Thoughts from Basilicas

(photo: wikimedia commons)

Gazing at the Pietá, the morning’s Bible reading came to mind:

…we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

-Isaiah 53:4-5

Apparent defeat can be a hidden victory. Only through death could Jesus atone for God’s people in every way. Only through death could Jesus defeat death and rise again. It’s hard to believe this figure is made of marble: He looks emaciated, broken, limp. Yet, there is a hidden weightiness, solidity, permanency to this crucified body. By being killed, the Christ defeated death.

The basilicas do declare this victory-through-defeat. There are thousands of crosses. Every surface seems to show rejected prophets or revered martyrs. The towering altars frame bread and wine that are to represent a self-sacrificing Lord. At the same time, every painting, every statue, every column, every tile, every nook and cranny is gilt, glamorous, martyrdom married to magnificence.

In one way, this makes sense to me. If anything is worth celebrating, this is. If this is the body and blood of Christ, then what expense would we spare to honor God’s great gift to us? If these are those who died in faith, then perhaps we should remember them when it seems God has vindicated His people.

Yet, in another way, grand basilicas trouble me. Surely God Himself will remember those who have died in faith, but the great vindication is yet to come. The cross was a hidden victory; our grandeur is often victory premature. The Church (that is, the people) is not complete, nor is the Church’s work. In this age between the Savior and salvation, true victory will still often seem like defeat, because there is still an Adversary. Many are still captive, our Family still suffers, we must still strive to love like God.

I am not necessarily for tearing apart cathedrals. Whatever mix of motives the thousands of benefactors, bishops, and builders may have had, there is a message here about the glory of God. However, we must simultaneously remember that a cinderblock building in a dusty corner of India where the Spirit has arrived can declare as clearly that God is great and good.

The first time I came to this city, I worried about whether these buildings should have been built. On second thought, non one is asking me, so I needn’t give it too much thought. The question for me is: How do I live in a world of both happiness and hunger, beauty and bereavement, magnificence and martyrdom? I don’t build churches, but we are all called to build the Church. This will take thoughtfulness, meekness, generosity. It will take a stomach for victories that the world discounts as defeats but that God uses for good. As it is written:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it…if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.

-1 Corinthians 3:10, 12-13

Wine and the Kingdom of God

I hope you don’t mind if I talk about wine. We had one full day in Serbia, which probably meant I’d have one glass of wine, which meant I needed to read an article to learn about my options to make the most of our one lunch. In the end, thanks to my somewhat lazy decision to show up in Serbia knowing no Serbian, I have no idea where the good wine in my glass came from—Serbia, Portugal, or, for that matter, the Yakima Valley. It came in a tiny carafe, and I did not understand the menu.

Nonetheless, I’ll fondly recall the meal, and the wine article will stick with me:

Serbia…lies between the northern latitudes of 41 and 47 degrees, placing it comfortably within the “Wine Belt”—the latitudes within which quality viniculture is deemed practicable. In Western Europe this location corresponds to the area bounded by France’s Loire Valley in the north and Spain’s Duero in the south…

Serbian wine is not often seen on international markets, although there is no question that it has the potential for high-quality viniculture. The over-riding factor in this is the political and cultural unrest that has been so persistent in this region for centuries. War and instability do little to encourage winemaking; not only do they make vineyards appear as risky, long-term investments, they also dull the inspiration required to tend vines and turn their fruit into wine…

Most wine literature focuses on the natural forces involved in wine: the climatological (temperature, sunshine hours, wind, rain), the geological (topography, aspect, soil composition) and the biological (vine characteristics, varietal qualities), but very little examines man’s relationship with wine and the vine at its most basic level. Without stability and creative freedom, wine production rarely progresses beyond the limits of necessity. This is borne out by the disparity between the ancient and modern winemaking activities in Serbia, and across the Balkan states. When a workable solution is found for the political situation in this region, Serbia may well emerge as one of Europe’s great wine regions.

“Serbian Wine,” wine-searcher.com

Now, I know we hope for more acute things. We hope for no more attacks on trains, no more attacks with trucks, no more attacks by police, no more attacks of police. However, we also hope for this: Not just the end of the bad but also the flourishing of the good. The richness of the God’s Kingdom will often emerge in excellent ordinary things.

