There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”. The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy. Here’s what I mean:
I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors. Murdering another human is sin. Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin. Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so. It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”
The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.
We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder. We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness. We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism. We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused. You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty. It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall. This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.
This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“. Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.
II. a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted. In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.
The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.
The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.
The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.
The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.
You get the picture. God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.
This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing. This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy. The book doesn’t trash sex. It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated. Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin. Sin is a good thing bent!
III. Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!
This is what I love about the new book I’m reading. It declares:
“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”
To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.
Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.
Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.
Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.
Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.
God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares. And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.
Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.
Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint”
We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut. We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward. All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds. Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car. A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward. Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us. The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there: The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.
We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment. This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant. You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map. We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.
Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time. The hours pass quickly actually. In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty. There are guests sitting around talking, drawing, reading, playing games. None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.
The fog lifted! Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains. People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this. All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.
“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view. There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!” By the day after tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog. “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”
It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction. It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment. “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning. They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is fog.
Yes. This is why they call it faith. We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog. What does this mean?
1. It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.
2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of brokenness and weakness
3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day
4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever. It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.
Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)
“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we see him….!!
I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear. This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it. The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.
Two quotes speak to this powerfully:
“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu
All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Julian of Norwich
Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.
It’s become fashionable to be socially just. The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls. We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced. Clean water. End poverty now. Buy a shoe, give a show. There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets. Come on. All the cool people are in.
It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness. For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice. Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations. That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.
And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:
1. Superficial Solutions inoculate. “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days. I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids. And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.” This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe. An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top. The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work. Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world. Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.
Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more. Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.
2. Spiritual Realities fade. What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name? There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other. Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers. We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self. We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other. A little look back into history though, and we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication. But of course they actually weren’t any indication. They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism. Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor. Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too. It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.
Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse. Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols. Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet. It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning. And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.
Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%? Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world. That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name: abundant life.
“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” -Jeremiah 6:14
Dissociative disorder is defined as a “disruption or breakdown of memory, awareness, identity or perception.” It’s a common occurrence among war veterans, physical and sexual abuse victims, those growing up in family systems broken by deep addictions, and among victims of religious/spiritual abuse. The pain and trauma of the past or even the present is simply too much, so the person dissociates, meaning he or she moves into a different space, a safer space, by denying the painful realities of the present moment. By denying reality, pretending there is no pain, and getting lost in some form of alternate reality, we find a fantasy land which is in the short run less painful. But when the Disneyland we’ve created closes, we’re forced to face our pain again. Eventually, if we hope to live the sort of full life Jesus promised, we’ll need to face to truth of our pain, both personal and collective. Whether we do that, and how we do that, are perhaps two of the most important issues many of us will every face in our lives.
All of this, though, sounds very personal, a sort of clarion call to get therapy. Maybe, but recently I’m struck by the reality that there’s a broader collective application of this dissociative tendency and our collective need to face reality. Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia company (standard issue clothing at the church I lead) recently wrote, “I’m not optimistic at all. I’m a total pessimist. I’ve been around long enough, traveled around enough, and been around a lot of smart people to know that we’re losing. In every single category, we’re losing.”
Wow Yvon. Way to ruin my day. I want to get up in the morning, hop in my car and drive my 1.2 miles to work, put in my time contributing to the industrial machine that’s drawing down the earth’s resources, drive home, eat my food that was raised in the industrial agriculture machinery that’s stripping the precious topsoil from land and laced with growth hormones and pesticides. I’ll watch a little something on TV, endure a few ads reminding me either of my inadequacy if I’m prone to insecurity, or that the reality of my economic well being is predicated on other people buying crap they don’t need. Then I’ll fall asleep and wake up the next morning with an injection of caffeine and do it all again. I don’t want to be reminded of species extinction, or the fact that human trafficking and the oppression of women are at an all time high in the history of the world, or of the harsh realities in South Sudan and Syria, Ukraine and the oceans of pain on the streets less than two miles from my house – so I focus on my upcoming world cup brackets and Stanley Cup if I swing towards sport, or a new band if I don’t. After all, I’m not part of the problem. I pay my taxes. Vote. Stay sober. Read my Bible and go to church. Eventually the world will see the wisdom of the free market (or the socialist “single payer” solution if I think that way) and things will turn around. They always do.
