Wednesday, February 20, 2013

To love ourselves?

Jesus says that we should "love our neighbors as ourselves" (Mk 12:31//). This assumes that we, in fact, do love ourselves.

I'm reading Dr. Townsend's Loving People. I deeply respect his field of study and his capacity to explain his field so well. In his book he says of this Bible verse:

"Love requires a subject and an object, and they are different from one another. We can no more love ourselves than we can tell our car to fill itself up with gas from the trunk. Sometimes people understand Jesus' words to 'love your neighbor as yourself' as teaching self-love. Actually, it makes more sense that it teaches that we are to love our neighbor as we would want to be loved--again, a relational meaning" (22-23).

Dr. Townsend's saying that you can't hug yourself. Love doesn't exist without another human. He has apparently used Jesus's other statement about treating others as we'd want to be treated (Matt 7:12) and used it to interpret this text. 

However, I don't find this reading compelling for one chief reason: he has a misunderstanding of the biblical definition of love (though he defines it well on p.18).

"Love" towards humans in the Bible is best understood as "to care for the good of" or "to take care of." It is certainly possible to care for yourself in various ways as acts of love.

What would have Jesus meant?

He meant that we care for others' good as much as we care for our own good. (It does not mean that we care for others' good as much as we want them to care for us.)

What are some things we do to "care" for (i.e., "love") our own good? And how does that relate?

Do you seek shelter from the weather? Provide that for others. Do you seek good food to eat? Provide that for others. Do you tell yourself encouraging things? Provide that encouragement for others. Do you avoid people who want to use you, suck the energy out of you, or hurt you? Then be a safe, boundary-respecting person to others. Et cetera

Whatever healthy, Christian needs we have and provide for our own selves, we are to seek to provide that for our neighbor.

Who's "our neighbor"? Anyone with whom we come in contact who needs us. Jesus didn't say, "and love the  world as you love yourself." It's not broad and nondescript. Rather, it's the person right in front of you. The person you could touch. The person who needs help, from you, right now (read Luke 10, esp. v. 33).

Now we see the real difficulty. Most people don't love themselves in various ways. We allow ourselves to be manipulated or guilt-ed into doing things. We overeat. We overspend. We smoke, over-drink, and do all kinds of things to hurt our bodies. We say hateful, awful things to ourselves sometimes. Our internal dialogue can be vile and despicable.

It's the hard question, but the only one worth asking right now: Do I really care for my own good? Do I love myself?

If not, it will be difficult to love your neighbor well. 

And that's the ultimate goal.

Dr. John Townsend on why humans should wait for marriage

This is a great video concerning sex outside marriage:

Click here to watch it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Humans, Sex, and Our Options

In all the homosexuality debate that rages throughout America, very few people ever mention two crucial texts in the discussion. Two texts that come from Jesus are hardly ever mentioned. This is a big deal. If we’re Christians, it should matter to us what Jesus says, right?

I’m not about to offer a detailed exegesis of these texts. I just want to highlight a few things.

First, Jesus, along with every other Jewish author of which we have evidence, believed that in most cases (not all), humans were to be married. And marriage was between men and women. This sentiment appears in all the Synoptics, but let’s use Matthew’s version. Except in the rarest of cases, Jewish men had the authority to divorce women. Moreover, they could do so for a whole host of reasons. Jesus disagreed with their practice.

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?” (Mat 19:4-5 ESV)

The point is that a Jewish man does not have broad authority to end the marriage whenever he wants (in Matthew's version, Jesus says that "porneia" is a viable reason to get divorced, 19:9. It's debated how to translate that term). To do so is to rip apart two bodies now united.

At this point, I’m emphasizing that Jesus only holds heterosexual marriage as an option. This view of heterosexual-only marriage is commonplace throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity (until the last few decades). This, and nothing else, is the view of Jesus, the Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Second, mainstream Judaism taught that men and women should get married whenever possible. However, Jesus believed that it was certainly viable to remain single your entire life (just as Paul believed and taught,  1 Cor 7:17).  What’s key here is that Jesus believed the only other option for a non-married human is celibacy. Celibacy, i.e., not having sex whatsoever, was caused or chosen. The disciples were struck by how stringent Jesus was concerning marriage and celibacy. Jesus had to encourage them:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Mat 19:10-12 ESV)

So, a person can be a eunuch (someone who is castrated) because he was born that way, because someone else castrated the man, or because a person simply acts like a eunuch because they have decided to commit themselves solely to the work of the Kingdom.

