Friday, May 16, 2014

Sex and Chocolate

For everything God created is good,  and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 
-1 Timothy 4:4-5 (NIV)

I got to enjoy the Pepperdine University Bible Lectures a couple of weeks ago. I got to enjoy some insightful speakers and teachers, some uplifting worship, some good company, and…well, if I’m being honest…Malibu, California. I know, it’s tough.
     Not only did I enjoy other speakers and teachers, I also had the privilege of teaching a class with my co-worker, Carlos. Now, I’m not complaining, but we didn’t exactly get a high-visibility time slot - 8:30 on Friday morning, in fact. We were a little bit worried that no one would show up, and even more concerned when we saw the titles of two of the classes opposite ours.
     One was called, “What We’ve Learned About Men, Women, and Sex.”
     The other was called, “Chocolate: A Religious Experience.”
     How do you compete with chocolate and sex?
     Surprisingly, though, some folks did find their way to our classroom. Some of them didn’t even know us. I guess they didn’t like chocolate and were comfortable with their knowledge of sex.
     The titles of those two classes got me thinking, though. Chocolate and sex don’t usually get talked about much at church, do they? I mean, sometimes we talk about “sekshul immurrality”. In some churches, you might talk about gluttony now and again. (Not usually on potluck day, though…) But we don’t usually spend much time “learning” about sex, do we? And we certainly would not speak of chocolate as a religious experience.  
     In fact, we’re a bit negative on things like sex and chocolate in church. Neutral, at best. Now, I strongly suspect there are some “Christians” out there running around enjoying sex and chocolate - and maybe even a glass of wine now and then - but we’d never speak of that at church, would we? And if someone lets something slip, there’s usually someone else close by to give them a long look down their nose. After all, the church exists to remind each other not to enjoy anything too much, or — what? Heaven might not seem as much fun? 
     Really, what are we afraid of?
     Now, I’m as old-fashioned as anyone about sex, probably. The Bible assumes that it’s intended for marriage. If you’re not married, and you’re hooking up with someone, or otherwise treating sex as your own personal plaything — cut it out. But, if you’re married — well, this might be a spoiler, but one of the things “we’ve learned” about sex is that it can be a fairly enjoyable way to spend an evening. (Or a morning, or…well, that’s up to you.) That’s not something people came up with, by the way. It was God’s idea. So if you don’t like the idea of people enjoying sex, well, take it up with him.
     Same goes for chocolate, though maybe he had some help from Mr. Cadbury and Mr. Hershey and Miss Godiva — who, incidentally, might have been nude when she whipped up her first batch of chocolate. It was something like that, anyway.
     OK, I’m really not trying to be inappropriate here. Well, maybe a little, but I have a point. The point is, we religious people might need to check our impulses to regulate other peoples’ enjoyment of the world around them. Enjoyment of the world around us is really not the cause of sin. People don’t engage in sexual immorality because they just enjoy sex too much and can’t control themselves. (In fact, it might very well be just the opposite, sometimes: they find it’s not what they think it ought to be, and so they try again and again, with partner after partner.) Our tendency to be negative about the physical world of sensation and joy and beauty — and, believe me, that tendency is well attested in church history — only makes us look prudish and repressed and not very much fun to be around. 
     And, of infinitely more importance, it makes God look that way too.
     That tendency toward negativity was there in the church from the early days of Christianity. Paul writes about people in the church who want to forbid marriage and eating particular foods. He cautions believers against people who spend a lot of time talking about what other Christians shouldn’t touch, handle, or taste. It isn’t that believers shouldn’t sometimes discipline themselves, or say “enough,” or deny themselves, or choose to give to someone else instead of indulging. But not because there’s something inherently wrong with chocolate, or sex, or alcohol, or deep-dish pizza. We shouldn’t embrace this age’s corruption of some of the joys of the world, but the problem isn't those joys themselves. Adultery, or sexual immorality, or pornography aren’t actually sex problems at all. The problem is the trivialization and commodification of sex. The problem is how this age twists what’s good.
     If we say that chocolate, or sex, or certain foods or drinks are inherently bad, then we have a theological problem. God created us, and he created the world around us, and what he created is good. Paul doesn’t say it was, back before we messed it up. He says it is. And it’s never a bad thing for a believer in that Creator God to receive what he’s given as he intends to give it, give thanks for it, and enjoy it. In fact, that’s a good thing.

