Posts tagged ‘Christianity’

Women and Babies: Let’s Choose Both

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It’s been a watershed week for abortion law in this country.  Last week, the state of Alabama passed legislation outlawing abortions, except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered.  Just three days later, Missouri passed a bill that outlaws abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy.  These restrictions follow on the heels of a series of “heartbeat bills” passed this year in Ohio, Georgia, and Mississippi, which ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

These bills have sparked angry debate as a yawning chasm has opened over the issue of abortion.  Governor Kay Ivey, who signed Alabama’s bill into law, tweeted last Wednesday:

Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act.  To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.

On the other side, progressive firebrand and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted shortly after Governor Ivey:

Ultimately, this is about women’s power.  When women are in control of their sexuality, it threatens a core element underpinning right-wing ideology: patriarchy.  It’s a brutal form of oppression to seize control of the 1 essential thing a person should command: their own body.

The talking points for both sides are set.  The arguments are entrenched.  The legal battle is being staged.  And there’s plenty of animus to go around.

Personally, I uphold the value and dignity of life, whether that life be in the womb, out of womb, young, or old.  So, when a third-world despot subjects his people to disease and starvation, I shudder.  When another story of another school shooting makes headlines, I am angered.  And yes, when a child’s life is taken at the hands of an abortion doctor, I am grieved.

All of this does not mean, however, that I am unsympathetic to women who, when they darken the doors of an abortion clinic, are often confused and scared of what having a baby will be like.  Neither does this mean that I am unsympathetic to women who, after having and abortion, often struggle deeply with feelings of guilt and regret.

As with many debates in our current culture, caricatures that fall largely along “either-or” lines have been developed for the sake of simplicity and tribal identity – either you care about the wellbeing of women or you care about the life of the unborn.

I care about both.  And I have a hunch you might, too.

The Psalmist calls us to “defend the weak” (Psalm 82:3).  Babies in utero are most definitely members of the weak.  It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to defend them and to speak up for them.  But women who are pregnant and scared, along with women who have had abortions and are ashamed, can also feel weak.  It is critical, therefore, that we love and help them by offering hope for joyful lives beyond their most frightening moments.

We should care about both babies and women, for, ultimately, we are called to care for all.  In a political moment where anger burns hot, loving both babies and the women who carry them may just be the one thing that is hard to hate.

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May 20, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

When Your Family Becomes Your Enemy

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Jesus proffers plenty of tough challenges over the course of His ministry, but one of His toughest moments comes when He warns His disciples:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

Jesus’ words here make me grimace every time I think about giving a sweet wake-up kiss to my daughter or hoisting my son up over my head as he squeals with delight.  I love my family fiercely.  I would guess that you do, too.  Jesus’ words sound harsh.  And yet, Jesus’ words are also needed.  Here’s why.

Part of the background for Jesus’ teaching comes from God’s instruction to Moses:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. (Deuteronomy 13:6-8)

God loves families.  But He also knows that family structures, like everything else in creation, are marked and marred by sin.  Even family members can lead us astray.  Some family members can lead other family members into idolatry.  God’s worship, Deuteronomy 13 reminds us, must trump even our own family’s wishes.

Sometimes, then, as Jesus warns, we may fight with our families.  Our own family members may, at times, feel like our enemies.  We may put faith first while other family members do not.  We may declare, “Jesus is Lord,” while other family members live as if they are their own lords.  Such faith divisions can cause relational frictions.  And yet, fighting with our family over such transcendent questions can, ultimately, prove to be fighting for our family.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true hope.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true peace.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience God’s promise of and invitation to life.  And so, even when it’s tough and even though rejection is a real possibility, we are called to carry the gospel to everyone – including our own family.

Over my years in ministry, I have had to encourage more than one parent who had a wayward child to draw boundaries and demand accountability.  Yes, this would mean that a parent might have to fight with their child.  But this would also mean that a parent was fighting for their child because they love their child and want what is best for their child – even if the child doesn’t want what is best for their own self.

