Separation

Can anything separate us from the love of God poured out for us through Christ Jesus?

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)

It does not appear to be so. It is interesting in the above passage that the Apostle Paul finds it necessary to mention that not even life can separate us. Perhaps he has in mind life as in the opposite of death, but I like to think he has in mind “life” as in the daily grind of life, that place where we experience it. Not even what we experience in life, both good and bad, can separate us from God’s love.

Which is an astounding thought. Don’t take this the wrong way, but in many ways I have felt my life to be a complete failure. I have accomplished much, but I also feel I have failed at life in the most significant way possible, according to the only perspective that really matters: I have failed to live a life pleasing to God.

And I have come to this realization in the daily grind of life, where it is experienced. There, I have learned what stuff I am made of. And I have discovered it isn’t pretty. Like the Apostle Paul, I discovered with no small degree of anxiety that “in me, there is no good thing.” But unlike Paul, it has been hard for me to be okay with that. How can anyone be okay with that?

Growing up, I was always told that as long as I did my best, that was good enough. That is a good personal philosophy that produces a great work ethic. But somehow it does not work so well when we turn to the spiritual life. There is something that happens when we compare our lives to Jesus, knowing He is our example, that makes the wheels fall off “at least I am doing my best.” When God opens our heart and we see our motivations for what they really are, doing my best seems to lose all meaning. Doing my best actually becomes part of the problem.

But this I feel is part of the process, and in fact the beginning of the solution. The journey with God — unlike any other task we face — is not one where we work for God but rather God works in us. He is repairing us. And that process is not so much Him quickly fixing whatever keeps us from doing the things that please Him as it is understanding — despite whatever real failure in our lives we encounter, whether in plain sight or hidden from view —we are just as pleasing to Him.

Processing failure, I feel, is a critical part of my journey with God. For there is one thing that can separate me from the love of God, and it is myself: Particularly how I perceive my own failures. Does my failure, in the particular or general sense, change how I feel about myself? Am I still deserving of the very best God has to offer? Is He still extravagantly generous toward me if I feel I have failed to keep up my end of the bargain?

This is where an overactive work ethic, with all its good, can get us into trouble. Excelling in life is good, and God desires us to live fully-functioning lives where we accomplish great things. Because this is how He has made us to function. But if our ability to function becomes the criteria for our right to be accepted and loved, things begin to break down. The way it works in God’s kingdom is that first we are loved and accepted, then we function. In fact, we only function as we were truly designed to function to the extent we know we are loved.

I begin then to realize what God is really working on is not my ability to achieve but my capacity to be loved, even (and especially) in my failure. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. And I suppose in the final analysis, not even myself. For God simply loves me too much to keep me on the shores of failure when, in truth, an entire ocean of His extravagant love awaits me.


Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

Rest

 

I awoke this morning in Long Island. Our cousins were sweet enough to open their home to us as we, this week, celebrate a family reunion with Catherine’s side of the family. I have never been to their house and so my first order of business was to wake up before anyone else, of course, and explore every room in the house.

That may not exactly be true, but it is what I did — at least downstairs. And I had the assistance of the two or three cats who live here, and who were more than happy to oblige.

As I did so, I was struck by how peaceful it was. We West-Coasters tend to think New York is all about the city, and it is if you are in Manhattan. But escape just across the water and you find a different world, a small piece of Heaven nestled among trees: A place which despite the busy trappings of modern life has a memory long before you and I were born, let alone before the smartphone was invented, a place inviting you to rest.

I come from a long line of religious followers who believe devotion to God is anything but restful. On the contrary, it can be quite stressful: Making sure that the Creator of the Universe is happy with you. It may not be too stressful if you avoid Him in the hallways of life. But run into Him in a private room and things can be quite tense. You can wish you were someplace else.

And this can be true even in the “best” of church traditions. Some traditions of course seem to enshrine this distance, keeping God in a place of unrelenting holiness and us in a place of fearful and reverent devotion. But I am thinking of those traditions who have embraced the message of the Bible that God, in His holiness, actually chose to come close in mercy: Becoming a man and taking upon Himself the reason for the discomfort we feel in His presence.

For the church traditions I have in mind, “faith” is a big topic. All the blessings of Heaven are available to us through faith, and so a lot of emphasis is upon “having faith.” But more times than not, be it the way they have approached it or I have received it, “having faith” has been more stressful than the standard “fearful and reverent” devotion. If I am already having difficulty at the religious duty thing, I will certainly fail (trust me) at the faith thing.

But here is the amazing thing: God requires neither. Whatever act we feel we must do or moral quality we feel we must possess in order to feel perfectly comfortable in God’s presence, Jesus has provided. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthains 5). He has made the private room comfortable.

The natural outworking of faith, then, is rest. It is not the solemnity of a cold cathedral instilling a sense of uneasiness, nor the tireless striving of faith-based Bible-believer attempting to “live by faith.” It is the quiet of a Long Island morning. It invites us.

Such rest causes me to see things differently, though nothing in the fabric of my circumstances has changed. I see beauty where I could not see it before: In the early sunlight, in the dew that covers the grass, in the birdsong — even in the cat that nuzzles up against my leg. I realize this beauty was made for my pleasure — for I am deeply loved.

