Guest Post: Love Without Boundaries

Hey friends--today I'm featuring a wedding speech that my good friend Dr. Greg Nelson wrote and delivered on the occasion of his brother-in-law's wedding this past summer. I found it deeply moving; even though written for a particular couple on a particular day, its theme is universal. I have lightly edited it, and present it to you for your joy and consideration:

A love without boundaries: It speaks to the supernatural and the transcendent as well as to the practical daily realities you bear with one another.

Integrating two people with different cultures is an obvious challenge. However, I think every couple should reflect on this, whether from opposite ends of the world or opposite sides of the same street. Even if you both came from the same small village with one faith, one language, and one skin tone, once you live together, you will discover that your mate is crazy. And each person is her own microcosm of little "C" cultural preferences and observances.

But what I most want to share with you today are thoughts on the greatest and most guarded of boundaries - the self. 

As you have and will continue to discover, even the most ardent love must lay siege to the fortress of self-preservation. This is where the transcendent and poetic meet the mundane and everyday. Our self-preservation takes many forms - the need to win an argument, the desire to meet our needs first, the lies that hide our imperfections, the retreats that avoid vulnerability.

But a real love without boundaries is one that razes even this final wall of self protection - daily laying down our own agenda and looking first to the other's good.  In our generation, this is heresy. We are taught you cannot love another until you love first yourself. Shouldn't love make me happy, we ask? Isn't all this selflessness just for fantasies and fairy tales?

Let me add another layer to the discussion. Our generation prizes keeping doors open, having a multitude of options at our fingertips, disposing of things the moment their newness fades. "Love without boundaries" is appealing to us because it sounds like freedom - no constraints, no rules. Many think of marriage, a commitment to only one person for the rest of your life, as a dungeon door slamming shut; we joke about a spouse as one's "ball and chain." But I want to encourage you both that in fact, the opposite is true.

As you stand here today, making this commitment to forsake all others and stay by each other's side until death do you part, you are in fact on the precipice of a truly limitless love.

I know that Le Petit Prince is a book with special meaning to both of you. Many of you may be familiar with it. In it, a child-like prince from another planet travels to Earth learns what it truly means to love another.

You will remember that in his journey, the little prince meets a fox. In the beginning, the fox is just an ordinary fox like a thousand other foxes in the world, and the prince like a million other boys. But as they cultivate their friendship, day by day, in the words of the fox, they "tame" one another. Through their mutual investment and connectedness they become priceless to one another.

Sounds nice, right? Well, don't be mistaken, this comes at a cost - the lost opportunity to experience other competing relationships and the certainty of future pain and loss. But this exclusivity is the doorway to the most fundamental of human hopes: to be fully known and fully loved.

As you stand here today, it is not that you have found "the One" who will make you perfectly happy. Instead, you are choosing to be "the One" to the other. Through your regular daily life, you will practice saying "no" to other people or things you may want, SO THAT you can say "yes" to each other. This process repeated will transform this person standing in front of you today into a diamond in a world full of shiny rocks. The boundary of your exclusive commitment to one another in marriage is actually the foundation for the limitless love you seek.

Remember the shock of the prince, when he finds out that the rose he thought was unique in the whole universe in fact looks just like the other thousands of roses on Earth? But after he has tamed and been tamed by the fox, he recognizes the true beauty of his rose lies in their shared experience.

He says this,

"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."

This is the real fulfillment of the love you seek. Not every couple finds this path. Alas most do not. Where can such a transformative power be found?

It is apparent that the fox's teachings on connectedness come from his personal experience. A single act of romantic heroism, I can imagine, but a sustained conscious effort is difficult to fathom, harder to imitate - unless you have received it from another.

The Christian Bible tells us of another Prince who comes to earth and faces death for his beloved, triumphantly conquering the grave for her. The New Testament describes the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ as a marriage between God and men. And rightly so, for commitment is at its center.

Therefore, no matter your faith background or perspective, we can all look to this shining example of love and receive from God this great gift. In the experience of His transcendent love, we find ourselves transformed to reproduce the same for one another. I encourage you, never stop seeking the source of this limitless love.

Once again,

"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."

Here is your rose. Here is your prince.

 

Gospel in the Bardo

“It was the touching that was unusual.

                                    the reverend everly thomas”

What are ghosts in our stories? What are their goals, their hopes? Why aren’t they resting in peace? In this year’s Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost story—a historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor. A ghost love story. It is one of the strangest novels I have ever read, and I loved it.

Trust me, you need some context.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie.  The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment, in a D.C. cemetery, and Lincoln’s visit there after hours to hold the dead body of his son—which may or may not have happened in real life.  It’s the stuff of rumor it seems.

The cemetery holds a wide cast of characters, who we might call shades, or ghosts. They are given backstories and it becomes clear that they are each lingering, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. They are in denial, and it pegs them to this in between state (the bardo of the title), where they wait to have their life finished out. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick.  Soon he will recover and consummate his marriage with the wife he loves.  Roger Bevins III regrets having injured his wrists so violently.  He is sure someone will find him and revive him soon. Etc.

Ghosts are people who can’t admit that they’re dead.  That open secret haunts them.

For me, this raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: You were dead in your trespasses.  God diagnoses our state: dead.  Before we know him, we are in denial. Yet our hearts sometimes whisper that secret, and it haunts us.

In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures.  Some who have lingered give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. One night, though, Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.

He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a key turning point in the novel.  As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come—they come, but disconnected. If they do touch, it is roughly: to steal a body or mock it. But mostly, they never seek to touch.

“But this—this was different.

                        roger bevins iii

The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!

                        the reverend everly thomas

Healthy.

                        hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?

It was cheering. It gave us hope.

                        the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

                        roger bevins iii”

This broken father-love does not shrink away from embracing even death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up their deepest hopes. This broken-father love, I recognized it immediately. It is the same love that saved me.

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

The course of the novel is so much more than can be touched on here, and I encourage you to read it. But at its core, it holds out a vision of salvation for these ghosts: Willie receives broken-father love.  It tells him a truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. But in the end, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go – surely a blessing in the context of the book.

God’s love is so much greater. He is the Father of broken-love, the Christ weeping over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death, but to embrace him, and live.

This novel gave me renewed hope that not only do we need to hear this story, but that this story salves the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny - that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love. Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.

Boasting

Recognizing boasting is a little like the old definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. It’s not simply a positive declaration. No, it has a flavor of triumph, the aroma of conquest or achievement. A little more than self-satisfied, boasting only exists as far as it is expressed.

Christianity must speak against this braggery, right? I know you’re not fooled by such an early hypothetical question, dear reader. You’re anticipating that the New Testament holds nuance on this question which should be profitably mined.

Absent one occurrence in Hebrews, Paul alone uses the word which is translated “boast” in our English versions. His usage uncovers a key truth about this word: its morality is revealed by its object. Additionally, the variety of objects available to this verb suggests that we should not be concerned about whether or not we are boasting, but rather about whether we are boasting in the right things. Just as David Foster Wallace and Tim Keller have popularized the notion that we all are worshippers, so we should recognize that we are each of us boasters.

Would it surprise you to know that this word is used more often in a positive way than negative? It surprised me. In this positive usage, the word gets translated thrice as “rejoice” in Romans 5, and “glory” twice in Philippians, along with the more common “boast.”

Its objects in these cases flow downstream from the primary one, the Lord Jesus Christ. After boasting in the great work of Jesus for his people, we see boasting in weakness, and frequently, boasting in other people. There is an ignorance of, a lack of interest in, the achievements of the person doing the boasting. They are case studies in self-denial, as Paul demonstrates how his rejoicing in the accomplishments of others leads him to bragging.

What then makes up the negative cases? When we think of boasting, it’s easy to think of the person who is bragging about her nice things, her spate of amazing travel opportunities, or perhaps her career accomplishments. In certain circles it can look like incessantly pointing out how well one’s children are doing in school or an activity. It’s always obnoxious, and we all find ourselves doing it at times.

But that is not at all what Paul focuses on when he’s talking about boasting. His target is more insidious: boasting in religious activity, in churchiness. Because of Paul’s context, this most often revolves around keeping the Mosaic Law, or even simply possessing it. For us, that can look like boasting in Christian heritage, or in ministry activities.

I heard one teacher put it this way: Our boasting reveals what defines us.

It’s deadly to have your pious activities define you. It’s that spirit that seeks to put God in our debt, that if we do that right things, are the right people, then he’ll owe us. Then we’ll have something to point to that justifies our existence. And it can just all look so good, like we’re checking all of God’s boxes. We’re praised. But we’re rotting—a branch snipped off, close to the vine as it lies on the soil, dead all the same.