Here’s what strikes me about Serbian wine: The climate is right, the soil is right, the heritage is there. The problem is what people have done to this region. It reminds me of a key passage in Romans 8:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

-Romans 8:18-25

The Wine-Searcher author hopes for “a workable solution…for the political situation in this region.” A workable solution may develop quickly, but an ultimate solution is only promised and sure in the future reign of Jesus Christ. Much will be transformed; yet, as N.T. Wright argued in the passages from Monday’s blog post, this world is the world that God will renew. These vines will learn to flourish again, these cities will be put back together, these people will be raised from the dead, these peoples will be reconciled. Our hope is not alchemy, that all the wine in God’s Kingdom will be turned to $1000 bottles at the touch of a magic wand. Our hope is King Jesus, who will restore a world in which there’s time for long-term, risky investments and space for inspiration.

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Here or Heaven?

A friend recently asked me, “What book has most changed your theology in the last couple years?” and I had to answer, “N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.” Wright argues (convincing me) that while in some sense “to depart and be with Christ…is far better” (Philippians 1:23), while in the “Father’s house are many rooms” and Christ went there to “prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-3), heaven is only our intermediate hope. Our great hope, our ultimate hope, is the resurrection: Not just waking up “there,” but bodily resurrection here, and, more over, our Lord’s arrival. I recommend this very readable book; consider the case for yourself.

This month, I’ve finally found the time to read The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright’s nerdier book in which he examines many of the texts that animate Surprised by Hope. He addresses some of my reservations about his thesis, namely: What about heaven? Why are we told to focus on heaven, where our citizenship is, to long for the day when we “will be caught up together…in the clouds to see the Lord in the air”?

These Biblical ideas fit together, but it’s probably best to take them one at a time. Take, for example, this passage from Colossians. If our hope is not in being taken to heaven, then why does Paul say this:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.

-Colossians 1:3-5

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

-Colossians 3:2

Wright does not shy away from this verse. In fact, he believes it is central to Paul’s message in Colossians. However, he explains:

The introductory thanks-giving emphasizes ‘the hope which is stored up for you in the heavens’ (1:5), which, as we shall see with other similar phrases, does not mean that Christians must leave ‘earth’ and go to ‘heaven’ in order to make this hope their own, but that ‘heaven’ is where the divine purposes for the future are stored up, waiting to be brought to birth in the new reality, the new age in which heaven and earth will be joined in a fresh way

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 5456

He later comments:

If I assure my guests that there is champagne for them in the fridge I am not suggesting that we all need to get into the fridge if we are to have the party.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 8398

Wright is not arguing against the promise that our hope is in heaven. Rather, he is arguing against the assumption that our hope is in going to heaven. Certainly, our hope is not in ourselves or our world; our hope is in God. Yet, God has already promised us and shown us that He delights to work in this world, through His Son, through His Spirit, through His word, through His people. All our hope is energized by heaven—or, better, by God, whose work is unopposed in heaven and breaking in here.

What about the declaration that our citizenship is in heaven? Does this not mean that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”? Heavenly citizenship is a solidly Biblical truth:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

-Philippians 3:20-21

Here, Wright draws on his research of 1st c. life to suggest that the Philippian recipients would not have understood “citizenship” to mean that they were on a holiday on earth, just waiting for their return flight to heaven. That’s not how their Roman citizenship worked:

the Roman citizens whose forebears had originally colonized Philippi were there to stay. Their task was to live in the colony by the rules of the mother city, not to yearn to go home again. What they might need from time to time was not a trip back to Rome, but for the emperor to come from Rome to deliver them from any local difficulties they might be having. That is the model Paul is drawing on

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 5272

This citizenship goes with us, even if we now have a new home. A bit like the U.S. passport that gave Annie and me up to 90 days in Serbia when our train crossed the border last week, so our heavenly citizenship gives us freedom from sin, life in the Spirit, a promise of resurrection, a future inheritance, even here.

