Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gay Image Bearers in the Church

Several friends have asked me lately about how, as a Christian, we need to think about the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. I can tell you how I think and the principles from Scripture along with the experiences from life that have shaped my response, but your response, gay or straight, has to be yours through the moving of the Holy Spirit through the Word. I hope something I write here is helpful to that end for readers.

I want to write about three things – my understanding of “gay pride,” my understanding of the Old and New Testament instructions forbidding gay sex, and a way forward that centers around discipleship on our essence as humans as image bearers of God.

On Gay Pride 

In talking with friends who experience same sex attraction, some who are practicing and some who are not, I have come to realize that the first reaction most any kid has to feelings of attraction to the same sex is not pride. The fundamental struggle youth have when they are not attracted to the opposite sex is despair. This is reflected in the recent round of public stories of gay teens committing suicide. Gay “pride” is a learned response, a reaction to the deep pain of feeling other. I encourage any believer reading this post to talk to friends or family who experience same sex attraction first hand before you talk much about it publicly. If you don't know anyone personally (though you most likely do), then read Wesley Hill's book, Washed and Waiting. We who don't experience same-sex attraction need to understand the issues from those who do, or we will be completely unhelpful to those working through this in the faith.

Whether someone decides to embrace a gay lifestyle or not, the feeling of otherness seems to remain for many gays. The secular outside world, even gay approving secular media, is dominated by relationships between men and women. (Stereotype alert!) For instance, romance novels and movies geared toward women reflect a romance between a man and woman 99.99% of the time. When every “chick flick” out there reflects a heterosexual relationship but you are a young woman attracted to other women, it makes you feel other, like not a chick at all. Movies geared toward females usually reflect a romance between a man and a woman and movies geared toward men reflect “manly” pursuits like war or fast cars. I agree these are stereotypes, but Hollywood and most media still use them for their primary money making ventures. Along with outside projections from media of otherness, there is the inside struggle as someone feels attractions that don't fit their body's design. Put the outside stereotypes together with the internal struggle, and I quickly understand why kids who first experience attraction to their own sex are moved to such deep despair as to take their own life. And I also understand why others want to put their orientation in a positive light, i. e. “gay pride.”

Frankly, if you experience same-sex attraction and hold to an orthodox view of Scripture, you are in essence embracing a life of suffering. Wesley Hill articulates this well in Washed and Waiting. He also inspired me to persevere in my own suffering, for if we understand anything of Jesus, such suffering is not a life sentence but a path forward. My friends who are gay but believe that God forbids gay sex are some of the most inspiring people I know. They understand a life of suffering, a life of sacrifice. The kind of life that C. S. Lewis and Elisabeth Elliot and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom got. The kind of life that endures in faith despite the pressures against it, for in that very endurance under pressure, they become diamonds in the Church.

On Old Testament Law 

The second thing I'm thinking about is the woeful misunderstanding people have of the relationship between Old Testament Law and sexual ethics. Oh my word – stop with the shellfish and mixed fabric discussion, please! People pull out the shellfish example and think that, “Poof,” they have disproven the entire discussion around gay sex in Scripture. I certainly can't fault those who don't profess faith in Christ for not understanding how the Old and New Testament work together. But it discourages me how many who do claim Christianity have an anemic understanding of how Jesus transforms our understanding of Old Testament law.

If you do believe that the Bible is God's authoritative Word for us today, here's a condensed explanation of the relationship between Old Testament law and our new covenant in Jesus. Jesus fulfilled (not abolished according to Jesus' own words) the law. It's particularly easy to understand how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial and ceremonial laws. These pointed to His coming sacrifice, and when He was actually sacrificed on the cross, the need for those laws was completed. We no longer, for instance, need to sacrifice a goat for the purification of our sins because Jesus was the final perfect sacrifice. The laws over the purification of sins have been fulfilled, because we have been purified once for all.

