A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.

Do you want to be healthy?

You have no reason to take the recommendation I am about to make. I have no place dispensing advice on leadership or fostering organizational health. I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP who has spent most of my life in more-or-less solitary work.

All that said, I think every church leader should read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

While the book is geared toward business, the insights clearly apply to churches.

Lencioni describes healthy organizations this way:

  • Minimal politics
  • Minimal confusion
  • High morale
  • High productivity
  • Low turnover

Wouldn’t you like to be part of a church that fits that description? Do you know a church that falls short on one or more of those dimensions?

Lencioni’s book is organized around describing four disciplines that are necessary for organizational health.

  • Building a cohesive leadership team
  • Creating clarity
  • Overcommunicating clarity
  • Reinforcing clarity

In addition to description and examples, the author also offers steps that an organization could take to build strength in these areas. I found nearly every section of the book challenging and inspiring.

For instance, under the discipline of creating clarity, Lencioni offers six questions every organization needs to be able to answer and every member of the leadership team needs to agree about.

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?
  5. What is most important, right now?
  6. Who must do what?

Lencioni describes each of these questions in depth and outlines methods for arriving at answers to them. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be part of a church that could work through those questions and arrive at answers that all the key leaders embraced? I know my answer is “yes.”

I offer these examples from the book to give you a taste of the topics in the book. Of course, there is much more depth than a few bullet points can convey.

The ministry of order is an area in which I need to grow quite a bit before I am fit for ordination in the UMC. I think this book will be an important tutor for me. A line from the last chapter will stay with me for a long time.

There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier — or not — is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. … For a church, it’s the pastor.

I have to say, I believe he is right. Lord, help me act on that belief.

Evil and the Board of Ordained Ministry

For seminary, I’ve been starting to work on some of what will one day be a response to questions in ordination paper work. Here’s my first go at the Book of Discipline’s question “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in our world?”

Here is my answer to the question of evil in an academic mode: Evil is the contradiction of good. It exists as a negation. It is a parasite. It is the darkness that is only visible in the presence of light. In an ontological sense, as Augustine taught us, evil does not exist.

This is the beginning of my academic answer. It is my bookshelf answer. It is not one that feels in any way adequate, however. Where life is lived, evil is real. I read this week a story about a man who bludgeoned a 3-year-old girl to death because she had an accident in her pants. You cannot retreat behind the cool, dispassionate pose of the academic musing on the nature of evil when you read such a story. Augustine’s argument about the non-existence of evil shatters in the face of such stories.

Or does it?

Augustine argued that evil does not exist because he knew that God is good. This good God created everything, and all that God created is good. Evil cannot exist as a thing because God could not have created it. God only creates good. This goodness is the light by which the darkness of evil becomes visible. We are repulsed by the story of a 3-year-old girl being beaten to death because we recognize that the world is not meant to be a place where that happens. Even if we in unbelief cannot name that place as God’s will, the grace of God whispers to us of a world in which such horrors do not happen. Evil can only be known as evil because we know of that other world, the world as God intends it to be. Evil is the gap between the world as it is and the world as God created it to be.

This is a world we both long for and resist. We resist it because it is the world in which our own will matches the will of God. It is the world in which we say, as Jesus did, not my will be done, but yours. We resist this because we are very much in love with our own will.

If you have ever read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know the real problem of evil. The real problem of evil is not that it is repugnant, but that it is so seductive. In Milton’s poem, it is hard not to admire Satan for his driving will, his resolution, and his declaration that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Here is Frank Sinatra belting out his defiant “I did it my way.” Here is Katy Perry singing “Roar.” Here is the serpent in the garden urging Eve to think for herself. Evil comes to us in the disguise of independence and self-respect. It urges us to set up a false god called “my own thing.”

Of course, the real seduction of evil is that it takes things that are good – critical thought, perseverance in times of trial, determination, personal gifts – and uses them to shake us free of the God who is the source of all good. These things in service of God’s will are blessings. It is the way of evil, though, to take what is good and detach it from God, corrupting it. The evil we experience in our lives comes when human beings reject God.

Walk in the light child of the dark

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:5-10.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

I read earlier this week an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on Augustine’s theology of evil. Augustine argued that evil does not exist, as such. Evil is merely an absence of or deprivation of what is good, that is to say God. This may not be the point John is trying to make, but the analysis seems apt.

God is light. Darkness — as such — does not exist. It is only the absence of light. Evil does not exist. It is only the absence of good.

