Not So Blessed: When disaster hits your enemy

 

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I had to resist rubbing my hands together in a weak moment of delighted schadenfreude when I read that Tony Perkins — rabid right-wing, anti-gay leader of the Family Research Council — lost his house this past week in the floods of Louisiana. The same guy who preached that natural disasters were God’s vengeance on America for tolerating gays, abortion … and whatever in-vogue sin of the day is tolerated in our society. Maybe you’re not so blessed, so privileged as you think.

“Karma,” some of my friends were saying. “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you,” someone quoted Jesus. “You reap what you sow.”  All just different ways of saying the same thing: that there is some kind of cosmic reward and retribution system built into the fabric of our existence.

Okay, Tony Perkins is just one of the thousands effected by the floods. A dozen people died and 40,000 homes were destroyed in southern Louisiana this week. It would be tragic to overlook the devastating effects of nature on so many people, just so we can grab a few seconds of delight in the misfortune of one of our enemies. Surely karma is also concerned with the plight of the innocent. God takes no pleasure in the suffering of others. So maybe let’s not be so quick to get happy over the news.

Otherwise, we’re just as guilty — and mistaken — as those same people who’ve blamed other tragedies on us, on our “sins” and grievances against a holy God.

Jesus never gloated when his opponents were humbled. He never threw a stone, even at those who seemingly deserved it. And when people came to him wanting to point out the sinfulness of those who died when a tower in Siloam fell on them, or when a Roman governor slaughtered a group of people in the temple, Jesus rebuked them harshly. “They were no greater sinners than you — so if that’s the case, you’d better watch out for what’s coming your way” (Luke 13).  That’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. God doesn’t dole out to us what we “deserve.”  In fact, speaking of himself, giving himself a name, God declares, “this is who I am: the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Exodus 34).

But enough sermonizing. My fleeting moment of hubris over wanting to rub Tony Perkins’ face in it, in reality, was quickly shouted down by my own conscience. This is not who we are — or how God works. We’re better than this. We’re called to be better than this. To look upon even our enemies with compassion. And not be so quick to point the finger of judgment. Especially in moments of tragedy.

Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

My hope (and prayer) is that Tony Perkins, and those who follow him, will take this moment and rethink their theology. I hope real life will temper their theories, give them a reason to weigh the ugliness, the coldness and inhumaneness of this aspect of their beliefs. Good theology is born out of life experience. It can’t be just academic or based on a simple, literalistic reading of a holy text. That way leads to legalism, to hard-heartedness, to death. It dishonors “the compassionate and gracious God” it claims to reflect.  Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

This wasn’t a shining moment for me either. This harsh moment of history when people are suffering is making me pause and rethink my own “gut reactions.” It’s a cold look in the mirror of my soul.  I’m in need of some personal transformation as much as the Family Research Council is in need of some theological transformation.

May the tender, correcting voice of God’s Spirit work in us all.  And then may we move past our moments of introspection and theologizing to actually step up and help take care of those impacted by these so-called “acts of God.”

 

Ways to help & donate:

Salvation Army’s Gulf Coast fund – volunteer or donate to help
Operation Blessing relief fund – providing hot meals and helping in recovery
Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana – distributing food, water, and supplies to flood victims

 


photo credit: Tony Perkins’ home after the flooding. Taken from Tony Perkins’ Facebook page.

Breaking Up Was One of the Best Things to Ever Happen to Me

BreakingUp

A couple of friends on social media have posted recently about the difficulties they’re having after breaking up with their boyfriends. I can empathize. That emotional vortex can tear you apart for a few weeks and make you feel like your whole life is destroyed. But, for me, it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Relationships are wonderful things. We humans seem to crave them. We can feel isolated, lonely, and incomplete without them, as if our lives have little or no meaning unless someone else is there sharing it with us.  And there’s good reason for that. We are by nature social beings. (Most of us, that is. There are always those rare birds who thrive on being unattached.) I think it’s built into our DNA — the only thing recorded in the Genesis creation story that God said was not good was that man should be alone.

But what happens when those relationships end? For whatever reason — irreconcilable differences, death, infidelity, or simply growing in different directions — the sudden absence of someone who up till that moment played a significant role in your life, in your identity, can leave you reeling. You have to begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild yourself, rebuild your life.  And that can be a wonderful thing. A gift. An awe-inspiring blessing. It was for me.

We’d been together for 15 years. It was a rocky relationship, full of its ups and downs. Emotional highs, heights of passion, random warm moments, holidays, birthdays. Arguments, shouting matches, feeling completely misunderstood or neglected, … holidays, birthdays. Yeah, all of it. But in the final analysis, we weren’t happy. Not that we expected each other to make us happy — we both knew happiness was our own responsibility. But when the chemistry of two radically different personalities creates more negative reaction than positive, it’s time to reconsider the relationship. And we did. And we mutually agreed to end it.

The separation didn’t happen overnight. We discussed who’d get what, who’d move out, who’d stay, which dogs would go with whom. And we allowed time for that to happen. I kept the house (since I was the main bread-winner and he couldn’t have afforded to keep it), and he made plans to move across state to be closer to his family. And I itched almost every day, waiting for everything to fall into place so he could be gone.

When the day finally came, we packed up a U-Haul truck and moved him out. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Literally. It felt like I could breathe again.

BreakingUp2The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I was going to make the house “mine.” Then came all the other little changes. The decisions. I decided to eat better, to cook more, with more organics and meat that was humanely raised — and even for my dogs to eat better.  I decided to drink better quality coffee. To live more earth-friendly. To improve my social life. Dating — sure. (The whole world had evolved since the last time I’d dated. AOL was the thing back then. My friends had to clue me in about Adam4Adam, OkCupid, Match, and the host of phone apps available to help meet new people.) But also simply spending more time with my friends, going out to dinner, theater, movies … just rebuilding my life without him in it.  (I wrote about some of this back in the early days of my new-found singleness in “BYOB – Gay and Single (Again) After 40.”)

And this one word kept going through my head. “Rediscovery.” I wasn’t just “re-inventing” my life. I was rediscovering myself, who I was, digging back up those aspects and activities I used to love that had somehow become buried over the years together. Things he didn’t like to do. Parts of my personality that got overshadowed by the “us” of being with him. I rediscovered what it was like to be “Steve.”

I even stuck an index card on my refrigerator to remind me every morning —

“Create a life for yourself
that reflects your values,
builds on your gifts,
fulfills your purpose,
and satisfies your soul.”

The power of those words burrowed deep into my soul. “Create a life for yourself…”  It was an active process, not something I just sat back and let unfold. I spent time re-evaluating just what were my values, my gifts, my purpose? What satisfies my soul? I had the chance to re-create my life. I had that power. It was like a rebirth.