The New Testament also gives us long instruction, particularly in Acts, that we are no longer under the Old Testament dietary laws. So have at your shellfish and reject someone else's projection of hypocrisy on you in your application of Old Testament law. The Bible is the best commentary on itself, and it teaches us in a straightforward way that we are no longer under the dietary laws of the Old Testament. But what do we do with other laws? We naturally keep some because they still make complete sense for today. Put a bannister around your roof so no one falls over the side. God was the first to say this, but now our insurance companies make sure we do it on our raised decks and porches no matter what our convictions are about the Old Testament law for today.

What do we do then with the moral laws, particularly around sexual ethics? This is where John 8 is so helpful. There, Jesus interacts with the woman caught in adultery. She is thrown at Jesus' feet to be stoned consistent with the sexual laws of the Old Testament that include prohibition of gay sex. We see two things in this interaction. First, Jesus clearly removes the condemnation from the woman. He silences her accusers, and even more importantly says, “Neither do I condemn you.” He was GOD, and He alone had the right to pronounce judgement on her. Not only did He not condemn her, in just a short time, He personally paid the penalty of death that the Law pronounced over her for her sin of adultery. Note that, second, Jesus tells her to go and “sin no more.” Jesus both removed the condemnation from her while affirming the sexual ethic God declared in the law. That sexual ethic included not having sex with someone else's husband or anyone not your own spouse. It also included not having sex with someone of the same gender.

The New Testament goes on to repeat a good portion of the Old Testament moral code. Don't lie, don't murder, don't steal, don't have sex outside of marriage, don't have sex with the same gender, don't get drunk, etc. The Old Testament pronouncements of condemnation for such things are fulfilled in Christ. And we are clearly freed from practicing any of the sacrificial law and dietary restrictions. Yet Jesus and the Apostles affirmed the continued value of the sexual ethics presented in the Old Testament Law and repeatedly discipled believers to pursue sexual faithfulness in the context of traditional marriage.

The Way Forward 

What is the way forward then? There is the way forward for those who are not in the Church, the way forward for those who are in the Church, and the way forward for us as we interact with each other. I'm not a fan of politically legislating morality that does not directly affect another. As one friend said, “If you don't believe in gay marriage, then don't get gay married.” I've sat under one too many fundamentalist Christian dictators in my church and school settings to trust them to set my government policies. Our United States government was set up to protect us from religious dictators, and I am thankful for it.

My main concern is that Christians who hold convictions against gay marriage will be pressured, even forced, to participate in something or lose their business or ministry. But as a believer, I don't think that's necessarily the end of the world. In fact, when I think of fellow believers enduring much worse in other countries because they simply claim Christ, I am humbled. You may feel different about the possibility of future persecution, but that's my current feeling.

Personally, I'm burdened about a different aspect of the entire discussion around sexual identity and the Church. I am burdened that Christians have played into and supported male/female stereotypes every bit as much as Hollywood. We have for years presented an anemic, stereotypical version of manhood and womanhood in evangelical churches. But there is more to manhood than attraction to women and more to womanhood than attraction to men.

In the last decade in particular, the conservative American Church has pounded on the importance of traditional marriage. To many evangelical leaders, the answer to sinful hot sex outside of marriage was righteous hot sex inside marriage. If I didn't know better, by listening to some leaders I would think sex is the ultimate end all of the Christian experience, the great gift of God through marriage to which all of us should aspire. As I pointed out in my review of Real Marriage, the most vocal leaders of the last decade didn't seem to have a paradigm for a long term life of celibacy. Mark Driscoll joked regularly of his disdain for the celibate priests of his youth. Their lifestyle caused him to walk away from the Catholic church. All good and well if you are both attracted to the opposite sex and find someone in the faith of the opposite sex who is equally attracted to you. But even in the most healthy Christian marriages, there will be seasons of celibacy.

