that creation groans, and that darkened hearts open fire.  I won’t go into a tirade about war because I happen to believe there’s a time and place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3), but I’ll say this much:  Behind the curtain of patriotism, and behind the bravado of ‘will to win’ and all that entails, men and women are walking through hell for this ‘objective’.  I don’t know answers, so don’t misread me.  I’m not sitting in judgement on our previous president or our present one.  But my God… we need wisdom, and even more important than that, we need the humility to recognize the we need wisdom.

Where does this humility come from?  It comes from seeing.  I hope, I pray, our leaders will look hard; hard enough to see what they don’t know.  Only then will they look for new wisdom, and I thoroughly believe that it’s the new wisdom, which isn’t really new at all, that we need as a nation right now – God help us.  Maranatha.

It’s still lovely outside – but this juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy?  I want to close the blinds OR turn off the news.  And yet, this is our world, and I pray we’ll learn to live here, better and better.


This is what I’m talking about…

Obama wins the prize...but why
Obama wins the prize...but why

“God has placed eternity in the hearts of men…”  is one of those mysterious verses in the Bible that is best explained through illustration, by pointing at something and saying, “that’s what it means”.  Now that Obama’s been awarded a the Nobel Peace Prize before actually doing much of anything substantive to contribute to world peace, I think we have an example of Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Don’t go all “Rush” on me, and scream about liberal conspiracies.  Your tirade will cause you to miss something valuable.

Don’t whine, either, about how Obama deserves this award, and how his presence at the table as someone who tries negotiating before bombs is enough of a cause for him to triumph over these candidates. He doesn’t, and it isn’t.

If we step back though, and take a deep breath, we might realize that Obama was granted this award, not for anything he’s done, but for what his style represents.  Rightly or wrongly, the committee was impressed with the removal of the defense shield, and his willingness to engage in dialogue with enemies with whom the previous administration refused to converse.  Did you get that?  They were impressed that he was reducing weapons and talking with his enemies.

Why be impressed with that?  I’d suggest that the committee was impressed with that because our hearts long for the kind of world that will exist when Christ reigns.  He will say, “come let us reason together”, and when justice rules perfectly, He’s promised that we’ll melt our weapons down and turn them into tools of agriculture.  Hmmm… Christ’s reign looks like what again? Reason and dialogue, and a reduction of weapons.  No wonder people like Obama.  I’m not defending O’s political strategy, nor challenging it.  I am saying that people like reducing weapons and talking for a reason, and the reason is because God put it in their hearts to like it – we’re made for peace and dialogue.

Oh, and there’s a giant warning here too.  Humanity’s greatest failures have come whenever people have promised the fruits of the kingdom without the reign of the True King.  History has shown that there’s only One who will be able to bring this about.  Like or don’t like O’s strategy.  But don’t confuse it for the kingdom – to do so would be disastrous.