So what about Paul’s own boasting in his ministry? Is that not a defining of himself by his works? We shouldn’t gloss this. It has troubled me for a couple of days, so what I offer here is perhaps preliminary.

As one example that would point to the acceptable nature of Paul’s ministry boasting, consider his discussion in 1 Corinthians 9. He recalls there that he has a specific assignment for ministry from the Lord for gospel preaching, a necessity. Because it is required of him, he has a right to be paid, a worker receiving his wages. However, his desire is to do it for free, to offer Jesus his services at great cost to himself. Remember, he became all things to all people that some might hear and respond. He suffered immensely, but penned that one could give his body to the flames in ministry, and without love, it would be nothing.

I believe we see in Paul an extreme test case in what boasting can look like. While the circumcision party boasted in traditional Judaic rule keeping, while the Corinthians gloried in the amazing power of their spiritual gifts, Paul kept on identifying himself as a slave to Jesus. A slave. His heart was constantly caught up in the concern for the churches, that they not wander from their first love and his, Christ the Lord. He had been struck blind and rerouted, reprimanded and restored, and lived his life broken for others. A boasting apart from weakness, apart from being rent, is suspect.

Paul wasn’t a perfect man, even in his post conversion life I’m sure. But Jesus is perfect, one who greatly deserves our boasting. His strength, his patience, his tenderness, his intelligence, even his humor, each of these and more calling for our affection and bragging. How he stooped down, wiped us clean, resurrected us, accepted our punishment. Watching him draw out of dead stumps like ourselves the vigor of green life, how can we not point at each other in wonder, praising each other’s growth loudly, praising the God who is accomplishing it?

Our boasting reveals what defines us. How I long for my identity, and for the identity of my church, to be bound up in the Groom, and his spotless Bride. How then could we fail to produce raucous wedding-day bragging in their heroism and beauty? 

Embracing the Dark Dark

If God is light, is there value in dark?

Children learn early to separate the good guy from the bad guy in a story. Darkness is a north star, navigating them toward the happy ending, the triumph over evil. These norms make soothing promises, and indeed we serve a triumphant God. We identify the hero early and map ourselves on to them.

Yet from my youth, I’ve been drawn to the tragic ending, to the promise broken. Sad stories are my savored sweets, drawn out, extracting every drop. I’ve found that this taste has not dissolved through 13 years of growing closer to the God of joy and comfort. It was inevitable that I would pick up Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark—the title alone wooed me.

The promise of the title asserts itself quickly. The themes weave in and out of death, infidelity, infertility, futile love, abandonment, loneliness, and even getting trapped under an ocean tanker in the dead of night. The epigraph from Eudora Welty quarters the work and shows us its organs: “Then she raised the hoe above her head.” There is violence, drama, female protagonists, and if you’re willing to admit it, humor.

All of the laughing I did surprised me. LOL is rarely literal, but there I was, cackling on my couch over Hunt’s perfect delivery, her ridiculous, obvious metaphors. But what won my heart was how everything she wrote felt real in the way that only fiction can. Even when holding up the absurd—a perfect sex bot designed to explode a terrorist, teenagers riding a horse to Walmart, a resurrected dog ruining a sexual encounter, a husband and wife becoming deer—Hunt feels in control. She’s telling you the truth.

We all know how real fear and anguish are, how real are betrayal and regret. We dream of framing our lives on the sure boards of success and happiness, but the truer studs are frequently our failures, the secrets we will never tell. Hunt doesn’t describe the dark dark for its own sake, a published voyeur. She presses us to acknowledge that sometimes the most universal story is expressed in the specifics of exquisite loss.

How can I pull out just one gem for you to look at in this embarrassment of riches? Perhaps you’ve never conducted an affair with your professor, and then yelled out at an academic party that everyone is “just angry because of what I do with my queer vagina.”  Hunt uses language we may avoid and find uncomfortable, but it is not gratuitous.  She is framing the outburst as pathetic, childish, and desperate -  an attempt to dress up sin in words that are both smug and insecure, which we are all guilty of. Hunt’s narrator recalls the yelling woman and ponders: “‘Queer’ once meant strange. ‘Queer’ once meant homosexual. ‘Queer’ now means opposition to binary thinking…How did common, old, vanilla adultery ever become queer?” Why is it that we always try to cover our evil, even to ourselves, by giving it a bold name?

Perhaps you’ve never stood, spade in hand in your backyard, ready to kill a homeless woman who has the audacity to share your name and be carrying a child while you menstruate, unwanted, again. But we’ve all felt the rage of deciding that we deserved a thing more than someone else who got it, especially if that someone else is poorer, dirtier, or less educated than we are. Suddenly we can imagine how it could be us in the afternoon sunlight, contemplating coldly how to best hide a woman’s remains. Our real selves are exposed in fiction, and it makes us shiver. We can’t resist mapping ourselves onto the antihero.

Therein lies the value. It’s common to complain that we need to slow down, we need to notice, we need to put down our smartphones and be mindful. If nothing feels particularly urgent, it’s easy to ride our habits all day long, lulled. But a story wakes us, shaking our sleeping shoulder. The darkness asks frightening, urgent questions, and doesn’t supply the answers. Suddenly we’re paying attention.

This is what keeps Hunt’s work from being simply bleak. She allows the questions to linger, and a hope that they can be answered hovers—is it just within reach, or just outside? There is no moralism here, no tied bows. In this way, The Dark Dark recalls the excellent short stories of Flannery O’Connor. They share a spiritual connection despite the distance in the personal piety of the authors. Both women demand that you look, that you reckon. They will not be pleased until you relinquish your easy answers.

How shall we respond? Jesus Christ is the yes and amen of every one of God’s promises. His unconquerable life is our great joy, our forever wealth. He is the answer, but never the easy one. We betray his person if we use his presence in the world today by his Spirit as a reason to look away from the dark. The response of God to thick pain was to enter it, touch it, be overcome by it, and only then to rise. Jesus demonstrated the strength of his answer by becoming vulnerable. He knew the magnitude of what was against him; and the magnitude of who was behind him.

We have an invitation to this same Spirit empowered vulnerability. All of us can pretend that strength is conquering the dark by our own spirit, or by a well-placed Bible verse, or by ignoring the pain. But this is garbage. Our light is not enough, and trying to contain God’s light into a package that we can control will never do. Let’s enter in to each other’s dark questions, and invite the Spirit to show us himself, to show us Jesus. While this dark dark persists, it can serve as a path to the one who knows its reality, acknowledges its power and breaks it with his own body. Not easy, but won.

Review: A Better Story

A sense of defeat in certain areas of the church has been smoldering. With the rapid change in public opinion on a host of moral issues these past ten years, not least 2015’s Obergefell’s decision, hand-wringing and pearl-clutching can come as quickly for the faithful as prayer and offering.

But what if our cultural moment isn’t a death knell, but a trumpet call to something new? What if what faces the church is only the loss of the deadweight of Christendom, while what the Spirit wants to give birth to is a fresh wave of winsome witness?

Some within the church are beginning to believe and sketch out what joyful Christianity can look like in our day, even and especially in the field of sexuality. One of these is Glynn Harrison, who this year published A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing.

This volume is a worthy entry to the field. Harrison devotes Part One to a thorough explanation of how we got here, but more importantly, provides tools to understand that our current culture is not a-moral, but rather differently moral. Incorporating the work of men like Jonathan Haidt, Charles Taylor, and Jamie Smith, he walks readers through what matters to the modern individualist, specifically the power of story and the reason why many who hold traditional beliefs have chosen silence—namely, shame. This opening section alone is worth the price of the book for distilling for the non-specialist an accurate picture of the sea we’re swimming in.

If the reader left this first section in despair, Part Two is where Harrison begins to open us up to hope. Like Tim Keller and Preston Sprinkle, he calls the church to boldly declare that we have much to repent of in how we have spoken about and handled human sexuality, and like in all repentance, there is opportunity for new life. He then turns to the promises of the sexual revolution and shows how it not only has not kept them, but cannot keep them. Those promises revealed true human desires, but by being broken, left a generation open to disappointment, disillusionment, and pain.

The third part of the book is then dedicated to Harrison’s proposal for how we might get it right. He captures various possibilities for how sexual desire can help us understand God’s love for us, capitalizing on the point that there is not no marriage in heaven but one marriage in heaven—Christ and his bride. He invites us to see how sexual desire pictures God’s intense passion, his faithful character, and the fruitfulness of union with him.

Crucial to his theme as he moves down into the earthly community is beginning to build a case that sex is never solely personal, but indeed a community act. That is, it always impacts the wider community, and is never isolated from it. Most importantly, he pleads with the church to take singleness seriously, to honor it. He writes, “Single people should not be tagged on to families, but should seek to become more integral to them, providing wisdom and skills, helping buffer against inward-looking selfishness” (171).

