Friday, June 26, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage

     “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,  for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted,  and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
-Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

This week the Supreme Court of the United States voted 5-4 that gay couples have the right under the Constitution to be married. The ruling legalizes same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and provides protection for gay couples who are denied the right to marry. And it also brings up some important questions for people of faith who believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
     Do churches still have the right, under this new ruling, to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples? Will religious colleges and universities that provide housing for married students now be required to provide housing for same-sex married couples? Or how about a business whose owners can’t in good conscience cater or decorate or take photos of a same-sex marriage? As usual in rulings like this, those individual questions, and others like them, will be decided later, and provide precedent and case law for largely unexplored judicial territory.
    As a resident of a state in which same-sex marriage has been legal for a couple of years, I can honestly say that it really hasn’t had much impact on my daily life. Though it makes headlines and generates a lot of heat on Facebook, I suspect what most of us will find is that little changes. Maybe homosexual couples will find that they face less discrimination and outright abuse, which, as one who believes that every person is created by God and bears his image, I think is good. 
     And, I don’t know, maybe justice is done in this. Governments have always allowed some marriages that the church couldn’t support: it hasn’t been illegal for a long time now for adulterous couples to leave their spouses and marry, and despite that fact many churches today still wouldn’t sanction that marriage. Most of us wouldn't think to argue that couple shouldn’t have the legal right to get married. We’d just not be a part of it.
     Paul told the church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities.” The church at Rome. Where the chief executive, legislature, and judiciary was a guy they called Caesar, who required every resident of his Empire to show their loyalty to the state by venerating his predecessors as gods. Paul had been imprisoned for his faith by the government he told other believers to subject themselves to. He had been beaten. He didn’t think Rome was necessarily a benevolent power. But he did believe it was the power God in his wisdom had raised up, and for him that was enough reason. “Be subject to them,” he said. “There’s no political power other than the ones God has raised up, and so if you rebel against those powers you rebel against him. And there’s nothing in that for you but judgment.”
     So here’s a crazy thought: what if what the Bible says about governments is actually true? What if God actually is in charge of the universe, and there’s never been a government in power that he didn’t place there? What if, in a week in which some American believers are feeling kind of understandably like our government thumbed its nose at God, God is actually, somehow, at work, doing something that maybe we don’t understand, or at least in a way that we don’t understand? And how unfortunate would it be if, in all our righteous indignation, we missed it?
     Please understand, I don’t know what God might be doing. I assume he’s still in charge, and that his work in the world isn’t off the tracks in the slightest because of this, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is that he might be up to. Maybe he’s waking up the church, rousing us out of the drowsiness that being part of a Christianized culture has kept us in. Maybe, as we find ourselves increasingly in the ideological minority, we’ll finally start to wake up to the fact that we aren’t called to be the triumphant beneficiaries of society, but its prophetic and sacrificial redeemers. 
     Maybe he’s humbling the church for the years in which we have lived in self-righteous smugness, pointing out the sins of others while glossing over our own. Or maybe he is working his justice in the world, for people who have too often been the recipients of injustice, hatred, and discrimination. If so, it’s sad that he had to use the Supreme Court, and not his people.
     The apostle Peter wrote, to a persecuted, minority church, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” He and Paul might have been comparing notes. But then he goes on to tell this church to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds  and glorify God  on the day he visits us.” If God is on the throne, then the important thing is not that my candidates win the elections, or that the policies I support carry the day, or that the Supreme Court rule against same-sex marriage. What matters is that, whatever the government I live under might do, I live a life so good that no one can honestly find fault with it, that I bear up under whatever hardship or persecution I may have to face without a trace of bitterness, belligerence or hatred, but with the love of Jesus as my model and my catalyst. 
     What if the worst happens, and we find our churches caught up in costly lawsuits? That’s only a worry if we think the church is property and budgets and bottom lines. What if we have to get out of the marriage business altogether? That’s only a problem if we think that the only business of the church. The church, though, is the people of God in the world. And its business is proclaiming and embodying the good news of Jesus. And nothing that happened in Washington this week, and nothing that might happen next week, changes that.