Whatever the reason, not having sex—being a eunuch—is the only other option for a human outside of marriage. There’s no middle ground.

This means that every Christian who lives together (assuming they have sex) is living in direct opposition to the teaching of the Messiah. This means that every Christian who has sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or during a one-night stand, is living in direct opposition to the teaching of the Messiah.

Instead of focusing so heavily on homosexual behavior, which Jesus would have absolutely condemned due to what we just read, the Church should focus on the rampant unethical behavior concerning sexuality.

What does this mean? If you can’t control your sexual impulses, get married (as Paul commanded in 1 Corinthians 7:9). If you feel led to get married, then get married. If you want to marry but can’t find someone, stay celibate until you get married. If you have no desire to marry, stay celibate.

Celibacy or heterosexual marriage: there are only two options for humans according to Jesus.

It’s time for the Church to support those who want celibacy and support those who struggle with celibacy because they want to be married. It’s time for the Church to teach what Jesus taught: having sex outside of marriage, or pretending to be married by living together outside of marriage is clearly outside of God’s design for humans.

And, if you’d like to listen to the only surviving recording of a man who was deliberated castrated in order to have a singing career (called a "castrato"), listen to Alessandro Moreschi of Italy sing, “Ave Maria”:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benefits of Lent

For centuries, revolving around the Exodus event, Jews have followed a prescribed religious calendar called a lectionary. The earliest Jewish Christians kept the idea of a lectionary, but because of Jesus, they changed the calendar. The life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus now formed the framework of their year. According to the lectionary, time isn’t measured according to the length of the solar calendar (Romans) nor the Exodus (Jews); it is measured according to the life of Jesus. This allows a Christian to re-live the narrative of Christ-event every year.

Lent is a time of spiritual preparation. Lent is a season of 40 days (excluding Sundays) developed to prepare for the holiest season of the church calendar: Resurrection Sunday and the six weeks of Easter Season (in Northumbrian Old English, the month of April was named after the goddess, Eostre, hence our word, “Easter”). Ash Wednesday (Feb 13) is the first day of Lent. Because Lent typically involves various kinds of fasting, people often have one last, big meal the night before Lent begins. Thus began the tradition of Fat Tuesday (in French, it’s “Mardi Gras”). Here are a few reasons why celebrating Lent can aid you in your spiritual growth.

First, Lent reminds us of the terrible situation we were in before Jesus. You know how when you were a  kid, your parents always bored you with those stories of, “I remember when . . .” or “There was a time when I didn’t have all these things”? The significance of those stories is that it recalls a time when things were much worse. It helps us remember of how far God has brought us. Lent is like that. It reminds us of the terrible condition of sin that you and I were in prior to being saved in the risen Jesus. It’s always healthy for us to “remember our spiritual roots.” Lent helps us remember always to include in our testimony a story of “I remember when I was headed for destruction because of my sinful condition.” In this way, Lent always keeps us humble and eternally grateful for the awesome, undeserving gift of a love relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. Have you forgotten how far you’ve come?

Second, Lent reminds us of the terrible consequences of sin. As the Bible demonstrates, sin is anything we do that breaks down the love relationship that we are designed to share with the Trinity and our neighbor. Lent reminds us that sin is a terrible, destructive power in our lives: it tears away at the love relationship we were designed to maintain with the Trinity and our neighbor. Before Jesus, you and I were slaves to sin. After Jesus, we are no longer slaves to sin, but repeatedly hampered by it (as Hebrews 12:1 says, it’s like a heavy weight that bogs us down). As Christians, Lent reminds us of the absolute necessity of confession and repentance. Lent reminds us of how we should be repulsed by any sin, and the necessity of being in step with the Spirit as He transforms us into the image of the Son. Do you have any sins that you’ve allowed to rule in your life?

Third, Lent reminds us of the necessity of contrition and self-control. Fasting performs two functions: (1) it demonstrates contrition because we abandon something that we enjoy; (2) it helps us practice self-control. The assumption is that if I can say no to sleep or food or drink, then surely I can say no to various sins. So, we sacrifice various necessities and pleasures to demonstrate contrition and practice self-control. We need self-control because we tend to make idols out of nearly everything. Lent reminds us not to cling too tightly to anything or anyone other than God.