What do you do when your ministry focuses on extoling the value of hot sex in marriage and you suddenly lose your ability to participate in such hot sex in righteous ways? What do you do when you realize you are attracted to the same sex but you are convicted from Scripture that you cannot practice gay sex? Well, you join the party, because there has ALWAYS been a large percentage of the orthodox Church that has for one reason or another led a celibate life. And everyone one of them, male or female, single, widowed, disabled, or celibate by choice, equally reflect the image of God through their gender. Male and female, He created them. In His image. And the purpose of two genders reflecting the fullness of His character extends well past attraction between the genders.

Our church invited a panel of members to discuss this with our congregation. One was an elder who had participated in a gay lifestyle in Seattle before meeting his wife. One was a heterosexual single woman in her forties who had never been married. The other was a gay single guy who was choosing celibacy. My single female friend said that if someone had told her years ago she would be single into her forties, she would have said, “Shoot me now!” Yet, she testified of a full and vibrant life, filled with community and ministry opportunity. She is a happy, peace-filled woman. Celibacy had its problems for sure, but it wasn't a lifetime sentence to a lesser life. She is every bit a woman created in the image of God living out her likeness in Him.

I hope something in these thoughts is helpful to readers. I hope most of all that if you love someone facing their attraction to their own gender head on, that you can offer them hope for a satisfying, albeit sacrificial, life. If you are experiencing SSA right now and feel despair, I would love to hug you and tell you strongly that God has a good plan for your life. And that God really can fill your life with family and friends even if you choose celibacy. There are many inspiring folks who have gone on before you, and you will inspire others by your faithfulness as well. As I said, some of my greatest inspiration to persevere in the faith despite my own suffering (which has nothing to do with SSA) are my friends who have persevered in the faith with theirs. They are a great “cloud of witnesses.”

I recommend Wesley Hill's Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship if you want to read more on this topic.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

To Whom Much Has Been Given: Reflections on Race

I am a white woman, raised in South Carolina, talking about race. I
face a number of easy pitfalls when writing on this subject. I am more aware than not of the pitfalls. For I have fallen in them many times while trying to better understand racial struggles, particularly while working with our PTA on the issue at my boys' school. Even when trying to HELP, I have sometimes harmed. When trying to create access, I have at times put up unseen barriers. When trying to speak carefully to heal, I sometimes speak ignorantly in ways that harm. I have some gracious friends of color who have gently pointed such things out to me, and I am thankful for them. Pitfalls surround me as I talk about this, yet I feel burdened by two Bible principles that push me to speak, to act, to put off complacency and get engaged in the struggle. To put off the fear of saying something wrong and just say something rather than choosing the safety of quiet and its friend, complacency, that often follows in its wake.

There are many angles in our current news cycle from which we could approach a discussion of race. Issues around the Charleston massacre and the confederate flag have eclipsed discussion of police brutality the last few weeks. I will eventually talk about the dear souls in the Charleston massacre whose grace makes me weep each time I think about it. But this post, around police brutality, has been percolating for a while, and I finally feel I can put some thoughts into words.

Bible principle number 1 is that those in authority are always called in Scripture to restrain their authority for the good of those they serve and protect. Be it parents, elders, husbands, police --- authority was always given for the GOOD of those under the authority, and authority was given to SERVE those under their authority. At some point in conservatism, we reacted against those we counted as rebellious against authority with a dogmatic glorification of authority. But Jesus says that leaders must serve. The hallmark of authority in the Kingdom of God is self-sacrificing service. The hallmark of authority in the Kingdom of God is BENEFIT for those under them.
Eph. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 
Eph. 6: 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger … 
I Peter 3:7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. 
I Peter 5 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 
Matthew 20:25-28 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Consider also Bible principle number 2 – to whom much is given, much more is required. With privilege comes responsibility. With greater privilege comes greater responsibility.
Luke 12:48 … Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
At this point I must, as a white woman, consider what benefits being white has afforded me. By the mere fact that I was born white in the United States, evidence shows I received an advantage over my peers of color born in the same circumstances, the same city of the same family income level. I actually know without a doubt that I was privileged to be born white in my circumstances in my particular home town. My circumstances are so crystal clear, particularly around the access to education I had in my home town that my black peers did not, no one had to work to convince me of my own white privilege. I don't care to deal in debth publicly with those circumstances, but I think about them privately a good bit.