Oh, and yes, I did jump into the dating game. I was online every day, checking my apps multiple times during the day. Going on coffee dates (the safest thing for first dates, I discovered), getting to know different guys. There were months of feeling almost desperate: “I gotta find somebody. I wanna be married again.” I got emotionally attached to a couple of guys, even knowing there was no real long-term possibilities there. Got my heart broken once or twice. But gradually, as the clouds of desperation slowly faded from my mind, I woke up one morning realizing that I actually liked being single. I enjoyed my freedom. I loved the fact that I could meet someone, spend time with them, but go home afterwards to my own place, my home, my refuge, my dogs. And be okay unwinding on the couch, grabbing some movie off Netflix. By myself. Without having to worry about what someone else wanted to do.

I began to love myself again — and to like myself.  Whoever the guy was who’d eventually play a significant role in my life again, he’d have a pretty tough act to follow. He’d have to treat me and love me better than I loved myself. I wasn’t gonna lower my standards.

It’s been 4 years now. I’ve found someone who doesn’t trigger my red flags, who doesn’t irritate me (most of the time), who treats me with great respect, who has a depth of character and integrity that is a “must have” for me, and who has a life already established for himself. He’s good for my soul.

But more important than that. I’m happy. I wake up in the morning, grab my first cup of coffee of the day, and gather my thoughts. I pray. And I thank God for this good life. I think about the things I’m grateful for, the things I’m relieved about, excited and expectant about. The future. The present. The simplicity of things. A deeper spirituality. And the second chance at building my life.

The breakup gave me that chance. I got to re-think, re-define, re-discover who I was, and re-introduce elements of life that bring me joy and peace. Even my friends have commented on the change. I’m a better person now than I was before, and my life is richer. That break up with my ex was one of the best things that ever happened to me.


A version of Stephen’s post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Photo credits: Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello, cc; “Bachelor Pad,” crystalsquare apts, cc.

Please, Don’t Invite Someone to Church This Month

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We’ve got some big problems in the Church these days. That’s no great revelation. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Christianity, especially during election season, and you’ll get an earful.  We hear it so often, in fact, that we in the Church turn a deaf ear to it. We tune it out. We’re callous to criticism. And we just go on our merry way, carrying on as good soldiers of the Cross. Well, at least on Sundays.

So when I drove by this sign stuck lazily in the ground by the side of the road, insisting I “invite someone to church this month,” all I could do was shake my head in wonder and dismay.

That lawn sign for me, with its tone of religious obligation, was an all-too-accurate metaphor of American churchianity. Stuck in the ground so half-heartedly that the person couldn’t even bother to push it in all the way.

And it leaves me with this one begging question: “Why?”

Why should I invite someone to church?

At the core of my cynical reaction to the sign is the doubt that it would make a single bit of difference in a person’s life.  Of course there are churches out there that are legitimately changing the world, making a difference, with their people walking out the church doors and impacting lives around them in love and compassion and even power. But realistically, they are few and far, far in between.

Let’s get real for a minute. The current mass exodus from mainstream Christianity isn’t because people aren’t showing up to church on Sunday; it’s not because church-goers aren’t inviting others. It’s because we are showing up, but we’re more often than not walking away just as empty as when we walked in.

… It’s because we expect that pastor and the staff to do God’s work. We’re just there to be fed.

… It’s because our own encounter with God is too often limited to those 20 minutes of praise and worship once a week.

… It’s because we hear sermons week after week laden with guilt-inducing messages about how wretched we are, how we need to read our bibles more, pray more, and yes, invite people to church more, and how if it weren’t for the unmerited mercy of God, we’d all be doomed to hell.

… It’s because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips.

… It’s because on that eventful Sunday when the guest we invite does show up, she hears about a Jesus who probably wouldn’t even be welcome in our building. The guy who talked about giving up our wealth, who talked about loving our enemy — and not just in some warm-fuzzy way, but in wallet-emptying ways: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting (helping!) the sick who can’t afford medical care. That guy, Jesus, would never be offered the pulpit. His gospel would be too demanding, and he would likely be quietly ushered out the back. Not a good candidate for our country-club Christian comfort zones.

People aren’t coming to church … because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips..

… It’s because all those good words read out of the Good Book bear little resemblance to the anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant political propaganda coming out of so many preachers doing their best to defend “traditional American values” instead of “Jesus values.”

And honestly, if a new person did walk through our doors, would they meet God in our eyes and arms, or are they just supposed to absorb God from the singing and prayers offered? “You won’t leave here like you came, in Jesus’ name.” Lord, I wish that were true.

So, stick that sign out by the side of the road; let’s invite someone to church this month. Not even this week – don’t knock yourself out. Just any ole time this month will be just fine. Let’s fill these pews. Pack this place. Cuz that’s what this world really needs.

Instead, why don’t we invite the church out to the world this month?

How about instead of focusing on church Sunday morning, we come out Saturday night to offer warm soup on the street corner to the hookers? Or to hand out McDonald’s gift cards to those guys living under the overpass so they can have a hot meal for once this month, instead of having to beg for change or dig through trash?  Or how about we go down to the gay strip, and instead of passing out tracts trying to get people saved, offer them free bottled water or BBQ sandwiches to cut the alcohol in their system so they can drive home safely? Or maybe even pull an extra $20 bill out of our Gucci wallets and Michael Kors bags to help finance that shelter for homeless youth?

Let’s set aside for the moment the suggestion that we actually volunteer at the county jail or state pen in some program to benefit the prisoners, or to go up to the hospital and just hold the hand of our fellow church member who’s alone and afraid. That’s too hard. (Hey, I don’t do that either — so I’m not just throwing stones at others here.) I won’t ask that we actually participate in that Soup Kitchen on a regular basis, as part of habitually walking out our Christian beliefs.

It’s hard enough getting people just to step out of their — our — self-absorbed lives long enough to smile at the cashier at Walmart. Oh sure, we’ll say “Have a blessed day,” but exercising just a bit of patience when that cashier is having a hard time with her register and making us wait in line too long — that’s just a bit too much effort.

Invite someone to church this month? No thanks. At least not until the church we’re inviting them to is actually doing something outside the building on days other than Sunday. Not until we who go week after week are actually being changed, transformed, by those good words. Not until we show that we actually care about the people around us, until a little light actually shines from us in this dark place we call urban America.

When churchianity becomes authentic Christianity, when we’re doing some legitimate Jesus-following, we won’t have to invite someone to a service this month. And we won’t need signs to remind us. People will be knocking on our doors wanting what we have.