Harrison has done a great service to the church in explaining why we need to take emotion and aesthetic seriously in our presentation of God’s goodness, and in his call to seize this opportunity that the sexual revolution’s wake has provided to form our churches into the communities of faithfulness and thriving they were meant to be.

However, Harrison was clear that he hoped his work would “spur on others to produce something better,” (xi) and the weaknesses of the book reveal this need. For example, while he demonstrates the power of emotional engagement, his presentation of the better story can feel flat at times.  But perhaps even more crucially, he does not achieve--so pressing in our moment--an explanation of why sexual difference in marriage is a necessary and positive good, nor does he give voice to how an individual can in fact find her best calling in serving the community.

We love to be swept up into grand visions and holy schemes, and if we are able to move beyond fear of this moment, we will see its prospects. What Glynn Harrison has produced is a good beginning. It will serve the church best if it raises up our best storytellers, our best artists, and our sharpest minds, to cast for the next generation the light drenched glory of God in his good design for our joy in the midst of our sexuality.

One City One Story

Have you ever felt hopeless in communicating God’s love? Have you ever hit a barrier of apathy or antagonism and stopped dead?

What if even people who reject God still need what he offers? What if we can meet this need, and even create recognition of it, with pure compassion?  A type of kindness that could lead to repentance?

Even a city with leadership as secular as Boston can leave clues of what their needs are, if we are a watchful people. Recently they published a short story called “Relativity” by professor and author Daphne Kalotay as part of their “One City One Story” campaign. It’s linked to the Boston Book Festival, an annual event that celebrates everything literary and provides a context for Bostonians to self-congratulate on how cultured we are.

Little did they know they were sowing a type of gospel seed.

I imagine it’s hard to find a story that is fit for all. Our city includes hundreds of nationalities, every socio-economic group, and plenty of history. So “Relativity” stays safe: aging holocaust survivors and a decent man who has just lost a child. How many people can’t find something to connect with there? It’s like the literary version of This Is Us.

Unfortunately, the safety was a noticeable constraint on the narrative. The prose was undistracting, but not beautiful.  The characters were likeable, but I didn’t care what happened to them. Still, there was one remarkable scene, one moment I didn’t expect.

The main character, Robert, has a flashback to the hospital where he and his wife despaired over naming their just-born daughter. The baby’s death is imminent due to birth defects. It’s not that they don’t value her; they love her immensely. But the act of naming feels cruel, pointless in the face of death.

The father remembers an encounter with the hospital chaplain. We are primed to not take him seriously, as he “looked to be in his late twenties, with an unlined face and a shaggy haircut that curled at the tips…an air of leisure about him, as if he had just come in from a round of volleyball.” What does this guy have to do with weighty things? Yet, to Robert’s surprise, his wife calls the young man in.

Now, as the resident of a city that either ignores or rejects Christianity, I was prepared for a caricature. Instead I found a description of what the work of Jesus can look like.

The chaplain looked at the baby, “and it seemed he was no longer simply performing a ritual, nor the automatic motions of his day, but seeing, taking in, their child.” The chaplain fights back his tears and tells the parents that their daughter is like a little jewel. Precious. Robert spends much of the story trying to make sense of his tragedy, and the first sense we get that progress toward healing is made is because “this other person had held some portion of their grief.”

He saw, and he blessed. 

Though we serve a God we cannot see, we serve a seeing God. Seeing reflects his desire to relate to us, his intention to pursue us. One of my favorite places this is expressed is at the end of Exodus 2. Moses paints how Israel got into their predicament of slavery after having been so blessed in Joseph’s rise. Right when things seem to be at their worst, with Moses’s pathetic human attempts at salvation crushed, Israel cried out. What happened? God heard. God remembered. God saw—and God knew.

When Robert’s wife called the chaplain over, she asked him to look at her daughter. It was her specific answer to the chaplain’s question of if he could offer any help. Of course the young man can’t save the girl. He can’t provide silver bullet theology that will take the edge off—nor should he try. But still, the ministry of truly seeing and knowing was one of power. It grieved rightly, and dignified rightly. The chaplain honored that family, and brought relief.

If we know Jesus, we have experienced being seen, and known, and loved. We have his Spirit and all we need to bless in this same way, even in antagonistic places. What person would reject a blessing for their child? Do we think that our coworkers and neighbors wouldn’t respond to being seen, known, dignified?

The gospel of Jesus’s forgiveness-earning death and transformation-securing resurrection is the power of God to save. One City, One Story. In longing to see those around us swept up into the strong love of Christ, the act of seeing can introduce, or remind, the human heart that it aches for this from God and not just from his image-bearers. God has put into your life people only you have access to to bless in this way, and invites you to join him. As Matt Chandler says, if your Christian life is boring, you have only yourself to blame.

New Yorker Fiction on How to Save Your Marriage

Why do happy people cheat?  In this month's Atlantic, Esther Perel argues that cheating is not so much an abandonment of the partner, but of our inauthentic selves.  And why not? This logic is meted out to us on the reg, the natural fruit of self-fulfillment mantras.

It’s not that Perel thinks the partner doesn’t matter. The piece is clear: the pain to the other is real, and the cheating partner in “happy” relationships knows this intensely, guiltily. However, it feels more imperative to say "yes" to the self unconstrained than "yes" to the face of the beloved. As Perel writes, “So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”

Intoxication is right. As I was chewing on this article, I was reminded of Miranda July’s fiction piece in the September 4 New Yorker, titled “The Metal Bowl.” In this story, the married female narrator describes her sexuality this way: “To explain my sexual orientation; I was oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it.” The video, dear reader, is a pornographic movie of just the narrator that she starred in for desperate rent money.  The image becomes the controlling sexual moment of her life.

She experiences continued disconnect from her husband because he doesn’t know about this video - a pivotal part of her. The story hinges around a bizarre moment of tenderness she experiences with a married neighbor, while both of their spouses are away. At first, she thought this neighbor knew about the video. But he didn’t.  With him - to her surprise - she was able to experience her real self without that, new and fresh and exciting. She decides to keep it secret from her husband, and plots further connections with her neighbor. This lines up with what Perel has experienced in her practice of helping clients process their cheating.

And this is where July’s story, like Perel’s article, could have remained predictable, another entry about the bland heroism of selfishness.

Instead, the narrator encounters her neighbor recreating their secret tenderness with his own wife. This is her reaction: “Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and plowed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me. I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.”

I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.

These sentences blew me away. I would not recommend July’s full story, because it is sexually explicit in ways that are distracting; frankly, if I had known about them ahead of time I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all. But this observation was pure gold. The story finishes with the narrator being able to share with her husband about the video from long ago, and his overture  (best not written about here) to show that he accepted her, loved her, and wanted a real marriage with her.

What Perel is talking about in her article is that very detonation July’s narrator describes. Perel’s clients know that their choosing of self and the energy of newness will completely explode their lives, which they do in fact love. Yet they persist. Our flesh, the world, tells us that this energy we feel so very powerfully MUST be obeyed. The Holy Spirit tells us that this energy, so very real, must be redirected, or properly applied. I’m thinking of the call to be intoxicated with one’s own wife in Proverbs 5, to marry rather than burn (now there’s an image of detonation) in 1 Corinthians 7, and the drastic measures Jesus calls us to to fight sexual sin in the Sermon on the Mount.

God is not unaware of how difficult marriage is between sinners, or of how powerful the sexuality is that he gave us. How could he be? He engineered its raw vitality to reflect, even dimly, the joy of intimacy between himself and his people.  Miranda July, as far as I know, does not know the Lord, but she named her wise neighbor Joel, which means, The LORD is God.  In her story, Joel plows that energy back into his marriage. In our story, we often feel unable to do this, but we are not left orphaned. The LORD is God; he has given us all we need in the Spirit to live as he did on earth. Seek him, seek his strength, and he will provide. 

Our Perfectly Human Hero

A long time ago, a baby came to earth, sent from above by his good father. He was given to a couple who weren't asking for him, and he was aware from a young age of his incredible power. As he entered manhood, he sought to use it for the good of humanity. 

He had an almost indestructible body, and ridiculous physical strength. His only nemesis—kryptonite. Clark Kent sure looked like a human, but in order to save us he actually had to be something more. He had to literally be Superman, his quasi-humanness a connection to us but also a pedestal lifting him above us. He continues to be an iconic hero in America and around the world.

We flock to superhero movies every year, sensing our human frailty, longing for someone awesome. For those of us with exposure to Christianity, we may think of Jesus as an ancient Jewish Clark Kent, a God wrapped in a better version of human skin here to save us. But what if the opposite is actually true: that Jesus came to earth fully humanly frail, because that was the only way to save us.