Couple principle number 2, to whom much is given, much more is required, with principle number 1, that authorities given by God need to restrain their authority to serve those under their protection, and you start to see a Biblical philosophy form, particularly around the issue of police brutality. First, no one can brush such brutality aside by saying that the person under authority shouldn't have been doing whatever they were doing in the first place. Again and again, this view results in sifting through the background of victims of police brutality to expose whatever character flaws and moral issues one can find. When I see memes of this nature (“Just don't break the law”), I want to spit. Of course, we should all be obeying the law! But disobedience by one under authority never justifies disobedience by the one in authority over them. Never, ever, ever. It isn't just the restraints in our constitution that should keep us from such reasoning, for God Himself calls the one with greater authority to greater restraint. 

We understand such restraints in some relationships. When my child hits me in a tantrum, I am not justified in responding in kind. I am called to be measured in my response every last time, and if I feel that I am losing control, I need to step back until I regain self-control and can reengage in the conflict as the mature one of authority called to deescalate the conflict and discipline the child. The entire point of authority is to restrain sin and evil, not heap new sin and new evil on top of a conflict. And if you can't navigate that difference, you do not have the maturity needed to be in authority.  With authority comes responsibility.

I worked with our neighborhood crime council briefly a few years ago. I met several kind, thoughtful police officers that were very helpful in our community. I also met a very rude, unhelpful officer that seemed primed to escalate, not deescalate, a conflict. As each of us, black or white, engage our voices for the good of our communities, the second type of officer will be exposed and disciplined so that the first type of officer becomes the norm in our precincts. But as God's kingdom comes and His will is done, this type of restraint of authority should characterize each of us more and more in whatever roles we play in leading/serving/protecting another in an authority relationship. We all have a responsibility to use the gifts and access we've been given for the good of all in our communities.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”    Cornel West  (HT: www.graceseattle.org)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Withering Wives

I am noticing a concerning trend among friends and acquaintances in Christian marriages far and near. It's what I call the Withering Wife.
Psalm 128 
1 Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! 
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. 
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. 
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
It's the opposite of the beautiful vision of Psalm 128. At first it was one friend, then two, then four, and now it seems daily my attention is drawn to yet another wife in this condition. Instead of being a fruitful, flourishing vine, I can see her withering under the hot sun. No water comes her way, and instead there is cracking dry ground at her roots. Her leaves start to furl into themselves, and her vibrant color fades. She goes through the motions. She starts to shut down. Why stay engaged when she receives no encouragement or emotional support?

There are two things that contribute to this withering – active scorn and passive neglect by a husband. Some husbands freely communicate to their wives that they despise them. One friend shared with me how in the middle of a conversation in which her husband talked to her with scorn, he picked up the phone and completely changed his tone of voice to one of kindness and respect with the other party on the phone, and even in conflict at work on the phone, she heard a patient tone that he never used with her. She longed to hear him engage with her that way, but he felt free instead to despise and dismiss her with his tone of voice as well as his words. He talked to her in a way he would never use with anyone else.

There is also passive neglect. This is when a wife's needs are simply ignored. The wife may share tearfully that she is struggling, and the husband shuts her down with his lack of response. Or he says they will talk later but never does. He communicates passively that her emotional struggles are not worth him engaging. He sees her struggling with the children, but he doesn't actively step in. I ache watching loved ones demoralized by being in partnership with someone who sees them struggling day after day, but the only way to get them to engage is to have a near melt down.