But until we have it, please. Please. Don’t invite someone. We’ve got enough church-goers in this country already.

photo credit: Stephen Schmidt, cc

 

An Introvert’s Guide to Following Your Peace

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Today, another moral dilemma for an introvert. One of the guys in the company I work for put in his notice, and the managers want to do a “going away lunch” for him — today. Short notice. And it kinda freaks me out. I really don’t want to go. I hardly know the guy, I hate work-related social events, and especially without adequate time to mentally prepare myself. So, should I go or not?  “Should I.” That’s the operative phrase.

When chewing on this … and getting texts from a friend who also happens to want to do lunch today … I asked myself an odd question (it just popped in my head, so I ran with it): Which brings you greater peace?

Well, that’s obvious. Not going makes me feel all warm and comfy inside. LOL. Like I said, I hardly know they guy. I interact with him maybe once or twice a week, and he’s decent enough. But I hate these big “to do’s”, these group activities with people who are not really my friends. They’re just work-acquaintances — people I see almost daily but have little quality interaction with.  And at these lunches when we go out, we end up sitting at a group of tables, and really only the people sitting closest to guy will chat with him over their gourmet burgers and sweet-potato jalapeño fries.  So my being there would just be as another warm body filling a seat, a body count.  And frankly, I’ve got a long history here of not going to these things — company picnics, corporate junkets to Las Vegas and Disney World … and the office birthday gatherings in the breakroom, where I make an appearance, give my best wishes, and then make a quiet escape. Nobody is surprised that I’m not a company partier. And luckily for me, I’m not the only one. My officemate is the same way. So when the boss walks in and asks, “You guys coming?”, he already knows the answer.  “Just thought I’d ask,” he says as he walks towards the door.

Don’t think I don’t know how lame that sounds. You extroverts won’t get it at all. You’ll think I’m being antisocial, or worse, a snob. That I somehow think people aren’t good enough for me, not worth my time. But introverts get it. It’s not about me being better or worse than anyone else. It’s a lot of energy to expend with people I have little invested in. Is it worth the “cost” to me? Usually the answer is no.

So, if I “go with my peace,” the answer is clear. Works for me. And (hopefully) since my absence won’t be blatantly conspicuous — not likely to hurt the guy’s feelings — I’m okay with that.

But it also made me think of times when “going with my peace” can leads to the wrong decision — especially because I’m an introvert.

What about those times when other people are counting on me, or where it’s important to them? Yesterday, for example, I was all comfy at home, wearing sweats, ready to make dinner, and I get a call from my boyfriend. He’s on the other side of town doing his thing, and he’s gotta come back to the city center for a show he’s doing. But he left part of his costume at home. Could I bring it to him? Of course, I will. It’ll be a 40 minute round-trip for me, but I love him. I’m invested. Doing something for him is like doing it for myself. BUT, my “peace” would have preferred staying home, settling in. (Having people in your life can really mess with your peace sometimes. Just sayin’. 🙂 )

Okay, that one was obvious. We all do stuff like that, we all make little sacrifices for the ones we love. (And if you’re not, you might want to reconsider that. As God once whispered to me, “it’s the little acts of selfishness that destroy a relationship.”)

On a different level, when we run across someone in need — whether financial or emotional or … just needs help with something. Our first reaction — our “peace” — might be to decline.  It’ll be inconvenient. It’ll put us out a little. And human nature doesn’t like to be put out.  But, if we’re decent people, we override our “peace” and just do it. That’s called being a decent human being. That’s called “good”. That’s part of “love” in the broadest sense. So when my long-time bud is moving out of his house into another place and asks if I’ll help him move the big stuff … yeah, sure. That’s what friends do, right? — even if I may be groaning on the inside.

A friend of mine told me about something that happened to him when we were back in seminary. While I was immersed in my books and study groups and small circle of seminary friends, he was out doing speaking engagements. He even had an agent booking him at events. He was out “doing things.”  This one particular time, he was doing a week-long seminar/revival at a church in another state, and he was staying with a family from the church (a horrifying situation for an introvert; but in his case, no big deal. He’s a classic extrovert.) This family had agreed to host him, drive him around, feed him, and then get him back to the airport when the week’s services ended. On that last day, the man of the house suddenly “didn’t feel a peace” about driving him the hour to the airport, and my friend had to scramble to get a taxi to drive him. The guy disguised his own laziness in spiritual language — and armed with sloppy religious teaching that we should always “follow our peace,” he found a ready excuse. And my friend was left out in the cold to fend for himself. Nice.

To everybody except himself, that man’s behavior was reprehensible. Totally unchristian. Lacking common decency. But he followed his “peace” and I’m sure he had a comfortable Saturday morning. Maybe even managed to squeeze in 9 holes of golf.

When someone is counting on you, when it’s your time to step up, following your peace may not be the best option. That is, unless you know for absolute certain that God is leading you in a different direction. As people of faith, we must learn to be sensitive to our gut, to the promptings of the Spirit. Lives can depend on it. But that also means we have to be able to discern the difference between a “spiritual peace” — one guided by the Spirit’s leading — and a “selfish peace” — rooted only in our carnal laziness.

What about when we need to stretch for our own good? Back to my boyfriend. He’s an extrovert, and he’s heavily involved in social activities, for his job, for his vocation … for his quality of life. My default tendency (my “peace”) is to let him do his thing while I stay home doing my thing. But if I’m not careful, I could easily slip into the life of a recluse. I need sometimes to break out of my comfort zone and do things with him. It’s important to him, for me to share in his life, and it’s important for me, to be a part of his life as well as to broaden my exposure to new activities, new experiences, new people. Sometimes I need to say yes — because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a good thing all around.

In those cases, my “peace” has to take the back seat. It’s uncomfortable for me to do those things — something Jake doesn’t really understand, but makes an effort to accept about me anyway. They take a real toll on me, and I often need time afterwards to recover, re-energize, find my balance again.  But almost always, afterwards, I’m glad I did them. They enriched me. They added to my life. And that’s worth a little discomfort and inconvenience now and then.

It’s all a matter of discerning the difference, knowing when your peace is spiritually guided and when it’s just based in physical or emotional comfort. We gotta know the difference: Is this God telling me not to do that, or is it just me?  And if it isn’t God, then it becomes about priorities. Is helping someone out worth losing a little “peace” over? Is doing good, doing the right thing, acting in love, worth the sacrifice of a little comfort? Most times, yes.