    God is still on the throne. May we now, as always, embody his love and grace to a splintered, angry, hostile world full of hurting people grasping for whatever shreds of humanity they can find. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Laughing Through the Barrel Rolls

     “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 
     “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
-Matthew 7:7-11 (NIV)

Raphael Langunmier is a Canadian pilot who has flown over 60 aircraft since 1991. It’s safe to say he’s comfortable in airplanes. His daughter, Lea, is now 4, and has been flying with her dad since she was 2. So when Raphael took her up with him last week, she may expected more of the same. She certainly didn’t get it, though.
     This time, Raphael did some real flying. Aerobatics.
     If you feel like laughing, take a look at the video Raphael shot ( from a camera mounted on the control panel of his plane, pointed back at Lea. Lea, in her pink headset, starts the flight just sort of looking at the scenery going by. But then her dad starts doing some tricks: barrel rolls, steep climbs, flips. And Lea’s response is, maybe, not what you’d expect from a 4-year-old. Or maybe it’s just what you’d expect.
     In short, Lea laughs like a little maniac through every maneuver. She shrieks with joy, giggles, and even gives a thumbs-up at one point. And, through it all, she keeps yelling something in French. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it seems as though it would be the equivalent of “Do it again!” It’s pretty cute stuff, especially for Father’s Day.
     I think, though, that a lot of kids even older than 4 would be pretty scared by maneuvers like that. I know most adults would be. Though she’d flown before, these apparently weren’t maneuvers Lea had done. Surprising, then, that she’d go through them without a trace of fear, laughing and screaming for more with every twist, turn, and roll. Maybe she’s just a naturally brave kid. I have to wonder, though, if there isn’t something else that accounts for her lack of fear. 
     Do a quick search in your Bible app, or just page through the Gospels in your old-school paper Bible, and you’ll find that easily Jesus’ favorite way to refer to God is by the title “Father.” (He calls God “Father” at least 185 times in the Gospels, most of them in John and Matthew.) That’s so well-known that we don’t even think about it, or if we do we just think, “Well, of course Jesus would call God ‘Father’.” That’s true enough, but it doesn’t explain why he also encourages those who follow him to call God by the same name. God isn’t just Jesus’ Father; Jesus insists that he’s our Father too. 
     Think about it: all the prophets before Jesus called God by the name with which he initially revealed himself to Moses, Yahweh. (We don’t even know how to pronounce that name!) Or they called him The Holy One. Or they called him The Most High. Or The Lord of Hosts. (The Lord Who Has the Armies) They knew God by his titles, or by the name with which he made his covenant with the nation of Israel. The idea that God was the nation’s metaphorical “Father” was pretty well-known, and the prophet Hosea actually even got a little sentimental about that. But it wasn’t very often, if at all, that the Old Testament prophets encouraged anyone to think of God as they would a generous, loving father. 
     That may be the single most striking thing about Jesus’ teaching: that the God of creation, the God who had brought Israel out of Egypt, the God whose glory appeared in the Temple and thundered from heaven, who fought for his people, and sometimes against them too, with terrible signs and fearful power — that ordinary people could look to this God and cry out, “Father!”  
     And that what they would find when they did would not be an absentee Father, or a self-centered Father, or an angry Father. They would find, instead, a Father like their own fathers, though even better. They would find a Father who loves, like any good father does, to give good things to his children. But who really does know what’s good, and always has it in his power and in his heart to give to them.
     I don’t know how you usually think of God. Sometimes our culture thinks of him in over-familiar terms, I’m afraid: “the Big Guy,” “the Man Upstairs.” Sometimes the church, or segments of it, seems to think him too strict. We focus on his power, on his anger, on his judgment, and forget about his love, grace, forgiveness, and compassion. I guess it’s never possible for finite human beings to really grasp and understand an infinite God. 
     So maybe that’s why Jesus says, “Just call him Father. That’s what I do.”
     Because a child doesn’t need to understand her father. She doesn’t need to have all her questions about him answered, or grasp what all of his plans are. She doesn’t need to know about life insurance or college funds, or what he’s going through at work, or all the details of his relationship to her mom. She doesn’t need to calculate how much it costs to keep the house and keep it powered and heated. 
     She just needs to know that her dad is there, and that he loves her, and that he understands all the stuff she doesn’t. Then she can just call him Dad, and laugh when he makes the plane spin. And however steep the climb, or stomach-churning the barrel roll, or harrowing the dive, she will relax, and giggle, and shout, “Again, Dad!”
     Because of Jesus, we can call God “Father” too. Sometimes we forget the implications. Not all of us have had good fathers, but all of us know what they’re supposed to be like. The love of a father takes a very specific form:  whatever you need, they’ll move heaven and earth to get it for you. Good Fathers provide, and they do it so consistently that you can sometimes even take it for granted. And, while we don’t want to take God’s generosity for granted, it seems that he’s more willing for us to make that mistake than he is for us to possibly think that he doesn’t care for us. 
     If you know how to give good things for your children, and if your father knew how to give good things to you — then you can know without a shadow of a doubt that your Father in heaven is delighted to give you whatever you need. So ask. Seek. Knock. And laugh and clap your hands through the dips, rolls, and flips of life, knowing that your heavenly Father is in control.