There are many places that communicate this, but Hebrews 2:5-18 depicts it clearly.

If comics assume that we need a hero, the Bible underlines and highlights it. But in the Scriptures, we’re not just the defenseless crowds of Metropolis—we’re also Lex Luthor wreaking all the damage. This is implied by the way Ps. 8 is used in Hebrews 2. Originally it was a poem about how God had given them responsibility to care for the whole world--in spite of how tiny and mortal we are. As God’s deputies, our job was to protect, cultivate, and rule Creation. Our glory would consist in joyfully fulfilling this role in right relationship with the one who made us. But sadly, that’s not what we’ve done. We’re wrecking the world that has been given to us.

Even worse, we’re wrecking ourselves, and each other. We find ourselves often overwhelmed by desires to do what God has forbidden: with anger that wants revenge, with lust that wants pleasure apart from sacrificial care, with greed that wants security over community flourishing. We find ourselves wounded by others, scarred. Sin is something in us, and something we do, and something that is done to us. We desperately need a hero. And that hero had to be human.

Why? First, God designed the world to be run by humans. He was showing something about his power and goodness: that if a frail thing like a man or a woman relied on God alone, that person would have what it took to rule justly. Second, the penalty of the failure was death, as is required of high treason. Humans had failed, and human death was required. You can’t pay a real debt with Monopoly money.

This is what Jesus came to do: to be the perfect God-trusting human, and to provide the human death justice required. So the author of Hebrews applies Ps. 8 now to him: he’s the one made a little lower than the angels, with everything in subjection under him. In the gospels, we see how Jesus gave up so many of his rights as God: his right to be everywhere at once, his right to perfect knowledge, his right to super-human strength. He lived as a human relying on the Holy Spirit, and he was always obedient. He didn’t cheat, he was tempted in every way. He really passed the test.

And then, of course, his death was real, because he was actually human. His flesh was able to bleed, and did. Able to feel pain, and did. Able to die, and did. As Hebrews 2:17 says, he was made perfect through suffering, perfect as in complete.

But the heart of Christianity is that Jesus isn’t dead. He is risen! He is risen indeed. And he lives forever—as a human. His time on earth changed him forever. He will always have a resurrected human body, forever identifying with us. Hebrews 2:11 says he is not ashamed to call us brothers. No, he is proud of us! He is glad to be ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες with us, variously translated as having one source, one family, one Father.

Jesus is at God’s side now, as a human, serving us faithfully. Notice verse 17 describes him as our faithful high priest, which only a human can do, because a priest must be a representative. And touchingly, verse 18 states that is because he has experienced not just temptation but real human suffering in that temptation that he is able to help us. He gets it. He gets us.

When God created humanity, he had such glorious things for us in mind. We were made for greatness, but we threw it away. But God didn’t throw us away. We had dishonored him, and dishonored ourselves, but Jesus honored us by becoming one of us. He became the glorious, Spirit filled man so that we can become glorious, Spirit filled humans ourselves. He is our perfectly human hero.

National Coming Out Day

“Our ability to stay with God in our closet measures our ability to stay with God out of the closet.”

Thus wrote 19th century Methodist minister, E.M. Bounds in his book, Power Through Prayer. Because he was writing some time ago, Bounds referred to one’s “prayer closet” as the private place of prayer, based on the KJV of Matthew 6:6.

The spiritual point is almost lost in how silly it sounds to twenty-first century ears. After all, we’ve been using “closet” colloquially to mean a place of secrecy and shame for gay people for decades.

That’s the basis of the phrase “coming out of the closet,” or more simply, “coming out.” It means the self-disclosure of one’s orientation, which for so many has been an act of courage. Courage because of the ramifications it can bring: social cost, complete rejection and even threat of death. To be out of the closet for most of history was literally dangerous.

We like to think in 2017 that this would be different, but gays and lesbians still take a risk by coming out. The threat of being “outed” unwillingly can still loom large. That’s why National Coming Out Day remains a beacon; it gives voice to those who were for so long voiceless, a chance to step out of hiding.

Here in Boston, like other politically liberal places, Coming Out day is less about trepidation and more about celebration. The tone can be triumphant, reflective of how far the gay community has come. Indeed, the relative safety of those in the LGBT community here should be celebrated, compared to the violence and discrimination gay people face in some other parts of the world. 

But what does it mean for those of us who experience same-sex attraction, who have bound ourselves in love to the Lord Jesus Christ and want to serve him with our sexuality, even through self-denial? Is Coming Out Day for us, too?

I think it can be. Many of us have carried this secret weight for years, perhaps even marrying opposite-sex partners hoping to “make ourselves straight.” We have been wracked with fear that even though we love the Lord, there would be no place for us in his body if people knew.  We have prayed for God to take away our orientation, and sweated and nervously laughed when gay jokes or misguided commentary have come from the mouths of our brothers and sisters.

But there is hope that this can be different. While secrets fester in the dark and threaten to own us, disclosure can bring intimacy, accountability, and new life. To be known and appreciated in all parts of our life can be transformational. Even more, it can give courage to the others just like us in the church who tremble with fear that perhaps they could never come out. We can be a part of the change we want to see.

Now, I DO NOT mean you need to tell the whole church or world your business. Some may be called to that, but not all. But I do mean that we were never made to do the Christian life alone, though something as deep as our sexuality should only be put into the hands of those who have shown themselves trustworthy. We can’t wait for the church to be perfect, for our own sanity, but we can start small. If you feel like you can't think of anyone safe enough in your own life, pray that God would reveal to you, or provide for you, such a friend.

This brings us back to Bounds. It’s not just that revealing our sexual orientation takes bravery, which it does. As followers of Jesus, it also will require spiritual power and protection. To come out while a Christian, especially one committed to the Bible’s sexual ethic, is bold and confusing to the watching world, and sometimes even to believers. You will be misunderstood, perhaps maligned. To stand with God “out of the closet” will in strong measure relate to how we’ve approached him “in the closet”, that is, in our secret times of prayer. Do you trust him?

His face towards you is complete love, and not a shred of condemnation. He has promised you every help along the way to honor him with your body and mind, and longs to give you family through his people. Take strength from his character and promises and Spirit. Gather courage from drawing close to the One who sees you, hears you, and loves you. For the sake of yourself, you can come out. For the sake of the church, you can come out. For the sake of the world, you can come out. Like Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, you can come out! This can be a day for you, as well.

Proust on the Surprising Threat to Real Self

The joy of reading Proust, for me, consists in his masterful combining of beautiful prose with astute, often humorous observations of why people are so ridiculous and self-contradicting. In The Guermantes Way, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time, the unnamed narrator is on the cusp of breaking into society life. In a scene where he faces a crushing disappointment, his friend Robert de Saint-Loup unexpectedly appears to comfort him. For me as the reader, Saint-Loup’s entrance felt like a balm, until I was accosted by this line from the narrator: “What I think about friendship: namely, that it adds up to so little”

Proust’s protagonist is explicit about the sham of friendship in the ensuing paragraph. At one point he describes friendship as “totally bent on making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable to a superficial self that, unlike the other, finds no joy on its own.” That is, he posits a “real” self that is intrinsically private, and from his logic here we can deduce that this real self is in fact capable of “joy on its own” and so must not have any need of friendship. Therefore, to get to friendship, one must construct a superficial self that is capable of relating, because it feels a need. Unfortunately, because of this need, that superficial self becomes “hospitalized in the individuality of another person.” It is weak, and entrapped.

What a dreary, desperately sad image! The natural outcome is that the narrator declares wonder that anyone could find “any sort of sense in an act like putting one’s work aside to go and see a friend.” This in some way must be the outworking of the insistence that one’s real self is isolated and immaterial.

I felt embarrassed to see so much of myself in it, in fact. I have struggled throughout my life in Christ to turn towards others as opposed to being caught up in my own projects and work. My theology would never embrace such a low view of friendship, but my life patterns betray me; it is those closest to me that have felt my assumed belief in Proust’s real, private, self-contained self the most.

In reading Janet Martin Soskice’s excellent The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, I found that this feeling in myself is not only a personal failing but a warped feature of my Christian inheritance. The early Fathers were wooed by the Stoics, who sounds very Proustian in declaring that “one should have no goal outside oneself, and then, being dependent on no one else for happiness, one cannot be made unhappy.”

This belief like a yeast has worked itself through the dough of lived Christianity, such that there is “a spiritual ideal in which the demands of others, even of one’s own babies and children, are not merely indifferent to the task of gazing on God, but in competition with it.”

If the real self is immaterial, and it is crucial to connect one’s real self to God, then of course spiritual acts framed in this template will have difficulty accommodating the material.