If you’re like me, sacrifice is very troubling because it forces me to come face to face with the various idols I’ve made in life. I like my “stuff.” I like what I like and I don’t want to give it up. You’ll never see a better example of sacrifice, and the emotional/psychological impact that it has on a person, until you’ve seen a child not receive that toy or fun activity they really wanted. Tantrums occur in children and adults, don’t they? I’d hate to have a video that showed my emotional tantrums in response to sacrifice. Do you have idols that need to die? What do you need to sacrifice?

These three reasons alone help you see why, every single year, Lent is so troubling for me. It’s a very hard, dark season. It reminds me of how terrible my condition was before Jesus. It reminds me of the terrible consequences of sin in my life now. It reminds me of how many things in my life I should sacrifice and abandon because I turn almost everything into an idol.

When you’re swimming deep in water and realize you’re almost out of air, a terrible desperation comes over you. Panic seizes you. You kick your legs and stroke your arms in a fury to the top. A foot of water feels like a mile. And when you burst through the top, heart palpitating and adrenaline streaming through your veins, you take the biggest gulp of air you’ve ever taken. The sense of safety, celebration, and peace that comes over you after the ordeal can be overwhelming.

Lent is the necessary race to the water’s surface. Join with me in this Season of Lent. And together, when you and I make it to Resurrection Sunday, we will burst forth into the glorious light and gulp in the air like never before.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

If you're in a storm . . .

In one story Jesus calms the storm (Mark 4); in the other story he lets the wind do what it wants (Matt 14). In one story Jesus is in a calm sleep while the disciples panic in fear; in the other story Jesus is confident, walking on the water like he’s taking a stroll on a summer’s day, while the disciples panic in fear.

There are times when Jesus “wakes up” from his slumber with us and says confidently, “That’s enough! Calm down. Stop worrying all the time! Stop panicking. I haven’t left you. I’m not asleep. Stop worshiping your problems.”

Yet, there are times when when Jesus never seems to acknowledge that we’re in a storm. Prayers go unanswered; people around you can’t offer any comfort. Of course, when the storm is finally over in your life and you look back, you realize that you were never in real danger. There are times when I don’t acknowledge my children’s fears because I know that their fear is short-term and that no real danger is imminent.

Still, there are other times in life when we are called to make a choice. Get out of the boat and face an idea, circumstance, or environment that is very scary, or stay in the boat and miss learning a significant lesson from God. We are sometimes called by God into jobs for which we have no formal training; to friendships that don’t make sense at first because we seem to have nothing in common; to serve in ways that seem unorthodox and unfulfilling at first because no one gives us the credit for the service. Some of us are called — and are being called right now as you read this — to new mindsets and habits that are scary to you. Your mind is racing with thoughts: "What’s the ‘right’ way to pray?" "Where do I start reading the Bible?" "But I’ve drank, ate, smoke, looked at, whatever for so long . . . I don’t know if I can quit." It’s scary and there is some voice in your mind that says, “Stay in the boat! Don’t rock it. Things are safe and comfortable.”

Besides (that voice tells you), who knows if that’s really Jesus calling you. The disciples weren’t sure if that really was Jesus walking on the water or not. Why is it so hard to recognize him? Because we all know that in the middle of storms, it’s hard to recognize Jesus. It’s hard. His face is fuzzy and his hair doesn’t look the same. The wind is louder than his voice — maybe I heard him incorrectly. Storms have a way of confusing us, making us question what we know about the goodness of God.

And what difference does it make?, the voice tells you. Good for Peter. He did something cool for a little bit. He gave everything he had to Jesus for those few steps and he did the impossible. He focused completely on Jesus and he walked on water. He focused completely on Jesus.

Easier said than done. It’s easy to talk about storms until you’re in one.

Maybe you’ve wondered some of the things I’ve written here. Maybe you’ve wondered something even greater: “Why are there storms anyway?” Why doesn’t God just let us pass through life without disasters, betrayals, cancers, affairs, divorces, and all the other nasty stuff? Why the storms? Some of us suffer storms because God is disciplining us — causing us to suffer physical and emotional pain to help us not ever commit that sin again. It’s why parents spank children.

But most of the time, he brings us to the storms in life so that he can bring us out.