I’m an introvert. And I have shy tendencies on top of that. It’s a horrible combination sometimes. But most times, I can tell when it’s just me not wanting to be stretched or inconvenienced, and when that lack of peace is legitimate divine guidance. You know what I mean: like when you’re thinking about buying a new car, and you’re wrestling inside about it. Tapping into which answer gives you peace can be a good indicator of what’s right for you. Or if you’re choosing between jobs (as I did), that sense of peace showed me which one. Or when we’re considering whether we should date someone, or get into a relationship with them. Your spiritual sensitivity can be crucial.  But honestly, in most everyday cases, that “sense of peace” for me is more often just my own personal preference: Do I want to do this or not?

I admit, I do tend to “follow my peace” in most things. When the outcome isn’t important. When people aren’t relying on me. When it’s not a matter of love or simple goodness. And when it isn’t a potential growth opportunity.  That’s how I stay balanced, now I stay sane.  But I also know that if I give in to my natural tendency toward “peacefulness” too often, I’ll miss out. Life will pass me by while I’m comfy on my couch watching Netflix.  Cuz life and personal growth happen mostly outside our comfort zones.

For me, barring a sense of input from the Spirit, when I recognize that the “peace” is more about my own natural inclinations, I have to weigh the cost versus the benefit. And as a general rule, if it involves helping someone, the expenditure of energy is worthwhile. Other times … ya know, God gave us wide latitude in deciding things for ourselves.

And this company farewell lunch … yeah, I think I’ll pass. This time. I’ve got a lot going on right now and really don’t need that extra stress this afternoon. Would Jesus go? Sure. But then, Jesus loved parties. Me? I get more restorative peace from a quiet cup of tea — with or without friends.

 

photo credit: Kristel Jax via Flickr, cc.

 

Growing Beyond the Formulas

formulas1aI just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked.  And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.

As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.

But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.

I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.

I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances.  Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?

What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out.  And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.

formulas3In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.

But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.

From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey.  It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.

Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts.  Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”

formulas2aGod doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.

He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead your through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others.  (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)

I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.

By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.

You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.

Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.

 

The Sacrament of Cooking Bacon

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Growing up as a Protestant, I had an inherent distaste for ritual. Liturgy, routines and orders of worship (even though every church has one) … were all equated with “religion,” the imitation of true relationship with God. “Religion = Death” was a mental slogan, even if the words never quite formed that way in our minds.  Even habits. You hardly ever heard about “good habits.” Mostly, habits were referenced in the context of sinful things we did, that our “flesh” compelled us to do. Habits that needed to be broken. The genuinely spiritual person was free — free from form, free from ritual, free from habits.

And surely, those poor Catholics who “mindlessly” recited the rosary were missing out on a real connection with God. And all that incense waving and candle lighting … all imitations of spirit. Cheap substitutes that were empty of meaning and devoid of power.

Of course that’s not true. It was just the fuzzy logic floating through my head as a Protestant kid who probably thought too much about incidental things. I had no appreciation for the sacramental, no understanding of the connectedness between things of the world and things of the spirit, how one can help enrich the other.

Now, witnessing the “multi-tasking,” “spontaneous” activity of so many of my friends — myself included — as we flip between phone apps, texting, snap-chatting, tweeting, clicking photos to share on Instagram … all that freedom. And is it really freeing us, or just making us prisoners of the immediate? With our 1500 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, do we even know who we are anymore? Are we even in touch with ourselves?

mind full - mindfulYears ago, when we thought about our elders growing senile, we used to say that they’re reliving fond memories, that it’s okay that they don’t remember our names or faces: they’re in happier times.  Recently the thought occurred to me: am I even making memories to relive? I’m so busy jumping between projects, between shows on Netflix, between apps and games and programs. What would I be “reliving” when I’m 85 and have lost my mind? “Oh yes, those golden days. I remember this one tweet …”

This struck me more powerfully the other day when I was frying up some bacon. I’d finally learned how to do it right, without smoking up the whole house or covering the stove top (or the inside of the oven) with bacon grease. It’s a bit of a slow process, frying up 2 pounds of bacon (I cook up a batch and store it in the freezer for quick snacking), and I caught myself going from stovetop to laptop: flip the bacon, check Facebook. Add another slice to the skillet, post another comment online. And I stopped myself.

I was missing out on something. The simple joy of the experience. The sensuous sizzle of the bacon in the pan. The smell of the smoked meat as it crisped up, filling my nose with that hardwood saltiness that makes the mouth water. The heat from the rapidly accumulating grease as I added more slices to the pan. The changing color of the meat as it cooked. The popping of randomly splattering grease. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Sensations. And I forced myself to stand there and just take it all in. Facebook can wait. This is living in the now.

This! This is wonderful. Bacon is wonderful. It’s a gift from God (apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends). Let me just enjoy the full experience, this moment of grace that is doing something unexplainable to my soul.  I’m smiling. I feel good. I’m looking forward to munching on ALL these delectable slices of heaven piling up on the plate next to the stove. This is a memory I might enjoy reliving in my twilight years. Even if not, it’s doing something to me now.

It was an exercise in “mindfulness,” of being present. Of dismissing the distractions, and the A.D.D.-driven activities. It was a sacrament, an instrument of receiving divine grace.

Over-stimulation is killing our souls.

There is a place for ritual in our lives. There’s a need for it. Familiar routines fire “comfort” sensations in our brain. Our thinking slows. Our nerves unravel. We become calm, peaceful. And in those moments, more receptive to the world around us. More in tune. Whether it’s a morning run outdoors, a late-night workout, or quiet times of prayer and meditation, routine grounds us, makes us stable. It makes us happy.

We need to slow down a bit. Maybe buy a French press, and make your morning coffee a drawn-out ritual. Even if just on the weekends. Make tea, in a pot. Let it steep a few minutes before your drink it. Sip it with both hands. Taste it. Really taste it. Experience it.  Cook more; eat out less. Allow yourself the luxury of chopping vegetables, of making a salad with multiple ingredients, of grilling a steak. Bumping into your partner as you both maneuver the kitchen. I even started making a cake on Friday evening, just to help slow down, as I mix the ingredients and wait for the oven to preheat. Doing something with my hands since I work all week with my brain. And a Sabbath! We should all get back to the habit of taking one day a week where we just relax, where we hang out at home or do simple errands… to unwind. Refresh. Or just sit on the patio for an hour with a book.

We need to build moments back into our lives where we can receive grace. That life-restoring energy, reconnecting us here and now.

cafe_au_laitWe need to cultivate rituals — things to make us pause for a moment and just appreciate what is right in front of us. Even if it’s the simple delight of pouring real cream into your French-roast coffee and watching the color change. Or holding your favorite mug in your hands. Buy yourself some wind chimes, and occasionally turn off the TV just to listen to them for a few moments.

Like God on the first day of creation, impose some order and peace on the chaos that our lives have become.