     And thanks, Dad, for being the first to show me what to expect from a God I can call Father.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Gender In Christ

     So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
-Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)

     Bruce Jenner was the first sports icon I remember. I was 8 in 1976, when he won gold in the decathlon at the Montreal Olympics, and set a world record in the process. His face was everywhere. For a few years, he was probably the most recognizable man in the world. Certainly the most recognizable athlete. 
     People who are a little younger than me probably only knew him (sadly, in my opinion) from Keeping Up With the Kardashians. They don’t remember the summer of 1976, when every girl wanted to be Dorothy Hamill or Nadia Comanici, and every boy wanted to be Bruce Jenner.
     Everyone knows Bruce again now. Or, rather, everyone knows Caitlyn Jenner.
     In the process, transgender has become a term that all of us are much more familiar with. 
     In case you’re unclear, a person who is transgender feels strongly that their biological gender does not match their internal gender identity. It doesn’t appear to be a lifestyle these people choose. When Bruce Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair under the caption “Call me Caitlyn,” he didn’t seem to be saying he wanted to be a woman. She seemed to be saying she had always been a woman, and now wanted to be known by others as the gender she truly was.
     For the vast majority of us, whose understanding of our own gender identity matches the parts we were born with, that seems, let’s admit it, weird. It might do us some good to try to figure out why some of us react so strongly to Caitlyn Jenner’s revelation.1
     For believers, part of the struggle surely is the idea that God would allow anyone to be born with such gender confusion. We read Genesis 1, that God created human beings male and female, and think that must settle the matter. But, of course, God allows human beings to be born with all sorts of disorders and complications, and the world as we experience it is no longer exactly congruent with the world as he created it. Surely we understand that, even if sometimes it’s hard for us to accept. 
     But I think even more basic than that is our feeling that sexual and gender identity are such a central part of who we are. We borrow this from our world, in which individual identity drives everything: politics, advertising, education, law-making, and even religion. For a person’s internal gender identity to be mismatched to her biological gender is just hard for us to understand. 
     In the biblical world, though, individual identity was just not the important matter it is in our world. Collective identity was much more important: “Who are we together?” People seemed to think of themselves more as part of a society than they thought of how society should conform to their individual understandings of who they were.    
     Sexual morality in the Bible is treated not as a matter of identity, but as a matter of behavior. For example, it’s fairly well-established that the writers of Scripture don’t address homosexual orientation. They have something to say about homosexual activity, of course, but they don’t address a person’s sexual orientation. A person’s identity as a homosexual or a heterosexual just doesn’t really seem to come up. Homosexual activity is one kind of sexual immorality that the Bible prohibits. Whether a person is attracted toward the opposite sex or the same sex seems to be of no consequence.2 
     That’s not to say that issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are the same thing: they aren’t. It does suggest, though, that we believers might need to change our vocabulary. We may need to be careful of painting matters of identity as sinful. To say to a man or a woman struggling with gender identity that their struggle is between good (living as the gender you’re born as) or bad (living as the gender you feel you truly are) is to put them in an impossible place that creates bitterness, anger, and depression. It tells them that God only loves them if they live as one gender and not the other. Suicide is not infrequently a result. 
     The Bible does have something to say about individual identity: it’s simply that, in Christ, individual identity gets lost in Jesus. In our baptism we “put on Christ,” and that means we’re all people in the process of becoming. We’re becoming him, and we’re becoming him together, and that’s now the identity that matters. Paul didn’t think Gentiles had to become Jews and then could be united with him in Jesus, or that slaves couldn’t attain the same status as free people in Christ. He embraced the fact that people who were as different from him as they could possibly be were now one because all of their identities were in the process of being remade in the image of Jesus
     The church is the one place in the world where people who couldn’t possibly have understood and accepted each other before can be united, because the church has something defining who we are that no one else has.
     Caitlyn Jenner looks female, at least in her cover photo. She would “pass” in most of our churches. Of course, she has the benefit of make-up artists and surgery and probably some airbrushing. I’m thinking, though of a guy who used to live down the street, who I used to see wearing women’s clothes and a wig as he walked his dog. I don’t know what gender he felt he was in his heart of hearts. But I know you could tell right away that this was a man wearing a dress. And, I wonder: who would be treated better in our churches? Caitlyn Jenner, or the guy down the street? And, most importantly, why?
     May we be a community where everyone can hear the proclamation of a gospel that remakes us in the image of Jesus. May we be a community that helps each other to stretch ourselves to live the life of righteousness, love, and sacrifice that being like Jesus demands of us. May we embody together the new reality that we’re all God’s children through faith in Christ, and may we all see the ways our understanding of who we are needs to change.

1 I choose to use the name “Caitlyn,” and female pronouns, because that’s what she has chosen to use to refer to herself. That’s a basic courtesy that we give to any human being.

2 I’m aware that some would say that Romans 1:26-27 prohibits same-sex attraction, and not just homosexual activity. I would point out that the “unnatural lusts” mentioned in that text lead to sexual immorality. The point of the passage is still behavior, not identity.