The main focus of this BLOG, is to uphold those simple, and clearly defined truths, that are so often missing from Christian life and conversation.
(There may also be the odd film or book review along the way as well as stories from my life)
If you wish to use material from these posts, you may do so, but please respect the work of the writer. Proper attribution, and accurate quoting that is faithful to the context is appreciated.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Go Set a Watchman

"Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience."

Brief History of the Book.
The history of this book is well documented so I will keep this part short. Go Set a Watchman was the first book written by Harper Lee. It was at the behest of a publisher that Lee wrote, To Kill a Mockingbird. It covers in greater detail a portion of the back story that we see in Watchman.
The Manuscript was found in a safe deposit box only recently. Harper Lee is in assisted care, her mental state, following a stroke, was in question, but supporters of Lee were adamant that she was enthusiastic for the book to be published. So now we have it.

Style of the book.
Some of the initial reception for the book has been unfavourable. Some of the critics have complained that the story, "meanders" there are other complaints, but they have little to do with the way this story has been written. And that's what we have to ask here, is it a good story, is it well written?
As for style, I have been reading a book called "The Irresistible Novel" by Jeff Gerke. In it, Gerke explains that many of the reasons submissions for publication get knocked back, is down to personal taste. It is usually about style, narrative, point of view, plot devices. Here is the problem with Watchman so far as critics go. It was written in the 1950's. It has not been re-written. Style has changed since then. Anyone trying to compare this book by todays publishing standards, is in danger of missing the story completely.

Importance of the context.
This, as I have said, is a book written in the 1950's. It is about a post WW2 generation. It precedes the civil rights movement, but hints at it's early rumblings. The story has a strong sense of personal biography to it. Harper Lee's father, just like Atticus Finch, was a lawyer. Lee herself grew up in Alabama, the same US State these stories are set in.

The story has a very strong sense of reminiscence. It is a return to the idyll of childhood, a yearning for simpler carefree times. We visit that childhood often. But it clashes with a present reality that counterpoints those memories. If the book seems to meander, it is because there is so much backstory. We have to remember, this book was written first. Mockingbird was written second. We need the backstory, as well as the internal dialogue, to understand the all important context of this story.

Because the central character of Jean Louise (Scout) discovers the truth of her fathers racism.
It is a rending of the heart. Atticus is the last family Scout has left. We are given a sense that maybe, his court defense of the young negro in Mockingbird, is one of expediency rather than of altruism.
But we want to reject this possibility. Because we, as 21st century readers and movie lovers, are equally in love with Atticus Finch. The champion of the down trodden.
But Atticus Finch has feet of clay. Or does he?

This is what is left for Scout, and for us to discover. The truth about this heroic father figure, and about herself.

"I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush the man who's trying to preserve it for me"

This is a great book, it's characters are richly developed and realized. There is humour and conflict. It is well paced, even as it meanders. You simply have to trust the author to tell the story. My great disappointment was not with the book or the story. It is with the Author. Because Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize winner, was a writer of undeniable talent, and these are the only two books she has written.

As I read this book I also had the feeling of a metaphor. This is a story for America. Post war America. That has lost the idyll and innocence of it's youth. Times are changing, and America must change with them. But will the change be enough, or soon enough? Oddly, this is a story for today. Because the story resonates with current issues and questions, that America is once again facing on the subject of race.

Was this book written 60 years too soon? Or was it published 60 years too late?

In a 2011 interview, Harper Lee was quoted as saying, "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again."

In that case, I have to ask. Have we been listening?

Monday, 20 July 2015

Mariage, Definitions and Disputes.

In a follow up to my previous posting, Same Sex, Same Jesus? I was also thinking about our current definitions of marriage. This again is hotly disputed territory. So it may help if we try to understand what we're talking about, what we're thinking and why we think it.

I have done a small amount of research on this subject in the interest of clarifying some of my own definitions. However, most of what I write here are my own understandings of the subject at hand. i.e. How do we define marriage?

Let's start with the simplest and most common term of all. Holy Matrimony.