We Protestants have missed out on this aspect of worship, of reverent living. We don’t do rosaries. We don’t recite prayers. We haven’t built mechanisms into our lives that allow us to slow down, to relax the brain and the rampant rapids of our thoughts. To find stillness. Even our Sabbaths are hectic. Maybe the simple act of lighting a candle can help reconnect our faith that our prayers are ever-ascending before the Throne of God. We are human, and we need tangible objects, simple acts, to help focus our thoughts, our prayers, and our lives.

I’m not about to sell my 50″ flatscreen. I’m not going to cancel my subscription to Netflix. But I’m enjoying the tactile sensations of cooking again, the simple pleasure of my favorite red coffee cups, the random music of the chimes outside my living room doors. I jealously guard my Saturdays, when I (mostly) ignore my phone, and take my dogs to the park. Or my Sunday afternoons, after the hub-bub of church, when I can grab some quiet time on my patio with a book. I need those slow-down moments. You do too. Being quiet. Being present. Being in the moment, in the now. And receiving a touch of grace. Even when it’s just cooking up some bacon.

 

photo credit: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr, cc.
“Cafe au lait,” NukelarBurrito, via Flickr, cc

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Now is the Time of Your Breakthrough. Or Maybe Not.

 

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“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.”  Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.

We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track.  That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”

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general words of encouragement are great …

God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.

But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.

And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.

A couple examples …

Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.

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… specific “prophetic” words broadcast to the public, not so much …

Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”.  God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.

Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.

And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.

The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching.  But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”

Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …”  Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.

The bottom line

The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation.  The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.”  That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.”  But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”

God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place.  But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”  (Jeremiah 29:4-12)

We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …”  There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan.  But “Now” may not be that time.

now3So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.

There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch.  God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.

“Now” may – or may not – be the time.  Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.

photo credit: “High Fly,” Abhinay Omkar via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

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Dear Church Leaders: Get Real or Go Home

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If I have to see one more article on “why millennials are leaving the church,” I think I might scream. Well, not really. Those dramatic days are (mostly) behind me. But really. The younger generation has always been leaving the church … I remember hearing the same lament back in the 70s when I was just a kid.

The thing is, as much as I grow weary of seeing post after post, blog after blog, on the topic, there’s always a bit of truth to them. The church NEEDS to grow, needs to change with each generation. It’s not a matter of staying “relevant,” like some kind of marketing gimmick to attract the newest set of consumers. It’s real life. Society changes. Culture changes. The needs and demands and focus of each generation will be different from the last, and if the church doesn’t address those changes, if God isn’t presented as having answers to those changes — or even being at work IN those changes — then why should anyone bother to listen to what is coming out of the pulpit?

For me, it’s not just the sermon topics — as if pastors and preachers needed to act like John Stewart engaging hot topics in the news. And it’s not the liturgy or worship style — whether we’re singing 200 year old hymns or the latest repetitive ditty from the latest pop Worship CD. For me, it’s about substance. Real, spiritual substance. And all the questionnaires and “10 Reasons Why” articles seem to indicate that too. People want the real thing. We’re tired of talk. We’re tired of show. We’re tired of what passes for “faith” these days.

Give us the real thing, or please, Please!, shut up and go home.

What that “real thing” is could be parsed out in several components: from genuine worship, genuine prophetic messages from the pulpit, to genuine love expressed in the pew and outside the walls of the church.  But the foundation of them all is genuine spiritual reality — power — behind our religious experience. And it begins with our church leaders. So let me start there.

The church is anemic because of anemic church leaders.

Leaders more focused on numbers and popularity than on maturing in their “call” and fulfilling that call. Leaders addicted to power and titles rather than actual ministry. We have become imitations, fakes, charlatans, stepping into the shoes of the original apostles who moved with genuine authority because they were in touch with the reality of their call. As a result, the church is sick. Sick because we feed it junk food, full of artificial ingredients that can never replace what it was designed to operate on: authentic spiritual ability.

So, as a fellow member of the Church, sick from the “form of godliness without power,” let me challenge you. If you’re genuinely called by God to serve his people, then …

 

Dear Apostles:
If you wear this label, you don’t need to hear that your role did not cease to exist after the first century. God has placed you in the church (Eph 4) to be a pillar. But here’s the thing: an apostle is an emissary, a messenger. An ambassador. Empowered with full authority of the Crown to deliver messages and revelations from the Royal Throne. And it is accompanied with full spiritual power. Look at your forbearers, Peter, John, James, Paul. They spoke the living words of God, they plowed hard ground and produced a crop, they not only planted churches and birthed new congregations, but they fathered and mothered those congregations. They had an encounter with the risen Christ, and their inspired words changed the direction of the church forever. You, when you speak, do your words carry divine power? When was the last time you brought forth new revelation from God for the people he entrusted to you? Are you delivering canned sermon after sermon, spouting recycled messages you heard growing up in church? Have you seen the risen Christ — has Christ appeared to you and delivered this charge to you personally? Has he given you a commission and a message to shape his people for this generation, for this time and place?  If not, then please go back to him who sent you and get a fresh assignment from the King, … or just quit and go home.

Dear Prophets:
I see so many of you on Facebook and social media. You wear the title like a prize and seek special pulpit time at conferences. Yet what do you deliver except sound bites and feel-good pabulum that do nothing for the people. If all you are saying over and over again is “This is the year of your break-through” or “your time of waiting is over” or some other quotable nugget that might be found in a Stephen Covey book, then … please go back to the Throne and get a real message. People are hurting. People are seeking guidance in this hectic world. People need to hear from God, and that is your job. Generic positive, encouraging words are nice. There’s even a place for them in the church. But they are not prophesy. Get a specific word from God for the specific situation, be able to assert “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” … or sit down and shut up.

Dear Evangelists:
Your job no longer exists in tent crusades or hopping from church to church, collecting your love offerings. Your job is in the streets — and not shouting into a bullhorn on the corner. Your job is in the housing projects or in corporate board rooms. To the individuals hungry, seeking something beyond this physical existence. Your job is to help them answer the longing of their hearts for connection to the Living God. You don’t need a business card for that. You just need a heart.

Dear Pastors:
You have the hardest work of all. Tending the sheep is the highest calling. But are you more concerned with what suit you will wear next Sunday, or if your bling will reflect in the light, than you are with going after that stray parishioner who’s having a hard time right now? Do you answer your phone at 3:00 in the morning when one of your flock just lost a loved one in a car accident, or is in the hospital for emergency surgery? Do you make time in your busy schedule to have coffee with the lonely guy who just needs to talk with someone? Are you too busy to actually love on — to physically touch — the people God has put in your care? If so, then maybe you are not really called to be a pastor. Maybe you are a teacher, or just a preacher, or (God forbid) just an entertainer putting on a show.  Please, if you believe God has called you to pastor his people, then go back to the Throne and ask for a heart that loves the people. Be there for them. Like Jesus said to Peter, “if you love me, tend my lambs.”  Or, please … stop talking and go home.