And then something begins to happen — I cannot explain how. The polarity in me shifts from my fearful and futile efforts to reach God, to God’s inexhaustible ability to reach me. My heart, my mind, my body — my very circumstances are all candidates of His unfathomable love. And no matter where I am in life I realize: My life has just begun.


Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

 

 

The Christian Mind: Feminism

A little over a year ago, self-described feminist Samantha Johnson penned an editorial for the Huffington Post titled When I Became A Mother, Feminism Let Me Down. In it, she writes:

We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept. We do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home. 

As we turn to discuss how Christianity fits with the modern idea of feminism — arguably a topic that covers a lot of territory — I wish to zero in on those three words I have bolded above for emphasis, for the purpose of this essay. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Feminism”

The Christian Mind: Marriage

On February 15, 2017 a remarkable thing happened. Pastor of St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, UK Sam Allberry addressed the Church of England General Synod in London. The General Synod is the governing body of the Church of England, and the topic of same-sex relationships was on the agenda.

Allberry’s remarks on that day were brief but compelling as he challenged the assembly to uphold Christianity’s traditional teaching on marriage. What is even more astounding, however, is that Allberry, by his own admission, has been same-sex attracted his entire life.

The remarkable thing here is not simply that Allberry stood up for traditional marriage at a time when it is unpopular to do so. More importantly, Allberry gave voice to those within the church who are same-sex attracted at a time when it is also unpopular to do so. No matter what your views on marriage, such courage is admirable.

Today what I would like to do is to approach the arguably delicate topic of Christianity’s position on homosexuality and marriage in light of Allberry’s story. We set out in this series to tackle some of the hardest questions that face Christianity, and this topic certainly qualifies. Increasingly, same-sex marriage has become a stumbling block for many both inside and outside the church, as they wrestle with the question how a faith that allegedly condemns and excludes a whole group of people can possibly be called good. So it is vital we address this topic.

It is also vital for those who are same-sex attracted. For without a clear understanding of how the Christian faith fits into the issue of homosexuality, the church will by default fail to address the needs of these individuals.

Does Christianity Exclude?

If there is an elephant in the living room, I generally prefer to point it out up front. The elephant in this discussion is the fact that those who support same-sex marriage and those who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs will ultimately disagree when it comes to human sexuality.

But as Allberry demonstrates, there is a big difference between saying Christianity and same-sex marriage advocates disagree and Christianity excludes. In truth, the supporter of same-sex marriage will exclude Christianity just as much as Christianity will exclude the supporter of same-sex marriage. They will condemn one another — or at least have opportunity to — equally. And unfortunately we see this happening today.

The reason this is happening at all, however, is a failure on both sides to embrace differences in a tolerant, pluralistic society. We spent time last essay discussing the Christian roots of our modern-day concept of tolerance. The basis of tolerance is the belief in the worth and dignity of every individual, despite their beliefs or practices. The same holds true with those who support and practice same-sex marriage.

Does Christianity Condemn?

Someone might say at this point, “But Christianity’s belief on homosexuality is more than just a difference of belief. It actually condemns homosexuals.” This is categorically not true. Scripture does not condemn people; it condemns practice. Which is the same as saying it affirms the sacredness of marriage and Christianity’s doctrine concerning  human sexuality.

At some point in the debate over homosexuality, however, practice became identity (we shall discuss this below). On this basis alone can the claim be made that Christianity condemns people. But the idea that we are what we practice is a concept wholly foreign to Christian thought.

The truth is, before God we are all condemnable based on our moral condition. This is why Jesus came to die on a Cross, so that we might be forgiven and no longer be held accountable for our sin. And in Christ (that is, by receiving Jesus) we are all forgiven.

Is Christianity against Same-Sex Marriage?

Not necessarily. We mentioned that Christianity is the foundation for our modern-day idea of tolerance. Thus, from a Christian perspective, tolerance toward those who practice same-sex marriage is not excluded. This is no different from Christianity allowing Muslims or Hindus to practice their own beliefs in society. Christianity does not agree with the claims and practices of these religions, but it does not seek to prohibit.

Granted, we rarely saw this side of Christianity in the recent debate over same-sex marriage. The reason, however, is because — intentionally or unintentionally — same-sex marriage advocates, in their effort to extended the same status to same-sex couples, sought to redefine marriage itself — an institution with deep theological implications for many people. Most supporters seemed more interested in condemning Christian belief than actually making a distinction between the theological and legal definition of marriage.

Is Same-Sex Marriage Sacred?

This may seem like a strange question, but this is why I ask: Imagine a practicing Muslim baker being forced to bake a cake that says “Allah was not a prophet of God.” Most would agree this would understandably be a violation of conscience for them to do so, and very few would argue the Muslim must be compelled to do it anyway. In other words, we typically hold sacred the right of every individual to practice their religious beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.

But if a right-wing extremist seeks to endanger lives according to the dictates of their own ideology, we do not. The reason is that the protection of life is sacred — more sacred than the right to religious freedom.