Straight away we have a problem, because I seriously doubt that many people, and possibly this is especially true of Christians from a traditional denominational background, have a correct definition of what it means to be "Holy".

Most readers will automatically have some idea of purity or piety, maybe even celibacy. Even an idea of a man with god like status. Perhaps some notion of someone so close to God that they are nigh on unapproachable. (Such a view is actually borderline idolatry) This is most likely the product of traditional church thinking/teaching. It perhaps stems from images of Moses, his face shining, coming down from the mountain with the ten commandments. Blend in with this the idea that we are all essentially sin-stained and unacceptable to God.

Most of this however is false, or at best a bad interpretation of the truth. It is why we have a problem with verses like 1Peter 1:16 and Lev 11:44-45, "be holy even as I am holy". Given the above (mis)understanding. This is of course impossible. Because of our fallen nature we can never, in this life, be pure and sinless as God is. So what does holiness mean?

Holiness is best described as "separation to God's purpose". In it's simplest terms, the Holiness of God refers to his dedication to seeing his word come to pass. Of all the things that God could be doing today, his primary focus, is you. He is unswerving in that, wholly committed, unshakeable. He has devoted his existence to the benefit of mankind, reconciling man unto himself. This devotion, this holiness was fully expressed on the cross. The work of that cross, the salvation of humanity, restoring us into relationship with himself is his primary focus, this is his holiness, the task he has separated himself to. So when God asks of us to be holy, he asks that we unswervingly dedicate ourselves to his purpose.

The Biblical concept of marriage is properly found in the language of the "covenant". I am going to address this topic in a post to follow later. So I won't spend too much time on it here. Suffice to say that a covenant was an "equal" agreement. Both parties to the covenant agreed to lay something of their-self aside in order to benefit the other. That is why in the marriage vow, it is often said, "forsaking all others". It is the wholehearted commitment to the other, the laying aside of self, that makes the union "holy".

There is however another problem with marital terminology. It is the idea of sanctification from sin. This is largely due (I believe) to the teachings and practices of the medieval church. Where sexual intercourse was seen as sinful, the result of our base and lustful human nature. The only way to sanctify the act was in the marriage bed, a concession thrown to the uneducated masses, held in the thrall of the all powerful priestly elite. This was again the result of the misinterpreting and misapplication of scripture, in particular the writings of the Apostle Paul and his statements about marriage. Yes, biblically speaking, sexual intercourse outside of marriage (fornication) is a sin. It represents the benefits of the covenant, without the commitment to it. It is self serving. But marriage itself doesn't save us from sin. The medieval interpretation was quite simply, an abuse of power.

So how should we view marriage?

Essentially marriage is intended as an image, or reflection; of the unity and harmony of the Trinity. Also, of the relationship between Christ and his Church (the bride of Christ). This is all a bit tricky now as Paul describes these things as mysteries. I fear a lot of people are uncertain of how to describe the relationship of the Trinity. Let alone reconcile the idea of us all becoming one heavenly corporate body described as "a Bride". Most simply, it is the language of unity, harmony, agreement, oneness with Christ, "he in us and us in him". Eternal, unbroken fellowship.

Now there is a third problem. The dilution of the meaning of marriage.

Over the years divorce has become more common place, de-facto relationships are the norm, in certain countries you can get a temporary marriage license. Try it for five years and if you don't like it you, have a "get out of  jail free" card. No divorce, no lawyers, you're free to try it with someone else. Much of society now views marriage as an archaic unnecessary formality. Even in the church, some statistics would suggest that divorce rates are very similar to those in secular society. From my own personal experience. I have seen two divorces in my own family. Many of my friends, probably about 45%, that married more than 20-25 years ago are now separated or divorced. I have one friend now in their fourth marriage. Many of my friends have divorced parents. Sadly, the idea of "two becoming one" is increasingly lost. Marriage is more and more the simple co-habiting of two individuals.