Get this straight: Christianity is not about fire insurance. It is ultimately about two things: (1) having a mature, loving relationship with the Trinity, and (2) acting like it (having holy ethics) (notice how I said nothing about “getting to heaven” — something that primitive Christians never ever said). The only way to have a mature, loving relationship with God is by learning what he does when we need him.

He brings us to the storms in life so that he can bring us out.

We serve a rescuing God. We serve a God who loves to supply for us. We serve a God who loves to show off for us. We serve a God who loves to show us what we’re really made of by letting us suffer some. We learn more about the goodness and greatness of God because of storms then by any other experience in life.

If you’re in a storm, don’t give up. Don’t stop now. Ride out the waves, cry out to God for rescue, look for his face in the wind and waves, and stay around other people of a like mind. There is a reason why the primitive Christians gathered so often. They were fully aware that they needed each other. They needed accountability and encouragement. The author of Hebrews says it well: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the [final] Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25; ESV).

See how Hebrews says it? Stirring “one another to love and good works.” That’s exactly what the core of Christianity is all about: Love and good works.

That’s what storms can produce. Storms are redemptive because they have a purpose. They can produce a greater capacity to love God and neighbor, and good works for God and neighbor. And we can’t really love God without knowing what he’s capable of (like rescuing us through or from storms). We can’t really love our neighbor without surviving some storms with them.

So come; just like Hebrews says, please do not neglect meeting together at church. Even 2000 years ago, it was “the habit of some” to skip church. Don’t do it. We all need encouragement from each other. The storms can be too strong.

And it makes me happy to know that we’re in this boat together.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Trouble with Loving God

Jesus said that the greatest commandment (= our purpose in life) is to love God with everything we have and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves (Mk 12:28-31).

I know this sounds shallow and immature, but here it goes:

The greatest stymie to me loving God with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul is the fact that I can’t see God.

I can see “my neighbor” just fine. I can see my enemy even more clearly. So, when Jesus tells me to love my neighbors and my enemies (Mk 12:31; Matt 5:44), I can work on that faster than loving God. I can understand frailty and brokenness. It’s easier to work on loving them, I must admit, because I can see them.  So much of what I know to be true in this life is based on haptic experience.

I’m aware that there are countless facts of the universe that are very real even though no one can see them: laws of mathematics, laws of logic, the Law of Morality, consciousness/soul, aesthetic value, the whole host of scientific laws and the scientific method itself. People fight and die over things they can’t see all the time: justice, protecting the weak, freedom.

Yet, I’ve never tried to love justice or freedom. I’ve never put my trust and faith and love in the laws of logic or mathematics. I believe they are very true. In fact, we all take them for granted on a daily basis. We assume they are true, and we must.

Yet, I don’t have to love them.

This is also the problem with historical figures. It would be impossible for me to say with any sanity that I love George Washington or Winston Churchill. They are dead. I might appreciate what they did or love what they stood for. But, in no way would I say that I love them now. I can’t have a love relationship with a dead person.

And this is where the Christian faith makes a fundamental shift with every other religion. Mohammad is dead. Mahavira is dead. Kong fu tze is dead. Moses is dead. David Koresh is dead. Jesus is not dead; He is alive.

But why can’t I see Him? Because the risen Jesus is present as Spirit among His people (Rom 8:11). And this is where my heart begins to falter. Remember my confession? It’s hard for me to love something I can’t see, yet Christianity teaches that the risen Jesus is present in a form that is invisible. CS Lewis, as usual, helps me here:

“Do not be worried or surprised if you find [the Spirit] rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two [Persons of the Trinity]. I think there is a reason why that must be so. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at Him: He is always acting through you. If you think of the father as something “out there,” in front of you, and the of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third Person as something inside you, or behind you. . . God is love, and that love works through men—especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and Son.”

Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit of the risen Jesus is invisible and life-giving (1 Cor 15:45). The Spirit, if you’d like to think of it this way, is Jesus’ personality. Those characteristics of Jesus while He walked on the Earth—His power over evil and sickness, His ability to calm storms and bring peace, His ability to take upon Himself the people’s yokes of burden and give them rest, His ability to bring forgiveness and wholeness, His ability to bring judgment and wrath to injustice and abuse, His ability to reveal new truths concerning the reign of God, and His ability to love people unconditionally—are still just as active and real.  That is, the resurrected Jesus has the same personality and character as when He was bound to space and time in His mortal body. He still has it. He still, right now, is capable of doing the same things. His character has not changed one bit. He does also have a resurrected body, but that body is corporeal in a way for which there is no modern analogy. In any case, it is His Spirit at work in the community of faith that is the main focus of the New Testament authors, not His resurrected body.