Finally, what of the anticipation quoted above, that the dead will be raised and those who are alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”? Here it is with a bit more context:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

-1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Again, Wright describes the image this would have evoked in 1st c. recipients’ minds:

the point here is that the ‘meeting’—another almost technical term in the Greek—refers, not to a meeting after which all the participants stay in the meeting-place, but to a meeting outside the city, after which the civic leaders escort the dignitary back into the city itself.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 4975

Our hope is in heaven, but our hope is coming here, because our hope is the Lord Jesus Christ. We can focus on heaven today because we are citizens of heaven today; what God’s people get we get because we are God’s people now. That includes this promise: God is coming soon. When King Jesus appears, the dead will be raised, and we will greet Him, not to be whisked away, but rather to be led, to be renewed, to be mobilized, to be employed in the remaking of this world. Our hope is there, but it is ours here, and our hope will unmistakably arrive in time.

Why Obey?

When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.”

-Deuteronomy 6:20-25

Moses seems to have known what kind of questions children ask. They might not say, in as many words, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded us?” but will almost certainly ask the same question in its abbreviated form: “Why?”

“Why mom?” “Why dad?” or perhaps the forms we start using as adults: “Why pastor?” Why God?” “Why obey?

It’s a very good question, not necessarily disrespectful or rebellious, often wanting to know: Why obey God? Deuteronomy gives a great answer, for children and adults. We obey because God has been good to us and wants what’s good for us.

Sometimes we have to obey when we can’t see why. Sometimes we have to obey when it seems costly. Nonetheless, God’s commandments are not essentially arbitrary tests to see whether we like him enough or not. God’s commandments are “for our good always, that he might preserve us alive.” They are “righteousness for us.” We obey God because he wants what’s good for us.

We trust that God wants what’s good for us because God has been good to us. Yes, we are asked to have faith, but only in a God who has proved Himself faithful.

In the heat of the moment, there are a lot of answers we could give our kids to the never-ending “why?” In fact, in the heat of the moment, there are a lot of answers we give ourselves. Yet, we will most want to obey, most be able to obey, most benefit from obeying God when we remember that this is the God who has been good to us and who wants what’s good for us. He’s not jerking us around. He has freed us and He knows us; He loves us and He has shown us. This is why we can delight to obey.

A Feast Makes Sense to Me

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

-Isaiah 25:6-9

Right in the middle of this bleak section of Isaiah, there’s this visceral, hopeful vision of God’s promise: A feast. This makes sense to me (and, frankly, it’s in the middle of some promises—e.g., vicious judgment—that don’t quite make sense to me, though I trust God nonetheless). This kind of day, not only full of food and wine but also full of friends and celebration, is worth waiting years for. On that day, it will be easy to say what’s hard to say now: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.”

Right in the middle of this bleak section of world history, we too have this promise. In America: Police shootings, in both senses. In France: Another terrorist attack. In Turkey: A night of the citizens fighting the army. Nonetheless, God is still God, and this promise is closer than it was yesterday.

Rich food and well-aged wine don’t necessarily mean white tablecloths. A feast is any time there’s more good than one can take in—food, perhaps, but people, more so. I can think of a few “feasts” from our time in Seattle this summer, when friends or family were gathered and I wanted to throw my watch away, when I wanted hours with each person and the moments overflowed with more than I could savor.

God’s promised feast will be a feast of new friends, even former enemies. God will swallow up “the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.”

God’s promised feast will go and go. “He will swallow up death forever.” There will be time to make these friends and cherish them, time without end.

This morning, we had breakfast at a “ruin bar” in Budapest. It’s a ruined building, turned into a gathering place. The espresso machine was hissing. A farmers’ market was buzzing. A quartet was bouncing. Families were chatting. Friends were laughing. Something broken was made new, and so shall our world be: No longer a ruin, now a place to cherish friends and celebrate God.

“It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’”

I Hold On Too Tight

Here’s one of my failures: I’m often least content in the most abundance. Specifically, when I’m on vacation, dread slowly seeps through me—dread of not being on vacation. It’s absurd, and wrong, really. In clutching what I want, I never enjoy holding it at all.

1 Timothy suggests that this is an age-old problem, not only with vacation, but with good times in general. When we’re rich, it’s easy to feel proud, despite the fact that when we’re proud of being rich, we’re clutching an extremely fragile hope. That’s why Paul tells Timothy:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

-1 Timothy 6:17-19

Rich times are good times to get over wealth. Teaching our hearts to be content, grateful, and full in lean times not only prepares us for having less, it also frees us to enjoy the abundance we happen to be in now.

