Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Why I don't believe Gay Marriage is Holy Matrimony

 I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from Christians who support marriage equality that a marriage between two men or between two women is holy matrimony—a covenant relationship between God and his Church.  And, here’s why I don’t think I ever will:

Those who are convinced that gay marriage honors God and should therefore be recognized by all Christians did not arrive at their conclusions due to Scripture (that statement, alone, will offend some of my Christian friends who support gay marriage, but let me explain).  There is no Scripture that supports gay marriage.  We have no example of gays or lesbians being held up as honorable examples in the Scriptures.  We have no canonical prescription that affirms same-sex relations.  Rather, the Scriptures prohibit homoerotic behavior, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  What that implies, I think, is that the locus of conviction regarding a pro-gay marriage position exists outside the Scriptures.

Gay marriage has recently been affirmed as a social good in America.  Marriage equality has been championed as a right—a matter of justice for all--within liberal democracy.  Because there is no Scriptural text to support the particular issue of gay marriage, Christians who support gay marriage do so because of the cultural convictions of our day.  And, once a Christian is convinced that marriage equality is right—justice for all, gays and straight—then that Christian must read the Scriptures in a way that supports their position.  I’ve read many arguments justifying gay marriage, scholarly and common, and none of them are convincing.  Here’s why:  they come to the Scriptures (our common book, where there is no affirmation of same-sex relationships) convinced that gay marriage is justified; I come to the Scriptures (our common book, where there is no affirmation of same-sex relationships) and hear their attempts at justifying gay marriage in spite of Scripture’s prohibition.  This is unprecedented:  what is universally prohibited within Scripture is now embraced as right, just, holy, Godly.  Think about that:  What is completely prohibited in Scripture (there isn’t a single text on this particular issue that leads one to say, “Hey, maybe God does honor gay marriage”), and what has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Christians (now and throughout Church history), must now be accepted and affirmed.

I don’t think that’s ever happened before:  something that is completely prohibited in Scripture is now accepted.  Divorce?  No, it is permitted in a few places in Scripture.  Racism?  No, racism isn’t universally prohibited in the Scriptures nor is it considered a cultural good (quite the opposite:  racism is prohibited in the NT, “neither Jew nor Gentile,” and we abhor it today).  Slavery?  No, slavery isn’t universally prohibited in Scripture nor is it acceptable today.  Women in leadership?  No, although “prohibited” in some texts, women are held up as leaders (in the OT and NT) and are affirmed as leaders in the Scriptures.  Pro-gay marriage Christians bring up these examples (divorce, racism, slavery, sexism), but none of them are strictly consistent, hermeneutical corollaries.  So, I’ll say it again:  I think (and I’m ready to be corrected on this point) there has been no other time in Christian history where some of us want the rest of us to endorse something the Scriptures completely prohibit.

To my friends who are “experts” (scholars and ministers who want to be consistent in their hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures) and support gay marriage, let’s be honest:  what you’re asking some of us (Christians who cannot justify gay marriage from the Scriptures) to do is unprecedented.  Basically, you’re saying, “The Spirit is leading us to a new truth that disregards Scriptural prohibition.”  What the Spirit once inspired he now inspires us to deny.  And, that’s why I don’t think I’ll change my mind and embrace gay marriage as holy matrimony.


This post has nothing to do with whether or not gays and lesbians should have the right to civil unions in America.  In other words, I’m talking about what should happen within the Church (whether in America or anywhere else in the world).

Christians who support gay marriage do rely upon the Scriptures to justify their position. And so, I plan to explain in later posts why their specific arguments are unpersuasive to me.

I’m a terrible blogger; I don’t monitor or referee comments.  So, I won’t be deleting posts or responding to questions directly.

Finally, for those who aren’t used to responding to arguments charitably—even though we disagree—this is the way the academy works.  I don’t take counter arguments personally.  Ad hominem arguments don’t mean much to me.  Personal attacks will be ignored.