I can live that way, but this is dissociative; a massive form of self-denial. With respect to things always turning around, the reality is that they “always don’t”, at least of the history of empires is any indication. Jeremiah’s mourning in the 6th century BC was not only over society’s condition; it was over the massive, intentional, and collective denial of society’s condition. If we take our cue from Alcoholics Annonymous we’ll recall the first condition of transformation is the admission that things aren’t just bad – they’re beyond fixing in the resources of our own strength. If it’s Bible you want (and I hope you do) the same thing is declared all over the place. The starting point of healing and transformation is staring the harshness of naked reality in the face.
At some point, it happens; it hits us hard. We can see that though the system might be working for us, it isn’t working. It isn’t sustainable. It’s isn’t life giving. It isn’t whole. We see it, it hits us, and we’re filled with both grief and a longing for things to be other than they are for our world. When we really see with clarity, and are willing to sit in the reality of what we see, we mourn. When we mourn and lament, we open the door to even clearer ways of seeing and then, of living. We re prioritize. We confess. We take a step towards wholeness; and then another; and then the steps become a journey; and the journey has a real joy in it, because it’s rooted in the truth and the truth, as painful and dark as it might be, will set you free.
There’s more. Those who are willing, like the prophets of old, to look beyond the superficial categories of personal well being and forgo the temporary anesthetics of culture long enough to feel the pain will become part of God’s grand and joy filled solution, and this will happen for three reasons:
I. Because we’ll think collectively
Our hyper individualized society makes it easy to dissociate ourselves from the sins of our parents, but we do this to our shame. When Israel returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the city, the dedication included a lengthy confession of the sins of the parents. This isn’t a blame game. It’s an acknowledgement that we’re shaped by our culture, by our family, or nation, or geography, and that there are scars because of it. Our insistence that all’s well, that Adam Smith is wiser than Chief Seattle, that our internment camps were necessary, and that racism is behind us are all just a massive forms of denial.
We’re terrified of becoming negative, depressing people, but the reality is that my willingness to own every piece of the story that has shaped me lays a foundation for redemption and my own transformation that would be impossible as long as I cling to denial.
II. Because we’ll make wiser choices
Seeing, owning, and naming the disastrous consequences of consumerism, nuclear proliferation, industrial agriculture, unrestricted free markets, commitment free sex, unrestricted access to abortion, will, if we allow ourselves to really see, change the way we live. It’s in the wake of this kind of mourning that take bold steps towards simplification, or hospitality, or eating less fast food, or maybe even making a bold vocational change. I’ve no illusions that these simple choices will change the overwhelming systemic problems. But I do believe that creatively imagining a better world, as we’re wired to do, and equipped to do by the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets (see Micah 6:8 here) will move us into a more joy filled, life giving, and peaceful existence, making us part of God’s solution.
III. Because we’ll say Maranatha and mean it.
We who follow Christ have a grand hope and that has to do with the promise of his coming reign. Just as the prophets are saturated with the bad news in an attempt to shake us awake, they’re equally overflowing with hope, as they envision all tools of war melted down, and an end to suffering, injustice, environmental degradation, and disease. This kind of cosmic transformation won’t happen because I bring my own shopping bag to Trader Joe’s, even if I go there on my bike. Still, every chance I might have to live as a sign that there’s a different kingdom than the prevailing kingdom of consumerism and trivialities will testify to the hope I carry in Christ.
All of it begins, though, with an acknowledgement that all’s not right. So maybe join me in praying this Anishinabe prayer:
Grandfather; look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the one who are divided and we are the ones who must come together to walk in the Sacred Way. Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor, that we may heal the earth, and heal each other. Amen
to which I’d only add: Marantha! Come quickly Jesus!
The convergence of my daily Bible readings and a memorial service for my dear friend have me thinking about how much richer are lives can be if we all align around the one true thing that matters, which is Jesus Christ and his glorious reign.