In demonstration, Soskice reflects on the fact that mothers can understand their work as a good fulfillment of God-honoring work, but not experience it as spiritual in itself, which I sadly relate to. Where are we being taught otherwise? How do we not continue on a path which “privileges the detached life over that of human affection and its attendant disruption”? Won’t this force us to destroy the Biblical vision of Christ as head of a family, of us as brothers and sisters in messy household life together, even as we supposedly press towards a pietistic vision of real spirituality?

This assertion of the private, sealed off, individual thought-life as truly real is as old as time. It is found in the most venerated of intellectual heritages. But it is profoundly un-Christlike.

As Soskice reminds us, “All life, even protozoic or plant life, is such as to be affected by the world it inhabits.” To pretend to be sealed off is folly. All life forms attend to those around them, to the world about them. Therefore, “Attention is rewarded with reality. This is the principle of growth.”

We see this most strikingly in Jesus Christ himself. Though all things were created through him and for him, he submitted to become a baby in a particular time and place, to a particular family. He grew, and participated in community, he was known. Though never married and thus childless, he created the possibility of rebirth and the creation of a new forever family; when his soul made an offering for guilt, he saw his offspring, as Isaiah 53 says. He is still growing this family, reproducing it, a vine with a million branches as humans are continually brought in and transformed through relationship with their God and with his people.

Proust’s narrator’s vision of friendship as a painful distraction from reality is sterility boasting of fecundity. He wants to be left to his world of ideas, thinking that sitting alone he will birth into the world an endless flow of ideas and productivity, whereas time with his friend is wasted on posturing and pretending.  But his productive reflections are chiefly about others, gained through time spent with people and indebted to the material world he lived in. Perhaps this makes him as ridiculous and self-contradicting as his characters.

The Cross as Perversion

“When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us, ‘I don’t want anything from you!’ we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification, ‘…except your very soul.’ When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.”

-Slavoj Žižek  

I stumbled across this quote reading Mona Siddiqui, a Muslim scholar, in her writings on the cross of Jesus. Having seen what the cross can mean for Christians, Siddiqui explains that that cross creates no desire in her. She protests that the cross can have other meanings than sacrifice for sin, which is flatly offensive to her, and offers up the above quote from Žižek as an example of how the death of Jesus can be construed as “an act of perversion.”

What is perverse about it? Apparently, at least in part, its dishonesty. It claims to ask for nothing yet asks for everything; it claims to be easy, but is actually impossible. But dishonesty itself is not perverse. Where perversity comes in is that what it asks is immoral or indecent. It is too high of a demand to give your whole self to someone else.

I was so refreshed to see that Žižek understood clearly what the call of Jesus Christ really is—a call to complete surrender. Would that every Christian understood that call with the same open eyes!

At the same time, I reject that this understanding of the gospel is dishonest, much less perverse. Was not Jesus brutally honest about the cost of following him? What else is it supposed to mean, when he declares that it is only that person who will lose their life for Jesus that will find it? Or when he teaches that a true disciple must take up their own instrument of execution, with their very hands and will, in order to walk behind Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who famously gave his life trying to stop Nazism, understood this. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The life of a Christian has never been less than Galatians 2:20.

It is only because of two other dishonesties that the call to give your full self to Jesus can be construed as a bait and switch.

The first is easy-believeism, that poisonous yeast that has long worked its way through evangelicalism. There is no life in a prayer offered once in fear or ecstasy, which is followed by no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the abundant life that always flows from that connection. To be surprised at the totality of Jesus’s claim on you is to have never heard it. Someone lied to you—and it may have been you yourself.

The second dishonesty is that it is impossible and perverse to give your whole self to someone or something outside of you. Our worship of the autonomous individual makes us hate the idea of any source of authority outside the authentic self. It preaches that the only way to be true to oneself is to be able to fully construct the self, independently of any external constraints. But this is madness; no one lives like this.

We cannot escape our birth, our cultural moment. We can tell ourselves that we are bold prophetic voices, when all we are doing is marching to the drum of the faddish new theological impulse.

But even apart from this, our most powerful love stories continue to be about the complete giving of ourselves, willfully, to someone else. The allure of being wooed, of possessing our beloved and being possessed, fills our songs and movies, our fanfiction and TV. It takes a million specific forms, it constitutes the air we breathe. Even causes like environmentalism and social justice can catch up our hearts in entire surrender, and we feel the goodness of it.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It is not impossible to give the core of ourselves to something else—it is impossible not to. Perhaps what is impossible, though, is to give ourselves to the truly good and beautiful. After all no one has lied to you more than you about what would make you happy and fulfilled.

But nothing is impossible for God. Jesus Christ woos us, desiring to possess us and even to be possessed. He calls us into passion, into great adventure, and to lose ourselves in all of it, only to find ourselves again. He has never lied about this, and his call still stands.

 

 

Israel's Labor, God's Delivery

In Spring 2017 I had the pleasure of spending a lot of quality time with Isaiah 26:16-19, a unique passage of lament and miraculous reversal. What drew me initially to the passage was the preponderance of birth imagery, which Isaiah navigates brilliantly, building suspense and then transforming the metaphor to reveal the spiritual reality.

It’s helpful to note that the background of this passage is political distress and failure. Israel was unfortunately susceptible to relying on alliances and strategy for their national survival, as opposed to looking to the LORD, and as often as not, their schemes failed. When Isaiah enters in to 26:16 (where the Hebrew is difficult and disputed), he is beginning a corporate lament for just such a political situation. We enter in to imagery of discipline, distress, and desperation, but the details of the situation are unspecified.

In 26:17 the Isaiah introduces a metaphor that will carry us to the end of the movement. We are confronted with a woman in labor, and her anguish and pain are fronted. This is not the cute, round belly stage of pregnancy, but the imminently dangerous stage, the moment where no one is sure who, if any, will come out alive. Labor and delivery is cursed in Genesis 3, and it relates not just to the pain of intense cramping, but the blood and specter of death involved.

Isaiah wants his hearers to inhabit this space mentally, and then he owns the image in 26:18. The first person plural becomes the laboring woman; all Israel is implicated together. They are shown in all stages: they were pregnant, they writhed, they gave birth. That is, the nation was responsible for the conception of their misery, they took into themselves the consequence, and they were faced with what it brought into the world. And what was it? Nothing but wind.

To labor, in danger, for nothing but air! The futility is palpable, miserable. Part of the covenantal blessings of Sinai was the promise of healthy children; the Scriptures of Israel celebrate the birthing of children as a beautiful, flowering vitality of their people in God’s eyes. By employing the potent imagery of pregnancy and birth in service of lament, Isaiah communicates the disgrace of their impotent maneuvering. It was not just political, it was covenant failure.

The end of verse 18 carries a tone of dejection as the metaphor breaks apart. For all their labor, they have not worked deliverance. And starkly, Isaiah spells it out: the inhabitants of the world, their foes in this case, have not fallen. While the NIV continues the birth imagery up to the end because of the role that the Hebrew verb behind the word “fall” plays in the broader passage, it is much better to take it as the ESV does, which is to communicate that the Israelites failed to fell their enemies, and they are still in danger. The tone is sorrow, helplessness.

And suddenly, there is rejoicing. How? Why? Verse 19 brings an utter reversal, and more. Three different words for dead people are used, and three different images for coming back to life, all reinforcing an idea that is scarcely whispered in the Old Testament: bodily resurrection. And indeed, each triad of images becomes livelier as it progresses. From the simple dead, to the specific corpses, to the living-while-dying dust dwellers. Similarly, they are described as living, then rise, and then even commanded to sing for joy, surely one of the most vibrant actions a human can take. The word resurrection is not used, but it is not needed.

The passage concludes with God producing birth without labor, in strong contrast to his people. The metaphor of dew is used to communicate morning, newness, and life, as it was an important water source in Palestine. By connecting it with light, Isaiah clarifies that this isn’t merely water, but an image of spiritual nourishment and production. The result is that the earth gives birth, a mother paired to God as father, and brings back those long dead, and the original metaphor is returned and transformed. 

They had dreamed of the death the enemy; their covenant LORD promised them in response life unknown, life refreshed, life beyond death. Israel struggled and did not accomplish a normal human goal; the God of Israel without working produced an unthinkable, unhuman accomplishment.

In the New Covenant established by Jesus, resurrection has become so prominent as to be thematic. This might dim our ability to see the shock of Isaiah 26:19. But let it not dim our hope in the God of Isaiah 26:16-19. We worship that same God today, who is overflowing with life, who stoops to untangle sinners in the midst of destroying themselves, who plots for us joyful singing in a world undreamed of. There is a sure reality, a true inheritance waiting for us. Let’s run for it.