Giving away is a good way to get over wealth. Paul promises that through generosity we “store up treasure for ourselves as a good foundation for the future”: Perhaps because those with whom we share will want to share with us. Perhaps because the God for whom we’re generous will want to be generous with us. Perhaps simply because by being “rich in good works” we “take hold of that which is truly life.”

Without a trustworthy God, we couldn’t distrust riches. Here’s the parallel warning: Without distrusting riches, we can’t really trust God. Only in moving our hope from riches to God will we “learn the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” If we are in Christ, we need not and most not truly fear the end of any earthly thing, because God—not wealth—offers us that which is truly life.

Nothing Has Nothing to Do With Religion

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

-Romans 12:2

When is it appropriate for our minds to start processing a tragedy, even as our hearts still grieve it? I’m sad for those who love those killed in Orlando last month, for those wounded and traumatized, for a city terrified, for the LGBT community feeling targeted, for the Muslim community receiving threats.

I’m also thinking about how we got here, and whether anything in our national mindset leaves us particularly vulnerable to reading these headlines over and over again. It is beyond us to exterminate evil; yet, we can actually change ourselves, our communities, and our larger society.Hours after the Orlando attack, a news story carried a quote from someone close to Omar Mateen that I believe we should reconsider: “This had nothing to do with religion.” That morning, I didn’t know whether Mateen was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheist, but I worry that the well-intentioned, well-worn sentiment (often meant to keep hate from begetting hate) is leading us astray.

Mateen could have killed those 49 victims from a “Christian” religious framework–I would quickly add, “not my Christian framework,” but some sort of Christian understanding or misunderstanding. As it turns out, he wanted to be associated with the so-called Islamic State–many Muslims would quickly add, “not my Islam,” and rightly so. Nonetheless, Mateen still made decisions in the inescapable (if confused) context of a religious framework: An understanding of what life is, why we live it, where we go, who can judge us, how to succeed, what matters, etc. This would be true even if Mateen were the only adherent to an idiosyncratic religious understanding, though I suspect he’s found a group of kindred spirits in ISIS.

Is there really anything that has nothing to do with religion? I think George Lindbeck, an influential Yale theologian, would say “no.” His book The Nature of Doctrine deeply influenced my understanding of how religion works in society; it convinced me that religion–“worldview,” perhaps, because we’re talking about atheism and agnosticism too–is as much unconscious as conscious. Religion effects us on every level, and different religious understandings effect us differently. As Lindbeck says,

Adherents of different religions do not diversely thematize the same experience; rather they have different experiences. Buddhist compassion, Christian love and—if I may cite a quasi-religious phenomenon—French Revolutionary fraternité are not diverse modifications of a single fundamental human awareness, emotion, attitude, or sentiment, but are radically (i.e., from the root) distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos.

-George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, p.40

Nothing has nothing to do with religion. You might think bacon has nothing to do with religion, but only if your religion is not Islam or Judaism. You might think surgery has nothing to do with religion, but only if your religion is not Christian Science of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Go to Mumbai and try denying that lunch (veg vs. non-veg), makeup (bindi vs no bindi), and walking down the street (dodging countless parades and processions) have to do with religion. Go to Kyoto and try denying that parks (that is, temples and shrines), foodie destinations (shojin ryori), and visiting relatives (bringing oranges for the butsadan?) have to do with religion. If you think something has nothing to do with religion, it’s because your religion considers it insignificant. Even in this way, nothing has nothing to do with religion.

Here, I think I should clarify: I’m not saying, “This is why people should follow Christ and not Muhammad.” I’m well aware the consequentialist argument could be turned against Christians or Atheists. What Lindbeck shows us is that not only do Hindus and Atheists (for example) understand the world in fundamentally different ways, so do Sunnis and Shiites, so might the members of First Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church of Mayberry, USA. What I’m saying is, “This is why what we believe matters.”

Rest assured, we can maintain a commitment to embrace those with whom we disagree and by whom we are troubled, even while differentiating between beliefs and judging between actions. That’s the central argument of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace:

I want to address this question now by making a distinction between differentiation and exclusion, which in turn will lead to a distinction between exclusion and judgment, and then suggesting a profile of a self capable of making non exclusionary judgments. Such non exclusionary judgments passed by persons willing to embrace the other are what is needed to fight exclusion successfully.