Monday, October 24, 2016

"Take my ears, tell me when the whistle blows"

I've always been horrified by the tale of Rip van Winkle--the bedtime story of a young man who falls asleep and wakes up an old man with a long gray beard.  The threat that I could "sleep my life away" (along with the pressing reality that no one knows how much time they have on this earth) is the perfect cocktail for a never-ending nightmare.  Come to think of it, it's really a dirty trick, played on children by worn-out parents looking for a little revenge, to tell the story of Rip van Winkle to a child just before they say their bedtime prayers:  "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake ["wait, mommy!  You think I'm going to die tonight?"], I pray the Lord my soul to take."  "Now, go to sleep little one.  Sweet dreams."   Hardly, I'd lie awake in the dark, forcing myself to stay awake, lest old age or death creep up on me when I wasn't looking.

I've been a fan of the songs by John/Taupin almost from the beginning of their career.  Of course, the musical side of that writing team knows how to write beautiful music.  But, it's the craft of the lyricist that stays with me--his ability to capture the human condition in the most honest, unassuming, profound, and sometimes disturbing ways.  In their autobiographical album, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," John/Taupin explore their rise to fame with a bit of wistful recollection and biting sarcasm.  In one of the songs, "Take my ears, tell me when the whistle blows," Taupin explores the prodigal son motif with a twist.  He realizes he's lost something of home, and he can never go back.  At such an early age (he must have been around twenty-three or twenty-four when he wrote the song), Taupin lays bare the fear of homelessness:  at a railroad station, trying to make a connecting train headed to his home in the country, the young man has seen too much of the big city success, has lost his moorings, like a "black sheep going home, I want to feel your wheels of steel."  To be grounded once again, to wake up from the dream (nightmare or fairy tale?), to feel the earth, a gravitas, a clear sense of where you are, where you've been, and where you are going.  "Wake me up, and tell me when the whistle blows."  Things change, things change you, and you can never go back home.

This is why eschatology matters.  The existential angst that accompanies our storied lives isn't enough to wake us up.  And, nobody can sound the alarm for us, to rouse us from our comfortable repose (besides, nobody likes alarmists anyway).  Rather, we have to have a sense of the ending, last things, where the story is going, to keep us alive and well, fully conscious, breathing in the pain and the pleasure, the disappointment and the hope, the past and the present.  Bottom line:  neither nostalgia nor fear work like smelling salts to make us see where we've been, where we're headed.  Instead, the only way I can make sense of both is the end-of-the-world work of the kingdom of God, the summing up of all things (past, present, and future), a "this-is-where-you-are" map of the world, protology and eschatology.  The way the last book of the Bible puts it, Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega--the breadth of all things--and therefore, those who "follow the lamb wherever he goes," find the ending because they know the beginning.

""And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:  He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this:  'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.  wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which are about to die . . . . And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!" "Yes," says the Spirit,"that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them"'" (Rev. 4:1-2; 14:13).

"Long lost and lonely boy, I'm just a black sheep going home, I want to feel your wheels of steel, underneath my itching heal, take my money, tell me when the whistle blows."

Monday, September 19, 2016

a eulogy for mom

How can I describe the significance of my mother in a few words?  Why would I even try?  Death seems too strong for words.  The measure of her life can’t be summed up with words.  This moment, this sorrow, this aching loss is too much for words.  Words fail me when it seems I need them the most.

But then again, before this day, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” joy mingled in sorrow, death and life thrown together, despair and redemption rolled up into one.  And so, I rely the words of another about the Word Incarnate, our beginning and ending, first and last words about the Alpha and the Omega:  Phil. 2:1-11.

We translated that very passage in my second-year Greek class the day my mother died.  It’s a song about Christ—the music lost to us—but the ancient rhythm of these lyrics still sing in my ear.  And, as much as my mother loved both—Christ and music—I find it more than serendipitous that my Greek students would read these words to me in the light of day after one of my darkest nights.  It’s because, in these words, I not only hear of Christ, but I see my mother, one of the main reasons I am a believer.  And, I see her in my family—my father, my brothers, our wives and our children—words becoming flesh.