     We still may not spend a lot of time in church talking about sex and chocolate. But let’s not be afraid of the world around us, or shocked when people seem to enjoy it, or anxious to keep them from it. Let’s instead model gratitude for the many, many ways the world around us reminds us that its Creator is good, and generous, and kind. May we receive what he gives us with joy and thanksgiving, so that others might see him as the good, generous God we know him to be. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Lament for Mother's Day

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 
-Luke 2:34-35

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. 
-John 19:25-27

This Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of moms over 6,000 miles away from me in Chicago.
     Oh, I’m thinking of my mom, just about a tenth of that distance away. I’m thinking of my wife, too. But on my mind this year are moms: 276 of them, for whom America’s Mother’s Day will be just another day filled with anxiety, fear, anger, and grief. In short, a day like every one that’s come and gone since April 14, when their girls were abducted from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, a wide place in the road in the rural northeast of the state.
     Unless you’ve made a determined effort to avoid news the last few weeks, you know about the abduction of the girls from the Government Girls Secondary School by Boko Haram, a militant organization whose aims are - well, not worth writing about. They’ve threatened to sell the girls on the slave market. While Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan says he thinks the girls are still in Nigeria, US and other intelligence organizations fear they have been divided into smaller groups and taken to neighboring countries. 
     Sadly, many of us in America see this as a “Muslim thing,” a skirmish in the ongoing war between “the good guys” (the Christian West) and “the bad guys” (Muslims). Of course, calling Boko Haram Muslim would be similar to calling the Ku Klux Klan Christian. Muslims all over the world are pointing out what we in America should already know: that Boko Haram’s aims are not “Muslim,” except in name, any more than the Crusader’s aims were Christian. 
     I can think of 276 moms who couldn’t care less right now about ideology, or Christianity vs. Islam, or America’s self-serving “culture wars.” Right now, they care about what most every mother cares about and works for and gives herself to accomplish: the safety or their children. Right now, they would all change places with their daughters if they could. Right now, they care about nothing in the world other than that their daughters come home.
     To politicize this abduction misses the point. To make it a morality tale or use it as a case study on the violence of Islam is to trivialize it. It boils down to 276 families who wanted their daughters to be educated, to have opportunities that perhaps they themselves never had. It boils down to 276 moms trying to give their daughters better lives, and the fanatic wing nuts who couldn’t stand it, who couldn’t fit the education of girls into their stunted, pitiful, paranoid world views. The Nigerian government - which seems unsure of how to deal with Boko Haram - and the other governments of the world - who can’t seem to figure out how involved they should be - need to understand that this isn’t about them. It’s about something bigger: those girls, and the moms waiting for them. The world is watching this, and this is one of those moments when the world must come together to say, “Enough is enough. A line has been crossed. This is not acceptable.”
     Here’s the thing: Boko Haram has been getting away with this kind of thing for years.
     Imagine if a girls’ private school in, say, a wealthy suburb of Boston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles had experienced a mass abduction. 
     It’s easy to dismiss something happening on the other side of the world, in a part of the world where violence seems so commonplace. But once you start doing that, you start dismissing stuff that happens in the inner city, that doesn’t seem to affect your suburban life. Or you start dismissing stuff that happens outside the gates of your neighborhood. Or even on your own street.
     But those mothers, those 276 Nigerian mothers, are on my mind.
     At least some of them are Christian. At least 7 of them are part of my heritage, the Churches of Christ.
     Maybe that helps to make it more immediate. But, I suppose, it shouldn’t. Whoever those girls are, whoever their families are, they’re children of God. They’re the work of his hands. Whatever they call him when they pray to him, or whether or not they pray to him at all, they’re his. And those men who took them didn’t just attack a nation, or a religion, or an ideology. They attacked him.
     So I think Glenn Pemberton, a professor at Abilene Christian University, is on the right track when he posts this prayer, this psalm of lament, on his Facebook page:

God, with due respect, these girls are still alive; 
please turn the camera of every news station on these girls 
and on their desperate families….

Forgive us for not seeing this sooner,  
forgive my blindness.
If these young girls were Americans,
we would be screaming for action, yesterday! 

I know there are enormous cultural differences,
complexities I do not understand, 
even so…please help us, 
help these girls and their families,
and please bring these men to justice.

     You will be blessed by reading the whole thing.
     And I’m thinking of another mother in another wide place in the road on the other side of the world, two thousand years ago. A mother who had scarcely welcomed her child into the world before she was told of a sword that would pierce her soul - a sword those Nigerian mothers must understand well today. I’m thinking of a mom who stood at the foot of a cross and watched that son writhe and bleed and die. I’m thinking of his concern for her, and I’m thinking of his concern for other hurting mothers, and for the daughters they weep for, and for the captors who hold them. And I’m thinking my own circle of concern is pitifully small and ridiculously small-minded. And I’m thinking that if I wear his name, then this Mother’s Day, as I ask God to bless my mother, and my wife, and my mother-in-law, and the mothers in my church, that I must also remember to ask him to bless those hurting mothers in Nigeria. I must remember to ask him to act, through his own power, through the combined outrage of the world, through whatever means he chooses, to rescue those girls.

     There are a lot of mothers right now counting on that.