This is why I ask whether we believe same-sex marriage is sacred. For this, as far as I see, is the only justification for not only violating but also condemning the beliefs of all religious faiths holding to a traditional view of marriage. It is the only basis by which a judge can rule in favor of a same-sex couple to sue a Christian baker for not making a cake for their wedding.

For if the issue was simply about the sacred right of same-sex couples to marry, it would be no different than granting people the right not to believe in Allah. They would have that right, but it would not extend to violate the religious rights of others.

Clearly, then, we think same-sex marriage is not just a right but a sacred institution: For anyone who violates that right — does not believe it is and wishes to voice or practice such belief —is condemnable. And in a way, this is the real allegation leveled against Christianity.

And now we must ask the most important question of this essay: Why do we feel same-sex marriage sacred?

Most people support same-sex marriage out of compassion. They think (or, rather, have been told to think) having different beliefs about marriage is hateful toward same-sex couples. Compassion is arguably sacred. That is, it is a virtue that most recognize is universal. But compassion is somewhat misplaced in this discussion. We are not asking whether we should be compassionate to all people: We are asking what we believe marriage fundamentally is.

Others support same-sex marriage because they feel two consenting adults should have a right to do what they want. This is the principle of tolerance, which we have already discussed and is regarded as sacred in our society, also. But tolerance is equally misplaced in this discussion. The question again is not whether two consenting adults should be able to do what they want, but what we believe marriage fundamentally is.

I am driving home this point because if we are to properly address the allegation that Christianity is evil for its definition of marriage, we must know what the correct definition of marriage is. To determine this, we must have a basis for such knowledge beyond mere emotion and irrationality. Hopefully this is not asking too much.

Enter Allberry

Allberry’s answer to the question of how we define marriage is quite simple. To his colleagues at the Synod, he said: “I was bullied as a child for having same-sex attraction. But now I feel I am being bullied in the Synod for being faithful to the teachings of Jesus on marriage.” By this statement, he draws out an extremely important point in our discussion: Our definition of marriage will always be defined by what we hold sacred.

Most supporters of same-sex marriage, if pressed, will point to the fact that same-sex attraction is not a choice as their reason for supporting same-sex marriage. Allberry rejects this for a remarkably simple reason: What we feel and what we are attracted to are not necessarily reliable indicators for what is ultimately virtuous and good.

Allberry elaborates:

The Bible says that as sinners all our desires are disordered, so it’s actually the case that all of us are fallen and broken in our sexuality. For most, that fallenness will be manifest in an opposite-sex direction; for me (and not a few other believers), it is seen in same-sex attraction.

What Allberry is doing here is not only fundamentally Scriptural but also sheds light on an implicit argument same-sex advocates are making: That our natural impulses and desires equal the good. That is, human virtue — whether related to sexuality or any other area of life —  is defined by what comes naturally to us. In other words, what we both feel and desire is sacred.

But from a rational standpoint, there are a few things problematic with such an idea. The first is that this idea does not seem to apply to other areas of our life. For example, if you find yourself sexually attracted to someone’s wife, does that make it good?

The second thing is that it fundamentally confuses what is with what should be. We have spent a good deal of time discussing moral values in this series. The conclusion we have drawn is that morality requires a Moral Authority outside ourselves dictating what is right and wrong; it is the very opposite of what we may desire.

Lastly, attaching moral virtue to our natural desires has the effect of making virtue itself non-transcendent. That is, morality and virtue simply become a byproduct of how we feel and what we want, not a thing to which we strive or are destined to become.

This last idea is wholly foreign to Christian thought. As Allberry points out, the foundation of Christianity is that by God’s mercy and great love, we are being restored to the standard of moral perfection. In fact, the only prerequisite is to admit our brokenness. To assert instead that what we feel and what we desire as sacred is to essentially reject God’s gift of redemption.

Conclusion

In summary, Christianity does not exclude or condemn. It simply holds to a standard of human sexuality that current modern thought rejects. What we are witnessing in our day is not the sudden realization that Christianity is not good. Rather, we are witnessing a move in modern society to redefine what good is, and in the process condemn those who disagree. And this New Morality is — at best — on a shaky footing.

Granted, the moment we reject the idea of tolerance and mutual respect for differences of belief in a pluralistic society and seek instead to make the human condition the mandated standard for human virtue, a transcendent morality like Christianity is bound to fall into disrepute. But such virtue hardly has moral force; taken to its logical conclusion, it is no different from lawlessness.

Lastly, I should point out my defense of Christianity here should not be construed necessarily as a defense of the modern Christian church as it pertains to the the homosexual community or those with same-sex attraction. As Allberry alludes to, we have much progress to be made to make those with same-sex attraction feel as God feels toward them and see themselves in our congregation as God sees them: Infinitely loved, deeply valued, no different from the rest of us except in particulars, and vital to the overall health and well-being of the body of Christ. In short, they are not only welcome but irreplaceable.


Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

The Christian Mind: Tolerance

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

We’ve spent time exploring the concept of moral values. What I would like to do now is discuss Christian moral values specifically. In particular I would like to ask whether Christianity  — traditionally understood — is intolerant. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Tolerance”