My mother loved the Scriptures.  One of my fondest memories of her is when she and dad gave to me my first Bible.  I even see her face now, beaming with joy as I unwrapped the gift (I remembering being a little puzzled when I opened the box. In light of her excitement, I thought I was going to get a special toy, something to play with.  But, it wasn’t.  It was a Bible for children, the one with a picture on the cover of Jesus surrounded by children, a zipper around the edges to bind up the book, and a cross dangling from the zipper).  Holding it my hand, looking at her then back at the book, I realized it was special—nothing to toy with—but I had no idea why.

We were waiting for mom to die.  That’s a horrible situation, when the experts say the end is near and you’re wondering if they’re right.  Dad and I were in her hospital room, keeping vigil.  At first, we both tried to get a little rest.  But, long after midnight, dad said, “Here.  You take this chair; it’s more comfortable.  I’m going to read.”  So, he dragged his chair into a dim light, sat next to mom’s bed, and began to read the Scriptures.  I dozed off, every ten minutes checking on mom—her shallow breathing getting worse—then glancing over at dad still reading the Bible.  I’ll never forget that image.  My dad finding comfort during the dark night in the light of God’s Word . . . and I think of mom. Her love of the Scriptures, her husband by her side reading the Bible until she died, and the gift she once gave to her nine-year-old son.

Paul the apostle encouraged the Philippians to empathize with people, to consider the needs of others above their own, having what he called “the mind of Christ.”  That was true of mom, a virtue I also see clearly in my brother, Denny.  I was in the fifth grade, attending school in Compton, California, when a boy made a fool of himself and everyone laughed.  He had dropped his lunch tray in the cafeteria, mashed potatoes and gravy spilled all over the linoleum floor, and as he struggled to get up, he kept falling down in the mess.  I’ve always been a sucker for slapstick comedy; and his attempts at gathering his plate, silverware, and bottle-thick-lenses-in-black-horned-rim glasses now covered in gravy reminded me of a bit from the Three Stooges.  But, in this case, there was only one stooge, and his comic routine was hilarious.  Others took in the sight, and soon a huge crowd gathered around the boy to enjoy the spectacle—dinner and a show.  The harder he tried to stand, the more he wallowed in the mess.  Then, all of the sudden, he realized we were all laughing at him.  I’ll never forget the look of horror on his buck-toothed, gravy-stained face when he realized he was the undesirable center of attention.  All of the sudden, I wasn’t laughing anymore.  My stomach turned inside of me—an aching in my heart—but I didn’t understand why.  When I got home from school, mom noticed my melancholy mood and asked the question every mother greets her children with, “Did you have a nice day at school?”  When I told her what happened, puzzling over why I felt so bad, she offered one of many lessons about the importance of empathy.  She would often say, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”—a question that I still ask myself nearly everyday because of my mom.

Denny and Paula have recently given up their home and moved to a difficult neighborhood, to live among people who face huge challenges in their lives:  low income, poor health, broken families, addiction, crises every day.  It takes great courage to have the “mind of Christ,” to not “merely look out for your own personal interests,” as Paul wrote, “but also the interests of others.”  It’s called, “empathy”—a virtue my mom tried to teach me at least once a week, a Christ-like character I see in my brother and sister-in-law.

My mom was a generous woman, especially when it came to celebrating Christmas.  She loved giving Christmas gifts—dozens of presents spilling out all over the living room.  We knew she didn’t receive much for Christmas when she was a child.  So, she went overboard with us.  When the grandchildren came along, it only got worse—often we’d have to rent a trailer to tow the stash home.  I should have seen it coming.  For our first Christmas as husband and wife—among many presents—mom gave to Sheri and me a special box (I’d seen that look in her eye before and so I halfway expected a Bible).  Instead, it was baby doll.  When I looked up in confusion, she said, “Get the hint?”  She couldn’t wait for grandchildren.  When Andrew and Josh came along a few years later (only a month apart), she was in heaven—so excited when we came home for the holidays.  Then Emma and Grace came into the world, and she was overjoyed.  Having raised three boys, mom always wanted a girl—it was especially evident when Chris was a toddler.  She refused to cut his hair, his long locks falling to his shoulders.  People often mistook Chris for a little girl, oohing and awing over his beautiful hair.  Mom would eventually correct them, but then add, “he’s pretty enough to be a girl, isn’t he?”  I worried sometimes that when I came home from school, we might find Chris in a dress.  She loved her grandsons; her affection for Zach and Bryce was just as strong.  But, oh how she loved her granddaughters, Emma, Grace, and Callie.  The night Emma was born, I called mom and said, “She’s here.  Emma was born just a few hours ago.”  To which mom replied incredulously, “Are you sure it’s a girl?”  I couldn’t help but laugh.  “Yeah, mom.  Emma is a girl.”  “Oh boy, I can’t wait to buy those frilly, little dresses.”  Sure enough, under the Christmas tree, wrapped with her signature bows, were frilly, little dresses—for Emma, Grace, and Callie.  Mom loved watching them model their new outfits, and giggled with delight when her grandsons played with their latest super-hero action figure.