So if this is all true, then why all the hue and cry over same sex marriages? Why is there such vigorous lobbying for something that is viewed as archaic, outdated and temporary? Mostly it's about legal rights to medical consent, pensions and inheritance etc. They want the same legal protections over wills and such like as other couples. Even a co-habiting de-facto relationship has legal standing after just three months. It has more legal recognition than a same sex union of ten years. Unfortunately, there is the more militant, highly vocal and litigious side of this debate that wish to pursue the issue purely on the grounds of discrimination. This element does more harm than good to their cause.

I read this article by Amanda Vanstone today on this very subject. Mostly it is about party room politics and conscience votes. But she does make some salient points and observations on the decline of marriage values. I don't necessarily agree with all of them. But she does defend the right for religious institutions to refuse a wedding ceremony on the grounds of their beliefs.

Society has been bombarded with assault after assault on the institution of marriage. It's meaning and symbolism has been eroded. You can have an Elvis impersonator marry you at a drive through booth in Las Vegas. We see courtship and marriage as prime time T.V. "reality" entertainment. The Bachelor(ette), The Farmer wants a Wife. Bridezillas and others that are much worse. What was once sacred and special is itself now base, ordinary, the subject of public derision. More effort is put into planning, or rather staging, elaborate ceremonies, than is put into developing the relationship.

Perhaps, for so many people, the reason a same-sex marriage looks no different? Is because we have lost sight of what it is, that makes marriage so special.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Same Sex, Same Jesus?

In the current discussion, (OK it's just short of all out war) regarding the Christian Church and same sex issues, there have been a lot of opinions floated about. Much of this discussion has been dominated by outright bad theology (from both sides) and outright bigotry, (again, from both sides).

Somewhere in the middle of all this, there are some in the church that are trying to find the right way to address the issue. The question looks something like this.

"How do I uphold the truths of the Bible, on the subject of same sex attraction, without compromising those truths and my own beliefs. While at the same time being able to express the undiluted love and grace of Jesus Christ?"

That's a tough question. It's so tough, most don't even know how to approach it, let alone how to begin to try to answer it. But some are trying.

For example, Carl Lentz. Lead pastor of Hillsong Church New York City. His approach has been to steadfastly refuse to address the issue from any public platform. He has a number of reasons for this,
Firstly, as he so often iterates, Jesus never did so. Secondly, he will not make a blanket statement on the subject. His preference is to have a face to face conversation. Because he knows that each person will respond differently to such a message. By having such conversations he shows respect and gives validity to each persons viewpoint. Here is a video of Carl  pressing that exact point.

Well is Carl on the right track? To answer this we must look at the ministry of Jesus.

But before we go any further it is essential we clear something up. It is of no use to this debate whatsoever to ask, What Would Jesus Do? What we must ask is, What Did Jesus Do?
Did Jesus publicly address the issues of same sex attraction? No, at least we have no record of such a statement.

He did however address several people facing issues attached to gender. Issues that resulted in ostracism, religious exclusion, bigotry and judgement among other things. I came up with four of these people without even thinking too hard about it. They are all women, because to be a woman in Jesus time, was, by our modern standards to be something of a second class citizen. And these four women were even further down the order than that.

The first of these women is, "The woman at the well" John 4:7-27. This woman is a social pariah, outcast from her own community, she has had five husbands and hasn't even bothered with a wedding for man number six vs. 17-18. She is coming to the well at noon, when nobody else is there. She is a Samaritan. A class shunned and hated by the Jews. Note that the disciples were shocked that Jesus was talking to a woman and a Samaritan vs. 27. But central to this discussion is a part that is often ignored, apart from Jesus' answer. It is the question of worship. Historically the Samaritans were a people excluded from the Jews, some were Jews returning from the dispersion, but unable to prove their lineage. Partly it was a result of the Israel-Judah division of the nation. partly they were descendants of forcibly displaced Babylonians. Because of generational mixture they thought of themselves as Jews. They erected a temple under the direction of a priest who was cast out of Jerusalem by Nehemiah. They celebrated Passover. The temple was later destroyed. In a similar manner to the current practise of Islam, the Samaritans would face the mountain site of the destroyed temple when they worshipped. Now comes the question from this woman. Vs. 20b "you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
There you have the whole picture. A Samaritan woman, excluded from society, excluded from worship. She has been given a law from religious leaders. "This is how you must worship, but we won't let you in because we despise you."
Jesus was not at that well by accident.