Over the course of His ministry, Jesus was willing to make a lot of enemies.  The religious leaders hated Him.  The Roman government was suspicious of Him.  Even one of His own disciples betrayed Him.  Yet, Jesus was never afraid to speak tough truth to His enemies – not because He wanted to fight with them, but because He wanted to fight for them.  Jesus loved His enemies and wanted what was best for them – even if they didn’t want what was best for their own selves.

Jesus’ words about family continue to be challenging.  No one likes to fight with their family.  No one wants their family members to become their enemies.  But even if our family members’ response to our commitment to Christ is rejection, our response to them can be drawn from our commitment to Christ:  “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Just because someone is mad at you doesn’t mean you can’t love them.  And love, after all, is what being a family is all about.

May 13, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Sri Lanka, Persuasion, and Resurrection

There is this telling line that describes the way in which the apostle Paul conducted his ministry: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4).  Paul, when it came to sharing the gospel, sought to persuade.  And, by all accounts, he was quite successful.  What began a small group of hundreds of Christians in the first century now numbers 2.18 billion.

The Christian faith has always had an affinity for persuasion.  There is a whole subset of Christian teaching categorized as “apologetics,” which is meant to defend the faith against those who would attack its integrity and persuade those who question its credibility.  Indeed, persuasion is critical to the Christian mission.  Christians are called to make winsome, reasoned, intelligible arguments as to why Jesus is the Messiah in the confidence that God’s Spirit will bring people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Not everyone, however, operates in this way of persuasion.

Last Sunday, as Christians in Sri Lanka were celebrating the resurrection of Christ, a spate of coordinated, terrorist attacks were launched by nine suicide bombers at three churches and three hotels in the island nation’s capital, Colombia, killing around 250.  There were warnings in the days and weeks before the attacks, which Sri Lankan officials failed to heed.  One of the suicide bombers had been previously arrested, but was then released.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although the extent to which the terror group was involved remains unclear.

Tragically, these kinds of attacks have become unsurprising.  In 2017, 18,814 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide.  This represents a whopping 27% decline in deaths from the year before.  Many, many people have lost their lives in these acts of evil.

Behind terrorism lies an ideology that those who disagree with you, whether their disagreement be theological, philosophical, ideological, or political, cannot and are not to be persuaded.  Instead, they are to be defeated and destroyed.  This way of thinking is as horrifying as it is frightening.  But it is also, ultimately, unsuccessful.

At the dawn of the third century, when Christians were being severely persecuted by the Romans, a church historian named Tertullian famously wrote to the Church’s persecutors:

Your cruelty, however exquisite, does not avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.

And seed it was.  When Tertullian wrote these words, there were around 19,000 Christians in Rome, about 4% of the city’s population.  50 years later, that number had grown to 78,000, around 17% of the city’s population.  By the year 300, there were nearly 300,000 Christians in Rome, which constituted over 66% of the city’s population.  Christians were killed.  But the Christian Church could not be stopped.  The persecutors’ terrorizing overtures were unsuccessful.

As it was in Tertullian’s day, so it is in our day.  The threats of those who despise Christians are simply no match for the persuasive and attractive truth of Christianity.  Those who lost their lives in Sri Lanka while worshipping the risen Savior on Easter are not extinguished.  They are simply now waiting – waiting for the One who, on the Last Day, will call forth their bodies from their graves.  To quote Tertullian once more:

The resurrection of the dead is the Christian’s trust … Life is the great antagonist of death, and will in the struggle swallow up for salvation what death, in its struggle, had swallowed up for destruction.

A terrorist may be able to take a life with a bomb, but he cannot extinguish that life for eternity.  Just like some soldiers, a long time ago, were able to take a life with a cross, but they could not extinguish that life for longer than three days.  Of this we are called to persuade people.  Of this I am fully persuaded.

Christ is risen.  And because He has risen, Sri Lankan Christians will rise.  And so will we.

April 29, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

“I am thirsty.”

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Credit: Gerard de la Vallée, “Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a spear,” 17th cent.

This Friday, Christians around the world will commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.  At the church where I serve, we will hold services centering around the traditional seven final phrases that Jesus speaks from the cross.  Many of these phrases are extraordinarily well-regarded and famous.  For instance, when Jesus prays for His executioners, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), we are treated to a tour de force in what true forgiveness looks like.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) we hear in His words both an ache for God’s presence in suffering as well as a separation from God because of sin.