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embracep.65

In fact, we must differentiate between better and worse beliefs, judge between better and worse actions, if we are to commit ourselves to what is good. Only by understanding what is loving and unloving can we love. We need to maintain the right–the responsibility!–of non exclusionary judgment. Volf continues:

I do not reject exclusion because of a contingent preference for a certain kind of society, say the one in which people are ‘able to work out their private salvations, create their private self-images, reweave their webs of belief and desire in the light of whatever new people and books they happen to encounter” (Rorty 1989, 85). I reject exclusion because the prophets, evangelists, and apostles tell me that this is a wrong way to treat human beings, any human being, anywhere, and I am persuaded to have good reasons to believe them.

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embracep.68

I believe that this is why Romans 12 (long before Lindbeck, Volf, or yours truly) calls us to “be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” If what the prophets, evangelists, and apostles really teach really renewed our minds, we would not shoot people, not hate people, not exclude people, not nurse a grudge, not take revenge. We would try to discern and live by the will of God, “what is good and acceptable and perfect,” and we would lovingly tell others about the truths that have transformed us.

 

My point is not that Atheism or Islam is “the problem.” My point is that our mistaken beliefs–including our mistaken religious beliefs, including our mistaken “Christian” beliefs–keep us from living as we were meant to live. We are all in desperate need of change: Not a change from commitments to relativism but rather a change from who we are to who Christ would have us be, who Christ Himself is, in deed, word, and thought. Beliefs matter, ours and others’. This we must not forget.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Unreasonable, Holy, Loving Sexual Ethics

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

-1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

We all seem reasonable to ourselves, and we all want to be considered reasonable by others. This is especially true when it comes to controversial questions about sexuality: What we think about sex before marriage, same-sex marriage, adultery, divorce, re-marriage. These issues each involve unique circumstances, but they’re all questions of “sexuality” because they each involve a similar, emotionally-laden question: Who should have a sexual and/or romantic relationship with whom? Should this person and this person? Should this person and that person? What about that person and that person? Because these questions are so personal, we tend to feel passionate, but we also try to sound reasonable.

Many of us craft our stances on sexual questions more carefully than anything else, and we’re often shocked when other people who tend to feel passionate and try to be reasonable don’t find our stances reasonable at all. We come into these conversations convinced that those who disagree with us will see how reasonable we are if we put it just right and if they will just listen, but it rarely turns out that way. Perhaps we fight because we don’t sound reasonable to one another at all. Perhaps we don’t sound reasonable to one another because expecting ourselves to sound reasonable comes from actually believing we’re right. Perhaps, if we both believe we’ll sound reasonable and we both we believe we’re right about an ultimately binary question (that is, either these two people should have a romantic/sexual relationship or should not), then we simply disagree.

Actually, it’s highly likely that we often will disagree. My worry is, many Christians are urgently unprepared for such an unpopular conclusion.

Being prepared to simply disagree does not mean we need to content ourselves to always disagree. Taking a pure “live and let live” position is to beg the question, because “live and let live” is one of stances on each particular question; it’s the “these two people should have a romantic/sexual relationship (if they want to)” choice. No, being prepared to simply disagree means we need to content ourselves with seeming unreasonable.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is not whether this person and this person or that person and that person should have sex. The questions are all different, and it’s premature to simply be for less sex and romance or for more sex and romance. For example, if we’re talking about adultery, I’m against it, in every circumstance. If we’re talking about re-marriage, I’m often for it, especially if it means hurt people entering into a restorative, godly relationship that will pay dividends for the whole family and community. The first question is not whether we’re for more sex and romance or less sex and romance, nor is this case, that case, or the other. It’s this: Whose desire is the key to the right answer in this case, that case, and the other: Mine or God’s?

We need to decide, right out of the ethical gate, whether a person’s desire or God’s desire determines what is right, fitting, and good. Furthermore, we should be honest about the ethical framework in which we’re operating.