God and the Transgender Debate

I've been reading about and processing what the Bible says about homosexuality for all 13 years of my Christian life.  Coming to Christ with a full-blown experience of same-sex sexuality and recognizing that the gospel demanded sacrifices of me, I've had to know what I was talking about.  It is only in the last year that I’ve turned my attention to issues around transgenderism. In this respect, I’m like Evangelicalism in general: we are woefully behind on the T in LGBT, and I regret it.

As a starting point, I read Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria and Vaughan Roberts’s Transgender.  These books were good introductions and formed much of the background I brought with me when I picked up Andrew Walker’s new entry into the field, God and the Transgender Debate.

There are some things I really like about Walker’s book. For one, he begins and ends with Jesus, who is the only hope we have in any of this. Jesus is smarter and kinder and better than all of us, and available to help. Second, Walker doesn’t downplay that experiencing gender dysphoria is hard, and that this issue is thick and heavy. What I especially appreciated was his insistence that experiencing GD is not sinful, but a pastoral issue requiring our support and help. Third, I appreciated that Walker didn’t lean into jargon, but created a book that was in fact quite easy to read. And finally, I appreciated his pattern of grounding his thoughts and statements in the Scriptures.

However, there are also places where I felt let down by this book. The least important was that it didn’t really break new ground; it felt like Roberts’s book, just longer. If I needed to recommend a helpful primer to a friend, I would choose Roberts book right now, as it is shorter and achieves a very similar end.

But I also noticed two other weaknesses which I believe handicap this book. The first is that, in the heart of Walker’s defense of God’s design for humanity being gendered as male and female, he wanders from Scripture and resorts to generalizations. On page 54, he asserts that “femaleness isn’t only anatomy, but anatomy shows that there is femaleness.” Fine, but, naturally one asks then, what is maleness and femaleness apart from anatomy?

He starts with general physical trends, noting the broader shoulders of men and the wider hips of women. These things are provable and known, but don’t truly give us more information than genitalia on some level. So in the same paragraph, as if it is the same level of truthful as secondary sex characteristics, he writes “the protective instinct that men are often able to harness at a moment’s notice…issues from the way that God made men. Much in the same way, women tend to enjoy what we sometimes call ‘motherly’ instincts, such as nurturing.”

I found this statement simplistic and general to the point of distraction. Are mothers not famous for their protective instinct? Does not St. Paul, a man, talk of nurturing the Thessalonians like he was a nursing mother among them (1 Thess 2:7)? This is not the time or place to be sloppy with what gender means, it damages our whole appeal to the goodness and complementarity of gender. It also undermines his corrective appeal on the next page that the church has often over-played Western gender roles.

The problems continue on page 56 when Walker generalizes again, saying “A man’s calling to lead and protect is…no more important than a woman’s design to nurture and mother. In both instances, men and women are called to joyfully submit to the unique callings that God has made for men and women.” He says all of this without appealing to the Bible once. Not anywhere. What in the world does he mean by callings? Does he mean marriage roles a la Ephesians 5? Does he mean qualified male eldership in the church? If so, he should say so. If he believes that unmarried men and women, as well as men not serving as elders, also have specific callings related to their gender, he needs to make that case Biblically—in this of all books he must do so. To elide that, to assume it, is to shoot the project in the foot.

The second weakness is Walker's confusion around chosen vocabulary. Some conservatives reject the idea that sex and gender are different realities, which is unhelpful. So I was heartened to see that Walker follows the APA in recognizing that gender is related to “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, quoted by Walker on page 31). He insists, as I do, that our gender should follow our sex as God designed, and resists the Gnosticism which celebrates an idea of the mind as the truer self than the body, such that sex would follow gender.

But then on 74, Walker seems to muddy this distinction. He writes, “In truth, there is no such thing as ‘transgender,’ because you cannot change your gender. The word exists, but not the reality that it seeks to describe.” Here he seems to very unhelpfully conflate sex and gender. If gender is about attitudes, feelings and behavior, of course a person can experience these things apart from their sex, or experience them change over time. What I believe Walker means to say is that there is no way that embracing or rejecting a particular gender can truly change your sex. By losing his clear vocabulary here, he confuses where he could convict.

These weaknesses, particularly the first, are not incidental. They damage the structure and heart of the book itself, and its argument. We as evangelicals can and must do better in articulating God’s design and purpose for gender and sex, for the sake of our transgendered neighbors, for the sake of representing Jesus well and clearly to the watching world.

Sapiens

I came late to the Sapiens party. Published in 2015 by Yuval Noah Harari, this work, subtitled A Brief History of Humankind, is massive in scope and ambition. He traces our species from our differentiation from ancestral primates up until today, all in just over 400 pages. His theories and observations were interesting, bold, over-generalized and certainly prone to exaggeration.

What I loved most was the quality of his story-telling, which moved me along and made me want to buy everything he was selling. And this despite the fact that I find his worldview impoverished. Harari espouses an extreme materialism, and he pushes that view to its logical ends. If he can’t find a biological explanation for something, he labels it imaginary or worse. Not all imagined things are “unreal” in his eyes; he argues for the power and productivity of artificial systems such as money and the modern state. Most of the force of his work is his unleashing of raw materialism to declare every ideology and religion as fiction parading as truth. As he states on page 28, “there are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Harari seems to position himself as unassailable in his critiques, taking refuge in the fact that if you can’t prove your ideology (such as human rights or Islam) with raw physical science, you have nothing to stand on. Given the confidence of his stance and the swoon of the book’s reception, I think a detailed rebuttal of materialism would be an excellent response to Sapiens. But I’m currently more interested in noticing where his worldview leads, and where it starts to break down.

The one that stood out to me the most was his ambiguity on the moral value of life. On the one hand, in chapter three Harari devotes pages to presenting the dynamic life of pre-agricultural humans. He extols their varied diet, their supple bodies, and their high-quality relationships. Naming this chapter, “A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve,” he paints these early humans as living in the Garden. As he puts it, “on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps” (49,50).

It’s disconcerting to then arrive at his description of how these foragers almost certainly practiced the brutal killing of unwanted or deformed children, invalids, and the elderly. Harari cautions the reader from jumping to judgment of these practices, since these humans also were friendly, gregarious, and egalitarian. The logic is that a human lives and suffering should not outweigh the delightful life that most otherwise lived.

On the other hand, Harari seems to be highly disturbed about modern agricultural abuse of animals for human consumption. He complains that “farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines” (342) in the midst of pages of detail about these practices. In fact, in his afterword which sums up the heart of his thoughts about Homo sapiens, he laments that we are “self-made gods…accountable to no one…wreaking havoc on our fellow animals” (416).

So, is life to be valued or not? If yes, which life? Harari postures throughout the volume as if the answer is obviously no, with a devastating casualness, and yet he gets worked up over chickens and rebukes us that we “are seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction” (416). If biology is all there is, if evolution is the master of meaning, where is the authority for such rebuke grounded?

It’s all arbitrary; there is no authority. Why should Harari’s voice have power to set the agenda, if no authority can exist? And this I think is the point that has been rattling in my mind since I finished the book. Many people of the materialist worldview turn up their noses at the idea of authority, especially a metaphysical authority, all-encompassing authority. Yet they are not shy about exerting some themselves.

I don’t want to throw stones. After all, none of us perfectly inhabit our worldviews. I just want to invite us to ponder why and how it is that right and wrong feel so intrinsically real, how they can break through even at the seams of an ideology designed to shut them out. Is it inescapable because it exists? I think so. And because it does, we will grab at authority over it for ourselves with both hands, even as we put others off the trail. God help us all.

Single, Gay, Christian

Below is a slightly edited version of what I posted originally on Sept. 10, 2017. This new version was published by the Gospel Coalition on Oct. 6, 2017: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-review-single-gay-christian-gregory-coles

I eagerly read Gregory Coles’s Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity as soon as I received it. In some respects, Coles and I have a lot in common: we’re both Christians who have a same-sex orientation but believe that we honor Jesus best by denying that desire. In other respects, our lives are incredibly different. He’s male; I’m female. He grew up in the church and overseas with a full-throttled, homeschooled evangelical upbringing; I grew up as an atheist in America. Later he lived in culturally conservative places in America, while I’ve always been enmeshed in bicoastal liberality.

Despite those differences, I deeply resonated with his description of his attractions: how natural they are, how unthinkable to change them. He uses a thought experiment for straight people that I’ve often employed with friends: Imagine being told by the church that you must feel sexually aroused by your best same-sex friend. It’s effective—it helps straight Christians understand how intractable orientation can feel.

Failed by Christians

Exercises like these are necessary because the church has often failed people struggling in this way—by encouraging revulsion toward gay people and suggesting they must become straight to fulfill God’s command. Coles has been mistreated by some Christians, and he describes what it was like to grow up feeling ashamed of the feelings that well up within him. He was closeted for a long time. 