Such thinking makes me wonder if other attributes we connect with God might be thought of in the same way.

Does hate exist, or is it only the absence of love?

Is injustice — as the name implies — merely an absence of justice?

As I consider these questions, I also find my mind turning to the depravity of human nature. It becomes much less of a hard doctrine if we understand that depravity — or darkness — simply means falling short of the total goodness of God. We are creatures of light and shadow. We walk in the twilight and even in darkness.

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;

When we walk in darkness we — literally — are outside the fellowship of God. Darkness is the absence of God, who is all light. So to walk in darkness is to walk apart from God. To claim otherwise is to speak an untruth.

It would be as untrue as claiming to be walking on Mars while crossing our front lawn.

but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,

As in the opening verses of the chapter, John here brings us back to the conditions that make our fellowship possible. Our communion is a communion of light and in the light. It exists only so long as we all walk in the light of God. We might keep in contact with one another in a worldly way once fellowship is broken, but we can only be in communion with each other to the extent that we both walk in the light of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes something similar in his book Life Together. He argues that our fellowship with one another exists only via Jesus Christ. You and I each are in fellowship with Christ and therefore — and only therefore — we might have fellowship with each other.

and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we walk in the light, two things happen. We have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin. Doesn’t that mean that if we walk in darkness that not only do we lose communion with one another but we also remain stained by sin?

There is a fountain of forgiveness for you and for me, but it stands in the place of light. Easter comes at dawn.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

We are creatures of darkness — and light. We fall short of the glory of God. To deny that simple truth is to fool ourselves.

The only proper response to the truth of who we are is confession. As someone told me once, the word “confession” simply means “to acknowledge.” It is to state what is true. It is to stand in the light and acknowledge our darkness.

If we do this, John tells us, our God will forgive. He will replace shadows with sunlight. He will bless our brokenness.

To speak what is not true, however, to claim that we are creatures of pure light already is the deepest lie. It is a lie not just against God but to ourselves. It is the lie that betrays us to try in vain to burn with a brightness that belongs only to God. We are like the cold stones hurtling through space that believe the sunlight they reflect comes from their own hard, dusty face.

The word, the life, the Son is not in us.

What we have heard and seen

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:1-4.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

What we are about to be told about stretches back into time, to the very beginning of time. It is also something these witnesses have come to know in the most concrete and personal way. They have heard. They have seen with their own eyes. They have touched. Their knowledge of the Word is not an abstract theory or piece of book learning. It stood right there before them, touchable and touched.

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

What these witnesses report is none other than the eternal life that has been with the Father since the beginning. This is no mere man touched by great wisdom or even a mere mortal blessed by a miraculous gift of the Spirit. He was and is the eternal Word, the eternal life, the eternal soul, who — and this is the miracle — appeared to us. We tell only what we have seen, not what we have heard or hoped.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

And yet, fellowship is possible by hearing second hand. The true and faithful proclamation makes it possible that you and I — who did not walk the shores of Galilee with them or touch his wounded hands — can be united in community with those who did see and hear and touch.

How this happens, the writer does not tell us. But here he does, at least, reveal the name. The one mentioned first as Word and second as life is now reported to us as Son and named Jesus the Christ.

We write this to make our joy complete.

In sharing the name, in forging the fellowship, the witness completes his own joy. To share the name is itself joy and fellowship. It is a gift to giver and receiver alike.

I wonder if that is so for you?

Whenever I turn to these verses, I recall all the short-shrift versions of Jesus people tried to sell me for so many years of my life. I remember the accounts of Jesus that made him nothing more than another man, a really good and compassionate and bold man, perhaps, but still just a man.

Whatever else someone says about the Bible when they peddle this version of Jesus, I can never believe that they really trust what it says. And I find it very hard to believe that they have any fellowship with the apostles. Here these words were written in joy, to testify to what was seen and heard and touched. Here these words promise that we who receive them enter fellowship with those who shared hardship and laughter with Jesus. Here these words proclaim that he was from the beginning, eternal life and Word. How do we hear these words and respond with a “yes, but”?

Before we talk of sin and hell. Before we speculate about heaven and resurrection, let us start with this simple witness. The eternal life appeared to us, to our fellowship. We are keepers of that witness. We exist because the sharing of the witness binds us together in a fellowship that reaches across time and distance.

Let us take joy in that. Let us proclaim what we have heard, the Son, Jesus Christ.