And here is where I realize that I’m being hypocritical (at least it’s unintentional!): I don’t love people because I see them. I love people because I know their personality. I love people’s character. I love their senses of humor, their spirits (see how easy it is to use “spirit” to convey what we mean?) of generosity, their loving-kindness, and many other features of persons. I love what my wife looks like, but I love her because I know her character.

Of course I love when someone serves me. I can see a person serve me. That is, I can love the action of service. But I can think of no one that I love simply because s/he serves me. I’ve never once left a restaurant saying to my wife, “Wow. I think I love our waiter.”

I love a person because of his/her personality and character.

And this is a great realization. A person’s physical characteristics have nothing to do with my loving a person. Of course, in my limited experience, a person’s personality has always been bound up with a person’s body.  That is, I’ve only met other souls when I’ve met their bodies first.  And now perhaps you can give me mercy.  Perhaps you can see now how easy it was for me to confuse loving a person’s bodily presence with loving a person’s personality or character.

So it is with Christianity. The risen Jesus’ Spirit, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is alive and well, right now, working “behind the scenes” all over the world through His people. Perhaps an analogy will help.

At Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, no young person would ever guess what Disney World really was.  My children don’t see fabricated buildings painted with primary colors in order to attract their attention, fans in the stores that actually blow the smell out into the streets, dressed-up teenagers in costumes pretending to be princesses and princes, and huge, elaborate tunnel systems that undergird the entire park which allow servants to travel expeditiously and surreptitiously to any location.  From the exterior, based on face-value, things look perfect and all connected in a systematic fantasy.  That is, they have no idea that behind it all lays a grand design and intentionality.  Moreover, underneath it all, Disney workers are active running to and fro, manipulating the entire process: changing clothes, bringing in supplies, and exchanging shifts. They just appear from out of nowhere in stores and behind buildings. If you’re not careful (and who wants to be?), you’d forget how the whole show has been designed and being run from the inside out, not from the outside in.  The fantasy works best, you see, when you just focus on the exterior and forget what you know about how it all works.

That’s my problem. Day in and day out, I focus on the exterior of life. I smell the wind, see the sights, and focus on the physical nature of life.  It takes very careful attention to focus on the “behind the scenes.”  When I do, I realize that this is the life of the divine realm. The Spirit is behind the scenes, under, above, and through us all, working on an elaborately designed reality in order to get what He wants. And unlike the Disney workers in the tunnels below, the Spirit is not bound by time. It travels in and around us outside of time.  It takes Him no time to move from person to person.

You and I can meet the living Jesus via His Spirit today. We meet Him every single time we really, honestly, worship together. We meet Him in the Eucharist. We meet Him when we serve each other (because His servant attitude is coming through).  We meet Him in prayer. We meet Him when we read the Bible. We meet Him when we meet other saints who have been formed into His image more than we.  We meet Him when He speaks to us. Did you really think that idea to “read your Bible” was your idea?

Being made into the image of the Son (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18) means that we are being infused with His personality and character. This is how any change in character occurs. We change into the people we admire. This is why picking righteous mentors is so crucial.  Give it time and you’ll end up acting like those you emulate. It happens over time and, often times, without conscious decision. We slowly pick up their speech patterns, their accents, their taste in music and movies, their tastes in food, and their sense of humor.  Transformation happens like this for both sides: good and evil.

This is why we must be really certain that we actually want what we ask for when we pray. Receiving the character and personality of Jesus means that the silly, prideful self we are so used to must be killed first.  This is why repentance hurts so much. It also means we must really focus on this Person we keep meeting over and over, no matter how often we ignore or excuse those thoughts. We cannot forget: the risen Jesus is extremely interested in redeeming us by infusing His personality and character into us.  That is, if we really want it, we have the staggering capacity to be participants of the divine nature (2 Pt  1:4).

I’m committing to get past the physical.  I want to love Him with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul.  I want to love you as much as I love myself.

And now I want to go to Disney World.

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