Dear Teachers:
You are entrusted with the words of God. You are entrusted with life-changing truth. You cannot afford to just wing it Sunday morning or Wednesday evening with a lesson out of the denominational quarterly. Your life will probably be filled with drama and all kinds of real-life experience. You will undergo tragedy, and you will have questions, many of which you won’t find ready answers for. You will spend much time seeking God, reaching out, exploring the heavens, asking for light. Why? Because how can you teach what you do not know? How can you lead people into deeper understanding of who God is and how they connect with him, if all you know are the clichés and bible stories from Sunday School? Like the prophet, you need fresh revelation from the Throne, to “bring out new treasure as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Don’t be complacent. Don’t get lazy. A vast treasury is yours to plunder — for the benefit of those who sit at your feet.

Dear Bishops:
You are a pastor to pastors. You have been entrusted with over-seeing, super-vising, the flocks and those who lead them. Red robes and collars are yours if you want them. Honor will not be denied you. But your work is not done. It is not time to simply sit at the head of the table or on the platform. You too must answer the 3:00 am phone call. You too must be in the dirt with the shepherds under your care. Who can they talk to but you? And you too must invade the Throne Room for daily wisdom, fresh guidance and instruction from the Chief Shepherd so that you can administer God’s people according to God’s current plan and wishes. Do not get soft. Do not get comfortable. A life on the road may be your inheritance. But “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:30). Your inheritance includes the riches of relationships with an unimagined number of children who will love and honor you.  If you stay faithful.

Dear Deacons:
You were not called simply to sit on committees and to vote. You were called to serve. You are the arms and legs of the pastor, the extended strength of your congregation. You are the table-servers, the ones who clean up the mess. You tend the physical needs of the community. You feed them, you clothe them, you are God’s answer when they cry out to him to meet their needs. Make sure your heart is in the job or do not accept the title. It is dirty work. It takes tough hands and small egos. And you too must be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” honorable, and able to fulfill your responsibility (Acts 6). People are counting on you … and so is their God. But what reward awaits you when you see the King! “I was hungry, and you fed me! I was naked, and you clothed me!” And that’s better than any title in this life.

 

There is no such thing as a pew-sitter in God’s Kingdom. Everyone has a role, everyone has gifts to use for the benefit of others. But those called to specific functions in God’s family have a divine obligation and duty which cannot be fulfilled without authentic spiritual empowerment. And if the church has become stale, artificial, having only the appearance of ritual and religion without moving in the Divine Flow, if people are leaving because all they see is empty words without action, without heart, and without power, then the fault lies first and foremost in church leadership. We either need to get real, or shut up and go home.

photo credit: “The Apostles preaching the Gospel, ” Fr Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

What’s so Wrong with Being a Christian Slut?

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Okay, maybe NOW I’ve actually got to write this thing. I’ve been putting it off for months, writing about Christian sexuality. It’s such an important topic, but honestly, it’s so loaded with inherited moralistic and church tradition baggage — plus, the theology is incredibly subtle — that I didn’t want to open that particular can of worms. People are already questioning my salvation, LOL.

But today I saw one more post on Facebook. A friend shared an article about some guy who didn’t want to start PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis: taking an HIV anti-viral med to prevent becoming infected) because he didn’t want people to think he was a whore. See, there’s this whole “#TruvadaWhore” meme thing going around. I think it was originally a joke; kinda like, “yeah, I can sleep around now because I’m on the meds.” Some even wear the term as a badge of honor, feeling the empowerment of embracing their sexuality. I’ve seen the t-shirts.

And that’s what my friend was saying: “What’s wrong with being a whore? Why do we blindly accept someone else’s value judgements without thinking about them for ourselves?” truvadawhore

Many gay men have suppressed their sexuality for so long they finally reach a point where they realize it is their body to enjoy as they want and it’s none of anyone else’s business. They’re reclaiming sex as a valid way of interacting with another person they’re interested in — even when not married or in a committed relationship.

And that’s where the Christian morality comes into play. Because we all know that sex outside of marriage is fornication, and the bible clearly says that’s a sin. Right? Or is it? So let’s crack open this can of worms and see where we end up.

First, it’s important to note that the bible is a book loaded with sex. And that’s how it should be. God made sexuality a hugely important part of our humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would be relegated to topics like gluttony and laziness: yeah, it’s an issue, but who really cares? So, since the bible is full of stories about humans, it’s bound to talk about sex. A lot. Like Abraham with his wife and his concubine/second-wife. Like Jacob and his four women. Like David and Bathsheba and his little harem, or Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. There was Judah, one of Israel’s patriarchs, and his adventures with a prostitute; and Samson, the hero of faith, with his multiple dalliances with ladies of the night. They didn’t seem too uptight about sexuality back then. So what happened?

When it comes to limitations on sex,
the bible is primarily focused on adultery and idolatry.

TenCommandmentsWell, let’s start with the 10 Commandments. Nothing at all in there about sex outside of marriage. In fact, the only sexual reference is to a married person having sex with someone else’s spouse. And this may be an important key. Sexual morality was originally about loyalty to a spouse — specifically, about a wife being sexually exclusive with her husband alone. Men were given a lot of slack here; even married men could fool around with other women as long as they were not married. Well, at least that’s how it was practiced. The text doesn’t say that. It simply says “don’t commit adultery.” So, let’s ignore for the moment what men in the bible actually did, and focus on the original intent: when you are in a committed relationship, your sexual activity stays within that relationship. Married couples give themselves to each other, that whole “the two become one flesh” thing, so joining your body with someone else was a betrayal. It was a form of theft. Men still had the upper hand, though. They could take on a second or third or fourth wife.

It gets more interesting in the New Testament. Jesus said if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s like committing adultery with her. Note the choice of words: adultery. In the social context of Judaism at that time, the working assumption was that men would be married. It was a rite of passage, a part of being a man and fulfilling the duty to populate the nation and take one’s place in society. Bachelors did exist, but they were a rarity, frowned upon by society. (In fact, there is no biblical Hebrew word for “bachelor” — but there are a few words for unmarried woman.) So, Jesus is presumably speaking to married men, and is saying that thinking sexual thoughts about someone else is being unfaithful to your wife, and tantamount to actually having sex outside your marriage: ie, adultery. What’s cool here, is that Jesus is now equalizing the field. Men got away with infidelity all the time — “adultery” was generally only applied to the unfaithful wife. But here, Jesus lays the burden equally on the (married) guys with their sexual fantasies.