Daniel and Esther are two personalities in Israel’s history who understood that they will gladly serve the king, and work for the good of kingdom in which they find themselves, but not at the cost of obedience to their one true King, Jehovah. This is why Daniel openly defies the king’s edict by praying to Jehovah, not in secret, but in full view of his open window, as a means of declaring that there’s only One to which we’re called to offer unrestrained allegiance. Esther risks her life by standing before the king, unbidden, fully realizing that by doing so she’ll either be invited in or executed. Her reason for this bold move? Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow down to the powers of state because he believed that his allegiance was ultimately to God. Neither nation, nor any political party (Republican, Democrat, Green, Other) or ideology (socialist, libertarian, monarchists, tea people, coffee people, “free” market capitalists, Other) will ever embody the reign of Christ. Because of this, we have one true king, one true kingdom, one true citizenship, and it’s not related to our flag or borders – it’s related to Jesus.
Meanwhile, as I read Esther this morning and write this piece, I’m mindful of my global Torchbearer family gathering to grieve the loss of our dear friend and remarkable teacher/leader, Hans Peter Royer. My daughter eulogized his life eloquently here recently. Today, missing my friends, I’m pondering the privilege of being in a community bound together, truly, by fellowship in Christ alone. Our common purpose is Christ; declaring him as the only source of life, inviting people to live out from his resurrection power, and seeking to disciple people into a life of making his good reign visible through relationships and service in our broken world. These things matter more than anything – and as long as they do, we enjoy rich fellowship and unity of purpose in spite of our vast differences.
Differences? Yes! Under the surface of our united grief today there are many cultures and hence, ways of living together as nations. For example, many devout Christ followers in Europe favor universal health coverage and shudder at thought that there’s a nation where people are walking the streets carrying weapons. Devout Christ followers in America often hold exactly the opposite views in the name of freedom of responsibility. Meanwhile, these arguments, on both sides, seem elitist and esoteric to those who are busy preaching Christ in places where the threat of terror hangs over their locations daily. When we’re together we speak of Christ and his reign, speak of how we’re working together to make that reign visible, call each other to deeper Christ commitments.
But never, unless we happen to be skiing together in Austria on the very day of an elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut, do we talk about gun control. Even then, when we do, and Austrians shake their heads at our addiction to “freedom” even as some Americans shake theirs at the Europeans readiness to give up such rights – we don’t baptize our views in the gospel of Christ.
Does this mean there’s never a time to be political? Far from it. Christ followers have an absolute obligation to do justice and love mercy. This requires addressing systemic issues that contribute to poverty, violence, and oppression. But here’s the critical thing to see: We’re called to do this in the name of Jesus, not in the name of a party, or nation. To the extent that we do, we’re able to dialogue about these things, think critically, prayerfully sharpen each other, and then go back into our cultures and truly “seek the welfare of the city in which we live” – all the while freed from the illusion that the ways of Babylon, or Gun Rights, or Universal Health Care are, inherently, Jesus’ ways. We’ll be as suspicious of Huffington Post as Fox News
Jesus’ way will be most visible in this broken world when the people of God embody visible alternatives that are trans-national, trans-political, trans-racial – places where the poor and marginalized are valued, and earthly weapons are never the preferred solution to solving any problems, and people are given the opportunity to be freed from everything, ranging from human trafficking to the many addictions that enslave the prosperous. This is hardly a call to some disembodied apolitical spiritism. Rather, it’s a call to make God’s reign visible, at cost of our lives if necessary. But no nation or kingdom or ideology in this world gets it right – democratics are no more the party of Jesus than the tea party. We need to get over it.
Beer & Brats in Germany. Chai and Dal-Bot in Nepal. Croissants and Chardonnay in France: Christ is there – loving, serving, blessing, and standing against the powers, in favor of THE POWER that is the source of life. May we stand with Him, and in Him, and through Him – because nothing else matters.
If I could wish one thing for our churches these days, it would be that we’d return with due haste to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and devote ourselves utterly to making Christ’s reign visible. Everything else is chaff.
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.