One of my favorite phrases from Jesus on the cross is one that can sometimes be overlooked:

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

This hardly seems like a profound statement.  It seems more like a mundane request.  A man who is baking in the hot ancient Near Eastern sun while hanging exposed on a cross has developed a case of cotton mouth.  And yet, these words represent not only the cry of a parched mouth, but the yearning of a scorched soul.

The Psalmist once said:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  (Psalm 42:1-2)

The Psalmist describes his desperate thirst for God.  And how does God respond to his thirst?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me. (Psalm 42:7)

God not only gives the Psalmist’s soul spiritual water, He offers the Psalmist a superabundance of this water in the form of waves and breakers.

Jesus invites anyone who has a thirst like the Psalmist’s:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  (John 7:37-38)

But this takes us back to Jesus’ words from the cross.  For when Jesus, who offers all men refreshment for their souls, Himself complains of thirst, how do men respond to Him?

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  (John 19:29)

God responds to human thirst with refreshing water.  Humans respond to God’s thirst with bitter vinegar.  What a contrast.

And yet, the incredible thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that sin’s vinegar never quite manages to strip Him of His life-giving water:

One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  (John 19:34)

The water of life stubbornly remains, flowing from the side of the One who died.

This week, as we reflect on and remember Jesus’ death, may we drink deeply from the water of His life.  For the water of His life gives us eternal life.

April 15, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Better Root For Human Intimacy

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Two stories recently hit the headlines, one which made a big splash and one which went largely unnoticed.

In the story that made a big splash, last week, the nation of Brunei enacted new penalties for certain sexual acts.  Amy Gunia reports for Time:

Despite international condemnation, Brunei enacted new Islamic criminal laws Wednesday, including harsh anti-LGBT measures that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death.  The implementation of the draconian penal code is part of the predominantly Muslim country’s rollout of Sharia law …

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei, but it was previously punishable with prison time.  The new legislation mandates death by stoning for gay sex and a number of other acts, including rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sex and insulting the Prophet Muhammed.

The new penal code also punishes lesbian sex through whipping and theft with amputation, and criminalizes teaching children about any religion except Islam.

The second story that made headlines, albeit in a much more modest way, was last month’s repeal of some anti-adultery laws, still officially on the books, though not enforced, in the state of Utah.  Paulina Dedaj explains for Fox News:

The governor of Utah signed a bill repealing a 1973 law that criminalized sex outside marriage … The offense, which was not enforced by police, was classified as a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

These two stories pull in two very different directions.  But both of them point to just how contentious questions concerning human sexuality have become.

It must be stated that the new penalties in Brunei are nothing short of appalling.  Stoning people is inhumane as a matter of course, regardless of the reason behind it.  But, especially for Christians, stoning people for crossing sexual boundaries should have a special kind of cringe factor to it when one stops to consider how Jesus, in a story from John 8, advocates for a woman caught in the act of adultery by sending her accusers, who wanted to stone her, away.

The repeal of Utah’s law banning sex outside of marriage, though certainly not as flashy as the story out of Brunei, is also worthy of our attention and consideration.  Using legislation to uphold the kinds of sexual mores Utah’s law did, even if those mores are laudable, strikes me as a recipe for corruption and selective enforcement.  Corruption and selective enforcement are certainly endemic to the story of that woman caught in adultery.  Her interlocutors are unquestionably corrupt and selective in how they enforce their penalty of stoning, considering that they bring only her, and not the man in the tryst, in front of Jesus to face the death penalty.  Though I am a wholehearted proponent of traditional sexual morality, I’m not sure if what is moral always requires codification by what is legal.

I am thankful that there are certain pieces of sexual legislation on our books.  The criminalization of pedophilia, for example, is wise and needed for the protection of our most vulnerable.  I also wish we had more legislation bearing down on the pornography industry, which makes its billions by flagrantly degrading the dignity of human beings and, as with pedophilia, by preying on society’s most vulnerable by enticing them with money to humiliate themselves on camera to churn out a never-ending stream of smut.