On the flip side, I also note strong marriages among loved ones. I note particularly in these marriages that husbands NOTICE. They are proactive. Notice what, you may ask. What are they proactive about? Well, that depends on the marriage. That depends on their wife. Peter exhorts husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way. In other words, understand your wife. Know her loves. Know her gifts. Know her needs. And your wife's needs aren't necessarily going to be the same as whatever illustration your pastor just gave in his sermon about his wife. The gospel is so needed here, because a wife's needs can quickly feel threatening to a husband. A husband can't find his identity in his wife any more than she can her husband. But if a husband is secure in Christ so that he does not feel threatened by his wife's concerns, there is great room to know his wife even when her needs and gifts don't at first fit a husband's desires or expectations.

If you are at this crossroads, husbands, I wrote before on praying with your wives. This is such an easy, hopeful, helpful first step. Even if it's just once a week on a Saturday or Sunday morning, ask your wife, “What's burdening you right now? What can I be praying for you?” Then right there with her, pray about it. That is an incredible ministry of grace to her in that moment. It's water for her withering vine. If it's something about you that's stressing her, well, pray honestly with her about it. If you as a couple have any kind of faith, you must believe that you access supernatural help in that moment.

I could give a second step (because there will very likely be some second step that needs to take place once you get up from prayer), but I think it's better if I leave the second step to the Spirit who works after the first step in a couple's heart according to their needs for their specific relationship.

This dynamic of course does not characterize all relationships. As I said, I know many great husbands of flourishing wives, and it is perhaps that I get to watch those healthy relationships that also helps me notice dysfunction in others. And there are wives who likely need to notice their husbands. But today, in case you haven't considered this lately, husbands, I encourage you to look over at your wife and notice her. If she is withering, take the steps you need to stir up your own love and concern for her and then be a conduit of God's grace to her that will revive her.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Learning for the Future from the Duggars

One of the most important things I've learned over the last few years (and am still learning) is to listen well to people directly affected by some topic or circumstance that I want to write on. I like to find people to read or talk to who share the big points of my faith in Christ and my confidence in the Bible as authoritative for today but who have first hand experience with something that I am thinking about in more general terms.

When talking about race relations, I have come to deeply value Thabiti Anyabwile's and Anthony Bradley's public writings. We share the same faith, but they have an experience of race as black men that I can't fully understand as a white woman. I need their perspective. I also have a number of African-American friends that aren't public personalities. They have helped me understand white privilege and the subtle slights many blacks still experience regularly in a way I could have never understood on my own.

On the issue of homosexuality, I see Wesley Hill as a gift to the Church. His writing has certainly been a gift to me. I have other friends I won't name who are closer to home. They teach me from first hand experience the deep struggle for identity when the natural attraction so many of us take for granted is not natural at all for them. We share core convictions around the sexual ethics that Scripture requires, but they open my eyes to a struggle I can't really understand without experiencing it first hand.

The issue in my news feed repeatedly right now is sexual molestation by Josh Duggar. There are a myriad of voices speaking into this subject. A few still defend the family, but the vast majority I read are quite critical. But within the criticism, there are a wide variety of voices as well. The voices that I most value are those from men and women with whom I agree on the core doctrines of Christianity. I struggle to read commentary from those with no understanding of grace or forgiveness. And I struggle to read commentary from those who do understand forgiveness through Christ but don't really understand the complicated issues around incest and molestation in the home.

Thankfully, there are good resources from those who have experienced sexual abuse and have a strong faith in God and confidence in His Word. Mary Demuth has become a respected voice on this topic to me. I also have a few unnamed women in my life who have experienced this first hand. I value their insight deeply and defer to their feedback when I write around this subject.

I have been thinking a lot on two particular facets of the Duggar's story. The first is the violation to the victims that the Freedom of Information Act allows. I have a friend closer to home who was raped as a young adult. The press were able to access her address through the Freedom of Information Act, and I wept to hear her description of them hounding her AT HER HOME to get information from her about her rape.