This is hard for me to fathom, since I never experienced shame about my feelings. They arose before I became a Christian, and when I entered the church, I learned that while my attractions were a part of the fall, their persistence after my rebirth didn’t condemn me. I never had to wonder what people would think of me, since everyone has always known I’m attracted to women and has treated me well. If anything, I’m sometimes treated like a hero among conservatives for becoming a Christian, when I certainly don’t deserve it. 

 

Because of those different experiences, Coles and I diverge on label preferences. We both aim for honesty and clarity, which I find heartening. He, however, balks at the term “same-sex attracted” due to its connection with the ex-gay movement. He prefers “gay” because it doesn’t gloss over what he experiences, even though he’s aware that in the church it can carry the connotation of one who acts on their desires. I’ve never preferred “lesbian” for myself, because it seems to encompass far more than the simple attraction I feel. I actually like “same-sex attracted”; I don’t feel, like Coles, that it makes my orientation a passing phase. 

Need for Clarity

There is so much that I loved about this book. Coles and I agree on what the Bible says about sexuality, and he writes about his choice of obedience with grace and good humor.

But the one place where I felt disappointed was the section beginning on page 108, where he leaves space for this to be an agree-to-disagree issue—where we could “share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours” (109)—and compares it to the disagreement about modes of baptism. He writes, “[I]f I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries” (108).

Of course sincere Christians disagree on baptism, but on that question there are arguments on both sides that make sense of the Bible as a whole whole. By contrast, Scripture’s witness on sexuality is painfully clear. Rather than hold out the possibility that the Bible might be okay with homosexual relationships—which I believe is likely to damage those in the thick of same-sex desires—I’d rather affirm in the strongest terms that God is clear, and plead that his Word be read.

If we allow the new affirming view as a valid option for the Christian, even if inferior to the traditional view, I believe, with Don Carson, that we make a disastrous pastoral and theological move, because we end up allowing some of those who claim Christ to persist in sin.

We see Coles begin down this path a bit when he compares a same-sex married Christian to a straight, sexually impure Christian woman. He lines up theologically with the second woman, but then asks, “But whose life is most honoring to God? Who really loves Jesus more? Who am I going to see in heaven?” These questions are beside the point. Why should we ask which professed believer loves Jesus more? We don’t need to compare these women’s sins; we need to plead with both to repent and move forward in obedience.

He moves on from this comparison by saying, “Other people’s hearts are none of my business” (110). And that’s where my heart broke. Let me explain why.

Coles ends that episode with a call to Romans 14:4: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Yes and amen, let’s live that Scripture. But we also need to live Hebrews 3:12–13: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

These verses plead for us to care about how sin destroys our brother and sister’s heart. How can that be none of our business? 

It took a lot of courage to write this book, and I admire Coles for that. I’ve prayed more than once for his spiritual protection. And I would even encourage people to buy and read this book, as the core of it is moving and helpful. But I wish our generation as a whole would show courage in clearly calling out sin, and exhorting each other to flee it—all types, all kinds.

 

 

 

 

The Sellout

I don’t think I’ve ever been as uncomfortable enjoying a book as I was while reading Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout. I picked it up simply because it won the award, without any notion of its author or topic, without any notion of what I was in for.

But I was on my guard from the opening sentence: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” Was I supposed to laugh? Wince? But the electric ferocity of Beatty’s sentences pulled me along past my self-consciousness, and I gulped his words down. Beatty produces a biting satire of race in America today, through the lens of a contemporary urban black farmer who owns a black slave and actively works to segregate his local middle school. Crazy, right? You have no idea.

Of course, this work has numerous references and allusions that I’m sure I didn’t get, since I’m not a black American, and probably many that I misunderstood for the same reason. But Beatty’s humor is accessible and outlandish. He easily moves between high brow and low brow, and is amazing with deadpan. His cheekiness is delightful, like when his character Foy Cheshire invents “EmpowerPoint, a slide presentation ‘African-American software’ package…not much different than the Microsoft product except that the fonts have names like Timbuktu, Harlem Renaissance, and Pittsburgh Courier” (99).

He also loves to take racial pot-shots, like when he writes “some kids were just too white to get wet. Try to imagine Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, or the Lone Ranger soaked from head to toe, and you’ll get the idea.” (171).

All that to say, it was a somewhat complicated read as a white lady. And even as a white Christian, since the book deals with sometimes vulgar and explicit images and ideas. At the same time, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a satire that felt so brutally honest. There was an earnestness in tone even while he kept his tongue in his cheek. It was powerful.

One of the driving themes in the novel is a pair of questions originally asked by the narrator’s father, and asked again by the main character in the climax of the book: “Who am I? and How may I become myself?”

These questions are held out as beacons of hope: they promise that that the characters, under-valued black Americans, are indeed someone-s, someone-s worth identifying. Each of them is worth the investment of thinking through what would help them grow into their fullest selves. They underline a dignity that is present and needs to be revealed, not a dignity that was lacking and needs to be given.

I happened to read this book in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests, where white nationalists spewed their wicked ideology as they clung to a symbol of the Confederacy, and while the highest elected official in our country blamed the violence and death at the scene on “both sides.” I want to be clear: while I don’t think either side is perfect, there is no righteousness on the side of white supremacy, no light, no life, no hope. Only death, evil, wickedness, depravity. The book made me pause and consider that we are all, as Americans, answering Beatty’s questions so differently, that we end up worlds away from each other. Who are we as a country? And How may we become ourselves?   

To our great shame, White Americans have too often sought to rip away from Americans of color their ability to own and answer that question for themselves individually, for themselves as communities, and we've certainly suppressed their voice in answering those questions together for our more perfect union. I’m sure “rip away” isn’t even strong enough language, given the variety and ferocity of means that have been employed against people of color in the United States.

I want to believe that we in the church can help change this. After all, we have the most compelling answers to these two questions, and we are grafted into Love Himself. Those of us who are white need to speak more, act more, and convince more white people of the importance of this conversation. I’m not saying I’d start with The Sellout—but if you’re a reader, maybe something like Waking Up White, or Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America would be a good start. I found the first book very helpful personally, and though I haven’t read the second, it was given as assigned reading by Cru this summer to emerging team leaders, and I know it was impactful for many of my friends.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”
— Hebrews 10:24

Who is Rest?

Jesus IS our peace. So says Ephesians 2:14.

Peace as a concept has an incredibly rich heritage biblically. In both its Hebrew and Greek forms, it means far more than cessation of war. Instead, it denotes a fullness of order, joy, and rightness. It is also fundamentally relational, working in both human-human and human-divine realms.

In Ephesians 2:14-16, Jesus is incredibly active for the sake of relationship. He kills, he makes, he breaks down, he abolishes. Yet the main clause is that stative verb. In all this acting, the bigger point is that He is. And out of what He is flows a world of possibility for us. Look and see: separation from God nullified by his propitiation, even the historic and formidable separation between Jews and Gentiles turned into unity by his work alone.

And even though it was achieved by work, it was achieved because of who He is, work only Jesus could perform.

Peace is something that exists first and primarily in Heaven, in the Trinity. It is part of that overflowing goodness of that relationship, a defining characteristic. It is heavenly. We know in the new heavens, there will be no more war, but peace.

We also know that peace can be earthly. Before sin, there was harmony and unity, joyous order in peace. Even after the Fall, we can experience the break-ins of peace, feeling their power in moments across family, friendships, cultures. We know it is ultimately possible for us, because we are promised that we have experienced it in the past and will experience it again—in the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no more war, but peace.

Jesus too is heavenly and earthly. He is Peace; as a member of the Trinity he is the origin of joyful wholeness. And he came into Creation and planted that flag, and is working it out today even here, even now.

And he is the only one who could have done it. As fully God and fully Man, he was the only Person who could act in mediation, destroying in his own flesh the barrier between God and man, and between humans to each other. Sin was the barrier between God and us, and in his body he fulfilled the law and absorbed the wrath against lawlessness, removing the threat of condemnation over us. In Christ, we are not pursued like wanted criminals, but like wanted children, or like wanted lovers, because wrath is replaced by desire.

This creates profound equality before God, Jesus’s blood being our only badge of merit, over against class, race, education, charisma, or whatever. Everywhere we look, we see equality of need and equality of access in Jesus, in the incomparable Christ. I don’t have to struggle for worth, I have it. I don’t have to suffer in comparison, because I and my sister share equal value, beautifully expressed in multiplicity of gifts for making much of Jesus and blessing the people he made.

Let’s fully embody this peace. Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” His half-brother James agreed, saying “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Peace is a person; let’s befriend him, and introduce him.

What is Rest?