With this being said, however, the larger debate over sexual mores will take something more than legislation to solve, especially when it comes to the hot-button sexual debates of our day, which often center not so much around widely agreed upon boundaries to sexual activity, but around deeper contentions concerning sexual identity.

In the West especially, views on human sexuality are broadly rooted in two things:  the sentimental and the carnal.  The sentimental root of sex is what we generally think of as romantic love.  Two people fall in love and express their love for each other sexually.  The weakness in this root however, as countless broken marriages and relationships can testify, is that the feeling of love can dry up with time or, as many who have affairs will argue, can even shift to another person.  This root by itself, therefore, is not sufficient as a foundation for human sexuality.  This root is simply not rooted enough.

The carnal root of sex is usually conceived of as the uninhibited expression of desire – or, to put it more bluntly, as lust.  This root of sex is what drives the pornography industry’s ubiquity and the hookup culture found on many college campuses.  The weaknesses in this root are manifold.  People are objectified.  Some are even raped.  And relationships rooted in carnality have literally no chance – and that is not an exaggeration – of lasting.  Such relationships are fundamentally selfish.  And selfishness is a sin that sexual commitment and wholeness cannot endure.

One of the unique gifts that Christianity brings to today’s debates over human sexuality is that while it celebrates the importance of love in sexual relationships and readily acknowledges and makes provisions for the reality that people struggle with carnal lust, it offers human sexuality another – and, I would argue, better – root.  It adds to the sentimental and to the carnal the aspirational.  This root sees human sexuality as something that reaches beyond the private love of two individuals and certainly beyond the fleshly lusts of one individual and seeks to reflect something of God’s love and His created order in its expression of human love and our relational order.  This aspirational root, rather than self-righteously condemning people who fall short of it, grieves over sexual sin and gently invites sexual sinners to turn from their sin and aim higher, just as Jesus does with the woman caught in adultery when He invites her to, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).  The Christian aspirational root of sex trades the brutality of Brunei for the blessings of rightly ordered relationships and the legislative problems of Utah for the redemption won by Christ.

The best picture of aspirational sexuality can be found in Christian marriage, which is itself an aspirational picture of Christ’s love for the Church – a love so deep that it led Him to lay down His life on a cross.  On the cross, perfect righteousness and infinite forgiveness meet.  May we, as those who follow Christ, aspire to hold forth to sexual sinners what Christ first held out to us from the cross.  He is our way forward.

April 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Terror Strikes New Zealand

Members of the public mourn at a flower memorial near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch

Credit: RTE News

“The wages of sin is death,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:23.  These words were horrifyingly instantiated this past Friday when a terrorist gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50.  The crime was, in every way, monstrous.  Minutes before he went on his rampage, he emailed top government officials a rambling and incoherent manifesto, outlining his ardent white nationalistic beliefs.  He then strapped on a helmet camera so he could livestream his attack on social media.  Finally, he shot many worshipers at these mosques, which included several children, at point blank range as they cowered in corners.

If anyone ever doubted the dastardly death that sin – including philosophical sin like white nationalism – can bring, now would be the time to become a true believer in the devastations of depravity.

Near the end of the book of Genesis, we read of a man named Jacob and his twelve sons, the favorite of whom is Joseph.  Joseph’s brothers, Genesis 37:4 says, “hated him” because of his status as his father’s favorite son.  Their hatred eventually spawned a plot among the brothers to kill their kinsman.  And they would have, were it not for a last-second intercession by one of the brothers, Judah, who decided it would be more financially advantageous if, instead of killing Joseph, they sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:26-27).

Hatred is an acid that eats up the soul.  This is why the Bible’s consistent and continuous call is to love – and not just to love those who are like us.  The Bible’s consistent and continuous call is to love those who are very different from us and even hate us.  As Jesus puts it:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:44, 46-47)

White nationalism explicitly tramples on Jesus’ command.  It not only fails to love its enemies, it actually creates enemies where there need be none and becomes an enemy to those who do not fit its arbitrarily contrived ethnic and philosophical strictures.  It trades the foundational and universal sanctity of life for a hackneyed and exclusionary solidarity of race.