But what if you’re not married?

For sex and the single person, we have to move on to the Apostle Paul. He’s the one who really adds the bricks to the morality wall. He’s the one who spells out that whole, “the man’s body belongs to his wife, and the woman’s body belongs to her husband” thing. Again: when you’re committed, honor that commitment.

But then he throws in lines about not having sex with prostitutes because you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s context, most prostitutes were temple prostitutes; they were professionals who offered sex as a form of pagan worship, and they were often in the employ of a temple. In a way, Paul is making a pun here. You are temple property, and you’re joining yourself with another temple’s property — but one outside the true faith. So sex with a pagan temple prostitute is in fact an act of idolatry — of participating in worshipping other gods. Much like eating meat sacrificed to idols. No big deal in itself. But if other people know about the meat, don’t eat it so they won’t think you’re participating in idolatrous worship. It seems to me that Paul is primarily concerned with idolatry here, with participating with foreign gods, more than about the sex itself. (What if the person you’re getting naked with is also a Christian, another temple of the same Holy Spirit? Does his argument still hold up?)

Oh, and please notice that Paul never says that sex is a “joining of two spirits,” as is often misunderstood. The phrase is “the two become one flesh”; it is a physical joining, not some mixing of your spiritual natures, so you are not defiling Christ’s Spirit who lives within you.

But, you may ask, what about Paul’s statement, “it is better to marry than to burn” with lust? Isn’t he advocating marriage as the only valid outlet for sexual urges? “Decent” unmarried women in those days were kept under the protective watchful eye of their male relatives, so the only readily available sexual outlet were temple prostitutes. Given those alternatives, marriage is the best bet. Paul knows the young men in his congregations are hot and full of hormones. And temple prostitutes are not a good idea. So, get yourself a woman of your own.

Notice also in this discussion on marriage, that Paul adds, almost in passing, “But I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am, [celibate, unmarried]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”  Celibacy, even Paul admits, is a gift from God, a spiritual empowerment, not something that is required of everyone.

I can’t say that idolatry/temple-prostitution is the only thing Paul was concerned about here. But it also fits with the common scholarly take on Paul’s views on homosexuality. That famous Romans 1 passage used to beat up LGBT people so often — clearly in a pagan temple context: “they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Idolatry again. And the ambiguous word he uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 referring to same-sex sexuality, arsenokoitaiseems to involve exploitive situations: either pederasty, prostitution, or human trafficking (kidnapped “sex slaves”). Sex shouldn’t be exploitive or abusive, and it shouldn’t be linked with worshipping other gods.

Picasso
Prostitutes wearing African masks as expressions of unbound sexuality. (Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon)

Fornication, Purity & Virginity

So, what about “fornication”? Isn’t it condemned in the bible? Sure. Unfortunately, that word, usually translated generically as “sexual immorality” in modern versions of the bible, has taken on a specific meaning in the Christian Church that it did not originally have. Ask most Christians and they’ll tell you that “fornication” is premarital sex.

But in the bible, that word is much broader and refers to wide range of unlawful (forbidden) sexual activities, such as incest, sex within certain family relations (step-mothers, half-sisters, aunts, in-laws, etc), sex while the woman is menstruating, and other unclean practices. Hence, Paul could condemn a man in one of his churches who was having an affair with his father’s wife (presumably his ex-step-mother, not his actual mother). That was a shocking thing to do in that culture; it was indecent, and Paul didn’t want that associated with the young faith community. But fornication did not specifically refer to sex outside of marriage as is commonly understood today.

What about keeping ourselves pure — for God and for our spouse? Yes, there’s something to be said for that. “How can a young man keep himself pure?,” Psalm 119:9 asks. The answer given in the same verse is “by living according to God’s Word.” But why do we automatically think that “purity” refers to sexuality? To a Jew, purity would be understood primarily as a life keeping the commandments — everything from avoiding pork and shell fish, to the way he cuts his hair, to keeping the Sabbath, and having no other gods besides God. It meant staying loyal to God. Go ahead. Look it up. You won’t find sex mentioned there.

Virginity was highly prized in women in biblical days — it made them more valuable to prospective husbands — but it was never a virtue or requirement for men. Still, if you choose to save your virginity and offer it as a gift to your future spouse, then that’s an excellent and honorable choice. Like taking a vow to never drink alcohol or never smoke a cigarette, it’s a personal lifestyle decision. But don’t let someone else make that decision for you. Don’t be forced into a life of frustration because you are not married and your jeans seem to be on fire.

The book of Proverbs has lots to say about sex for the young man. Beware the wayward woman, the one leaning seductively out her door, whispering “my husband is away, come in and let me entertain you.” It encourages faithfulness: “drink water from your own cistern, and don’t let your fountains overflow into the streets. May your fountain be blessed,” and “may your wife’s breasts always satisfy you.” Juicy imagery. But again, a married situation: adultery. There’s also talk about prostitutes. A dangerous liaison, she will consume all your wealth and lead you to destruction — yeah, there goes your paycheck, and you better go get your status checked. Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It’s not saying not to have sex. It’s saying use some wisdom in your hookups — adultery and prostitutes aren’t the wisest way to satisfy your urges.

And then there’s the Song of Songs in the bible. The entire book is dedicated to the joys of physical intimacy and being in love. Even before their wedding day, the young woman yearns achingly for her lover, and takes him to the bedroom. The descriptions are so steamy and explicit, in fact, that the only way the book could be included in the Hebrew Bible was that the sages declared it to be an allegory about the love of God and his bride Israel. And later Christian leaders understood it as a description of the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church. Spiritual interpretations aside, the book celebrates the pangs of desire, and the joys of physical love and companionship. But above all, it celebrates love. And this is a good qualifier. Let love be your goal, not just getting your rocks off.

Let me point it out again. In ancient Israel, adultery (for women) was punishable by death. But marital faithfulness was less expected of men, and both prostitution and “harlotry” (unmarried women engaging in promiscuous sex) were completely legal and tolerated. That, of course, does not mean they were socially respectable — just like today, unmarried women who enjoy their sexuality tend to have a bad reputation (“whore”, “slut”), while guys generally get a free pass.

Having said all that, though, I am not saying that the bible is only concerned about adultery and idolatry when it comes to sex. But what I am saying is that the strict code of sexual purity we think the bible endorses is actually more a modern interpretation.  With all the commandments given in the bible, nowhere will you find the explicit statement “thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage.”

So what then …?