Media sought my friend out for a statement because there was a public scandal surrounding her rapist and his fraternity. Similar to the Duggars, the media felt entitled to harass her because it was a story with public interest. The law prohibits the media from publishing a victim's name, but it doesn't prohibit them from getting their hands on personal information and contacting or harassing the victim. The law also doesn't prohibit publishing information that hints at the victim's identity, which happened in the case of the Duggar daughters. There are just no words for this second violation of victims, and information that can identify victims should never, never, never be released to the media.

The second issue I've been thinking about is what I see as a very natural desire as a parent to protect your child from the label of sexual offender and how that led to choices that backfired and resulted in far more stigma and attention for Josh Duggar. In a similar situation as the Duggars, I likely would have also wanted to shield my son from the police and try to get help from people I thought would keep my privacy. I would want to do my best IN HOUSE for my child who did this thing and my children who were affected by it. I get that natural desire. But in the end, that effort (coupled with the unwise choice to expose your family to reality television) backfired.

There is a road to walk when a crime has been committed, even if it is a crime committed by a juvenile. And it is much wiser to walk with our children down that path than to try to find a different one for them to take. If you are white and privileged, there are often options for avoiding arrest and legal consequences that other juveniles regularly face. But the fact that you can avoid consequences does not make that the best choice. As embarassing as it might be to have a juvenile arrest and conviction for sexual molestation, it's powerful to be able to say as an adult that you faced it head on and dealt with the consequences at the time you committed the act, that you agreed with the court on the seriousness of the crime you committed and you took the steps you needed to make sure you never did it again.

The media (especially that around reality television) is atrocious. They are vile and exploitive. They set up a niave family for stardom because it would make them money and pounced upon them when they fell for the same reason, never with concern of the cost for the smallest in the household. Now, there are five young girls/women who have had their most vulnerable moment exposed to the world, and it makes me sick from every angle. Whatever value we might see from this exposure, no one had the right to do this to them, taking away the last bit of autonomy they had around this subject.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Talking Me Off the Ledge

I hesitate to use the title, Talking Me Off the Ledge, out of concern for those with suicidal loved ones or suicidal thoughts themselves. But I decided to keep it, because it is an accurate description of the emotional and spiritual role godly friends have played in my life over the last year in particular. I haven't stood physically on the ledge, ready to end my life. But I have felt many times of late that I was emotionally and spiritually on the ledge, that if I could have figured out a way to quit a life of faith, I would have. But the words of the disciples in John 6 have been true for me.
“Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” John 6:68
I haven't left the faith because God hasn't let me. I haven't quit because God won't accept my resignation. I have been kept in the faith by the God who promises He will not lose any of His own.

In those moments of despair, God has repeatedly sent me friends and family who have talked me off the emotional ledge. They have been God's hands and feet, the body to Jesus' head, that have held me and talked to me until I walked back into the safety of the room, feeling like I could face the overwhelming struggle around me. I have had enough of these conversations over the last year to notice some common elements.

1. Their faith is strong enough not to feel threatened by my fear and unbelief in the moment.

2. They are safe. They don't minimize my struggle, but listen and then talk me through it without shame or condemnation that I am in that place (or in that place yet again after talking to them about the exact same struggle last week).

3. Most have gone through their own crisis of belief in the midst of suffering and can truly empathize with me.

4. They understand the point of the angry psalms, God's gift of grace to us who struggle through pain that does not reconcile easily.

5. They believe and hope for me until I can do it again for myself. They pray for me in hope and confidence in God, and through their prayers, God ministers His grace to me.

Like the paralytic man lowered by his friends through the roof to meet Jesus, such friends point us to Christ when we feel too weak to seek Him out by ourselves.  They bear our burdens with us when we feel overwhelmed carrying them alone.  And they do it as Christ's hands and feet.

We all need friends who will talk us off the ledge, who aren't threatened or horrified by the depths of our deep emotions when we are in crisis. We all need people who will calmly respond to us and help us fact check when we are overcome with emotion. We need these people in our lives, and we need to BE these people in the life of our friends.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!