Dating is not about the activities we choose to do, but about the person we choose to pursue. The dinners or movies or long walks serve the function of connecting us to someone desirable. Sometimes even difficult conversations, non-fun moments, are weathered by us as well, because we trust that the bonding they will produce is worth it.

But what would those activities be without the person? In our productivity-driven world, it would be hard to justify them regularly. Where does real rest fit in?  Is it only resigned to guilty pleasure, show binging, with repentance or sloth in tow?

The lure of productivity is that it will buy us security, happiness. Produce accomplished children, high-paid work, healthy ministry, a skinny version of ourselves? The pressure and expectations can feel crushing.

God understands and provides for this universal human condition by commanding rest in him. Yet when we hear this, we can feel the burden of still having all the demands, but now in less time! And then we may feel guilty that we feel that way about something we know is from God. What can be done?

We must remember, we were redeemed for wonderful things, not because of our “wonderful” selves.

This warm blanket of grace is at the heart of Sabbath. By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were taking Sabbath, a complete day off from all types of work, very seriously. Their ancestors had been exiled for their syncretism and Sabbath-breaking, so they determined to not offend God like that again. But they over-corrected: they added to God’s laws, and decided to police each other in their observance as opposed to letting God be the judge.

Into this stepped Jesus, to declare that the Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). It is meant as a blessing, not as another crushing expectation.

The original command came in the context of Israelites who were dependent on farming. I have never been a farmer, but my impression is that it would be unwise to take off one day a week, and downright insane to not work entire years. The only justification to do that is the word and promise of God, and the only way they would ever obey is to trust God’s character to back up his promises—even more than they trusted the wisdom of hard work and diligence. It was a huge risk.

The Sabbath to me is a is a place to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:7). Can God be trusted to take care of me? Am I willing embrace that I am weak, even where I appear the strongest? Am I willing to take the risk of rest in each season of my life?

Sabbath is not about a thing we do; it’s about a person we are learning to trust, because he has always been faithful. He asks us to rest, not because he wants to watch us squirm, but so that we can better receive the gift of knowing that He is God and we are not.

This is why the New Testament declares that Jesus is our Sabbath rest. He earned my salvation, I never could have, and I can rest from my striving for approval. This resting in salvation’s beginning then expands outward into my growing rest in him in my life.

I am free to approach the throne of grace and ask for a transformed heart, a hear that choose to rest in God; I am free to rest from my attempts to earn anything from him; I am free to rest from finding my security in things or people; I am free to rest from other people’s expectations, knowing that only God is my judge.

I’m no longer dating, now I’m married. I’m not having to wonder if he’s worth not-working for, because I experience the dual edge of enjoying the rest I find in spending time with my husband, and knowing that that time I spent is a good investment in the health of our relationship. And because I am married to an excellent man, he carves out time for me to get my work done, so I can rest without worry in his presence.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  As Augustine put it, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Waterless Places

Twice in the gospels, Jesus tells a story about a spirit, banished from a person, who wanders waterless places, and then returns to its previous host with seven other spirits even more evil. This parable had always perplexed me. So when I took Exegesis of Matthew, I decided to write my paper about it, and these are some things I discovered.

Most importantly, it must be understood based on its location. It functions differently in Matthew than it does in Luke, and this is only looking at Matthew. Jesus sums up the story by saying that the image describes “this evil generation,” the same words he uses in the pericope directly before it. The point of the spirit story is to say something about his opponents; it’s not simply a teaching on exorcism gone wrong.

In the sign of Jonah passage (Matt. 12:38-42), the religious elite were smarting from Jesus’s rebukes, and so they demand a sign from him, to prove himself authoritative. Jesus finds this request ridiculous, and so he begins to shame them, threefold. The spirit story, then, is the third shame pronounced. That is how it must be understood.

The first shame is that their request is denied. No special sign, only the one which God has chosen for them: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why is this a shame? For many reasons, but especially that it is a sign of judgment: they are so wicked and sinful that they need the death of Life to cleanse them. Now, if they were to accept this assessment and repent, it would not linger in shame but move to their forgiveness and glory. But the subsequent lines of Jesus reveal that this will not be the path they walk.

We see this next, where Jesus uses two Gentile examples of correct response to a lower revelation of God to humiliate the religious leaders. These scribes were Jewish, and possessed the oracles of God, and here stood before them the Promised One, God himself. But they were blind, hard hearted, and stupid even with their overwhelming advantages. Meanwhile, the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South were distinctly foreign, and saw only the outskirts of God, yet they marveled and humbled themselves. It’s as if Jesus asked, You think you’re better than them? Look at the evidence.

Which is where we finally come to the wandering spirit. Even though the man in this parable receives a spiritually beneficial act, the benefit comes to no lasting profit. He ends up, in fact worse. That is what these Jewish leaders were like. They had the immense spiritual benefit of Jesus Christ ministering in their midst, and he would offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for their cleansing. But it would, for many of them, not turn to profit. Rejecting him, they would forfeit their advantages and end up worse than they began, judged and condemned by the God they claimed to serve.

So what about us? We stand in an even greater place of privilege than those Jews. The Christ-event is accomplished in history behind us and interpreted for us in both the authoritative New Testament and in church history. The warning is clear: unless we hide under the protection of the atoning death of the humiliated Son of Man, Jesus as triumphant Son of Man will justly judge us condemned. We have no other ground to stand on: no personal righteousness pure enough, no spiritual experience fantastic enough, no church background robust enough to make us right with God outside of his Son.

Jesus spoke to “this generation” knowing that their hearts were hardened and that the majority of them would not turn to him but would instead participate in judging and rejecting him. However, there is hope held out to every person alive today that mercy can triumph over judgment. We see this in Hebrews 3, as that author reflected on the stubbornness of the archetypical Jewish generation, they who rebelled in the wilderness under Moses. Quoting Psalm 95, he tells his New Covenant readers to be unlike them: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

You do not have to be like the rebellious generations, even though rebellion lives in your own heart. Matthew 12:38-45 is a stern warning; let it awaken in you repentance and obedience to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, he who was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, and was raised victorious for you.

Tegan and Sara and Me

Tegan and Sara’s masterpiece, The Con, debuted on July 24, 2007, less than a month before I said my marriage vows.  Its beauty was the soundtrack of the life I’d said yes to.

Which is ironic, when you consider that the album’s opening track and one of my favorites, “I Was Married,” specifically celebrates the life I had said no to.

This song is delicate, inviting, warm; it eases you in to the pulsing of the rest of the album. The narrator faces crowds of people telling her that her marriage is evil; as Tegan and Sara are both lesbians the implications are clear.

One line resonates to this day in my heart: “Try to control the pull of one magnet/ to another/ magnet.”  They declare their love as natural, unstoppable, as magnetism, and I believed them.  I had felt that pull many times myself. My attraction to other women sprang up from within me, springs up from within me. It does feel like a magnet.

The joys, the stresses, and the awkwardness of my early marriage were a spiritual journey for me. Those days existed against many backgrounds of my early adulthood, but most starkly against the questions of Tegan and Sara, and the call to trust issued to me by my God. I can’t adequately say how many lines of this album felt shockingly personal.

“I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray / when I get a little scared.”

One track on the album, “Back in Your Head” includes some lines that haunted me. They sing, “I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray/when I get a little scared.” What they referenced was a romantic relationship, but what primarily worried me was my faithfulness to God. Hadn’t I committed adultery before, God my husband, when I got a little scared, when I got unsettled? Indeed, I had. There had been numerous times after giving my life to Christ that I had run back to the perceived joy, safety, of other women.

Would I be able to stop it in the future, now that he had given me a human husband as well? What would preserve me from double infidelity?

“Burn Your Life Down” also felt ominous, even as I couldn’t stop playing it. How often had I felt the car crash they spoke of, “I drive around the block and I'm not looking to my right/I feel the glass against my cheek and I can't see you in the light/I break my heart around it, break my heart around it.” I had been surprised enough times by my own sins, I had lost sight of Jesus in the destruction caused by my choices. I had broken my own heart.

“Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” 1 John 3:20. I didn’t have answers to the questions. What I had was a living God. My heart was accusing me, pressing me, but again and again I returned to Jesus who loved not some future better version of me, but the me sitting in questions and fear. He knows everything, and he is great. He overcame death and sin and shame. I could trust him; he called me into marriage and he would provide day by day.

I’m listening to The Con as I write; the album is ending as she says “I’ll start/ to wonder/ if this was the thing to do.” After ten years, both The Con and my marriage have weathered well. The first because of excellent production and musicality, the second by the grace and kindness of God. I don’t wonder anymore if trusting God over myself is the thing to do, he has proven himself more beautiful than the life I would have made, and he has the power to sustain me.