I see the same generous spirit in my brother, Chris.  He loves giving nice things to the people he loves—just like mom.  Just the other day, Chris decided dad’s old refrigerator had to go.  Of course, my dad is a “get by” kind of guy.  But, Chris wouldn’t hear of it.  When dad objected, “I don’t need a refrigerator.”  Chris interrupted, “How old is that one, dad?  Thirty years, forty years?  I’m not going to argue with you about it.  We’re going right now.  I’m getting you a new fridge.”  That’s my brother; he’s a very generous guy—something he learned from his mother.

I’ve learned many things from my mom.  Her love of music, her love of Christ, her love of the Church, how she reveled in family get-togethers, cherished a delicious meal, loved to read, and, most of all, how she cared for us.  The same qualities I see in my sweet wife, my children, my family.  It’s the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  The Word Incarnate I need to see when words fail me.

For the love of Christ, until the resurrection, all we have are words, the Spirit of God, and each other.  And, because of Christ, that is more than enough.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Joy and Sorrow mingled together

Music is a great gift from God. I marvel over its power to help me in ways that go beyond the spoken word.

I recently attended the funeral of a righteous man who lived a good, long life. Before words were spoken or sung, we heard a song played by two musicians:  one on piano, the other tenor sax.  They are colleagues of mine who are tremendously sensitive and talented musicians.  The song was "Brethren we have met to worship"--a fitting invocation for the occasion.

The pianist began with soft notes, minor chords, light dissonance, somber tones:  grief explored.  Then the tenor sax jumped in, at first finding a tune that sounded more like sorrow than joy.  But then, it happened: piano and sax joining in one accord, marching majestically through the song with resonant notes of hope and confidence.  Nearing the end, the tenor sax waned. the piano softened her sound, and the song ended with an upward progression, once again slightly dissonant, the last note lingering unresolved . . .  calling brothers and sisters to worship God in sorrow and joy.

That song, especially the arrangement and the care with which it was presented, healed my heart--a man who was trying to celebrate a wonderful life with the ugly pallor of death staring us all in the face.

Thank God for music.  He heals me in ways I don't understand, especially as I think about the man who died in Christ, a servant we tried to memorialize, the one who knew more than most that music is God's gift to us all.

It's no wonder the end comes with a trumpet.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Bible and American Politics

Have you noticed how certain people refuse to be reasonable when it comes to recognizing the short-comings of their political party?  There's no talking to them.  You bring up a problem with their party (or candidate) that, given their religious convictions, should lead to a frank discussion.  But, rather than admit the problem, they dig in their heels, set their jaw, and defend their politics without even giving a sideways glance to their religious convictions.  It's as if political faith trumps religious faith.  Their political loyalties take full reign of their mental and emotional faculties.  Whether democrat or republican, the fight for what is "right" is binary.  Either you're for us or against us--no in between--which reminds me of the way religious people defend the Bible.

Recently, I was listening to a well-known atheist who was making fun of the "wacky parts" of the Bible.  He had an equally well-known Christian apologist who was there to defend the Scriptures.  And, even though I appreciated the nuanced answer he gave in defense of the Bible as God's word, their so-called "conversation" reminded me of the arguments over politics.  With both sides convinced of their position (and both sides making salient points regarding the weaknesses of the other), there was no "give and take."  Rather than admit weaknesses in their position, a sense of infallibility kicked in pretty hard as both men defended what they believe, their faith.