Blessedly, love did manage to rise up and break through when hatred was spraying a hail of bullets into two mosques in Christchurch.  48-year-old Abdul Aziz was at the second of the mosques.  He was there with his four children to pray.  When the terrorist began firing in the parking lot of the mosque, rather than running away, Mr. Aziz ran into the lot with the only thing he could find – a credit card machine.  After firing off many rounds, the terrorist returned to his vehicle to grab a second weapon, and Mr. Aziz hurled the credit card machine at him.  The terrorist then fired off another series of rounds at Mr. Aziz, who managed to protect himself by ducking between cars.  When the terrorist returned to his vehicle yet again to grab yet another weapon, Mr. Aziz found one of the guns he had dropped and, after realizing it was empty, threw it at the windshield of the terrorist’s car.  The windshield shattered.  The terrorist was spooked.  He sped off.  And many lives were saved.

Mr. Aziz explained, in an interview with The New York Times, “I was prepared to give my life to save another life.”  That’s love.  And it stopped hate dead when hate was trying to speed death.

Christianity teaches that there was another man – a perfect man, who was also God – who was prepared to give His life to save other lives.  His name was Jesus.  And He not only was prepared to die.  He did die.  And He not only saved lives by His death.  He bought for us eternal life with His death.

“The wages of sin is death,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:23.  But he continues: “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In Jesus’ death, love killed hate.  May this be our confidence and our conviction as we mourn the tragic losses in Christchurch.

March 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Vote Splits the United Methodist Church

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In a world where views on human sexuality serve as wedges the drive deep disunity, the United Methodist Church voted last week in a special conference to retain its practice of not ordaining practicing homosexuals into ministry, according to the stance outlined in its Book of Discipline:

The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.

The UMC is almost certainly headed for a split.  The vote was close:  53 percent to 47 percent were in favor of not ordaining practicing homosexuals.  What is especially interesting is from where many of these more traditional votes came.  The New York Times reports:

While membership has steadily declined in the United States over the past 25 years – a trend that is true for most mainline Protestant denominations – it has been growing in Africa.  About 30 percent of the church’s members are now from African nations, which typically have conservative Christian views; in many of them, homosexuality is a crime.

What Methodists believe in the progressive West turns out to be very different from what Methodists believe in the African South.

In one sense, those who reject a traditional and, I would argue, orthodox view of human sexuality are stuck with a Gordian knot that is not easily cut.  On the one hand, anything less than a full endorsement of all the causes célèbres of the LGBTQ movement is anathema in many progressive circles.  On the other hand, the same progressive circles that demand an affirmation of all kinds of human sexualities also decry a Western cultural imperialism that seeks hegemony over other cultures that think and act differently.  But it is difficult to see the reactions of many progressives within the UMC as anything other than a soft form of the very imperialism these progressives claim to reject.  Take, for instance, the response of Will Willimon, a longtime prominent voice in Methodism, to the vote:

The traditionalists did a bang-up job of political organizing and counting the votes. The progressives were all busy talking about unity and community and listening and loving. The conservatives were on the floor getting the votes.

Willimon’s inference seems to be that traditionalists played politics cynically while progressives loved selflessly.  I’m not sure this accusation adequately captures the truth of this debate – or this vote.

Those who claim Christ’s name are called to love, care for, listen to, defend, and invite in those who are LGBTQ while also upholding certain guidelines and guards around human sexuality.  The only way to cut the Gordian knots of competing cultures is to look beyond these cultures to the One who loves all people from every culture.

As a Christian, I uphold a traditional – and, I would argue, biblical – sexual ethic because I have this hunch that the culture and the age in which I live does not always know what’s best for it.  There are truths that are bigger than what we can see or know right now that stretch across space and through time.  The Christian sexual ethic extends beyond my zip code, my state, and my nation.  It also extends beyond my time.  It was around before me.  And it will continue on after me.  Thus, I am called by Scripture to humbly submit myself to this ethic while also loving those who vehemently disagree with this ethic.  After all, love is a really important Christian ethic, too.

So, instead of choosing the ethic of sexual restraint or the ethic of reckless love, I think I’ll keep both.  For the Church needs both as it lives under the name of the One who displayed both.

March 4, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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