Should you hop from bed to bed just because you can? Probably not. Paul’s injunction holds true across the board — whether over-eating at the buffet, drinking too much and getting wasted Saturday night, cutting yourself or doing harm to yourself … or sexual promiscuity: “glorify God with your bodies.” Over-indulgence is never applauded. And that kind of libertine sexuality was deemed “licentiousness” in the bible: a sin of excess. “Don’t use your liberty as an excuse to indulge the flesh, but serve one another in love,” Paul tells us — but the point is that you do have that liberty. Someone else’s stricter “moral code” is not binding on you. Your conscience and your personal relationship with God is. How you express your sexuality in real life is entirely up to you. What is sin for one may not be sin for another. We are individuals, with our own individual relationships with God. If you meet someone you’re really connecting with, if things get hot and steamy, is God going to count one more sin against you? No. God is not a prude, and he’s not a sin-counter. But like the book of Proverbs advises over and over, use some wisdom, use your intuition, don’t be stupid, and never put yourself in dangerous situations. Use your head and use your conscience. Like Paul says, “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.”

Look, I’m not saying that the bible would condone you hooking up with a new guy weekend after weekend. What I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to me to be much to support the idea that you need to wait until you’re married. There’s a wide space of territory between those two extremes, and you need to navigate it according to your own Spirit-prodded conscience.

The bible is a big book, with a collection of 66 separate smaller books, written by 40 different authors on 3 continents over a 2000 year period. It’s got a lot to say about the human condition, and each author emphasizes different aspects of the God-human interaction. Whatever position you happen to take on a topic, you’ll likely be able to pull support from somewhere in that big collection. And obviously there is plenty of room for disagreement here. So we’re back to that basic premise: you gotta use a bit of wisdom, a bit of maturity, and apply with a spiritual sensitivity. And that includes your sex life.

Sex is an inseparable part of being human. It is a gift from God, and a legitimate way of connecting personally with another human being. And when you commit to someone, you should keep your sexual fires within that relationship. But if you’re still single, there doesn’t seem to be any clear restriction against enjoying another person’s body — as long as it’s not exploitive, abusive, dangerous, involve worshipping another god, or a betrayal of someone’s bond.

condom_483906290_a8d66b83a1_zSo, use some common sense. Sex is deeply personal. It’s not just like eating a Big Mac. It will impact you emotionally, psychologically, physically, and even spiritually in some way. And randomly sharing your body with every stranger you encounter is bound to have consequences: over-indulgence is never healthy. So, when you’re in that situation, and you wanna go home with that guy you just met, ask yourself what this hookup will do to you? To the person you’re sleeping with? Don’t be too casual about it. But if you’re both single and you feel that spark, God gave you sex as an intimate and pleasurable way of connecting with someone. Enjoy it, and thank God for it.

Oh, and by all means, use protection. Use a condom. Get on PrEP. That’s part of the wisdom. And if your friends jokingly call you a whore, well, so what? They’ve got their own issues to deal with — and they’ll probably want to hear all about the details later anyway.

photo credits: “Face,” Tomasz Pletek via Flickr, cc
“TruvadaWhore,” @pupbones on My PrEP Experience
“Lust (condom),” Darwin Bell via Flickr, cc


This post originally appeared on IMPACT Magazine.

Naan Pizza for One (or Two): Bachelor Style

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Naan Pizza Supreme. Looks like a mess, but man, is it good!

“I love it that you have all these random jars of interesting things in your refrigerator.”

That was Jake. We were making dinner together one night last week, and I pulled out a jar of Giardiniera. It’s basically just pickled cauliflower, carrots, celery and peppers; you know, stuff to munch on while you’re watching TV, when you want something but don’t know exactly what. I suppose it goes well on the side with a sandwich too, but … you know, if you’re a foodie, you just gotta have all kinds of stuff handy.

That explains the jar of marinated artichoke hearts I had sitting in the bottom shelf, way in the back.

So I’m staring into the fridge again, wondering what to make for dinner. It’s a weeknight, and it’s been a long day at work. My brain is fried, so I’m not really in the mood to cook anything elaborate. I’d eaten out a lot recently too, and my wallet was feeling the pressure, so a quick run out for fast food didn’t seem like a good idea. And besides, aside from the predictably bloated feeling I always get after pounding down a burger and fries, I always feel like I just paid someone to poison me. (You’ve seen those YouTube videos on the meat slurry that goes into beef patties, right? Yeah, not fit for human consumption.)

naanAnd salad? I’m a huge fan, but please, not every night. Then I caught sight of the package of naan bread I’d bought from Wallyworld. Naan is an oven-baked flatbread, famous in Indian food, and it makes a great ready-made dough for personal-sized pizza. Just pile whatever you like on top, throw it in the oven, and voila! Instant dinner.

You can find all kinds of recipes for naan pizza on the web. Me? I’m not too selective. I just start pulling some of those “random jars of interesting things” out of the fridge, along with some fresh salad-fixin’s from the crisper, and start chopping. You know what you like (it’s the stuff you probably already have on hand), so use what you’ve got.

A few quick taps on my stove to get the oven preheating to 350°, and I grab a cookie sheet from the bottom cupboard. You can bake the naan right on the rack if you like, but my pizzas tend to be piled high and overflowing, and that can leave a big mess on the bottom of your oven  — and fill your house with smoke next time you try to use it — so the cookie sheet is my safety net.

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What? You don’t keep pepperoni in your fridge?

Brush a little olive oil on the flatbread, and start building.

• Some sliced onions,
• chopped red and yellow mini-peppers (gotta get your vitamins, right?),
• a handful of cherry tomatos, cut in half,
• sliced mushrooms (I am a mushroom fiend. It’s not pizza without mushrooms.) Canned mushrooms will work fine, if you’ve got ’em. I like to keep a ziplock baggie of fresh ones in the freezer cuz I think they have a better taste and texture.
• that jar of marinated artichoke hearts,
• a small can of sliced black olives,
• oh, and don’t forget the pepperoni. (That’s the protein — at least that’s what I tell myself.)
• Finally, sprinkle on the shredded mozzerella cheese. As it melts, it’ll hold all the stuff together on top.

I love me some oregano, too. Love the way it smells when it’s roasting. So I sprinkle some dried Italian herbs on top, a little garlic powder (you know that smells great when it’s cooking in the oven!), and we’re set to go.

10-15 minutes in the oven. Let the cheese melt and get all gooey. You can leave it in a bit longer if you like a crispier crust, but don’t let it brown too much.

And that’s it. Cut it in four pieces, and you’ve got manageable slices that won’t drop toppings all over your carpet while you’re clicking through movie selections with the remote.

NetflixTonight, for me: rewatching episodes from “House of Cards.” (When does Season 4 come out?) Enjoy your night in!