The longer I live, the more I'm realizing my need to embrace weakness, not only mine but the weakness of others.  But, in a world where only strength is celebrated and weakness is marginalized--a bystander in the battle for "truth"--I think I'll be dismissed as a traitor to the cause (politically and religiously).  But, that's okay with me.  I've sworn allegiance to a king and his kingdom that is built on weak people like me.  And, I learn about that kingdom in a Bible that has "wacky" parts that defy common sense.  The difference, I guess, is that I'm willing to admit it, puzzle over it, be confused by it, even complain to God about it (read the Psalms!).  But I've got a feeling that, whether in politics or religion, most people will despise such weakness.

Which reminds me of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Losing Hope

I'm in a funk.  It's beginning to dawn on me that the very thing I've committed my life to--the object of my study--doesn't matter these days.

Now, before you correct my misplaced devotion (after all, we're supposed to be committed to Christ and his kingdom), I am fully aware that there is a difference between the Word of God and the word of God.  And, yes, I've committed my entire life to the former, the One who captured my heart, the Man who lived better than any person has ever lived, the very Son of God who reveals perfectly our heavenly Father, the hope of our salvation, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins, the embodiment of our resurrection.  But, as the preacher in the book of Hebrews said so eloquently, Jesus is the Last Word of God found first and foremost in the very word of God--the Scriptures.  He warns his listeners over and over again:  We'd better listen to the word to hear the Word, because, if we don't, there's going to be big trouble.

Within the cacaphony of trivia that dominates our everyday attention, you'd think a more substantive, powerful, shake-your-soul-to-your-feet, gravitas-kind of word would feel like a drink of cold water in the middle of the desert.  (Is it just me, or are things getting worse?  My daily morning habit is to read a few .coms of news, check out a blog or two--even a so-called "Christian" blog that tells me the state of our faith "Today."  A few years ago, that would take about 30 minutes to an hour.  These days, I don't find much to read.  For example, this morning I clicked on nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing!  Perhaps I'm becoming that old curmudgeon that I used to despise in my youth.  But, I wonder to myself, "Does anyone read this nonsense?  Really?  Is this what should occupy our minds today?")  I read for a living.  I speak for a living.  I write for a living.  But, the very centerpiece of that devotion, the thing I treasure, what should occupy our attention in profound ways, is so marginalized today that I can't even get my students to pay attention to it in class.  The Bible doesn't matter.  And, the great irony is, they're taking a biblical studies class.  They don't read it before class.  They don't even have it open while I lecture on it.  They don't wrestle with what it says.  Rather, the majority of them sit and listen and take a few notes, hoping to pass the class.  Of course, I have a few students who care.  But that number is shrinking every year.

Sharing my disappointment recently, one of my colleagues assessed the situation like this:  these students of ours love the Bible.  They just don't care what's in it.

Same thing happens in church.  I'll invite my listeners to take their bibles and turn to . . . .  But there's no movement, little effort.  A few open the Scriptures (hard or e-copies) and try to follow along.  But, for the most part, the Bible is one of the most ignored things on Sunday mornings.  Trying to keep them engaged, I'll ask, "And what did Jesus say here?" or "And what was Paul's response in verse 24?"  Nothing.  Silence.  A few might fumble around trying to find the answer, as if surprised by the pop quiz.  But most stare back at me with that, "Are you finished yet?" look I've come to recognize so well:  in the classroom as well as in the church.

I'm afraid I'm becoming so discouraged that I might throw a fit in righteous indignation.  But that's such an ugly scene.  Doesn't do any good.  Besides, I don't want to be that guy.  I even prayed that this morning, "Lord.  Please help.  I don't want to be that guy."

But, I'm afraid I am becoming that guy, the old prof who reminisces about the good, old days--when people not only loved the Bible but also craved to know what's in it.

Honestly, I'm afraid the Scriptures don't matter anymore, and I wonder what the preacher of Hebrews would say.