Following Jesus Christ is not an a la carte affair. If we want to be part of what He is doing, part of the chef’s choice is that God’s people value what God wants above what they want. It’s paired with the promise that though we may be served things we never would have ordered, God knows what’s good for us, wants what good for us, and has what’s good for us. If God does know best (and I believe He does), then His way is the most “reasonable”; nonetheless, we need to come to terms with God’s way seeming unreasonable in the present age. 1 Thessalonians 4, above, says as much: “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

To those who don’t care what God wants, what God wants will rarely seem reasonable. So, if our top priority is to understand and practice “what God wants,” then trying to craft the perfectly “reasonable” approach will fail us as often as not. We’d be better off trying to craft a “holy” approach, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”

It’s time to let go of coming across as reasonable; it’s better to strive to come across as loving, that even if people consider us totally unreasonable because we put all our stock in “this supposed god,” it could all the while be said (as Paul says to the Thessalonians in the very next verse):  “concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” In fact, “unreasonable, holy, and loving” sound like fitting descriptors of disciples who follow a Lord who fulfilled the Law, suffered death on a cross, and rose from the dead to lead His people today.

 

Struggle the Good Struggle of the Faith

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

-1 Timothy 6:12

In my Bible, the translators note that one could also say, “struggle the good struggle of the faith.” This reminds me of a book I read last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

It was a short but challenging read. I don’t know quite what to make of Coates’ advice to his son about being a black man in America. I don’t fully understand where I fit. Nonetheless, it’s a beautifully-written, troubling story, a troubling story we all inhabit and help write. Coates calls his son to “struggle,” and he declares that the only hope for anyone is to do the same:

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.

-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, p.151

These two passages share more than the word “struggle.” Paul calls us to the “struggle of the faith,” because following this God requires a striving past who we currently are and the world we currently inhabit. Coates calls Samori “to struggle,” would want the Dreamers “to struggle,” because he has expert insight into what’s wrong in our current world, as well as what’s wrong in the current us.

Christians must keep this in mind: Paul goes on to say, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords.”

For us, the struggle “of the faith” arises in the gap between what-is (if we’re willing to see) and what-should-be (if God is God). Responding rightly to the racial injustice in our society requires an admission that things are harder than we thought or want them to be. It requires listening to those most hurt by what-is, through both reading and relationships. It requires willingness to enter into the struggle, not only because of what’s wrong with what-is, but also because we believe in a God who has Power over all powers, who calls us to a better life than the one we’ve created, who sees what we choose to see and not see, who will appear at the proper time. This God knows what-should-be, desires what-should-be, and has the power to bring it about.

There is another way–the way of illusion and ease–but that way only makes sense if there is no problem or there is no reckoning. If there is wrong and God is God, then we are called to struggle the good struggle of the faith, to live in an unsettled state, to make ourselves vulnerable to the transforming hand of God. For those of us in Christ, because we are in Christ, we must. For those of us in Christ, because we are in Christ, we can.

If You Can’t Pray Something Nice…

I spend enough time in both camps to read the mockery of conservatives and the mockery of liberals on Facebook, and, to be fair, both often make me laugh. However, I worry that these social media shots indicate what mockery typically accompanies: Disdain.

The Pew Research Center released some numbers about America’s partisan divide at the beginning of the year. Paul Taylor, who wrote a book on the findings, summarizes some of the most striking takeaways, and I found these notes particularly alarming:

The cleavages between the political tribes spill beyond politics into everyday life…

Identity-based hyperpartisanship is thriving at a time when a majority of Americans tell pollsters they’d like to see Washington rediscover the lost art of political compromise…

-Paul Taylor, “The Demographic Trends Shaping American Politics in 2016 and Beyond”

It may be time to go back and watch Bambi again, if only for Thumper’s line: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Actually, this is a bit too simplistic. Not everything that needs to be said will be heard as “nice,” at least not universally, at least not if we’re talking about important, personal, controversial matters.

This is probably a better rule:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:1-4

The passage doesn’t say anything about good people in high positions, it just says “all who are in high positions.” It doesn’t say to only maintain a godly and dignified manner with those who treat us in a godly and dignified manner, it just says “in every way.” It doesn’t specify that God desires our camp to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, it simply says “all people.”

Perhaps our new rule of thumb should be, “If you can’t pray anything nice, don’t say nothing at all.” We can’t, after all, force people to consider our words “nice,” even if they are loving, accurate, or wise. We can, however, commit to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all people, even those we fear, distrust, or disagree with, even those whose minds we are hoping to change. It may not score us as many points with our tribe (and our tribe might not have such bad ideas after all), but “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”