The second is the woman with the issue of blood. Mark 5:25-34. Here is a woman excluded, by reasons attached to her sexuality, from any form of social interaction, even family, and she has been this way for twelve years. Despite all her best efforts and those of many physicians her condition has remained unchanged. Under Levitical Law, she should not even be in the city, let alone in the middle of a crowd, she was deemed "unclean" by the law. Leviticus 15:25-33.
In the midst of a pressing crowd, as we so often see, Jesus stops for the "one" the individual.

The third is the woman caught in adultery. John 8:3-11. Here is another question of law. A law that demanded judgement. The religious authorities, (trying to trap Jesus) demanded an acknowledgement of the Law in this case, that judgement be exercised, and the woman be stoned. The law demanded her immediate death.
Jesus responded with mercy, first addressing the condemning crowd. He pointed out that all are guilty of sin, therefore none are fit to stand in judgement. Then he offers forgiveness.

The fourth is the woman with the alabaster box. Luke7:36-50. Jesus is a dinner guest in the house of Simon, a Pharisee, and once again we run into the condemnation of religious authority. The woman by all accounts is a prostitute. She has come to anoint Jesus and worship at his feet. An act Jesus does nothing to discourage. It outrages his host, so much so that Simon questions Jesus' authenticity and spirituality, "If this man were a prophet" he asks himself vs.39. As a prostitute, this woman was barely tolerated. Her life is regarded as shameful and under the ban of society.
Prostitution is akin to; harlotry, adultery and idolatry. The woman is an outcast.
Jesus, once again does not address her situation until the very last, instead he turns his attention towards his host, addressing his hypocrisy.

So there are four examples of how Jesus responded to four different women. They faced a variety of issues, but with many common factors; gender, law, social exclusion, exclusion from worship, reputation, self esteem, shame, outcasts, rejected.

Jesus stepped into all of their worlds, he offered; acceptance, forgiveness, restoration, wholeness, grace, mercy, love, salvation.

So in light of this, how should the church respond to the LGBTI community? Probably the last thirty years or more could be held as a bad response. From the hysterical preaching of AIDS as Gods judgement on the gay community, right down to the waving of placards proclaiming God's hatred towards his children. Now they are paraded as evidence of end times apocalypse.
Not much of this is based on a truly biblical New Testament Church response. It is based on a lie, the lie that homosexuality is somehow worse than all other sin. A lie that feeds upon prejudice, fear, a personal sense of revulsion. The Bible draws no such distinction. We should have done, and now must do, better.

Some would say throw the doors open, let them come as they are, we wont judge. Others would say bar the doors and lock them tight. Neither is a helpful response. To barricade and bar entry is to alienate and deny access to Christ. To open the doors without restraint is to invite a further dilution of truth.

Because to come to Christ is to acknowledge ones sin. The response of Jesus as we so often see, is to forgive the sinner, but then to advocate a process of change, "go your way and sin no more". It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring that change to pass, it is not the job of the church.

This is a journey we are all on, as the Bible says, "working out our own salvation daily" Philippians 2:12 (my paraphrase). I cannot tell you how to embark on that journey, and neither can anyone else. We can sit together, share our stories, pray together and encourage one another. I would advise a few things that are helpful to this journey, such as; prayer, devotional reading, Christian fellowship, corporate worship, attention to sound Biblical teaching etc.
Because salvation, without the ongoing work of salvation, is mere lip-service. The mouthing of prescribed platitudes. It does not constitute relationship with God.

Carl Lentz is often quoted as saying "We are a come as you are Church" and that's good. Jesus never turned anyone away that came seeking him in honest humility. But that invitation must be balanced. What the church cannot say is, "stay as you are" because that is a broad road, it is not the path to salvation.